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Thursday, July 31, 2008

job searching: when does persistence become stalking?

A reader writes:

Let's do a mirrored image of your posting on an applicant missing a phone interview. Let's say the prospective employer called me and wanted to set up an interview for either that day or a couple of days down the road. Then they explained that they needed to make sure the hiring manager was going to be available and would contact me when they had more info.

Great! However, since that point this prospective employer has disappeared! NO return phone calls, no letters, nothing. I have called back 3 times now. Once to find out if anything had been set up (got voicemail), next to leave cell number (was not sure if I had the first time) and the next scheduled day to meet this person to once again express my interest and ask them to call to schedule a time stating that I was once again dedicating my whole day to wait for a call from them.

Is this “pushing the envelope” and am I coming off desperate or pushy? I am stating things like, "I have researched your company and feel that I would be a good fit for the position."

I simply want to know do I dare call again? Or would it be out of line for me to drive to the company and do a personal introduction and ask if they have the time to see me now? (The company is less than 2 miles from my house.)

I have heard wonderful things about this company and would just like a shot at proving myself. I have had a few bad years with employment but have stayed constantly employed and am hoping that that is not one of the reasons they are not contacting me.

Do not drive to the company.

This company is being rude. If you call a candidate to propose an interview and say you'll get back to them about scheduling, you get back to them. Period. Even if it's to say, "I'm sorry, but we've just filled the position" or "the hiring manager didn't feel your experience was the right match," or whatever. You do not leave the person hanging. And for the love of god, if the candidate is calling and asking what's going on, you don't ignore them.

But of course companies do.

I know I like to rant about interviewing and hiring being like dating, but this is another example of it. It's rude to tell a date you'll call and then not, and it's rude (actually much ruder) to blow off a job candidate like that.

However. Just like if you were calling a prospective date and leaving messages expressing interest but getting no return call, you need to take silence as lack of interest. Just like you wouldn't drive over to a girl's house and ask her out in person if you couldn't get her to call you back, you can't show up at this company's office in person.

Either there is a reason they haven't contacted you yet or they are blowing you off. (There is a small chance they will contact you in the future. They said they'd contact you when they had more info, so maybe they don't have that info yet.) Do not stalk them.

And do not tell them you're devoting your whole day to waiting for their call! Not to be all "The Rules" on you (do people still know that horrible book?), but that's way too available -- it's unreasonable to spend your whole day waiting for the call of anyone, unless the call relates to the health of a friend or family member, and certainly not in a situation where you don't even know if they're available or interested in calling you that day. (If I'm in meetings all day and it's impossible for me to call someone back -- or if I were on vacation or something -- I would be annoyed and a little taken aback to find a message telling me the person was building their entire day around the expectation of my phone call, which I never promised to make that day.)

The important point is this: You have expressed interest. They know how to reach you. Now there's nothing more you should do other than sitting back and seeing what, if anything, happens. Remember: As with dating, you do not want someone who does not want you.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

illegal interview questions?

A reader writes:

I am a legal assistant/secretary with 18 years of experience. I am in the process of interviewing for a position with several law firms in the small southern city where I currently live. Repeatedly during interviews, I am being asked the following questions: Do you have children? Where do you live? Is your husband in the Army?

My answers are yes, I have one child (he's 10), I currently live on a military post and yes, my husband is in the Army (and has been for 22 years). What I would like to know is whether or not these are legal questions to ask. What, exactly, does the fact that I have a child, the fact that I live on a military post and the fact that my husband is in the Army have to do with the fact that I have 18 years of experience, a solid resume, great references, am well organized, and can type 85 wpm? I am sick and tired of answering these questions. It is my belief that they have nothing to do with how well I can do the job. I am most upset by the question about my husband. Yes, we are an Army family. Yes, we move around every 3 to 5 years. However, other employers have hired me despite the fact that they know I will eventually leave, and have been satisfied with my work product. My husband claims I am being asked this question (about him) because we are in the South, where the wages are lower, the "good-ole-boy" network is strong and where I'm considered an "outsider."

In the meantime, I continue to interview, continue to get asked these questions and continue to become frustrated to the point that I no longer wish to answer these questions. In my opinion, quite frankly, this is not their business. I have 18 years of experience, my resume speaks for itself and I can type like crazy, yet I'm continually asked these questions. Do I have a leg to stand on if I claim that these are illegal questions? I'm asking you because I can't get a single attorney to actually answer this question -- ironic, isn't it?

There's a widespread but incorrect belief that these sorts of questions are illegal. The act of asking them actually is not illegal. What can be illegal is rejecting you based on your answers to them. Therefore, since employers aren't permitted to factor in your answers, there's no point in asking them and smart interviewers, or interviewers who have ever spoken to a lawyer for more than two minutes, don't ask them.

So how do you handle it if an interviewer asks you one of these questions? Educating the interviewer on employment law probably isn't going to endear you to them. Instead, figure out what the question is getting at, and answer that instead. If you think an interviewer is concerned that you'll leave the job when your husband gets transferred, speak directly to that: "I can commit to the job for at least several years." If you think they're concerned that parenthood will get in the way of your job performance: "There's nothing that would interfere with my ability to work the hours needed and get the job done."

That said, something about the specific questions you're being asked, combined with your husband's take on it, make me think that these interviewers aren't necessarily worried and trying to screen you out on illegal grounds, but rather are making small talk and not realizing that they're treading on risky ground. There's no way to know for sure, but there's a decent chance that the questions in this particular context are harmless, not factoring into the hiring decision, and just the product of interviewers who aren't sensitive to the law in this area. It's certainly your prerogative to make an issue out of it, but on a practical level, I think you need to decide if it's a battle you feel like fighting or not.

Monday, July 28, 2008

recent grad frustrated by job search

A reader writes:

I'm a new reader of your blog and I'm already fascinated. I had no idea there was such a wealth of excellent career advice out there.

I got my B.A. at a prestigious university over six weeks ago, and since then I've been actively pursuing a job in government, law or policy. But after a few dozen applications and several interviews, I have no offers. I realize that many people go far longer without having a job, but the pressure is on and desperation is beginning to set in.

In fact, I've gotten to speculating about the reason for my failure thus far to find anything. Among the possibilities I've considered are that my major (Sociology) isn't very valuable, that my location (California) is too far from the policy jobs in DC, and that the labor market is simply too loose (I know I lost a $40,000 position to a M.A.) Qualifications and interview performance are of course possibilities as well, but I have good grades and relevant experience, plus interview coaching from the school's career center.

I'm sorry, I know I'm coming off as selfish and possibly arrogant, but the uncertainty is killing me. I'd love to hear your take on this situation.

Not selfish and not arrogant. Normal. Really, your situation is totally and completely normal. It sucks, but it's normal.

Six weeks isn't very long, as job searches go. The job market isn't great right now, and you're competing for the same jobs with people who have been in the workforce a bit longer and thus have more experience. You will find a job, but you need to hang in there.

Things that will help:

* Focus your job search. You don't say what your strategy has been, but if you're like many recent grads, you're applying all over the place to all different types of jobs. Focus your search in and go for quality over quantity with your applications -- meaning at a minimum, a cover letter that is tailored to each position you apply for. (And I mean really tailored -- at least several fresh paragraphs per job, not just plugging in the name of the company.)

* In fact, it's going to be all about the cover letter for you. Go read this post and follow my orders.

* Rework your resume. I took a look, and right now, the first half of the page is taken up by education, notes on coursework, and honors, and your work experience doesn't start until the second half of the page. Move the education information to the end or at least shorten it dramatically (get rid of the coursework section entirely, which takes up a huge chunk of valuable real estate), and beef up the work experience section. Remember, a hiring manager is going to spend maybe a minute (or less) on the initial scan of your resume. What do you want her to see in that minute -- a list of college courses you took, or work experience directly relevant to what she's hiring for?

* While you're at it, drop the high school honors (National Merit finalist, AP scholar, etc.). Nothing before college counts, unless it's something really unusual. I was going to tell you to get your SATs off of there too, but you got a perfect 1600, so I'm going to allow you to leave those on.

* Ask for feedback from any interviewers with whom you felt like you clicked (or even those you didn't click with). It doesn't matter if it's been weeks. Email them right now and tell them you really appreciated their time and ask for any advice they have for you on how you can become a more attractive candidate. Some won't answer you and others will tell you something so vague as to be useless, but someone may tell you something good ... or point you in the direction of a job lead.

* Start networking, if you aren't already. Ask everyone you know if they have any connections to the types of jobs you're looking for. Don't be afraid to exploit the connections when you uncover them. Oh, and ask your school career office to hook you up with some alumni connections in whatever field you're interested in. That is what they do; make them do it for you.

We all go through this. But it ends eventually, I promise.

how to resign gracefully

I get a lot of questions from people who are nervous about the best way to tell their boss they're resigning. Fortunately, there's a basic formula for doing it well, and that's what I wrote about for U.S. News & World Report this week. Check it out, and as always, I hope you'll weigh in in the comments over there.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

what is a good excuse for missing a phone interview?

What's a good excuse for missing a phone interview? I'm not talking about needing to reschedule it; I'm talking about not bothering to reschedule it and simply not picking up the phone when I call you at the prearranged time. In general, I feel like nothing is a good excuse for this, short of a car accident or other such disaster, unless you apologize profusely and seem horrified by the oversight.

Today I called a candidate for a pre-scheduled phone interview and she didn't answer. I left a message, and she emailed me a half and a hour later, saying this:

I'm sorry I missed your call. The department chair came in with some news and work and I couldn't get away from my desk to take your call for the interview. How late are you in the office? If 5 pm worked for you, that would be great. Otherwise we can try again for tomorrow or early next week.

Hmmm. On one hand, things come up at work, and work should be her first priority. On the other hand, smart candidates schedule interviews for times when they know they can be available (lunch, etc.)... and if something goes awry with their plan, they are mortified and apologetic. I'm not reading "mortified" in this email.

The only potentially mitigating factor in her favor is that she's a recent grad and therefore inexperienced.


obnoxiously aggressive recruiters

My blood is boiling after reading about the high-pressure recruiting tactics being recommended in a post over at The article recommends really aggressive sales tactics and game-playing. Here's a sample:
"What’s the compensation?" When someone asks, don’t tell! Say, “Before I tell you that, I’d like you to think about the best jobs you’ve ever held, those that gave you the most personal satisfaction. Were the reasons they were the best due to the amount of money you were making or due to the work you were doing?” (PAUSE and wait for an answer.) “Now, if the job I’m representing offered you a chance to maximize your personal satisfaction plus offered a competitive compensation, wouldn’t it make sense to at least discuss it for 5-10 minutes?” ...

"First, tell me about the job." You must never tell the person about the job, even the actual title, until you have conducted a quick work history review. Start the conversation by asking your prospect if she’d be open to discuss an opportunity if it were clearly superior to what she’s doing now. Most people will say yes, then immediately say “Great. Could you please give me a quick overview of your background, and I’ll then give you a quick overview of the job.”
Ugh. I don't know about you, but if a recruiter called me out of the blue and subjected me to this sort of game-playing, I'd be off the phone in seconds. I'm happy to talk to recruiters who respect my time and don't try to manipulate their way past "no," but make me feel like you're an aggressive salesman and we're done. And to demand that I recite my job history for you, when you called me? That just tells me you didn't do your homework.

I'm sure there are recruiters whose response to this is that it's my loss, since I'll never hear about their fantastic job opportunity... to which I can only say that if it's that fantastic, you should be more inclined to talk about it candidly up front.

Carnival of HR

The Carnival of HR is up over at The HR Capitalist. Check it out!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

how to mentor someone

Is there anything better than spotting someone relatively inexperienced but smart, driven, and generally awesome, and helping them along in their career? I think it's one of the most rewarding things about managing (second only to having the power to make things run well rather than your department or organization being at the mercy of some crappy manager).

If you have someone great but inexperienced on your staff, consider taking them under your wing and helping them attain professional greatness. Here are some ways to do it:

* Invite them to sit in while you do things -- interviews, important meetings, whatever. Talk to them afterward about how it went and even point out why you did particular things.

* Talk to them about dilemmas you're facing in your own job. Tell them the options you're considering, the various factors you have to take into consideration, what you're deciding, and why. Ask what they would do. This is huge, because it helps hone their own instincts. If you only do one thing, do this.

* Give them an intern to manage. Talk to them regularly about the management challenges that arise and how to handle them, everything from feeling comfortable being in a position of authority to addressing sloppy work to what to say when the intern shows up in flip flops.

* Give them greater and greater responsibilities. Give them things they're not sure they can handle, and talk them through it. Help them figure out their approach, and talk over how it went afterward.

* Talk to them directly about their goals. Actively look for ways you can help them move toward them.

* Give them the confidence to take on more by making sure you tell them how great they are. Early in their career, they tend to think they're average. Help them recognize when they're capable of more.

* When the time is right, promote them.

Monday, July 21, 2008

10 mistakes employers make when hiring

Flakiness, not getting back to job applicants, asking bad questions, hiring for the wrong reasons -- these are some of the many ways in which employers mess up when hiring. Having just complained about job applicants, now I'm turning my crankiness on to employers. My post at U.S. News & World Report today looks at 10 mistakes employers make when hiring. You can read it right here, and please share your thoughts in the comments over there.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

job rejections and vitriol, part 2

About a year ago, I wrote a post about how a small fraction of job applicants respond to rejection notices with outrage, rudeness, or general vitriol, and gave a few real-life samples.

Some background: My organization emails rejection notes to all applicants we don't offer a job to. It's a friendly and polite letter, and we send it within a few days of knowing that we're not moving the applicant forward in the hiring process. Sometimes we hear back from people thanking us for the notification (which I recommend -- reflects well on them), but every once in a while a candidate sends a nasty email back, outraged that they've been rejected.

I can't figure out why job applicants are willing to burn their bridges in this way, especially since there otherwise may have been other opportunities for them with us in the future. But in any case, here are a few more real-life emails I've received in response to rejection notices.

1. I've reviewed this email. It's pretty clearly a form letter. I can appreciate that you've got a lot of applicants, and need to skim the fat, so to speak, but I require honest communication from a potential employer, not form letters.

Yeah, it is a form letter -- a friendly and polite form letter, but a form letter. When you need to communicate the same information to hundreds of people, a form letter is the most efficient way to do it. I'm not sure why that makes it less "honest."

2. I find it incredibly difficult to believe that my qualifications are lower than that of other applicants. There is an astute air of refusal that I find quite distasteful. You were probably raised on the East coast, West coast, or Midwest given your style and grammar. I am not going to blame the customs and lifestyle of the geographical region you hail from in regards to the frigid nature of your professional demeanor. But I am upset to find that I can't get a formal interview because other candidates have better qualifications than me.

Only southerners know how to deliver a rejection notice correctly. The rest of us are frigid. (Plus, my rejection letter is pretty nice, so southern rejection must include light petting or something.)

3. I beg to differ with you. You are turning down by far the most qualified person you had applying.

This is actually the most common theme when candidates react poorly to rejection -- being 100% convinced that no one is a better candidate than they are. I understand how frustrating it is to be turned down for a job you wanted, but it always baffles me that someone wouldn't take into consideration that they have limited information about the job -- and the rest of the candidate pool -- and we know it quite intimately.

4. Thank you for your rapid response to my last email. In it you state via what appears to be a form letter that you "identified other applicants whose qualifications better fit our needs." Unfortunately I don't believe this to be true. A lot of organizations would like to have someone with my considerable set of experiences and leadership and I'm secure enough in them that I won't rehash those here. I would urge you in future to be more honest with your applicants about why you would prefer not hiring them.

This is similar to #3, but with a paranoid twist: Since it can't possibly be true that other people are a better fit for the job, we must be hiding our real reason for not wanting to hire him. In fact, I'm generally happy to give feedback if an applicant requests it, but I'm not going to make it a routine part of our rejection notice -- both because of lack of time and staff to do so, and also because taking the time to give feedback frequently leads to something like this next one:

5. (received after a rejected applicant asked for feedback and I told him the position required stronger writing and, upon his request, pointed out that his application materials had contained numerous grammatical and spelling errors)

I make no claims of being the best writer in the world, but I would think it is a skill that can be taught and developed. Traits that cannot be taught are character, passion, honesty, hard work, and integrity. I thought that my original cover letter was a pretty clear indicator that I am a well- spoken, educated, and hard working young man. I thought that at the very least my experiences would have made you say "this is someone I need to speak to in person". But in this world I suppose a persons whole life, intelligence, and excitement will always be less important than "typos". I guess I should have skipped University and attended typing classes.

This one actually made me feel bad for the guy. I do like character and enthusiasm, but it's naive to think they trump attention to detail or a basic fit with the qualifications for the job. And since most employers have many well-qualified applicants who don't submit error-filled work, those things are going to move you to the bottom of the pile. Still, naive as he is, I kind of wanted to give him a cup of cocoa and help him rewrite his resume.


Now that I think about it, this whole thing is yet another way in which the hiring process is like dating. Most people handle rejection well, but every now and then, you get someone who responds like an ass -- which always serves to confirm that your decision about them was the right one.

unfair performance evaluation?

A reader writes:

I have worked in HR for seven and a half years, working my way up from an HR Assistant to a Senior HR Assistant and 3 years ago to a Recruiter. I hire employees for about 30 departmental managers.

I have always had excellent yearly performance reviews, most years being ranked 4 (very effective) and last year 5 (exceptionally effective). Imagine my surprise when in this year’s review, I was rated as 2 (minimally effective). When I asked how my ranking could have plunged so much without me being made aware of it over the course of the year, I received no response. I then asked what determined such a poor ranking and I was told that one manager thought that I lacked confidence in hiring nurse practitioners (which was absolutely true as I am not a nurse recruiter and was never adequately trained to be one). I then asked my boss if she spoke to any of the other 30 managers for whom I work and she said no.

I feel as though my being ranked a 2 is totally inconsistent with the positive feedback/comments I receive from those managers for whom I recruit. I feel as though in order for me to understand and accept my boss's review of me, she should provide me with concrete examples of comments and instances that made her determination accurate. In addition, if I truly plunged as she claims I did, should she no
t have had me on a work plan to improve my performance?

Your boss is a bad manager, at least when it comes to feedback.

Nothing in a performance review should be a surprise. Your manager should have been giving you ongoing feedback throughout the year, and the performance review should be a summary of that feedback.

So she screwed up and didn't give you adequate feedback throughout the year. Which makes it even more important that the feedback in your evaluation be specific and include examples and that you not be stonewalled when you ask for them.

I don't know how much of your job centers around hiring nurse practitioners. If it's a small part, and you're doing the rest of it well, a rating of "minimally effective" seems out of whack. If that's the case, then either your boss has other concerns she's not sharing with you, she doesn't know how to do an evaluation well, or she has a personal issue with you. Any of those three options is an indictment of her.

On the other hand, if hiring nurse practitioners is a key component of your job, then her rating may be reasonable and her fault lies in not having spoken to you about this until now. In that case, the problem is not the evaluation itself, but the fact that this information wasn't conveyed to you earlier. This is also an indictment of her.

Either way, go back to her and tell her what you plan to do to work on the nurse practitioner issue, and tell her that you were mortified to learn that this has been a problem and that you hadn't known until now. Ask if you can get more regular feedback throughout the year, and ask that she bring any concerns to your attention earlier on.

And if the rating is indeed off base, then you do also have the option of trying to get it changed, especially if it will impact your next raise. But if you go that route, proceed delicately. You don't want to turn it into a fight between you and your manager; instead, you should approach it more as a question of whether this is something that should be revisited in the context of the rest of the excellent work you're doing. Weigh this option carefully though: You might succeed in getting it changed, or at least demonstrate to your manager that you aren't one to be messed with in this way. But on the other hand, you might poison the relationship permanently. So use your own knowledge of her, your company, etc. in figuring out whether that route makes sense.

I don't like this manager though.

Friday, July 18, 2008

prospective employer called current employer

A reader writes:

I recently interviewed for a position in a company that is opening a new branch in my area in the early fall. I went through the entire interview process, a phone interview and then meetings with 2 HR reps, a branch manager and a VP. Everything went great. I was very clear in the interview process that my current employer was not aware that I was searching for a job and that if I wasn't offered a position with this new company, I was comfortable staying with my current employer because I am well thought of and can have a long term career there if I choose to stay.

In the past week, I have heard from all my references that they have spoken to the HR rep checking references and all went well. I have also heard from my current employer that someone called and said they were planning on offering me a position and needed to verify my current salary. I was speechless.

To make matters worse, this was over a week ago and I have not received a job offer from this company. I know that this perspective employer is interviewing for all positions and has a lot of time on their hands to make offers, but now my current employer is just sitting back and waiting for me to give my notice. I know that my current employer plans to counter but I don't know exactly what they said to the person on the phone. What if it caused this new company to reconsider offering me a position? Is this ethical? I have no problem with them verifying salary and employment history with my current employer but couldn't they say I was trying to buy a car or something? What do you make of this?

What I make of it is that this prospective employer committed a major violation of accepted practices and basic etiquette and common sense.

It is very, very typical for job-seekers to ask that their current employer not to be contacted for a reference, since in most cases the current employer doesn't know the employee is looking. Commonly, once you're a finalist for the position, a prospective employer who is determined to speak with your current manager before extending an offer will tell you that you're a finalist and explicitly seek your permission to do so.

You're luckier than some people, in that it doesn't sound like this is jeopardizing your current job. For many people, it could -- which is why it's not done.

I want to continue attacking them, but in the interest of being constructive: If you want to move this along, you could call the company and explain that you're now in a bit of an awkward position since they gave a heads-up to your current employer, and ask what their timeline is for moving forward.

And if you do end up working there, have a word with their HR folks at some point.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

excelling in end stages of hiring process

A reader writes:

I've got a second round (final) interview for a state agency department district director position next Monday. I had been told the top 2 candidates would be moving on to this second round, so I assume that I am a good position here and want to make the best possible impression. I've been actively job searching for about 3 months now, as I was terminated from my last position as an Executive Director at a small non-profit for what they said was "not the right fit" (I had only been there 6 months) and they have since restructured and eliminated this position at this point. It was a tough situation for me, but I learned a great deal from the experience and am ready to move forward professionally.

For the first part of the interview, I have been asked to make a 10 minute Powerpoint presentation on a relevant topic of my choice. Then the panel has a set of questions for me. I have never had to do a presentation as part of the interview process before. Do you have any advice on this? There is a topic that is a natural fit for me based on my past experience and expertise that I believe would be interesting to all of the panel (I asked who the audience was when I was offered the interview), but maybe they would be expecting that...should I choose a topic that might be a little more work for me to prepare, but would demonstrate a larger breadth of knowledge?

I have also been asked to bring along a list of references of people who have supervised me. I've got just a couple, as I have been working since grad school but have had only 3 employers in 11 years -- the first two were about 5 years each, and then this last one was the short one. During the last month I have also been working temporarily as a PT project manager at a local business school and will ask my supervisor there to be a reference as well. Would it be better if I asked for a written letter of reference from the chair of the non-profit board that I reported to at my last job, to try to mitigate the circumstances of my leaving their organization? I feel it would be a red flag not to include a reference for that most recent position, and back when this was all going on he said that he would be able to give me a positive reference...but I am just not 100% confident about this. What would you suggest?

On the Powerpoint presentation, I think I'd go with the topic that you're the most comfortable with and feel most at ease answering questions about. You can even explain that you considered the other topic but decided to go with this one as it'll provide a better example of your work. I think they'll actually prefer that, and here's why: A colleague of mine who I often do interviews with will frequently pick out something from a candidate's resume that doesn't have much (or anything) to do with the job we're interviewing for and ask a ton of questions about it. The reason he does this is that when you get a candidate talking about something they're really comfortable with, you can see a lot about how their brain works, and that's really valuable -- even if the topic itself isn't directly correlated to the job they're interviewing for. Which is a long way of saying to pick the topic you know best; you'll do a better job.

On the reference issue, I'm not a huge fan of letters of reference. Any good employer is going to want to call that reference and ask probing questions, so the value of a letter is pretty limited. What I'd recommend instead is that you call the reference yourself, explain that you're in the final stages for a job you really want, and ask what sort of reference they're likely to give you so that you can make an informed decision about whether to offer them up or not. If you choose to leave that reference off, when you offer the list of references, you could explain it by saying, "I picked the people who worked with me the longest and know me the best, but let me know if you'd like contact info for anyone else." (Keep in mind, of course, that they can call any former employer, whether they're on your reference list or not, but this approach gives you some measure of control over it.)

Good luck! Let us know how it goes.

Monday, July 14, 2008

rude boss wants his personal errands run

A reader writes:

I'm a 40-year-old woman working for a 28-year-old man, who likes to micromanage and who I believe is bipolar but of course am not 100% sure. I've been working for him for 2-1/2 years and since day one have been miserable. When I interviewed for him, he was a completely different person, nice, considerate and seemed genuine. Since then, I can not believe one word he says.

When I started, I signed an agreement that stated I would receive 2 weeks of PTO and the major holidays off. I also signed a company handbook which breaks out vacation, PTO and holidays as 2 weeks of vacation days, 2 days of PTO for personal use and 3 days of sick PTO, along with the major holidays. I have used up my vacation and unfortunately had to take 2 days of sick, which I'm told will not be paid. I stated that in the company handbook that I signed off on, it stated 2 weeks vacation, 2 days PTO and 3 days sick. He said that I needed to negotiate this at the time of employment.

Now this would not have been so hard to listen to if he wasn't such a jerk to me. When I was hired, I was hired as an office manager. Since then, I have been asked to do his laundry, clean his truck out, pick up and pay for his tux for a wedding, take his truck to get a tire fixed and oil changes several times and he usually always picks a day it is raining out so I get drenched and then chuckles when I get back, and run other personal errands for him. The one thing that irritated me the most when he was putting some bagels away in plastic bags in our break room and he was almost completed when I came around the corner. He saw me and in the most rude voice, he dropped all of the bagels back into the brown bag, dropped the plastic bags, and said , "Here, you do this" and walked away. I also have found that if I don't high-five him or give him the knuckle hit or hug him when he goes out of town, I'm treated worse.

Any suggestions about the vacation? Am I entitled to this PTO and would I have a law case against him for the way I'm treated? I am the only female in the company and I hate using the woman card, but I hate coming in everyday wondering what is he going to ask today.

Oh jeez. Let's break this down:

First, on the PTO issue, if a different PTO arrangement was negotiated with you as part of your salary and benefits package, it could trump the policy in the company handbook. However, I'm not a lawyer and I'm not positive about this, and it likely depends on the wording of your hire agreement and the wording of the handbook. Does your company have an HR department you can ask about this? I'd start there. If not, or if that ends up not being helpful, you could certainly call a lawyer who specializes in employment issues. (Or do any smart readers know more definitively?)

Second, on the issue of your boss asking you to run his personal errands: First, we need clarification on whether this is legitimately part of the job or not. So:
1. You could sit down with him and ask for clarification about your responsibilities and priorities. Tell him you hadn't realized that running errands for him would be a component of the job and that you've tried to be accommodating but that you're concerned about it cutting into your other duties. Tell him that when he asks you to run errands for him, it means you have to neglect x and y, and ask if the company is okay with that.
2. I'm curious to know if his boss would be okay with this guy assigning you his personal errands. Depending on the dynamics of the company and your relationship with others, you might try to find out. There are some jobs where this would be acceptable, and others where it wouldn't be. It would be good to find out which yours is.
3. What would happen if the next time he asked you to run a personal errand, you simply said politely, "I'm sorry, but I've got to finish up this project"? (This is why you need more official clarification on what the expectations are for your position.)

But really, none of the above will change the fact that this guy is a jerk and will likely always be a jerk to you. Honestly, I'd start looking around at other jobs. There's no reason to put up with being treated that way and you shouldn't forget that you have options. You're not stuck putting up with this crap.

What to Do if You're "Overqualified"

What is a hiring manager thinking when she tells you you're "overqualified"? And what can you do to get past that? I have a post up over at U.S. News & World Report today that talks about that. As always, please share your thoughts in the comments over there.

Friday, July 11, 2008

references and the importance of giving notice

It makes me very happy when other people do my work for me, as a reader named Ayan just did, with the comment she left on an earlier post I did on references. She writes:

We recently interviewed a woman who wanted to leave the university system and work in the private sector (for us). Since she was teaching in another state, we asked when she planned to move; she said she was contracted to teach through the current semester and would move to our state at the end of the month. 

She did great in the interview so we began the reference-checking process. Interestingly, she had *not* given a reference for the job previous to her current one. But since that institution was listed on the job application, we called and spoke to that former department chair. He gave a good reference - until we asked how she had left the job. It turns out her version of "two weeks notice" was to call and leave a message on the department head's machine over the Christmas break. This was technically two weeks, but since it was the vacation period between semesters, no one got the message; they had to scramble to find a substitute teacher when class started.

Following a hunch, we looked up the online class schedule at her present university - and sure enough, she was enrolled to teach a class for the upcoming semester. If we'd hired her, she would again be walking out on a fully scheduled course one week before it was due to start. 

That seemed to indicate both a certain "rules lawyering" mentality and a willingness to drop a job without regard to their need for her. We didn't hire her. She was FURIOUS that we'd called the supervisor who was not provided as a "reference," but the form she signed clearly stated that we could and would contact *any* organization she listed in her job history. 

So the lessons to take away here are: 1. Carefully read the forms a potential employer has you sign; chances are you're giving them the right to contact anyone on your history, not just your stated references. 2. Give an ethical period of notice, if at all possible. 3. If you've screwed over a boss in the past, you're likely to be viewed as a risky hire - unless you own up to your past behavior and present a compelling justification for it.

I have not a thing to add.

Okay, yes I do. I like other people doing my work for me, but I still need to put in my two cents, whether it's needed or not. (Side story: My father was a newspaper editor and one his reporters once referred to him as "a dog who has to pee on every tree." That's me too. It's genetic.)

So here's my addition to Ayan's three brilliant points: Even if you don't sign a form consenting to have any of your former employers contacted, reference-checkers may still call any of the companies listed on your resume. In fact, a smart reference-checker will often specifically hunt down additional references beyond the ones you provide -- because the list you hand over is of course the people likely to present you in the best light. Really, the only thing off-limits in reference-checking is your current employer, so assume everything else is all fair game.

Thank you, Ayan!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

co-existing with a control freak secretary

A reader writes:

The secretary in our office has been there for 35 years and likes to control "her" environment. A few of us have occupied a portable building for the past 5 years and recently we have all been temporarily moved back into the main building. It is very crowded and every single one of us is having to be inconvenienced in some degree and we are all dealing with it with a good attitude... except the secretary.

For starters, she is OCD (did not have a trash can in her house for 10 years, she would take every piece of trash out to the curb, cannot sleep if she knows there is ONE empty coat hanger in the closet because they belong in the laundry room). She cannot stand trash in her trash can under her desk. She either takes it out side or goes and puts it in someone else's trash can. She has to know where everyone is and when they left and when they are coming back, how late did someone come in, how many phone calls, etc.

My new temporary location is in an office adjoining her reception area. There is a door on each side of my office, one between her and me and one on the opposite wall. Until now this room was the "copy & file room" and because of the two doors was also used as a convenient pass-through to the other side of the building. There is a real hallway to the other offices and it is not at all necessary to use this pass through my office. In order to accommodate all the additional equipment and furniture that came into the main building with us, I have proposed closing and blocking the door between her area and mine with one of the copiers. This will also provide each of us with some privacy. She is throwing a shoe about this. She "says" she doesn't mind us keeping the door shut but doesn't want to put the copier in front of it. She doesn't have a real reason (that she will admit) but she has hinted that maybe it isn't safe or maybe for ADA reasons.

As I mentioned, she is the self appointed hall monitor and doesn't hesitate to report anything that she doesn't like. She is a regular busy body. She has also lied to me, saying that it was not her who had the problem with it but really our supervisor. I have two witnesses that heard otherwise on two different occasions. She has approached our Safety Point of Contact and asked him if he could get a ruling from someone at district office. He knows what's going on and doesn't want to touch it either. The real reason is just about control and she just plain does not deal well with any sort of changes.

Our supervisor does not like confrontations and does all he can to keep peace without upsetting anyone, to the point of riding the fence. I know he doesn't want to deal with this sort of petty issues and I agree. I do not want to even speak to him about it because it is so ridiculous, but someone needs to put her back on her chain. How do I stand my ground on this without getting into a cat fight? I don't want to bring myself to her level.

First, thank you for an entertaining letter and introducing me to the phrase "throwing a shoe," which I will be using in the future!

You have two options:

1. You can try just ignoring all this. You are clearly aggravated and I can understand why. But if you step back and look at her behavior, it's pretty minor. She's annoying, for sure, but ultimately none of this sounds truly harmful.

2. You can try standing up to her, calmly and rationally. Just move the copier against the door if you want to. If she complains to you, tell her it was the best solution to accommodate all the furniture. When she continues complaining about it, tell her that you have to focus on getting your work done and can't discuss it further. If she goes into busy body mode wanting to know where you or someone else has been, calmly tell her, "You don't need to keep track of where people are." You won't change her snooping, but she might learn not to talk to you about it, which will cut down on your aggravation. (For any of this, you want your tone to be pleasant but firm -- almost matter-of-fact; don't make it personal.)

However. It sounds like your company is full of people who don't want to deal with her and thus won't stand up to her. So if your supervisor ends up asking you to move the copier back to appease her, you'll have decide how committed you are to standing your ground. That would be a ridiculous request, but it sounds like you're working with people who are willing to accommodate her behavior at everyone else's expense, so I'd be prepared for the possibility.

The real problem here, of course, is whatever manager is permitting her to disrupt the environment in this way, rather than addressing her behavior with her head-on. So ultimately you can only control how you respond to it. Both options above limit how much you get drawn into her craziness, which is the main goal with this kind of person.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

should I tell my boss I'm leaving after my vacation?

A reader writes:

I have been with my employer for 1.5+ years, and at the start of this year I told them I was going to go to Europe in September. I booked my leave time, even though half of it is unpaid as I haven't accrued enough paid leave. This is all fine, and very nice of them to allow, but then I did give them 8 months notice!

In the last 6 months, however, I've become increasingly dissatisfied with my job. Eventually I made the decision that I wanted a new job, and about 3 months ago I put out some feelers about whether it was worth trying to find a new job, since I would need 8 weeks leave very quickly. A recruiter friend basically told me there was little point trying to find a new job since a new employer was unlikely to want to take me on with an 8 week holiday in the future.

So I put the issue to bed until after the holiday, but I'm feeling a bit guilty now. Essentially I intend to go on holidays (we leave in 7 weeks), and then come home and try to find a new job.
I already know they aren't replacing me while I'm away, the owner of our business (in another branch) was too disorganized to hire + train someone new, so our little office will go from 2 to 1 (+ 2 in warehouse) while I'm gone. I know this stresses out my manager, as he will have to cope with everything alone while I'm gone.

Should I tell him I'm unhappy with my position and will be job hunting after my holiday? My fear is I will come back to no job entirely though!

(As a side note, I haven't told my manager I'm unhappy in my position, as there's only two of us. Essentially if I don't like my duties, I simply need to ship out, there's no way to reorganize them, and I don't hold it against him. It's just unfortunate that this job isn't the best fit it could be for me.)

I'm in Australia, have no contract exempt/non-exempt status or anything like that to consider. Its more that we're such a little team I don't want him to think I'm screwing him over.

This is tricky. A lot of it depends on your relationship with your employer and your knowledge of how willing they've been to work with other people in similar situations. If you were a very long-time employee, I'd say to go ahead and give them a heads-up now ... but at 1.5 years and a long vacation planned, I'd be more cautious.

If you talk to them now, you risk them either reneging on their agreement to let you take the long trip (because they have no more incentive to keep you happy) or replacing you before you're ready for it.

Regarding the ethics of it and the guilt you're feeling: It's true that I wouldn't be thrilled if I gave an employee special permission to take eight weeks off and she quit soon after returning. But these things happen; people move on to new jobs, and employers know that (well, the sensible ones do). The fact is, they approved your vacation time, and they didn't ask you for any sort of long-term commitment in exchange. So I don't think it's crazy to look at this as two entirely separate issues.

Additionally, you don't know how long the job search will take once you return; if the Australian job market is anything like the U.S.'s right now, you may end up staying there long enough that the vacation will become a non-issue anyway.

Ultimately, I think this illustrates the need for employers to make it safer for employees to be honest with them when they're thinking about leaving. The reason most employees aren't candid about it is because they have reason to think they'll be pushed out earlier than they wanted to leave (often because they've seen that happen to others). So it's in employers' best interests to create an environment where employees know they can safely talk about this sort of thing, but too few of them do, and they end up with employees who can't safely divulge their plans.

old employer torpedoing new job offer

A reader writes:

My brother in-law, Ryan, has worked for his now-former company for a couple of years now. He began looking at changing careers and was recently offered a new job. This new job would be as a product representative for a company that is utilized by the same company he had been working for. He accepted his new offer and was very excited to start. However, the new job required that he start immediately, so he was unable to give notice to the former and he had to leave abruptly, not by his choice, but because he wanted the new job and it seemed a necessary evil.

His immediate supervisor wished him luck and understood the situation. The district manager, however, after hearing Ryan was leaving, took it upon himself to call Ryan's new employer to tell them he would not be welcome in the stores as a product rep, simply because he was upset that no notice was given. This was not a reference check, nor did the new company instigate contact. It was simply the district manager's attempt to submarine Ryan's new career. Upon hearing this, the job offer is in danger of being rescinded, post-acceptance, because "if he is not welcome in-store, he is of no use." Now, Ryan cannot go back and may effectively be unemployed because his former district manager decided to keep him from succeeding at his new job.

My question is whether this is legal or not, and what options he may have going forward as he will also have to explain this situation to every prospective employer should he not get this job, and his professional reputation may be tainted. Can you help?

Ugh, what a horrible situation. Yes, it's probably legal. Really jerky though.

If I were Ryan, I'd appeal to the immediate supervisor and ask him to intervene. Ryan should ask him to plead his case to the district manager and see if the damage can be undone. He should also speak with the new employer, explain that he gave no notice at their request, and ask them to work with him on finding a way to fix the situation.

I know it's of no help now, but always, always give notice. A company that refuses to understand that you need to give notice to your current employer is a company that is likely to be unreasonable in other ways too (as we're seeing now).

Update: A reader wrote to suggest that Ryan might have a legal case under tortious interference, which is a legal violation related to intentionally damaging someone's business relationships. My own reading (and I am not a lawyer) was that it doesn't apply here, because the old employer is within his rights to say that they won't deal with Ryan as a product rep because of the way his employment ended (again, a jerk, but within his rights). But I'm not a lawyer and if he's seriously interested in potential legal action, he should talk to one who specializes in employment law.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Can a manager be both effective and well liked? Nope.

Can a manager be both effective and well liked? Nope. Not going to happen.

My post at U.S. News & World Report this week explains why. Please join the debate and weigh in in the comments section over there!

Friday, July 4, 2008

laid off in order to lower pay?

A reader writes:

Last Friday, I was laid off from my job. Apparently the official reason is "lack of work," although my manager kept hammering on the fact that I was getting paid so much more than other people in the same positions.

In our area, we had 4 people working the same positions: 3 permanent employees (including me) and 1 contractor. I have fairly good reason to believe (alas, no proof) that the contractor was hired on as a permanent employee just the week before I was laid off. My guess is for a good $10 less an hour than I was being paid. In my papers to be signed, it was stated that the company could not hire anyone for my position in the coming 90 days. Of course it said nothing about any period prior to my involuntary departure.

My manager advised me to take the severance package (approximately 1 month's pay), yet not to touch it, since they may very well call me back within 60 days and I would have to pay it back. I have a hunch that they will call me back, but only at a much lower pay scale. Is all this legal? If not, what recourse do I have?

First let me say that I'm not a lawyer and this is outside my area of expertise, so I'm doubly unhelpful on this one. I'm hoping someone who can speak more definitively on these issues than I can will weigh in.

However, what I do know is that if your company did lay you off as a method to ultimately get you back at a lower rate of pay, they are not a company you want to work for.

So to me, that trumps the question or whether or not it's legal, although you could certainly speak with a lawyer to determine your options. (Disclaimer: In general, I tend to think people should save legal action for the most egregious situations, simply because it usually means spending a lot of money and even more energy and emotion on something that can be hard to prove.) But my hunch is that unless you can prove that the whole thing was premeditated ("let's hire on the contractor, lay off Susan, and then rehire her at a lower rate of pay"), you'd have little recourse. But hey, that's a hunch with no J.D. behind it, so take it with a grain of salt.

Anyone have more helpful thoughts than my sort of lame advice?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

stupid lawsuits: fired for refusing to get boss coffee

Jezebel reports today on the case of receptionist/data entry clerk Tamara Klopfenstein:
After working for a few weeks, her (male) bosses asked her to get their coffee for them. She declined, and her manager e-mailed her, saying: "This is not open for debate. Please don’t make an easy task a big deal." Klopfenstein felt that getting coffee "reinforced outdated gender stereotypes," so the next day, when she was asked to get coffee again, she sent an e-mail that read: "I don't expect to serve and wait on you by making and serving you coffee every day." Nine minutes later, she was fired. Klopfenstein promptly sued the company for sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. The judge ruled: "The act of getting coffee is not, by itself, a gender-specific act," and dismissed the case. But Klopfenstein's attorneys argue that "Some tasks are inherently more offensive to women."
Seriously? So are her lawyers arguing that asking a male receptionist to get coffee would be okay, but it's not okay if she's a woman?

I don't want anyone fetching me coffee. And in fact, I sometimes bring my staff coffee. But if I asked someone to do a task that could reasonably fall in their purview (and like it or not, getting coffee isn't crazy for a receptionist), after having already had to talk to them about it once, and they replied with Klopfenstein's snippy email, I'd think about firing them too. And who says something that attitude-laden three weeks on the job?

(Although to be more precise, I wouldn't fire the person on the spot. I'd warn them and explain my expectations and what sorts of responses are and aren't acceptable, and I'd find out if the person was interested in working under those conditions. Still, I can understand why they fired her immediately -- she demonstrated an attitude problem that was unlikely to go away.)

And I am a woman, if that matters, which it doesn't.

juggling job offers

A reader writes:

I have been job hunting for weeks and have not received job offers or interviews from the preferred employers whom I've applied to. Just when I thought that the road ahead seemed bleak, I received one job offer today, along with a second interview this Thursday and another first interview next Monday. As much as I am delighted at the change in situation, I am rather confused as I wish to make a wise and informed decision -- not taking an offer just because the salary package sounds appealing, but accepting one that is in line with my interests.

Anyway, I am neutral about the job offer as I would be more keen about the job that is interviewing me on Monday. Furthermore, the company interviewing me on Monday is my ex employer and I am familiar with the job scope. As for the company which offered me a second interview this Thursday, it seems to be a challenging environment but offers an attractive remuneration package.

Here are my questions: First, if the company that is granting me a second interview offers me the job on the spot, should I take it immediately, even though I am also keen on working for my ex employer(but the interview with my ex employer only falls on next Monday)?

Secondly, the interview panel for the session with my ex employer will involve 4 people from the upper management- 2 directors, 1 department assistant director and a HR assistant manager. Does this mean that it is likely that there will only be one round of interviews, given that the top management are already present in the first round of interview?

I'm quite confused and hope that you will be able to advise me on the matter.

I see why you're confused! Let's break this down.

Easy question first: The interview with your former employer might be one round only, or it could be more. It's fine to ask them that.

Harder question: how to juggle the offer you have with the two other positions you're interested in. What timeline did the company that made you an offer give you for giving them a decision? If this wasn't discussed, contact them immediately and say that you're extremely interested and want some time to think it over. Ask when they need to hear back from you by. You are hoping they will give you a couple of weeks, but that's unlikely; they're more likely to give you a week, maximum -- because they have other candidates on the line who they need to get back to. If they turn the question around and ask how long you need, you really don't want to ask for longer than a week; they'll start questioning your interest level.

Next, call or email the other two companies immediately. Tell them you are extremely interested in the position they have open but that you have an offer from another company that you need to give an answer to within a week. Tell them that an offer from them would likely be your first choice, but you're constricted by the timeline. Companies that are very interested in you will do what they can to move up the interview.

However, do be prepared for them to tell you that they (a) can't move up the interview because of schedule conflicts or (b) don't expect to be able to make an offer decision within a week. If that happens, then you have a hard decision on your hands. Are you willing to turn down the offer you have, without any guarantee that you'll get an offer from one of the other two companies?

What you cannot do is accept the offer you have, with the intention of going on the other interviews and backing out of the first job if you get another offer later. Not only is that a crappy thing to do to the first company (who will have turned their other candidates loose by that point), but you'd risk damaging your reputation in your industry, because people talk, and you never know when that will come back to haunt you. So the basic question before you is whether you're willing to end up with no job offers in order to see the process through with the other two companies.

The best case scenario is that the first company gives you more time for an answer, and the other two are willing to move quickly once you explain the situation to them. Good luck! Let us know what you decide to do.