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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!