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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

helping a boss manage his time better ... my time management rant

A reader writes:

How do you put order/structure to a boss’s calendar that is out of control with constant meetings and no time to get any work done? Due to downsizing, etc., he oversees three departments now instead of just one. My boss has meetings on top of meetings on top of meetings, many of which he requests. I block off “Office Time” on his calendar and those times only get bumped for more meetings. I simply must help him take control of his work days, but can’t figure out where to start. HELP?

You've come to the right place on this one. I'm obsessed with this topic.

At its core, good time management is about clarity – clarity about what the person is there to accomplish. I'm assuming that your boss has important things he must accomplish other than sitting in meetings, right? But his schedule indicates that he is not being honest with himself about how he allocates his time and that he's not applying the necessary level of rigor required to have his time reflect his priorities. He has a lot of company in being that way.

Obviously, there's only a finite amount of time in the day. That means that people with lots of demands on their time need to pick and choose what they will and won't do. When people refuse to make those decisions, often because they aren't being honest with themselves about the fact they can't do it all, they still end up not doing it all -- but since they won't make deliberate decisions about what won't get done, they instead end up letting those undone items get picked by default. And that's no good. If some things aren't going to get done, it's far better to choose those things strategically, not just wait to see what's undone at the end of the week.

People who mismanage their time are people who aren't thinking clearly and logically about this. Just because there are a lot of things you'd like to do, or that you should do, doesn't mean that you can do them all. People who refuse to recognize this reality will find themselves overextended, stressed out, and often neglecting high priorities in favor of lesser ones. This can turn someone who should be a high performer into a weaker performer, all because of fuzzy thinking about priorities, time management, and what's realistic.

Ultimately it's about being brutally honest in response to this question: Since we can see there isn't time to do everything, what things can you decide to cut out? Most people in this situation initially respond, "I need to do it all." But what they keep forgetting is that they aren't doing it all now. It's not happening, because it's not possible. Like with your boss, they're not getting to everything, and often some of what doesn't get tended to is more important than what their time is getting spent on. So since you can't do it all anyway, you need to pick consciously and deliberately, not leave those choices to chance.

So. Where does that leave you with your boss? You have the right idea about scheduling your boss appointments with himself -- work blocks that are deliberately built into his schedule. But your boss is then overriding this by letting those work blocks get bumped. So you need to sit down with your boss and talk straightforwardly about what's happening.

Your boss needs to be honest with himself and decide whether or not he's committed to having room in his schedule for this. If he is, point out to him that he's been routinely sacrificing that need and that you're both going to need to more strongly commit to protecting that time from intrusions. This is a painful concept for people when they first grapple with it, and if he agrees too quickly, it means he's not fully processing it -- so tell him, "Look, this sounds easy now, but in practice, things are going to come up that will tempt you to backtrack. I think we need to agree that we will protect these work blocks at all costs, except in very unusual cases."

If he's logical, he's going to see the reason in this. If he's not logical, well, good luck with that. You may not be able to change him much.

(By the way, I also wonder whether your boss really needs to be in all those meetings. I'm skeptical of most meetings, let alone a day or week packed with them to the exclusion of all else. Your boss may need to delegate more, or say no more things, or teach his staff to use his time better. And if all the meetings truly are necessary, then it sounds like your boss's job is more than a one-person job, which means that either his job description needs to be pared down or he needs to compromise on issues like how much he'll involve himself in certain areas. But trying to magically do it all, when it can't all be done, guarantees he'll fail at some of it.)

Monday, March 30, 2009

job candidates who need to stop talking

I have a workplace and interviewing pet peeve: people who go on and on and on and on and on and don't get to their point reasonably efficiently, especially when they ignore cues that their audience is getting impatient. In job interviews, this is one of the most direct ways to torpedo your chances. And not just with me -- while my hatred of it may be at a crazy level, it can sink you with many/most interviewers.

Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I bitch and moan about this. Please check it out and leave your thoughts in the comments over there.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

advice for a recent grad

A reader writes:

As a recent grad who is looking for my first real job in a market that quite frankly sucks, I've become an avid follower of your blog.

I have a bachelor's in Business Administration from a private university. Not exactly ivy league, but respectable nonetheless. My professional experience is limited to just over one year doing administrative tasks as part of my work study scholarship and a three-month international trade internship at a U.S. embassy abroad.

It seems like every job description (besides those entailing telemarketing) requires substantial experience. I was even told by one recruiter, "I don't doubt you're a smart girl, but you just don't have the experience." My question is, what options do I have in terms of my first job? It's frustrating applying for positions that I don't have a shot at, but at the same time, I want to gain some valuable experience.

I've been applying mostly for marketing assistant and sales/marketing positions. My concentration is in international business, but I've yet to find anything promising with an international twist. Also, I should forewarn you that the career placement office at my university is shamefully substandard and thus offered me little direction in terms of career options.

Thanks for whatever advice you might be able to offer!

This does suck.

A job market like this one is bad enough regardless, but having very light experience is posing an extra obstacle for you (and many, many others) because you're competing for the same jobs with people who have more experience.

First, a quick tangent that won't help you now but will help others still in school: Do internships every semester you can, so that you have work experience on your resume. Paid, unpaid, whatever it takes.

Okay, back to you. It feels like a catch-22, of course; how are you supposed to get experience when no one will hire you without it? There are actually two time-tested ways to do exactly that:

1. Temp. By temping, you'll get additional experience to put on your resume. It also has the added benefit of giving you an inside track for upcoming job openings wherever you're temping.

2. Volunteer. At a minimum, it will give you more experience to put on your resume. And it may also expand your network of people who can assist in your job search. (It will also make you feel good.)

So you're temping and/or volunteering and putting it on your resume. Meanwhile, you should also:

1. Expand the types of jobs you're looking at. I'm curious about why you're focusing on marketing positions. There's a whole world of other interesting work out there -- broaden your search to include other types of work, and you'll raise your odds. (Relatedly, be flexible on salary and location. You're not locking yourself in forever.)

2. Go for quality over quantity with your applications. This may feel counter-intuitive, but a smaller number of really well-done applications is going to get you better results than a generic resume blast to 100 places. This means, 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.) Read this post on cover letters. And read this one too.

And don't be afraid to show a bit of personality in your cover letter; hiring managers read so many dry cover letters all day long that coming across one that sounds like a real person, and one you might enjoy talking to, can really make a difference.

3. Be willing to pay your dues, meaning be open to low-level jobs that might have a decent amount of drudgery to them. (Nothing about your letter indicated you're not, but I want to emphasize this.) Take on the on menial stuff and do a good job with it, and eventually someone is going to let you do something more interesting.

You will get a job eventually, by the way. Hang in there, and good luck!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

when your ex is a coworker -- and a silly one

A reader writes:

I work for a big technology company. We are the market leaders in what we do, and we are looking at doing more cool stuff everyday. And I work for HR in the global headquarters.

I have a 'frenemy' here. We used to date - our company is ok with employees dating and many employees are married to each other - and he treated me pretty badly. I am with a great guy now, but I still hang out with my ex socially.

Me and my ex are from two different cultures, and I am four years elder to him- I am in my middle 20s ( and no, he is not under 20 years ). We have not told our colleagues that we were dating, or that we broke it off.

My ex has posted his almost naked pictures online, posted drunk updates in various social networking platforms detailing his sexual exploits and his level of sexual frustrations, etc. He has even posted on public forums that he is going to apply for a job with a few competitors and has publicly disparaged our products in the past.

My question? To what extent can and should I be concerned? Personally, I would not hire a guy who is like this ( but that is my opinion). But I want to keep my comments professional. I am not sure that many people know that he talks that way about our products online. And yes, he proclaims that he works for us in his social networking profiles. I am yet to see him use our internal feedback and discussion channels to air his concerns about our products and services though.

My dilemma is this - I know more about how he is because of my past and current proximity to him. I have been with the company for around four years and do have a good HR network. I am not sure if I have to tell people who think of hiring him that he exhibits such behavior online. Many of my senior colleagues are not very well versed in social media and are not aware of all this happening in front of a large and varied public audience.

Should I mention that this guy is behaving in this way when someone mentions to me that they are planning to hire him? Or should I keep quiet? I want to be professional, and don't want my behavior to be any way affected by my personal equation with this guy.

Why not talk to your ex and tell him directly that this is the kind of thing that could hurt him professionally? You're in HR so you've probably got some stories of how you've seen this hurt candidates or employees; if he's skeptical, use those stories to clue him in. Tell him that you're worried that it's only a matter of time until this ends up hurting him.

In particular, tell him bluntly that if others in your company see him disparaging the company's products, chances are very good he could end up fired.

(What is up with this guy's judgment?)

Of course, a second option is to ask yourself how you'd handle this if it were any other employee, and then do that. And you could argue that your company is entitled to know that this guy is behaving like an ass. But he's your friend, and it sounds like you have the info that you have specifically because of that friendship and might not have it otherwise, so why not give him a chance to clean it up?

However, if you feel like you're in an awkward situation because you feel you have an obligation to share the info, a middle ground would be to tell him that this is the sort of thing that your job could obligate you to share, and that it's putting you in an awkward position, but that you want to give him a chance to clean it up before it comes to that. Then leave it in his hands and see if he pulls it together or not.

What do others think?

how to screw yourself in a job interview

Kerry at Clue Wagon has a great post up called "how to completely screw yourself in a job interview." Read it, and make others read it. (Also, subscribe to her blog. I'm a big fan.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

stop telling me you're a great writer

It's not a great idea -- nor is it necessary -- to brag about your writing skills in your cover letter or on your resume, via subjective assessments of yourself like the following that I've seen recently:
"Outstanding writing skills"

"Highly conceptual and great at expressing ideas in a fresh, new way"

"Able to present strategic concepts in clear, persuasive, technically sound writing"
Here's why. If you have great writing skills, I'm going to see them in the cover letter. You don't have to tell me they're there. If I care about candidates' writing skills (and oh, how I do), I'm going to be looking for them in your cover letter and other communications anyway.

But all too often, candidates give me their own assessment of their writing skills. And when it doesn't match up with the not-so-great cover letter they've written -- which is often the case -- now I'm doubting the other subjective statements they have on their resume too. If they're wrong about their writing skills, why wouldn't I think they might be wrong about other skills they're claiming for themselves?

Frankly, I don't like any subjective statements on a resume. As I've written before, resumes should present factual information about what you've done, not subjective self-assessments. That's because I don't yet know enough about you to have any idea if yours is reliable or not.

Telling me that you're a fantastic writer when I can see that you're not pretty much answers that question for me, and not in a good way.

Now, you might think, "But since I know that I am a great writer, it's okay for me to do this." And maybe you really are (although a lot of people think they are when they're not). But you still shouldn't do it. If you're a great writer and you want me to know that, write a great cover letter. That's how I'll know.

Monday, March 23, 2009

disgruntled Facebook postings

I was just reading this post by Martin Burns about a Facebook status update that read as follows:

"___ is jealous of people that love their jobs…wish I was one of them..or at the least had a manager that gives a crap!@@%%&&"

Martin raised the question of whether this kind of post is job suicide.

I think it depends on who you are and who your manager is.

If I saw this kind of thing from a good employee, I'd be concerned about her unhappiness and would probably sit down with her and say something like, "Hey, I saw your Facebook status update. Was that just normal blowing off steam, or something more? If you're unhappy, I really want to know about it and figure out how we can help."

On the other hand, if it came from a bad employee or an employee with attitude problems or whatever, I'd take it as symptomatic of that, and our conversation would have a very different feel -- more along the lines of "rather than stewing in your unhappiness, let's figure out if you can be happy here or not, and if you can't, let's talk about where to go from here."

And then, of course, there are managers who would handle it totally differently -- ignoring it entirely, penalizing the person for it, or whatever.

What about you guys?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

how to tell your boss he's breaking the law

A reader writes:

I am the tech supervisor for a pharmacy. I am responsible for completing the monthly tech schedule. I also work only on weekends and Monday evenings.

Today, I told my boss that I was going to try and find coverage because I wanted to spend my daughter's first Easter with her. He told me that if I could find coverage then it was fine, but he then said, "We have to have coverage, so if it is between Easter and work, which one is it going to be?" I did not answer the question and just looked at him.

In previous situations where an employee requested a day off and nobody would volunteer to cover, my boss would step in a talk to some of the employees and get the day covered. I would like for him to do the same for me for Easter, seeing as how I worked Easter last year, thinking I wouldn't have to work it this year. But, my boss seems to think that Easter is not a true holiday and like it is not going to be a big deal if I do not find coverage.

I know that most people don't make a big deal out of Easter, but my family does, and spending it with my family is VERY important.

So, if I do not find volunteer coverage, how do I politely tell my boss that I would like for him to talk to some of the employees and push for coverage for me? How do I politely convey to him that the answer to the question he asked me (Easter or work) is Easter with my daughter and family? Do you feel it was inappropriate of him to ask me that question? I was kind of offended and shocked when he asked me that. Should I say something? How do I approach this whole thing?

I wrote back to this reader and asked who the other techs report to. She replied, "I am their trainer and conduct their evaluations. I also manage them as far as minor/moderate personnel and performance issues go, but ultimately, they report to him. He is the director. I cannot demand that they work Easter and them have to do it."

Federal law requires that employers "reasonably accommodate" an employee's religious practices, unless doing so would cause undue hardship to the business. In a situation where an employee wants to take off a religious holiday and other employees can easily be scheduled to work that day, allowing you to take off Easter would fall under the "reasonable accommodation" portion of the law, assuming that you're asking for the day off for reasons of religious practice.

Your boss is likely not even thinking of the law. He may not even be thinking of Easter as a religious holiday. Your job, then, is to point this out to him without coming across as overly aggressive or litigious. I would start out without getting into the law at all and would escalate only if it becomes necessary. First, I'd say something like this: "We talked recently about Easter and you asked me to pick between Easter and work. Generally work comes first for me, which I think you know, but in this case we are talking about my religion. Easter is a religious holiday for me, and I know there are many employees who don't feel their religious practice requires them to observe it. I'd like to ask that we schedule them on Easter. In the past, you've asked people to work on days that someone else wanted off. Can you do the same here?"

If he refuses, then I'd say: "I think we're actually required by federal law to make those sorts of accommodations for employees' religious practices." Note that use of "we" rather than "you." The tone here is that you're making a helpful, neutral observation about the law, and you are looking out for the store, not making a legal threat -- say it the same way you'd say it if you were talking about another employee's request. You do not want to sound like you're hinting at any legal action. (You have the right to sound like that, of course, but it's rarely good for your career.)

If he still refuses, you have a decision to make about how far you want to push this. If you want to push, I'd then say, "I hate having to frame it this way, but there's actually a law about this. I think you know I'm not the legal action type, but we're talking about what's required by law."

Now, some people will disagree with me about that "I'm not the legal action type" disclaimer, arguing that employees should assert their legal rights more forthrightly. And you're absolutely entitled by law to do so -- but your goal here is not just to assert the law but also to keep a good relationship with your employer. It is possible to do both, but not if you wield the law like a weapon. Fair or not, the reality is that few relationships are unaffected when legal threats are made. There are times when an employee may have no other choice, but when the question is "what is the best way to handle this in order to maximize my chances of a good outcome?" and not "what am I legally entitled to do?" then outright threats should be a last resort.

The law, by the way, is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

being asked to "fix" a coworker

A reader writes:

I work for a very large company, on a very small team of specialists that does a ton of work. About a week ago, my boss pulled me aside for a one on one. I have a really good relationship with my manager, I can say without hesitation that I really enjoy working with the guy and he's very fair - and understanding to a fault.

A while ago I actually sent in an inquiry to you about a slacker employee on my team, and how to bring it up to my manager. Well, let's just say that this individual finally dropped the ball on something pretty big, and I had no choice but to clean up the mess. Let us also say that I suspect my manager took a fair amount of heat for the mistake once it was made, and came to a realization about how severe the nature of this person's slacker-hood is.

My boss moves my team around sometimes, and we basically had a conversation about how I would be moving next to this individual in hopes that my stellar work ethic and leadership skills will somehow rub off on this less than effective employee and make him a better worker. This happens to me at jobs. People assume that because I work hard, I am going to be able to help them make poor performers better at their job. It's never worked thus far, probably a reflection of my less than stellar leadership skills, but here I am again in this same situation, being asked to help this person who frankly has been in their position much longer than me and who is much older than I am better at their job.

I expressed this concern and frankly some doubtfulness to my boss that I could accomplish this given my track record, but he seems confident I can do this, yet has assured me he will not hold me accountable if this tactic does not have the desired effect.

Can you offer me suggestions on guiding this guy? The conversation between my boss and myself was definitely a confidential one, but I do feel I need communicate to this guy that if he doesn't shape up, he's shipping out - how can I accomplish this without letting on how much I know about his performance issues? I want to do this right (if possible) because I am trying to view it as an opportunity to develop some leadership skills and frankly, some cajones myself, but I have absolutely no experience with making this "Good Employee Fixes Bad Employee" thing work, so I am hoping for some expert advice on doing it in a tactful, clear, and concise way - IF it can be done.


First, unless your boss has specifically told you that you can talk to this guy about the fact that his job may be in jeopardy, you shouldn't address that with him. That's the manager's job, not yours.

Speaking of things that are your manager's job, addressing poor performance is one of them. I hope that your manager's plan for this guy is something more than asking you to mentor him. A good manager would be addressing his concerns frankly with the guy, telling him what the issues are, the ways that he's falling short, and what the consequences are of not improving. I hope your manager is doing all that, and that having you model good behavior for the employee is just a bonus, but I have a feeling that might not be the case.

Your manager should not be putting you in a position where you feel responsible for a problem employee's success, because (a) that's his responsibility, and (b) you don't have the tools to make an impact -- because you don't have the authority that you'd need to address this head-on.

What exactly is it that your boss wants you to do? Just be a good role model? Or something more proactive? If the latter, you need to find out exactly what your role is supposed to be and what you have the authority to do. Without some authority over him, the most you can offer is help and guidance on specific projects. But if this guy is a slacker, I doubt he'll care to benefit from that, and that brings us back to your manager needing to manage.

For the love of god, what is up with managers who try to avoid managing? That's what it sounds like you've got here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

repulsed by office culture

A reader writes:

I work in a corporate setting within the Technology department. My direct supervisor who is a Vice President chews tobacco during business hours. The fact that he chews tobacco doesn't necessarily bother me. It's the spitting in a cup during departmental meetings that does. The only saving grace from me not puking is that the cup is coated with print and you cannot see the mucous.

Just for a moment’s time can you picture the following: "Now for this data set we are going to *SPIT* replicate this to the backup *SPIT* server then on every last *SPIT* day of the month the data should go *SPIT* off site."

His repulsive habits are not only disgusting, but it challenges my ability to take him seriously or even respect him as a superior. Furthermore, during said meetings he constantly checks his Blackberry for calls or emails with no regard to the persons actually talking to him. This type of behavior comes across as arrogant and makes you feel irrelevant.

This type of childish behavior is rather common place within my department. On a regular basis I deal with co-workers who don’t wear belts and bend over often, cuss at the top of their lungs, slam objects in their office as if mommy didn’t buy them that special toy, and computer equipment named after genitals (not kidding).

This is a small company with tight-knit relationships. I don’t feel comfortable confronting the issue head on and even contemplated talking to the President. However, he is friends with the offenders and is aware of the situation. I’ve overheard him making comments in a jokingly manner like “That stuff will kill you” or “Does your wife know you do that stuff?"

I take my job very seriously. I am very proud of my work ethic and quality of work. However, I feel as if I work for frat boys that only want to play in a sandbox. Am I just nitpicking or should I head for the hills?

I don't think you're nitpicking, but I don't think you can change this stuff.

This isn't a matter of one or two things that you'd like to see change; you're talking about an entire culture. And it's a culture that most other employees apparently like, including the president. Whether or not they should like it is beside the point; the fact is that they do. You can't singlehandedly change an office culture. And in this case, it's not really yours to change.

The thing you probably have the best hope of changing is your boss' habit of checking his blackberry while talking to you. This won't necessarily work, but you can try saying to him, "I've noticed that when we meet, it's usually at times when you need to be monitoring your blackberry. Is there a time we could meet when you wouldn't need to?" Might work, might not.

But it sounds like you simply don't like the office culture, and there's nothing wrong with that. No office culture will be right for everyone. My advice is to figure out if you can find ways to live with it and be reasonably happy. If you can't, you can't, and you need to proceed accordingly. But I wonder if there aren't ways for you to live in it peacefully.


I've fallen so far behind on answering questions that there's no way I would ever catch up. So I've discarded the 200+ emails sitting in my in-box that were sent before March. My in-box now has only March emails, and I might actually be able to answer most of them. It feels good.

If you emailed me a question earlier than this month and you still want it answered, please re-submit it. Otherwise, my apologies for never getting to you.

This was incredibly liberating.

Monday, March 16, 2009

when a job offer isn't acceptable

A reader:

I have been working for a very small company for about 8 months. One of my co-workers is leaving and they have offered me his position. However, they are offering my a much lower salary than he currently earns for the same position. The salary they are offering me is also much less than the average for the industry. I have tried to negotiate based on the duties/responsibilities of the job and my value to the organization. They produced little to no effect on the offer. I mentioned that it was hard for me to accept the offer knowing that the current salary for the position was much higher than the one they were offering me. The owner told me that the other employee's salary was an exception because this particular employee had quit his job in another state to help him start the company and did not receive payment for a few months. So, the owner pays him that salary in order to pay him back.

Is this a fair practice? Am I wrong in expecting a salary that is closer to what the person who currently performs the job makes? The current employee is also the owner's very good friend and they've known each other for years.

In addition, this company had also "promoted" me from an hourly position after the first two months I started. However, the salary and benefits that were offered (verbally) were never received and the position did not live up to what I was originally promised. This past situation makes me hesitant to believe what they are telling me. I am the only female in the office and often feel like I am treated differently because of this as well as the fact that I am not their
friend outside of the office. I am not quite sure how to handle the situation anymore. Thank you for any advice that you can provide!

It's dangerous to base your salary expectations on what someone else in the position makes. There are lots of reasons why someone might have earned a higher salary than what you're offered: maybe the person was hired when the market was tight and thus salaries were higher, maybe there was something specific in their background that the company found especially valuable, or whatever. You just can't base your negotiation on what someone else is making; fair or not, it's just not really done.

Now, you said that you didn't base your negotiation on that -- which is good, but you mentioned it as a major part of your thinking, so I think first you need to find a way to remove it from your mental framework about this. Base your salary requirements on the industry norm and what you'll be bringing to the company, nothing else.

Of course, the company can refuse, and you can't make them give in. They may be willing to hold firm, in which case you have to decide if the job is worth it to you at the salary they're offering. Ultimately, salary negotiation often comes down to the question of who is the most willing to walk away.

However, I'd question whether you should be accepting this position at any salary. This company has already misled you about salary, benefits, and job duties in the past; unless there has been a change in management, that's not a company you want to be working for anyway.

should you show up without an appointment?

A reader writes:

I know you cannot just send in your resume online and expect to get called. It is those applicants that are willing to try new things that might have a chance. I really want this job that was posted online. I have the experience and it would be such a good fit. Anyway, I applied online and I tried to get someone live just to talk with. I left messages for the H.R. people, but I did not expect them to call back. I want to go in with my resume and just say hello and talk. Is this going to help or hurt? I figure I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

No! Do not just show up with no appointment.

It absolutely could hurt you. If a candidate did this to me, there is a very good chance that it would ruin the person's chances. This is because:

1. I'm busy. I set aside specific blocks of time for interviews, and the rest of my day is booked up with other things. There is zero chance that I would make the time to talk with a candidate who showed up unannounced, and a high chance that I would be concerned about a candidate who didn't realize this.

2. The nature of the hiring process is that the employer decides which candidates they want to call in to interview. It's their call, not yours, and I would be annoyed that you were trying to circumvent that process.

When I have many good candidates for a job and one of them is being a nuisance, I'm less interested in that person, not more. If you want to stand out, write a great cover letter, have a resume that demonstrates a track record of success in the area they're hiring for, and follow up once, politely. Good luck!

beware the overly nice manager

Of all the qualities you don't want in a manager, here's one that you might not have thought about: overly nice.

Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about what the problems are with managers who are too nice. Please check it out and leave your own thoughts in the comments over there.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

receiving critical feedback

A reader writes:

I have a really messed up situation at work. Yesterday, I found a paper in the photocopier (which is in a public place). It was on the department director's letterhead (I report to the associate director). It was a handwritten list of errors I have made (relatively small and inconsequential), or things that annoy her about me. Among them are small errors from July 2008, my 6-month in advance request to use my vacation time + sick family leave to take care of a sick aunt. NONE of these have ever been brought to my attention as problems. I have a feeling the list was intended for my supervisor to put on my evaluation.

After finding the list, I brought it to my supervisor. He had a short meeting with the director and now we all have a meeting together on Monday. He is not one to support his employees, and rarely contradicts the director.

Should I request that an HR person be there? I feel like this is harassment. Am I being too sensitive?

My advice: Go and listen with an open mind.

It's normal to feel upset and defensive in this situation. Resist that impulse as much as you can. It will not do you any good, and it may escalate the situation.

The director seems to want to talk to you about things she is concerned about. It's almost beside the point whether you think these are small, inconsequential things or not, because she doesn't, and she's someone who you're going to need to satisfy in order to work there happily. The absolute worst thing you can do in this situation is be angry or defensive. Rather you need to listen to what her concerns are and figure out what you need to be doing differently.

Really, there are two possibilities here: (1) your director is being irrational, or (2) she's being reasonable. Either way, you need to hear what it would take to make her happy with your performance. If you hear her out and decide she's being irrational, nothing says you have to stay in that job forever. But you're still better off knowing where she's coming from.

Do the following:

* Really listen. Often in this situation, people immediately start thinking of how they should respond, which keeps them from hearing and processing the input. Maybe she has a reasonable point, which you'll never pick up on if you're focused on how to defend yourself.

* Use responses that indicate you're open to the feedback. For instance, saying something like, "I'm really glad you're telling me this. I didn't realize that this has been an issue, and I'm grateful to know" can dramatically change the nature of the meeting -- diffusing any adversarial feel and making it more collaborative.

* It's fine to present your side, of course, but do it in a non-defensive, unemotional way. For instance, you might say, "You're right that I didn't focus a lot of that project. I had thought that projects x and z were higher priorities and was more focused there. But am I looking at this wrong?" That last sentence makes you come across as open and non-adversarial.

* Try your best to be genuinely glad to get the feedback. It's far better to be made aware of concerns your boss has than to be blindsided by them one day when it's too late. Repeat as needed: "I hadn't realized it was coming across that way, so I'm glad to know."

* Know that it's not the end of the world to get critical feedback. I can't tell you how many meetings I've had where I've been the one talking to an employee about things I wanted them to do differently -- and only a very, very small percentage of those ended up with the employee losing their job. So don't freak out. Go, listen, be receptive, and try not to let your emotions get in the way.

By the way, after the meeting, talk to your immediate boss (the associate director) at some point on his own and let him know that you value feedback and ask if he'd bring you concerns directly in the future. It's possible that he shared these concerns himself all along and just isn't a good manager so didn't bring them up with you. That's bad -- you want a boss who will give you feedback as concerns arise so that you're not hit with them months later. Tell him you would welcome more immediate feedback in the future so things don't build up.

I think this will be okay. Good luck!

Friday, March 13, 2009

when you disagree with your boss

A reader writes:

I have a very aggressive boss who is confrontational. He works for the short-term.

I am “relationship oriented” and work for the short-term AND the long-term. Up until now, it’s been okay (15 years).

However, he is stressed out by the current financial crisis and is pushing me to call clients 2-3 times a day until I get outcomes. He says, “if you can’t get outcomes, I’ll need to hire someone else” (another bully tactic).

I refuse to bully my clients and potential clients. Is there a business protocol written somewhere which indicates a general rule about how often to call a client or potential client?

I don't know if there's a written protocol out there explaining that it's rude to call people several times a day, although you might find one with an Internet search or on sites about your field.

But even if you don't find something, you need to sit down with your boss and talk about this. I've noticed that when people disagree with their boss about projects or tactics, they often don't just address it forthrightly and instead simply resist -- through their actions -- what the boss is asking them to do.

It's fine to resist what your boss is asking you to do (up to a point, which I'll get to in a minute), but that resistance must be in the form of an explicit conversation. It can't be in the form of just not doing what he asks and not talking about it. (And I'm not saying you sound like someone who would do that; you don't. I'm hijacking your letter to go on a tangent about a point I've wanted to make for a while.)

When you feel strongly that you don't want to do what your boss is asking, you should sit down with him and openly discuss your differing opinions. You want to do this in a polite and collaborative manner, of course; I'm not advising being a jerk about it. Ultimately, though, your boss makes the call. If his final decision is one you still disagree with, you can say things like, "I really feel strongly about this. Would you be willing to allow me to try it my way and we can see how it goes?" But if he refuses, you can't just ignore that and do it your way. This is the nature of having a boss. (You also can't keep the debate going forever; more than two separate conversations is usually overkill, depending on the specifics.)

Of course, if you disagree with his call strongly enough, you can always exercise your independence by leaving -- but just ignoring him isn't an appropriate option.

The whole point is to be open and candid. Figure out your differences, see if they can be resolved, and if they can't, decide if you can live with that.

Now, in your specific case, what your boss is asking you to do is ridiculous. So I think your instinct to find expert materials that back you up is a good one, and you can use them as part of your conversation. The fact that you've worked together reasonably harmoniously for 15 years also bodes well. However, his threats about replacing you aren't a sustainable way of interacting, so the two of you are going to need to reach some sort of understanding -- no matter what it is -- soon. If he holds firm in the face of you explaining that what he's requesting is counterproductive and that you don't want to harm your employer, relationships, and reputation, then you're back to the formula above: figure out if you're willing to live with it or not. Ultimately that's a lot more satisfying than a constant struggle.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

don't use a functional resume

A reader writes:

In your "7 Things To Leave Off a Resume" article, you mentioned picking between chronological and functional resumes. Can you comment on why hiring managers prefer one over the other?

When I apply to jobs that are outside my field, I generally submit a combination functional-chronological resume so the company can see how my skills can be transferred to the new field/position but still see my employment history. Do you think this is effective, or am I hurting my chances?

It sounds like you're using a chronological resume (one that lists your job history by position, with dates, so that it's clear what you were doing when), with the addition of a "functional" summary. I think that's fine -- it's when someone excludes the chronology altogether that I (and many other hiring managers) see a red flag.

For people who don't know, a functional resume just lists skills and abilities, without including a chronological job history. Many hiring managers, me included, hate them.

Generally, the first thing I think when I see them is, "What is this candidate trying to hide?" That's because people tend to use functional resumes when they're trying to hide an employment gap, or job-hopping, or outdated skills (because it matters if your Web design experience is from 10 years ago or one year ago), or other things I'd rather know about. And if I do remain interested in the candidate, the first thing I'm going to do when I talk to them is ask them to walk me through their job history, with dates -- and it's going to annoy me that I have to, and if I have other good candidates I may not even bother.

So never use just a functional resume. But what you're talking about -- chronological plus -- should be just fine.

Monday, March 9, 2009

telling someone she needs to look more professional

A friend and reader writes:

My friend, who we'll call Kate, is having a problem with one of her staffers, let's call her Jane. Jane is a staff assistant and a hard worker who wants to stay in the office and move up the ladder.

Kate likes Jane, but some people in the office don't take Jane seriously. Part of this is that she's not assertive enough, which Kate has talked to her about. The other part is her appearance. [Insert disclaimer about how appearance shouldn't matter here], but this is an office where people are judgmental and you need to cater to that to get ahead. Jane is the first person you see when you enter this office, and her clothes don't fit quite right (her mother makes them for her), she doesn't wear make up, and her hair is kind of a mess. Jane is young, and Kate has told her she should try to figure out how to look older and more professional, but that didn't really work.

Kate really likes Jane and wants her to move ahead, but she's not sure how to get these points across. Her concern with coming out and saying "You need better clothes, to wear makeup, and get a new haircut" is that Jane will get offended. Do you have any advice on what she should do?

How comfortable is Kate with candid, potentially awkward conversations?

Telling Jane to try to look more professional hasn't worked, so Kate is going to need to get more explicit about what that means.

Ideally, Kate would talk to Jane somewhere private -- maybe take her out for coffee or something -- and say, "Hey, I think this professional look thing is something you're struggling with, and I don't know if you realize it's something that will affect how you're perceived. And I think you have tons of potential and so I want to help."

One way to minimize the awkwardness is to explain that it's not uncommon for recent grads to struggle with this. I'm a big fan of just saying, "Someone had this conversation with me when I was starting out and it was really helpful, so I'm going to have it with you." The vibe should be "you're not a freak for needing someone to help you with this."

Then, rather than saying that Jane looks messy, it's probably more tactful to present it in terms of needing to come across as more polished. And she should definitely explain what she means by that, because it's quite possible that Jane has no idea. Saying something like, "In this office, it really helps to pick clothes that are more tailored and wear your hair in a more polished way" is more useful than just "you look unkempt."

If Jane replies that she can't get different clothes on her salary, Kate should be prepared to suggest low-cost options. You can get business suits in thrift stores, after all.

(By the way, I would probably leave makeup out of it, since I think there are plenty of professional-looking women who don't care for lipstick.)

So ultimately, my advice is really these two points: Be specific about what you mean, and do it in a way where Jane can feel normal.

What do others think?

UPDATE: A different friend just sent me this, which I think is a good point: "I think she could bring it up, be direct, etc. like you said, but when I've had this conversation, all with people who respect me and look for me to give them advice, they haven't listened and were hurt/offended.
I kind of think that this is the sort of thing the person has to want to hear. I think she needs to know why she wears the clothes -- because she likes them? Because she likes that her mom makes them? Because she doesn't have the money? Because she doesn't care about how she looks? Because she's still in the college mindset? I think the answer to that really directs what the person should do next."

take that objective off your resume

Do you have an objective listed at the top of your resume? If so, get rid of it.

Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I explain why. Please head over there, read, and leave your own opinion in the comments section there.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

are job candidates entitled to feedback?

When a candidate asks for feedback after not getting the job, if there's an easily articulable reason, I'll generally share it. For instance, I'll let a candidate who asks know that we were looking for someone with more experience in a certain area, or stronger writing skills, or that while the candidate was strong, another candidate was stronger, or whatever the case may be.

However, sometimes the reason would require me to be insulting or otherwise have an awkward conversation I don't want to have. For instance, I don't really want to explain to a candidate that she came to the interview dressed like a stripper, or that she seemed so fragile that I couldn't pair her with that very direct manager without worrying about daily tears, or that she just seemed a little crazy.

Now, you could argue that the right thing to do would be to share this information, hurtful or not. After all, how will these candidates improve if no one tells them what they're doing wrong? And to that I say: I'm not your job coach.

When I take the time to give candidates feedback, I'm generally doing it as a favor. Most companies won't do it at all -- they either ignore the request entirely or automatically respond with something generic and vague. And that's because either (a) they're worried about lawsuits or (b) they're sick of candidates who ask for feedback and then argue about the response. Despite (a) and (b), I'm still generally willing to give feedback, if it's easily explained and not more awkward than I feel like stomaching. But I don't believe that candidates are entitled to it; it's a favor, and it's not standard practice. (That said, I do believe that when a candidate invests a lot of time in interviewing, you should try to give them feedback whenever possible. But I know I'm in the minority there.)

I recently had a guy bombard me with calls and email demanding to know why he was rejected. He was rejected early on, after an initial screen of his resume, and he was rejected because his cover letter made him appear pompous, out-of-touch, and like a huge pain in the ass. Turns out, we were right. He called several people in my office demanding to know why he'd been rejected. I emailed him back and told him we were focusing on other candidates who were stronger matches. He responded by demanding that I call him "to explain exactly what it is" that he lacked. He then proceeded to send me numerous additional emails, arguing that his experience was superior to anything other candidates could possibly have, and suggesting that I was "afraid" to call him since I might be proven wrong.

Now, in a case like this, I suppose one option is to stop worrying about offending him and tell him directly that we rejected him because he came across like an ass. But that's guaranteed to produce further emails from him, and I'm not inclined to get into a long back-and-forth on the topic. I suppose another option would be to offer feedback on the condition that it not result in a prolonged exchange, but frankly, I don't think I'm obligated to help this guy improve his job-hunting skills.

I do think candidates should ask for feedback after rejections. But they can't bully their way into it, and they shouldn't have the attitude that they're entitled to it.

Friday, March 6, 2009

It's my book!

Soon to be here: the book I co-authored with Jerry Hauser, former COO of Teach for America and current head of The Mangement Center, which provides management coaching to nonprofits and is completely awesome.

The book is called Managing to Change the World. It's being published by The Management Center this month. It's geared toward nonprofit managers because that's what Jerry and I care about most -- we want to see more effective nonprofits out there kicking ass -- but there's little in here that I wouldn't recommend to any manager.

Things I learned:

* It's really hard to write a book.

* It's really hard to co-author a book.

* It's completely exciting once you're finished.

stop interrupting

If you are in an interview, phone interview or in-person, and your interviewer is speaking, DO NOT CUT HER OFF. If you interrupt me, I will notice it and I will be annoyed. If you do it more than once, there's a good chance it will end your chances. And if you do it chronically, it will definitely end your chances, as it did with someone today.

Seriously. Stop interrupting. It's rude. And if I'm speaking, I'm trying to convey information to you for a reason, and you should probably listen to it.

Of course, if you do this, chances are that you don't know you're doing it. So pay attention.

Monday, March 2, 2009

poop. yes, poop. (sorry)

If you've ever wondered about issues related to on-the-job defecation, you'll want to check out the amusing heated discussion going on at Punk Rock HR.

On the other hand, I have heard there are some people who prefer not to think about such topics, so this may not be for you.

As I mentioned in the comments over there, I am currently in the midst of a dispute with a staff member about why the organization will not provide wet wipes in the bathrooms. He considers this an outrage. Feel free to weigh in.

thanking boss after getting laid off

A reader writes:

I have been at my job for 11 months and the company laid off everyone but 2 people because of the slow economy (22 people in all). I was one of the ones laid off. I absolutely loved the job. Would it be proper to write a thank you note to the boss/owner thanking him for the employment opportunity that I had with them? (It is a family owned business.)

It's certainly not necessary, but it would be an incredibly kind and gracious thing to do.

Laying people off is very hard, and I can only imagine how it feels to have to take one's family business from 24 people to 2 people. Generally laid-off employees are understandably focused on the impact on themselves -- of course -- but if you're thinking of your boss as well, I'm sure he would be really grateful to receive a note like that right now.

And not only is it a really nice thing to do, but it might actually pay off in the future, in terms of him helping you with job leads or being the first on his list to call if business picks back up ... but mainly it's just really nice.

7 things to leave off your resume

What you omit from your resume can be just as important as what you include. Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I discuss seven things you should definitely leave off of it. Check it out here.