Important Notice:
This site has moved to, please update your bookmarks. If you were looking for a specific post, you can use the site search option, archives, or categories at the new domain to find it. Thank you!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Carnival of HR

The latest Carnival of HR is now up, over at Compensation Force. Check it out!

And the next Carnival will be hosted right here on January 9. Please send me your submissions by January 7.

Monday, December 24, 2007

new managers and authority

Becoming comfortable with exercising authority is one of the hardest adjustments for most new managers, but it's also one of the most crucial if you want to be effective. Here's a letter from a reader who is struggling with exactly this.

She writes:

I was hired to manage a team of fairly experienced sales people. I originally was a manager of a different line and left for a better opportunity, and returned for a promotion as sales coordinator. I had known the team already and had a respect built with them and they constantly commented on my work ethic such as "I don't know how you do it," "you're staying late again?" "don't let this job kill you, they are taking advantage of you" ... these are a few examples.

Now that I am the sales coordinator of this line and their boss, it is tough to say the least. They are constantly whining, complaining and irritated about the department. From stock issues, to pay rate, to fairness of the department managers, to bonus amounts, it never ends. I am exhausted of saying, "think positive" and "stay focused." I have tried firm talks, patient listening, enthusiastic support and encouragement, and partnering with other managers for support. I am slowly losing patience.

As a boss, I have given them every available resource to ensure success. I have rewarded success, put positive spin on failure, built them up to superiors. I guess my point is, I am trying to keep the emotion out of it and try to focus on the facts, but when I get home, I could cry, because I am totally beat up and exhausted on finding ways to improve sales and stop the negative whining, complaining, bitterness, and just keep going forward with the business. What approach am I missing? Maybe I am just not qualified?

I think you are missing one key fact here: You are their boss. Ultimately you set the standards for what flies and what doesn't, and you are able to set and enforce consequences. You do not have to rely on cajoling and hoping that you can persuade them. Yes, it's good to hear out your employees and be supportive when they are struggling. However, from what you write, it's long past that point and your willingness to indulge them in their mindset is likely enabling the very behavior you want to stop.

You need to make it clear to them that these are the conditions, and whining and complaining isn't acceptable. Let them know that you will hear them out once about a concern. (And do hear them with an open mind and act on their concerns if you determine they're valid.) But you will not allow them to waste company time and poison the environment by complaining about those same items over and over; these items should be one-time conversations, not ongoing ones. They are expected to discuss their concerns like professional adults, accept the answer, and move on with their work.

If they continue to indulge in whining and complaining after you establish these boundaries, you must address it head-on. I would tell the whiny employees (individually, not as a group) that the things they're frustrated by aren't going to change, that you can't be constantly battling over them, and that they need to decide whether they can be happy in their jobs knowing that. But continuing to complain is not an option.

It sounds like you want to be nice to your team, which is great -- but nice can't be allowed to trump your fundamental duties as a manager, which include holding the bar high and expecting people to adhere to it, warning them when they're falling short, and taking action when warnings don't work.

I suspect this might come down to how comfortable you are with your authority. Do you have the authority to transition out people who aren't working well (or to go to your boss and make the case for termination)? Is it authority you're willing to use? Assuming so, act with the confidence of your position -- lay out the expectations and hold people to them. (This doesn't mean firing someone the first time they complain -- but it does mean being firm about what is and isn't professional behavior, pointing it out when lines are crossed, and addressing it if there's no improvement ... which might mean deciding that being able to focus on the work at hand without dragging down other members of the team is a fundamental requirement of the job and that people who refuse to meet that standard should be let go.)

However, especially because this will be a switch in how you've approached this up until now, the key is going to be getting the tone of it right -- you don't want to be a tyrant, but you do want to be firm. To get that tone right, you really need to believe in your own authority to take action, so that you don't feel insecure about your position. Otherwise, you may come across as overly aggressive or defensive. The tone you're striving for is matter-of-fact -- not angry, not pleading, just matter-of-fact about the idea that their behavior has become disruptive to the organization and needs to be resolved once and for all. The underlying subtext should be that while you genuinely hope they will decide to meet the standards and stay, you are willing to let them go if they don't improve.

Keep in mind that it's now your job to address problems and hold employees accountable; you're not being mean by doing so!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Danger signs when you're interviewing for a job

Just as a hiring manager can never be completely sure what a candidate will be like once in the job, neither can job applicants be completely sure what a company or boss will be like to work for. But just like there are plenty of danger signs that hiring managers watch for, so too are there numerous red flags that job candidates should be paying attention to. Here are some danger signs when you're applying for a job:

1. Flakiness. They say they'll get back to you this week and you hear nothing. The job description seems to be a work in progress that keeps changing. You're told you'll be reporting to one person and later it changes to another. You arrive for your interview with Bob and learn that you'll be meeting with Jane instead. Guess what it's going to be like to work with these people?

That said, there can be legitimate, non-worrisome reasons for any of the above. But a non-flaky company will realize that these things can look flaky and will acknowledge it and explain what's going on. It's an absence of any awareness or concern about how this may be coming across that should alarm you, as it indicates it's not anything out of the ordinary for this company.

2. Taking a long time to get back to you. This is alarmingly common, but I still think it's a danger sign. You want to work somewhere that can move quickly and make decisions and respects people enough not to let them languish. Companies send a powerful message about their culture when they respond quickly at all stages or -- when that's not possible, which it's sometimes not -- let candidates know what their timeline is. And they send an equally powerful message when they don't.

3. Not updating you when a timeline changes. Every job seeker knows how agonizing it is to be expecting to hear back by a certain date, only to have that date come and go with no word. You want to work in a culture where people do what they say they're going to do, or update you accordingly. In the hiring process, this is about simple respect. And once you're working there, it's also about your ability to get things done.

4. High turnover in the position or department. Ask why the person in the job before you left. Ask how long she was there. Ask about the tenure of others in the department, including the manager. High turnover means one of two things: a willingness to replace poor performers (good) or lots of people running from a disaster (bad). Your job is to find out which one it is. You can be fairly direct about this. For instance, "It sounds like you've had some turnover recently. What's been behind that?" No one will come out and say, "The manager is a nightmare to work for," but you should be able to get some sense of what's going on from the type of answer you get.

5. Zero turnover, ever. While it might sound nice not to have to worry about getting fired, you'll know why this is a bad sign if you've ever had your quality of life destroyed or your effectiveness diminished by someone who the company obviously should have fired but who instead was allowed to fester. You want to work for a company that has standards, holds people accountable, addresses problems, and gets rid of people when needed.

when your resume is a hodgepodge

A reader writes:

I've never been the type of kid who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up, and I still don't know. The truth is that I've enjoyed and excelled at a bunch of jobs: English teacher in Japan, receptionist, IT/data entry temp, short-order cook. I'm only 25, I've had 20 different jobs (I've temped a fair amount), and honestly I am selective about the company culture far more than the type of job.

Personally, I feel like this has made me extremely qualified and laden with several skill sets (computers, languages, etc). I feel like I'm at the point where I could settle down in a job for a couple years but now my resume is a hodge-podge of wholesale food sales, foreign english teaching, and a dozen random temp jobs. I also am as likely to apply for a program manager job at a non-profit as I am for an IT position at Fortune 500 company. I've tried tailoring my cover letters and resumes for jobs and I end up feeling let down when I spend 4 hours and usually don't get a reply.

Any advice? I've attached my resume not for critique (I've had it critiqued by everyone from my mom to the career advisor at my old college), but to give you a better sense of where I'm coming from in my letter.

As if I could prevent myself from giving advice, wanted or otherwise.

I think the standard advice here is to narrow down your options, decide what you want to do, and focus on that. But I've been where you're at, and I don't see anything wrong with seeing multiple worthy paths before you and being willing to explore several of them.

Your instinct that the solution is in customizing the cover letter is exactly right. Use the cover letter to explain why you want this particular job and how your experience comes together to make yourself well-suited for it. The cover letter is going to be key for you. But you'll have to really mean it when you explain why this job is the right match for you; if you come across as if you're applying for a dozen different sorts of jobs, it'll turn employers off. Rightly or wrong, they want to feel like this is what you want, period.

But four hours is way too much! 15, 20 minutes tops. And you've got to go into it knowing that it won't pay off in some cases -- but that's okay, you can't expect to be invited to interview for every job you apply for. But you'll eventually hear back from some, so keep putting in the effort (again, not four hours of effort) and it will pay off in time.

Interestingly, your resume actually doesn't come across as that much of a hodgepodge, because you've only included five of your 20 jobs. However, I'd suggest doing two things differently with your resume (things that I want to flog your college career advisor for not pointing out):

1. For each job, you've only listed the years you were employed there, without indicating any months. This drives me crazy, because if you just list "2006," I can't tell if you were there for one month or 12 months -- and it makes a difference, especially if you're fighting the perception that you're a job-hopper. (Of course, maybe this is intentional. If showing months would reveal a series of short stints, it's wise not to -- although smart interviewers will ask, so be prepared.)

2. Below each job, you have bulleted highlights, which is good. But your bulleted highlights aren't adding much. For instance, for your job teaching English, you wrote, "Wrote lesson plans in Microsoft Word." Word is practically ubiquitous, so you're not adding anything there that will make you more enticing. How about something like, "Designed lesson plans that resulted in 85% of students passing basic fluency exam" or whatever? That shows me that you got results. I want to see what kind of English teacher you were, not just that you were one.

Good luck!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

mob pressure to join coworkers for lunch

A reader writes:

I'm a new employee at a software company. I'd thought I'd seen every eccentricity possible in the high tech workplace, but here's one new to me:

Every day at 12:30 PM one of my co-workers approaches my cube to announce, "Lunch time! We're going to lunch!" There's an air of importance and drama in this statement. But it turns out that all everybody's doing is grabbing their lunches from the fridge and sitting together in the lunch room down the hall. So I've declined a few times -- a couple days I wasn't hungry at exactly 12:30 PM, a couple times I just wanted to go for a walk instead.

Well! I really stepped into it!

If I decline the invitation of the first co-worker to go to the lunchroom, then a second co-worker will mosey over to my cube to announce "Lunch!" If I decline the invitation of the second co-worker, there are peeved expressions all around: it seems I have ruined everybody's plans by choosing to spend my mid-day hour without them.

Let me be clear: we're not factory workers doing delicately timed shift work. We're salaried professionals allegedly empowered to come and go as our work allows. I'm completely baffled by the anxiety I seem to provoke with my refusals to lunch with my co-workers. I think I'm being polite and impersonal -- how can I reassure my co-workers the day will proceed fine whether or not I join them in the lunchroom?

I quite enjoyed this question. Is literally everyone eating together except you, or are there other hold-outs as well?

Despite my firm belief that this is ridiculous, if it's literally everyone I'm going to recommend that you suck it up and eat with them occasionally -- maybe once a week. You're apparently in a culture where this is expected and refusals are taken personally. While I agree that it's ridiculous, you are likely to find that participating on occasion will pay off in terms of your professional relationships, ability to get things done in your office, and possible even advancement in this company. As someone who generally prefers to eat on my own (usually at my desk, while working), I totally sympathize with you. But if this is the culture there, it's the culture, and that stuff really can impact other aspects of your job.

However, it sounds like you might already be eating with them some of the time, and it's your preference to simply not do so every day that's causing the kerfluffle. If this is the case, (a) you have really bizarre coworkers who have lost touch with normalcy and (b) you can likely solve it by being straightforward: "Sorry to miss it. I've got some stuff I have to take care of at lunch today." ... or "I promised myself I'd finish this piece of the project before taking lunch today." ... or whatever excuse you come up. Give them some sort of reason to grab on to, and it won't feel as much like a snub to them. (Not that it should feel like a snub, but that's another issue entirely.)

Alternately, you can address it head-on once and hopefully not have to do it again. For instance: "Hey, I don't mean to offend you guys when I don't eat with you every day. I really like eating with you all, but sometimes I like to take walks at lunch, so don't be offended when I'm not there every day." And if you really want to soothe them, be extra friendly on the days when you do join them.

I, for one, would go crazy, so good luck with it! (And let us know what happens; the part of me that takes pleasure in such bizarre situations is dying to know how this evolves.)

dealing with a bad job reference

A reader writes:

Earlier this year, I was part of a mass lay-off from a large corporation. At my exit interview, which was less than 5 minutes long, my manager assured me that she would give me a positive reference, and that I need not contact her to ask each time I gave her name as a reference. Although this manager and I had never had a very strong working relationship (she "inherited" me as her assistant when my previous manager left, and I'm sure I wouldn't have been her first hiring choice), I thought I could take everything she said at the hurried exit interview at face value.

Fast forward a few months, to last week when I was extended an informal verbal job offer. They were ready to put the offer in writing, just as soon as the references could be checked. For the first time in my job search, I provided this manager's name on my reference sheet. Remembering her mentioning not needing to contact her first, I took that to mean that she didn't want the additional bother of my call on top of the reference call.

To my absolute horror, the news came back that she had given me an absolutely scathing review. From what little information I got, she painted a picture of the worst employee of her whole career. The hiring manager at the new company said under no circumstances could they hire me in light of this review. The verbal offer was retracted.

I'm still in utter shock, and I don't know what to do or where to turn. I'll never win back the respect of the almost-hiring company, but I'm at a total loss for what to do going forward. I clearly can't ever use this manager as a reference ever again, but that leaves me without a reference for the highest level position on my resume (save for HR employment verification). I stumbled upon your blog only today, have been reading for over an hour, and wish I'd found it long ago. I have nowhere else to turn for advice, and am frankly quite afraid right now. Thank you in advance for any advice you might have to offer.

How terrible. Whether or not this manager had grounds for giving the reference she did, it was unfair of her to mislead you into feeling safe using her as a reference -- which she probably did as a way of preventing discomfort for herself during your exit interview.

You mentioned that she "inherited" you when your previous manager left the company. Is it possible for you to track down that first manager and use her instead? If you worked with that first manager for any length of time, you could reasonably explain to prospective employers that she was your manager for much of your time at the company.

Additionally, you should consider contacting the HR department of your old company and explaining that you were recently informed a job offer was being retracted because of a negative reference your old boss gave you, and that this was contrary to her previous promise to you to serve as a positive reference. This will likely alarm the HR department, which is probably far more cognizant of the legal pitfalls in this area than your old boss is (particularly because you can prove you lost a job offer over it), and there's a good chance they'll warn her to stop.

Anyone else have advice?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

bosses: what do your employees complain about behind your back?

When I'm interviewing candidates for management positions, I like to ask something like: "Even the best bosses' employees will occasionally have complaints about them. What complaints do you think the people you've managed have had about you?"

The responses are revealing in a lot of ways. An astonishing number of people can't answer it at all, or have to really think about it; they've clearly never bothered to think about it before. This is disturbing, as it indicates anything from lack of self-insight to insufficient engagement with employees to simply not caring what employees think. A handful of people will say what they think I want to hear, usually something along the lines of, "I work them too hard." (Not what I actually want to hear, by the way.) Of the people who can answer it genuinely, I've heard responses ranging from "I can be too gruff" to "They want more direction." It's really a useful question for getting insight into someone's management style -- or, in the case of the non-answerers, their lack of insight into it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

how to get hired if you're under-qualified

I'm continually surprised by how many people don't realize that the "required qualifications" in job ads are like wish lists, not inflexible lists of requirements. Those qualifications are a composite of someone's idea of the ideal candidate. Believe me, they will look at people who don't perfectly match it. So when a job posting requires four years of experience and you only have two, you're not automatically disqualified. If you think you could do the job, apply anyway.

That said, if you're a bit under-qualified, you need to work for it more. Here's how:

1. For starters, you must write a fantastic cover letter. If you don't do this and you're under-qualified, you have no shot. (See tips on writing a great cover letter here.)

2. Learn a ton about the company you're applying to, and let it show in your cover letter. I'm impressed when people know more than the basics about my organization and tie it into why they want to work for us. It's like the way it's far more enticing when a guy I'm dating talks specifics about why he's interested -- as opposed to seeming like he's looking for someone to fill the "girlfriend" slot he has open.

3. In your cover letter, acknowledge that you don't have every qualification they're looking for, and explain how you'll make up for it. (Be realistic here -- if they're hiring a graphic designer and you have no design experience, this won't work.) Acknowledging it is good because (a) it shows you paid attention to the ad -- something most people don't do -- and indicates an attention to detail that hiring managers love to see and (b) it shows that you're not one of those insanely overconfident candidates with no humility or sense of your own weaknesses.

4. Be likable. This is always important in a job search, and it's especially so when your qualifications alone aren't going to rocket you to the top of the pile. This means be friendly, not pushy or overbearing, and genuinely interested in the job, the organization, and your interviewer. Make it easy for us to want to help you.

5. From the cover letter on through the interview process, really paint a picture of things you've done well in past jobs (including volunteer jobs, if the reason you're under-qualified is because you're a recent grad or stay-at-home parent with little work experience). I recently interviewed a candidate with no direct experience in our line of work. However, she had worked as an assistant to a high-profile local personality, and it was clear she had juggled an enormous workload, stayed highly organized, and been generally indispensable in making his life run smoothly. I love those skills, and they can rarely be taught. So I don't care that she's never worked with the databases her potential position would require; I know enough about her now to know she'll pick it up quickly.

Remember: Job ads are wish lists. Don't be deterred if you're not a perfect match.

should I speak up more in meetings?

A reader writes:

I am not sure if this is a real problem or something trivial that I perceive as a problem. So far it hasn't yet resulted in any repercussions but it always has me worried and paranoid.

The situation: I am more of a soft-spoken, mild-mannered type who considers himself a good listener. The problem is that I don't really speak up in meetings. I mostly listen and take notes and try to understand what is going on and being said. I am not sure if this is harming me in the long run in terms of how my colleagues and those in the upper ranks perceive me, whether they see my being quiet as a problem or if this tendency indicates a negative mark in my character.

So far no one has said anything but I can't help but feel self-conscious when everyone seems to be piping up with opinions and ideas and I remain silent in meetings trying to understand it all and take it all in. When I have an opinion or an idea, I do pipe in but most of the time I find myself on the listening end rather than the talking end.

I know that being more outgoing can be a big plus in the work world where social skills matter as much as your actual professional skills. I was wondering what advice you can give for me to gauge whether or not my being reserved is a potential problem or not.

Some of your colleagues are probably grateful to you for speaking up only when you have something worth saying and not being one of those people who has input on everything. That said, it's a good thing to be thinking about. I have two pieces of advice:

First, I think you're right to recognize the value in participating. Even if you don't have a new idea to offer, there are other ways to add to the conversation. For instance, if someone says something that you don't find clear, ask them to expand on what they mean. Or if someone offers an idea that you think is a good one, say so. That sort of contribution can make you a valued part of a conversation. After all, participation isn't just about offering new ideas -- it's also about helping to refine or clarify others' ideas and being someone who makes people feel their input is useful and valuable. (Sometimes I think people don't do the latter because they think they're too junior for a more senior person to care about their praise -- but it's actually not true. Everyone loves to hear, "That's a great point.")

Second, rather than continuing to wonder, you could ask your boss directly for feedback on this. It's okay to be direct and say something similar to what you wrote above. For instance, you could say, "I've been thinking lately about how I come across in meetings because I realize I don't speak up as much as others. I listen actively and I do speak up when I have contributions to make, but I wonder if you'd prefer for me to be more involved." It might lead to a good conversation about other strengths your boss values in you, or ways he/she would like to see you develop.

stop offering to take less money

There's a weird sales tactic going on with some job applicants: I've received a few resumes recently from people who -- in their cover letter, their very first contact with us -- say that they'd be willing to do the job for less than the posted salary. This is clearly meant as a way to sell themselves, by pitching us on the idea that we'd save on their salary.

This strikes me as a very bad idea. I'm going to hire the best person for the job, within the limits of what I can afford ... and if I've posted a salary (which I have in these cases), I can afford to pay that. I'm not going to take a lesser candidate just because he or she is cheaper. So their statement isn't going to influence my decision.

But if I end up hiring one of the people who announces from the outset that they'll take less money, you can bet I'm going to take them up that offer to work for less. This might be the worst negotiation technique I've ever encountered.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

"required" to attend the holiday party?

A reader writes:

We have one employee who is not interested in attending our annual holiday party. We only have 3 employees; the other 2 are coming, and several of our clients and other business associates are coming. Is there anything I can do as a manager to suggest that the employee consider his actions? I don’t want to tell the employee that he is expected to attend, but by not coming he will offend myself, my partners, his other co-workers, and possibly our clients (they will at least ask where he is, and it will be odd or uncomfortable).

I understand that you don't want to be in the position of requiring employees to attend something that's likely intended as a morale-building treat, but because you've invited clients and business associates -- and because you're a small company, meaning that the clients and business associates will likely outnumber employees -- in many ways this is a business function.

The employee, on the other hand, is likely thinking of it as a party, not a business function, and thus feels as free to decline the invitation as he would any other social invitation. Clearly there are work repercussions to him not attending, so I think you should be honest with him: Tell him that this is a business function and it will reflect poorly on him if he's not there.

If you don't want to require him to go, you can tell him it's his choice -- but at that point, he's likely to feel pressured into going and may resent being told it's his choice when it's clear you really expect him to attend. So if you make it optional, I think you have to be genuine about it -- i.e., don't penalize him (even in your own mind) for not going.

Companies usually hold these events because they believe they build employee morale -- but it's important to take a look at whether they actually do. I once worked at an organization that threw numerous "social" events for the staff. Despite ostensibly being parties, we were clearly expected to show up, and we heard about it if we didn't -- and it made us not appreciate the parties at all. If you have staffers who just don't enjoy these functions, requiring their presence under the guise of giving them a treat isn't going to build morale; it's going to hurt it. I think the answer is to be honest -- if there's a business purpose, be honest about that and require attendance. But if it's truly supposed to be for the staff's enjoyment, accept that some people won't show up because they don't enjoy such events (or would rather spend their off hours doing something else), and be okay with that.

Anyone else have thoughts? I suspect it's a hot topic.

old boss blackmailing reader after new job offer

A reader writes:

I gave my two weeks notice this week at my current company. However, there is now some sort of issue. My boss said yesterday she would like me to stay until after the holidays. I already accepted the offer for two weeks from now and I had told her this when I resigned. However, yesterday she threatened to call my new boss and tell her I have a poor attendance record. This is really not true, in that I only took the amount of sick days granted to everyone but for some reason I had gotten in trouble for this awhile back when I had doctor's notes and was even in the hospital for a bad infection. But they even wrote on my last review that I had poor attendance and needed to obey company policies, even though I never thought I did anything wrong. But really after all of that I would not want to stay and jeopardize my time with the other company. I don't really know what to do.

It's unprofessional of your boss to try to blackmail you into staying longer. If she had an issue with your attendance, she should have addressed it with you at the time or utilized the option of discussing it if she received a reference call for you.

You know what? I wouldn't let it bother you at all. Tell her firmly and politely that you're sorry but you already made a commitment to the new company and can't alter it, but that you're willing to do whatever you can to leave things in good order when you go -- i.e., put time into leaving the work you're responsible for organized and in a form that will be understandable to her and your replacement, perhaps even writing a "manual" for your job. But hold firm on the exit date you gave her.

Chances are very good that she's not going to follow through on her threat. If she does, explain to the new company that your boss is reacting poorly to your leaving and tried to push you into staying longer, then blew up when you wouldn't. (Present this in as neutral and unemotional a light as possible; you don't want to sound like you're badmouthing her.) You can explain that you followed company policy on attendance as well. Hold firm -- you're out of there very soon. Congratulations on the new job!

office holiday party tips

I'm lucky enough to work in an office of people I really like, but it has not always been that way. In previous jobs, I had my share of coworkers I preferred not to mingle with. In the spirit of those Christmases past, I bring you these patented Ask a Manager office holiday party tips. This year I am fortunate enough not to need them, but I know plenty of you do.

1. Try to drink things in small glasses, so that your beverage runs dry every few minutes and you have a constant excuse to leave an awkward conversation.

2. If you bring a date, you may not leave them to fend for themselves.

3. Many coworkers will violate rule #2. This can be fascinating. I vividly recall being devastated one year when I discovered that my office nemesis had a fantastically funny and smart wife. (He really was my office nemesis. He introduced me to his wife by saying ominously to her, "You've heard ALL ABOUT HER.") I spent the rest of the evening talking to her, and weeks wondering if her general awesomeness meant my judgment about him was mistaken.

4. Hang out by the bar or food. In addition to the obvious advantages of easy access to the free fare, everyone circulates by you with no effort on your part, and you have something to lean against.

Happy holidays!

Friday, November 30, 2007

update from reader being lowballed by her boss

I just received a fantastic update from the reader who wrote in recently about being ridiculously lowballed on salary by her boss, despite getting glowing feedback and being told she was a model employee. She felt she didn't have enough experience yet to get hired anywhere else, so she felt trapped at a company that was being pretty insulting to her. I and several commenters advised her to re-approach her boss and to look elsewhere if her company wouldn't bend. (Read the original post here.)

Read what's she's managed to do in the 10 days that have passed since -- hopefully it will make you feel as great as it did me:

I cannot thank you and your wonderful "comment-ers" enough for all the help! I read all the comments and I appreciate all the insight. I posted an updated resume on the day before Thanksgiving. That next Monday morning, I got three companies inquiring about an interview! I had to take it down because I got paranoid that my company might see it, since we are also short-staffed!

Armed with the knowledge that there are other jobs out there, I went into the meeting with my boss. Unfortunately, the discussion proved unsuccessful. He said I should be the "best [me] that [I] can be" and not to worry about everyone else. He didn't give me any straight answers and tossed around a whole bunch of cliches about teamwork and only competing against myself. He tried to make me feel guilty and awkward, but his condescending manner helped me make a decision. I resolved to find a better working situation.

After that terrible meeting with my boss, I took the next two days off. I went in for an interview with a company, which happens to be one of our top competitors, and it was amazing. They really liked me and offered me an even better position. The position is very similar to what I do now, but I'll be able to use more of my skill sets. They've offered me a salary position that is DOUBLE what I am making right now. They assured me that the non-compete at my current job will not hold up in court because I started as an entry-level position. As long as I don't take my clients or anything propriety with me, they have no reason to go after me. I accepted the position!! :)

I gave my two weeks notice this afternoon. My boss was shocked! I was very professional, thanked him for everything, and told him that I was pursuing other opportunities. He didn't take it very well. He warned me not to let "company politics sour [my] promising career" and to be more patient but I've already made my decision. I'm worried that this is going to be the MOST AWKWARD two weeks of my life, but I at least I can see a "light at the end of the tunnel."

Thank you so much for encouraging me to be proactive and not let this situation consume me! I cannot believe how great it all worked out! Please also thank your "comment-ers" for me! I "share" this success with you all for motivating me!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

male and female bosses judged differently?

Management Line reports that a new study finds that "female bosses who are seen as unkind or insensitive are judged as worse managers. People, however, are prepared to overlook the same traits displayed by male managers. In other words, male and female managers are judged by different standards."

This adds yet another frustrating layer to that already-infuriating chestnut about authoritative women seeming bitchy, while authoritative men seem like strong leaders. I'll admit that I don't know how much of this is my own internal hang-up, but as a female boss myself, it's sometimes in the back of my mind that I might be being perceived as "bitchy" when I take a hard line with someone, when a man doing the same thing would just be perceived as resolute and authoritative. (I can also think of a couple of occasions in the past where just being friendly and empathetic -- stereotypically "feminine" traits -- has led some men to take me less seriously. I don't think that's happened in a few years though, which might be a result of me becoming ancient and withered.)

If I have to be seen as either the bitch who gets things done or the pushover who doesn't, I'll take "bitch who gets things done." It's infuriating that it has to be a choice, of course; I doubt many men are out there worrying that they're seen as insufficiently sweet.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Incompetent people may have no idea

A fascinating Cornell University study a few years ago found that people who are incompetent tend to dramatically overestimate their own competence, and people who truly are quite competent tend to underestimate their own performance.

This makes a certain sense: After all, if you're incompetent, you're inherently more likely not to be able to competently self-assess (or assess the people you're comparing yourself to). As the researchers write, "Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it."

And if you're competent, you tend to assume others are performing at a similar level to you (since you can't imagine why they wouldn't be), and plus, part of competence is being aware of your own shortcomings.

This study has interesting implications for managers. For one, it reinforces the idea that you must be explicit with employees who aren't meeting your expectations -- particularly about the severity of the problem and what the possible consequences could be. All too often, managers assume that employees surely must know they are in danger of being fired, given all the warnings and serious talks being directed their way, and so they don't bother to spell it out ... and then the employee is shocked when he or she gets fired. The manager is baffled by this surprise, since the person should have seen it coming.

I suspect that many low performers are used to hearing negative feedback from bosses and thus don't process it as a danger sign. So managers should commit to saying the words, "I must warn you that your job is in jeopardy if you don't improve." Don't assume the person should know. If they're as incompetent as you worry they are, there's a good chance they have no idea.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

offensively low pay increase

A reader writes:

I'm a 24 year old black female working for in D.C. This is my first job out of college and I've enthusiastically worked there for a year and two months. I will admit that I agreed to work for an offensively low hourly-rate when I started (in terms of cost of living in D.C. and pay scale of fellow colleagues). I figured that I would prove how valuable I am to the company and they would subsequently pay "to keep me." I am interested in the field and saw it as the ideal entry point to a very competitive and elusive industry. I love challenges and considered it my goal to be the best first-hire they ever had!

In the past year, I've been a model employee and have acquired numerous skills that have made me a valuable resource to the company. I support our second biggest client and the client has noted that our services have been nearly flawless since I joined the team. Also, I am one of a handful of people (all of which have been working in the industry for 5-10 years) that know how to use an application that has become the new industry standard. Additionally, I learned the aforementioned application on my own time and dime. I'm always assigned the harder/more frustrating projects that no one wants to work on. I spend a ridiculous amount of over-time at work, have had to cancel numerous plans in my personal life for the sake of a deadline, and frequently work remotely from home (btw, unpaid hours). I've never complained about ANYTHING because I realize that it's all part of the job and meeting the deadline is the only thing that matters.

After weeks of begging for my annual performance review (two months overdue), my boss agreed to fit me into his schedule this past Friday (2 hours after I was scheduled to clock-out, but I was just glad to get a reply that wasn't "maybe some time next week"). I was really excited because my colleagues have said wonderful things about me and raised my hopes by saying I would definitely be offered a salary position due to my unprecedented improvement in such a short time. Also, a fellow employee with less experience than me, who started only a week before me, bragged that it is "so freeing" to no longer have to clock-in and out because he was salary now. He even asked me if payroll had messed up my time-sheet during the transition from hourly to salary, thinking that I had already had my review. Since he started a week before me, he assumed that I got my review a week after his. He got his review at the scheduled time, while I had to constantly remind my boss that I was due for mine and he kept postponing it. For two months!!

This leads me to my problem. As you may have guessed, the review did not go as planned. My boss said amazing and very encouraging things about me. He said he wished he had other employees like me and even suggested that I teach specific skills and applications to the employee that I mentioned earlier. He said he knew no one else who he would want new hires to "learn good habits from."

That brings us to wage negotiation time. I thought salary position is in the bag! However, the raise that he offered me was a measly $1.80 hourly increase and a title change from specialist to analyst! I was dumbfounded! All I could utter was, "analyst position doesn't come with a salary?" He said that normally it does, but that because I'd only been working for a year , HR would not allow him to offer me a salary position. He said he campaigned for salary pay on my behalf, but HR has very strict rules in regards to that matter. This time next year I would be eligible for salary, but I still needed more time "under my belt." This is a complete lie because the other employee is now salaried and he only preceded me by a week! I was speechless and felt so disrespected and unappreciated that all my effort was spent on holding back the tears and gaining my composure. While I was trying to calm down the rising rage and trying to formulate a logical unemotional argument, he tells me that he has another meeting in a couple of minutes and if I was "okay" with what he was offering. He starts to look at his blackberry and shuffle papers around. The panic sets in and all my acquired knowledge on salary negotiations and any sense of self-confidence is destroyed. I stupidly stammered "that's cool...that's cool..that's cool" repeatedly and before I know it, I signed the review form, shook his hand, and was on the other side of his door. I stood there for a couple of minutes blinking back tears, but paralyzed otherwise.

Am I a fool for expecting them to value my contributions to the company? He knows how much of myself I give to my work and he still screwed me over. Why?! Is it because of my race? I am one of four black people in a 15-people department. Is it because of my gender? I am the only woman working in the department. Is it because I started at such a low pay scale, he thinks that I will always accept the minimum? Did I set a bad precedent from day one? As a manager, isn't his best interest in keeping me, a model employee, happy? Or, is his real goal to save the company money, by any means necessary...even at my expense. I'm heartbroken, and deep down I know it's irrational to be this emotional about it, but I really have put so much of myself into my work and therefore this slight is that much more insulting. Can I pursue legal action? Should I?

I read all these articles about how women in the workplace aren't assertive enough and that this is their biggest problem when it comes to the negotiation table, and feel empowered that this knowledge will help me combat that pitfall. But, here I am, just another statistic. I don't know what to do at this point. I've thought about moving on to another company, but my company has a very strict non-compete policy and my measly one year experience is not going to have our competitors willing to fight for me. Also, all the available jobs require at least 2-3 years of industry experience. Am I being ridiculous, too emotional, or am I justified?

I'm so sorry that this is so long. I just really needed to get this off my chest and to talk to someone about it. THANK YOU SO MUCH for your time and allowing me to vent. I would really appreciate any insight you may have.

First, I'm so sorry to hear about your situation! I can imagine how upsetting this is.

My guess -- and I could be wrong -- is that this company tries to lowball people whenever they can, and they're just hoping they can lowball you and you'll accept it. You're going to have to push back and negotiate.

My advice is this: Ask to meet with your manager again this week. Tell him that you've had time to think about your conversation and you're confused about his inability to switch you to a salaried position. Ask explicitly whether there is a company-wide policy that requires working a certain amount of time at your level before becoming eligible for a salary, or whether HR is just pushing back in your particular case. If he tells you it's the former, well, there may not be a lot you can do. But I think there's a good chance it will come out that it's the latter -- in which case, tell him that you believe your performance warrants a better salary offer and that you'd like some time (a few days or a week) to prepare a memo laying out your reasons. (I'm suggesting a memo rather than an on-the-spot conversation because I think you're upset enough about this that you'll be better able to present a thorough case in writing.)

He may look at you wearily, tell you not to worry about doing that, and that he'll see what he can do (and then hopefully come back to you shortly with a better offer). Or he may just look uncomfortable and say okay. If so, your next step is to write a memo (as brief as possible, because you want them to actually read the whole thing) laying out your case, citing comments from your evaluation, etc.

I think you can get yourself more money if you firmly explain why you've earned it. But if it turns out this is a company that's shortsighted about pay, don't lose sight of the fact that you're not stuck there. With more experience under your belt now, you can go out and find a job that will properly compensate you. Don't be deterred by job ads that say two to three years of experience is required. Those are more like wish lists, and you can absolutely make a case for yourself as a strong candidate despite having less experience. (And cite some of those great comments from your review in your cover letter. Someone smart will snatch you up.)

Now, on the issue of legal action -- If you think you can make a clear case that his reasons are discriminatory, it's always an option, but you're talking about spending a lot of money and even more energy and emotion on something that tends to be hard to prove. It also won't solve your problem in the short run, since these cases can take years. So unless it's egregiously obvious, I'd say to try other avenues before even thinking about whether that's something you want to take on.)

Ultimately, my advice is to address this head on, tell your boss firmly what you want (you might even suggest a specific salary), and see what happens. Make it clear you know your own worth. You could even say that you accepted a lower-than-market salary early on because you hadn't proven yourself yet, but now you have -- as evidenced by his own comments about your performance.

But if it turns out the company just isn't willing to budge, you will find somewhere that will value you in the way they should. Please write back and update us, and good luck!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

announcing an employee is leaving

A reader writes:

We are a medium size company with around 500 employees. I need your advice on how to handle and communicate the fact that the HR head is quitting without triggering any negativity. (The HR head is an average performer, joined as an Assistant Manager HR 5 years and is now Manager of HR.) What is the best way to communicate to all employees and how to soften the presumably moderate blow? (There is a period of notice of 6 weeks. The person has already served 2 weeks. There is no immediate replacement. Till the next person joins, the present Assistant Manager will take control.)

Is there any reason to fear negativity? After all, all employees move on eventually.

I would simply send an all-staff email (or issue an all-staff memo, depending on the culture and practices of your company). It should announce that after five years with the company, the HR head has decided to move on and her last day will be ___. The company thanks her for her years of service (name some of her successes and personal qualities here if you can) and wishes her all the best. And until a replacement is hired, the Assistant HR Manager will be running that department.

Employees know people move on. You're likely overestimating the fall-out from the news. However, do get it out there officially pretty soon -- otherwise it will start leaking out and you'll get rumors instead.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Carnival of HR

The next Carnival of HR is now up at Guerilla HR. Check it out.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

deathbed advice

I'm taking Etienne at The Happy Employee up on his challenge to list five things I'd tell managers if I were about to die. Here they are:

1. Look for trouble. Assume things will go wrong and poke around to find out what they might be. You'll often uncover problems this way and have an earlier chance to fix them. Ask questions; don't wait for problems to come to you.

2. Do what you say you're going to do, by when you say you're going to do it, or update people accordingly. (A subset of this: Be responsive. If people have to follow up with you to get a response, you're not being responsive enough. It only takes 30 seconds to write, "I won't have time to look at this until next week." If nothing else, let people know where things stand.)

3. Ask for help when you need it. If you're overwhelmed, confused, exhausted, do not suffer in silence. A good boss will want to hear from you if you're approaching the end of your rope.

4. Be honest with your staff about the hard things. Even if you're uncomfortable addressing shortcomings, tell them where they can improve. Don't value your own comfort over their ability to grow and improve. And if deep down you don't believe they can succeed in their current position, talk honestly with them about that too.

And along the way, treat people with compassion, even in the hardest moments, like terminating someone. Don't assume anyone is stupid, insubordinate, or unmotivated; at worst, they are miscast (to steal a phrase from the great Marcus Buckingham). Truly believe this, because doing so will magically change the entire tenor of the experience for both of you.

5. You can't give too much positive feedback, as long as it's sincere. Seriously. It's like handing out chocolate. Take a minute right now to send a positive email or make a positive comment. Trust me, that email will be read over and over. You can make someone's day with only one minute of your time.

Monday, November 12, 2007

conducting strong performance evaluations

I'm embarrassed to admit that this is the first year I'm giving our managers detailed training on how to conduct good performance reviews. In the past, I've sent them forms to use and a few words of encouragement, and not much else. In retrospect, this was a crazy plan, since most people haven't done many of these in their careers and people have different ideas about how to go about them.

So this year I'm doing a group training for managers. In addition to talking about the specifics of our forms, especially the nuances of our rating categories, I'm also going to cover the following:

1. Why do we do performance appraisals when our goal is to be giving feedback on a regular, ongoing basis through the year? Answer: To provide a substantive, overall assessment of employees' performance and ensure the manager and employee are on the same page; to provide suggestions for growth and improvement, helping fair performers become good and good performers become great; to provide an opportunity to delegate more responsibility to the employee; to find out how the employee is doing internally – happy, thinking of leaving in the next year, wanting more responsibility, etc.; and in the case of poor performers, to send (additional) clear messages about needed improvements and to supplement documentation in the event termination becomes necessary.

2. How long should a manager expect to spend on the process? Answer: Plan to allow at least an hour to write each appraisal, if not more, and allow another hour to meet with each employee individually. And no matter how tempting procrastination may be, don't put it off, since it sends a terrible message to the employee when their evaluation is delayed and delayed.

3. Be specific and use examples to illustrate your points, both when praising and when identifying areas for improvement. For instance, you could say "you did a great job with the new inventory system," but it's more effective to say "your revamping of the inventory system has saved the company money and I've heard several people comment about how much easier you've made it to find the supplies they need."

4. Be honest and direct about problem areas. If you have any complaints/concerns, they must be included. Potentially uncomfortable, yes, but it's also your obligation as a manager. (And if you ever find yourself needing to defend a firing in court, you'll be in real trouble if the plaintiff's performance reviews were misleadingly positive.)

5. Be specific about what can be done to improve. Note that that says "can be done," not "needs to be done." That's because even if someone is doing a good job, you should still take the opportunity to tell them how they could to move from good to great.

And be sure to be specific here too. Don't just say "work faster" when you could say "process all checks within three days and respond to customer emails within two days."

6. Pay attention to the overall picture you're painting. I've seen managers write bizarrely lukewarm evaluations for employees I know they love and would devastated to lose. Likewise, if the employee is a mess and needs to make major improvements, make sure that comes through in the overall message. Make sure that the sum of the parts adds up to the correct whole.

7. What if the employee has struggled with something all year but recently improved? What if he or she has done well all year but recently had a major error? Answer: Resist the temptation to be overly influenced by recent events; the evaluation is (in most cases) for the whole year, not just the last few months. That said, if someone has struggled all year but improved recently, be sure to note that so the person doesn't feel his or her efforts are unnoticed.

8. Consider getting feedback (in confidence) from others who work closely with the employee. You may find out aspects of the person's performance, both good and bad, that you didn't know about.

Anyone want to add to this list? I'd welcome more ideas.

challenges to your ego

There's a brilliant post up today at HR Thoughts about controlling your ego and not getting defensive when your decisions are challenged:

"Let's say that someone comes into your office and questions a policy, practice or procedure of yours. Or, you send an e-mail to communicate some not so great news and one of the recipients tells you that it did not come across well and caused some hard feelings. Or, you make a decision (definitely your decision to make), you get a look at your conscience via another person's raised eyebrows. What do you do?" Read the rest here.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Have you planned for a personnel disaster?

Seriously, disasters happen. People go AWOL, get seriously ill, leave without notice, get caught embezzling and are escorted out that day, etc. How screwed you will be when that happens depends largely on how well you plan ahead to minimize the impact of such disasters.

In my office, we call it the "hit by a bus" plan. The idea is to document enough key information that if someone gets hit by a bus tomorrow, their department would be able to continue functioning. (We're a sensitive bunch.) This means that information related to the job is all written down in a formal manual, not just recorded in someone's head.

Each staffer is responsible for keeping his or her own "hit by a bus" manual up-to-date with information about contacts, passcodes, procedures, notes about key non-staff personalities that they interact with regularly, etc. It's included in everyone's job description and it's one of the items we evaluate managers on when we do annual evaluations.

I cannot recommend it highly enough. There's enough chaos when you unexpectedly lose a staff member; you will be relieved not to be scrambling for these basics.

using a personal connection when applying for a job

A reader writes:

I saw an ad on one of the online sites for a job I want to apply for. So I went to the firm's address and found the job and there was a link to apply. The thing is that I don't trust the apply online sites. Most of the time, even if I am very qualified for a job, I never hear back. I know of the person who is the director of the department that the job is in, we are members of the same professional organization. Would it be bad form to just send my resume and cover letter to her? The online site does not even have a place to add a cover letter.

If you have a personal connection at the company, you should absolutely take advantage of it and send your materials directly to her. This would be true even if your contact there were in a completely unrelated department -- but since she's even in the same department you're applying to (and possibly the manager of the position since she's the director), this is an ideal set-up.

It's always better to use a personal in if you have one. You can even use a friend's personal in, if your friend is willing. The idea is just to get a live person to shepherd your application along. Good luck!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Carnival of HR #19

The latest Carnival of HR is up at HRO Manager. Check it out.

For the record, I'm a she rather than a he, but I'm not complaining.

Update: My gender has been corrected in the Carnival, but I'm leaving this here since the posts in the comments section are fascinating.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

how should new managers be trained?

It's practically cliche at this point to point out that new managers don't get enough training in the art of management, but I haven't seen a lot delineating exactly what topics new managers should be trained in.

Here's what I have on my outline for training new managers:

1. What exactly is a manager responsible for? I posted a list of manager responsibilities here recently.

2. Oversight: How to determine the appropriate amount and how to exercise it. Some employees need more interaction and oversight than others, and it's the manager’s job to determine how much is appropriate for each employee. What systems will the manager use for checking in and staying apprised of her employees' projects?

3. Feedback: the importance of giving regular feedback, making sure that employees know what they do well and where they need to improve. Withholding criticism out of fear of hurting an employee’s feelings does that employee a disservice, and that if a manager has complaints or concerns about an employee and the employee doesn’t know it, the problem lies more with the manager than with the employee. (And similarly, if you have an employee who rocks your world and the employee doesn't know that, something is wrong.)

4. Morale: the importance of looking out for staffers' morale and quality of life.

5. Public image: how to make sure employees are maintaining the organization's public image.

6. Employee policies: managers need to be familiar with all employee policies and understand that applying them inconsistently could create legal consequences. I scare them about these legal consequences.

7. Working with other department: how to work most effectively with other departments and the need to act in a gatekeeper role when other departments send work your way. How should the manager handle conflicting priorities?

8. Determining when to escalate things up the ladder and when the manager is authorized to act on her own.

9. Staff performance problems: what's expected of managers when a staffer is struggling, tools available to a manager in such situations, and how to be clear, direct, and specific about the standards of a job.

That's the basic outline that I use at the outset. Then I try to mentor new managers, so as challenging situations come up, I can hopefully help them navigate them.

What's on your own list for training managers? Or what do you wish someone had trained your manager in?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

offer never materialized

A reader writes:

I have worked for the last five years as a non-traditional, part-time student assistant at a campus job while working on my "four year" undergraduate degree. The very unofficial title I’ve earned over the years is "media guy"; I transfer nearly century old films and audio items to digital, more accessible mediums for students and researchers. I don’t actually have a degree in these areas, but many archives utilize people with life experience in these areas, rather than only degreed archivists with no or little real world experience with these items.

Between my second and fourth years there, both our director and our office manager repeatedly suggested that I would be a great addition to their staff after graduation, to the point where our director even threw out hypothetical salary figures on several occasions. With graduation growing close, I asked our director about the specific details of this position. He got very nervous, and said that he wasn’t sure how soon or even if he could create a position. He then asked me how many weeks it would take for me to TRAIN SOMEONE ELSE to do all of the things that it took me years to teach myself while in this position. Later that day, when an employee confronted our director about this situation, his response was that he "never PROMISED me a job there."

Despite these events, and against my better judgment, I stayed on the job to complete some ongoing projects that I didn’t want to leave unfinished. My part-time contract has been extended until December, yet they are starting to outsource projects that had previously been discussed with me. They are also interviewing student assistants with more media-based backgrounds. They haven’t found anyone (yet) with the diverse knowledge and experience that I have with these different tasks and items, but they seem to be trying.

The strange thing is that if this was a retail position, I would have had no problem telling my boss that he was a liar and then just moved on to another job. But I fear that I won’t find another position somewhere that allows me access to such interesting and historical items.
Does it sound like I should even try to secure a position there? Any thoughts?

It sounds like your director is not a very good manager (or handler of sticky conversations), but I'm not sure he's a liar.

It sounds like your director realized that he can't create a new staff position for you, even though he had hoped to be able to. Since he seemed very happy with your work, this is presumably due to there being no money in his budget for it, or someone above him nixing the idea. In and of itself, that's not his fault -- it's true that he never made you a promise, and it's not unusual to talk with good student workers about the possibility of further employment without knowing for sure that it will pan out. (As a general rule, don't rely on any job prospect until an actual offer is made.)

However, he is handling it badly. When he realized that there wasn't going to be a new position, he should have told you forthrightly, saying something like: "You've been a tremendous asset to us and I wish we were able to create a position for you. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make that happen, so I know we're going to lose you when you graduate. Since graduation is getting close, let's talk soon about the transition and figure out what the training process should be for the next student. Meanwhile, I hope I can help you in your job search."

He skipped delivering the hard part of this news, and as a result, he's generated bad feelings and destroyed your loyalty. Had he been straightforward with you, you likely would have been disappointed but understood, and presumably would have happily helped train the next student before graduating. I recommend that you still approach it that way, since if it's handled amicably, your director and other coworkers may be fruitful sources of job leads, contacts, and recommendations.

getting the raise you've earned

A reader writes:

So what happens after you explain and show the measurable amounts (just shy of $1 million savings in the current year) you have saved the company.....and you have it explained away as "you did your job" when a pay raise is discussed? As a leader I absolutely understand this statement, but as a subordinate....I really do not.

I was hired a year ago into this position that two former managers held for a combined time of less than 1 year. One even left within 40 days of being hired because of the difficult position and environment . I did negotiate my salary up front, but based on my performance, numerous dramatic changes I have made, a now more cohesive workforce I have turned around and others, I felt asking was justified. Do I just wait or ???

Does the company have a set time each year to conduct salary reviews? Or is there nothing formal in place? If there's a set annual time, you're probably close to it since you've been there a year, so it may be a conversation to have then. If there's no time formally set aside for this conversation, it's certainly not unreasonable to ask for a salary review after a year of employment.

Since it sounds like you've already done step #1 in asking for a raise (demonstrating the accomplishments that warrant it), my advice now is to ask what you would need to accomplish in order to earn a raise. If your boss can't articulate what a raise-worthy performance would look like, or why he or she isn't willing to review your salary after a year in the job, you may be caught in a short-sighted company that doesn't understand compensation, in which case you may need to look for one that does.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

rejecting job candidates

In a post today, Penelope Trunk talks about the advantages of rejecting bad candidates on the spot -- for instance, telling them at the end of the phone interview that they're not among the strongest candidates and you're going to be focusing on others.

I will occasionally do this, but more often than not, even if I know during the phone interview that the candidate isn't right for the position, I won't reject them then and there. Instead, they'll receive a (very nice) rejection email within a few days. My reason for this is that some candidates will try to argue with you, continue trying to sell themselves, or try to talk you into reversing your decision and, frankly, it's not up for debate (if I'm rejecting a candidate on the spot, it's because there's absolutely no doubt in my mind). This is the same reason why I never do rejections by phone.

Monday, October 22, 2007

what are managers responsible for?

Later this week I will write about how I train new managers, but first let's answer this question: What are managers responsible for? It sounds simple, but all too often people can't give a comprehensive answer.

Yes, managers are responsible for "getting stuff done," but let's break it down. Managers are responsible for ensuring the following are true:
  • all employees are doing their jobs correctly, thoroughly, and on time

  • expectations and goals are clear

  • conflicting priorities are addressed and readjusted as needed

  • objectives and goals are being met or exceeded

  • key information is conveyed up the ladder, to the manager's manager or others who might need to know

  • employees are given a level of oversight appropriate to their position and abilities

  • good employees feel appreciated, heard, and as if someone is “looking out” for them

  • employees are given regular feedback about their performance, including what they do well and where they need to improve, with special attention toward low performers to ensure they improve or are transitioned out

  • staffers are representing the company and department appropriately to the public and various stakeholders

  • employees are following company policies

  • there is a plan in place to ensure continuity if disaster were to strike (for instance, if a key staffer were to disappear tomorrow, is there a way for you to access passwords, important documents, and the other information someone would need to step in?)
And, finally, and hugely important, managers are responsible for ensuring results in their realms. Concrete, measurable results.

What else would you add to this list?

i love me some humility

I have a pet peeve: job applicants who tell me in their cover letter that they are without any doubt "the best" candidate for the job.

This amazingly bold statement is often made by candidates who, in fact, match very few of the requirements of the job. But even if that weren't the case, come on. You don't know who the other candidates are, and (unless you're an internal candidate) you don't know the needs of the job intimately. It comes across as overly cocky, naive bluster.

I understand why people do this -- they've been told they're supposed to display confidence. But humility matters too (and it's rare that I've hired a candidate without some).

Carnival of HR #18

The Carnival of HR #18 is now up at the HR Capitalist. Check it out!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

do you conduct entry interviews?

Exit interviews of employees who are leaving are a great way to collect information about how the organization can do things better -- but why not get that information before the employee is halfway out the door? Even better, why not get it early on in an employee's tenure, so you can use the information to improve their experience and productivity, catch issues early, and get the fresh perspective of someone not already steeped in "the way we do it"?

Here's what I ask when I conduct "entry interviews," which I do with every new employee a month or two after they start:

Did your job turn out to be as you expected it would be when you were being hired? How did the reality differ from your expectations when you first joined us?

What improvements could be made to the way you were oriented and trained for your role?

What areas would you like additional training or help with?

Do you have a good understanding of what all our other departments do and who to go to for what?

Are you getting enough feedback? Are you clear on what's expected of you and how you're doing?

How’s your workload?

Are there any policies or rules here that seem silly or frustrating to you? Are there any obstacles that make doing your job more difficult?

Is there anything that would improve your quality of life at work?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

reference requests when you can't give a good one

I love to serve as a reference for most former employees. But I've also occasionally been asked to be a reference for employees who I can't honestly recommend.

Here are some ways to handle reference requests when you can't recommend the candidate:

1. Whenever possible, warn the employee in advance that you won't be able to provide a positive reference. You may still receive calls from reference-checkers who go outside of the list of references provided by the candidate, but this should minimize it.

2. There's an easy out if the employee worked for you more than a couple of years ago: You can explain to the reference-checker (or the employee herself) that you don't feel equipped to be a reference since her work for you was so long ago and you can't remember the types of nuances that reference-checkers are looking for.

3. If the employment was more recent and #2 isn't feasible, you can fall back on saying you can only confirm title and dates of employment. (Although be prepared for a savvy reference-checker to ask if this is your policy across the board or just for this candidate, or to offer you a release from the candidate.)

4. Last, consider honesty. Frankly, as someone who has to check references myself, I'm grateful when I encounter the rare reference willing to be candid about weaknesses. After all, reference checking (and the whole hiring process, for that matter) is all about finding out if the candidate and the job are a good match. If they're not a good match and it's not uncovered until it's too late, the company will be stuck with a poor performer and the employee will be stuck struggling in a job and maybe even losing it down the road.

However, if you do choose to provide a reference for a poor performer, stick to objective facts you can prove. (Despite corporate paranoia about defamation cases, employers are permitted to provide negative references as long as they're truthful -- but you must be able to prove what you said was indeed true.)

Monday, October 8, 2007

was I ready for a career leap?

A reader writes:

After spending about a year in a post-college entry-level position, I was recently terminated from a new job that I'd hoped was going to be a major step forward in my career. (We're talking a nearly 35 percent pay raise and an operation three or four times bigger than where I started.)

I'll spare you the gory details, but it will suffice to say that my former bosses admitted that my work ethic had been satisfactory and a lack of effort was not the problem. Rather, there was a discrepancy between the level of guidance I had hoped would support my continued growth and the amount of time my former bosses expected direct supervisors to have to spend actually working with me. At the very least, I'm clear that one of my mistakes was not asking the right questions in the interview process to understand what I was getting myself into.

Nevertheless, my question is what this means going forward. I'm just as confident in my talent as I ever was, but less so in my unseasoned ability to translate that into results. Still, I'm concerned that going back to an entry-level position could set back my career and leave prospective future employers questioning why I couldn't stay on a bigger stage. Should I take the assessment of my former bosses to mean that I need more time to grow in an entry-level position, or should I try to focus on re-acquiring a sort of "second step" job again (better armed with the first experience this time)?

It sounds as though your employer was looking for someone who could step into the job with little training (presumably aside from the usual training specific to the company, which one would give even the most seasoned veteran in his or her first weeks). That's not unusual on its face.

So, the question that naturally arises from your note is: Would a reasonable person considering you for the job have believed that you could step into the job and succeed with only a modicum of training? Would your skills and past experience make this a reasonable proposition, or would a company have to have taken a massive leap of faith to proceed this way?

If the answer is "massive leap of faith," the company owed it to you to say something at the outset like: "We're taking a big leap of faith here. Normally we'd look for someone with more experience in x, y, and z, but we think you have enough potential that you're going to be able to overcome your lack of experience and do well. But because of the experience gap, you're going to need to spend extra time learning the industry and how we do things. Here are some suggestions for where to start." Then you'd know what you were getting into and how much help (if any) you could expect from them. You'd also have the chance to consider whether you even wanted to take a job that was likely to be more than the usual challenge.

Now, if the answer is not "massive leap of faith" and instead a reasonable person would have assumed you would thrive in the job without significant training and guidance (based on your resume and interview), then we have a different situation on our hands. In that case, I'd ask you this: What sorts of things were you looking to your boss for help with? How often? How much time did you need of theirs in an average week? Were you looking for confirmation that your approach was the right one, or were you unsure of what that approach should even be? If you were being asked to make judgment calls in a way that was new to you (likely since you're early in your career), were you simply uncomfortable doing so because that was new ground for you, or were you uncomfortable doing so because you truly felt unqualified to do it? (Please feel free to write back or post in the Comments section if you want to answer any of this slew of questions!)

It's possible you were an extremely conscientious employee who misread the signals your boss was sending you about how autonomous you should be. It's also possible you simply found yourself in a job you weren't quite ready for. In either case, it sounds like you found yourself in a job that required you to exercise more independent judgment than you felt comfortable with.

Here's what I can tell you for sure: Many employers will want you to tackle the job without significant guidance or training (and the ones that will be willing to invest more time in training you should discuss this up front). So when you're interviewing for new positions, this is a great question to explore in the interview. Ask what kind of training they envision, how much autonomy they'd like the person to have, what sort of learning curve they expect, even what kinds of backgrounds their most successful employees have brought to that position in the past. You'll get a good idea of whether you'd be comfortable moving forward.

The fact that you're considering this question bodes well, in my opinion. Good luck!

Friday, September 28, 2007

update from reader irritated by her boss

I just received an update from the reader who wrote in recently about being fed up with her manager, who wasn't giving her enough information about projects, didn't give her time to talk with him, and engaged in a variety of other annoying habits. Several commenters and I advised her on ways to neutralize his weirdnesses. (Read the original post here.)

She writes:
"I'm not sure whether some of the strategies are working, or whether it's just a general change, but my relationship with my boss is really going well at the moment. There is a much better communication level and he has more realisation of exactly what I am spending my time on, so he values it more. I'm really loving coming to work at the moment."

I'm sure this indicates I need more of a life, but this made my day.

Monday, September 24, 2007

alternatives to firing

I believe in transitioning out employees who aren't working out, but it doesn't always have to be by firing.

A few years ago, I had an employee whose work was pretty good (although not stellar) but who frequently got frustrated and resentful over several demands of the job, snapped at people, and constantly needed to be talked down from freak-outs.

We had conversation after conversation about his attitude, and nothing changed, so I finally decided to try a different approach -- one that I now think was far more realistic at its core. I told him that I knew he was frustrated by these particular things but that they simply weren't going to change, that they were inherent parts of the job, and that I didn't want us to be constantly battling over them ... and that rather than trying to force himself into a job that obviously was making him frustrated and stressed, I wanted to see him figure out if he could really be happy in the position, knowing that the things he was complaining about weren't going to change. I asked him to take a couple of days and think about whether he wanted the job in its current form (as opposed to the job he kept trying to change it into), and that if he decided it just wasn't for him, there was no shame in that and we'd do everything we could to help him in the transition out.

A couple of days later, he told me that he had thought about it and realized he should move on. We had a really smooth transition over the next month, he trained his replacement, I helped him brainstorm about jobs he'd be happy in, and on his last day he told me that he was shocked that such a potentially awful conversation had actually been pleasant. Since he's been gone, he's stayed in touch, periodically sending me helpful leads and information.

He lives on in my mind as an example of how exasperating situations can work out with all parties happy. The key was taking away any hint of adversariness and genuinely talking honestly with each other.

Marcus Buckingham talks a bit about this in his book First Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently. He points out that bad hires often aren't bad employees because they're stupid, obstinate, or insubordinate but rather because they are "miscast." Making this mental switch can change the entire way you deal with struggling performers, making the entire process much more pleasant for all involved.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Carnival of HR #16

Carnival of HR #16 is now up over at the Evil HR Lady, who continues to be my hero(ine). Check it out here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

where's the raise I was promised?

A reader writes:

I work for a small (13 staff members), quickly growing non-profit organization. When I received my original offer, I was told that there would be an informal performance AND salary review at 3 months. I made the very unwise decision to not negotiate my starting salary based on this promise, because I looked upon it as an opportunity to show them what I was worth, as well as to determine that for myself.

3 months came and went, during which time the organization was going through some major -- but expected -- transitions (moving office locations and bringing in a new president), and my promised performance/salary review never happened. At about 6 months, my original hiring manager was asked to leave the organization (on good terms; his position had become redundant). Shortly thereafter, I spoke with our new president about the promise of a 3 month review, to which he expressed surprise (over both the promise of it, as well as the fact that it had never occurred), and said that while he thought I was indeed wonderful at my job, he did not feel prepared or qualified to provide a review, given the short period of time he'd had to observe/get to know me. He asked for my patience as he and the management team devised an official review process, and specifically said that it was something he hoped to have in place "in August."

I've now been with the organization for 9+ (grossly underpaid!) months and have never had a performance review or a salary review. August has come and gone, and still no progress. I respect and admire my boss very much, genuinely love my job, and am confident that I will indeed be reviewed sooner rather than later (around my 1 year anniversary). My question is two-fold: What salary-related advice do you have for those working in the non-profit sector, and how can I come out of this salary review with what I believe to be an appropriate raise, given that I did not negotiate my starting salary based on the promise of a review after 3 months. Had I been reviewed (and bumped up at that time), I would have had another review at the 1 year mark, which would have meant TWO potential raises in the first year, as opposed to one. My fear is that I will come out of my 1 year review with the salary I should have started at -- or at the very least should have been bumped up to at 3 months.

I'm well-equipped in terms of a laundry list of my increased responsibilities, and the ways in which I've added value to the organization, and also have information about what individuals with similar experience in similar positions at other non-profits are earning, but am seeking your advice on the conversation itself, and how to best present the fact that I'm seeking as significant raise (somewhere in the neighborhood of 15%).

Uh oh. As you probably know, it's easiest to negotiate for more money before you've accepted the job offer. You'll likely never find it that easy later on. And if you do negotiate an arrangement to review your salary x months in, make sure that you get it in writing -- and then bring it up yourself when the time comes (and keep bringing it up until it happens).

15% is a very large raise, and a lot of employers just wouldn't be willing to do that. You might end up having to chalk this one up to a lesson learned. However, here's what I think would maximize your chance of getting a larger-than-otherwise raise at your one-year mark: At the time of your performance review, remind your manager that as part of your initial salary negotiations, you agreed to a lower starting salary in exchange for a salary review three months in, with the mutual assumption that by that point you would have proven your worth and your salary would get bumped up. Since that didn't happen because of personnel changes around that time, you're now asking for that to be factored into your one-year raise and you believe this would get you back into compliance with the spirit of the original negotiations.

Will this work? Maybe. They're not going to want you to feel you're being treated unfairly, but if the person who set this original arrangement with you is no longer there, they also may not want to feel bound by an arrangement they don't know anything about. I think it's worth a shot though; just go into it with realistic expectations.

And by the way, make sure you do get a salary review at the one-year mark. If they don't bring it up, you should.

All that said, I'll be the first to admit that I am not good at negotiating, so I'm hoping that others will jump in with some input on this one.

Monday, September 17, 2007

7 ways interviewing is like dating

1. Desperation is not attractive. When you're seeking a job, you're not asking someone to do a favor for you; you're offering the company something they want in exchange for getting something you want.

2. Be choosy and deliberative and don't just take the first thing that comes along.

3. Make your interest personal, not generic. Ask questions and express a genuine interest. Your interviewer wants to feel you want this job, not a job.

4. Use flattery. I'll admit it, when a candidate says complimentary things about the company and the interview process, I like it. I had a candidate recently tell me that the interview process itself made him more interested in working for us, because it was rigorous enough that he could tell we really cared about getting the right fit. Is there anything more attractive than someone who values the things about us that we value about ourselves? I swooned a little bit.

5. Remember to ask if you like them, not just if they like you. Sometimes people get so hung up on getting the job offer (or the next date) that they forget to assess whether it's even compatible with what they want.

6. Don't badmouth your exes. If a candidate complains about a former boss, I'll wonder if he is the problem.

7. Keep your ego in check. Be able to talk about your weaknesses in a way that shows self-awareness and humility.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

irritated by manager

A reader writes:

I'm working at my first full-time job, and I've been here for just over a year. The company is pretty small, only about 20 people, but still much larger than my last job where there was about six of us. We were all very close, and any issues were usually dealt with quickly and in a friendly manner. Smaller things were ignored - we figured that everybody did something that irritated other people, and we all learned to let the small things go.

At my new job, I'm having some issues with my manager and I don't know what to do. I feel like they are small things, but there are so many of them that I find I am stewing over them constantly when I am at work, making me snap at others, and I am brooding over them at home, making me a bore to my family and friends. Things like:

* He constantly checks his email when he and I have meetings in his office.

* He often talks for 20 minutes about his personal life in meetings and then wants to race through the work issues I need to discuss because he has another meeting to get to.

* Not giving me enough information about tasks, and ignoring requests from me for the missing information, which results in me stuck halfway through a project.

* A lack of energy in projects not his own - anything he wants has to happen immediately, anything I request happens when he feels like it, after two or three reminders, or when the General Manager asks for an update.

* A lack of willingness to understand what other people do, and very bad listening skills; he constantly cuts people off and interrupts them.

* Not keeping any company stationary in his own office and when he wants an envelope, etc. he walks over to my desk and goes through my pile of envelopes without even asking me, while I'm sitting at the desk (rather than go to the stationary cupboard).

* Having a "sense of fun" and a "relaxed atmosphere in the office" which equates to him doing and saying things I dislike and find completely inappropriate for a work environment. On one memorable occasion, I returned from two weeks away to find a colleague who sits right outside his door would flinch every time I screwed up a piece of paper. When I asked what was going on, she said the manager was now in the habit of screwing up paper and throwing it at her. This has now stopped, but I am stunned that he thought it was acceptable in the first place!

My problem is that I don't know what to do about this. Other people in the office have approached me about these issues and feel the same way. The manager is a nice guy and I'm sure would feel awful that we feel this way about him, but it is really affecting my enjoyment at work and my ability to do my work in some cases. There are no performance reviews where I can anonymously let him know how I feel, and I know it would be excruciating to say this to his face, so what should I do? The work is actually very boring, and there is no possibility of advancement, so I'm looking for another job anyway. Should I just deal with it until I can go?

Sometimes when you're frustrated at work about legitimate issues, smaller things start to take on a life of their own and irritate you in a way that they wouldn't in a different context. I think that might be going on here.

You have a job you're bored in and a manager you don't like or find supportive. You're looking for another job, but meanwhile, you're letting yourself get upset about some things that are the sort of thing you're likely to find in any job. My advice is to step back and separate the substantive issues from the ones that are just irritating you because, well, you're irritated.

Let's take these one by one:

He constantly checks his email when he and I have meetings in his office. This is annoying, I agree. But he's also your boss and -- I hate to say it -- it's his prerogative to do it. The most you can do is to say something like, "Should I come back at another time?" But in the end, this is one you should just try to ignore; you're going to encounter it from many future bosses, I'm sorry to say. (For the record, I don't advocate it, but I do know there have been times when I have a million things going on and I need to glance at my email in a meeting. I would never do it in, say, someone's performance review meeting or just to distract myself, but there are certain times when I think the boss is entitled to do it.)

He often talks for 20 minutes about his personal life in meetings and then wants to race through the work issues I need to discuss because he has another meeting to get to. Talking about his personal life when you need to be talking about work is not good. Try to head this off as soon as you sit down for the meeting, by announcing at the outset that you have a long list of issues to get through. If that doesn't work, respond politely to whatever off-topic remark he makes and then bring it right back to what you need to talk about. For example: "That sounds like you had a great weekend. Well, what I wanted to ask you about was ...." Approach it as if the onus is on you to get the time you need from him. Not necessarily fair, but it'll be more effective.

Not giving me enough information about tasks, and ignoring requests from me for the missing information, which results in me stuck halfway through a project. Be aggressive here too. Do what it takes to get the info you need from him, or find other ways of getting it. Sometimes it can work to be very specific about your need, saying something like, "I need to talk with you about this by tomorrow afternoon or I won't be able to complete it by the deadline." If this doesn't work, consider having a big-picture conversation with him, asking him how he would prefer you handle such situations.

Sometimes people, particularly people early in their careers, assume that the responsibility for making sure they have what they need to do the job is their boss's. But in fact, it's yours. A good boss will check in with you and proactively ask what you might need to move things along, but you can't let your own success rely on having a good boss; they are few and far between.

A lack of energy in projects not his own - anything he wants has to happen immediately, anything I request happens when he feels like it, after two or three reminders, or when the General Manager asks for an update. I don't know enough details here, but you're going to have a lot of bosses who want their requests dealt with immediately, while yours have to wait. It's the nature of hierarchy. It's not necessarily evidence of unfairness or bad work habits -- some bosses genuinely are always triaging work, and other projects may rightfully take priority. As the boss, they're obligated to make those calls, so this is one of those things to try to accustom yourself to. (I feel like I'm killing your spirit here with all this "get used to it" advice. Sorry!) That said, it's entirely possible he's disorganized and unmotivated; I just don't know enough to say. So keep in mind that this is legitimate in some cases and evaluate his behavior against that backdrop.

A lack of willingness to understand what other people do and he constantly cuts people off and interrupts them. Some managers interrupt because they just need the upshot and not all the details they're being given. Some managers interrupt because they're rude and self-important. I don't know which yours is, but either way, the best way to handle this is going to be to "manage up" -- consider it your job to find a way to get across to him the info he needs to know in order for you to do your job effectively.

Not keeping any company stationary in his own office and when he wants an envelope, etc. he walks over to my desk and goes through my pile of envelopes without even asking me, while I'm sitting at the desk (rather than go to the stationary cupboard). This is one of those that I think wouldn't much bother you if you weren't already aggravated. Try to ignore this ... or give him his own personal supply of stationary and envelopes to use.

Having a "sense of fun" and a "relaxed atmosphere in the office" which equates to him doing things like throwing crumpled paper at people. This is weird, without question, but it sounds like your manager is more socially awkward than anything else. (This made me think of Michael from "The Office," in fact.) This is another one where I'd advise just seeing it as a quirk but not letting yourself take it too seriously.

Ugh, now I've completely crushed your spirit and told you to suck it up and deal. But here's the silver lining: If you can figure out how to work around whatever issues this manager may have and get what you need to do well, you're going to have set yourself up with a really valuable skill that will serve you well in future jobs. Plus you'll have learned it way earlier than most people. So for the remainder of your time there, see this as an awesome opportunity to hone some very useful professional skills. (And suddenly your job isn't boring but rather a fascinating course in managing your manager!) Really, in a lot of ways, first jobs are more about learning these kinds of workplace survival skills than they are about anything else.

I hope this wasn't too discouraging. Let us know how it goes. (And others, please chime in with your own thoughts!)