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Thursday, October 30, 2008

protecting references from overload

A reader writes:

I am always on a job prowl and, thus, in need of references. I read that it's good to give references the job descriptions and updates so they can be prepared to give a good reference. However, as I am doing a wide sweeping job search, I am reluctant to email them time and time again. Should I email them a general email listing the types of jobs I might be looking for? Or, should I update them more about the actual positions so they won't be surprised over the next two months? I tried maintaining good communication with them by emailing them, asking about updates on what they're doing and offering to help in projects related to ones I have worked on before. Yet, from their responses, I know most of them are really very busy.

Actually, there's a very easy answer to this: Don't provide prospective employers with your references until you're in the final stages of interviewing for a job. Most employers aren't going to check references until they're seriously considering making you an offer anyway (it's time-consuming and there's no point until you're seriously considering hiring someone). In fact, wait until the employer specifically asks you for your references -- at that point and only at that point, provide them and give your references a heads-up, with details about the nature of the job.

And if an employer asks you for your references at the very outset of the process, it's completely fine to request that they not be contacted until the employer is seriously interested in making you an offer (and that you be notified first so that you can alert them).

Monday, October 27, 2008

don't stalk the hiring manager

Don't cross the line from enthusiastic job-seeker to irritating stalker. Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about how to navigate the line. Please check it out, comment, etc.!

(After I wrote this, I saw that the awesome Rachel over at I Hate HR is getting bothered by this too. Check out hers as well.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

screaming boss

A reader writes:

I have a question about a manager at work. I work in the pharmacy department of the store, but the other night I witnessed a front store manager being extremely rude and disrespectful to a front store employee in front of customers and other staff. The employee just wanted to go on break, and paged the manager. The manager dropped what he was doing and when they met, he started yelling out loud "YOU COME TO ME, DON'T YOU EVER PAGE ME FOR SOMETHING LIKE THIS AGAIN." The reaction of the customers was shocking, and also most of the pharmacy staff. If this happens again to anyone else, what rights does the employee have?

Rights, as in legal rights? None, really. It's not illegal for a manager to be a jerk. Unwise, yes (because good employees will eventually leave over it), but allowed.

However, the employees of the store could certainly complain to the manager's manager, who probably has no idea that this manager is behaving this way -- and if even nothing else, would likely object to it being done in front of customers.

If I were this manager's boss and I heard about this, I'd have a very serious talk with him, both about using authority appropriately and about not making customers uncomfortable. Of course, there are plenty of bad bosses out there, so there's no guarantee that this boss will respond that way -- but the fact that the guy did this in front of customers works to your advantage here, because you can couch your concern in that context, which makes it safe for you to bring up (you're worried that customers are being made uncomfortable). And if he's a good boss, he'll realize that's not the only troubling aspect of this.

can after-hours event be required?

A reader writes:

Our company has a quarterly all-hands meeting that informs the employees of the financial status, what’s coming up, etc. There is a happy hour afterward at a different location than the meeting, usually at a local bar/restaurant. Can a manager require employees to attend an “after hours” function once a quarter?

Yes. Although if you're non-exempt, you would need to be paid for the time.

Now, is it smart? Maybe not. If it inconveniences some employees (by requiring them to make special child-care arrangements, miss an evening class, etc.) or just annoys them, it's probably smarter and more considerate to plan the event for during the regular work day. But this isn't that unusual of a practice.

Friday, October 24, 2008

on balls and lack thereof

I'm not one to spend a lot of time agonizing about the gender politics of being a woman in a position of authority. Sure, I'm aware that certain things I do will come across to some people as "bitchy" when a man doing or saying the same things would come across as assertive. Oh well. If people want to think I'm a bitch, fine. I'm not bothered by it, and I tend to think that you can't be too troubled by it if you want to be effective. After all, if women (or men) don't know how to handle occasional stupidity, they're not going to get much done in the world.

(Speaking of which, I was baffled earlier this year by all the hand-wringing over those Hillary Clinton nutcrackers. If there were an Ask a Manager nutcracker, I would buy a bunch up and give them as gifts.)

But I will tell you this: The selection of Sarah Palin, the reaction to Sarah Palin, and Sarah Palin herself are humiliating to professional women, especially those of us who thought we could move beyond gender in the workplace.

I am sorry, because I know you don't come here to read about politics (and I already indulged myself earlier in the year when I wrote about Barack Obama seeming like a good manager, whereas Hillary Clinton ... didn't). But I can think of little that has made me feel condescended to on the basis of my gender like this has.

Apparently, large swaths of the country find it acceptable, even charming, to wink and flirt in the equivalent of a job interview for a position of life-and-death importance. And most politicians and commentators, it turns out, think we're supposed to treat female candidates with some degree of delicacy (such as all the advice to Biden not to take Palin on directly in the debate). And large segments of the public are apparently willing to accept that male candidates for office will be attacked on every discoverable point of vulnerability, as well as plenty that don't actually exist, but it's okay to cry sexism when it happens to a woman.

No matter what your politics, how is this not a humiliation to every woman who thought she could get beyond gender?

I want to be hit as hard as my opponent would hit a man. I want to be judged on something more relevant than feminine charm (assuming I'm not on a date). I want to see if I can win it on my merits, and if I can't, I don't want the job just because you think you'd like to hire a woman.

I thought that had become the social contract, to a large extent. But we've now seen in a pretty devastating way that it's not.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

should I report an ethics violation?

A reader writes:

I work at a field office of a national nonprofit intermediary that provides financial and technical assistance to local community organizations. A week ago a coworker of mine told me that a representative from a community organization that we are funding had recently approached him with some disturbing news. Apparently, this organization had hired a consultant to help them work through some financial management issues. Unfortunately for the community organization, the consultant quit in the middle of the project. Unfortunately for my organization, the consultant in question is another coworker in my office, who was apparently out freelancing on this project. Our organization does allow staff to provide consulting services to other nonprofits, but naturally any revenue comes back to the organization, not directly to the employee (since our organization's whole point is to provide these services).

Also making things more complicated is the fact that the coworker providing the consulting sits on a committee that makes decisions re: public funding to nonprofit organizations, including the organization involved here.

This seems like a pretty cut and dry violation of our organizational conflict of interest policy. I told the coworker who spoke with the representative of the community organization that he should report the incident through our our anonymous and confidential system. However, he has said he does not want to do so. The downside for our organization could be pretty severe if this boils over, and I am inclined to report this incident myself. I am reluctant to do this, however, since the information was shared with me secondhand. Also, our office is very small (less than a dozen people) and morale is at a low point now (for other reasons). Any subsequent investigation by our legal department would only accentuate the tension that's already there. Should I just mind my own business? I'm very interested in a manager's perspective on this.

If you think there could be serious consequences for your organization, and it sounds like you do, you should report it. You shouldn't be deterred by the fact that you learned it secondhand; you can make that clear when you report it, and then it will be up to the organization to investigate and get to the bottom of it.

Sometimes I advise people not to report something, when it's small. But we're not talking about noticing that someone is 10 minutes late every day, or someone saying they were sick when they really just wanted a day off, or other things that don't really matter in the scheme of things. When something is serious or potentially serious, when it could affect the organization's reputation or integrity or finances or effectiveness, then I think you have to speak up.

You can give plenty of caveats -- "I want to stress that I don't know if there's any truth to this," "I don't know this to be true firsthand," etc. -- but you should speak up. Do it discreetly, but say something.

should I apply for the junior or senior position?

A reader writes:

I am applying for jobs after a short gap due to personal reasons. At one company I am interested in, there are 2 positions open - a senior position (two years of experience required in "finance or accounting or related experience") and a junior position (no experience required). I have the "related experience" in economics. But I am concerned that another candidate's more directly related finance experience may outweigh my experience in economics. So should I apply to the junior position and risk being rejected for being overqualified? Do I write in the cover letter that I am applying for both positions? Should I call up HR and ask them to clarify? What would you suggest?

I would apply for the more senior position. However, it's fine to note that you aren't sure if your experience is precisely what they're seeking for that position, and that you'd like to be considered for the other position if in their opinion it's a better match.

Now, if they're good at hiring, this is almost unnecessary because they may funnel you toward the opening that's most appropriate for you anyway. I email candidates all the time to say, "Hey, I don't think you're a strong match with Job X, but would you like to be considered for Job Y?" But of course you can't count on people doing that, so you'll cover your bases by doing it for them.

I think some people might say that you're under-selling yourself by expressing openness to a lower level position. But I think it just says that you recognize that they know the needs of the positions best at this stage, and you're deferring to their more in-depth knowledge. Good luck!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

stupid candidate behavior: not checking email

Here's a thought: If you're applying for jobs, you might want to check your email on a somewhat regular basis.

In the last week, I've had three candidates say they didn't know that we emailed them some questions about their applications, because "my Internet has been down for a week" and other variations of this.


If you're job hunting, and you're including an email address on your resume, ignoring your email is the same as sending out a bunch of resumes and then turning off your phone for a week.

There are ways to check your email when your Internet is down -- for free at a friend's house or at many public libraries, or for a few dollars at a Kinko's (update: which I have just been informed is now called FedEx Office).

We happened to call these candidates after not hearing from them because I am incredibly anal retentive that way. Most places aren't and would have just tossed them from their candidate pile.

If you're job hunting, check your email.

is employer required to offer paid time off?

A reader writes:

I have recently been hired to work full time (8:30 to 5:30) at a very small law firm in a small, southern town. There are only five employees total at the firm. Besides the two attorneys, I am the only full-time employee at the firm.

Upon being hired and starting the job, I was told that there were no benefits, to include no sick time earned and no vacation time earned, no matter how long I stay at the firm. This didn't faze me until I began to discuss the matter in conversations with many, many people, all of whom felt that this practice was illegal. It was their view that if I were a part-time employee, it would make sense that I would not earn any sick/vacation time, and would only be paid for the hours that I work. However, it is their contention that because I am a full-time employee, I should be entitled to earn at least some sick and/or vacation time, at the very least after working for a year at the firm. In addition, although the office is closed on certain federal holidays, because I am not physically at work on those days, I will not get paid for those days either. I am confused and not sure what is right and what is wrong. Please advise.

Actually, no federal law requires that employers offer paid vacation or sick days. There's a very small number of jurisdictions that require a certain number of paid sick days, but the majority of people in the U.S. live in places not covered by those laws, and no state that I know of requires vacation time.

That said, if the policy is being applied in a discriminatory manner, you'd have an issue -- for instance, if it appeared that the only people not being offered vacation/sick benefits were members of a protected class (such as those based on race, gender, or religion), but everyone else had them, then the company would have a problem. But that doesn't sound like the case here.

Regarding holidays, the company is legally allowed not to pay for them, assuming you don't work those days.

Keep in mind that there's a difference between what's legal and what's smart or customary. Most employers do offer paid vacation and sick days in order to be competitive and attract good employees -- but it's not illegal not to.

So what recourse do you have then? You could try to negotiate for some paid time off, ideally at your next performance evaluation. Or, assuming you aren't contractually bound to stay for a certain length of time, you could look elsewhere and try to find an employer who does offer paid time off.

Monday, October 20, 2008

asking for feedback after you're rejected for a job

So you thought the position was a perfect fit and your interview seemed to go well, but in the end, you didn't get the job. You could speculate about why you weren't hired, but if you're really curious, why not try to actually find out by asking for some feedback from the hiring manager? Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about how to do it. Check it out here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

eating at work

A reader writes:

My question is an odd one. It is about a habit of hard-working and busy people: eating at work.

I have a sensitivity to low level irregular noise, especially people chewing, crunching, and rattling cellophane bags. (In fact, I am wearing ear plugs right now to drown out the sound of a young woman crunching chips and digging into her sandwich bag for them.)

I was diagnosed with significant ADHD 3 years ago, which is probably the root. I found a lot of people online are disturbed by the sounds of eating, so much so that they have made up a name for it: soft sound sensitivity syndrome.

Often in their posts, they mention that they don’t say anything to the person bothering them. I wonder how many of your readers would prefer co-workers not eat so much at their desks?

You would hate me. I am constantly chowing down in my office on something or other. Sometimes my desk looks like a buffet table.

I suspect you've already stumbled on the answer: ear phones. What do other people think?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

mistakes new grads make at work

I like working with recent grads. There's something really fulfilling about watching people as they learn their way around the working world for the first time and start getting the experience that will let them advance professionally. But I've also seen quite a few stumble in similar ways. Some of these are fatal, some just unwise, but all are ways that recent grads unintentionally sabotage themselves at work. Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about seven common mistakes I see new grads making on the job. Check it out, and I'd love to hear your own input.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

what to wear to a nonprofit interview

My new pet peeve is becoming people who think that because they're interviewing at a nonprofit, they can dress down for the interview. I've seen too many candidates lately in business casual, which I'm pretty sure they'd never wear for an interview at, say, a bank.

Why are people doing this? Do they think other nonprofit standards are going to be lower too, like performance accountability? They're not. (Or at least they shouldn't be; if anything, they should be higher, given the importance of the work of many nonprofits.)

This is my PSA for the day: If you are interviewing at a nonprofit, you still need to wear a suit.

Monday, October 6, 2008

an ode to the bad managers of my past

I never had a mentor. Once a boss promised to teach me how to manage people, but then she promptly disappeared to "work from home" for weeks on end and was never seen again.

What I had instead were anti-mentors: bosses who were so bad that they unwittingly formed the start of my thinking on management, by providing a perfect model of what not to do.

My first boss was so afraid of offending anyone or making waves that he stood idly by while the organization crumbled around him. About half the staff there did little to no work, and he said nothing about it. He would sometimes complain about people behind their back but he never addressed anything to anyone's face. It was impossible to get warned about anything, let alone fired. One coworker and I used to speculate on how outrageous someone's behavior would have to be before he would be forced to say something to them. At one point, we decided that I could come to work wrapped in a bath towel, as if I'd just stepped out of the shower, and he wouldn't comment on it. We resorted to begging the higher-ups to hire a real manager, but our pleas went nowhere and we eventually left.

Later, I had another boss who openly talked about how she hadn't wanted the promotion that had made her the manager of our department, and it was clear that her strategy was to pretend nothing had changed. Requests from other departments for work from us would sit in her in-box for days because she either didn't want or didn't know how to assign work. Eventually the department that had sent the request would call to check on it, at which point she would assign it to someone who would be forced to drop everything to complete it at the last minute. A co-worker and I used to devise ways to get work done despite her; at one point we installed a work order box outside the department and announced that all incoming jobs had to be requested via a form left in the box, so we could just grab jobs and do them, before they got bottlenecked with our alleged "manager."

I had another boss who brought me in to "fix" problems on the staff and who loved to sit in his office and complain to me about how those problem staffers were holding the organization back. Ironically, he also loved giving flowery speeches about the importance of strong management -- until I told him it was time to start holding those problem staffers accountable and insisting they start getting some results. Then he filibustered for months, coming up with one reason after another why we couldn't take any action, until I finally realized he would never bring himself to make waves. Many years later, long after I left in frustration at his inaction, those problem staffers are still there, their problem behaviors unchanged.

I could go on and on. But the point is this: My bad bosses taught me what eventually became the foundation of my own approach to management, by teaching me what not to do. Once you know what not to do, the path to what you should do becomes remarkably clear.

By working for managers who allowed their desire to be nice to lead them to avoid unpopular/difficult decisions and conversations, I learned how crucial it is to address problems straightforwardly. By working for managers who tolerated shoddy work, I learned the importance of setting a clear and high bar and expecting people to meet it. By working with managers who didn't know how to delegate, I learned how key it is to be hands-on in keeping work moving, including laying out clear expectations about results, checking in on progress, and holding people accountable for their performance. And from various other bad managers, I learned to see and use authority as just one more tool in the toolbox for getting things done; it's not something that should make you nervous or something to lord over others, just something that helps you run things in the way they should be run, and to back up your words with action.

And now that I manage other managers, I make damn sure none of them are going to be the nightmare manager that someone else is writing about someday.

So here's a shout-out to all the bad managers from my past. You put me on the path to my current job and, in the words of the terrible Chicago ballad, you're the inspiration. Thank you!

5 signs you're about to be fired

It's always baffling to me how many people don't realize when they're in danger of being fired, even when the signs are all there. When it finally happens, they're stunned and seem never to have seen it coming. Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I give five signs that your job might be in danger. Check it out.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

how does blogging affect job-hunting?

A reader writes:

What is your take on having a blog and how that might affect your career, especially if you are job-hunting?

I blog as a hobby for about five years now. I have a political blog where I often deal with controversial topics and issues and which I sometimes take staunch positions. It is well-written (I don't rant and rave -- this is where I do serious writing and reflection) and I try to be thoughtful in my posts. I also am linked to several nationally-known bloggers and have a growing readership.

My question is: as a hiring manager, what is your take on a potential hire having such a hobby? Would you hold their writings against them -- especially if they deal with controversial political and cultural topics? I make an effort to be anonymous and use a pseudonym but my true identity can easily be found out using a simple Google search. I do not mention any of my employers at all in my blog posts and tend to avoid topics that have to do with my employer's business. That said, I am not sure if that is enough precaution to keep me out of trouble.

Depends on the employer, and depends on how controversial.

Here's where I come down on it (and this is only my personal take, not representative of all employers): If someone is writing about a controversial issue and they're doing it in a thoughtful, calm way, then regardless of which side of the issue they're on, that's fine with me. But if someone is ranting, or so extreme in their views that they're scary (and that's subjective, of course), or just offensive, it's probably a deal-breaker.

Also, if I know about a candidate's blog, it's going to become part of their application package whether they know it or not. I'm going to look at it for evidence of how their writing is, how they use logic, what their judgment is like, and generally who they are -- like a MySpace page, it's definitely not off-limits. This could help or it could hurt, depending on the blog. (Side story: I actually once saw the blog of a candidate who had blogged about her interview process with me. It was well-done and it helped.)

In any case, personally, it's more about the type of thing above than whether or not I object to the particular views the person is espousing. In fact, I would rather not have a staff with identical views anyway.

However, it's a risk. Plenty of employers won't agree with me and if they disagree with your views may hold it against you. To some extent, this is human nature. Some of hiring involves personal chemistry.

Additionally, you need to be prepared for employers to require you to discontinue the blog once you're on the job, or at least give you rules about what you can and can't write about. In some fields you just can't have an outside blog that showcases your individual opinions. For instance, if you work on a political campaign that's moderate and you have a blog where you occasionally display more radical opinions, that's a problem for the campaign and they're going to make you shut it down -- because many people will see it reflecting on them even if it doesn't actually. So if the blog is important to you and you don't want to find yourself choosing between it and your job, it might even be worth asking about before you take an offer.

Anyway, this is a huge topic and we've only scratched the surface. Anyone else want to weigh in?

Friday, October 3, 2008

should I stay or should I go?

A reader writes:

I have been with my company for over four years and was doing well until I went on maternity leave for a year. When I returned, I had a new boss (making me start the cycle of having to prove again my skills and worth) and a new role, which is more strategic than before. But because of my family commitments, especially with the new baby and sleepless nights, I am unable to give 100% to the job.

My current job involves getting very deep into the industry vertical to be able to participate actively in strategy discussions, sometimes with senior management. I am trying my best, I even joined a consulting course. But learning about the nuts and bolts of the industry has been a challenge, and I often sit through meetings with rarely any input. This is making me self-conscious and I often wonder if I am under-performing. My boss has already told me to take industry-related courses because he feels I need to work on this.

He is also sort of a micromanager compared to all my bosses before. He is very knowledgeable but would like me to rise up to his standards and often shoots down my work, which is very much demotivating. He also keeps talking about bringing a person from his previous company who is supposed to be smart, but mentioned that it will not affect my job.

My work in general has been perceived very well with every company I have worked till date (except with my new boss), and I am considered to be pretty good on deadlines and go to any extra ends to get things done. I like my new role but I am not sure if I will be able to perform according to the desired standards and ever please my boss. I am also worried if he will bring this new person in and slowly sidetrack me or fire me. These days, I have really lost my confidence and interest in the job and I am trying for new jobs. What do you suggest? Should I stick to my job or look for a new job?

It's hard to say with limited information, but these things jumped out at me from your letter:
- You feel you haven't been able to give 100% to the job because you have different commitments now.
- You and your boss both feel that you do not have the industry knowledge (at least not yet) to do the deep strategy discussions the job requires.
- You don't like your new boss' management style (and let's face it, that style may be becoming more pronounced because your boss isn't confident in your performance).
- You're losing interest in the role.

Rather than asking whether you should look for a new job, I'd be asking why you should stay. It doesn't sound like you believe this job is a natural fit for you, so why not start looking around for one that is?

We should all want jobs that we'll excel in. It feels crappy to be constantly struggling to succeed in a job, to see a disappointed or concerned boss, to have to worry about being pushed out. Don't stay for the sake of sticking it out; if this isn't right for you -- and I'm defining "right" as a role where you're going to shine, not as a job where you can get by -- start looking for what might be a better a fit. There's no shame in that.

But if you're not ready for that -- and maybe with a new baby you'd rather avoid more upheaval -- a middle ground would be to talk to your boss, and ask for some feedback. How does he think you're doing overall? Does he have confidence that you'll be able to perform at the level he's looking for in time? Best case scenario, his answers to these questions could provide you with some reassurance. Worst case scenario, they at least help you stop having to guess and give you some firmer facts to base your next move on.

Good luck!