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Thursday, May 28, 2009

my favorite posts of all time

Ask a Manager came into being two years ago today. I had no idea whether anyone would be interested in reading what I had to say, but that's never stopped me from babbling before, and I'm glad it didn't stop me this time. Thank you guys for reading and commenting and emailing and giving me the incredibly satisfying realization that there are other people out there who obsess over this stuff like I do.

In a fit of self-indulgence, I'm presenting a list of my favorite posts during those two years. (And weirdly, I didn't realize it was the two-year anniversary until I had already drawn up the list and was about to post it; don't know what to make of that.) Here goes...

Bad candidate behavior:

I think this is the only series I've ever run:
job rejections and vitriol, part 1
job rejections and vitriol, part 2
job rejections and vitriol, part 3

And I also still really like this post. Even better, since I wrote this a year and a half ago, the guy whose friend ratted him out as not having done "anything last summer" was hired, has been promoted, and is completely awesome at his job.

Bad employer behavior:

danger signs when you're interviewing

why companies don't get back to applicants

when your manager won't manage

you are high maintenance and full of yourself

Advice on being a good employee:

taking criticism gracefully

instant credibility

what to do when you make a mistake at work

when you disagree with your boss

what can't you not do

how to get the most out of your internship

Advice on being a good manager:

deathbed advice

new managers and authority

confession: I used to suck at firing people

alternatives to firing

how to mentor someone

what reality-based management looks like

posts on being both a chick and a boss:

male and female bosses judged differently?

on balls and lack thereof

my very favorite post of all time:

an ode to the bad managers of my past

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

teacher's boss expanding job requirements

A reader writes:

I am a teacher. I have a specific job description with specific duties outlined. Two years ago I got a new boss and she began adding duties to that list. The list includes:

- Visiting students' home prior to the start of school and the beginning of the contract. I have to call families to set up the appointment and drive my own car to the visit while finding childcare for my kids.
- Working a 4-hour Saturday event once a year.
- Additional monthly meetings. Previously, there was one monthly staff meeting, one monthly committee meeting and one monthly study group meeting. She has added an additional staff meeting, weekly team meetings and monthly assessment meetings. This equals many extra before and after school hours.
- Recruitment in which teachers walk around the neighborhood, knock on doors and tell people about our school. We are expected to help do this over the summer.

During that two years, I have not gotten any additional compensation. Some of these additional duties cost me money, yet the school does not reimburse me because they don't have funds. Am I wrong to expect some sort of compensation for this?

Working a four-hour Saturday event once per year and having additional monthly meetings: No, not outrageous. At least not in my opinion. The occasional weekend event and extra meetings aren't generally the type of thing you can make a big fuss about in salaried positions.

Visiting students' homes before the start of the school year: Probably not too outrageous either. Some schools do this as a matter of course. It sounds like your new boss is trying to increase teachers' effectiveness, and whether she's going about it rightly or wrongly, that's her prerogative. (Now, I'm not a lawyer and maybe there's something in your contract that expressly prohibits work outside of the school year. So obviously, you'd want to read your contract. But speaking in general terms, this doesn't sound over the line.)

Door-to-door recruitment: Here's where you're going to get some sympathy from me. This is so wildly outside the scope of what your job is -- you're a teacher, not a salesman -- and it taps such a different set of skills and interests that I think it's reasonable to be rubbed the wrong way by it. This is where I'd focus, if I were going to tackle it. On the other hand, it sounds like you're working for a private or charter school, and they can have a very different ethos, one that expects everyone will pull together on matters like this.

Two pieces of advice for you:

1. If you want to change these new policies, you're going to have far better luck if you have other teachers on your side, dealing with it as a group, not individually. (No teachers' union, I'm assuming?)

2. If you decide to deal with it on your own, I'd say that you're likely to get better results if you explain to your new boss that some of the new duties conflict with other commitments you have and ask her to work with you on finding a resolution. I do not think you'll get great results if you just ask for additional compensation. And no matter what, leave the small things, like one four-hour Saturday meeting per year, out of it, since including that will detract from your case.

But ultimately it's your boss' prerogative to make these changes ... and yours to decide if you're still interested in working there under the new conditions.

By the way, of course it's not "right," in a larger societal sense, that the school doesn't reimburse you for expenses because they have no funds. That's common among teachers, and it sucks. I'm not endorsing it, by any means. But it does seem to be typical, and since you're asking me for career advice, I doubt you'll help your career any by refusing to play along with those practices.

Good luck!

Monday, May 25, 2009

boss won't socialize with staff

A reader writes:

I work in a rather small office, and occasionally we will have short in-office lunches to celebrate a special occasion (weddings, new babies, beginning of spring, etc). We usually have no more than 15-20 people at a gathering.

Our new boss of one year never attends these functions. Sometimes he will buy pizza for us as a nice gesture, yet he doesn't enter the conference room to sit and mingle and chat with his employees. Every blue moon he will enter (late) just to get his food and walk back to his office. He's always mentioning how he wants people to be happy and cheerful and love where they work, yet when the time arrives for us all to get to know each other a little better and to relax, he retreats. Occasionally, you'll hear someone say, "Where's the boss?"

I'm quite offended by him being so anti-social and a few co-workers are, as well. How can he constantly ask people if they are happy at work, yet clearly avoids social situations? I feel he thinks it is unprofessional for him to mingle with his subordinates. Should any of us really feel offended by his behavior? Should he attend these gatherings?

Actually, from what's written here, he sounds pretty nice. He's buying you pizza, letting you have various celebrations in the office, and frequently telling you that he wants you to be happy.

He could be avoiding these gatherings because he's swamped with work ... or because he believes that his presence would inhibit whatever fun you'd normally have ... or, hell, because he's shy.

My advice to him would be to put in some face time at these gatherings occasionally, but I certainly don't think he needs to attend every one of them, as it sounds like there are quite a few (beginning of spring?). And if he chooses not to, I don't think you guys should be offended by it; it sounds like you're attributing motives to it that you don't have any evidence are actually there. Sometimes you can choose not to be offended, and I think this is one of those times.

But if you would like to have him there sometimes, why not invite him explicitly? Next time you're organizing a gathering, just say to him, "We would love to have you join us at this lunch. We never get to see you socially."

It's a rare situation that can't be fixed by candor.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

if you wanted to telecommute, you should have said so earlier

I think I want to start a "turn-offs" series where I just complain about things that turn me off about candidates. (Or maybe, um, I already have.) Here's the scenario for today's:

We place an ad. It clearly states that the position is based in our headquarters in Washington, D.C. The candidate, who does not live in Washington, applies. We go through a phone interview. We go through an exercise or writing sample. We go through an interview.

At same point not at all near the start of this process, the candidate mentions, casually, that they'd want to work from their home in a city hours and hours away from D.C. I tell them that actually, as the ad said from the beginning, the position is based in our office, and that we're committed to that for various reasons. They then act (a) surprised and (b) often, as if it's too bad that we're not open-minded and visionary enough to see why their plan is a better idea.

Look, I am a huge fan of telecommuting. Huge. I work from home on occasions when I need to, and I'm fine with others doing that too. And I have some employees who work remotely full-time. But for that latter group, the full-time telecommuters, they either (a) worked with us for years before converting to full-time telecommuters, so they knew our culture and expectations well, and we knew and trusted their work ethic, or (b) have jobs that require that they be based in some other city because of the nature of the work.

But with most of the jobs I'm hiring for, it's far better for the organization if the person is based in our office ... because they have to manage people, or work with others where face-to-face conversations help a lot, or absorb stuff that you'll take in like osmosis if you're physically present but really have to work to get if you're far away, or whatever.

And yes, I know that all of that can be done remotely, and there's technology that helps, but I have watched people try, and an awful lot of the time, it's just not the same. At a minimum, it can inconvenience other colleagues. And worst case, the person never quite picks up on our culture and way of doing things and it shows. And that's not a risk I want to take with a stranger when I don't have to. Maybe if you're a rock star candidate and I have no other rock star candidates. Maybe.

But I don't like the bait-and-switch. I advertised the position as based in a specific city for a reason. If you want to know if being a full-time telecommuter is an option, raise it up-front, not halfway through the process. I know they've waited to raise it because they're hoping to wait until I'm so impressed with them that I'll be willing to be flexible on this point, but the problem is that it comes across as disingenuous to wait that long.

And that's today's turn-off.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

get the job title right

I can't tell you how many cover letters I receive from people who get the title of the job they're applying for wrong.

I know what job they mean, because they've put it in the subject line of the email. But when I open the cover letter, there it is -- a totally different job, presumably one they applied for somewhere else right before sending me this letter. Often it's a job that bears no relation to anything we do.

Not really a turn-on. Even if the rest of the application is great, it's hard to get past a big red flag screaming "no attention to detail."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

out-of-control employees and unhelpful boss

A reader writes:

How do I handle a supervisor who insists on interfering in decisions I make regarding my personnel -- such as leave time, work assignments, staff not coming into work and then apologizing to him with no explanation to me, etc.

When I approach this supervisor regarding very specific issues that have arisen such as false comments made at work by those I supervise that cause relatives (whom I do not know) to come to my home to "confront" me, he laughs because he finds the topic humorous (never mind the fact that I felt threatened--a topic he never addressed). Or when threatening calls are made and messages left on my work voice mail, he does nothing. He has never addressed those involved in the situation. He's only said to me basically to ignore it. not much of a help either.

I asked this writer to clarify exactly what her role is in regard to these staffers, and she said, "I have hire and fire authority and I am their direct supervisor."

Um. I'm going to be a little harsh here, because I'm a bit stunned by this letter.

Either you have authority or you don't. Right now you're acting like you don't.

Why are you asking your supervisor to handle these issues for you? You are the manager of these people. You need to manage them.

Your staff's relatives are coming to your home to confront you? People are leaving threatening messages on your voicemail?

You have completely lost control of your staff. You need to get it back, immediately. You need to address this on three fronts: your staff, your boss, and yourself.

1. Your staff. You need to sit down with each staffer, individually, and explain what is and isn't acceptable. For instance, they are to clear leave time with you, not your boss. If they do not do this, it will be considered unapproved leave. And, uh, having relatives come to your home or call you is not acceptable. Explain that you've tolerated more in the past than you should have, that that's changing immediately, and that you expect them to comply. Period.

If they don't comply, warn them once. If they still don't comply, fire them and hire people who will behave appropriately. What you're talking about is far too over the line to mess around with. And frankly, the situation sounds so far gone that you may not be able to recover the respect that you need to properly manage with this current crop of staffers anyway.

2. Your boss. Why is he undermining your decisions? Has he lost confidence in you? Either he is a bad boss who doesn't know how to properly delegate authority, or he's stepping in because he's not happy with the way you're running things. Actually, either way he's a bad boss, since if he's unhappy with your management, he should have talked to you about it by now. So he sucks either way, but you're stuck with him.

You need to have a candid talk with him. Tell him that in order to manage your staff effectively, you need them to see you as their final authority, not him. Explain that he undermines your effectiveness when he reverses your decisions. Ask him to resist the impulse to meddle in individual decisions you make. If he has concerns with how you're handling things, you and he should work those out on a big-picture level. Either he's assigned you true authority or he hasn't, but he can't have it both ways.

3. Yourself. How did the situation get to the point that you have a staff doing these things? This is not normal. At a minimum, it's indicative of a staff that doesn't respect you (possibly because you haven't exercised your authority correctly with them). You need to figure out how this happened so that you really understand how this all unfolded and what to change.

Here are two previous posts on exercising authority in situations like this that may help:
asserting authority with bullying employees
new managers and authority
There are also tons of good books out there on good management (including my own!). I think you'll find they might really help too. It's can be hard to find the right balance when it comes to authority -- avoiding the two extremes of wimp and tyrant and instead finding that spot in the middle -- especially when you don't have good models for it. Your boss doesn't seem willing/able to help, but there are many resources out there that can. Good luck!

Monday, May 18, 2009

using a third-person bio instead of a resume

Occasionally someone sends me a bio instead of a resume. By that, I mean a narrative of their career, written in the third person. (Am I explaining this right? Like a magazine profile, without the colorful tidbits. Or, well, like an obituary.)

Don't do it.

It's odd.

Maybe celebrities do this, but I'm unnerved to see you, a regular person, talking about yourself in the third-person, and I wonder why you chose to jettison a regular resume in favor of this weird profile/bio.

What's wrong with a regular old resume format?

are you making these job reference mistakes?

Your references can diminish your chances of getting a job without even saying a word. That's right -- the list of references you provide could itself cause a problem, totally independent of what the references say when they're called.

Confused? My U.S. News & World Report post this week explains what the hell I'm talking about. Read it here.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

should you warn an employee before firing her?

A reader writes:

I am a partner in a small, family-owned small business and financial services firm with 9 employees and 4 consultants in northern California. I've always handled all the back office/HR issues - hiring, firing, performance evaluations, training, disciplinary issues, etc., with no problems for the last 10 years.

My situation is that I will be terminating one of our full time admins, who happens to be family. I've terminated family before, again with no problems. My question is this: do you think I should give her "notice" before I terminate her this week? My father, who's the other partner, wants to because she's family (his niece's daughter) and he has been stalling for the last month.

I am also a bit concerned because we've let her slide without formally saying anything - no verbal or written warnings - for things that I would have terminated her on the spot for, but we were in the middle of an unusually busy and stressful tax season that we are still trying to recover from. My father didn't want me to do anything until we were finished with taxes.

I want to know if I should tell her that she will be losing her job this week due to poor performance (there's a laundry list of things!). Also, my father wants to give her 2 weeks severance as well. "We are firing you because you've been an awful employee who has taken advantage of your situation, but we're going to pay you too." Yes, I know that this is dumb (my gut instinct along with several years of corporate HR management tells me so). I need a professional's opinion.

Well, you're not legally required to warn her in advance that she's in danger of losing her job -- unless you have an employee manual that spells out specific steps that must be taken before someone is fired, in which case courts have held that you must adhere to your own written policies.

However, it's still generally a good idea to warn someone before actually firing them, for the following reasons:

1. The person may actually make the improvements you need, if you spell them out for her. People often don't realize what they're doing wrong, and they frequently have no idea that the problems are severe enough to jeopardize their job, unless you tell them explicitly. People can and do improve when you set out clear expectations -- not always, of course, but you can't always predict who will and who won't.

2. It's simply the kinder thing to do. You're talking about a decision that will impact someone's livelihood; she deserves to have a chance to fix the issues first. If your boss was unhappy with your performance, wouldn't you want to know and have a chance to improve before you were fired?

3. It removes a lot of drama. If you have clearly told the employee about the problems, your expectations, and what needs to change, and have explicitly told them that their job is in jeopardy if specific changes don't occur, then when the termination conversation happens, it’s more a matter of following through on that agreement than an out-of-the-blue shock. I've seen numerous situations where a manager gives lots of negative feedback to a struggling employee but never explicitly says that the person's job in jeopardy, thinking they'll just "get it" -- but the employee ends up stunned when they're ultimately fired.

4. If you don't warn people when their job is in jeopardy, it can create significant anxiety among other employees, who may begin to fear they’re on the verge of being fired every time they receive negative feedback. You want your staff know that they won't be fired without first knowing that their job is in jeopardy and having a chance to improve.

Now, obviously there are some offenses so egregious that they warrant firing on the spot, like, say, embezzlement or punching someone, but those situations are pretty rare. Most of the time, you can afford to give the person a warning ahead of time.

(That said, after a warning conversation, you should expect to either see improvement quickly or know pretty quickly that it’s not going to work out. Don't let it drag on for weeks and weeks at that point. The employee doesn’t need to become great overnight, but you'll want to see a fast and steep climb in that direction.)

As for severance, it's not crazy to offer some. Companies handle this in different ways: Some give no severance when someone is fired for cause, some give a couple of weeks, and some are more generous. It's up to you, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. This post discusses some advantages of offering it.

You seem to think severance would be an outrage in this case, but you also say that you haven't spoken to her about the problems. So, frankly, your and your partner bear some of the responsibility here -- you haven't been good managers in this situation.

I'm concerned that you've suffering from what a lot of small, family-owned businesses suffer from: inattention to or lack of knowledge about good management practices. I'd use this situation as the impetus to focus more on that in the future.

Related posts:

How to fire someone
Alternatives to firing
I used to suck at firing people

Thursday, May 14, 2009

the ethics of a "courtesy interview" when you realize the candidate isn't right

A colleague and I were debating this question today: Near the start of an interview, if you pretty quickly realize that the candidate is not going to be selected for the position, what is the most courteous way to proceed?

We both agreed that we tend to do a "courtesy interview" at that point (meaning that since the candidate prepared and made time to talk with you, you proceed with the interview), but we differed on how long to spend on it -- I argued 30-40 minutes is polite, and my colleague argued for 20 minutes (assuming the candidate didn't come from out of town, in which case he'd spend more time).

I think 20 minutes feels rudely abrupt. On the other hand, there's a strong argument to be made that going beyond that is wasting the candidate's time (and our own) if you know you're not going to hire her.

In phone interviews, if I realize a candidate isn't quite right, I'll often tell them during the call itself, as an explanation for cutting it short. But that's when the reason is easily explainable -- we're looking for someone with more of a background in ___, we'd need you to start months before you're available, or whatever. By the time they get to the in-person interview, they've been through a phone screen and thus any reason that would be quickly noticeable would be of a different sort -- for instance, the position requires great people skills but you're mumbling and can't make eye contact, or something else that I'm just not inclined to explain as part of an on-the-spot rejection.

So what do you think? What's the most polite way to handle it when you realize close to the start of an interview that a candidate isn't right?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

is pretending to be pregnant a fireable offense?

TV Guide Magazine would like to know: Is pretending to be pregnant in order to get out of work a fireable offense? Apparently a character on Rules of Engagement (a show I've never heard of) did exactly that, and TV Guide wants to know how this would fly in real life.

I'm quoted answering this question like the curmudgeon I am in their May 4 issue. Here's the blurb in its entirety:

Monday, May 11, 2009

should extra duties equal more pay?

A reader writes:

I am currently a secretary, with a degree in computer engineering. My employer now wants me to be the back-up I.T. person in the office, which is not a part of a support staff position. Is it unprofessional to expect or to ask to be compensated for this addition of extra duties? Can you please tell me the best way to ask for compensation and the appropriate time to ask?

Yes to the first, no to the second.

My longer answer to this is over at U.S. News & World Report today. Please check it out here.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

when a recognition program feels too fluffy

A reader writes:

I work in a team of 24 within a large organization and we measure our employee engagement using the Gallup questionnaire. One of the questions our team scored lower on was "In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work," and as a group, we decided this was one area we’d like to focus on to improve.

We know we need to tackle this from several angles – including recognition from the leadership team as well as from our peers. Strongly believing in the power of recognition, along with having previously led a small team of 7 where we saw fabulous results after introducing a peer recognition program, I offered to help put a program together with one of the leadership team.

After research and asking others what had worked for them, our little project team decided on a program based on Tom Rath and Donald Clifton’s book “How Full is your Bucket?” This was also the basis of what I’d introduced in my last role. In a nutshell, we’ll be giving the team information and resources to provide positive feedback – both verbal and written – to their colleagues (and hopefully they’ll see the benefits in a wider context too). We’ve presented it to the leadership team and they are all behind it.

Here’s my problem. Many of my colleagues are very analytical (we work in a part of the business where chunks of our work are very data driven) and they see things like this as being "fluffy." One of my colleagues overheard me talking on the phone with the other person on the project, speaking excitedly about the cool red tin buckets we’d bought for each person to have on their desk (to collect their positive feedback "drops’'). He said, “You’re really going to hack a lot people off, you know.” The idea of personalizing his bucket (even just writing his name on it) leaves him cold. He said “Well, as long as I can go and do something else while you do that.” He wasn’t being intentionally nasty, he just felt it was a waste of time; he’d rather “focus on work than soft and fluffy stuff.”

I know he’s not the only person who may be cynical about it. In the presentation I’ve prepared, I’ve included lots of research facts and supporting data in the hope of meeting their "show me the data" requirements. Some of the team can be pretty brutal with their feedback (and we’ll be gathering feedback on my presentation) – so I’d really appreciate any other suggestions you and others reading this may have in order to appeal to the wide variety of personality types in our team and hopefully win them over enough to at least give it a try.

You have either come to the right person or the wrong person, depending on your perspective, because I'm someone who would consider this too fluffy too, and I work in a office that would almost definitely greet this with cringes, so I'm familiar with what it sounds like you might be facing.

That said, I'm a huge proponent of finding ways to increase positive recognition when you're hearing there's not enough of it, and I think it's great that you're looking for ways to do it. Often when the culture is one where praise-giving isn't coming naturally, the only way to change that is to figure out ways to formalize recognition a bit, until it becomes a more natural part of culture.

But... I think you have to do it in a way that fits the people you're working with. The program you're describing sounds like it would work well in some environments and be greeted with derision in others. If yours is more the latter, I don't think you'll have success pushing it on people for whom that kind of thing chafes. Although there's data showing the program is effective, you've got to have a reasonably receptive audience. (I'm guessing at that; maybe the program shows it works even with anti-fluffy types, but I'm skeptical; I think in some cases you could even end up lowering morale with a program that's at odds with employees' personalities.)

My hunch is that you'd have better luck asking employees for their own ideas on how to tackle the problem. If no one volunteers ideas (and they might not, especially if they're not naturally positive-feedback-givers to begin with), then go with the most low-key approach you can find ... which probably means no red buckets on people's desks, if a sizable portion of your team isn't into it.

I actually tackled this myself in my own workplace a while ago. Just urging managers to give more positive feedback hadn't worked, so I decided to try formalizing it a bit more than that ... but I knew that formalized programs would produce eye rolls. So I tried to go as low-key as I possibly could. I gave each manager a small budget for employee recognition and told them they had a certain number of awards they could give for great work per year. The awards are super-low-key: an all-staff email describing the person's achievement plus a small gift of something the person would like (an gift certificate, a bottle of scotch, whatever the person is into). The results have been fascinating: this aspect of our culture has actually changed. Managers are offering praise more frequently and more publicly, and people are reporting they feel their hard work is more appreciated. (And yet, even as low-key as this is, we still have people who think it's too cheesy.)

I'm not saying that approach would be right for your office, but I do think you've got to find the approach that fits the group of people you're dealing with. Figure out what they would really appreciate, so that whatever you end up with feels comfortable to them, not contrived.

Obligatory reminder: Of course, the most important thing is to ensure that you're recognizing people in ways that really matter -- with strong evaluations, great raises, good management, and new challenges (if they want them).

Good luck!

Friday, May 8, 2009

addressing a new hire's known weakness

A reader writes:

While I'm excited about two people I recently hired, nobody's perfect and there were a few small concerns with both that came up through the hiring process. One person had a great follow-up exercise and awesome experience, but somewhat lackluster communication in person. The other person had a great interview and awesome experience, but his writing contained some mistakes.

Overall, both people wowed us, and we're very excited to have them on board. But while the concerns we had were not enough to disqualify them from the job, they do point to some small things that we'll want to troubleshoot from the start.

I know that the best approach is to be honest with the new hires about the potential weaknesses we'd like to work with them on improving (framed in the context of how excited we are to have them on the team, of course). My question is: When is the best time to have that conversation? On Day One? Or should we wait a few weeks, not kill their excitement buzz, and have that conversation once they're a little more settled in?

First, kudos to you for being realistic about what is and isn't a deal-breaker in hiring but also about the fact that these are areas you'll want these new employees to pay attention to.

I think there are two options in this situation:

1. You can mention this to them before you offer them the job. For instance, "We think you're an incredibly strong candidate, and there's only one thing holding us back at this point -- we noticed some mistakes in your writing, and that's an area we're committed to achieving perfection in. Is that something that you think you'd be willing to work with us on, or does knowing that we're going to be sticklers in that area seem like something that would annoy you?" Most people are going to say yes, of course they'd be happy to work on it. Once that's out of the way, you hire them, and they come in knowing that that's going to be something they'll need to work on.

2. You can mention it after they start -- but not on their first day, as no one wants to get criticism when they're all excited/nervous on the first day of their new job. Wait a few weeks, at which point you might have actual examples of it that you're seeing on the job, and you can talk about those rather than even having to refer back to their interview. Or, if it's the sort of thing that you really need to address faster than that, you could say something like, "We always scrutinize our top candidates in the hiring process to figure out where they're going to need the most help once they start, and with you, we think it's probably ____." That presents it as something you do with everyone, and underscores the concept of "no one is perfect so you shouldn't freak out about getting corrective feedback this early on."

I still wouldn't do it on day one though; give them a chance to settle in a bit first.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

boss won't let me come up with new ideas

A reader writes:

I am a dreamer. I have lots of ideas and I can see the big picture easily. While in school I wrote articles and presented at conferences, but was met with lots of frustration with the people I was sharing my ideas with because I obviously didn't know how to fit my improvements into their job. Most complained they were too busy or too bogged down to really implement anything I dreamed. I took a job 2 years ago to gain in-the-trenches experience and really implement my ideas.

The company I work for misrepresented themselves in the interview. While I get to work on many projects, I'm managing other people's ideas and am never given the freedom to implement my own. My boss has reined me in, limiting what areas I can suggest improvements for and now who I can talk to. (When I talk to employees similar to my age, we tend to come up with many ideas but are told that the company can not do them for various different reasons. My boss suggests I not talk with these individuals because then I wouldn't have as many ideas.)

While I find the professional experiences I've gained here very valuable, I'm miserable. However, with the economy the way it is, I'm afraid to apply for new jobs because I've not lost mine, I'm just unhappy. Last year, I was hospitalized for stress-related pain and I'm frightened to apply for a job and lose the health benefits and trust I've built at my current job. What advice do you have?

Without hearing your manager's perspective, it's hard to know exactly what's going on here. There are a few possibilities:

1. You are coming up with good ideas and your boss is shooting them down for reasons that aren't legitimate -- he's lazy, he doesn't like change, he feels threatened by ideas that aren't his own, he takes new ideas as criticism of his own way of doing things, etc.

2. You are coming up with good ideas and your boss is shooting them down for reasons that are legitimate -- for instance, the ideas would require putting time and resources into areas that aren't priorities for the company right now and would pull them away from areas that are.

3. You are coming up ideas that actually aren't that great or that simply aren't good fits for the company.

I have no idea which of these three it is. I've worked with bosses who were horrible roadblocks to change and they eventually drove off all creative staffers who got tired of hearing "no" all the time. I've worked with people who had fantastic ideas and we still couldn't implement all of them, for legitimate reasons (although we implemented quite a few). I've worked with people who had a flow of ideas so constant that it did become annoying, because while fresh ideas are great, it can't get to the point that it's disrupting people's ability to get their work done. And I've worked with people who saw themselves as visionaries but most of their ideas were terrible, and they sulked and sulked because their terrible ideas weren't used, and I'm sure they're out there right now complaining about how their brilliance was unappreciated.

Good managers encourage fresh thinking and create a welcoming environment for new ideas. If they don't, people stop making any suggestions, and that's bad. If your boss is doing that across the board, he's a bad manager. But if he's only doing it with you, it points to a problem between the two of you. (Although if he has concerns specific to you and hasn't raised them candidly, he's also a bad manager.)

Anyway, here's what we do know: The fact that your boss is limiting the areas you can suggest improvements in says that, at a minimum, he wants you to stop spending time this way. I think we can be sure that, if nothing else, you're annoying the crap out of your boss.

If you want to stay at this job and do reasonably well (at least while you're under him), you'll need to change your approach. You can either rein it in, or you can tackle it more head-on. That would mean sitting down with your boss and saying, "Hey, I definitely get that you want me to make fewer suggestions for change. Can you give me some feedback so that I'm on the same page as you about this? Were my ideas just not that good, or were they potentially good but not areas we want to be focusing right now, or something else? I'm open to whatever the answer is."

This will give you interesting information. Be open to whatever he says, even if you ultimately decide you disagree with him.

If you do decide to look for a new job, keep in mind that in many fields, it's pretty hard to find a job that's built around being an idea man/woman. Not in all fields, but many. And often getting that kind of job requires getting more experience first. If you can do it, great. But if you look and you're not finding what you want, be open to the idea that your expectations aren't in line with the reality of the type of work you do. At that point, you might consider other types of work that would fulfill those expectations or even working for yourself (where no one gets to block your ideas).

Good luck!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

you need the right person, not the almost-right person

Most managers say they know how important it is to have the right people on their staff, but many (or even most) don’t act accordingly.

We've all worked with managers who dance around performance problems rather than addressing them head-on, who don’t focus enough on developing and retaining their best people, and who are way too slow to fire, if they do it at all. These are managers who either underestimate the importance of having the right people or overestimate their own powers to shape their staffers’ performance.

The impact of having a team of high performers is dramatic. I'm not talking about small gains, like 5% or 10% in productivity and effectiveness. I'm talking about massive, startling gains. Research from a range of fields shows that high performers can outpace lower performers by factors of five times or more. In other words, one high performer can have the same impact as five average performers.

You've probably seen this in your own experience. Most people have had an employee who struggled to handle the volume of work and who swore that there was too much work for any one person to juggle ... but when they left, their replacements were able to handle all of the work and then some, to the point that we ended up giving the replacement extra work. I once inherited an employee who had racked up a six-month backlog of work. I replaced him with someone new, who within one month had processed the six-month backlog and was fully caught up.

Having the right person in the job makes a huge difference. And having the wrong person will hold you back tremendously.

What does this mean for managers? You should put significant energy into getting and keeping the right people and moving out the ones who don’t meet that bar. And while it's certainly worth some investment of your time to help develop people who are struggling, ultimately the person needs to meet a high bar, not a medium one. Otherwise, the opportunity cost is just too high.

Monday, May 4, 2009

male team won't talk to me

A reader writes:

I am a female (in my thirties) working within a team of men (IT developers). I am a new role for me as a business analyst. I have been working in the team for approximately 6 months, and if they didn't say hello to me in the morning, they wouldn't speak to me at all. They speak fine to each other, often joking around, but spend the rest of the time with headphones on while they do their work.

I've tried initiating conversation with them. They respond well, but they don't initiate conversation with me. For example: I need to ask them how their weekends were, they won't ask me the same question. It is like pulling teeth. I am not sure what I am doing wrong.

I am frustrated that I cannot get to know these guys. They go to lunch with each other at least once a week and I am not invited. I am really not sure how to break the ice and get these guys talking and communicating with me. I have mentioned this to my manager (who I used to work with in another position) but he cut from a very similar cloth as the guys I am trying to get to know.

Warning: I'm about to make a wild generalization. Many men who work in IT don't have great social skills around people who aren't like them and/or aren't comfortable with the kind of small talk and chit chat that can be normal social currency in other groups.

Many men in IT don't fit this profile -- in fact, I've somehow ended up with an IT team who don't fit this stereotype at all (and if they're reading this, I don't want them to think I'm talking about them because I'm not). But for whatever reason, the field certainly attracts a decent share of guys who get along really well with guys who are like them, but not so easily with others. (Here are a couple of interesting takes on this.)

So I'd caution you against thinking that this is deliberate or about you. I think it's more likely that this is just how these guys are with everyone except other developers and they don't even know they're making you feel shut out.

What can you do to build relationships with them? Pay attention to what interests them (probably not small talk about their weekends, but try technical topics); ask them intelligent questions about complex subjects they know well, and listen to their answers; and don't take it personally if it takes a while.

Also, read The Nerd Handbook (his term, not mine) over at Rands in Repose, written by an engineering manager.

What do others think?

what it's like to make a job offer

One of my favorite parts of my job is making job offers. It's a great feeling to call someone up and offer them a job that you know they really want.

Most candidates, when receiving a job offer, fall into one of these five categories:
- the excited freak-out
- the pro-forma delay
- the play-it-cool
- the sucker-punch
- the unexpected refusal

Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I explain each of these categories and which I like best. Please head over there and check it out!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Can I reapply after being rejected?

A reader writes:

I don't know if this is a scenario that happens very often, but I had what I believed to be a successful initial phone interview with a company in a similar field. The HR manager I interviewed with had been very enthusiastic about continuing the interview process. I felt confident that I had all the qualifications and skills needed for the job, and was waiting for news on an interview with the hiring manager, but two weeks later, I received a fairly formulaic "thanks, but no thanks" email.

I assumed they had found someone else for the position, but to my surprise a month later, the same job has been re-posted. Should I contact the HR manager again, and what should I say? I don't want to be a pest but I don't want to give up on this opportunity either. Any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated!

I think you should give it a shot. There's no harm in contacting them and saying that you noticed the job has been reposted and that you'd like to reiterate your interest in it.

They may have reposted it because their chosen candidate didn't work out for some reason, or because they ended up dissatisfied with all of their finalists. Of course, it's also possible that they rejected you earlier for reasons that still stand -- that the match isn't right in some way. But you won't know unless you try, and in some situations they may be glad for the opportunity to consider you again (for instance, if they've reconfigured their ideas about what they're looking for, or if you were earlier a runner-up to someone else who ultimately didn't work out).

I wrote a few weeks ago about the usual futility of appealing a job rejection, but this is a bit different. You're not writing back right after your rejection and asking them to reconsider; you're saying you noticed that the job has reappeared and are wondering if circumstances might have changed.

Good luck!