Receptionist Career

Receptionists—so named because they receive visitors in places of business—have the important job of giving a business’s clients and visitors a positive first impression. Also called information clerks, these front-line workers are the first communication sources who greet clients and visitors to an office, answer their questions, and direct them to the people they wish to see. Receptionists also answer telephones, take and distribute messages for other employees, and make sure no one enters the office unescorted or unauthorized. Many receptionists perform additional clerical duties. Switchboard operators perform similar tasks but primarily handle equipment that receives an organization’s telephone calls. There are more than 1.1 million receptionists employed throughout the United States.

Receptionist Career History

Receptionist CareerIn the 18th and 19th centuries, as businesses began to compete with each other for customers, merchants and other business people began to recognize the importance of giving customers the immediate impression that the business was friendly, efficient, and trustworthy. These businesses began to employ hosts and hostesses, workers who would greet customers, make them comfortable, and often serve them refreshments while they waited or did business with the owner. As businesses grew larger and more diverse, these hosts and hostesses (only recently renamed receptionists) took on the additional duties of answering phones, keeping track of workers, and directing visitors to the employee they needed to see. Receptionists also began to work as information dispensers, answering growing numbers of inquiries from the public. In the medical field, as services expanded, more receptionists were needed to direct patients to physicians and clinical services and to keep track of appointments and payment information.

Soon receptionists became indispensable to business and service establishments. Today, it is hard to imagine most medium-sized or large businesses functioning without a receptionist.

The Job of Receptionists

The receptionist is a specialist in human contact: The most important part of a receptionist’s job is dealing with people in a courteous and effective manner. Receptionists greet customers, clients, patients, and salespeople, take their names, and determine the nature of their business and the person they wish to see. The receptionist then pages the requested person, directs the visitor to that person’s office or location, or makes an appointment for a later visit. Receptionists usually keep records of all visits by writing down the visitor’s name, purpose of visit, person visited, and date and time.

Most receptionists answer the telephone at their place of employment; many operate switchboards or paging systems. These workers usually take and distribute messages for other employees and may receive and distribute mail. Receptionists may perform a variety of other clerical duties, including keying in and filing correspondence and other paperwork, proofreading, preparing travel vouchers, and preparing outgoing mail. In some businesses, receptionists are responsible for monitoring the attendance of other employees. In businesses where employees are frequently out of the office on assignments, receptionists may keep track of their whereabouts to ensure that they receive important phone calls and messages. Many receptionists use computers and word processors in performing their clerical duties.

Receptionists are partially responsible for maintaining office security, especially in large firms. They may require all visitors to sign in and out and carry visitors’ passes during their stay. Since visitors may not enter most offices unescorted, receptionists usually accept and sign for packages and other deliveries.

Receptionists are frequently responsible for answering inquiries from the public about a business’s nature and operations. To answer these questions efficiently and in a manner that conveys a favorable impression, a receptionist must be as knowledgeable as possible about the business’s products, services, policies, and practices and familiar with the names and responsibilities of all other employees. They must be careful, however, not to divulge classified information such as business procedures or employee activities that a competing company might be able to use. This part of a receptionist’s job is so important that some businesses call their receptionists information clerks.

A large number of receptionists work in physicians’ and dentists’ offices, hospitals, clinics, and other health care establishments. Workers in medical offices receive patients, take their names, and escort them to examination rooms. They make future appointments for patients and may prepare statements and collect bill payments. In hospitals, receptionists obtain patient information, assign patients to rooms, and keep records on the dates they are admitted and discharged.

In other types of industries, the duties of these workers vary. Receptionists in hair salons arrange appointments for clients and may escort them to stylists’ stations. Workers in bus or train companies answer inquiries about departures, arrivals, and routes. In-file operators collect and distribute credit information to clients for credit purposes. Registrars, park aides, and tourist-information assistants may be employed as receptionists at public or private facilities. Their duties may include keeping a record of the visitors entering and leaving the facility, as well as providing information on services that the facility provides. Information clerks, automobile club information clerks, and referral-and-information aides provide answers to questions by telephone or in person from current or potential clients and keep a record of all inquiries.

Switchboard operators may perform specialized work, such as operating switchboards at police district offices to take calls for assistance from citizens. Or, they may handle airport communication systems, including public address paging systems and courtesy telephones, or serve as answering-service operators, who record and deliver messages for clients who cannot be reached by telephone.

Receptionist Career Requirements

High School

You can prepare for a receptionist or switchboard operator position by taking courses in business procedures, office machine operation, business math, English, and public speaking. You should also take computer science courses, as computers are used in nearly all offices.

Postsecondary Training

Most employees require receptionists to have a high school diploma. Some businesses prefer to hire workers who have completed post-high school courses at a junior college or business school. If you are interested in post-high school education, you may find courses in basic bookkeeping and principles of accounting helpful. This type of training may lead to a higher paying receptionist job and a better chance for advancement. Many employers require typing, switchboard, computer, and other clerical skills, but they may provide some on-thejob training, as the work is typically entry level.

Other Requirements

To be a good receptionist, you must be well groomed, have a pleasant voice, and be able to express yourself clearly. Because you may sometimes deal with demanding people, a smooth, patient disposition and good judgment are important. All receptionists need to be courteous and tactful. A good memory for faces and names also proves very valuable. Most important are good listening and communications skills and an understanding of human nature.

Exploring Receptionist Career

A good way to obtain experience in working as a receptionist is through a high school work-study program. Students participating in such programs spend part of their school day in classes and the rest working for local businesses. This arrangement will help you gain valuable practical experience before you look for your first job. High school guidance counselors can provide information about work-study opportunities.


According to the U.S. Department of Labor, approximately 1.1 million people are employed as receptionists. Almost 90 percent of these work in service-providing industries. Among service-providing industries, health care and social assistance offices employed almost one third of receptionists. Factories, wholesale and retail stores, and service providers also employ a large percentage of these workers. Almost one-third of receptionists work part time.

Starting Out

While you are in high school, you may be able to learn of openings with local businesses through your school guidance counselors or newspaper want ads. Local state employment offices frequently have information about receptionist work. You should also contact area businesses for whom you would like to work; many available positions are not advertised in the paper because they are filled so quickly. Temporary-work agencies are a valuable resource for finding jobs, too, some of which may lead to permanent employment. Friends and relatives may also know of job openings.


Advancement opportunities are limited for receptionists, especially in small offices. The more clerical skills and education workers have, the greater their chances for promotion to such better-paying jobs as secretary, administrative assistant, or bookkeeper. College or business school training can help receptionists advance to higher-level positions. Many companies provide training for their receptionists and other employees, helping workers gain skills for job advancement.


Earnings for receptionists vary widely with the education and experience of the worker and type, size, and geographic location of the business. The median annual salary for receptionists was $21,840 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. According to an Office Team salary survey, receptionists had starting salaries ranging from $19,800 to $24,250 in 2005. In 2005, the U.S. federal government paid starting salaries of $22,937 to $27,818 to receptionists with a high school diploma and six months of experience. The median annual salary for receptionists working in the federal government was $29,185 in 2005.

Receptionists are usually eligible for paid holidays and vacations, sick leave, medical and life insurance coverage, and a retirement plan of some kind.

Work Environment

Because receptionists usually work near or at the main entrance to the business, their work area is one of the first places a caller sees. Therefore, these areas are usually pleasant and clean and are carefully furnished and decorated to create a favorable, businesslike impression. Work areas are almost always air-conditioned, well lit, and relatively quiet, although a receptionist’s phone rings frequently. Receptionists work behind a desk or counter and spend most of their workday sitting, although some standing and walking is required when filing or escorting visitors to their destinations. The job may be stressful at times, especially when a worker must be polite to rude callers.

Most receptionists work 35–40 hours a week. Some may work weekend and evening hours, especially those in medical offices. Switchboard operators may have to work any shift of the day if their employers require 24-hour phone service, such as hotels and hospitals. These workers usually work holidays and weekend hours.

Receptionist Career Outlook

Employment for receptionists is expected to grow faster than the average occupation through 2014, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Many openings will occur due to the occupation’s high turnover rate. Opportunities will be best for those with wide clerical skills and work experience. Growth in jobs for receptionists is expected to be greater than for other clerical positions because automation will have little effect on the receptionist’s largely interpersonal duties and because of an anticipated growth in the number of businesses providing services. In addition, more and more businesses are learning how valuable a receptionist can be in furthering their public relations efforts and helping them convey a positive image. Opportunities should be especially good in rapid services industries, such as physician’s offices, law firms, temporary help agencies, and consulting firms.

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