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Friday, July 30, 2010

after starting job, found out pay was lower than I'd asked for

A reader writes:

I was recently hired for a small retail gig while trying to make my way through college. I asked for $X amount on my application, and after I'd already been hired, my new manager said something along the lines of, "Oh, and I noticed you wanted $X." And they started me about a dollar and a half below what I asked, saying that was the amount all new employees start at. I agreed, especially after he promised I would get pay increases steadily. 

A couple of days later, I was chatting with another employee who had already been there about a month, and she mentioned that they started her off at the same amount I had originally asked for. And not to sound ungrateful, but my position is far more demanding than hers. So I'm kind of upset I'm not getting the pay I asked for, when others had. Should I do anything, or just deal and hope for that raise soon?

I wrote back to this writer to clarify, asking if he had accepted the job without confirming salary. He replied: "I did. Their hiring process was kind of sloppy, I never really had a chance to bring it up between the interview and my first day."

So here's where I'm going to chastise you. I don't buy that there was no chance to bring it up between the interview and your first day. At some point they offered you a position, right? That's when you bring up pay if they don't. You just ask straightforwardly: "What is the pay rate?" (And even if they never made a formal offer and instead just called you to schedule your first day, which can happen in retail, you just need to be assertive: "Before putting me on the schedule, we need to talk about pay.")

As you've now found out, you can't assume they're going to pay you the desired rate you put on your application! You have to ask.

And you need to have this discussion before you accept the job, because that's when your negotiating power is at its highest. At that point, they don't know if you're willing to accept the job or not and they have more motivation to negotiate with you than after you're already working there and have shown you'll accept the lower rate.

As for your coworker, people have different rates of pay for all sorts of reasons -- including because they negotiated at the time of hire. 

You can't really be upset that they offered you what they say is their standard new employee rate when you didn't take the initiative to go after more. All you can really do at this point is to do a kick-ass job so that you can justify asking for a raise down the road. 

And next time, make sure you do your salary negotiating before accepting the offer.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

why am I getting calls about jobs outside my field of interest?

A reader writes:

I am currently looking for jobs online and have posted my resume on several job sites. I have received messages from potential employers regarding jobs for sales positions, but my resume states that I am currently looking for work in the clerical/administrative field. Why would a potential employer contact me for a position that I am clearly not interested in? Do I return those calls to these employers and politely decline, or do I leave these messages unanswered? 

Why do they contact you? Because they are lazy and possibly incompetent.

Seriously, I'm not just being snide here. They're not looking for sales professionals -- they're looking for warm bodies.

Do you need to return the calls in order to decline? It's your call -- you might find yourself having to fight off a sales pitch, or you might make a contact that could eventually prove useful, although I'm skeptical that they're a particularly attractive employer.

Anyone want to argue this one differently?

is it cheesy to send a thank-you on animal-themed stationary?

A reader writes:

I recently applied for a job at an animal care facility, and I made sure to note in my cover letter than I'm a compassionate animal (and people) person in hopes that this will show my personality and also put my resume at the top of the pile. If (hopefully when) I land an interview with this company, I plan on sending out a handwritten thank-you note afterwards. Is it too cheesy to write my note on animal-themed stationery if I keep it tasteful? I want to stand out from the crowd, but not in a bad way. What are your thoughts?

I say this as someone who used to work for an animal charity:  Skip the animal-themed stationary. Go with something more professional.

I keep saying that gimmicks don't work; what makes you stand out is being a really strong candidate.  If you're thinking of trying something to make yourself stand out that doesn't really relate to your qualifications for the job, that's a good sign that you might be going too far afield.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

how long should a job be advertised?

A reader writes:

I work for a public library system and part of my job includes helping library directors and library boards (often at very small public libraries) with personnel management questions.

I read your blog every day and find and use and recommend it all the time. One of the things that happens too often at "my" libraries, I feel, is that they don't advertise a vacancy for a long enough period of time. For example, a library board may advertise that they are hiring a new library director, for 2 weeks, sometimes even less. I try to impress upon them, when I get the opportunity, that 1 or 2 weeks isn't long enough! 

I think the length of time a vacancy should be advertised may vary with the position (for example, I wouldn't necessarily recommend advertising a part-time shelver position for a month), but something as important as a director (even for the smallest library, and even if it isn't full time), I tend to think 4 weeks is not too long. I know there aren't any hard and fast answers, but do you have any "rules of thumb"?

Great question!  I agree that two weeks isn't long enough.

Part of the reason for that is this: I generally find a pattern with the way applications come in. When a job is first posted, there's an initial rush of applications. These are in large part the people who are applying to everything they see for which they're remotely qualified (and sometimes not even that) -- the resume-bombers. That tends to be true for roughly the first week. Conversely, of the applications that come in toward the end of an application period, a much higher percentage of them are candidates who are very strongly matched with the job qualifications. I've concluded that this is because these are people who aren't applying wildly every day -- they're being much more judicious in what they apply to, and they're probably not looking as frequently because of that.

If you're closing jobs after one or two weeks, you're probably missing out on some really strong candidates who aren't checking ads as frequently.

Disclaimer: This is absolutely not to say that there aren't strong candidates in the first week, or that everyone who applies toward the end is a strong match. I don't want anyone to read this and decide that they shouldn't apply to a job if it's only been posted for a day; that's not what you should take from this. I've hired plenty of people who have applied early on. These are just overall trends.

So back to your question: How long is long enough to keep a job advertised? I'd say a minimum of three weeks, and four is better. 

I'll usually start my initial round of phone interviews around the third week, but I'll keep the job open meanwhile.  In fact, I've pretty much gotten rid of application "deadlines" all together -- I'll accept applications until the job is filled. The bar does move higher and higher if we're nearing the end of the interviews; at that point, a candidate would really need to be a rock star to get added into the mix ... but I don't want to close the door to someone absolutely fantastic just because of an arbitrary deadline. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

my boss asks job candidates about their marital status, children, and church!

A reader writes:

Recently, I sat in on an interview with the VP of our department, and the questions he asked potential candidates included, "Are you married? Do you have any children? What are your activities? Are you involved in your church or activities such as scouting?" How do I address the fact that these questions are off-limits in a tactful way? I am only newly hired, and I've heard that the VP doesn't handle criticism well.

Well, he's allowed to ask about hobbies and community involvement, but you're right that asking about marriage, children, or religion is a really bad idea.

First, a legal note:  While the act of asking these questions isn't illegal (although many people mistakenly believe that it is), what is illegal (in the U.S., anyway) is rejecting a candidate based on her answers to them. Therefore, since employers aren't permitted to factor in your answers, there's no point in asking them and smart interviewers, or interviewers who have ever spoken to a lawyer, don't ask them. In addition, because so many people think the questions themselves are illegal, it's a really good way to make a candidate really uncomfortable.

Okay, back to your question -- on how to approach your VP about this. You have a couple different options:

First, the direct approach: You say the VP doesn't take criticism well, but you could approach this as simple information-sharing. For instance: "Joe, I noticed you asked about marriage, children, and church in that interview. I was always taught that there were legal issues with asking those questions, because candidates who we don't hire could claim we illegally discriminated against them based on their answers to those questions. I know that's not at all why you were asking, but it's been drilled into my head that those are red flag questions for candidates."

Alternately, do you have an HR department? Can you discreetly suggest to them that they give this VP -- or, even better, all employees who participate in interviews -- some remedial guidance on what questions shouldn't be asked?

If you talk to him yourself and he's resistant (says "that's not how we do it here" or whatever), you'll probably need to resort to option #2 anyway, so if you think he's likely to blow you off, you might want to just leap directly to option #2 and save yourself the trouble of appearing to go over his head after not liking his answer.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

interviewing again after a prior unsuccessful interview

A reader writes:

A few months ago, I interviewed for an auditor position with my local county government. The interview didn't go all that well (I tend to get nervous and babble too much, also I was ultimately not as good a match for the position compared to other candidates) and I wound up not being selected. I was in contention for the job due to an examination I took earlier in the year. I scored well enough on the exam to be pretty high on the candidate registry, which apparently means that anytime an accounting type job is open, I am contacted for an interview.

Long story short, this office apparently has another vacancy, and I have an interview with them next week. I am thinking there is a good chance I may be interviewed again by the same people who turned me down back in the spring. If so, they of course will know that I have a good deal of advance knowledge of what they will ask (they have a standard interview with four or five questions the candidate must respond to, then usually brief period to answer candidate questions). They may not even change the questions from last time.

I am not positive, but I think this may be for the same job as before. If so, do you have any advice how to proceed? I don't feel like I did well at all in my prior interview, and am already a little anxious that the interviewers will be the same as before and will have some kind of bias based on my prior performance. And it is not as if anything has really changed as far as my qualifications for the job, the only thing I can really do is improve how I present myself.

Well, the good news is that you did well enough last time that they're still interested in talking to you. You're thinking they may have a leftover bias from last time, but it's likely just the opposite -- they remembered you as potentially being good enough to fill the job, which is why you have another interview. So that right there is a good sign that will hopefully shore up your confidence.

Things that I think will help:

* Think back to the last interview and try to remember everything you can -- what were you asked? What kind of stumbles did you make? Were there ways in which you could have been better prepared? What do you wish you'd done differently? Take that knowledge and use it to prepare this time. Think very deliberately about how you want to come across, and then practice that -- as in, sit in your living room, pretend you're in the interview, and practice answering questions in a way that will reinforce whatever impression you want to give.  For instance, you felt you babbled last time, so practice giving more concise answers. You'll feel ridiculous, but you'll find yourself way more prepared when you're in the real interview.

* On the babbling issue ... long, rambling answers usually have one of two causes: (1) You're either someone who rambles in normal life too, possibly because you're not paying attention to the other person's cues, or because you don't make a point of organizing your thoughts as you speak, or (2) You're nervous. In your case, it sounds like #2. 

I think nervous rambling often stems from feeling that the interviewer can't possibly be satisfied with what you just said, so you'd better keep on going until a better answer comes out. Resist that feeling! You can always ask at the end of a shorter answer: "Does that give you what you're looking for, or would you like me to go more in depth about this?" If the interviewer wants more, believe me, she'll say so.

* Read this post on not being so nervous in interviews. Read the comments too.

Finally, as someone who has been on the other side of this, I don't think you have to worry too much about being permanently tainted by your earlier interview. Interviewers know that people get nervous. I've done interviews where I've thought, "Damn, this candidate is so nervous that I'm not able to see what she'd be like to work with day-to-day -- I can't hire her because her nerves are getting in the way of us having a real conversation, but I wish there were a way to talk to her without the nerves because for all I know, she could be great." If that candidate then reappeared a year later with the nerves under control, I'd be glad to get a chance for another conversation, and I wouldn't hold the earlier interview against her.

Remember:  You scored very high on the exam. They've wanted to interview you twice now. You have the benefit of the previous interview informing your preparation for this one. It seems to me that you're pretty well positioned for this, as long as you don't freak yourself out. So prepare, prepare, prepare, and good luck!

is having "company president" on my resume hurting me?

A reader writes:

I'm having trouble getting interviewed and I feel my resume is to blame, but I think my unique situation may also share some of that trouble.

My husband and I own a small construction company. I'm actually majority owner, and we employ between five to 15 employees depending on our job load. My actual duties include everything from payroll to tax preparation to AR and AP, HR responsibilities, advertising, customer service, and public relations (which is what I hold my degree in.)

I am not happy and have decided to pursue another career. However, any job I have applied for, I have not gotten an interview. I think employers see "president" on my resume and immediately throw it away because they assume I will ask for a higher salary than they are prepared to pay. Or they think maybe I am overqualified, or will be too high maintenance or a big know-it-all in the office.

How can I get potential employers to see that I am a team player with a passion for public relations? (I have extensive experience in my community with non-profit public relations campaigns, so I feel I am qualified for at least entry work in this field.)

This may be overly simplistic, but have you thought about changing your title? As the owner of the company, you can give yourself any title you want, and "president" may not be serving you well in your job search. Why not give yourself a title that reflects the PR work you do and rewrite your resume to focus on that?

You shouldn't be deceitful, so you should also include information about the rest of your role -- it's only fair that employers understand that you haven't been devoted 100% to PR -- but you can certainly highlight the PR stuff and keep the biggest focus on that.

Now, if the PR work you do for your company only accounts for 5% of your time, this isn't a good approach -- it's not accurate and it'll likely come out during the interview. But if it's truly a significant chunk of your time, this isn't a bad way to go. And combined with your volunteer PR work for nonprofits, you should be in pretty good shape.

Of course, all that said, you also want to ask yourself whether your trouble getting interviews might not be about this issue at all. It could be that your resume isn't presenting you well, or that your cover letter is terrible, or simply that in this market people generally need to apply for a lot of jobs in order to get interviews. But if you've ruled those factors out, I'd play with your title, since you control it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

how can I convince my husband I can't accept a job offer on his behalf?

A reader posted the following yesterday in the comments section on a post from February:

My husband was offered a job position where I work. We got into a huge argument today because I wouldn't do him a favor and call my boss to say he accepts the position. I was telling him how unprofessional and how bad that looks. My husband has not been consistently working since 2002! I just want validation that I made the right call. 

I posted my own comment there in response:

Wow. Uh, yeah, you made the right call. You should each handle your own relationship with your employer independently of the other. That's crazy.

And she then followed up with:

Thank you for validation! He is away this weekend volunteering at a tournament where he can play and stay for free. So we left the weekend on a sour note. Anyway, when he gets home, how should I follow up with him (what would you say)? I feel like my right advice might come out the wrong way! Ugh! He ended the argument with, "fine, I don't want the job!" He loves to go to the extreme when we disagree.

I kind of want to yell at your husband and wish I could call him. This is just totally, utterly insane.

Frankly, I'm worried about the two of you working at the same company if he doesn't understand why this is wildly inappropriate. Is this really going to be the only time this kind of issue comes up? (I'm also wondering why he doesn't want to accept his own job offer -- accepting a job offer isn't exactly difficult work. To say nothing of whatever's up with him refusing to respect your professional boundaries, even if he disagrees with them.)

In any case, here are the two main points you should make to him:
  • The manager is hiring your husband, not you (despite the fact that you do work there too). The particular relationship in question is one that he's entering into with your husband, not with you, and by having you call to discuss a business arrangement that doesn't involve you, he is signaling that he doesn't understand that. If I were the manager, this would raise all kinds of questions about what else he won't understand about professional boundaries -- is he going to involve you in salary negotiations, or interpersonal disputes? Is he going to ask you to tell his boss when he can't meet a deadline?
  • Accepting a job offer isn't just a matter of checking a "yes" box. There's discussion to be be had. When I make a job offer to someone and they accept it, I want to talk to them -- them personally, not an emissary! I want to welcome them to the team, tell them how excited I am to have them. And I want to talk about logistics -- start date, maybe even initial projects. With them, not their spouse.
So that's for your husband. But now I have two points for you too:
  • Making this phone call will make you look bad too. You'll appear to condone it and think it's appropriate, and the manager will start worrying that neither of you understand that you each have separate, independent relationships with the employer. Don't jeopardize your professional reputation.
  • When two spouses (or two significant others) work at the same company, you have to really make a point of drawing appropriate boundaries. You guys should be talking about what strategies you'll use to handle the potentially strange dynamics of both working at the same place, but I'm going to guess that he has zero appreciation of the need for that, as he seems to think you're both just attending the same neighborhood picnic or something. You're going to need to do what you can to get on the same page about this.
Do others want to weigh in with points I'm missing? I'm so worked up over this one that I'm sure I've missed something else important.

congratulations, you've won the chance to promote online diploma mills!

About a week ago, I received an email from Emma Lee of "Awarding the Web," telling me that I had been named a 2010 Top 40 Human Resources Blog. All I had to do to "claim" my award was to agree to post the award badge on my site. She added, "If you choose not to accept the award, please let me know, so we can give your spot to the next person on our list. We work hard to put these awards together, with zero outside financial assistance, and we don't want these awards to go to waste."

I thought this was pretty damn weird -- I've been named on similar awards lists in the past and no one has ever told me that I had to "agree" to be named a top blog, or that I had to promote the award on my site or it would be taken away. They're basically giving away spots to bloggers who agree to promote them, making it not much of a list.

So I ignored them.

Yesterday, I got another email, reminding me that I hadn't yet posted my award badge and adding:
"If you choose to decline our award, please respond by Monday, July 26. The only reason we ask this is because if you choose to decline or not recognize our award, then let us know so your colleagues who could qualify for the award have a chance at recognition and take your spot. Dennis and I work too hard on these awards for it to be discarded, as this is our passion. We just want our award winners not only to appreciate our award, but also to understand what our ultimate goal is; to take away awards from marketing companies and make them back into what they should be: awards."
What's funny about this is that Emma Lee and Dennis Anderson are a marketing company, running a scam to get free promotion on well-trafficked blogs. After some back and forth with Emma about their questionable business model, a little online research quickly revealed that they're sponsored by a consortium of online diploma mills that are trying to shore up their credibility. 

I'm taking up your time with this only because I'm disgusted by this and want to out this silly little scam. Now back to our regular programming...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

how do I state my desired salary range in a cover letter?

A reader writes:

I am having trouble including my salary requirements on cover letters from a wording standpoint -- every way I word my desired salary, the sentence looks ackward. I have always experienced writers' block on this segment of a cover letter.

How do I include my salary range without making it sound like I simply added up my bills and added a few thousand for vacations? Do I have to include my last salary to substantiate the required salary?

Can you please recommend a less ackward-sounding formula than "as per salary requirements, I would need to be in the $42,000 - $47,000 range." Or does this sound fine? Thank you!

"I'm seeking a salary in the $42-47,000 range." As long as you're basing the range on the market rate for the position and for your experience and skills, no one is going to think you just added up your bills and tossed in some extra for a holiday cruise. But you have to do your research to make sure you do know the market rate, specific to your geographic area.

But more to the point, why are you including this information at all? If you're doing it of your own volition, stop! There's no reason to talk salary at this stage. I've noticed that some candidates announce their salary requirements in their resumes or cover letters without anyone ever asking -- and sometimes they wildly underprice themselves compared to what I'm planning to pay. (In fact, sometimes they do this even when the ad they're responding to clearly stated a higher range.)  

Now, if an employer requires you to include this information, then you have a decision to make. A lot of people will tell you to try to avoid talking salary up front and instead say that you'd prefer to talk about salary once you've had a chance to learn more about the specifics of the job ... and then you just hope that if you're a strong enough candidate, the employer isn't going to discard your application just because of that. But of course, in this job market, with far more highly qualified candidates than can be hired, it's understandable not to want to do anything to give an employer an excuse not to look at you further.

It's not crazy for companies to want to address salary very early on -- they don't want to waste their time if you're wildly out of their price range. That's perfectly legitimate, especially if what they're able to pay is on the lower side of the normal range for the position. But if that's the case, they really should just post their intended salary range and let applicants decide if they're interested or not.

Most of them don't do that, of course, because if you're willing to accept a lower offer, they want to get you for that lower price. But that's short-sighted: If they lowball you now and you figure out later that you're underpriced for the market, they risk losing you over it. So they should tell you the range they plan to pay, deal with the consequences, and put an end to all the drama and hand-wringing these practices cause.

(By the way, I want to point out here that we're talking about salary expectations. If we were talking about salary history, I'd tell you that that's no one's business but your own and to hell with companies that think they're entitled to it.)

is it tacky to tell an employer I'm traveling to their town and they could meet me in person?

A reader writes:

I'm doing an out of town job search and the recruiter from one of my target companies finally called me to schedule an interview. I am paying for my own plane ticket to get to the interview. This is a large hospital so they have applicant tracking software that allows you to see what your status is. (not qualified, under review, referred to hiring manager, etc).

I have several positions that have been "referred to hiring manager" but no interviews have been scheduled. Would it be bad form to ask the recruiter to inquire with said managers as to whether or not they might be interested in interviewing me while I am in town? Is this tacky?

I don't want to screw this up, but it would be nice if I could meet with more than one department while I am there.

You absolutely should let them know you'll be in town if they'd like to talk with you! Just be prepared for them to say no -- I've had to say no to candidates in that situation who I'm interested in, simply because their timeline clashed with mine in some way: I wasn't going to be ready to conduct final interviews by then, or one of the people who would need to interview them would be out of town then, or whatever. So you should definitely give it a try, but be prepared that it might not come together -- and don't read anything into if it doesn't. Good luck!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

is it possible to send an interview thank-you note too quickly?

A reader writes:

I have a question about thank-you letters after an interview. In today's world of cell phones being able to do email, I can actually have the thank-you letter sent before I even leave the interviewer's office. I literally just said thank-you and shook hands three minutes ago, and am sending the thank-you email already?

I try to include a comment about the conversation to try and remind them or to stay on their radar, but for the most part I can have the thank-you ready to go in a minute.

I recently adopted the rule that I should wait until the end of the day to send the thank-you. What do you think is the appropriate time frame for thank-you letters?

Well, first, any thank-you note is better than no thank-you note, regardless of timing. But since you asked: Wait at least a few hours. Any time between say, 5 and 48 hours post-interview is perfect. (But again, I'm only nitpicking because you asked!)

The reason it's not ideal to send it just minutes after leaving the interviewer's office is because it can feel a bit perfunctory -- you haven't even had time to reflect yet, you probably had the email or a template all ready to go before you even came to the interview, and you're just checking off an item on your to-do list. And that may all be the case, but if you're obvious about it, it feels less genuine.

From the interviewer's perspective, the thank-you note doesn't just signal manners; more importantly, it signals interest. I want to know that the job candidate went home, thought about what we talked about, digested it all, and concluded that she's still enthusiastic about the position. That's what getting a thank-you note tells me -- as long as enough time has passed for that to be realistic.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

how can I warn job candidates about how awful this place is?

A reader writes:

I'm finally coming to the end of my contract at an incredibly poisonous company, and I've been tasked to replace myself. We don't have an HR department, and my own boss just split suddenly, leaving behind massive amounts of debt, so the parent company has tasked me to do this.

My question is, how can I explain the reality of the workplace to a new hire? I know you're never supposed to speak negatively about past employers in professional circles, but I'd feel wrong bringing someone into this company with blinders on. The problems range from intense understaffing to interpersonal problems and poor management, which is leading most of the existing team, like myself, to leave in the next few months as our contracts end. I've already tried to stress the benefits by targeting new grads, as the work itself is interesting and a great opportunity for someone fresh out of school, but I worry that in a years time whoever replaces me will be cursing me, the same way I cursed the manager who lied to me about the company when I was hired. 

How can I explain the huge negatives in a professional manner? I've already encountered questions, as trying to explain the full job description and range of tasks makes it clear that this job encompasses the work of 5 people, on a junior person's salary. I'm worried if I can't figure out how to explain the job in a way that doesn't make it seem undoable, I'll never find anyone to take my place, and once I do, how will I sleep at night knowing I brought some fresh-faced new employee into such a toxic situation?

You're right to want to share the negatives with your top candidates. I'm a big believer in "truth in advertising" when hiring, both because it's the right thing to do and because you want people to self-select out before they're hired if those negatives are deal-breakers to them.

I was recently hiring for a position that came with a range of negatives, and I talked to all my finalists about them. (There's no reason to get into that before you have finalists; I'd keep it on more of a need-to-know basis.) Everyone thanked me profusely for being candid, and every single one noted how unusual it was to find honest explanations of a job's downsides in the hiring process, even though every job has downsides.  And here's what happened afterwards: One candidate emailed me the next day, thanked me for being candid, and said she'd realized that it wasn't for her. Everyone else said they were still interested (with a couple saying they were more interested, because they appreciated being leveled with and knowing there wouldn't be surprises).

The key is in how you present negative information. If you just whisper, "This is a terrible workplace, everyone is miserable, the managers are jerks, and we're all trying to leave," then yes, you're not going to find many (good) candidates who will take that job. But as you yourself point out, there are positives too. You should present a full picture, in a professional way: "There are plusses and minuses to this job, and I want to talk to you about the minuses. Frankly, we're very understaffed. There's a lot of work, and you'll be expected to juggle a high workload. And between you and me, a lot of the staff has been frustrated with some of the management, and that's led to turnover recently. That said, the work itself is interesting, and you'll get great experience, especially as a recent grad."

You could also add, "If you're someone who gets extremely frustrated by __ (fill in some of the management's most objectionable qualities here), this job may not be for you. But if you think you can handle that in exchange for great experience, we should keep talking."

Now, smart candidates will ask you to elaborate on these frustrations with management, and you should be prepared to talk about it in a way that's objective and professional. In fact, you need to say all of this professionally -- no venom, no vitriol, no mentions that you yourself wanted to throw yourself out the window. And the reason for that is that that's the line to walk that balances your obligations to your employer and your obligations to the candidate. (You do have an obligation to your employer here -- and it's to find a way remove yourself from the hiring if you can't stay professional about it.)

I think you're going to be surprised by how many candidates will thank you for telling them and say that they're still interested. Yes, part of that is that people just want a job and they have rosy-colored glasses on about how bad it could really be. But some of it is that knowing about problems before you go in can make them more bearable. Being blindsided by them is a lot harder. And some people genuinely don't care about this kind of thing -- they just want to show up and work and they're going to tune out things that would drive others insane.

Your obligation is to present the good and the bad, unemotionally. From there, your candidates will make their own decisions. Good luck!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

is a subpar employee better than no employee?

A reader writes:

I work in an office where you'd have to set your desk on fire to get terminated around here. We have an employees who dinks around all day, dodging responsibilities, refusing to improve. Meanwhile, the rest of us run around like chickens trying to serve the clients.

My boss admits that this person is a subpar worker, and his boss is actually gunning for one of these lazy people. But my boss refuses to consider firing this person; he insists that if we do so, our corporate headquarters out West will never replace the position. (they think we're overstaffed, and maybe this situation bears that out.) Then instead of getting subpar, reluctant work, we'll get none at all.

I admit that's a possibility, but gosh the whole thing seems wussy to me. Yeah, maybe we'll lose the position, but is letting these person fester in that spot forever, making everyone all crabby, really better? Let's take a chance! And I say this as someone who would probably have to help take up the slack if this person goes.

Bleah, anyway, I don't think I can do anything about it, except perhaps start taking long lunches, because it looks like this place has great job security. This is very typical behavior from my boss, even in the good times — they prefer that a subpar worker just drift away. But here's my question (at long last): Do you think my boss is being prudent, given that corporate headquarters is very reluctant to fill empty positions (we had to wait months for a terribly crucial position to be filled after someone quit), or kinda cowardly?

If your boss would truly, truly fire this guy except for the fact that he won't be able to get a replacement authorized (which I'm not sure I buy), then he's not necessarily being cowardly -- but he's probably still making the wrong choice.

Poor performers are more than just an opportunity cost -- they also lower the morale of everyone around them, send signals to other employees that they don't need to perform well themselves, lower the overall bar of performance accountability in your culture, and suck up an inordinate amount of time in supervision. Whatever small amount it may help to have him there, it's probably outweighed by the price you're paying for keeping him.

I've actually been in situations where after firing someone, and while waiting to hire their replacement, I found I was able to get more done without that slot filled than when the previous employee was in it -- in other words, having fewer staff was better than having more staff with a bad performer around. 

What your boss is missing is that productivity isn't just about the number of bodies on hand -- it's about the quality of staff you have, and poor performers aren't just low contributors in that calculation; they're often actually negative contributors.

He should address the performance problems head-on and enforce real consequences, including termination, if this guy won't meet a higher bar -- replacement or no replacement.

Monday, July 12, 2010

how long should it take a new hire to get up to speed?

A reader writes:

I'm a former academic mathematician who left academia, because...well...suffice it to say that I didn't go to college for nine years to become a glorified babysitter. After a job offer from a Very Large Government Agency fell through, I found myself severely underemployed. While slowly crawling out of the deep, dark depression in which I found myself, I started slowly picking up some extra skills so that I could start a new career (and no, I found myself unable to go back to academia, as the thought of entering the classroom again literally sent me into panic attacks). That all of this happened was bad enough; that all of this happened as the economy started circling the bowl made things even worse.

Finally, after two years, I have a job as a Data Analyst for an advertising company, with slightly over two weeks from the recruiter saying "Hi, I passed your resume to the hiring manager, and he'd like to talk to you..." to the job offer, with two phone interviews, an online programming exam, a personality profile, and a problem that the hiring manager gave me to see how I thought on my feet in between (there might have been a partridge in a pear tree in there somewhere, too :P ). The interview advice on your blog was invaluable, especially for the phone interviews. I think I impressed the hiring manager with my questions, especially "What differentiates a good employee in this position from a great employee?"

The work environment is great, and the people are awesome--not to mention the pay and benefits! However, I find myself in a completely new industry doing work I've never done before, and despite the fact that I've only been here less than two weeks, I'm taking longer in getting up to speed than I would like. I recognize that I'm putting a significant amount of this pressure on myself--as the old saying goes, I am my own harshest critic. I have received many assurances from my manager that he's confident in my ability to catch up, and he proactively suggested weekly meetings to keep track of my progress. However, I want to make certain that I stay on task and don't fall behind, especially as this is a contract to hire position.

So, my question is this: What, generally speaking, is a reasonable amount of time for a new hire that is talented but inexperienced to get up to speed?

I think this varies widely from job to job, and also depends on factors like how well the company trains you, exposes you to resources, etc.  However, based just on watching people over the years, I'd say that there's often a moment of clarity that occurs about four to eight weeks in -- when suddenly all the pieces start to fit together in a way that makes more intuitive sense, and all of a sudden you don't feel quite as much like you're treading water. I'm not talking about mastering the job -- that takes way longer. I'm talking just about getting that sense that you're no longer in a foreign and mysterious land.

Again, this really varies depending on the job. But you've only been there two weeks? There's a good chance that you're putting unrealistic pressure on yourself, as you seem to recognize.

Now, another good question is whether there are things you can do to help yourself acclimate faster.  To answer that, I'd want to know whether there are specific things that you know you're struggling to learn, or is it more a general feeling of being overwhelmed?  If there are specific things, can you ask a colleague to walk you through them again? It's very, very hard to retain all the information that's thrown at you in your first few days on a job -- so if most of your training happened early on, you might find that you can retain it better now. Also, if possible to do diplomatically, you might even seek someone different than whoever taught you the first time; different people teach things in different ways, and you might get someone who presents it in a way that resonates more for you. 

If it's more a general feeling of being overwhelmed, the weekly meetings with your manager are going to help. Make sure you prepare for these ahead of time so you're getting as much as possible out of them. For the next few weeks, it might be useful to send him a list ahead of the meeting -- here's what I accomplished this week, here's what I'm planning to do next week, here's what I have on my longer-term to-do list -- to ensure it lines up with his thinking and to catch any areas where you're out of alignment.

Also, ask your manager what he'd like you to have achieved by the end of your second month and by the end of your first six months. If you have a very concrete sense of where you need to be headed, it's easier to figure out what you need to do to get there.

While we're on the subject of getting new hires acclimated, one thing that I like to do is to give each new hire an outline of all the things they'll need to learn about to really know the job. This includes everything from the basics of how to do the job, to who key internal and external figures are, to what they do and don't have authority for, and on and on. To be clear, this is just an outline of topics, not fully fleshed out information on each (they'll get that in face-to-face conversations with the various people participating in their training). I've found it can be really helpful for them to have a written list like that to consult a couple of weeks in -- because it can make you think, "Oh, I vaguely remember a mention of Topic X on my second day, when it made no sense to me and I didn't retain it. So let me seek out information on it again now, when it'll make more sense." Or you might realize that no one talked to you about Topic X at all, and then you can proactively ask your boss about it.  It can also just help to get your arms around the breadth of the job if you see each aspect outlined like that.

You may not have that exactly, but do you have any other written materials you can review -- department manuals, etc.? I've found people often don't take advantage of those things after the initial read, even though reading them again a few weeks into the job can be a lot more useful than the first read was.

I suspect you're going to do just fine. You sound like you're having normal first-few-weeks-on-the-job jitters. You also sound like you've landed in a really great situation. So congratulations, and good luck!

companies that don't announce when an employee is leaving

In response to my last post, on how to announce that an employee is leaving, a bunch of commenters mentioned that their companies don't announce it at all. Instead, people just disappear -- leaving coworkers to wonder what happened: Did they quit? Were they fired? Have they been abducted?

And of course, this leaves huge unanswered logistical questions: Who do I go to with my questions about ___ now? What about that project I was working on with that person? Is the person being replaced or was the position eliminated? What's the timeline for replacement?

I have two questions for you guys:

1. First, does anyone want to defend this practice? I would love, love, love to hear a defense of it.

2. Have you ever worked anywhere that did this where it wasn't symptomatic of other cultural/management problems? Because I have to think it reflects a mindset that would cause loads of other issues as well.

how to announce an employee is leaving

Every week, without fail, one of the most popular terms that people search for on this blog is "announcement of employee leaving company." Just this past week, there were 20 separate searches done for that phrase.

I am baffled by this. Are all these people trying to figure out how to announce that an employee is leaving? If so, the answer is: Be straightforward. For example: "I'm sad to announce that Julie has decided to move on and her last day with us will be August 30." Then you say some nice things about her if you can (about her work and achievements), and add that you wish her the best. And you can think about what things people might be wondering about (timeline for hiring a replacement, who will cover her responsibilities in the interim, etc.) and address those things too.

If the employee was fired, the format is pretty much the same, although shorter: "Unfortunately, Julie's last day with us was today. We wish her the best of luck, and we'll be moving quickly to hire a replacement. If you have questions about projects you were working on with her, please see Jeff for updates."

Does anyone think this is not as straightforward as I'm alleging? Tell me what it is that is tripping people up about this.

P.S. I may do a week of posts addressing some of the search terms people are searching for here. Does that sound really boring?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

should I get a raise for taking on more work?

A reader writes:

My coworker is leaving in two weeks, but my company has a hiring freeze and will not be able to hire anyone for some time, which the HR dept has not specified. The head of my department is planning to ask me to take on some of my coworker's duties in addition to my regular, full time duties. I heard about this in a very informal meeting with my supervisor, who wanted to get an idea of if I would willingly take on the additional duties.

I asked about a raise and my supervisor said that she didn't think to even ask because of our budget crunch. No one in the company has had a raise for last year or this year. I think that I should get a raise because I will have to be trained to do this co-workers duties, the job is usually filled by someone with a Masters degree (which I do not have), and because I am doing extra work.

I'm just out of college, and I feel like this job is a good fit for me because it is in my chosen field. I've been in this position for about six months. I would prefer a raise (who wouldn't!), but if I wasn't offered one, I suppose I would continue to stay and do the extra work.

So, my questions for you are: Should I have even asked about a raise? If so, how much should I negotiate for? If I cannot get a raise, would it be appropriate to ask for something not monetary, like more vacation/personal days? And, is there something here that I'm missing or not thinking of to do or ask about?

Thie is happening at companies all over the place, as the economy makes hiring freezes and layoffs widespread. And the reality is that as staffs shrink, the remaining employees have to pitch in and pick up additional work, and raises rarely come along with it.

That doesn't mean there's nothing in it for you though. In fact, this sounds like a very good thing for you, because this is how people get promoted: by taking on new responsibilities, increasing their skills, and proving themselves at something beyond what they were originally hired to do. And if it doesn't eventually get you promoted at this company, it's going to help you when you're looking for your next job somewhere else.

So I think you should be looking at this differently:  Six months out of college, you're being given higher level responsibilities in your chosen field.  This is something to be excited about.

And as for the raise, this is how people eventually get them -- not at the start, but later on, after they've been successfully doing the new work for a while and have shown that they do it well. I wouldn't push the raise issue now, when the company is in tight financial straits. (And when the rest of the country is too, meaning that more experienced people would likely line up to do your expanded job, and probably for less than you're currently making.) Instead, now is the time to jump in and prove yourself. Eight or 12 months from now is the time to ask for compensation that reflects what you've accomplished, when you can point to a track record of doing well.

So tell your boss you're excited about the opportunity for new responsibilities and go prove yourself. Then later on, at your next salary review, you'll have plenty to point to in support of your case for a salary increase then.

Seriously. Think long-term on this one.

Friday, July 9, 2010

entry-level job search with boyfriend

A reader writes:

I'm going into my last year in college, and I'm starting to look for a full-time position for after I graduate in May. My boyfriend is also graduating, and we want to try our hardest to be in the same city. Many of the companies that we are looking at have many locations across the country for new hires, but the company generally assigns one.

When would be a good time to mention the boyfriend as a factor in what city I'd like to be assigned to? My strategy right now is to talk about that if I get an offer, and see if there's any flexibility, but not before. What advice would you have?

I think it's fine to mention during the interview process that you have a preference for City X, but that you're open to considering other locations as well (if indeed you are). Once you have an offer, you can push hard for the location you want. 

On the other hand, if you know that there are only certain locations you're open to, and you're set against the others, there's no reason you should wait to make that clear.

I'd keep the boyfriend out of it though -- you may find employers making assumptions that might not be true, such as, "Oh, she'll just ending up leaving the job to move to be with him."

Really though, you might save yourselves a lot of heartache if you go about this the other way around --agree on a city you both want to move to, and then base your job search around that location. Good luck!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

my boss and coworkers are chronically absent

A reader writes:

Our department suffers from absenteeism and my boss is one of the biggest offenders. She just called in sick again today. Her habit of calling in sick regularly (not to mention coming in late and leaving early) means that the staff in our department feel entitled to do the same. This is a state agency and a union environment, so punitive measures aren't necessarily going to work. All of the staff have tons of sick time and it rolls over into the next year. Many people think of their sick time as vacation time.

I did talk to one of the administrators (who is my boss's boss) about the absentee problem two months ago. He said that my boss and I should work on team building. He also brought in a temp worker to cover three days a week, which was nice, but doesn't help solve the bigger problem. I didn't mention that my boss was part of the problem and I don't want to look like I am ratting her out.

He said that your boss should work on team building and hired a temp?

I don't think you're going to be able to fix this problem, because it doesn't sound like the people in charge care about fixing it. 

I should note here that the standard advice when you notice problems with your coworkers is not to say anything unless the problem is interfering with your ability to do your job and get results. I dislike that advice, and here's why: As a manager, I know that I'm not always going to see the same issues that my staff sees (partly because someone may deliberately shield me from that behavior), so I appreciate a discreet heads-up about what they might be observing that I haven't picked up on so that I know where I should pay closer attention. Of course, my take on the information might differ from the person relaying the info, but as long as they're okay with that, I'm always grateful to be filled in on something that might be a problem. Not every manager share this stance, but plenty of the good ones do.

So I think you did the right thing by attempting to alert your boss's boss. But now that he has that information, there's not much else you can do. 

It's possible that he is taking more action than you realize -- he may be watching the situation more closely now that you've alerted him to it, and he may have actually talked to your boss about it. In either of these cases, it's unlikely that he'd tell you that.

But assuming the problem continues, you can conclude that either he doesn't care or is more concerned with avoiding awkward conversations than with managing well and holding people to a high bar. In that case, your options are to (a) resign yourself to working somewhere poorly managed, or (b) leave and find yourself a boss who is willing to do her job. (I have a bias toward B, but there may be reasons for accepting A.)

This reminds of the "when your manager won't manage" rant that I wrote a couple of years ago, so here it is for inspiration: 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

is my dental problem scaring off employers?

A reader writes:

I've been troubled by a recent dental accident that's left me with a noticeable piece missing from a front tooth.

I've been unemployed (except for temp work) for almost two years due to a layoff and have been rejected by several companies because I am "overqualified" (with a possible factor of being 58). Now I have this physical defect to add to my nervousness if I actually get to the interview stage. I am barely scraping by on my bills and have no insurance to cover a dental repair. The occupations I'm most qualified for are those involving face-to-face contact with clients and I can't help but think that my current appearance is detrimental to my chances of employment.

How can this be explained or downplayed to a potential employer? It's not one of those no-one-else-would-notice things. I'm worried that it marks me as someone who doesn't care about their appearance or is unprofessional, or that I represent an undesired load on their health plan because I would have the work done as soon as possible.

I once interviewed a guy who was missing an entire front tooth. He told me as we were shaking hands that he was in the midst of having dental work done and that he was embarrassed about the tooth. And I didn't really think anything about it after that (aside from "that sucks, poor guy"). We've all had dental stuff happen or known people who have suffered through it.

I would take the same approach this guy took and just address it right up-front. Say something at the outset like, "I'm a bit embarrassed about this, but I had a recent dental accident and the work to fix it isn't finished yet." There's something about saying you're embarrassed that makes people want to set you at ease and prove to you that there's nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, I suspect it actually makes people who otherwise might have been judgmental less likely to be.

I wouldn't worry at all that employers are calculating the impact of that dental work on their health insurance. The ethics of that calculation aside, something like that is unlikely to impact their rates anyway.

By the way, I do wonder if your self-consciousness about the tooth is affecting your confidence and the way you interview, or even making you less likely to smile, so pay special attention to that. Good luck!

Monday, July 5, 2010

can I back out of my new job if I get a better offer?

I have a feeling this one is going to generate disagreement. A reader writes:

I recently accepted an offer with an organization and started this past week. Four days into it, another potential employer I'd interviewed with once (at the same time I interviewed for my new job) has asked me to talk with them a second time. While I like the job I just started (and the employer), I would love the other position more - it feels more closely aligned with my interests and values, and it is 20 miles closer to home. Both jobs pay the same salary. Any advice as to how to handle such a situation?

There are very few cases where I'd advise even considering taking a different job right after starting a new one, because doing so can harm your employer, your reputation, and even other job-seekers.

Let's start with the damage to your own reputation: Anyone who hears about this isn't going to rely on your word in these sorts of matters again; you'll be known as someone who cuts and runs. And people have a way of popping up again at other companies you may want to work for. Imagine that you really want a job offer in the future, and one of the decision-makers is someone who used to work for this employer. "Joe took a job with Acme but left for a different offer a week into the job" are not words you want spoken about you when you're interviewing.

Now let's talk about other job-seekers. Some of your fellow job searchers really wanted that job, but didn't get it because you gave your word that you'd take it. And it's not as easy as the company now going back to them, because some of them have since moved on to other things. (This is the same reason that it frustrates me when someone accepts an interview for a job they have no intention of ever accepting; that's an interview slot that could have gone to someone genuinely excited about the job but who got a rejection letter instead.)

And now, most controversially, let's talk about the impact on your employer. After you made a commitment to them, they took you at your word. They invested time and money in preparing for you and training you. They've planned work around the assumption that you'll be there. And they've turned loose their other candidates. They'll probably need to start the hiring process all over again with those back-up candidates gone, which means losing more time and more money, plus the opportunity cost of having the position open far longer.

At a large company, maybe this is easily absorbed. But I can tell you from seeing it firsthand that at smaller organizations, it causes real harm, so I strongly recommend factoring in the size of the organization.

The reason I called this controversial is that that I know there are a lot of people out there who say, "The company wouldn't hesitate to cut you loose if they needed to, so you don't owe them anything." The thing is, though, this isn't really true. The reverse of your situation happens all the time: An employer hires someone for a job and then, a few days later, a resume comes in from someone who looks even better qualified for that position. They don't (usually) rescind the job offer and say "sorry, someone better came along." They (usually) say "damn, maybe next time" or "I wonder how else I could use this late-breaking applicant." (There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and I don't doubt that some employer out there has handled this badly. But the majority don't.)

That said, it's true that companies make decisions based on their own best interests, and so it's reasonable that you should make decisions based on yours. But getting a reputation as someone who doesn't keep commitments and who leaves a job after a week isn't exactly in your interests. (Just as it's not in an employer's interests to get a reputation as a company that terminates people in anything other than a thoughtful, fair, and compassionate manner.)

Now, with that lecture behind us, there are a very limited number of situations where you can make a better case for what you're considering:

* The other job is your dream job, an opportunity you may never get again, and the first job is just something to pay the bills.
* You realized very quickly at the new job that there is something profoundly wrong with it -- the boss or culture is a nightmare, the job description is totally different from what you were told you'd be doing, etc.
* Your financial situation changed unexpectedly (family health crisis, spouse lost his/her job, etc.) and the other job pays dramatically more.

In these cases, it's easier to defend breaking your commitment, as long as you (a) fully explain the reason to the first employer, (b) apologize profusely and demonstrate that you know what a terrible situation this puts them in, and (c) realize that you're almost definitely burning that bridge.

But it doesn't sound like your situation fits this category: You like the job you just accepted. You knew what the job was and that you were getting a long commute when you accepted it. You knew it was possible that some of the other companies you'd applied to could still contact you, but when you accept a job, you are saying "I am going to stop considering other jobs for a while now." It's hard to make an ethical argument for backing out at this point.

I'm bracing myself for wild disagreement in the comments, though, so bring it on...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

is this HR director out of control or just doing a job no one else will do?

A reader writes:

The division that I've recently joined has an HR Director who seems to be extremely powerful due to the strong relationship she has with the head of our business unit. About three months into my job, I was warned by two colleagues on different occasions that I should never challenge this woman and should be very wary about any information I gave her, since it wasn't just my survival that depended on her but that of others too. What I've subsequently seen has made me believe that this was excellent advice, especially when a colleague I really looked up to told me that she would be leaving mainly due to this woman's influence on her future in the company.

Recently, I have become very worried about my own position. After about 6 months of what I believed was good performance based on occasional feedback sessions scheduled with my manager, this HR Director suddenly came into my office one day and told me that my job was on the line due to "serious issues" highlighted in relation to my communication style. The only reason I didn't faint with shock was that I had been told confidentially by another director that something of the kind was about to happen and that he disagreed with the assessment. Thankfully I seem to be working through the situation, but my fear is that this will happen again, especially since there seems to be a history of people being pushed out in this way by the HR Director in question. I feel I have very little control of the situation, since it is impossible to make changes - assuming these need to be made - if I'm only told about them by the time they are judged to be such "serious issues" that I'm about to lose my job.

I've never been in a situation where HR could make decisions about people almost unilaterally, which is the case here, and would be grateful for advice you'd give me. I'd also be curious to know what your take in general is on this situation: is this lady someone who is generating a lot of fear and suspicion simply because she's doing a really difficult job - giving feedback that perhaps other people should have given - or is there something really dysfunctional about this whole set-up, which many of my colleagues believe?

I think your last sentence raises something really insightful, and is something that a lot of people in this situation wouldn't think to ask themselves: Is she a punitive tyrant who pushes out good people, or is she raising legitimate issues that no one else is raising? (And kudos to you for being open-minded enough to consider that.)

I don't know the answer, but I do know that either way, something isn't being handled correctly here. Either:

1. The HR director is some sort of out-of-control rogue whose assessments are not rooted in reality, and as a result she is pushing out good people. And for some reason the company is allowing it. This is a dysfunctional set-up. Or...

2. The HR director's assessments of people are accurate and presumably formed with the input of their managers, and for some reason the company has charged her with being the messenger whenever there's a serious performance problem. This is a bad set-up too, because funneling all serious feedback through the HR director is (a) unfair to employees, who aren't hearing feedback early on or from their own managers, and (b) unfair to the HR director herself, who's being forced into the role of the office dragon lady by having to be the bad cop while everyone else gets to play good cop. 

Ideally, managers would be making assessments of their own people, with the HR director providing guidance if needed. And managers would be delivering feedback to their own people, with the HR director pushing them to do so if they avoided it. If the HR director felt there was a serious problem with an employee that wasn't getting addressed, she'd take it up with their manager and they'd resolve it from there (with the manager ultimately delivering any message that needed to be delivered to the employee).

So the big question for you is: Where is your manager in this situation? Thus, the very first thing you need to do is to sit down with your manager and talk about the feedback you received from the HR director. You'll have a few different goals in this conversation:

1. Find out why you heard this message from the HR director rather than from your manager. Is this actually the company's system? Or is something else going on?

2. Say explicitly that you very much want to hear feedback directly, early on, so that you're able to incorporate it immediately, rather than only hearing about something once it's become a serious problem. Ask directly if your manager is willing to do that going forward. (And pay attention to body language and other cues here; you really want to get a good sense of whether or not your manager is likely to continue to wimp out when it comes to having awkward conversations in the future.)

3. Talk about what you're doing to respond to the concerns the HR director relayed, and ask to check in with your manager on them again in a few weeks, so that you can get further feedback about where you stand.

From this point forward, since you know that your manager is willing to be so hands-off about feedback that you may not even hear about something until it's considered a serious problem, be proactive about seeking out feedback. Check in with your manager regularly and ask for feedback on how you're doing, and about this communication issue raised by HR in particular.

And if you do start to get the sense that the HR director is some sort of out-of-control rogue whose assessments aren't based in reality, and that your manager is unwilling to assert herself on your behalf, then I'd get the hell out of there, because that's a dangerous situation to be in. But for now, keep the open mind that you currently have, talk to your manager, gather information, and be proactive. Good luck!

how do you manage people who speak another language?

I'm hoping for readers' help on this one. A reader writes:

I'm a supervisor at a restaurant with a mostly Hispanic kitchen crew. Our general manager speaks OK Spanish, and a couple of the kitchen crew speak both languages, but I'm finding myself more and more having to coach people who either speak no English or speak some, but I can tell that they're not understanding what I'm saying. Short of learning Spanish, which I do plan to do in the fall (when classes start at the local CC), do you have any tips?

Good question. Other than learning Spanish, which you're already planning, I'm not at all sure what to advise. But I bet that someone is reading this who knows, so I'm throwing this out to you guys to weigh in on. What advice do you have?