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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

dealing with a jerk at work

A reader writes:

How does one, in a professional way, stop someone from picking on you in the office? I know, it sounds like something straight out of grade school but it is happening to me as an adult.

What this person does: in meetings, he often makes snide, sarcastic asides and jokes. He has a reputation for being sarcastic, and bordering on the disrespectful. He also is a crucial part of the organization with his technical skills. And of course, he outranks me.

A lot of the time, in meetings, he will crack a joke and then say "X can do that" or "I'm pretty sure X will do a good job at it" and then snicker -- X being me. In the past few months he has been doing that, I have taken the strategy of avoid him at all costs and just ignore his comments. Lately, however, the comments have been getting more and more frequent and I am afraid that it is getting to the point I have to put a stop to it. The problem is how do I do it in a professional way without losing my temper?

I am usually quiet and introverted by nature and not usually quick to spar verbally with someone. Also, this person is quick-witted and I am afraid any attempts by me to go tit for tat will end up with him winning and me looking foolish.

Yeah, I wouldn't try sparring with him -- not because he'll win but because no one who does this look good. I think what I'd do in this situation, the next time it happens, is to just say calmly, with no -- and I mean NO -- hint of hostility or defensiveness, "What do you mean?" And I would say it each and every time he does it. People who do this kind of thing rely on no one just responding normally, so my hunch is that he'll pretty quickly stop.

The other option is to talk to him privately and tell him that you're not sure how to take his comments, but that's much more confrontational, which most people would rather avoid.

I'm hoping others will chime in with thoughts as well.

Oh, and this guy is an ass.

gracefully turning down an offer

A reader writes:

I'm a programmer currently working on a contract basis, but have an invitation to move to a permanent position when the contract ends. It's a good company and good offer, but is missing two things: variety in projects I'd work on (they make only a few products, all related) and senior employees I could learn from, and so I will be turning down the offer and continuing to do contract work, which fits both my temperament and my career development path. However, I know I will eventually want to settle into a permanent position, and I could easily see myself returning to my current employers at that time.

My first question: Is this an okay explanation to give my manager for turning down the job? I plan on shortening it a bit and taking out what could be considered an insult to their other employees, but otherwise telling to whole truth.

My second question: What's an appropriate time table to do this? I'd like to give them as much time as possible to look for a replacement and transition my responsibilities to someone else, but don't want them to feel I gave the offer anything less than full consideration.

My third question: Is this an okay explanation to give potential future employers as to why I turned down the job? I would like to be able to tell people that I received an offer, but would then have to explain why I turned it down, especially since contracting will be more risk for, at best, a bit more money. Talking to potential employers, I would focus on the lack of growth opportunities.

My fourth question: Is it kosher to ask my manager for a recommendation? Does it matter at all that I already have a recommendation from my first boss at the company, who left partway through my contract? What about the fact that this manager is temporary and will revert to a non-management position some time after I leave?

Yes to all four questions.

You want more than that? Okay, first, yes, that's a great explanation to give. Understandable, doesn't insult them, and leaves the door open for returning at some future point as long as you can explain why what you're looking for has changed. Frankly, you could even tell them now that you'd be open to that -- "I think you're a great company to work for and I'd love to come back someday after I've had other experiences."

Second, on the timetable for telling them: I'd tell them as soon as you've made up your mind, assuming you don't risk them shortening your time with them as a result. If your only reason for stalling is that you want them to believe you've given it enough consideration -- I think you're overthinking it a bit there. They just want an answer so they can plan.

Third, yes, it's a fine explanation to give to prospective future employers -- as long as they have variety and senior employees, the two things you said the offer lacks. You don't want them thinking, "Hmmm, we don't have a ton of variety, so will he be dissatisfied here?" Make sure to explain to them why they don't need to worry about that.

And fourth, yes, if the manager can speak to your work and will say glowing things about you, definitely ask if she'll be a reference for you. It doesn't matter that she'll later revert to a non-management position; companies will care about the fact that she managed your work at the time you were there, which is what matters.

Good luck!

Carnival of HR

The Carnival of HR is up over at The Rainmaker Group. Go and check out 27 HR-related posts.

Monday, April 28, 2008

why don't companies get back to applicants?

A reader writes:

I am amazed at the number of times companies have stopped communicating during the interview process without explanation. In this era of email, I don't understand why a brief note isn't sent to let a candidate know they are no longer under consideration.

My most recent experience was with a company that flew me, at great expense, out to their HQ on the opposite coast for a round of in-person meetings with company executives after three earlier phone interviews. The hiring manager stated I was "on top of his list" and "I'll talk to you on Monday"; this was a Friday.

I immediately sent thank you notes to everyone I had met, yet received no responses. After a week I left a voice message requesting an update. After 4 more days I sent an email requesting a status update and including a proposed 30-60-90 day business plan, to which I received a brief email thank you and a promise of a call within two days. This was more than two weeks ago and I haven't heard anything.

I've heard similar stories from friends also in the market. What am I expected to do now?

It seems to be increasingly common, and you're right that it's inexcusably rude. It's just not that hard to tell candidates where their application stands, in every case but especially when someone has taken the time to come in for an interview. And to ignore you when you're explicitly asking for a status update is beyond rude.

I would try one more time, and I would be more explicit, saying something like, "Would you let me know when you expect to be making decisions? I'm extremely interested in the position, but I'm talking with other companies as well so would love to have a better sense of your timeline."

If you don't hear anything back, move on -- that's really all you can do. If they resurface in a month with an offer, you''ll have to evaluate at that point whether it's even a company you want to work for. And if they don't -- well, perhaps bullet dodged.

As for what companies are thinking when they do this, it's one of four things:

1. They are moving more slowly than expected and haven't ruled you out, but for some reason they don't think they need to get back to you until they have something definite to report. Rude, inconsiderate, and short-sighted (since candidates will have other options).
2. They have ruled you out and now don't feel like spending the time responding to you. Rude, inconsiderate, and short-sighted (since you may tell others how they treated you).
3. They are completely disorganized. Rude, inconsiderate, and a place you don't want to work.
4. There is a tiny outside chance that there's an innocent explanation, although I'm having trouble thinking of what it would be. That's why it's worth that one final try, and then write them off and focus on places that treat people politely.

Friday, April 25, 2008

"But I'm qualified for that job - why did you reject me?"

There's an interesting discussion going on over at Evil HR Lady about whether it's okay to ask for feedback when you don't get a job, with a lot of people pointing out in the comments section that when they've agreed to give rejected candidates feedback, it inevitably ends with the candidate trying to convince them that the feedback is wrong and they should get the job. (I think it's great when candidates ask for feedback, but that's precisely the reason I'll only give it via email and not over the phone; I don't want to get trapped in that conversation.)

Anyway, it made me think about how often candidates are convinced that they are precisely right for the job and they become baffled when they don't get an offer. Sometimes they even become aggressive and hostile, but that's another post.

There are all kinds of reasons for why you might not be chosen for the job, no matter how qualified you think you are, including:

1. Your qualifications aren't as strong as you think they are. Your assessment of your skills isn't in line with the reality of the situation.

2. Your qualifications are very strong, but someone else's are stronger. (It's odd how often candidates shocked that they didn't get the job overlook this possibility, which is one of the most common.)

3. You don't have an accurate understanding of what the job is all about, and therefore your opinion of how well-matched you are is based on an erroneous foundation. This one is surprisingly common. For instance, I did a phone interview with a guy today who really did have an impressive business background and kept referencing examples from it -- but the job he's applying for wouldn't make much use of those skills. He picked out a couple of smaller aspects of the job description and focused on those, missing the larger picture (which is that the job is way more clerical than he realized).

4. You're well qualified, but you have some other characteristic that would cause you big problems here, such as an inability to listen without interrupting, or trouble answering questions clearly, or a hostility problem. I'm not going to knowingly put someone in a job that they're likely to run into problems in -- both for the manager's sake and the candidate's sake.

So don't become shocked and irate if you don't get a job you thought you were perfect for. After all, chances are good that the hiring manager knows better than you do about who will thrive in the position. That is a good thing, because you do not want a job that you will not excel in.

People do make hiring mistakes, of course, but in general, it makes sense to respect the opinion of the people who work there, who know the needs of the job intimately, and who know better than you whether or not you're likely to be a good fit for this particular position with this particular boss in this particular culture in this particular company.

None of which is to say that you shouldn't ask for feedback. Just be sure you're asking out of a sincere desire to know, not to try to argue your case.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

can I vent about workload?

A reader writes:

I work at a small nonprofit gallery as the office manager. With a staff of only 9 people, it's critical that everyone is here to assist with each other's projects (especially on board meeting days). Well, today is one of those days: we are in crisis, the board members' books aren't ready, the curator is trying to put up a show for Friday, three people are out of the office for meetings and such, the press is calling about the upcoming show, and on top of that we are trying to get ready for our really busy summer season. I'm running about 4 hours behind in terms of work that is critical today. Is it appropriate that so many responsibilities need to be given to just one employee (especially if the employee is the lowest ranking one) and also is it ever appropriate to send your boss a venting email detailing what the actual situation is rather than what they perceive?

I wouldn't use an email to address this. I also wouldn't just vent, but rather try a more constructive approach: Once the current situation is over and things are calmer, ask to meet with your boss. Ask her for clarification about how she expects those sorts of situations to be handled: Does she expect others to pitch in or should you solely responsible? If she expects others to pitch in, ask if she'd be willing to ask people to be in the office and available before board meeting days (and other crisis points) and to be make her expectations clear to them. If she says it's really your job to handle it all and you shouldn't count on help for others, then there are two possibilities: (1) She's being unreasonable, possibly because she doesn't fully understand the amount of work involved, or (2) her expectation is reasonable, and while the bar may be high, it's not crazy to expect the person in your role to meet it. I have no idea which one it is, of course, but usually in your situation people assume it's #1 without ever considering #2. So don't overlook #2 as a legitimate possibility.

If you're sure she's being unreasonable (and I mean really sure), try explaining to her the amount of work that's involved, why planning ahead doesn't solve it, and what the impact is on the office. But if there's a chance she's not being unreasonable, tell her you've been struggling to juggle everything and ask how she's seen people handle it successfully in the past. Listen with an open mind -- maybe changing details of your approach,or getting some things out of the way earlier or simply pushing through some things faster would help. Maybe there are short-cuts that are okay to take. Maybe she'll tell you everyone struggles in the beginning but after a few situations like the one you just went through, they get the hang of it. Hard to predict what she'll say, but whatever her answers is, it should give you more information to help you figure out how to proceed. Good luck!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

how to answer "why did you leave your last job?"

A reader writes:

I've given my notice to the company I've worked for for four years, without another job lined up. I know that this is against general recommendations, but it was just getting to be too much for me to handle; I don't want to get into details too much, but my micromanaging boss just got to be too much for me to handle, coupled with the fact that my work schedule is so crazy I couldn't go interview at places.

I don't want to walk into an interview and be negative about my boss and the situation I was in, because I can definitely handle a LOT. But what are your suggestions for explaining why I left a job without another one lined up?

I'd go with something like, "After four years, I feel like I want to take on new challenges and I wanted to take some time to really focus on finding something I'd love." It's vague, but it's reasonable (because you'd been there four years; it wouldn't be reasonable if you'd been there a year). Employers are going to be satisfied with this answer, because it's one they'll understand themselves.

Here is the secret about the "why are you leaving your current job" question that every interviewer asks: It is totally fine if the real reason you are leaving is because of a crazy micromanaging boss, unpleasant coworkers, a toxic culture (we've all had those experiences ourselves and know in the back of our minds that it might be why you are leaving). You just can't tell us that. Instead, you have to pick a cover story, like "leaving for new challenges," because if you tell the truth, we start to worry about things like: Is your boss really a micromanager or is it that you require a lot of oversight? Are you just hard to get along with? Are you a troublemaker? A primadonna? Are you going to be impossible to please here too?

Now, this may seem unfair. Given how many crazy bosses and toxic workplaces are out there, why shouldn't you be able to tell the truth and have the interviewer give you the benefit of the doubt? Two reasons: First, while we absolutely will allow for the possibility that your account is completely correct and objective, it raises enough of a question mark that we have to wonder and worry, and it doesn't help any candidate to have those sorts of questions hanging over her. And once those questions are raised, it is very difficult to definitively put them to rest during the hiring process (unless we happen to know someone who worked at your old company, in which case they can often confirm that indeed your boss was a nightmare -- but that's the exception to the rule). Second, rightly or wrongly, the interviewing convention is that you don't badmouth a previous employer -- and we're looking for evidence that you know what is and isn't appropriate to say in business situations.

All of which leads to: Use an appropriate cover story -- leaving for new challenges, excited about this particular opportunity, taking the time to find something right, and so forth. We may realize there could be more behind it, but we'll be pleased that you're handling it appropriately, not boiling over with rage, etc. (You have to deliver the line naturally though; I've had candidates say it in a way that sounded overly formal and rehearsed, which immediately made me think they were hiding something and that's when I probe for more details. So watch your delivery; sound sincere.)

By the way, although you can't tell us the truth about your crazy boss in the interview, you can definitely tell us after we've hired you and you've been working with us for a while. We love to hear such stories after we've learned that we don't need to worry about you, especially if you then contrast the old boss to us and tell us how much happier you are now.

P.S. This is the one and only area of job-searching in which I'd ever recommend being anything less than forthright, and I don't feel good about it. I'm a big proponent of being honest about your weaknesses and other things job-seekers are routinely advised to lie about. But in this area, the potential for giving an employer an incorrect impression is just too great to do it safely.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

irritated by interrupting coworker

A reader writes:

Here's something kind of petty, but it's getting to me. Every time I ask my supervisor a question, one of my colleagues (who sits next to my supervisor) butts in and starts answering the question too. Suddenly what could be a quiet, 2-minute discussion is turned into a loud conversation. Grrrr. Every time he does this it throws me off track.

Why do people find the need to interfere in this way? Don't they have enough work to do? Do they really have to prove to the world how knowledgeable they are every second of the day?

Ah, I'm probably being hypersensitive because this guy is not great at his job -- lazy and disorganized -- but is a champion schmoozer, very self-satisfied. So you'll probably tell me to just grow up, and rightly so, but I'm hoping someone will have some insight so I can control my irritation better.

No way, I'm not going to tell you to grow up over this. It drives me crazy too. I think there's only one way to make it stop, and that's to address it head-on. The next time it happens, say something like, "Actually, I really wanted to get Jill's input on this. Would you give us a minute?" If he doesn't back off, say it again: "Thanks. Actually, I really want to talk to Jill about it." Say it nicely but be firm about it.

As for your question about why he does it ... Insecurity might be at work. You mentioned that he's not that great at his job, and if he realizes that at some level, pushing his opinions on all who will listen probably pumps him up in his own head. Doesn't mean you have to accommodate him though.

Carnival of HR

The Carnival of HR is up over at Compensation Force. Check it out.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

enthusiasm vs. desperation

A reader writes:

I had an interview last week for a writing and editing job in English and Spanish with a state department. During the interview, it had been a couple months since I spoke Spanish, so out of my insecurity, I downplayed my ability. My resume should speak for itself. I have a strong history of jobs in both English and Spanish. They said they would make their decision this week, and I already sent a thank you letter. Would it be inappropriate to send a follow-up email today or tomorrow?

Also, the interview ran long, and there was another Spanish test afterwards. I did fine on the test, but because I felt pressured that I was keeping everyone late, I didn't take the time or concentrate as I needed to and could have done better. I remember the test verbatim. Can I send my corrected version of the test along with an explanation? Or would that look desperate? I want this job, I feel I am probably the best candidate, I just did not have the best day that day. Would sending these carefully crafted follow-up emails be okay?

Okay, first I have one quibble with your letter (because I'm doing a lot of quibbling lately). It can be dangerous to think that your resume will "speak for itself." Your resume gets you in the door to the interview -- but then it's on you to make the case for yourself from that point forward. Never assume your resume will do the talking for you, and don't downplay your skills! I know this is of no help to you for the interview you already had, but keep it mind for the future.

Now, on to your question: Yes, do that follow-up! Enthusiasm and follow-up is never a bad thing, as long as you don't become stalkerish about it. I love, love, love it when a candidate is really enthusiastic about the position and isn't afraid to let me see how much he or she wants it. I want to know that the candidate wants this particular job and isn't going to walk in a few months if something else comes along. Plus, enthusiasm usually carries through to after the candidate is hired, and this is a good thing; I don't think I've ever seen a candidate bubbling with enthusiasm during the hiring process who suddenly became disinterested or apathetic once on the job (of course, enthusiasm alone isn't enough, but that's a different topic). Also, when a candidate is enthusiastic, it makes me think he or she "gets" us, that they're spotting and responding to the things that make us attractive to the right people. (And as a side note, it's flattering; hiring managers are human, and it's nice to feel like people want what we're offering.)

It's interesting to me how many job seekers worry about looking desperate when they're really just expressing enthusiasm. It does not look desperate to do any of the following: Send a thank-you note each time you interview (even if there are multiple interviews), follow up with an email or phone call a week after the interview to express your continued interest in the job, follow up if you haven't heard from the employer by the time they said you would, and/or simply tell the interviewer how much you'd like the job.

So when does enthusiasm cross the line? Calling more than once a week, sending more than one or two unsolicited writing samples or other types of samples of your work, sounding like you're eager to take any job as opposed to this one in particular, or appearing as if this is the only option you have. (And if you do truly feel desperate, in order to hide it, ask yourself what a candidate who felt confident about having sufficient options but was particularly interested in this position would do.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

citing unofficial management experience

A reader writes:

I have been working for a big multinational company over the past 4 years. One of my colleagues was recently promoted to the position of department manager. She is very smart and competent, but she is only 30 yrs old and doesn’t have experience in managing people, decision making, etc.

I am 11 years older than her and even though I have never worked as a manager either, I have more maturity than her. She often comes to me asking for advice, suggestions and ideas about things and I am happy to help her. We have a healthy and transparent relationship and I have no problems with that. I don’t mind she got that position as she has been working for the company for longer than me and therefore she was naturally the one to replace the former manager.

I am currently looking for another job in both inside and outside of the company due to some personal reasons. My ideal job would be as a team leader, supervisor or even a manager, but during job interviews I have been told that even though I have the experience required for the position I can’t be hired as I don’t have leadership experience.

The question is, how can I explain on my resume and on job interviews that I have been helping my manager in running the department but I can’t prove this aspect of my role since this is “unofficial”?

Well, I'm not sure that you can. Although your manager asks your advice and bounces things off you, that doesn't really translate to helping to run the department. After all, many good managers will ask their staff for advice and ideas; I'd actually argue that it might speak to her maturity rather than a lack thereof.

Which leads me to: There are some good 30-year-old managers out there. Now, it's entirely possible that this particular manager is immature and hindered by inexperience, and that she genuinely is looking to you to help her shoulder the burden, so I readily admit that I may be reading this incorrectly, but the way you explained it here came across to me as a chip on the shoulder about working for a younger manager.

Even if I'm misinterpreting, be aware that it may come across that way to future employers unless you pick your words very carefully. Otherwise, if the position you're interviewing for needs to work with 30somethings in positions of authority (which it very well might), you might torpedo your chances.

(Wow, I'm all about the tough love these days. I'm going to scare people off soon.)

compensation for extra responsibilities?

A reader writes:

Please tell me about options an employee has to get compensated appropriately when (temporarily) taking on the responsibilities of a coworker’s job while they are out on disability. In the past, when I took over the responsibilities of a manager at my workplace for four months, I was given a one-time bonus check which was in no way an adequate compensation for the extra work I did during that time. (Needless to say, I was expected to keep up with my regular assignments as well.)

Now I am faced with the same issue. I do not want a bonus check this time. I’ve heard of a “temporary job upgrade.” Please tell me about that.

Well, you can always ask for more money ... but I think it's tricky to do in situations like this. Your boss might legitimately feel that pitching in to take on extra responsibilities when circumstances require it is part of what she expects from the person in your role and that your current compensation covers you doing that on occasion.

If you do choose to ask for more money, I think a much better way of looking at this is as part of your performance overall -- not as a tit for tat tied to this particular situation, since otherwise you risk it coming across as petty or not a team player, etc. Ideally, I'd much rather see you incorporate this into your next discussion of an annual raise, if even that's a ways off: At whatever point you're due for your next raise, you can use this to point out that part of your value as an employee is that you're able and willing to step into other people's shoes when needed.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

taking it personally

A reader writes:

I would like to get your advice on an incident at work. I was wondering if this warrants talking to my supervisor and if so, what approach I should take in speaking with her. The incident has left a bad taste in my mouth and I am compelled to search for other employment.

I asked X and Y for help/clarification on a procedure to send out District email mailings. Specifically I was asking what the codes meant on the Widget function so that I can understand what I am doing when I choose the Widget codes for each District mailing.

X and Y came to my desk and explained in a very muddled and hurried way what the codes meant and what needs to be done to implement them. They went to my screen and in a very fast way had me do the steps needed to create the target groups and to exclude the newly created group from the mailing recipient target group. They then told me these steps need to be taken with each and every District (eight of them). They then left with me feeling more confused and bewildered rather than confident that I had been properly trained on a crucial skill I need to do the job I was tasked to do.

My complaints:

1) The questions involved highly technical steps using the fields in the Membership database. I should have been given the steps in a more controlled, deliberate and organized way instead of given a muddled, hurried run-through.

2) They should make it clear that they will follow up and make sure that the steps I took were correct and that I did not make a mistake. They are in charge of the membership database, after all, and any functions that involve using it correctly they should have oversight.

3) Sending out District emails involves a very public way of communicating with our Association members. Any mistakes and technical issues reflect badly on our Association as an organization. The lack of care and muddled way they handled teaching me how to address an important aspect of the District mailings sends the wrong message to me on the care we take in communicating with our members.

4) Finally, as a colleague and professional who they have to interact with day to day, I just feel like I have been disrespected and left to muddle through, by trial and error, a complicated, technical procedure that has implications for communicating with our members. This is very much unnecessary as they could have simply explained to me what needs to be done, asked me if I had questions, and provided any technical assistance or documentation for any technical details beyond my capabilities. Better yet, they could have simply answered my emails and given me the steps I need to do in writing so I have documentation on what I need to do step by step instead of having to muddle through the steps by memory and guesswork.

What I hear in your letter is that you're taking personally something that isn't personal. Would it have been better if they had done the things you suggest? Of course. But most people aren't expert trainers; they muddle through as best they can. If someone who is training you in something isn't giving you what you need, you need to speak up and tell them that you need more help. If you have questions, ask them. If you need to see it demonstrated more than once, ask. If you want to have something in writing to refer to, ask for that (or write down your own notes as you go and ask them to review them for accuracy). If you want them to review your work after you use the new skills for the first time, ask. If you ask directly and still don't get what you need, ask your supervisor if there are other resources available to you to learn the skills needed.

There's nothing in your letter that indicates this was intended as disrespect to you or that it was in any way personal. But what I do hear are very loud alarm bells going off in my head about your attitude, not theirs. I'm going to be blunt here: You can't expect to have everything at work spoon-fed to you, you need to speak up when you need clarification, you can't get offended when people don't know precisely what you need when you haven't asked for it, and quitting over this would signal to any future employer that you're dangerously high-maintenance. Do you really want to be that employee?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

3 tips for managing interns

Summer intern season is approaching. Here are three tips for surviving it.

1. Don't cut the intern too much slack just because he/she is unpaid or low paid. You might not hold them to exactly the same standards you'd hold your regular staff to, but you should at least hold them to something close to that -- because otherwise the time that you put into hiring, training, and supervising them won't be worth it. Sometimes people feel like they can't hold interns very accountable because they're not getting paid or that they can't give them direct feedback about problem areas, but in my experience it's better to have no intern at all than to have one who you can't rely on or whose work is so sloppy that it has to be redone, etc.

2. On the opposite side of that, though, do recognize the person is working with no or little pay and find out what they're hoping to get out of the experience and see what you might be able to do to accommodate them. If they're hoping to get some experience writing something and you wouldn't normally have them doing any writing, see if there's a way to allow them to write a few small things (which you'd edit, presumably). Of course, sometimes this isn't practical; it depends on what exactly they're hoping to get experience doing. More often though, interns are simply looking to get "experience" and that can mean all kinds of things.

3. Assume interns won't know some really basic stuff about how things are done and that you'll need to give more guidance than you might with a regular employee. Make sure expectations and goals are really clear, check in regularly to monitor how their work is being executed so you can make course corrections if needed and give advice, and so forth. You also might need to explain things that would go unsaid with someone a bit older -- I've had to explain to interns in the past that they need to call if they're unable to come in (not just not show up without notifying anyone), that they can't play on MySpace all day, etc. The thing to remember is that a lot of the value of an internship for students is that it's how they learn this basic stuff about the work world -- so that when they're in a "real" position, they already know how things work. Ideally, you'll be someone who enjoys teaching someone this kind of thing; if you're not, at least see it as part of the "pay" you're providing them in exchange for their work.

Carnival of HR

The Carnival of HR is up over at Fortify Your Oasis, with a record 28 entries. Check it out.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

the scoop on references

I've been getting a lot of questions about references lately and I'm getting tired of typing the same answers to them, so I am hereby presenting answers to all of them at once.

Is it legal for a former employer to give me a bad reference? 

It's legal for an employer to give a negative reference as long as it's factually accurate and can be backed up by evidence.

Well, then how come some companies will only give out dates of employment and not comment on the employee's performance?
Some companies don't want to deal with the headache of a lawsuit, even if they're likely to win; their lawyers advise them to just play it safe. And they are the bane of reference-checkers everywhere as a result.

I worked for one of those companies that has a policy not to give references, but the new job I'm interviewing with is insisting on getting a reference from them. How can I make this happen?
You can often get around this by using your direct supervisor as a reference, not simply "HR." It's usually HR types who adhere to the letter of these policies; individual supervisors are usually willing to give more detailed references, particularly if you explain that your job offer hinges on it. (Contact this supervisor directly and make sure he or she is able to give you a good reference first though.) You can also offer up former coworkers, clients, and others who can speak to your work, or -- if nothing else works -- explain the company's policy and offer old copies of performance reviews if you have them (they're good to keep for this reason).

My old boss is giving me a bad reference. I don't dispute her account, but since it's making it hard for me to find another job, is there anything I can do about it?
Call your old boss and ask if she'd be willing to reach an agreement with you on what she'll say to future reference calls. It's at least worth a shot -- the worst that can happen is that she'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. Also, it won't hurt to soften her up a little first by telling her that you've learned from the situation, appreciate the chance she gave you, etc.

My old boss is giving me a bad reference and what she's saying is wrong. What can I do about it?

Contact the HR department of your old company and explain that your boss is giving an inaccurate reference for you and that you are concerned about slander and defamation. The HR department, which is trained in this stuff and knows the legal jeopardy they are in, is going to freak out on your old boss and put a stop to this. If it's a small company and there's no HR department, you may need to contact the old boss directly and politely explain that she's exposing her company to legal risk by defaming you and jeopardizing your ability to gain employment. If all else fails, you may need to simply warn prospective new employers that the reference won't be a good one -- but if it comes to this, try your hardest to find other people who can speak well of your performance there -- again, clients, coworkers, old performance reviews, etc.

How can I find out what kind of reference my old company is giving for me?
You have two choices: You can call your old company and ask. Or if you don't trust them to be candid with you, you can have someone else call them and do a reference check on you. There are companies you can hire for that purpose, but there's nothing that says you can't have a friend do it for you for free.

I gave a prospective employer a list of three references to contact, but they contacted a different employer from my past who wasn't on the list I gave them. Can they do that?
Yes. The new employer can call anyone you've worked for or who might know you and ask about your performance. They aren't limited to the list you provide them with.

I want to use my old boss as a reference, but she doesn't work at that company anymore.
That's no problem; simply give her current contact information and explain she has moved to a new company. (This is why you must stay in touch with people from your past; otherwise you won't know their new contact info.)

Someone asked me to be a reference for them but I don't want to do it. How can I get out of it?
See here and here.