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Sunday, February 28, 2010

36 phone interviews in 3 days

A reader writes:

I applied for an IT position at the university here and a week or so after the posting ended received a request for a phone interview, which I happily accepted. I was told to expect a 15-20 minute interview scheduled on the half hour. The interviewers called on schedule and quickly ran through their questions and gave me chance to ask my questions.

During the couple minutes of conversation, it came out that they were in the process of doing 36 phone interviews over the course of 3 days! Can you think of any circumstances where this would be reasonable number of phone interviews to conduct? I can't imagine that the interviewers will remember anything about any of the candidates after that kind of insane interview schedule!

There was a questionnaire included in the application process that detailed applicants' experience and education with various technologies. This questionnaire was used to rank the applicants prior to the interviews.

36 phone interviews is a lot, but they're not necessarily crazy.

I usually conduct between 12 and 20 phone interviews for a position, so it's certainly more than I'd do ... but I wouldn't assume that they won't be able to remember anything about the candidates. First of all, they're almost certainly keeping detailed notes. They're probably asking everyone the same questions, and my guess is that some of them are very black-and-white questions about your specific IT skill set, which will make it easier to narrow down the candidate pool after this marathon is over.

Frankly, with the job market what it is, this may be a fairer way for them to narrow their pool. If they have a few dozen qualified candidates, the alternative would be not phone-interviewing everyone who seems like a good match. This way, they may be including people who otherwise would be arbitrarily excluded from this first round.

That said -- 36 phone interviews in three days sounds like a nightmare. I've done something close to that when I've been hiring for multiple positions at once and wanted to move quickly on all of them, and it was miserable. Hopefully those people are stronger than me.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

can I ask about a different position than the one I just accepted?

A reader writes:

I lost my job 5 months ago, and was recently hired to a position at a company I love. While researching the company during the interview process, there was a department I preferred to work in, but there were no openings in that department at the time. I did however interview for a position that I know I will still enjoy. When the offer came, I took it happily even though it meant taking a $10,000 pay cut from what I was making previously.

In my preparations to start my new position, I recently was looking over my company's website and a position in the department I'd ideally like to work in is open. Not only that, it's a managerial position with greater responsibilities and the pay is back where my salary used to be before I lost my job. I wouldn't have to worry about making ends meet, which during salary negotiations was made clear to my hiring manager. In addition, most of my work experience is applicable and relevant to this new position anyway. I have about 2 years experience in the position I was hired for and about 8 years of experience in the areas the managerial position calls for.

Is there any chance I could talk to my new company about being considered for this managerial role? I don't want to seem flighty or that I just took any job to get out of the unemployment ranks. I am genuinely excited about my new position. However, I know that I could make and impact and have longevity in the managerial position in the other department that pays better. I would think a company would want the best fit for all of their employees. And because I just got the offer last week, there is a change the runner up candidate in the position I accepted is still available.

This is delicate, for precisely the reason you pointed out: You don't want to appear flighty or like you're not committed to the job you accepted.

If you do this, you need to be very, very careful about how you do it, both in words and in the vibe you give. You don't want to come across as if you're coveting this other position, but rather that you're raising a possibility that might help the company solve a business problem. I think if I were determined to do this, I would say something like this: "I wanted to raise something with you, and if it's crazy, I won't give it another thought. I saw you're hiring a __, which is something I have a lot experience with. Now don't worry -- I'm excited to get to work and have been thinking a lot about ___ (fill this in with a project you'll be working on in your new role). But I don't know which of these two jobs is harder to hire for. If this new one is a tougher one to fill, would it be worth talking about whether the company could better utilize me there?"

Be prepared for them to shut you down on this immediately. They may not think you're the strongest fit for the second position, and/or they may not want to screw over or the manager who has already been told you're about to start working for her. Or they might just not want the hassle of dealing with something like this, especially if they know they're not going to have a hard time finding a great fit for the second position, even if they do think you could be good for it too.

On the other hand, who knows, maybe they'll be open to it.

But I do think it can be a risky move, so weigh all the factors carefully before proceeding.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

is this company stringing me along?

A reader writes:

I interviewed with a company earlier this month and for the first time in the year+ I have been unemployed, I knew I completely killed it. I was myself, I clicked with the people, and the technical portions of the interview could not have gone any better. The next day, my feelings were confirmed when the head of their HR team called me to tell me that the team really enjoyed meeting with me, wanted me to know I was the clear "front runner" but because they were early in their interview process, they would have to get back to me in two weeks when the interviews concluded. She also asked if that would be okay with my time line, and of course I said yes, and hung up very excited.

Well, two weeks passed and no word, so I emailed her to see what was going on. According to her, the snow in the last two weeks has pushed back some of the interviews and they won't be able to make a decision for another "few weeks," yet she reiterated that I am at the front of the pack with regards to candidates, the team really likes me and she hoped that I could accommodate their timing.

Maybe its because I have had a lot of crushing disappointments this last year+, but I don't know if I can believe her. It seems (and this happened to me once before) that I am being strung along while they look for a better candidate. Am I paranoid or are my concerns valid?

I guess I feel like if I was truly the best person for the position, they would make me an offer ASAP, especially since they have two other positions open on the team, though in a slightly different role than the one I preferred (though I, and I assume all candidates, interviewed for both). Obviously there's nothing I can do to speed up their process, but I am expecting to get an offer from another firm at the end of this week and while I am far less interested in that position, I have been unemployed for a LONG time and I don't know that I can turn down a credible offer in the face of really great feedback with no clear action. What do you think? Am I being too anxious or could there be something to my paranoia?

Actually, there may be something you can do to speed up their process, but we'll get to that in a second.

First, I wouldn't assume they're stringing you along at all. Some companies really take a while to move through the process. Some are just slow. Some have policies or conventions that require them to interview a certain number of candidates. And lots of hiring managers aren't comfortable hiring a candidate right off the bat, even if the person is an obvious rock star; they still want to see a reasonable number of other candidates, because the responsible thing to do is make a good faith effort toward ensuring they really do have the best candidate, no matter how great you are.

So while you shouldn't count on this until you have an offer in hand, it doesn't sound like there's any reason to doubt that you're in the strong position they say you're in. I would never tell a candidate she was my front-runner unless she really was; you just don't say that to people if it's not true. It would be weird and gratuitous, like saying "I love you" to a date you're not sure you even want to see again. Again, none of this is a guarantee -- but they don't sound like they're intentionally stringing you along.

Now. If you do get another offer in the meanwhile, here is what you should do: Ask the company making the offer when they need to hear back from you by. Best case scenario, you'll get a week -- but be aware that a few days is not uncommon, so you want to move quickly. (And if they ask how long you need in order to make a decision, don't ask for longer than a week; they'll start questioning your interest level.) Then, contact the other company immediately. Explain that they are your first choice and you really want to work for them, but that you just got an offer that the clock is ticking on. If they're as interested in you as they seem, they may expedite things so that they don't lose you.

A variation of this: You can contact them right now, without the other offer, and tell them that you're expecting to get one within days. That may get things moving too.

Good luck!

should I tell my manager I have an interview?

A reader writes:

I've been with my current employer for just over 5 years and have a really great relationship with my boss. While I used to love my job, over the past year or so, I've started to lose interest and have started looking for another job. An opportunity presented itself in another city which I'm currently interviewing for. They head-hunted me and so far the job is looking promising - after a phone interview with HR and an interview with my potential boss, they're flying me out to meet the team (paying for my hotel, car and flights).

My problem is I have a performance review with my current employer a few days before I fly out for my interview. My boss has hinted at the fact that she knows I'm unhappy at the moment and has asked where I see myself going in the company, which she said we could discuss in my review.

My question is - what do I say in my review? Should I be honest and say I'm interviewing for another job? I don't want to shoot myself in the foot and give her a reason to fire me off or treat me unfairly if I don't get the job (though I do expect she would reply reasonably). I would feel bad about misleading her in any way (and am a horrible liar), so if she asks me straight up where I see myself going with the company, I'm not sure how I should respond, especially given that I don't see myself staying there too far in the future.

Don't say that you're interviewing for another job. You may not get it or you may decide it's not for you. There's no reason to be that specific, until you get an offer that you're going to accept.

However, you should talk to her honestly about why you're not as content as you used to be. Think about the factors that pushed you to start looking, and talk to her about those (without mentioning that you have a job search in progress). You never know -- if you talk to her honestly about that, she might be able to address those things. You might get offered a different job with your current company that would make you happier. Or you might not -- but you'll have been honest with her about your thinking, and if you do end up leaving sometime soon, she'll appreciate that you didn't let her think that everything was fine. Good luck!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

update about the coworker moonlighting as a hooker

Remember the person who wrote in last November to ask what do about her coworker who was working as a prostitute during business hours? Of course you do; everyone was clamoring for an update from her when I did those "where are they now" updates.

She just wrote in with an update, in a comment on a recent post:

I did follow your advice and I no longer do her work. I mean, she is still prostituting during working hours and in our restroom but I have nothing to do with it. Sooner or later she will get caught, but at least I won’t be involved in that. So once again, thank you very much!

I think we were all hoping for more details, preferably salacious ones, but hey, it's something.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

is a contract position worth the risk?

A reader writes:

I am trying to decide if it is too risky to leave my current position for a better one that is a contract position.

I'm currently underemployed. I'm making $30,000/yr less than I did before I was laid off, but at least I'm working in my field. I don't enjoy my job, my department is quite dysfunctional, and I don't make enough to keep my head above water. If I don't find a new job soon, I will have to foreclose on my house. On the bright side, my job is very secure. My company was recently awarded a large government contract so we are safe from lay-offs for at least 4 years.

I have an opportunity to take a better position with a fabulous company. The job is more aligned with my long term career goals. The downside is it's a contract position for 1 year. The salary is close to what I used to make. It would be enough to allow me to keep my house and work my way out of debt, even after I factor in that I would have to buy my own health insurance.

I'm torn between sticking with the security of my current job, even though I'm in the red every month vs. a job that would cover my expenses but has the risk of being unemployed a year from now. I know you don't have a crystal ball to predict what the economy will be like next year. I just want to make sure I'm not missing something when I weigh the risks vs. benefits. I feel like I'm so concerned with the money that I'm overlooking something else. What am I missing?

I'd take the contract job. Here's why:

If you stay in your current job, you know you will lose your house. That's guaranteed, and that's a big deal. Yes, you have employment for four years, but it's employment that you don't like and which isn't paying you what you're worth somewhere else. So you'd be signing up for four years of low quality of life. (There's also no certainty that you'll be secure there for four years, despite the contract. You could clash with a boss, they could lose the contract, etc.)

If you take the contract job, you push yourself forward, professionally and financially. You know it only lasts a year, so you can spend that year networking and building relationships -- and your savings -- so that when it's time to move on, you have a safety net waiting for you.

Anyone want to disagree?

Monday, February 22, 2010

aren't you sick of me yet?

Aren't you guys sick of me yet? It's been almost three years of me blabbing at you. How is it that I still have readers?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

new manager struggling to define role

A reader writes:

I'm a new manager in a very small team -- my office is about 6 people, including my boss (the self-proclaimed CEO). There's no HR, and generally we're all on the same playing field.

Except, apparently, when it comes to me. I was unofficially promoted when my manager left -- my official job description and pay has never changed. Directly underneath me, I have one person. He and I are quite close and generally work well together. However I'm having trouble being his manager. First, because while I'm expected to be accountable when something goes wrong, my boss refuses to make sure all tasks assigned to him go through me, meaning that quite often I don't know he's, say, missed a deadline until after he's done it and I'm called on the carpet to explain why said task was unfinished. How can I help him manage his time and his tasks if I'm out of the loop on so many of them? Is it correct for my boss to assume that he must be responsible for telling me what other people in the company ask him to do? Or be responsible for setting up his own work plan, in a company extremely deadline-oriented, and where there are several other people who, while technically on the same management level as me, are paid more and are significantly more experienced and older than me?

Secondly, while I am newer to the company and paid far far less than the last person in my position or my direct colleagues, they still expect me be in charge. One man in particular, who's been here three years longer than me and is in a position of authority himself, has over the last year taken to dumping administrative tasks on me, dumping responsibility for mistakes completely on my shoulders (including mistakes made by his team which I then have to clean up) and most important liaising with our mutual boss. Because I don't actually have a job description, his go-to answer for months has been "that's part of your job." And in the beginning, when I was brand new and confused, I accepted that as sage and wise advise from a longtime employee. Now, however, it's beginning to affect my own work -- I'm having a hard time getting all of my own tasks completed, as well as managing the guy under me (who needs help as he also is very young and inexperienced), while completing admin tasks I'm starting to feel aren't my own for other people. Recently other employees have also adopted these "that's part of your job" techniques, so the problem is spreading. What can I do? I've spoken to my boss and been told I need to "step up," but that was never made clear. I've requested terms of reference and they haven't materialized because my boss is "so busy."

How can I get the respect of my coworkers and people I'm supposed to manage, if they all treat me like the slightly-slow cousin at the family picnic, until they need someone to clean up their mistakes?

You have two different issues here: the guy you manage and the question of exactly what your job is (or isn't).

Regarding the guy you manage, there are a lot of jobs where it would be reasonable for people to give him work directly, without routing it through you, but where you're still responsible for his overall performance since you're his manager. I'll assume for the sake of ease that this is one of them. If you're hearing complaints that he's missing deadlines or otherwise not excelling, the answer doesn't have to be that you have to force people to route his work through you (which, frankly, is likely to be inefficient hand-holding that you shouldn't have to do). Rather, you need to address the problems with him directly. If he misses a deadline, talk to him and find out why. Push him to correct whatever it is in his systems or approach that caused it. If the problem has become a pattern, tell him it's become a pattern. (You'd be amazed how often people need this pointed out.) Treat it as a performance issue, meaning that you (a) coach him and give him the chance to improve, (b) warn him if he continues falling short, and (c) replace him if the problems are serious and he continues not to meet the bar you need.

I'm assuming that you have the authority to do that. If you don't, you need to get it, because it's unreasonable to be accountable for someone's performance if you don't.

Which leads nicely into the next point you need to tackle: getting clarity on exactly what your role is, and where your energy should and should not be going. You say you've asked your boss for this and been told she's too busy. So the next step is for you to take the initiative to make this happen. Create a proposed job description for yourself. Create a second list of things that people sometimes ask you to do now that don't fall within the proposed job description, and a proposal for how those things should be handled instead. Take it to your boss and ask if you're on the same page. She may disagree with parts -- that's fine. The whole point is to hash this out so that you two get aligned.

By the way, be prepared for the possibility that you'll discover that your boss does want you doing everything on both lists, even the stuff that you thought wasn't your job. Maybe it is your job. If you think it's too much, ask her about how to handle that; for instance, is it okay for you to tell someone that you can't help them with project A because you need to get project B done first? Or does she expect you to get it all done? If so, before you decide she's being unreasonable, read this very old post about what to do when you feel your boss is being unrealistic.

The whole point of this process, though, is to get you both on the same page about what your role is.

Right now, it sounds like you're struggling along in a role that has no real clarity to it, at least not on your side. Address that, and everything should get easier. Good luck.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

can I tell my coworker to dress more professionally?

A reader writes:

I work at a smallish (600 students, 40 or so full-time employees) private for-profit educational institution. Our classes are generally M-Tu-Th, but potential students (customers!) and other members of the community are on campus all day every day. Culture and policy here is that it's OK to wear jeans on Fridays. Recently, some staff and faculty (including the president) have started dressing down on Wednesdays as well.

One of my colleagues, who works with potential new students and current students throughout the day five days per week, has taken to wearing jeans and an untucked t-shirt on Wednesdays. It's important to me to dress professionally - ties or sweaters on class days, oxford-style shirts W and F - and I feel like my colleague's dress is unprofessional, presents a poor image to new students and the community, and, in a small but real way, makes it harder for us to pursue our mission of helping students move from paycheck-to-paycheck living to a career.

I'm debating whether it would be best to ignore it, speak to my colleague directly, or speak to my manager or hers. I'd love your thoughts.

You're both peers, right? I'd let it go.

If her manager has a problem with it, she'll address with your coworker. It sounds like she probably doesn't object, and so therefore it's not really appropriate for you to butt in.

Now, if you weren't peers and she were under you in the hierarchy, it wouldn't be totally inappropriate to discreetly mention to her manager that you think she could use some pointers on what level of professional dress is expected. Or if this person saw you as a mentor, it could be appropriate to mention it directly to her, in a kind way. But neither of these sounds like the case here.

Rather, it sounds like the culture there is one where what she's wearing is actually okay. You don't need to like that or dress that way yourself, but she's doing something that's allowed.

Look at this another way: How would you take it if your colleague came to you and said, "I know that we're not required to be here until 9:00, but I like to come in at 7:00 and really think that you should do the same." You'd probably prefer she focus on herself and let you manage your own behavior, right? Same thing here.

This isn't to say that you should never approach a coworker with suggestions directly; there are plenty of times where that's appropriate and even necessary. But this one doesn't rise to that level.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

what do I owe my manager when I'm leaving my job?

A reader writes:

You answered a question for me before and I thank you! I got a new job and I cannot tell you how many times I used your blog as a reference. It really is fantastic. I am going to recommend it to everyone I know, not just those seeking jobs.

This is my last week in my current position; I gave notice a week and a half ago. I'm wondering...who has the responsibility of scheduling a meeting about status of projects, how to handle the transition, etc? Is it mine or my supervisor's? This has not occurred yet for me. There is lots of background in my relationship with this person, which is why I ask. I probably would have already done it if it weren't for other circumstances.

I would not use my supervisor for a future reference if that has a difference in your answer. I don't have a problem doing it, I am just asking where you think the burden really lies. I could do it just to be the better person, but then again, I'm leaving and it really is her problem if she doesn't know what's going on. She has proven to me that the company owes me nothing...and she deserves it for reasons that are another whole post.

A good manager would schedule this meeting with you herself; she also would have sat down with you when you first gave notice to go over your projects, how you should spend your remaining time, and what documentation you should leave behind.

But if your manager isn't doing that on her own, you should do it, no matter what your objections are to her. Here's why:

* It's the right thing to do. Your obligation is really to your employer, not to her personally, and doing your job well means doing this sort of wrap-up, even if your manager isn't handling it well. If you are someone who does a good job, this is as much a part of it as anything else.

* You may not care about a reference from this manager, but you never know where she'll pop up again in the future -- or who she might know who you might be applying for a job with someday. No matter what you think of her, do yourself the favor of leaving on as good terms as you can mange.

* Other people will notice. I can't tell you how many times I've raved about an employee for the way they left a position, or heard a new employee blessing her predecessor for an incredibly detailed job manual that was bequeathed to them. So many people mentally check out after giving notice that the ones who don't really make an impression on people. Do a good job in this last week and people will hear about it.

Do the right thing and then go on to your new job feeling good about what you've left behind. And congratulations!

how should I pay an employee for a 3-day trip?

A reader writes:

I am the supervisor of a part-time salesperson, Mary, who is paid an hourly wage. She has been with us 6 months. Mary works set hours in our office (5 hours per day, 4 days a week), contacting and following up on sales leads.

Mary was asked and has agreed to go to a 3-day trade show out of town, at which our company is exhibiting. She will help set up and tear down the exhibit, and work at trade show as a salesperson. The question that has me stumped is how to compensate her for her time/work at the trade show. The company will cover her transportation, food and lodging. My boss, who is the owner of the company, wants to pay Mary only her hourly rate during the times that she is either selling at the trade show or setting up/tearing down, and not when Mary is traveling or at meals. However, I know a lot of “work” goes on during these supposedly “non-work” times, and also that Mary has to arrange child care at significant cost to her (Mary’s husband works out of town and Mary sees him only on weekends, so he can’t help out with the child care). I advocate giving Mary an extra “trade show bonus” on top of her hourly rate.

What do you think would be the right thing to do? We value Mary and want her to grow with us. Part of the value of her involvement in this trade show is educational, and our company does have a policy of paying for job-related education.

At a minimum, I'd pay her for a full day of work each day that she's there, meaning paying her for eight hours per day. If she'll be working more than eight hours a day, I'd figure out how many hours she'll be working and then round up, fairly generously, for the reasons you say. If you can afford it, I also think it's reasonable to decide to give her a bonus for traveling, simply because there's hassle involved in being away from home overnight.

There's also federal law, which requires that employees be paid for travel time that occurs during their regular work hours, and some state laws, which require it for any travel time.

Another thing to look at: What have you done for other employees in similar situations? You want to treat people reasonably similarly.

Whatever you decide, I'd say the principle you want to keep in mind is that you don't want to nickel and dime someone who's doing something for work that she wouldn't be doing otherwise.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

my coworker is taking credit for my ideas and work

A reader writes:

I have an issue with an overly dependent coworker who does not give credit. We are both fresh out of college but I’ve been working a bit longer than him. I had already proven myself in the group and have been given awards by my bosses and managers for the work I’ve done.

My coworker frequently asks me for help; He has an official mentor, but doesn’t go to him for help. I spend a lot of time (hours a day during and after work) teaching him, giving him ideas, guiding him, listening to his concerns, etc. He was getting praised for "his" (my) ideas; mentor was getting praised for "his" (my) guidance. Sometimes he would get credit for contributing to my work, when in reality, he played absolutely zero part in it (he would respond to people by saying thanks). I spoke to him about the dependency, and he still goes up to me with questions. I spoke to him about the credit, and he says it's not his problem to correct.

I would like my boss and manager to be at least aware of the situation, but is telling them unprofessional? I don't want to make my coworker look bad. Any ideas?

Why are you continuing to spend time helping this guy? He's behaving without integrity and when directly confronted about it, he told you it's not his problem. He's a jerk. Why are you continuing to play along?

Frankly, I don't think you should be spending hours a day during work helping even the most gracious coworker; presumably you have your own work you should be doing during that time.

The next time he approaches you, tell him that you need to focus on your own work, which is true. And no, I don't think you should say anything to your manager. Simply stop enabling his behavior and let him rise or fall on his own merits; they'll figure it out soon enough.

Monday, February 15, 2010

should I fire the office assistant?

A reader writes:

We have a Receptionist/HR Asst/Office Asst for our front desk. She does new hire packages, runs errands etc.

Pros: very efficient, proactive, creative, works well under pressure
Cons: horrible time management, ignores feedback
Facts of life: she's currently heavily pregnant, she has a very long commute and she's pretty young ( It's her first full-time position)
Issue: her time discipline has been an issue, even before her pregnancy announcement - for an hourly worker, she comes in late, has absenteeism issues, each errand run turns into a 2 hr trip - after every time we discuss it with her and give feedback, she does well for a few weeks and then its the same thing again.

The company had been toying with letting her go for a while now and while we are very happy with her work quality, she is expected to work 40 hrs a week. Between personal, health and weather issues, she has worked 1 day out of the last 7 working days. She's made plans to work right up to her delivery and plans to be back at work within 3 weeks of having the baby but given her absenteeism issues, we don't know if we can rely on that.

I personally will be affected if she's let go and knowing how hard it is to get efficient folks, I have been trying to see what options we could work out. Can I actually sit down with her and suggest that she consider taking time off for a while and come back once she's more settled? Or am I trying too hard? Should we just let her go and find someone else?

Yes, you are trying too hard. There are tons of good people out of work who would do a good job in this role and actually show up on a regular basis. You're letting her get away with bad behavior because you fear the hassle of finding a replacement, and you worry about what the replacement would be like, but this is one of those situations where once you do it, you'll be kicking yourself for having waited so long.

That said, I'm going to assume that she really does need to be in the office 40 hours a week every week (which is probably the case if she's the receptionist). But in these situations, it's always worth checking your premises to be sure, especially when you're happy with someone's work quality.

Anyway... Look, either she's required to be there reliably or she's not. You've talked to her about it repeatedly, she improves for a while, then she backslides, and you talk to her again and the cycle continues. Why? Because there are no consequences, which signals to her that it's not really as mandatory as you say it is. You're trying to persuade her and cajole her into meeting the requirements of the job, rather than treating them like, you know, requirements.

Use your authority. These situations are what it's there for.

This means that you sit her down and say: "Look, your job requires that you be here for 40 hours a week every week unless it's cleared in advance. It also requires you to be here on time every day. And we expect you to take 30 minutes for the type of errands you run, not two hours. These are requirements of the job, and they're not flexible. If you continue not to meet these requirements, we will need to let you go. This is the final warning you'll get."

I'm also a big fan of asking people, "Can you commit to meeting those requirements? Because if you don't want to or don't think it's the right fit for you, let's be realistic about this up-front and plan a transition that will work for both of us." Sometimes people are straight with you when you take this approach and will tell you it's not for them. And when they don't, well, it's not going to be much of a surprise to them when they end up getting fired for doing what you told them would get them fired.

However, the whole situation is complicated by the fact that she's pregnant. If you've let her get away with this behavior all along without addressing it in a serious way and then you fire her right before her due date, you risk it looking like you fired her because of the pregnancy, which is illegal. That wouldn't actually be a correct perception, but because you didn't address this head-on earlier, you're now in a situation where your motives could be suspect. And that sucks. And it's one of the reasons why it's always important to address any performance issue swiftly and directly, so that you don't find yourself in the situation you're now stuck in.

This doesn't mean you can't do anything about it until after her maternity leave -- you're allowed to fire people in protected legal classes as long as you have legitimate reasons to do so (i.e., ones that aren't based on their protected legal class but instead are about performance or whatever), but it does mean that you need to care more about documentation and doing it all correctly. So keep that in mind.

As for your actual question, about whether you should suggest that she take time off and come back when she's more settled: First, is that even realistic? Presumably you'll need to replace her in the meantime and can't hold the job open indefinitely. But more to the point, sure, if you have a rapport with her, feel free to point out that she's not acting like someone who wants to have a job that requires reliability, and she should think about whether that's right for her right now or not. But ultimately, as a manager, your responsibility is to take the steps I described above, regardless of whether or not you also have a heart-to-heart with her.

And keep in mind that you have an obligation not only to your company to take these steps, but also to other employees, who are probably growing increasingly frustrated that the company isn't doing anything about the flaky, unreliable assistant.

By the way, you have a lot of company in this boat. The reality is that most managers don't remove problem employees quickly enough -- because we're human, because we like to give people additional chances, and because we don’t like telling people that they're failing. I've been guilty of this myself; every good manager has been. But it's time to act.

A good litmus test for any manager out there struggling with a similar situation: Would you feel relieved if the person told you they were resigning? If so, that's a sign that you have a performance problem that you need to address in a serious way, right now.

Good luck.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

silly hiring practices: essay questions on job applications

A reader writes:

I’m curious about your experience with the trend of longer and longer job applications. I’ve completed plenty of applications lately, and I’ve noticed that the online applications have grown quite a bit.

At first, you would just copy and paste your resume into the tiny form fields. Tedious, but okay.

Then came the 45-minute personality-behavioral tests. Pretty worthless when everyone knows the “right” answers. (“I never steal!” “I love working late!”)

Now I’ve had several applications with essay questions. Some are stolen from college essays (“What was your funniest moment?”), some are psuedo-philosophical (“How would you describe customer service?”), and some are trying to interview before the interview (“What is your greatest weakness?”).

Have you ever used the essay question format? Does it have any real purpose, or should employers be saving these questions for the interview? What do you think?

Ugh. Not a fan.

If I'm hiring a writer, I'll definitely have them do a writing exercise, but it would be later in the application process, not right up-front before any initial screening has even been done. And the exercise would be representative of the type of writing they'd be doing on the job, not the type of writing they had to do to get into college. (Good call there, by the way -- that's exactly what that reminds me of.)

There are multiple problems with the approach you're talking about:

1. It's inconsiderate, because it wastes the applicant's time. The majority of the people sending in an initial application aren't even going to get interviewed (or might not even get the courtesy of a rejection letter). Do some initial screening and determine that you have an interest in a candidate before asking them to spend their time like this.

2. It's rude. It reeks of "we're doing this just because we can, because look at this economy! You can't say no and we know it!" There's a reason you didn't see as much of it in a good economy.

3. It's silly. It really doesn't get at how well the candidate will do the job, which is what this stage of screening should be about.

4. It's not particularly useful for the employer. Who's to say that the candidate wrote the response herself, rather than having it composed or heavily edited by someone else? (Or, as we learned this week, the whole application could have been filled out by a spouse.)

At the initial stage of contact, what I want is a cover letter and a resume. Period. And I am suspicious of an employer who wants anything more before they've even determined if the candidate is a match at the most basic level.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

can a spouse contact an employer?

A reader writes:

I am an HR Generalist at a health care facility in a semi-rural area. I wanted to get your opinion on having spouses involved in a candidate's job search. Specifically, calling to check on the status of an application, asking why the candidate did not get an interview, hired, etc.? I typically thank them for calling, and then ask to speak with the candidate directly. I consider this a negative for the candidate because it seems like they do not have the motivation nor the desire to conduct their own job search. When I lived in a major metropolitan area, I never encountered this phenomenon.

A spouse should never contact an employer or a prospective employer. Not unless it's to say the spouse is in the hospital and unable to come to work or make it to the interview.

There are no exceptions to this.

It looks unprofessional and, as you said, it raises questions about why the spouse isn't bothering to make the call themselves.

Why do people do this?!

I have a theory, actually: I'm convinced anyone who does this is in one of those unsettling relationships with no boundaries, where they share an email account and never see their friends without the other one there and almost definitely aren't allowed to stay in touch with exes. And if that's your thing, great -- but don't assume the rest of the world wants to play by your rules, because we don't. (And that's the weirdest part of it, actually -- the assumption that other people will accept and embrace this boundary-less world they've created between the two of them. That's their deal, not ours.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

survived office burglary, then ostracized by boss

A reader writes:

A few months ago, I was the only person in the office over a holiday. Lucky me, the office got broken into. I noticed the thieves before they noticed me, and I barricaded myself in my office and called 911.

But instead of being hailed as a hero, I was surprised by the treatment I got from my boss, the big boss, and HR. First, they told me that I should tell the police that I had not been authorized to work that day, which isn't true! I was scheduled to work that day. I told the police the truth, and when I was subpoenaed to testify at the robbery trial, I told the truth there, too.

Since the robbery, everyone has been treating me terribly. I'm being given bizarre administrative tasks to complete (I do not have an administrative role) and am regularly dumped on by my boss. It feels as though they are trying to get me to quit since they knew they can't fire me. Obviously, time for a new job, and I've been conducting a job search on my own time. I have a third-round interview this week and I feel it's likely I'll be offered the job, but what do I tell them when they ask why I'm leaving my current one? I know my current one won't give a reference, and it's clear they feel disinclined to help me out in any circumstance.

For what it's worth, I'm actually considering litigation against my current job for failing to protect me while I worked alone in an office that has a history of break-ins, and I've got a good case for negligence.

What the hell?!

Seriously, what the hell?

I'm not a lawyer so I don't know if you have a legal case, but what I do know is that your employer is handling this very, very weirdly. You survived a scary and dangerous situation on the job, and now they're telling you to lie and treating you badly? A good manager would have told you to tell the truth, given you a few days off, and been extra nice to you when you came back. I'm glad you're getting out of there.

If you're already on your third-round interview and haven't yet been asked why you're leaving your current job, you may never be asked. But if you are, it's fine to say that you work alone in an office that has had a series of break-in's and after being there for the last one, you've decided to move on. That's reasonable. You don't need to get into your office's weird behavior toward you, since you're able to offer an honest explanation without having to badmouth anyone.

But jeez. Your office sucks.

Monday, February 8, 2010

when does advice become consulting?

A reader writes:

I work in the field of Community Development with an expertise in sustainable agriculture. In the past few years as the organic movement has increased, I have been contacted by nonprofit and government organizations who were referred to me by casual colleagues to answer questions and give advice to people and organizations with regard to their new agriculture programs. I always speak with these people, free of charge, and have been told on occasion that my advice was helpful or that I was the inspiration for their new project. The conversations last maybe an hour by phone or visit, or consist of a few emails.

Can my service to these organizations at any time on a resume be listed as consulting? I ask because I don't want to mislead anyone about the extent of my participation in these programs; but I have noticed that some people who gave me advice on a start up project I did two years ago are claiming that they were my consultant on their resumes and websites with the same amount of advice (only less helpful) that I gave to others, and I felt a little irritated by it because they made it seem as though they were instrumental in the start up and have received industry recognition (such as speaking engagements) on a project that they really didn't participate in other than a brief conversation. I don't want anyone to feel that way about me, but I would like to break into consulting at some time in the future.

Is there some middle ground here to listing this on a resume without being presumptuous and sounding like I am taking too much credit for somebody else's hard work?

Great question. There's no hard and fast rule, like "after two hours, it becomes consulting." But I think a good rule of thumb is to base it on the amount of effort you put in.

For instance, I just sent another organization some advice on laws relating to employee handbooks. I just wrote up a quick email, and it took me 10 minutes, so I wouldn't call that consulting. But if I reviewed their handbook, or if I took the time to meet with them in person, then I would.

Perhaps a good litmus test is: Could you have relayed this same information at a cocktail party? If so, it's probably too light to count. If not, definitely call it consulting.

Anyone have a better way to make the call?

Friday, February 5, 2010

and we're going to strip-search you before the job interview

A reader writes:

After filling out an online application, I received an email from the (large and well-known) employer asking that I return to their career website to provide my date of birth, social security number, and driver's license number. They added that they will only use the information to begin a background check if I were to receive and accept a job offer from them.

Is it weird for a company to ask me for this information and consent (permission to do background check) before even a phone interview or any preliminary step like that? Maybe I am paranoid or maybe it's just that I've never had any organization ask for this immediately upon applying before, but it kinda seems like doing things out of order to me -- like if they wanted to do a credit check on me when I'm one of five final candidates, fine -- but just for applying?

It's not unheard of -- I've occasionally had other readers tell me it's happened to them too -- but I think it's rude and in poor form to ask for it at this stage, and also unnecessary.

It illustrates yet again the frustrating power dynamics that job seekers face in an economy like this. Because really, why should you subject yourself to unnecessary and invasive practices like this? But when you are out of work and looking for a job, need often trumps principle, and understandably so. We should all care, though, that some companies ask people to choose between being considered for a job or standing up for privacy and common sense.

I do think you could simply say you don't provide information like that at this stage, because of concerns about identity theft and the practically universal advice not to release such information until an employment relationship has been created or is imminent. But you have no way of knowing whether the person who would receive that note from you is (a) logical and reasonable or (b) a bureaucrat who cares about procedure above all else.

Which leaves you back where you started, having to decide whether you're willing to subject yourself to unreasonable and unsettling demands in order to be considered for a job there. All before you're even interviewed.

This kind of thing is terrible for employees, and -- assuming you agree that it's in employers' best interest to treat good people well, because even if they don't have many options in today's economy, they will some day -- it's not good for employers either.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

how do you survive without a job?

In the comments on a recent post, Kathy asked:

Hi, I have a question that I do not mean with any snotty tone, whatsoever. I am truly curious because it's something I've always wondered:

For those of you unemployed for lengthy periods of time, how do you survive? Did you have a large emergency fund built up? Do you tend to live on credit? Do you just cut back significantly?

Also, is a part-time job a possibility? Again, please understand that I'm asking out of curiosity--not as an attack.

I have often wondered this as I contemplate what would happen if I lost my job. I have probably several months of savings built up (as I continue to build it), but I don't know what I would do much beyond that....?

Best of luck to you all in the job-search mode. Things will get better. It has to.

So many people have chimed in to answer that that I thought I'd create a new post just on this topic.

So far, the following responses were posted:

From Anonymous:

This past July, my partner was laid off. We had 3 months of emergency savings and I was working a part-time job while attending graduate school full time.

We immediately cut out every expense except food, mortgage, gas, electric, internet, and phone. We downgraded our car insurance to the state minimum. We did keep Netflix ($10/mo), but spent no other money on entertainment. My part-time job helped slow the bleeding, but wasn't nearly enough on its own. When the savings ran out, I took extra student loans.

Luckily, the nightmare ended this week as my partner started a new FT job. If it hadn't been for the student loans (which now have to be repaid at exorbitant interest), I don't know what we would've done.

From Unemployed Gal:

@Kathy and others wondering:

Do they all have spouses who make so much that the rent or mortgage can still be paid with half the income gone? My husband has a (reasonably) secure job that barely covers the bills. But we’re “paycheck to paycheck” until I find work.

What do you do when you have no income and a house that won't sell? If my husband lost his job too, I guess we’d have to pick out a nice cardboard box to live in. (In other words, we’re screwed.)

Did you have a large emergency fund built up? We did, until we had several emergencies, including a flooded basement. But that cushion did help.

Do you tend to live on credit? We’ve managed to keep our balances low, but a single illness or emergency repair would definitely fill the cards again.

Do you just cut back significantly? Oh, yeah. I’ve never had this many peanut butter-based meals in my life.

Is a part-time job a possibility? I’m looking for part-time, full-time, and everything in between. Most unemployed aren’t sitting around waiting for that CFO opening. I’d walk your dogs for a paycheck.

What do you do if you're single and you are your only source of income? During a previous period of unemployment in my early twenties, I enrolled in college and paid the rent with student loans. My credit cards got pretty fat then, too. It wasn’t fun, but at least I have a degree (and massive student loans) to show for it.

From another Anonymous:

From a different perspective (as I am single), I have learned the "do you really need that" standpoint. When everything's going well, you don't give two thoughts at purchasing that book or going to the movie theater. But when you are out of a job, you don't pull out your wallet as fast. If I want to read a book, I go to the free public library. Guess what? If I wait, I can also get the new DVDs there too. Yes, I'll wait a good few months to see the movie, but that's $10 that stayed in my wallet for food and other necessities. You'll become creative at saving money but still enjoy things.

Like what Unemployed Gal said, you might cut back on eating out and staying home more often eating peanut butter. You can splurge every now and then, but don't make it a habit.

And coupons become your friends!

Can I thank you? I really appreciate someone finally asking what it is like to be struggling in this time. You appear to appreciate your job and understand that there could be a risk of losing it due to this economy. Thank you for realizing that times are tough. There are people out there who have jobs and turn a deaf ear when they hear others complaining/discussing/mentioning how hard it is out there. Do they live under a rock or can't face the reality? Whichever, I thank you for not being one.

This is a topic that doesn't get enough attention. Thank you for raising it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

how to prepare for a phone interview

I'm always amazed by how often I can tell that a candidate hasn't really prepared for a phone interview. Laziness aside, preparing takes a lot of the stress out of the experience and lets you answer the phone feeling confident and possibly even excited.

Here's what I recommend you do to prepare. Ideally, you'd do this the night before.

1. Go to the employer's Web site. At a minimum, read the "about us" section. Better yet, read enough to get a good feel for their clients, work, and general approach. Don't leave the Web site until you can answer these questions: What does this organization do? What are they all about? What makes them different from their competition?

2. Go through the job description line by line. Think about how your experience and skills fit with each line. Don't be alarmed if you're not a perfect fit; people get hired all the time without being a line-for-line match. The point here is just to get your brain thinking about how you are a match, so that those thoughts are easily retrievable and can be turned into answers in your phone interview.

3. Think about the questions that you're likely to be asked, and write out your answers to each of them. At a minimum, cover these basics: Why are you thinking about leaving your current job? What interests you about this opening? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What experience do you have doing ___? (Fill in each of the major responsibilities of the job.)

4. Think about how you'll answer questions about salary history or expectations, so you're prepared with an answer when it comes up.

5. Come up with two to four questions of your own, because you'll be asked what questions you have at the end of the conversation. Good questions at this stage are clarifying questions about the role itself and open-ended questions about the office culture. You'll also want to ask what their next steps are and their timeline for getting back to you.

That's it. Then, 15 minutes before the call, review your notes from all of the above steps.

If you're not preparing for phone interviews this way, try it next time. I promise you at least a 50% reduction in stress.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

combating unhealthy power dynamics during a job search -- the ones in your head

One of the many things that sucks for job seekers is the power differential that exists between job-seekers and employers.

Because the employer has something you want and it's as important as money and possible career happiness, and because at times it feels like employers can wield their power arbitrarily, many people respond in a way that makes the job search experience even harder: They lose all assertiveness and feel utterly helpless during the process. They feel 100% at the mercy of employers, and when those employers act in ways that are confusing or inconsiderate, they feel helpless to change the situation.

It's a recipe not just for frustration, but for outright depression.

It sucks, and you can change it.

How? Be your normal self, not your job-seeking self. Stop feeling like the employer is the source of all power in the world and you are dependent on their good will for your food that day. Don't be deferential or suck up. Act like you are both businesspeople contemplating a relationship with each other, because you are.

Easier said than done, of course. But changing your mindset will make you feel a whole lot better. And not only will it not harm your chances of getting a job, but it may actually help them.

Look at what this means in practice:

Example #1: An employer emails and asks you to name several times you'd be available for a phone interview. You're not sure if they're asking you to remain available at all the times you listed, or if they're going to pick one and tell you, or what.
Unhealthy: Naming five times and planning to remain available and by the phone at all of them.
Assertive: Naming several times and adding, "Please let me know which to plan on, so that I know which one to hold open."

Example #2: An employer tells you they'll call you for a phone interview at 3:00. It's 3:15 and they haven't called.
Unhealthy: Feeling angry and let down and helpless. Doing nothing.
Assertive: Calling them and saying, "We had a 3:00 phone interview scheduled and I'm checking in since I haven't heard from you. Would you like to reschedule or is now a good time to talk?"

Example #3: At the end of the interview, the employer says, "We'll be in touch" but doesn't give you a timeline.
Unhealthy: Obsessing daily for the next two weeks, wondering when you'll hear something.
Assertive: Saying on the spot, "Can you give me a sense of your timeline and when I should expect to hear back from you?" And following up appropriately if that timeframe passes without any word.

The key in all of these is that you're just acting like a normal person -- not too cowed to ask reasonable questions, seeking information that any rational person would understand why you want (even if it didn't occur to them to offer it proactively), and using a tone that is neither obsequious nor demanding, just matter-of-fact and friendly. In other words, you're talking to them like you would talk to a coworker you were already working with.

Trust me, it is fine to do the things in the "assertive" examples above, and other things like them. You will not ruin your chances. But you will reposition yourself mentally to feel less at the mercy of others.

And not only will you find the job search experience less upsetting because you won't feel so completely at the mercy of other people's whims, but you'll also create a side benefit for yourself: When you act like a coworker would, you make it easier for the employer to picture you in that role (as opposed to a desperately frantic job-seeker, which presumably won't be what you're like as a colleague). And by respecting your own time, you'll signal to the employer that you're someone whose time is worthy of respect.

Try it. And hang in there...

Monday, February 1, 2010

angry that I didn't get the job; can I protest this?

A reader writes:

Following an advertisement on the website, I applied for a job ( through an agent). I have been subjected to a telephone interview, face to face interview with the person supposedly to be reporting to. Later they sent forms for my criminal record checks, reference checks and completion of employee profile form, which I did. All this gave me an impression that everything was well. I was asked to set aside time to meet the senior in the unit. I asked for the agenda, at which I was told it's an informal meeting as she just wanted to meet with me nothing to serious and nothing do with the interview process. My hopes and expectations went high again. Our meeting was another interview, very similar to the one I had before. I came out convinced that I got the position. She even shared with me that it takes time for their HR to complete the process, so therefore I must be patient. No problem.

Today, I got a message that I didn't get the job. Is this a fair process? Why was I subjected to all the interviews, meetings and completing the forms? For that matter, I happen to know that there was no other candidates. Can I challenge the process? I feel they lied to me and subjected me to interviews or I didn't meet the requirements according to her (the senior), as all the changes came after the meeting. As much as I might not be the ideal candidate, I feel so unfairly treated and I have asked for a formal meeting for feedback. Is this appropriate or I am just overreacting? Can I challenge the process? And since the position is still open, can I send my cv again or how best can I do it?

I'm sorry you didn't the job. It can be really disappointing to put in all that time and energy and feel that things are going well, only to then find out that you didn't get it.

But ... this is the nature of job searching. You get interviewed, fill out forms, and so forth -- and there's no guarantee that it will end in a job offer. None at all. In fact, the majority of candidates who go through that process for each job don't end up with a job offer.

Sometimes it's because someone else was a better fit. In a case like this, if you're right that you were the only candidate being interviewed, the reason is that you weren't the right fit.

It's easy to secondguess that and think that they're wrong -- and maybe they are. But more likely, you really aren't the right fit for the role they're trying to fill. There are all kinds of reasons this could be the case. Candidates tend to think, "They didn't think I was good enough." But many, many times it's something else, not your skill set -- for instance, that you wouldn't mesh well with this particular manager or this particular team or this particular office culture. These things matter, and it's very hard for a candidate to judge this factors from the outside the way an interviewer can judge them from the inside. The best thing you can do is accept this and move on.

I wouldn't ask for a meeting for feedback -- that's asking a lot of them. But it's fine to ask for feedback via email or phone. However, you minimize your chances of getting honest feedback if you appear to be challenging their decision. (Here are some tips on asking for feedback after a job rejection.) Good luck!