Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My Open Letter to Litigious Personal Assistants

I've been sitting on this letter for months and I was trying to decide if it's a good thing to post about or not. Then, this happened - Usher's former nanny is suing him. It's all just too much.

Dear Celebrity Personal Assistants Who Sue,

Stop it! We live in a very litigious society and there is evidence in case after case of personal assistants who decide to sue their celebrity ex-bosses for obscene and ridiculous sums of money.

Months ago, I read an article about Melissa Ishage, former Personal Assistant to comedian/actor Katt Williams, who is suing her boss for allegedly punching her and causing "serious and permanent damage." Ms. Ishage is
requesting $5 MILLION DOLLARS for the alleged incident. Have you ever seen the movie Friday, with Christ Tucker and Ice Cube? There is a scene in the movie where Ezell, the neighborhood crack addict, fakes a
slip-and-fall at the corner store and cries out that he's going to sue for $150,000, but offers to settle out of court for 20 bucks. That's what these cases are starting to sound like and I can't help but wonder exactly what the point is.

Ms. Ishage certainly isn't the first person to go down this path. Almost a year ago, it was made public that Lady Gaga's former personal assistant, Jennifer O'Neill,  was suing her for $380,000 in unpaid overtime. Ms. O'Neill claimed that she was Lady Gaga's "slave." A $75,000 a year slave, apparently. What other slaves get paid that
amount of money? I'm interested to know what kind of contract or agreement they have in place that even offers/guarantees overtime pay.

I've been in the industry for a while and from what I've seen, More often than not, Personal Assistants are salaried employees, not hourly ones, simply due to the nature of the job. We accept a certain amount of money and we agree to be on-call to the employer 24/7. Some employers require a lot during that time and some don't require that much, but it's about what you agree to in the beginning. You can't accept the terms of the deal up front and then automatically decide that you work too much and you aren't getting paid enough. Well, you can, but that's what re-negotiation of your contract is about. You tell the employer WHY you think you need more money and you use facts, not emotions, to back up your point and they can decide to agree with you or terminate you and find someone who will work for what they're willing to pay. 

From Courtney Love to Naomi Campbell - the parade of celebrities who have been sued is endless, but I think there is a larger problem. Rule #1 of being a personal assistant is protecting the principal. Your
main priority in this job is to make sure that you are doing your best to protect the confidentiality of the person you work for. You can't say that you are good at maintaining confidentiality and then run to the press as soon as something is not to your satisfaction. Where is the honor in that? Look, by NO means am I saying that you shouldn't protect yourself in a situation, especially where abuse is allegedly involved, like Naomi or Katt, but how did that come to $5 Million Dollars? What does that say about you? You're sounding like Ezell! 

I'm guessing the lawyer said, "Let's go for the big number so we have some room to negotiate." But, let's deal with the reality in that. None of this happens overnight. You're probably out of work, living on savings

while you're waiting for court, mediation or negotiation. If the case is legitimate, you're probably going to settle out of court for an amount that is MUCH less than you requested. If you go to trial and you actually win, you don't get a check that day. You're probably going to be holding your breath while the celebrity tries to appeal the decision. They are more likely well-funded enough to play the waiting game, but let''s say you get your check. The lawyers, which I am sure are pretty pricey to go against any celebrity, are going to take their fees off the top and you're left with even less. There is probably going to be an order for you to keep your mouth closed, so there goes any hopes you had of gaining 15 minutes of fame on various talk shows and/or tell-all books. You're down to peanuts, which is probably going to go fast and then what? What if you lose the case? Now you owe!

What happens after all this dust settles? Are you planning on being a personal assistant to someone else? Who's going to hire you when you've proven that you are spiteful, malicious and you can't keep your
mouth closed? Think Monica Lewinsky! Even with all her education and sweet personality (as Barbara Walters continues to point out), the fact that she broke confidence in the largest way possible has made it EXTREMELY hard for her to get any work in all the years since the Clinton scandal. She had to wait out the statute of limitations to write her tell-all book and at this point...who cares. Confidentiality is NOT something that is taken lightly in this business.

Enough about you! What you're doing as a personal assistant has the same effect on the industry as the many sex scandals involving nannies and the man of the house. You're throwing a wrench in the game for so
many other people. These cases give employers reason to pause when they think about hiring another assistant. I'm sure you don't care about that because your goal is just to get what you can out of the deal.

I guess the intention of this letter is to give you some serious things to think about and also to shed some light on the other side of this business for people who are thinking about becoming a personal assistant for legitimate reasons or even the ones that hope they get an employer who throws a phone at their head. If you're not in it for a fair salary and the experience/perks that it can bring, just quit now and find something else do.