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Monday, March 31, 2008

if you can't remember the phone interview, I doubt you can do the job

Guess what? When a prospective employer schedules a phone interview with you, you are supposed to answer the phone at the scheduled time. You are not supposed to call back half an hour later sounding like you just woke up and ask if you can do it now, as we had two recent candidates do.

If for some reason you miss a scheduled phone interview, the only correct response is to contact the employer immediately and express your extreme mortification. You must apologize profusely, and ideally you must offer an understandable excuse. ("A meeting with my boss ran over" is reasonable; "I wrote down the wrong time" is not.)

From the moment you make contact with the company, you are being evaluated. The "interview" isn't just the hour you might spend being asked questions; it's every email you send, every contact you handle, the way you treat the assistant, how prompt you are to respond when you're called about scheduling an interview -- it's all of it. Throw up red flags at any of those stages and you will either be out of the running or at least facing serious skepticism.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

boss secretly meeting about me

A reader writes:

The other day I was looking through coworkers' schedules on our office's Outlook calendar to set up a meeting. Looking at my boss' calendar, I noticed that earlier in the week he had an appointment with a coworker "Karen" entitled "Karen on Chris" (I would be Chris). Looking at the time of that appointment, I realized that it must have been a closed-door meeting between my coworker and our boss in his office I had also noticed. We work in a very small office, where business is almost always conducted with the doors open. Such private meetings are rare--so people notice when the boss' door is closed. In any case, now I'm anxious about what seems like a closed-door conversation between my coworker and my boss about me. I'm really not sure what this could be about, since I get along well with both of them, and while my coworker and I just got through a project that took longer than anticipated to complete, I thought we worked well together.

Now maybe I'm just paranoid, because I can't decipher what the appointment actually means, I don't know who initiated the meeting, and I haven't heard anything from either one of them. I'm just concerned because my coworker is very influential (i.e. controlling) in the office, and has proven very effective in getting what she wants out of our boss. If she was talking about my performance with my boss, I'd like to know what the issue was, and address it directly.

Would it be inappropriate to inquire about this meeting with either my boss or coworker? I understand that it may not be my business, and perhaps my boss made a mistake in posting to a calendar everyone in the office can see, but if there is an issue that needs to be resolved, I'd like to get it out in the open and address it.

Ouch, this is awkward, but you can't change the fact that you saw it and you weren't snooping inappropriately, so yeah, I think you should raise it. Raise it with your boss, not your coworker, and say what you said here: "I didn't mean to see this but it was on the public calendar and obviously it raised questions for me. I feel awkward asking about this but since I did see it and now it's in my head, I don't know what to do other than ask you about it. If there's an issue that I need to fix, I'd like to get it out in the open."

Also, don't disregard the possibility that the discussion may have been a positive one. Maybe they're talking about promoting you or giving you increased responsibilities. Or maybe not. But you might as well ask, since you didn't discover it in any untoward way and it's going to eat away at you until you find out.

By the way, I'd put money on my hunch that your boss doesn't know that his calendar is public.

required attendance at weekend event

A reader writes:

My organization is planning a large anniversary party that will be held on a Saturday (non work day). Employees are expressing concern if it is mandatory they attend, as there is another event in town occurring that night many have already purchased tickets for. Can our president make it mandatory employees attend? There is also concern of retaliation in performance reviews, end of year bonuses, and yearly raises for those who do not attend, is this legal? We are a small business, so full time employees who do not attend will be noticed at this event. Please advise.

Yes, it's legal to make it mandatory. It's also legal to raise it in performance reviews and so forth that you skipped an event you were asked to attend, or decide that you don't show the expected engagement in company activities, etc.

But that's a different question than whether it's smart. If employees weren't given a lot of notice about this, it's not smart -- because employees may have other plans, may not even be planning to be in town, may need to arrange child care, etc. If a company is going to require attendance at something outside of normal work hours, it should give a ton of notice. But again, there's no legal requirement that they do so; only a practical and humanitarian one.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

instant credibility

Here is a way to gain instant credibility with your boss: Tell her about a mistake that reflects poorly on you.

People's instinct is so often to hide or soften this kind of thing, but in fact the more blunt you are, the better you will come across. Just say it: "I really screwed something up." "I was completely wrong about this." Explain what you did, why you were wrong, and what you propose doing about it now. This also works in retrospect. Tell your boss, "Do you remember how last month I argued for moving forward with that project when Bob insisted it was a bad idea? I was wrong. Here's what I've realized since then."

Not only is this incredibly refreshing, but it's powerful because it instills in your boss the confidence that you will give her bad news directly -- she doesn't need to worry that she'll only get negative information if she digs for it. It also tells her that you have integrity and that your priority is to be honest and objective, not to protect yourself. And if you're ever in a he-said/she-said situation with someone, the person more likely to be believed is the person who has a reputation for being scrupulously open even when doing so won't reflect well on them.

Disclaimer: If you are confessing a mistake every week, this will not work well for you. This only works when you're competent overall but making the occasional normal human error. (Although, frankly, if you're incompetent, you're probably better off being up front about mistakes and asking for help than hiding them. But I do not have incompetent readers.)

Friday, March 21, 2008

confession: I used to suck at firing people

This is a weird thing to admit, but I think I'm pretty good at firing people. I've written in the past about how I think firing should be done, but I'm not here to brag about this (if indeed it's socially acceptable to brag about such a thing, which I'm pretty sure it's not) ... I'm here to confess my secret shame, which is that the first time I had to do it, I was a disaster and totally oblivious to the advice that I now chant like some sort of weird mantra to other managers.

At the time, I was a relatively new manager, and when I took the position, I inherited a problem employee: painfully slow, constantly made mistakes that were seeding the database he worked on with tons of land mines, impervious to help, a general mess. Rather than addressing it straightforwardly with him like one obviously should do, I did what lots of inexperienced managers do: I handled him way too gingerly. I made "suggestions" and expressed concerns, but never did I tell him directly that the problems were so serious that he would be fired if his work didn't improve. I was vague. I thought I was choosing the kinder option, protecting his feelings, which of course was ridiculous -- there's nothing kind about denying someone the opportunity to know they're on the path to job loss.

Inevitably, I ended up having to fire him -- and because of my vagueness leading up to it, he was genuinely shocked, said he hadn't seen it coming, even cried. I hadn't been so kind, it turned out.

And that's not all. A couple of months later he sued, claiming I had fired him because he had Crohn's Disease, which would have been a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act if it were true. I was baffled -- I knew he'd been fired for poor performance and that the fact that he had a disability was irrelevant (and indeed, we ultimately won the suit). But by not being direct enough about how bad his performance was, I had opened the door to him speculating on what the cause might have been. I could have avoided a months-long legal mess (as well as his legitimate bewilderment) by just getting over my own discomfort and telling him forthrightly the ways in which his performance was unsatisfactory. I put my own comfort ahead of managing well, and as a result, I exposed my company to legal jeopardy and left an employee completely dumbfounded about why he was let go.

Years later, I'm still cringing when I think about how my inexperience and misplaced desire to be nice made me a nightmare manager for that guy. These days, my employees who struggle hear about it -- and some of them take the warnings and improve and some of them don't, but none of them have been surprised by bad news since.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

fired and then asked back by higher-ups

A reader writes:

A new, young manager recently lost his temper with me over a disagreement that we were bickering about. In the heat of the moment he fired me, sent me home in the middle of my shift, and called the other girl who does my job to "tell" her (not ask, by the way) that she had to work all of my shifts because he never wanted me to return.

Immediately after I left work, I received phone calls from the other three managers telling me that I am not fired, they would never fire me, and asking me to please just come back to work -- reminding me that if I didn't it would only hurt them and my fellow employees much more than it would affect the new manager who fired me. (I have been with this company for over two years, and it took them essentially two years to find me--this manager has been there about 6 months. He is one of four managers who oversee us, and one of the others is the one who's really in charge.)

Basically, I like--or rather liked--my job before this falling out and don't want to burden my coworkers with the extra work load, so I plan on returning. I have never been "fired" before however, and don't know how to behave with this manager especially since I no longer respect him in any way. What is the best way for me to behave at work so that I can enjoy myself again, yet make it clear that I strongly disagree with that manager's rash and hasty actions? Also, how am I supposed to take any direction from him or take anything this manager says seriously now? Frankly, I don't even want to say "hello" to him anymore.

Well, first of all, he's probably pretty chagrined right now, since his authority was undermined and his decision overturned, and he knows you know it. I'm assuming the other managers must have addressed his error in judgment with him since they would have needed to explain that you'd be coming back; I have no idea how harsh they were with him, but even the softest approach in this situation has to be humiliating for him.

So he's probably not sure how to behave with you now either. Two things are likely: He'll either be a jerk to you because of this, or he'll steer clear of you. If he steers clear, I'd simply minimize your contact to him to whatever extent possible, and when you have to deal with him, be polite but distant to begin with. Things may improve in time, now that he has a better understanding of what he can and can't get away with. But if he's a jerk, I'd say to go to the other managers, the ones who clearly like you and intervened after he tried to fire you, and explain that you were glad they wanted you back, but the other manager is now having trouble treating you professionally, and something needs to be done. Having overruled him in a pretty dramatic way already, and having asked you to return, my bet is they'll be more than willing to straighten this out.

Good luck, and please let us know how it turns out!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

telling an employee she has body odor

A reader writes:

Two new secretaries in my office have body odor. The other staff have asked me to talk to them about it as the acting manager. How should I tackle this?

I do not envy you. I'm interested to hear advice from others too, but I think the best approach is to think about how you'd want it handled it if it were you and have a short, to-the-point conversation with each of them (separately), likely at the end of the day so they don't need to sit there feeling self-conscious for hours afterward.

Be honest, direct, and as kind as possible. You can even admit that you're nervous about bringing it up. Start by mentioning that their work has been good (assuming that it has been) and then say something like, "I want to discuss something that's awkward, and I hope I don't offend you. You've had a noticeable body odor lately. It might be a need to wash clothes more frequently or shower more, or it could be a medical problem. This is the kind of thing that people often don't realize about themselves, so I wanted to bring it to your attention."

Likely, the employee will be embarrassed. But if they're combative, explain that they need to come to work clean because of the impact on the office. You might also suggest a visit to a doctor to find out if there might be a medical reason.

By the way, I'm assuming that the issue is one of not bathing/laundering enough, but if it's more along the lines of cultural differences in food that can lead to different body smells, I'd ask the staff to be more tolerant. I'm also assuming that you've verified the problem yourself, so that you're sure it truly exists (if you haven't, do, since it's not inconceivable that someone cranky on your staff just wants to cause problems for these women).

Also, there's an excellent podcast on this topic from Managers Tools on this issue here. (That's part two, where the real action is, but you can also listen to part one here.) It gives really detailed advice about how to tackle this.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

how long does negative personnel info stay in your records?

A reader writes:

Is it true that negative information is suppose to be off an employment record after 5 years and if so how do you go about getting it removed?

Nope, not true. Companies can keep employee files for as long as they want. (In fact, government regulations require that employers keep them for at least a minimum amount of time, but there's no particular amount of time after which they must be destroyed.) I suppose some state out there might have some odd law on this, but I would doubt it. After all, companies are entitled to keep records of that sort for their own reference, so when the guy who was fired for punching his manager five years ago applies for a job again, the new hiring manager knows about it.

However, I assume your real question is about what you can do to prevent a former employer from sharing negative information about you with a prospective employer who calls for a reference. There's no guarantee, but it's usually worth a call to your old employer to ask if they'd be willing to reach an agreement with you on what they'll say to future reference calls. It's at least worth a shot -- the worst that can happen is that they'll say no. When you call, say something like this: "I'm concerned that the reference you're providing for me is preventing me from getting work. Could we work something out so that this isn't standing in my way?" Employers who either (a) take pity on you or (b) are terrified of lawsuits may be willing to work something out with you.

Just to be clear, it's not illegal for an employer to give a negative reference as long as it's factual and can be backed up by evidence. But some employers will cave anyway, since they don't want to deal with the headache of a lawsuit, even if they're likely to win. Those employers, of course, make it hard for other managers, since it makes it tougher to get honest references and thus to make good hiring decisions. So I hate that. But as a job-seeker, it could help you.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

offering to consult after resigning

A reader writes:

Pending a job offer, I'm looking to leave my current organization, a non-profit, where I have been for over 5 years. During this time, there has been a tremendous amount of growth - when I started there were just over 30 full-timers, now there are well over 200. While there, I launched all web and e-business practices and I can solidly say I am currently the only one on staff that can maintain the current website. When I resign, I would like to offer my services as a "consultant" or at least continue the work they need on a part-time basis until they hire another full-timer, which I do not think will be a quick nor easy thing. While the option of taking a consultant hourly wage is extremely beneficial for me, my hope is to offer them the best financial option with the easiest transition because I certainly do still care about the organization and don't want to see it struggle. I believe I could make double my current hourly salary doing this, as well as underbid any flat web consultant they could hire - who would not know the business or those things that are particularly difficult to accomplish in our industry.

So with all the being said, what is a proper and appealing way to approach this as I resign? I certainly don't want to seem cocky or rude, but they are going to be a bit shocked, and even more so if they sever ties with me with no back-up plan.

This should be pretty straightforward. When you meet with your manager to give your resignation, say that you want to help however you can to ease the transition, including continuing to work on a consultant basis until they have a replacement trained. Your boss will likely not give you an answer then and there, and meanwhile you should also mention the other usual things you should offer when you want to leave an organization on good terms, such as working during your remaining time there to thoroughly document your areas of responsibility, leaving a detailed training manual for your replacement, etc.

If your manager doesn't bring up your offer to work as a consultant on her own after that, it's fine to directly inquire -- "Sue, have you had a chance to think about whether you'd want me helping out as a consultant after I go?" If the organization is interested, they might have no idea what an appropriate rate of pay is -- they may even think it's appropriate to offer whatever your current salary breaks down to when calculated as an hourly rate. If so, you can explain that consultants typically charge more than salaried workers, because they aren't getting benefits, etc. Tell them what rate you think would be fair, and explain that it's lower than the market rate for this sort of work because you care about the organization (assuming that it is).

Do be prepared for the possibility that they won't take you up on it, of course. I would actually be surprised if a 200-person organization wasn't able to continue running their Web site in this situation since -- unless the site is in some particularly rare programming language -- a competent Web person should be able to step in and pick up where you left off. That doesn't mean your offer won't be hugely helpful -- it very well may be, particularly while they're searching for a replacement. But we all tend to think our offices would be in shambles without us, even though life goes on when someone resigns. I mean that in a nicer way than it probably sounds; it's clear that you care about your nonprofit and I like that. Good luck, and write back and tell us what happens.

more on cover letters

A reader writes:

I'm a college graduate, and like so many others, I've been looking for some jobs. I'm left a bit confused on the cover letter, though..... which, I understand can almost be more important than your resume! I understand that I have to relate my experience to why I am perfect for the company and this job. I've read that this also is where I should show off how much I know about the company. Given that 'shortest is sweetest', it seems a bit wasteful to make the company read about themselves. Is it truly advisable to write about the company in the cover letter? If so, how do I go about doing so effectively?

Also, I've heard the 'don't tell them what YOU want, tell them what THEY want' advice. But I've also head that it a good idea to tell them who I am by talking about my own career goals/motivation for applying. I'm specifically thinking of my application for a temporary position as an administrative assistant to the COO of a hospital. I said towards the end of the second paragraph, "Ultimately, I seek to pursue a career in health administration and policy, and I know that working in this office, albeit temporarily, would be an invaluable opportunity for me." Was that bad form? Again, what is the best thing to do, and how do I do it effectively?

Yes, it truly is good to write about the company in the cover letter. But that doesn't mean you should regurgitate facts about the company that they will already know (I hate that, in fact). Rather, when you write about the company, you do so in the context of explaining what appeals to you about this particular company. See this post for an example of how to do that.

On your second question, yes, you should both explain how you fit what they need, but also why you're interested in them. Mentioning your interest in working in health policy when applying for a position in a hospital helps them see you as perhaps a bit more invested in the opportunity than the average candidate looking for any old assistant position. Remember, employers like candidates who are excited about this particular job, not just a job. (This might be becoming my mantra.)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

incompetent coworkers

Two readers write in with the same problem.

Reader #1 writes:

I have a co-worker who has been here for a period of 8 months, and we are part of a team – she loads items to be placed onto the site that I work for (and is the basis of our company) and I keep in touch with the publishers/accounts. Since this past November, she has not been taking notes, placed the wrong items on-site losing sales for the company and discrediting the company's reputation, and is general a hassle to work with.

I have made some of these items known to my manager this past November; however, I am ready to take a more detailed approach to my manager in hopes of being re-teamed with another member of the team or getting this co-worker some additional training. I don't want to seem like a tattletale or pointing fingers, but I'm a hard worker and it's bringing my efforts down.

Any thoughts on how I should approach my manager and still seem a team player (and have the best efforts of the company in mind)?

And Reader #2 writes:

I'm a communications coordinator and am having difficulties working with my web person/colleague, J. J. does not report directly to me (or my supervisor) but because a number of my projects involve the web, I find myself working with her often and in a project management role.

This past year has been very difficult and distressing in working with her. Firstly, her skill level is far below what is required in her position. What this has resulted in is many web projects that go through a "trial and error" process (reply forms not working, poor design/navigation, broken links, "page under construction", etc.) - often for as long as a year. The quality of her work is not an accurate measure/reflection of my work, and this is what I'm most concerned about. I've been assessed as a top performer in my department and have worked hard to gain credibility among my directors. However, I fear that my work suffers whenever I am paired with J. And, as this is the web medium, much of the final product is viewed publicly, more often with my name attached to the project rather than hers.

Her performance standards are also lacking in her punctuality (late for meetings), missing priority deadlines (she will miss important deadlines or provide them at 4:30 pm on the day it is due), and there is a general feeling of resentment in the department (not from me, but others) that she is unfairly granted extended vacations when she does not have the seniority (or the performance record) to do so.

I have researched and produced a business case study outlining my needs for having a web person with considerably higher skill qualifications to achieve my communication plan goals and objectives. The proposal is sound, with the input and support by others outside of my department who have also struggled in working with J's shortcomings. Unfortunately, we are not in a budget position to create a new position, which means she's not going anywhere fast. I have also resorted to documenting our emails and tasks in order to make sure that I'm covered when it comes to deliverables that she has said she would complete in time, which often expends a lot of my time and energy away from my own workload.

Complicating matters even further - J's boss is completely passive and avoids conflict resolution at all costs. He asked me to provide comments on Js performance review earlier this year - and I reiterated my business case proposal and cited specific examples of where I felt she needed to be coached/supported in either correcting her mistakes or producing deliverables in a timely fashion. That was eight months ago and nothing has improved, and I've been asked again to provide a performance review as she approaches surpassing her midpoint salary grade.

What can I do in a situation like this? I can see no end in sight of having to work with her and with more large (and visible) projects looming in the next year, I'm becoming increasingly agitated by her performance. Also, this is preventing me from adding projects to my own portfolio and in submitting my work for industry awards, because the end product looks like crap.

Okay, this is one of my favorite topics. First, I want to note that the standard advice when you have a crappy coworker is to keep your mouth shut unless the coworker is interfering with your ability to do your job and get results. As it happens, in both your cases, she is. However, since we're discussing it, I want to mention that I don't always agree with that limit. As a manager, I want to know if my people are getting demoralized by a coworker's shoddy performance, even if it's not impacting their work directly. And I want to know what they might be observing that I haven't picked up on, so I can pay closer attention. To be clear, I don't want to hear about it repeatedly, but I do appreciate a one-time heads-up, delivered in a discreet, professional way, if it comes from a solid employee. Does every manager share this stance? No, of course not. But I believe plenty of the good ones do.

Okay, back to the questions. In your cases, the coworkers are affecting your ability to get good results, so this is pretty clear cut. Go to your manager with specific examples of the problem (feel free to take notes in with you to keep your thoughts organized). Keep it impersonal and unemotional -- keep your tone even and measured, not frustrated -- and explain that you feel uncomfortable bringing this to the manager but it's affecting your own results and the company overall. Ask her how you should handle it.

For Reader #2, your nemesis has a different boss from you, and he's passive. That's fine -- that's where your boss comes in. Your boss can address the issue with the other boss directly and if she doesn't get what she needs, she can escalate it to her own boss. (And when you talk with your boss, make sure to mention you've provided feedback to the other boss in the past and it hasn't made a difference.) If your own boss shies away from confrontation, you may have to nudge her -- but hopefully you have a decent boss who will do her job and address this crap. And if you don't, honestly, get out -- if you have a passive boss, you'll never be able to get what you need.

By the way, as a side note: In some situations I'd advise talking to the coworker directly first and seeing if you can solve anything that way. But I'm becoming increasingly convinced that incompetence of this sort rarely changes, at least not without some extreme hands-on management by a vigilant boss.

unhappy with raise

A reader writes:

I have a question regarding pay raises. Today I received my one year review after working in a new department after six months time. The review went well and I scored fairly high, I was praised on all most every level, but one. They want me to take on more work, but they also acknowledged that I am extremely overworked.

So, when it came to the money portion I only received a 5% raise. I guess I just really don't know how to act, because I have never received a review as wonderful as I'd gotten, or a raise as LOW as I'd gotten. The reviewer also stated that I made more than anyone in any the position that I was hired for (which I never ended up going to) the former postition that I'd worked in or the position that I am in now.

In my past positions the lowest pay raise that I'd ever received was $1.00.. and I was very upset about that. I guess with all things considered, especially how bad the economy is that I should be grateful, but I am still bewildered. Is this a normal pay rate? 5%?

Well, yeah, actually. I think the national average raise hovers somewhere right around 3% to 4%. I'm a little confused about whether you're getting this raise after one year or six months, but if it's six months, that's definitely a decent raise. And if it's a year, it's pretty in line with what's standard.

However, it sounds like your performance has been better than average, and there's no reason you can't ask for more. Go back to them and tell them you think your contributions warrant a higher increase, and explain why. You often have to ask to get something more than what everyone else is getting -- go for it. And good luck.

Monday, March 3, 2008

boss knows about job search?

A reader writes:

My fiance is sure that his boss knows that he's looking for a new job. He applied to another company and his boss had a "casual" conversation with him about how young people in their industry worry about money too much and look for jobs with only that as a concern. He also assured him that they were working on the profit-sharing (that they've been working on for well over 2 years). The next day, they were discussing a trade magazine and the boss once again blankly said, "I used to look for jobs in there." I guess there's nothing he can really do other than keep on looking for a new job, right? I wish I could say that they couldn't fire him for applying to another job...

Well, if his boss does know he's looking, it sounds like he's trying to subtly talk him into staying on board, rather than gearing up to penalize him for searching. So yes, I'd say he should just keep on looking, being as discreet as possible -- but he should feel reassured by the fact that his boss seems to be encouraging him to be patient rather than taking issue with him looking.

am I being frozen out?

A reader writes:

I was wondering if what I am feeling is just paranoia or if I may be on to something. I have been getting the sense in the past few weeks that my stock as an employee in our company has fallen dramatically. My boss hasn't mentioned anything to me nor has anyone else. I am just getting this feeling because:

1) In meetings whereas before I felt certain people listened to me and took what I said seriously, now I feel like they are cutting me off mid-sentence whenever I speak.
2) People higher up than me are either not showing up or canceling meetings with me on projects I am working on.
3) I feel like I am not privy to important decisions and information being passed around on projects and am not included in "unofficial" meetings after hours, behind closed doors, etc.

I'm a midlevel technical person. I am not a director. So perhaps I shouldn't feel as if I am being slighted here since I am not a boss. But then again, how come I have this pervasive feeling that I have fallen out of favor among people I work with?

I have regular weekly update meeting with my boss. Are these type of issues appropriate to discuss with her or do I risk being perceived as a whiner in addition to the other stuff?

Talk to your boss. I'm glad your instinct is to ask about this candidly rather than to worry privately, and I would definitely want you to raise it if I were your boss -- so that I could either reassure you if there's no issue or use it as an opening to talk if there is. However, in the interests of not sounding too paranoid if indeed this is all inconsequential, I'd tone it down a little. Consider that you might be completely wrong and that what you're noticing isn't about you at all (but rather about situations that have nothing to do with you), and allow that possibility to inform your tone when you raise this. Good luck, and please let us know how it goes!