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Monday, August 27, 2007

dealing with incompetent coworkers

A reader writes:

I was recently hired to direct a highly visible urban beautification program. Moderate amount of grunt labor hiring, lots of design and in field production.

My Executive Director is results oriented, as am I. Just get it done gorgeous, with in budget, on time. Then up the bar - do more. Great! I love it.

Again, I'm in the field A LOT. I leave what seems like the most rudimentary HR tasks with the oh, I don't know... HR Director??? only to experience lack of follow up, missed appointments, limited information - very minimal, bordering on obstructionist service.
Last week I began to just do the job myself as it pertains to my dept. hiring and follow up. The result is a deep freeze from this executive in all but public forums.

My value to the organization is predominately creative and requires enormous attention to detail, costs, efficient use of resources. I am largely self directed. Senior staff have begun to ask me to work on their properties, provide visioning, give aesthetic suggestions. When we meet on these private issues, this HR person is accommodating and mission driven. Yet on the job - where it belongs, the team work is non responsive.

HR - A key driver that consistently under delivers? Guilty of talentism? Or just a dark bureaucratic force?

I love this question, because I've all too frequently encountered the personality type you're describing in your HR director. I don't think this is an HR thing -- based on what you've said, it sounds like an incompetence thing, combined with a lack of sense of urgency. You'll find it in every field; it's not specific to HR. And, as is so often the case, your success is tied into her performance (which is why you've started finding ways to go around her).

Fortunately, it sounds like you have the type of executive director who is action-oriented, which means she's likely to back you up if it comes to that.

You didn't ask for advice, but I can't help giving it since, well, I'm bossy. So here's what I'd do in this situation, although obviously you should take personalities and your office politics into account. I'm also assuming for the purpose of this answer that you both report directly to the executive director.

There are two possibilities here: (1) She's incompetent and has no sense of urgency, or (2) There's more to the picture that you don't realize and that could change your perspective.

Here's what I'd advise: Meet with the HR director and tell her your concerns. But --and this is crucial -- also tell her that you realize you're only seeing one piece of the picture and that you realize there may be parts of it that you don't know. Ask her what her perspective is -- and be genuinely open to hearing it, since maybe there really are pieces here that would change your opinion. If you don't hear anything like that, though, then ask her if the two of you can mutually figure out changes that will help the issues you're raising. I think it's key to go into the meeting with the mindset that you simply have different perspectives and that you genuinely want to collaborate on fixing the issues; if you go in secretly thinking she's an obstructionist buffoon, it's going to come across and it'll color the whole interaction.

Then give it a couple of weeks and see what happens. If you don't get anywhere, at whatever point you feel like you've made a good faith effort to resolve the issues with her directly, I'd meet with your executive director and ask for her input on how to get around your concerns. Keep it impersonal and unemotional; keep the focus on how it's affecting your ability to move forward and produce. (But of course it's key to have already met with the HR director herself to discuss the issues; only go to the executive director when you've been left with no choice in order to get the problems solved. You don't want to start out there.)

Now, a lot of people out there will disagree with this advice, feeling that you shouldn't go over people's heads. But if you address the issues head-on with the problem staffer and can't get resolution, I think practicality (and effectiveness) demands that you escalate. I know that if I were your executive director, I'd want to know about it. And I also know that when I've bumped into this kind of thing in the past, this is how I've handled it and it's always worked well. If you're clearly an action-oriented high performer and you handle it calmly and unemotionally, you're going to have credibility (assuming you've given her perspective a fair hearing and are being objective). I've also found in this situation that when you raise these sorts of issues, it's rarely a shock to the boss; they usually sense there are issues, although they often don't have specifics, because so few people bother to use this process.

guilt about job searching

A reader writes:

I have been working at my current job for about a year now. I started off bored at work but thought I'd get busier as the position settles down. A year later and I am still as bored as ever. I've started considering other positions because I feel my skills are going to pot because of the inactivity.

One thing that developed is that we are in the middle of a huge project at my current job -- an overhaul of our company web site and I am part of the team to implement and usher in the redesign project. So I anticipate things will be much busier at work pretty soon and I'll have as much work as I can handle in planning, content migration, etc.

Would I be doing my current company a disservice if I suddenly quit in the middle of this redesign process and took on another job -- one more in line with my graduate school degree which I just completed a few months ago? I know that we are short staffed and losing me would be a major blow to the team. But if by a stroke of luck, I happen to get hired at a job that is much more suited for my skills, interests and career plans in the future, would it be a wrong thing to do? Should I stick out the redesign process and then apply for jobs AFTER the new web site has been implemented? Or being an at will employee anyway, I really don't owe my loyalties to this employer who, by designating me an at will employee, indicates it feels no particular loyalty to me either?

I guess I am just feeling a bit guilty about letting down my team and the possibility of jumping ship right in the middle of a very important period.

What would you think if you were my manager?

It's interesting to me how often this question comes up. Yes, employers are disappointed to lose good employees -- but this is part of life, and all but the crazy/irrational managers recognize this. You've been there a year, you're not satisfied, and if you're able to find something you'd prefer to do, do it.

Something else to keep in mind: There's rarely a "good" time to leave a job. True, some periods are better than others, but it's very difficult to time a job search to guarantee that the offer you want will come at the ideal time in your current job. Your job search might take months; it might take less. There's no knowing. If you want to explore what's out there, go for it.

You asked what I'd think if I were your manager. If you gave me a reasonable amount of notice (minimum of two weeks, three is even better, four will make me love you for life), left your work in good order, and provided thorough documentation for your replacement, you'd leave on excellent terms.

(All that said, though, have you considered talking to your manager about the aspects of your job that are keeping you from being satisfied there? Before you move on, it might be worth seeing if changes can be made that can keep you happy where you currently are. I always want that opportunity when I value an employee. Something to think about.)

New York Times on job seekers who can't write

The New York Times yesterday reported that nearly half of HR executives say that entry level job seekers are deficient in writing skills. As someone who has to wade through the cesspool of poor grammar and spelling known as cover letters and resumes, I'm actually surprised it's only half. I wish job-seekers realized that they can often catapult their applications to the top of the pile simply by submitting a well-written, well-proofread letter and resume, since it so stands out in the crowd.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Should employers ban Facebook?

The Work Clinic has an interesting post today about the debate over how employers should handle the use of Facebook and other social networking sites in the workplace, since some employees may be spending hours a day on them. The post rightly points out that banning such sites sends a message to employees that they aren't trusted.

In addition to that, though, a ban is the lazy manager's way out. If someone is spending ridiculous amounts of time playing online, a manager is going to see it reflected in that person's work product and/or productivity. That's the bigger issue that should be addressed, not the specifics of how the person is spending the time they're wasting. There's no way to ban all the possible ways people can waste time (chatting to coworkers, daydreaming, taking excessive smoking breaks, zoning out while staring at the computer screen, etc.); the more effective option is to pay attention to work output and speak up when it's not what it should be.

Carnival of HR #14

The Carnival of HR is up at Three Star Leadership. Check it out.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

when to follow up after an interview

A reader writes:

I saw your blog and was wondering about something. I interviewed for a job Monday of last week. They said they wanted to hire someone as soon as possible but that they would let me know. I emailed thank you letters immediately the same day when I got home from the interview. I never know how long is too long or too short for following up again.

It's been two weeks since your interview so it wouldn't be at all inappropriate to call or email your contact at the company and reiterate your interest in the position and ask if they have a timeline in mind for making an offer.

As far as general guidelines for following up after an interview:

- Send a thank-you within a day or two after the interview.

- If the company didn't give you a sense of the timeline in which they would be making a decision, follow up within a week or two to reinforce your interest and politely inquire as to what they expect their timeline for a decision to be.

- If the company gave you a sense of their timeline and you're past the time when they indicated you would hear something, politely follow up, explain you're very interested but understand that hiring can take time, and ask if they have an updated timeline.

Do keep in mind that no news doesn't necessarily mean bad news. It's not at all unusual for the hiring process to take longer than a candidate would like, for all sorts of reasons -- decision-makers are out of town, scheduling conflicts are delaying a final interview, the company bureaucracy needed to finalize an offer takes weeks to work through (not necessarily a great sign about the work environment, but that's a different topic), and so forth.

Good luck!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

what can't you NOT do?

Steve at All Things Workplace makes a great point in his post about figuring out what career is right for you. He says to ask yourself: What are things you can't not do? Those are clues to a career you'll thrive in.

This resonated with me in a huge way, because I can see it at work in my own career. At the start of my working life, I couldn't stop myself from rewriting the company's form letters, publicity materials, even internal documents. It wasn't my job, but I literally couldn't not do it, to the point that I once found myself rewriting the office phone manual late one night. Sure enough, I soon found myself working as a staff writer at a different organization, and for the rest of my 20s, my career revolved around writing and editing. And my quality of life skyrocketed, because just like when I was sneaking those activities in at that first job, it didn't feel like work at all.

Later, I found myself increasingly unable to stop myself from becoming a thorn in the side of my manager until all manner of problems were addressed, from inefficient procedures to morale issues. I was spending more and more time thinking about how I'd restructure things if I were in charge and finding ways to get my ideas in front of my bosses ... who -- luckily for me -- were actually receptive and indulged me in this, rather than telling me to get back to what they had hired me to do. Eventually this moved me out of writing and into managing, and again, what I do now doesn't feel like work. Looking back at it, it feels inevitable -- as Steve wrote in his post, these were things I couldn't not do.

I've seen this at work in others too. One entry-level guy I worked with maniacally analyzed the cost-benefit ratio of every new project the organization took on, on his own initiative. After identifying enough cost-saving measures, he ended up getting moved into a position where his job was to do exactly that. A woman I used to work with used to always suggest ways to make a certain research series the company produced more user-friendly and engaging. She ended up in charge of it.

(It's worth noting you probably can't engage in this behavior without irritating some people. But if you're good at what you're doing, truly good managers and coworkers are going to see you as an opportunity, not an irritant.)

This isn't just about taking initiative. It's about the things you cannot help but do no matter what -- ways that your brain works, things that you will spend time on, even if it means working well into the night to fit it in.

Take a look at the things you can't keep yourself from getting involved in. It might point you to a far more satisfying job.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

leaving a job gracefully

A reader writes:

I have been working in my current company for about a year and this is my first job experience. Maybe you should know that I am an expat and that somehow for this reason I felt grateful when I was hired. I realize now that I very poorly negotiated the conditions of my job and didn't even asked the right questions at the interview.

Now, I feel trapped in a job I don't really like and I don't know how to leave. My company plays a lot on the affectionate side ... My boss keeps insisting we are a family etc., etc. This company isn't right for me and I don't know how to tell them.

Maybe you have some advices on how to leave a company and on how to move on from a bad job experience. Thank you for your help.

Leaving a job isn't a crime. But many workers feel incredibly guilty about it and will even put off telling their boss, which actually makes it worse if it means your boss has less notice than he or she would otherwise have.

The big thing to know is that you don't owe anyone an excuse or an apology for leaving. People leave jobs all the time -- it's normal. Any boss who isn't crazy knows it's part of doing business. Simply be straightforward and professional about it, and you'll likely be surprised at how smoothly it will go.

When you're ready to resign, ask to meet with your boss privately. What you want to say is something like this: "I want to thank you for the opportunity to work here. I've learned a lot and really enjoyed my time here. After a lot of thought, I've decided that it's time for me to move on, and my last day will be ____."

Simple, straight to the point, appreciative. And with an appropriate amount of notice (a minimum of two weeks, although many companies appreciate more).

You should also offer to do whatever you can to make the transition smooth, such as leaving thorough documentation of how you do your job, contracts, passwords, etc. If you're up for it, you can also offer to be available for a phone call or two with your replacement after you leave if needed (that's strictly optional but can generate substantial good will).

Very rarely, a boss will react poorly. This reflects badly on the boss, not on you. If this happens to you -- the boss gets angry or tries to guilt you into staying -- stay professional and simply reiterate that you've enjoyed your time there but will be moving on. Emphasize what you're planning to do to make a smooth transition.

You may be asked if it's about money, and you may receive a counteroffer. Just turn this down gracefully in the same way.

If you're asked why you're leaving (which is likely), keep the focus off what you don't like about your current job and stay focused on what you're moving to. You want to "take advantage of an excellent opportunity" or "get experience in new areas" or whatever you're doing next.

By the way, if at all possible, I recommend finding another job before you leave this one. Job-hunting can take a while, and it's often easier to find a new position while you're still employed.

Good luck!

asking for feedback after a job rejection

A reader writes:

What is the current protocol, or successful strategy, for contact after not getting a job? I have already thanked the panel for the interview. Is there any reason to ask for feedback?

I'm always impressed when a candidate asks for feedback after not getting the job -- and it there's an easily articulable reason, I will usually share it. For instance, I've told candidates who asked that we felt we needed someone with more experience in _____, or that we were looking for stronger writing skills, and so forth. But sometimes it just comes down another candidate being a better fit, and I'll say that too, although I'm sure it's not as helpful.

That said, I know that there are a lot of hiring managers who never answer this question, for fear of saying something that will open them up to a lawsuit.

But even if you encounter that, there's still no reason not to give it a shot, as long as you're not defensive about it and are prepared for an honest critique. I'd say something like, "I appreciate your time speaking with me about the position, and I hope you'll keep me in mind if something opens up in the future that you think I would be a good fit for. Is there anything you felt I could do to be a stronger candidate in the future?"

And if you get an answer, no matter what it is, remember to say thank you. I remember it when I take my time to help someone with feedback and get silence in return!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Carnival of HR #13

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

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

how to answer "what are your weaknesses?"

Rowan Manahan at Fortify Your Oasis has started a new project, "The Definitive Guide to Clearing Job-Hunt Hurdles," in which lots of bloggers are contributing advice on various parts of the job-seeking process. Here's some advice from me on a topic that seems to stymie even savvy job-hunters: the weaknesses question.

Some variation of "what are your weaknesses?" is going to come up in every interview. How do you talk about weaknesses when you're trying to sell yourself?

First, here's what not to do: Don't try to offer up a strength taken too far -- perfectionism, you work too hard, you can't leave the job at the office, etc. This is widely recognized as disingenuous b.s. and you'll be seen as evading the question.

What should you do? Well, I'll warn you up front that my approach to this is unorthodox, but I believe it's the right one.

When I'm interviewing you, I'm not your adversary, so don't treat me like one by trying to snow me. If you're a good fit for the job, I want to find that out and hire you ... and if you're not a good fit, I want to find that out so that I don't put you in a job that you'll struggle with and even risk getting fired from. Assuming you want to land a position where you'll thrive, this should be your goal too -- and honesty is more likely to get us there.

So that means you should come clean about weaknesses. I'm not going to be shocked to discover you have some; we all do. The question is just how they'll fit with this particular position, something we should both be interested in.

Here's part one of formulating your answer: Think seriously about your weak points. What have you struggled with in the past? What have past managers encouraged you to do differently? If you could wave a magic wand over your head and change something about your work skills or persona, what would it be?

And here's part two: What are you doing about it?

Your answer in the interview should consist of both parts. It might sound something like this: "When I first started in the work world, I found that I wasn't as naturally organized as I wanted to be. Without a system to keep track of everything I was juggling, I had trouble keeping all the balls in the air. So now I make lists religiously and check them every morning and every afternoon to make sure that nothing is slipping through the cracks and all my priorities are correct. I'll never give up my lists, because I know that without them, my natural state is a less organized one."

I like this example because it takes a weakness -- disorganization -- that normally would raise a huge red flag for me, and instead shows how the person is neutralizing it as a problem.

[Now, occasionally your interviewer might follow up with (as I sometimes do), "That's a great description of how you overcame a weakness. Tell me about one you're still struggling with." If this happens, you should still use the two-part formula -- follow up the weakness with what you're doing to work on it. It's okay that you're not perfect yet; no one is. The question is just how it will impact the job.]

I know this goes counter to a lot of the advice out there about not showing any real weaknesses. But I think that plays to the wrong goal. Your goal shouldn't be to get a job, any job. It should be to get the right job for you.

following up after an interview

A reader writes:

I'm interviewing for a new job while still employed. Last Friday I had an interview, and the woman who interviewed me was very enthusiastic and mentioned she wanted me to come back for a second interview. (She said if the person she wanted me to meet with was in, I would have met him then, but he was out of the office.) I told her I would love to come back in, and mentioned I had availability on Thursday of the following week due to taking a vacation day, as well as availability Friday, because my office has summer hours. She noted this, said she was really looking forward to me meeting more people at the company, and would contact me.

Saturday morning I sent her a thank you note (by email) and she replied on Monday morning saying that she thought our meeting was great, and that she would be in touch. I have not heard back for her as of yet (Wednesday).

Since my availability is very limited because I'm still employed, I really only have Friday afternoons to set up interviews. Various companies have contacted me this week to set up interviews, but I really am more concerned about this second interview (since I would really like to work for this company), and want to make sure I don't overbook myself. Would it be wrong or too forward of me to touch base with her and inquire about setting up the second interview, since she knows I'm currently working and I have limited time? Or should I just wait it out and let her contact me?

Give it a few more days. There have only been three working days since your interview, which can be nerve-wracking on your side of the process but is hardly any time on most hiring managers' sides. I'd say send her a quick email on Friday morning reiterating your interest and asking what she expects her timeline to be for the next interview. (It's completely legitimate to ask this; employers assume you have other balls in the air and need to be able to plan.)

Meanwhile, move forward with setting up those other interviews. Until you have a firm offer from this company, you have to proceed as if you don't, since ultimately you can only control your side of the process -- so keep setting up those other interviews! Let us know how it goes.