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Saturday, May 31, 2008

time off in between jobs

A reader writes:

I have been laid off for almost 10 months now. I have been working hard for this time to secure another position. I am currently concerned that the length of time I have been out of work is against me when I interview. I have had several interviewing managers ask me what I have been doing all this time. My answer is truthful that I took a little family time off when first laid off, have been helping aging parents and volunteering to help other seniors, taking some IT classes and mostly looking for a new position.

Many people keep telling me this amount of time is not a big deal, especially in the area I live where the unemployment rate is somewhat high at this time. In your opinion, how is this time off viewed by hiring managers?

I think it's far less about the time off itself and much more about how you frame it. Your answer seems perfect to me -- you're caring for family members, volunteering, and improving your skills -- and wouldn't raise red flags for me.

Anyone else feel differently?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

protecting your time from long-winded interlopers

When you're racing to get something done on a deadline and you get interrupted by a long-winded caller, do you:
(a) Let them talk, trying to politely hint that you don't have much time
(b) Say, "I'm actually short on time right now. Could I call you back?"

Far more people do (a) than (b) -- because people want to be nice and aren't sure how to nicely protect their time, or if it's even possible to do it nicely. It seems to me that people often get so focused on wanting to be nice to the long-winded caller or visitor that they forget that -- when at work -- we have a larger obligation to use our time in the ways that are most effective. And yes, it can be done without being rude. Here are some principles to use (all of these assume that your job isn't to take long-winded people's phone calls):

1. Your obligation to the long-winded caller is to be polite as you're ending the call, but it's not to allow them to cut into time that you could be better spending on something else.

2. White lies are made for this situation. Say "I've got to run to a meeting that's about to start" or "I have someone standing right here waiting to talk to me" or "I've got to grab this other call coming in" or "I'm on deadline" or whatever. If the person ignores you, repeat it again firmly -- right away, not after letting them go on for another five minutes.

3. Set a time limit for the call at the very start, such as "I've only got a minute to talk" or "I appreciate the phone call but only have a second to talk."

4. If the above doesn't work, don't be afraid to interrupt a long-winded person who doesn't pause to take a breath or let you get a word in. Remember, you are responsible for how you spend your time; they don't control it.

5. If the interruption is in person and the interloper won't leave your office, stand up with some papers in hand. Sometimes this alone signals that you have something else to do. If the signal doesn't take, say, "I've got to run these down the hall."

The general idea that you should take control of your own time applies in other ways too: For instance, if you're a manager who finds it hard to focus because an employee interrupts you with questions throughout the day, ask the person to save up their questions and ask them in bunches. Or if someone asks you to do something right away that's less of a priority than what you're working on, say "I need to finish this first, but I'll get to it as soon as I can." (Although if it's your boss, reword it to: "If I do this immediately, it'll delay X"; this gives her the chance to tell you that X is less important after all.)

The key point is to be nicely assertive and not let others control your day.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

10 questions to ask your interviewer

I encounter many job applicants who don't have many—or even any—questions when I ask what I can answer for them. While this isn't fatal, asking the right questions shows a level of thoughtfulness and engagement. After all, your interviewer wants to know that you're interested in the details of the job, the department you'll be working in, your prospective supervisor's management style, and the culture of the organization. Otherwise, you risk signaling that you're either not that interested or just haven't thought very much about it.

My U.S. News & World Report column this week suggests 10 questions to consider asking at your next interview.

Monday, May 26, 2008

denied performance evaluation

A reader writes:

I have a question on how to challenge a denial of work performance reviews on behalf of a co-worker. The position is an administrative assistant position which this person has been in 7 years. She has never had a yearly performance review and accordingly no raises! Her job duties have increased. She has spoken the matter to the HR and HR nicely told her that it was up to her boss, who is a director of a major department of our company. She has started to request yearly performance reviews in writing. The last one was 7 months ago and it was addressed to the director/boss. Nothing has happened.

This looks like the company is basically telling this person to leave. However, she is a single mother in her late 40s and she believes she cannot go elsewhere. She has asked me to help her write another letter and I need guidance on how to approach this letter.

So far this is the action plan I have:
1) address it to her boss but "cc" the HR. This formally brings in the HR who may do something.
2) bring up the employee handbook on yearly performance reviews and how it is provided to every employee
3) if this letter does not work, wait 3 months and then write another letter to the Executive Director/Chief Operating Officer since all avenues have been exhausted (boss and HR). The director/boss is under high scrutiny by the executive management so this may indirectly help.

Hmmm. Is the issue that she wants a performance review or that she wants a raise? Either way, I'm not sure this is the best plan.

If she genuinely wants the performance review for its own sake, she can't "make" her boss give her one. Cc'ing HR doesn't sound like it will do any good, since HR already told her that it's up to her boss. And I definitely don't recommend cc'ing the executive director or COO, since that's inappropriately going over her boss' head and likely to backfire -- at a minimum, creating tension with her boss and possibly even irritating the higher-up. A better approach would be to explain to her boss that she wants to step back and have a conversation about her performance to get his feedback on where she's doing well and where she could improve. At this point, since she has made this request previously and been ignored, she needs to be more direct and ask point-blank if this is possible or not. There's no point in beating her head against the wall trying to make this happen if the boss simply isn't going to do it. (Refusing to give your employees feedback on their performance is absurd, obviously, but there are plenty of bosses behaving absurdly out there.)

However, I suspect it's more likely that what she wants is a raise, and she sees a performance evaluation as the route to get there. But why not just go directly after what she wants and ask for a raise? Skip the performance evaluation drama, since it's clearly become an obstacle, and simply make the case for a raise. In other words, put together a case for how her value to the company has earned her more money and ask to be compensated accordingly.

Of course, she can't make her boss give her a raise either. But she can make the case for it, and if it becomes clear it's not going to happen, she can plan future decisions accordingly. You said she doesn't believe she can go elsewhere, but there's no harm in exploring her options -- she may discover she has more options outside this company than she thinks.

One last thing: Make sure your involvement is behind the scenes. You shouldn't be writing letters on her behalf, etc.; she should handle this herself.

returning to the job market after depression

A reader writes:

My brother, after a two-and-a-half-year recovery period from severe depression, will be entering the job market this fall. He was working low-level clerical jobs the past two years while getting therapy and getting his mental health together. Now he feels ready to re-enter the professional job market once again and get his career started. He dropped out of graduate school in international relations as a result of the depression and was a downward spiral until family intervention became necessary.

His dilemma: how to explain to prospective employers the past two-and-a-half years? While he knows he is under no obligation to disclose his personal struggles with depression, he feels that the clerical jobs he took the past two years would need some explaining, especially if he is aiming for serious professional jobs in the international relations field this time around.

Is there any advice you can give him regarding getting a foothold in the job market in his chosen professional field? Any strategies and tactics he should take in reentry into the job market as well as formulating a script to answer the inevitable question of the past two and a half years?

I think I'd go with something like: "My primary focus was on some health problems during that period, but that that's behind me now and so I'm ready to return to (fill in the blank with his field here)."

This is has several advantages: First, it's true but it's not over-sharing in a way that may make interviewers uneasy. Second, by framing it as health problems, interviewers are highly unlikely to probe for details. However, even if they don't say it, they'll want assurance that the impact is under control now, so your brother should proactively offer that reassurance as in the example above.

Best of luck to him!

Monday, May 19, 2008

You made a mistake at work. Now what?

How do you handle it when you've botched something? First, you need to know what happens in your manager's head when you make a mistake. Beyond thinking about the repercussions of the mistake itself, she's worrying about what it means for the larger picture: Did the mistake happen because of sloppy work habits or was this one isolated incident? Is there a fundamental problem with your systems or approach to the work? Do you "get" that this is a big deal, or are you shrugging it off and thus likely to let something similar happen in the future?

Once you understand this, the formula for handling a mistake well becomes more intuitive.

And if you want to read that formula, check out the full post, which is posted at U.S. News and World Report.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

how to get the most of out your internship

A reader writes:

I’m going to be starting a 3-month summer internship in the management consulting field for a reasonably small (~30 employees) boutique consultancy. I see it as the first step in my career goal to become a management consultant. My goals from this internship are:
1) To obtain a bunch of great contacts who will hopefully help me as my career progresses.
2) To start to build my reputation in the industry.
3) To learn as much as possible.
4) To obtain an offer for part time work for the rest of my university degree (something I know they’ve offered others in the past).

So, if possible, could you provide me some tips and advice to achieve the above goals? The main challenge is that this internship will really be throwing me in the deep end, so it’s likely that I’ll have to ask a lot of questions.

Oh, I love this question. I hope others will chime in with advice too. Here's my advice for all interns hoping to make a good impression and achieve the types of goals you listed:

1. Understand what to expect from an internship. The main point is to give you some basic exposure to day-to-day work in your field. In the vast majority of cases, you will not be doing glamorous, substantive work; you will be there to make other people's lives easier. This means you may get stuck doing things like photocopying, filing, arranging meetings, and other things that may strike you as drudgery. In exchange, you get exposure to the field and work experience to put on your resume.

2. However, if you excel at these boring tasks and do them cheerfully, you may be given more interesting work. Trust me on this. Many interns don't grasp this concept -- after all, what does being good at photocopying have to do with your ability to, say, do independent research? Here's why there's a connection: When you come in as an intern, you haven't proven yourself. (You can have a stellar academic record, but it still doesn't count as proving yourself in the work world.) But if you do a great job on the boring work -- yes, making the best photocopies you can make; odd as it sounds, there are ways to do that well and ways to do it badly -- you'll show that you pay attention to detail, follow instructions, and care about quality. Keep up a sustained track record of that, and eventually someone is likely to let you try your hand at something more interesting. But do a bad job on the basic stuff, and no one is going to trust you with anything more advanced. So go into it feeling that nothing is beneath you.

3. Don't worry that you'll need to ask lots of questions. Internships are designed to be learning experiences. However, to whatever extent you can, save up your questions and ask them in bunches. (This way, you're interrupting less but still getting the information you need.)

4. Ask for feedback. Every so often, ask your boss how you're doing. What could you be doing differently? Make it easy for her to give you the input that will help you grow.

5. One you get settled in and start to get to know people, ask them about themselves. How did they get into the field? What do they like about it? What do they find challenging? What advice do they have for you? Most people love to talk about themselves and will be flattered that you're asking for their advice. And it will make them want to help you.

6. You don't need to pretend to be older than you are, but do observe how others in the office act and roughly mirror it. For instance, if people modulate their voices when others are on the phone, modulate yours. If people are compulsively on-time for meetings, you should be compulsively on-time too. There are lots of little things like this that will help you appear professional by simply observing and mirroring what you see. Ad while these things may sound small, they will make you stand out compared to other interns they've had.

7. Toward the end of the internship, tell them you've loved working with them (assuming that's true) and how much you've learned. Ask if there are any possibilities of continuing to work there. And if that doesn't work out, ask if you can stay in touch. (They will say yes.) Then do it -- once the internship is over, check in with an email every so often, tell them how school is going, talk about what you're hoping to do next, ask if they have any leads or advice for you.

8. Oh, and don't wear flip flops.

Good luck! Just the fact that you're thinking about these questions puts you ahead of the game.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sorry for the slow-down in postings. I'm crazed with work. And really horribly backlogged on answering my email -- so if you are really anxious for an answer to something you've emailed me, it wouldn't hurt to resend it. I'll be back in better form next week.

Monday, May 12, 2008

your interview starts NOW

I frequently see job candidates acting as if only "official" contacts—like interviews and formal writing samples—count during the hiring process. They'll send flawlessly edited cover letters and writing samples and then check up on their applications with sloppily written emails with spelling errors. Or they'll be charming and polite to me but rude to an assistant. If you're job searching, remember that employers are gathering information about you at every interaction, not just in the interview itself. For example...

Want to read the rest of this piece? To do so, click on over to U.S. News & World Report's Web site, where it's posted in full.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

passed over for promotion

A reader writes:

A co-worker of mine was recently promoted to an open position without any other candidates, myself included, having been interviewed. When I first attempted to talk to the hiring manager about this, he accused me of "overreacting" and acting immature.

Now, my purpose is not to argue why I should have been promoted, nor am I particularly interested in running down my co-worker, both of which I would understand him calling immature. I really just want to discuss the process: the idea that the hiring manager – I quote – "didn't consider other candidates because [my co-worker] has been with the company so much longer," as well as anything I might have done wrong in my application.

To this effect, I met privately with the hiring manager (along with my direct manager – one of his assistant managers – as a witness) for almost two hours, but he spent the whole time talking about basic job seeking techniques, the importance of having good connections, etc., with a long aside about how it can be "more difficult for women in management" (I'm female, but I don't see what that has to do with this).

So my question is: how much effort do I put into making him actually listen to me when I say that it's not that I'm crushed by this or anything but that I think he's making a fundamental mistake by making hiring/promotion decisions without actually looking at the candidates...before I go to HR and say the same thing? (It is a mistake for him to pick his preferred candidate from the get-go, isn't it? Or is it not my place to say, even though it has just significantly affected me?)

Well, it's possible that the hiring manager isn't good at hiring. But it's also possible that he knew that you weren't well matched with what he was looking for (if not in skills, then in temperament or general "fit"). And he might have known your colleague was exactly what he was looking for. If either of those are the case, he acted reasonably. If so, his mistake was in not explaining this to you, rather than in making the hiring decision the way he did. (My guess is that that's because he's uncomfortable telling you why he didn't consider you a strong candidate. He's a manager and he should get over his discomfort with that sort of thing ... but the reality is that many managers never do.)

Anyway, I wouldn't recommend saying anything to him or to HR. Because of the context, you'll appear to have an agenda and your message will be lost as a result. And it sounds like you've already had multiple run-in's with the manager (your boss's boss?) on this topic -- one where he told you were being immature and then one even after that, where a witness needed to be involved. I don't think you'll get anywhere by keeping the topic going, and it's possible that refusing to drop it will hurt you.

But you have every right to explore your possibilities for promotion within the company and to look elsewhere if you don't think your needs will be met there. Good luck!

Monday, May 5, 2008

why a job interview is like a date

I see too many job applicants who approach the interview as if their only goal is to win a job offer, losing sight of the fact that this can land them in the wrong job—a job they won't enjoy, a job they'll struggle in, or even a job they might get fired from.

Yes, it's nerve-wracking to feel scrutinized by an interviewer, and a natural response is to want to measure up. But the wiser goal is to focus on learning whether you're a mutual match—emphasis on mutual. Think of it like dating.

Want to read the rest of this piece? To do so, you'll need to click on over to U.S. News & World Report's Web site -- where, I'm excited to announce, I'm now blogging. My first post went up today, and there will be a new one each week.

And yeah, that means I dropped the anonymity. So be it.