An administrative assistant assists a customer

Secretary vs. Receptionist: What's the Difference?

The words “secretary” and “receptionist” tend to be used synonymously, but this is a common misconception. While some of the tasks these folks perform are very similar, they actually have very different jobs.

What is a Secretary?

Secretaries are similar to administrative assistants. While many places have an office manager or similar position that is in charge of running the business, secretaries do a large part of this work as well. Although they may work with customers and clients, they often perform tasks more related to keeping the business running smoothly - making appointments, yes, but also filing, record-keeping, and writing memos or letters to send out to other people within the company or to patrons.

Secretarial positions require at least a high school degree, and some positions in healthcare have to attend training courses so they are familiar with specific terminology. To get into executive positions (think big fancy offices and the CEO’s private secretary), you usually need to have several years of experience under your belt. While it’s important to be good with people, you also need to be extremely organized and efficient.

What is a Receptionist?

When you think receptionist, think “receive.” A receptionist’s responsibility is client and customer service. They are the people there when you walk in the door; the ones who greet you with a smile and say, “What can we do for you today?” When you call your veterinarian or hair salon, the voice on the other end is a receptionist, ready to set up your next appointment or answer any questions you might have about that particular establishment, from policies to hours of operation. In smaller companies or businesses, they may do secretarial work as well.

To be a receptionist, you have to be good with people. This means being friendly and helpful, even to the most ungrateful of clients.  Most places require at least a high school degree, along with some computer skills and a good attitude. For the work they do, receptionists don’t get paid as well as they should, since quite often they are a large part of what makes a customer decide to give a certain place their business.

What are the main differences between secretaries and receptionists?

A secretary’s main duty is to the business - making sure things are put away, organizing files and appointments, assisting others in their own tasks. A receptionist’s main duty is to the client, and doing it with a smile so that each person who walks in the door feels important.

While you may find each in a variety of settings, receptionists are more often in the lobby of doctor’s and dentist’s offices; places people go to receive a service from someone needs someone else as a middle main. Secretaries tend to work for lawyers and executives, schools, and hospitals, and in government buildings. A receptionist is the front line of a company; a secretary generally functions behind the scenes to maintain internal structure. 

Last Updated: June 18, 2015