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Thursday, January 29, 2009

applying for a job in another state

A reader writes:

What is your take, as a hiring manager, on job applicants who apply to positions in your company from out of state (let's say New York applicant for a California job)? Do they immediately go to the circular file or are they considered as seriously as other applications? What if the applicant expresses an interest in relocating to your area provided he or she gets a job first?

Are out of state applicants treated differently if they are entry, mid, Director and Executive levels -- meaning the higher up you are and the position you apply for, the more likely you will be considered as an out of state applicant?

This varies depending on the job. For higher-level or hard-to-fill jobs, location isn't much of an issue. For other jobs, especially those that attract an overwhelming number of applicants, location gets factored in. This is because if I have a number of seemingly just as qualified local applicants, I can interview them faster and without paying to fly them in, and if I hire a local person, I won't need to pay relocation or wait for them to move before they can start work.

However, out-of-town applicants can get around that in a couple of ways:

* State in your cover letter that you are planning to move to my city (and if you can mention a specific ETA, that's even better) and don't need relocation assistance.

* Make it clear in your cover letter that you would be happy to get yourself to my city for an interview.

If you do those things, you've pretty much negated any bias toward locals that I might have had.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

bosses who yell

A reader writes:

I'm hoping you can help a friend of mine who is stuck in a tough situation. After a long job search, my friend has found his dream job--it's what he wants to do, in the field he wants to do it in, it pays the salary he wants to make, and he feels like he's making a positive difference in the world. But his manager only has one way of talking: SCREAMING. Peppered with curse words, no less.

At first, my friend just thought this person had high standards, or was trying to "break in the new guy." But it has been months and it's not getting any better.
Although my pal tries to respond to the feedback that is buried somewhere in all the shouting and swearing, none of his efforts to give his boss what he wants have been met with anything but rage. The few times this manager has tried to give my friend a compliment about a job well done, he still somehow ends up angry and yelling! It is so bad that I would not be surprised if this person has some sort of undiagnosed mood disorder and should be on medication. With the economy the way it is, quitting the job is not an option. Is there anything my friend can do to improve his work environment?

That's the question I answer in today's post at U.S. News & World Report. To read my answer and leave your own comments, head on over there.

Monday, January 26, 2009

can boss deduct the cost of a mistake from my paycheck?

A reader writes:

Last year, I overcharged a customer by approximately $1500. No one caught it and the customer paid the bill. In reviewing what the customer wanted to purchase for this year, they saw the mistake and requested a $1500 credit.

My boss has decided that I must cover this loss for the company and is taking it out of my paycheck. I found out that this is illegal but I am afraid that if I confront him he will fire me, as he has all the power and I have none. Of course, if he does fire me, I could go after him legally but I am not big on doing something like that. So it comes down to this: Do I stand up for my self and risk getting fired (knowing I stood up for myself and did the right thing, and also knowing in this economy I will have to find a job that may be non existent), or do I eat the $1500 and get on with my life with my tail between my legs (and keep my job)?

Ugh. What a horrible situation. People are human and from time to time they'll make mistakes. A good manager will see something like this as part of the cost of doing business. Of course, if an employee makes a lot of these mistakes, you have a pattern and that needs to be addressed, through coaching, warnings, termination, whatever is appropriate. But one mistake? No, not unless it's far bigger than this one.

Regarding the legality: I'm not a lawyer and laws vary from state to state, but in general, most state laws prohibit an employer from deducting this sort of thing unless it was the result of willful, deliberate misconduct.

Here's how I'd handle it, with the caveat that I know nothing about your boss or your relationship with him. I'd sit down with him and say something like: "I feel really awkward about this, but I'd like to talk to you about this $1500. I'm mortified that I made the mistake, and I've been reviewing the procedures I use so that I can put safeguards in place to ensure it never happens again. However, we both know that mistakes happen in the normal course of business. In fact, sometimes people make enormous mistakes that we can't even put a price tag on, such as when a strategic decision goes wrong. Generally people aren't asked to pay the company back for the costs of those mistakes, because they're part of the cost of doing business. I know that this mistake reflects on me, and I'm holding myself accountable to making sure it doesn't happen again, but asking me to pay the money back doesn't seem right to me. Does the company generally ask people to reimburse the cost of mistakes they make?"

Hopefully, your boss just hasn't thought this through clearly and this will inspire him to. On the other hand, if he's a jerk and not very bright, this may get you nowhere. I'd try it though.

references when a company goes under

A reader writes:

Since my last employer is going out of business (Circuit City), how would I list the information on my resume? I want to list it because it was valuable experience for the field I want to go into.

And even if I list the information, how will employers verify my employment there? And if they can't, does that have a negative outlook on my resume?

You should absolutely list your employment there; the fact that they may no longer be in business doesn't impact that. As for how employers can verify it, I strongly recommend keeping in touch with your manager there, and all your managers from former jobs, so that you have their contact information even when they move on to other companies. That's a good idea regardless, because many prospective employers will want to speak to references who actually managed you, rather than someone in HR who can only confirm dates of employment and so forth.

Is it too late to track down your manager? If he or she is no longer there, I recommend contacting Circuit City's HR (they're still around, at least so far) and asking for their help.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

should managers organize "fun" at work?

A reader writes:

Obviously with these difficult economic times, employees are feeling stressed, burned out, and anxious, among other things. Being fairly new to the HR industry, I think that more fun activities (such as cook-offs, cookie decorating for V-Day, and maybe even a corn-hole tournament in the summer) should be introduced to the staff to help relieve some of the tension. I was thinking about having at least one fun activity every other month.

Shouldn’t employees be able to have fun at work? Do you think this could be an effective way to improve morale? Is there such a thing as scheduling too many activities that it could actually take away from productivity? The reason why I ask the last question is because I’m thinking about maybe showing a short movie at lunch time in a week, then another employee is scheduling an activity two weeks after that and then Valentine’s Day is approaching and I was thinking about having an activity for that holiday… Thanks!

I'm going to be Scrooge here. Yes, there's such a thing as too many activities impacting productivity. Fundamentally, employees are there to get things done. So really, every activity you plan that takes them away from that impacts their productivity. You've got to think about what the mission of the company is, and how using their time in the ways you propose contributes to that.

Of course, presumably your thinking is that by increasing fun at work, you increase people's morale, which ultimately leads to higher productivity. And it's true that higher morale tends to equal higher productivity. But is "fun" the way to do it? I'm going to argue it's not, and here's why.

For most people, morale and quality of life at work isn't about having a series of fun activities, but rather about having coworkers you like, a boss who is fair and effective, the resources you need to do your job, recognition for good work, clear expectations, and so forth. In fact, without these things, planned activities can really backfire; it can be infuriating to work somewhere that doesn't put much effort into these fundamentals but then expects employees to go wild over a fun outing or social event.

Also, many, many people will resent having their work time used on non-work activities. Show me an office organizing a cookie-decorating session and I will show you a bunch of people wondering why they can't instead just go home an hour earlier if you don't need them doing work during that time. Lots of people want to have their fun on their own time, in the ways they choose and with the people they choose.

Clearly, your motivation is in the right place: You want happy, less stressed employees. But I'd encourage you to think about different ways of achieving your goal. It's not about entertaining them, but about thinking about what they really want -- see the list above -- and finding ways to deliver that to them instead. It's much harder -- but a far more effective path to your goal.

Monday, January 19, 2009

how to fire someone

The first time I had to fire someone, I had no training and no guidance. I remember scouring the Internet looking for tips. Since then, unfortunately, I've become more experienced in it than I'd like to be.

Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I offer six key principles to keep in mind if you have to fire someone. Please check it out and leave your own thoughts in the comments section over there.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

boss paying under the table

A reader writes:

I work for a very small company that is having cash flow problems. For the past few months the boss has been paying the employees our net wages in cash, not giving us payslips, and not paying any tax to the government. He simply expects us not to report this income on our tax returns.

We are all unhappy about this, concerned that it might get us into trouble, but he said the alternative was to fire one of us so he can afford the taxes. He says he’ll return to regular paychecks when he can.

What do we do? If one of us is audited, will we be in trouble or does he take all the blame?

What your boss is doing is illegal, and unfortunately, if you and other employees go along with it, you will be breaking the law too. Specifically, your boss is breaking the law by not paying payroll taxes or withholding taxes, and you and your coworkers would be breaking the law if you don't report the income.

His reasons aside, what he's doing opens you all up to criminal prosecution, fines, and even the possibility of jail time. Plus, if you or your coworkers ever need to file unemployment, workers comp, or disability claims, your benefits could be denied because you won't have a way to prove your earnings -- and it could also affect your Social Security earnings down the road.

I recommend that you and your coworkers approach the boss as a group and tell him that you know that he's trying to avoid a difficult staffing decision, but that he's jeopardizing himself, the business, and all of you with his current "solution." Perhaps there are other alternatives to laying someone off that you could suggest -- maybe you're all willing to work four days instead of five, at four-fifths your current salary, or other things along those lines. Ultimately, though, it's your boss' responsibility to figure out what to do without breaking the law.

I'd also start job-searching, as these aren't good signs.

declining after verbally accepting a job offer

A reader writes:

I was job hunting two months ago and received two job offers. I took the offer with Company A and told Company B that I would take the offer from company A. Well, one month into my new job with Company A, I thought the job was not really what I wanted and I regret my decision turning down's Company B's offer. Then I called Company B asking whether its position is still available. Company B said it is and asked whether I would reconsider. I said Yes and verbally accepted Company B offer over the phone. Now I have Company B's offer in writing and they are waiting for my confirmation.

Now I think I might have made a huge mistake to call Company B – I'm realizing that my first month feeling with Company A is just typical new job anxiety and the job is not really bad. And I more strongly feel that it is very inappropriate and unethical to leave Company A after just one month in the job. The industry I work for is pretty tight and people talk – a lot of them know each other.

I must have screwed up and don't know what to do. Please help!

I think all you can really do is apologize profusely to Company B. Explain that you've agonized over this, but you've concluded that you can't leave Company A in the lurch after such a short time and that you need to rescind your acceptance. Make sure you acknowledge the inconvenience you've caused for Company B and be as profuse in your apology as you can.

The good news is that if Company B is smart, they were waiting to cut loose other candidates until they received your written confirmation anyway, so hopefully the damage isn't as bad as it could have otherwise been.

One other thing: You mentioned that your industry is tight-knit and people talk. It would be bad if your current company heard through the grapevine that you'd been on the verge of accepting an offer from Company B after only one month. So you should probably find ways (unconnected to this) to let your current company know that you're happy there and wanting to stay for the long haul; that way, if they do hear rumors, they'll be less inclined to assume the worst.

Friday, January 16, 2009

housekeeping items

Some random, miscellaneous stuff:

1. I'm interested in people's experiences with 360 degree feedback systems, especially in organizations with smaller departments, where even the best efforts to preserve anonymity may be undone by the small staff size of the manager being evaluated. I'm intrigued by the idea of going in this direction but am concerned about how anonymous the feedback can really be in departments with only a handful of people. Anyone have any experience with that?

2. Thanks to everyone who voted in the 2008 Weblog Awards. Ask a Manager came in at #5 out of 10 in the Best Business Blog category.

3. The cheesy "industry gossip" site that keeps spamming my and other blogs' comments section with the same self-promotional message over and over can suck it.

4. It is really cold and I'm being saved from frostbite only by burrowing under the softest flannel bedding known to man or woman. Garnet Hill flannel, I love you.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

how to determine severance when firing an employee

A reader writes:

I have just finished reading what you've written on how to fire an employee. Excellent advice. I do have one question. The employee who will soon be “let go” has certainly had many chances to improve, been given objectives and not met them, etc. However, because this person is still human, has a family, is the bread winner, I do not feel right just severing the ties without some sort of departure package. I do have to take into consideration that this person was an under-performer who had plenty of chances and did cost many other employees a lot of time.

Can you make a recommendation as to what I could do as far as pay, if any? We operate based on the hire date so all of the sick time and and vacation time has been used so I can’t use that to “pay out.” Would I just pay two weeks salary and wish them well? Any suggestions, recommendations, words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated at this point. By the way if it is any help, we are a work at will state that has no requirements with the exception of the standards like COBRA.

There's a wide range of standard practice here -- some companies give no severance when someone is fired for cause, some give a couple of weeks, and some are more generous. In deciding what you'll do in this case, here are some questions to consider:

- What precedent, if any, has your company set in similar situations? Legally you're on safer ground if you don't violate an existing precedent (unless you're more generous than that precedent and willing to do that in similar situations in the future).

- How much warning has the person had? Have they had the chance to see the writing on the wall and start job-hunting? Or are they likely facing a long job search that they haven't had any notice to start yet?

- Are you worried about the employee retaliating in some way, such as through (hopefully frivolous) legal action? If so, severance can be a good incentive for him not to do that -- since to receive severance, employees typically have to sign a general release, releasing the company from any future claims.

- What can you afford to do? This is the biggest one. I tend to think that if you can afford to be generous, you should be. (Without knowing factors like the length of employment and nature of the problems, I'd consider two weeks' pay to be reasonable and one month or more to be generous. I'd also consider zero to be defensible in many circumstances.) If you can afford to be generous, it's the compassionate thing to do.

Advice from anyone else?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

job-searching after being let go

A reader writes:

August 29, 2008 - After working for this IT services company for 2.5 years, I was taken into the boss's office and told that the money was bad and business was scarce. My boss cut me from 40 hours per week down to 20 hours per week to save the company money. He stated that he didn't want to get so bad that he had to shut the doors of the business.

September 24, 2008 - Heard from the accounting/office manager of the business that the company is not doing any better and that the boss had to use funds from his personal account to cover the business taxes.

September 25, 2008 - My boss took me into his office and stated that I made a typographical error and that he was going to let me go.

I felt that he let me go due to the business lacking in funds to cover me on the payroll; however had to come up with a lame excuse to fire me. Please understand my former boss has no people skills and likes to bark commands instead of talk to you like you are a human. In the 9 years that the business was open, my position was the one with the highest turnover. In the 9 years of operation I was number 34 to sit in that seat.

How should I address this on my application and in interviews so that I don't have a hard time finding a job in the future?

I'm not sure that you were fired. As you point out, it sounds like a layoff (which are financially based). You can find out for sure this way: Did the company rehire for your position, or are they leaving it vacant? If the position no longer exists, your position was eliminated, which is often the definition of a layoff.

Now, is it possible that your boss genuinely fired you for cause and then later decided not to refill the position for financial reasons? Sure, absolutely. But given the context that you've laid out here, I'd be skeptical.

If future employers ask why you left, I'd simply explain that the business was in extreme financial trouble, your hours were cut in half, and the boss was using his personal money to pay business taxes. Given the economy right now, most people's brains are going to fill in the rest on their own and move on to the next question. However, some interviewers may specifically ask, "Were you laid off or did you leave voluntarily?" so I'd find some wording that implies you were laid off without outright lying about what your boss said.

Of course, the best thing you could do would be to get the company to agree to consider your departure a layoff (if indeed they didn't refill the position). Assuming they've eliminated the position, you can call your old boss and ask if he'd be willing to call your departure a layoff rather than a firing for future reference calls. It's at least worth a shot -- the worst that can happen is that he'll say no. If there's an HR department, start with them; they may be able to advocate for you with your boss. And actually, even if the company did refill your position and it wasn't a layoff, you should still try this approach; see this post for more details on how to do it. Good luck!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

using a different title than your real one on your resume

A reader writes:

I currently work as an IT professional for a company that is contracted by a larger company to provide IT support for their organization. I was originally hired two years ago to provide desktop support services. Due to the elimination of the job of the only other IT employee at our site, I have taken on the responsibilities and duties of a much higher level IT professional.

During this time - approximately 18 months - I have been subjected to "trial by fire." I have been asked to deal with IT issues that I previously had zero experience with. I have consistently come through with flying colors by researching and learning on the fly the skills necessary to handle these situations. During the last 18 months I have also earned two fairly high level IT certifications (MCSE and CCNP).

During my year-end review, I asked for a substantial raise and a title change. My boss has offered a five percent raise (which I have yet to accept or reject) but told me that a title change was out of the question. I am stuck with the label of "Desktop Support Technician" despite the fact that I handle the duties of a Senior Network Administrator and Senior Systems Administrator singlehandedly.

I feel that I am qualified for a much higher paying position - likely double what I make now. I want to start applying with other companies, but I do not want to list my current position as "Desktop Support" as this does not reflect the reality of my current role.

Can I list my current role as "Systems & Network Administrator" but explain during my interview that I actually only hold the "Desktop Support Technician" title despite the duties I perform?

Unfortunately, no. When the prospective employer calls to check your references, they'll likely uncover the actual title and it'll raise a red flag for them about your honesty. They'll also wonder what else you may have inflated.

However, there's an easy solution to this that will accomplish what you're trying to do: Don't list a title. Just list your responsibilities.

Now, some advice on topics you didn't ask about:

There are two ways to respond to the situation you're in: You can be resentful that you had to take on the responsibilities of a higher-level IT staffer, or you be glad that you've been in a situation that made you develop your skills -- developed them so much that in fact you now think you're qualified to double your salary! That's an career development opportunity, not a bitter pill.

(Plus, in my experience, it's pretty common for good IT people to need to learn new skills on the job. IT is a constantly evolving area, and researching and learning new things goes with the territory in many IT jobs.)

Regarding your boss' offer of a five percent raise: You said you haven't decided whether to reject or accept it yet. I'd accept. There are a lot of employers who aren't giving out raises at all this year because of the economy, and plenty more who are having to go a step further and lay off staff (which you mentioned your company has already had to do). A five percent raise is generally considered a decent raise in even good economic times. Take it. Job-search if you want, but take that raise meanwhile.

And if you haven't yet, ask your boss why he's resistant to changing your title. There may be factors you don't know about that will help you make sense of his decision. Of course, maybe there's aren't and he's totally in the wrong, but at least ask (nicely and non-defensively!). Good luck!

Monday, January 5, 2009

vote for Ask a Manager

The 2008 Weblog Awards

I'm a finalist for the 2008 Weblog Awards! You can vote for me in the Best Business Blog category here:

when you can't give a positive reference

Have you ever been asked to be a reference for an employee you can't honestly recommend? Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I give some suggestions on how to handle reference requests when you can't recommend the candidate. Check it out here.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

interview went well but still not hired

A reader writes:

Had the first interview - seemed to go well. The HR Recruiter told my recruiter that they were getting the req approved and that they wanted me and would be in touch for a second interview.

Second interview came and I felt it went well - just like before. On the way up to the interviewer, the HR Recruiter told me it was just a formality, that the offer should come the following week and that the start date would be around 1/5/09. This information was unsolicited. The interviewer was not feeling well but continued on the interview. He was the COO of the company. He was out all week last week - yesterday we found out that the position was now under a different HR Recruiter and that there was no word yet on the position. This info came directly to my recruiter.

I followed up with a call to the hiring manager, who was the one that really wanted me. I just stated that I was very interested in the position, and wanted to see if she could provide any insight on where the hiring process was.

This morning my recruiter got word from HR that they were going to go in a different direction. No explanation or feedback on the second interviews. We all were shocked and floored, as it had gone so well. The manager of the recruiter who I am working with is going to try to talk with the hiring company to get some feedback.

How can I get back in the game at this point? I have no idea what happened in those second interviews that apparently didn't go as well as I thought. With one of them being sick - could that account for anything? Is it appropriate to fight for it (so to speak) and if so how do I go about that? The opportunity would be a good one and so would the company. Any advice on how to approach this with the hiring company or my recruiting company?

Unfortunately, this isn't uncommon. Even if an interview goes well, someone else's interview may go better ... or the company may truly decide to go in a different direction, as they've told you here. A different direction could mean all sorts of things -- from reworking the job description, to focusing on candidates with more of a background in ___, to dramatically cutting the pay range for the position and thus focusing on cheaper candidates. It's also possible that you might not have been as well-matched with what they were seeking as you thought you were.

Your recruiter is trying to get more feedback, which is exactly what she should be doing. But aside from that, all you can really do is move on. And remember: Things are rarely as perfect as they look on the outside, so if the company felt the match wasn't right, you may have dodged a bullet.