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Excerpt: Hardly Working

In this guide to overachieving and underperforming in the office, the author explains what kind of assistant can help you do as little as possible.

- November 5, 2004

There's an unspoken truism in business: The less work actually required by executives, the more assistants they have working for them. Most senior corporate folk work on what they'll ominously refer to as "big picture" issues, implying that what goes on behind their closed doors are matters of such intellectual depth that only an elite class of business professionals could possibly begin to understand. The truth is that most of these people spend their time on the phone talking to similarly positioned executives at other companies about when to meet for lunch. With the right person sitting outside your office door fielding phone calls and deflecting responsibility, you can go years without even knowing what your job is supposed to be.

Judging the Poker Face: Hints on Hiring

Once you've mastered the machinations and backstabbing required to get to a level where you're deemed worthy of a personal assistant, the most important thing is to hire the right type of assistant for your needs. Generally speaking, you will require above all else a good and tactful liar, someone who could not only convince Einstein that 2+2=5, but also make him regret ever having contested the issue. Like a good poker player, study your interview subject and watch for any "tells," physical signs such as chin scratching or looking off to the side, that indicate the speaker is being untruthful. If she keeps repeating the same tell, it won't be long before other people immediately pick up on her bluff. If she has multiple tics, you're dealing with a higher-caliber prevaricator and a potential employee. And if she can lie her way through an entire interview without broadcasting her bluffs, you shouldn't just hire her as your assistant, you should retain her as your tax attorney too. Here are some questions that you can ask to calibrate someone's capacity for mendacity.

1. "What were your grades like in college?"
° Interviewee A: "I was a solid C/C-plus student."
° Interviewee B: "Mostly B-pluses, a few A-minuses."
° Interviewee C: "I made Dean's List every semester and graduated Phi Beta Kappa."
° Interviewee A: Do not hire. Much too honest and therefore of no use to you.
° Interviewee B: There's a chance that he may be telling you the truth; it's more likely, however, that he was a lazy student but is a decent liar. Continue with the interview.
° Interviewee C: He's either much too intelligent, studious, and ambitious to abide an Overachieving Underperformer like yourself, or he's a terrible fibber; either way, into the trash can with that resume.

2. "I really love that new movie Disappearing Sunrise. … Ever seen it?"
° Interviewee A: "No. Did you just make that up?"
° Interviewee B: "It sounds really familiar. Who's in it?"
° Interviewee C: "Oh my God! That scene with the elephant? Heartbreaking…"
° Interviewee A: Again, this person's honesty is getting him nowhere. And yes, you did make it up.
° Interviewee B: A political, intelligent response; bonus points for putting it back on you for more information. This person would be good at deflecting unwanted phone calls and visitors.
° Interviewee C: He is either completely insane or he's got your number. Either way, a good assistant he would not make.

3. "Baroque Neoclassicism or Phenomenological Modernism?"
° Interviewee A: "I'm sorry … Did you say something?"
° Interviewee B: "Well, that's really a matter of personal taste, and, while I have my preference, it would be unwise for me to say that one is actually better than the other."
° Interviewee C: "I live and die by the Seven Tenets of the DeStijl Movement."
° Interviewee A: Not even an attempt to fake his way through it. Just because you've no idea what someone's talking about doesn't mean you can't have a discussion on that topic. This person will crumple like tinfoil under the slightest pressure.
° Interviewee B: Perhaps a little too moderate an answer, but even if he's lying through his teeth, he could make you believe he's at least keeping pace with you.
° Interviewee C: Again, either too educated or completely overreaching in his attempt at deception.

4. (Showing them a picture of a dog) "This is my daughter. Isn't she just precious?"
° Interviewee A: "Um, that's a dog. You're making me uncomfortable."
° Interviewee B: "Wow … You two must have a very special relationship."
° Interviewee C: "Is she single?"
° Interviewee A: This calls-'em-like-he-see-'em rube has wasted engouh of your time.
° Interviewee B: Again, tactful without being sycophantic. This person is your best choice.
° Interviewee C: The less said about this guy the better.

NOTE: You can create as many questions as you'd like, but keep in mind that you're looking for people who can talk themselves (and by extension, you) out of awkward situations. Thus, you want to find topics where the interviewee must either be honest or sidestep the issue completely.

This is excerpted from Hardly Working: The Overachieving Underperformer's Guide to Doing as Little as Possible in the Office by Chris Morran. Copyright © 2004 by Eye Quarto, Inc. and published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy Hardly Working at

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