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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!)

Monday, September 10, 2007

billing your job search to your current employer

Attention job applicants: When you FedEx me your resume and bill the cost to your current company, I can see that right there on the shipping slip. Why does anyone think this is a good idea?

It's another illustration of how even the little things you do during the application process matter.

Friday, September 7, 2007

dealing with unreasonable deadlines

A reader writes:

I work in a very small office, doing a series of specific technical projects, reporting to a very young, recent-graduate manager who doesn't have any experience in my area. I am regularly asked to complete projects in in ridiculous time frames. For instance, a project that I (and other peers) would normally budget around 30 days for, I am asked to complete in 4-12 days. My manager is clearly receiving directives from his superiors, who also have no experience in my area, but clearly believe that they need to push their employees. I am constantly going back to my manager to explain that more time is needed for these projects, but it makes no difference. Usually I get a barrage of micro-managing questions: why does it take this much time? Why can't you do it in the time frame? Why does that take so much time? Shouldn't it take you x time to do y? Can't you do y instead of z? For our most recent project -- an IP project (I'm not an IT person) I was asked to complete in a week -- I replied to him that I was doubtful I would meet the deadline, and if I did I would need extensive help and resources from him. His reply was to simply reiterate my deadline.

It's a small company. Our department is my manager and I, that's it. The company typically does very little planning or provide much by way of resources. I'm looking for another job (surprise, surprise) but in the meantime I'd love some tips on how to handle my manager so I don't have to dread going to work.

This is tough, because without hearing your manager's perspective, it's hard to know whether this is a company with ludicrous deadlines and expectations or whether it's a company that strives to be exceptional and thus gets things done faster than industry averages. I've had a couple of people work for me who were used to much more slowly paced environments and when they first came to us, they thought we operated at a crazy warp speed -- which maybe we do, compared to most places, but it's because we kick ass.

That's in no way to discount the possibility that your company is simply insane. They very well may be -- but be sure to consider both options.

Along similar lines, it's possible that when your manager is asking questions that feel like micromanagement to you, he might be genuinely trying to learn about what is and isn't reasonable and why. After all, he needs to be armed with information if he's going to go to his boss and ask for more time. I know that I sometimes inadvertently give a department a deadline that just isn't realistic, and I rely on them to tell me when they think that's the case. When that happens, I do sometimes pepper them with questions to understand why -- because once I hear the reasoning, I may be able to make changes that will save them time. For instance, if I find out that 85% of the project can be accomplished quickly but the other 15% will take much longer, maybe I can be satisfied with putting that other 15% off for a while, or even not doing it at all. And when I understand why something will take a while, I can also sometimes come up with means of relief (giving you additional resources for the project, moving other deadlines back, contracting part of it out, etc.).

Obviously, I don't know your manager and I don't know if that's what he's doing. But I want to throw the possibility out there.

In any case, as for specific strategies for handling this, I have two suggestions:

1. Tell your manager what you can do. Try saying something like, "With only 10 days, I can do x and y, and I'll need to modify z in the following ways. And we won't have finished fully testing it, but that could be wrapped up two days later. Would that work?"

2. It sounds like you've raised the issue on a project-specific basis, but have you talked with your manager from more of a big-picture perspective? For instance, you could say something like, "I've noticed that we sometimes have different ideas about what are realistic timeframes for many projects. I want to be able to do the job well and deliver a good product, but sometimes we're given deadlines that aren't possible to meet, not if the product is going to be any good. I believe in pushing myself and I think you know I work hard, but I'm concerned that we're on a different page from Department X about how long these projects take. Can we talk about how we might be able to address this?" (Note that this language puts you and your manager on the same side, rather than attributing the problem to your manager himself.)

If the manager pre-dates you at the company, you might also ask if your predecessors were able to meet similar deadlines and, if so, what they might have done differently than you. Maybe there are shortcuts that you don't realize they'd be okay with you taking. You might be aiming for more perfection than they are; maybe they're willing to trade perfection for speed.

Ultimately having that big-picture conversation with your manager will help you get the issue on the table and hear his perspective on it. You'll get a better sense of where he's coming from and whether you're going to be able to resolve the issue in a way you can be happy with. And that at least will arm you to figure out your next moves. Good luck!

Carnival of HR #15

The Carnival of HR #15 is up at Fortify Your Oasis. It's another great collection.

Monday, September 3, 2007

how to fire an employee

Firing poor performers is one of the hardest things managers do -- and also one of the most important.

I'll write in the future about how to make the decision to fire someone in the first place, but for now, here are six rules for the termination conversation itself.

Disclaimer: This post doesn't address the legal issues surrounding firings, but obviously you should ensure that any termination you're contemplating doesn't violate federal or state laws ... and if there are sticky issues potentially in play, you should speak to a lawyer in advance.

1. A firing should (almost) never come as a surprise.

Ideally, a firing should be the final installment in a conversation that has been ongoing. The employee has been clearly told about the problems and what needs to change, warned that the progress isn't what it needs to be, and explicitly told that his or her job is in jeopardy if specific changes don't occur. When the termination conversation happens, it's more of a wrap-up than anything else; it shouldn't be a surprise.

There are some offenses so egregious that they warrant firing on the spot, like, say, punching someone. But that's not the case for the vast majority of terminations.

2. Be compassionate.

Acknowledge that this is hard and that you're sorry this is the outcome. Allow your tone and body language to convey compassion. Even if you've been incredibly frustrated with the employee, now that the decision has been made, there's no reason not to allow yourself to feel and express genuine compassion for what's inescapably a horrible outcome for the person.

When at all feasible, try to truly believe this is a case of a bad fit, rather than that the employee is lazy, stupid, obstinate, or difficult. If you go into the meeting with this mindset, it will change the way you come across, helping to defuse the situation and helping the employee keep his or her dignity.

3. Be direct.

Start the conversation off with your decision. Some managers try to ease into the news, thinking it will soften the blow. But then you'll have the employee sitting there thinking they're supposed to be defending themselves, when in fact you're past that point. It's unkind to make the employee think they can sway your opinion if they can't, so let them know up front what decision you've made.

Lead off with something like: "This is a tough conversation to have. When we met several weeks ago, we discussed the fact that if you didn't meet the benchmarks we laid out, we wouldn't be able to keep you on. Unfortunately, although I know you have been trying, we're now at that point and have decided to let you go. I know this is hard, and I want to do whatever I can to make it as easy as possible on you."

4. Don't lie about the reason for the firing.

Sometimes a manager will come up with a "cover story" for the firing, thinking the real reason will hurt the employee's feelings. Sometimes a manager will use a cover story because he or she hasn't been direct enough with the employee about the problems earlier and has avoided tough conversations about performance issues. Now that the person needs to be fired, the manager is in the position of explaining a decision the person had no warning of. (See #1 and don't put yourself in this position, which is tremendously unfair to the employee. If a manager has problems with an employee that the employee doesn't know about, the problem is with the manager.)

Do not under any circumstances lie. You may need to speak about the reason for the firing in the paperwork for the employee's future unemployment claim or even in litigation -- and if what you say doesn't match what the employee was told, it will cause big problems.

5. Keep the conversation relatively short.

Don't enter into a debate. Your decision is final, and while you hope the employee understands it, the time for back-and-forth is over. Let the employee know your decision and then cover logistics, like returning keys and other property, the final paycheck, COBRA, etc.

6. Know you're going to be emotionally drained afterward.

There have been firings I've found easier than others -- firing someone found to have chronically falsified timesheets wasn't especially hard -- but in general, firing someone is always emotionally difficult. It's terrible news to deliver to someone. But being compassionate and treating the employee with respect, fairness, and dignity and knowing that you gave the employee ample warning and opportunity to improve will at least let you know that the meeting was better in your hands than it might have been in someone else's.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

how long should an offer take?

A reader writes:

I went on my first interview at a state university three weeks ago, second interview was two weeks ago. I never head back so last week I called and was told that they would be checking my references this week. I know that my current boss was contacted today and I'm just really tired of waiting! I've read that you should stay in touch, making contact at least once a week and am wondering if you can give me any insight into the decision making process. What is taking so long? And what is a reasonable amount of time to expect to wait for an offer? I have another interview with a different company scheduled for tomorrow and would really prefer the job I've already interviewed for but don't want to put all my eggs in one basket?!?! I plan to send an email this week to let them know I'm still interested and is it acceptable to ask where they are in the decision process?

This is the part where you relax and enjoy. Easier said than done, I know, but the fact that they've called your boss for a reference is an excellent sign. Practices vary, but I for one don't bother checking references until I've chosen a candidate -- or, occasionally, when I'm having trouble deciding between two candidates. An offer is likely forthcoming.

To answer your question about what's taking so long, if your interview was two weeks ago, that actually isn't that long. They likely had other interviews to finish after yours, so let's say that ate up a week or even more. Then we can assume they spent some time discussing and considering candidates. Then, depending on the company, there may be an array of paperwork to fill out before things can move forward. Plus it's summer, so there's a higher chance someone's vacation schedule is getting in the way. Personally, I like to move fast when I find the candidate I want, but I have the luxury of working somewhere with very little paperwork; plenty of companies take a lot longer. So I'm not alarmed to hear it's been two weeks. You should just sit tight.

However, regarding your question about how long you should wait: It's perfectly acceptable to contact them and ask for an idea about their timeline. Reiterate your interest your interest at the same time. Meanwhile, continue interviewing -- and if you reach a point where you suspect you're going to get an offer from another company, it's completely fine to tell the first company that you're expecting another offer but they're your first choice and ask if there's any way they can work with you on the timeline.

Good luck!

HR Capitalist's Power Blog Rankings

The HR Capitalist has created the HR Blog Power Rankings. (I was surprised and pleased to discover that I'm #8!) Check it out -- there's a great listing of sites there.