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Bosses and secretaries: profiles of discrimination.

The roles of boss and secretary are two of the most common working relationships portrayed by the media. Who can forget the banker Mr. Drysdale and his secretary Miss Hathaway in the "Beverly Hillbillies," or Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins in the "Carol Burnett Show"? Perhaps the longest running TV boss-secretary relationship is that of attorney Perry Mason and his secretary Della Street. The relationships have been variously cast, and secretaries have not always been favorably portrayed. For example, Miss Hathaway and Mrs. Wiggins were frequently belittled, assigned inappropriate tasks, and dominated by their bosses. Conversely, Della Street was valued for her knowledge, assumed important responsibilities, and was an integral part of the legal team. The latter appears to be more consistent with the present boss-secretary relationship.

Qualified secretaries are scarce, and they are seeking recognition for their work, equal treatment, and participation on the management team (Eisman, 1990). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that 550,000 secretaries will be needed annually throughout the 1990's, but that only 200,000 qualified applicants will be available (1987). While there is a dearth of statistical projections of the number of bosses, their roles are certain to change. "Nearly a million U.S. managers with salaries of more than $40,000 each lost their jobs last year" (Overman, 1991). For those managers who remain, "permanent white water" is the metaphor that Peter Vaill uses to describe the future environment for leaders and managers (1989). Caught in such turbulence, Vaill summons managers to remain in touch with the ideas and energies of those around them. As the separate roles of boss and secretary evolve into members of the management team, employers should be concerned about practices that adversely impact on that team's performance. Unfortunately, employment discrimination continues to be one of those adverse impacts. In a 1990 survey, 29 percent of the responding employers admitted that employment discrimination is a problem in their organizations (Towers Perrin). Another 1990 survey found that one-fourth of American workers reported experiencing some form of employment discrimination (Samborn, 1990, 1). Only 10 percent of those workers took action by filing a formal claim, under oath, with a regulatory agency. These formal claims are the best sources of information about discrimination in the work place. In response to such alarming findings, the authors began their Ohio Employment Discrimination Studies. This report from those studies focuses on the employment discrimination experiences of bosses and secretaries.

The Study

The Ohio Employment Discrimination Studies include 2,500 cases randomly drawn from the files of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission during the years 1985-90. More than 96 percent of these cases were employment discrimination claims filed under federal (85%) or state (15%) laws. Men filed 48 percent of the claims (about 6% fewer than their representation in the work force), and women filed 52 percent of the claims (about 6% more than their representation in the work force.) The Ohio work force participation rates mirror those of the United States. Ohio ranks seventh in employment and the claimants held jobs in over 300 of the standard occupational classifications (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1980). They filed claims against all types of public and private sector employers and their sizes ranged from micro-businesses to Fortune 500 firms. The results of this study are generalizable to the work force populations of Ohio and the United States.

Claims filed by Bosses and by Secretaries were extracted from the full database. Fifty-seven Secretaries were readily identified by their occupational classification. Bosses were not so easily extracted. However, by carefully analyzing all claims filed by top and upper middle managers, the authors identified those claimants whose job responsibilities generally include the direct supervision of a secretary. These Bosses included vice-presidents, general managers, and selected high-level professionals, e.g., attorneys. The resulting number of Bosses was 52. The discrimination experiences of the "Boss" sample and the "Secretary" sample in this study were compared. The two samples were independent, and none of the claims were filed against the same employer.

The sample claim files yielded all the variables examined for Bosses and for Secretaries. Cross tabulation analysis and chi-square tests for significance were used to analyze the data for this report. Initially, the authors analyzed the data for each year of the study. The fluctuations between the years were slight, therefore, these results are cumulative. While not all discrimination claims are meritorious, all are important concerns for organizations. Employees' perceptions that they are the target of employment discrimination are real to them, affecting their productivity and the productivity of co-workers.

The Findings

Although the media typically portrays bosses as men, the Boss sample consisted of 56 percent men and 44 percent women. This was consistent with the changing demographics of the work force. During the last two decades women have moved into higher level positions in private and public sector organizations (Fingan & Bergman, 1989). All but one of the Secretaries were women. The Secretary sample was consistent with the existing workforce, in which 99 percent of secretaries are women (Bureau of Census, 1990).

The distribution of the claimants by industry was also consistent with current trends. The service industry is the most rapidly growing industry and provides the most new jobs. Nearly one-third of the claimants in each group were employed in the service industry. Manufacturing ranked second for both Bosses and Secretaries. Manufacturing has been downsizing and laying off employees from all levels, whereas in the past upper level managers were immune. Therefore, it is not surprising that eight percent more Bosses than Secretaries were from manufacturing. The retail industry was the lowest for both groups. Retail establishments are often small, and the owners/managers do not typically employ secretaries. Also, since the bosses in these small establishments are often the owners, there is no superior to discriminate against them.


One of the most important aspects of every employment discrimination claim is the basis under which it is filed. Federal and state laws provide that employment decisions cannot be based on age, disability, race, religion, sex, color, national origin, or in retaliation for filing a prior charge. These bases are broadly interpreted, for example "sex" includes both women and men, and "race" includes all races. "Sex" also includes discrimination because of pregnancy, sexual harassment, and sexual stereotyping. Many people erroneously believe that only hiring and firing decisions are subject to the anti-discrimination laws. In fact, all aspects of employment are covered, such as promotion, training, pay, benefits, performance appraisal, and discipline. Stated positively, employers are to provide equal employment opportunities to individuals from recruitment to termination.

Age and sex were the most frequent bases for the Bosses, while their sequence was reversed for the Secretaries. Both the age and disability bases were significantly higher for the Bosses as compared to the Secretaries, while the religion and frivolous bases were slightly higher for the Secretaries. The classification of "frivolous" includes those claims in which the facts failed to state a valid claim under any of the prohibited bases. No instances of color or national origin were identified for either the Bosses or the Secretaries.

The prevalence of age-related claims for Bosses was consistent with their 9 years average length of employment. One boss had worked for his employer for 36 years when he filed his discrimination claim. This boss was the Director of Compensation and Benefits for a Fortune 500 firm. His employer gave him the option of early retirement or a demotion to training new hires. Age-related claims were the second most frequent for the Secretaries. Their average length of employment was 5 years. The secretary with the longest tenure had worked for a small manufacturer for 25 years. Her employer fired her without any warning for "inefficiency and a poor attitude." Age discrimination claims are rapidly increasing (Shea, 1991, 213). These increases will likely continue due to the contemporary trend of downsizing. Organizations are increasing efficiency, while maintaining output, by replacing costly, older, middle managers, and their staffs, with information technologies.

What and Why

Discharge was the action taken against 50 percent of the Bosses and 44 percent of the Secretaries. Bosses and Secretaries who lose their jobs may believe that they have nothing to lose by filing formal claims against their former employers. Only one boss and one secretary received written warnings prior to their discharges. These high rates of discharge, without prior warnings, prompt questions about employers' policies on performance evaluations, positive and negative feedback to employees, corrective actions, and follow-up evaluations. All employers should have clearly written policies on these issues, and they should consistently apply and enforce them. The incidence of claims by discharged employees may be reduced by providing fair, internal procedures to resolve problems before they reach the "firing line." If discharged employees have had an opportunity to be heard and otherwise treated fairly, then they will be less likely to file formal claims.


The second most frequent action taken against Secretaries was constructive discharge (11%) where the work environment was so hostile that the Secretaries were forced to quit. Hence, a total of 55 percent of the Secretary claimants lost their jobs directly by discharge, or indirectly by constructive discharge. Considering the current and predicated shortages for secretaries, this practice seems inefficient and inappropriate.

Despite the lack of pre-discharge notices to Bosses and Secretaries of job performance deficiencies, "inadequate performance" was the reason most frequently given to both groups by employers. To use this reason as a defense against discrimination claims, organizations should be ready to prove that they conduct regular performance appraisals, that they give feedback (positive and negative) to their employees, and that employees are given a chance to remedy their inadequate performances. Bosses and Secretaries should know in advance the job standards to which they will be held.

"Reorganization" was the next reason most frequently given to Bosses. This was consistent with the earlier finding of a higher incidence of discrimination claims in the manufacturing industry, which is currently shrinking. Two-thirds of these Bosses based their discrimination claims on age, and their duties were reassigned to younger employees. For the Secretaries, "no opening" was the second most frequently given reason. This reason was given to Secretaries who were not hired, not promoted, or not reinstated from a medical leave. The claim files also disclosed instances of inappropriate behaviors by others, not separately reported in a table. "Inappropriate behaviors" included racial, sexual, or age-related remarks and, touching or seeking sexual favors. The percentage of Bosses reporting inappropriate behaviors was 6 percent, and the percentage of Secretaries was 21 percent. The lower incidence for Bosses was expected due to their high positions within their organizations. But, a high position did not always shield the boss. One vice-president had to push the president away in her office, and subsequently he fired her when she would not date him. The higher incidence for Secretaries also was expected since these inappropriate behaviors stem from the power relationship of boss to subordinate. One executive secretary reported that her boss constantly made advances, threatening that she would be discharged if she did not submit to his advances. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, (477 U.S. 57) in 1986, employers should have formal written policies against sexual harassment. That decision held that sexual advances from a superior are sex discrimination if they are "unwelcome," and if they are "sufficiently severe or pervasive" so as to be abusive.

Bosses named their superior as the source of the discriminatory actions in 71 percent of their claims, while 77 percent of the Secretaries named their boss as the source. The inherent power relationship of one person over another enables a superior to discriminate against a subordinate. But why do superiors discriminate against subordinates? Most frequently, because they want to get rid of the subordinate, as shown on Table 2. Discharge was the most common discriminatory action. With discharge, a superior may: prove his or her power; save salary by hiring at a lower pay; put a new face in the office; or, eliminate a perceived threat from a subordinate who knows more about the job or the organization than does the superior. This last explanation is contrary to the effective team concept portrayed by Perry Mason and his secretary Della Street. Perry relied on Della's knowledge, he was not intimidated by her efficiency and experience. Bosses should remember the old saying, "First rate people hire first rate people, second rate people hire third rate people."

Human resource professionals were named as the source by 12 percent of the Bosses and 12 percent of the Secretaries. Organizational policies were identified as the source by 12 percent of the Bosses and 5 percent of the Secretaries. For example, a vice-president on approved medical leave notified his employer of his medical release to return to work, all according to company policy. Yet, contrary to policy, his employer refused to reinstate him, and gave his job to a younger, less experienced employee. To avoid such charges, nondiscriminatory policies should be carefully formulated. Do the policies make sense, and do they form an integrated whole? Or, are they a "patchwork," written on a case-by-case basis to deal with problems as they arose? Do not put new policies on the shelf. Regular use is the goal and the fulfillment of the written words. Continually assess the effectiveness of the policies and make timely adjustments.

Profile of Bosses

The findings of this study revealed that both men and women occupy Boss roles in today's organizations, and that both experience employment discrimination. Table 3 profiles the typical Boss claimant. The only common characteristic between male and female Bosses was the discriminatory action, i.e., discharge. The typical male Boss based his discrimination claim on age, had worked for his employer for 12 years, and worked in a manufacturing organization. The age of the typical male Boss claimant ranged from 47 to 69 years, with the average being 58. A vice-president for a national manufacturer reported that his boss told him, "You are old and the world has passed you by." The vice-president also noted that his employer had terminated many older employees, referred to as the "old gang." The prevalence of old age claims cast doubt upon the sincerity of the reason most often given by the employers to the male Bosses, i.e., "reorganization."


The typical female Boss worked in a service organization, for an average of 5 years, and based her claim on sex discrimination. These characteristics are consistent with the expansion of the service industry. Many service jobs have traditionally been held by women, and they are now advancing as this segment expands in the economy. However, as the employment tenure of the typical female Boss increases, perhaps by the year 2000 the typical female Boss also may base her claim on age, rather than on sex. "Inadequate performance" was the reason most often given by the employer to the typical female Boss. This reason coincides with the stereotypes that women are less committed to their jobs because of family and less competent than men (Fierman, 1990). For example, a general manager reported that her boss told her, "A female cannot succeed as a vice-president in this company because our clients will not accept a woman." This woman was stereotyped by her boss and by the organization's clients.

Profile of Secretaries

Table 4 profiles the typical Secretary claimant. These profile characteristics also were consistent with the recent growth of the service industry. The typical Secretary claimant worked in a service organization, for an average of 5 years, and based her claim on sex discrimination. Like the typical female Boss, the Secretary's employer gave "inadequate performance" as the reason for its action. A common pattern throughout the Secretary sample was that their employers did not regularly evaluate their performance, and that their employers did not warn them of inadequacies before firing them. For example, a secretary claimed that her boss treated her differently than the male employees by ignoring her, excluding her from staff meetings, and never evaluating her performance. Coincidentally, the typical Secretary experienced that same fate as did the typical Boss, discharge.


The similarities between the typical Secretary, and the typical female Boss, are apparent. There were no differences between these two profiles. This suggests that organizations may view women the same, regardless of the status of their positions. While the typical Secretary based her discrimination claim on sex, 20 percent based their claims on age. For those who based their claims on age, the average age was 56 years, with a range of 48 to 65. A typical age claim was filed by a 59 year old executive secretary who, for no reason, was the only secretary discharged. She reported that she was the oldest secretary and that she was the only one not evaluated, not given a raise, and not given a new word processor.

There was one notable difference between the Secretary claimants and the female Boss claimants. Secretaries claimed pregnancy discrimination in 12 percent of the cases, compared to 6 percent of the claims by female Bosses. The 6 percent rate by the female Bosses was the same as the rate for all women claimants from the authors' employment discrimination study (Slonaker & Wendt, 1991). Perhaps the lower rate for the female Bosses is an indication that upper level employees are balancing career and family by postponing or not bearing children (Fierman, 1990). There are indications, however, that fewer employees are willing to adopt this strategy (Shellenbarger, 1991, B1).


The working relationship of a boss and a secretary is one of the most common across organizations and industries. The success of this relationship affects the entire organization. Employment discrimination interferes with this relationship. This article has examined and reported the discrimination experiences of both bosses and secretaries. In summary, most Bosses worked in manufacturing, while most Secretaries worked in service. Both groups named a superior as the source of the discrimination, and discharge as the most frequent discriminatory action. Male Bosses experienced age discrimination, while sex discrimination was most commonly claimed by the female Bosses and the Secretaries. Hopefully these findings will increase organizational awareness of discrimination against Bosses and Secretaries.

The fundamental goal of all anti-discrimination legislation is to provide equal employment opportunities. The guidepost pointing the way to that goal is that job-related criteria should control employment decisions, and not personal characteristics such as age, sex, race, disability, etc. To make decisions based on job-related criteria, all decision makers should remember that they, like everyone, have values, biases, and prejudices that may interfere with work and the day-to-day managing of others. Prejudicial biases should be controlled so that they do not interfere with employment decisions.

A well known discrimination author wrote, "It is a comfort to hope...|that~ a time shall come when sketches as these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be" (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1851). Awareness of employment discrimination and its characteristics will help organizations to confront and prevent employment discrimination.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the cooperation and encouragement that they have received from Joseph T. Carmichael, Executive Director, and Alan J. Clark, Manager of Research and Development, both of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission; and Annette M. Ford, graduate research assistant.


Bureau of the Census (1990). Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Eisman, R. (1990). Today's Secretary Frustrated and Forgotten? Incentive, August, 14-23.

Fierman, J. (1990). Why Women Still Don't Hit the Top. Fortune, July 30; 40, 42, 46, 50, 54, 58, 62.

Fingart, M. and Bergman, B.R. (1989). Facilitating Women's Occupational Integration, Background Monograph No. 26 for Investing in People, a report by the U.S. Department of Labor Commission on Workforce Quality and Labor Market Efficiency. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Overman, S. (1991). The Layoff Legacy. HR Magazine, August, 29-32.

Samborn, R. (1990). Managing Older Employees. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Shellenbarger, S. (1991). More Job Seekers Put Family Needs First. The Wall Street Journal, November 15; B1, B6.

Slonaker & Wendt (1991). Pregnancy Discrimination: An Empirical Analysis of a Continuing Problem. Labor Law Journal, 42:6, 343-350.

Stowe, H.B. (1851). Uncle Tom's Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly. Cleveland: Jewett, Proctor & Worthington, Preface.

Towers Perrin and Hudson Institute (1990). Workforce 2000: Competing in a Seller's Market: Is Corporate America Prepared? New York: Towers Perrin.

U.S. Department of Commerce (1980). Standard Occupational Classification Manual. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Vaill,P.B. (1989). Managing as a Performing Art. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Ann C. Wendt is Assistant Professor of Management and William M. Slonaker is Associate Professor of Business Law at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. This paper is one report from the Ohio Employment Discrimination Studies, which are supported by grants from Wright State University and the College of Business and Administration.
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Author:Wendt, Ann C.; Slonaker, William M.
Publication:Review of Business
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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