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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

which employee should be let go?

A reader writes:

I supervise a staff of 5 people as part of a team that was just created within the organization since the beginning of the year. Two of them are constantly bickering between themselves and each runs to me with complaints about the other. I have tried coaching and mediating with the two of them. But this has been going on for six months now. I do not have the time to do a weekly “intervention” with these two and it is draining on the whole team.

I have decided that one of them has to go (not fired; just to another team within the organization). The dilemma is...which one? One of them is disorganized, has made some mistakes and cannot seem to stay on task. The other one performs efficiently but has a track record of not getting along with people, gossiping and just generally keeping things stirred up. I have addressed the specific issues with each of them independently to no avail. Any suggestions?

Yes. Expect them each to meet appropriate standards and fire them if they don't. With their current level of performance, I don't see why you'd want either of them staying on your team, or why you'd inflict them on someone else in your organization.

You're not holding them accountable, and you need to.

Meet with each one individually and explain that you have serious concerns about her performance. With the one who's disorganized, makes mistakes, and has trouble staying on track, address each of those issues. With the one who causes problems among the staff, address that. And with each of them, tell them the bickering is going to stop, effective right now, and that you're not willing to deal with it anymore. They are expected to deal with it between themselves like adults, without it affecting their work or taking up your time, period. These are fundamental requirements of the job. If they don't or can't meet those requirements, they can't stay on staff. It's not negotiable.

And then stick to it.

Do you know how many competent people are on the job market right now, who wouldn't cause you these kinds of issues? These two aren't entitled to hold onto their jobs at all costs. Plus, the opportunity cost of having the wrong people on your staff is enormous. Think about if you had stars in those positions -- the impact can be dramatic.

As a manager, getting results is your fundamental job, and since having the right people makes a huge impact on your ability to do that, you should be putting significant energy into getting and keeping the right people on board and moving out the ones who don’t meet a high bar.

Be clear about your expectations, warn them that if they don't meet them you will let them go, and then back up your words with action.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

when an employee gives you info in confidence

A reader writes:

An employee tells you they observed another employee talking on a cell phone while supervising children (which is against company policy). How can you effectively address the situation when an employee asks you to to keep it confidential that it came from them, yet no one else saw it happen? It's not likely that it would happen in front of a supervisor, and waiting for it to happen again puts the children at risk. What's the best approach to address this with the employee who was on the telephone?

You have a couple of options when an employee tells you something in confidence in a situation like this.

In general, I believe that your bias should be toward respecting requests for confidentiality if at all possible. Otherwise, your employees will be less likely to come to you with information that you want to hear about, and that's not good. You want your employees to feel confident that they can speak to you without having their name attached to it, because otherwise you'll never hear about some pretty important things.

Almost always, there's a way to act on information without attaching the person's name to it.

But not every time.

Here are your options in this situation:

First, I would start by explaining to the employee that what she observed is serious and puts children at risk. Ask her to reconsider and to allow you to relay what she told you. Sometimes, just pointing this out to people will get them to agree to it. (And people appreciate being asked, rather than having you plunge ahead without their permission.)

If the employee doesn't agree, however, then your options are:

1. Try to witness the behavior yourself -- by coming by when you're not expected and so forth. If you can spot it yourself, you can address it without violating the other employee's confidence. I've had employees tip me off to a problem before, and once I know, I can easily look around and find evidence of it myself. This can be a good option in some situations.

2. Address the issue on a more widescale basis, such as reminding all the employees that talking on a cell phone while supervising children is unsafe and a fireable offense. Hope the perpetrator gets the message.

3. Tell the employee that you're sorry but the situation is so important that you need to be able to use the information. Say you'll keep her name out of it, but since she's the only one who observed it, you can't guarantee the other employee won't draw conclusions. (I'd also point out that the cell-using employee has probably done this before, and so for all she knows, there have been multiple witnesses to it.) You can also tell her that if the other employee gives her any crap about it, you'll intervene and make it known that that's unacceptable.

I would only use this option if you consider the situation so dire that you have no other choice, because you may pay a price in how open employees are with you in the future. In other words, this option is only for really serious stuff.

Anyone have a fourth option?

cautionary tale: leaving Track Changes on your resume

Today I got a resume where the candidate had left Word's Track Changes feature on. As a result, I could see all the edits someone had made on his resume, and I know that they weren't his own, because they also included suggestions like "you have to beef up the first paragraph."

I don't have a problem with him having editing help; I have a problem with the carelessness. It made him an instant rejection, even though he was otherwise was qualified.

There are so many silly ways of shooting yourself in the foot that are easily avoided if you pay attention.

Monday, July 27, 2009

am I a back-up candidate?

A reader writes:

I am curious to know what the message is to back-up candidates while a the company is waiting for someone to respond to a job offer. I was told that a decision would be made late last week, and I recently received an update that it will be another week and a half.

I know that there are only 2 other candidates up for the job, and I'm pretty sure the decision will be made by 3 people who are in the same department and work together daily. This makes me think that they have already made a decision and made the offer, and I'm in a back-up candidate in case their first choice declines. Are my instincts right or am I overanalyzing? How do hiring managers typically communicate with "alternates" in this stage of the game?

Heh. Well, that was exactly what I used to do when someone was a back-up candidate, until it occurred to me to build a buffer into the timelines I was giving people.

But let me tell you, there is no shame in being a back-up candidate. In this economy, it's not unusual for me to end up with three back-up candidates of stellar quality, any one of whom I'd be excited to hire.

On the other hand, it's also possible that it doesn't indicate that you are a back-up candidate at all. It could indicate that their process is dragging out for some other reason -- it's taking a long time to check someone's references, or the company moves really slowly on putting together offer paperwork, or their interview with one of the other candidates got delayed, or the person who has to sign off on the final decision is on vacation, or whatever. So you definitely can't take it as anything certain -- more just as fodder for speculation.

7 mistakes managers make when giving criticism

Giving critical feedback to employees can be difficult, and it’s one of the areas that managers most often handle badly -- and there are myriad ways to mess it up.

Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about the seven most common mistakes managers make when delivering less-than-positive feedback. Please check it out and leave your own thoughts in the comments over there.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

bad interviewer behavior: a forcible, sweaty hike

I always enjoy nightmare interview stories, so here's one for you.

A friend of mine recently went for a job interview that consisted of two parts -- first an interview with an HR rep, followed immediately by an interview with the hiring manager. At the end of the HR portion, the HR rep told her that the next meeting was in a different building, but that "it will be faster for you to walk there than to drive."

My friend believed her because ... why wouldn't you?

Her walk to the second building ended up being close to three quarters of a mile. She was in heels and a suit. It was a horrible east coast summer afternoon, meaning hot and humid. When she arrived at the second building for part two of her interview, she was, by her own description, covered in sweat and reeking quite foully.

She was then immediately sent into a small, hot, and apparently not air conditioned office to finish the interview ... which she did, drenched in sweat and smelling what can only be described as terribly offensive.

She is quite understandably baffled and annoyed.

She also notes that it would have been faster to drive, parking wasn't an issue, etc., so why the HR rep inflicted this on her is rather inscrutable. This was not a job that requires the ability to withstand unpleasant physical conditions, nor does it involve any sort of boot camp, so WTF?

So, a public service announcement: When you are interviewing someone, in general it's both useful and nice to try to put them at ease, so that they have a decent experience and so you can get a better sense of what they're like day-to-day. It's also to everyone's benefit not to direct candidates to do things that will cause a normal person to reek. And if you do somehow inadvertently push them into a forced march or a sweat lodge, you should apologize profusely and offer extended bathroom time for repairs.

What is wrong with people?

creative resumes, and how long employers take to respond

A reader writes:

I would like to inquire on how long an employer will usually take to reply to an expression of interest in a job.

I am a 16 year old student that has emailed several different employers with my resume and cover letter and have only received an instant reply from one. A few were advertised positions and the rest were general inquiries on my part. I admit it has been less than a week since I have sent them but considering I received a reply from one within a few hours, I am rather anxious and frustrated to hear from the rest too (I have refreshed my email around 20 times today, I kid you not).

I understand that the job market at the moment isn't particularly keen on employing less experienced teenagers but surely the lower pay rate attracts them?

I'm also unsure whether my resume is a turn-off because I made a much more creative one that still clearly delivers the facts and figures, but is presented with color and more flair. Also the jobs I am applying for are cafes, juice bars and fashion stores. And no doubt my lack of real retail experience (I only have volunteer work) disadvantages me. Any words of wisdom you may offer?

Okay, clearly I have to drop my preconceived notions about teenagers not reading career blogs, because you are the second 16-year-old in three weeks to write to me. It still surprises and impresses me though.

It can take some employers quite a long time to respond to applications. A week is definitely nothing -- some take a month or even more. I tend to be pretty fast and often respond within a few days, but even I wouldn't feel ashamed of myself if it took me, say, two weeks. And lots of employers really do take a lot longer. In some cases, this may be because they're disorganized, but generally it's just because they have lots of other stuff going on that they have to deal with first. So stop obsessively checking your email.

As for creative resumes, in certain fields if they're well-done, they can be a plus. I'm sure there are some HR people or hiring managers out there who consider them a deal-breaker because they want you to do things the traditional way, but in general I suspect most people feel like I do, which is this: The most important thing about your resume design is that I need to be able to read it clearly, without straining, and I want to be able to quickly scan it and get the highlights. Creativity, while a nice trait, doesn't trump those requirements, so make sure whatever format you use works in those ways.

As for more general teenager job-searching advice, I'm going to refer you to the comments section of the last post from a teenager -- people offered up really helpful advice, so read through that and see if it's useful.

advice recommendation: Tomato Nation's The Vine

I hope I have you covered on the career/management advice front and you will never, ever need to look elsewhere, but if you enjoy reading advice on life in general, I have always thought The Washington Post's Carolyn Hax was indisputably where it's at. And she still is, but I've finally discovered someone else who approaches her god-like heights of wisdom: Sarah Bunting of Tomato Nation. And not only is she fun to read and pretty much always right on, but she also has archives going back to 2000, so if you, like me, like finding someone new who you love and then reading everything they've ever written, this will keep you occupied for days. I've been reading backwards through all of them, finding it hours and hours of high entertainment, and you can do it too.

Start here (which is the archive for The Vine, the advice portion of her site).

(Oh, and interspersed in there you'll also find questions and answers like "where do I find these shoes" and "what is the name of this book that I vaguely recall from my childhood" -- keep going and you'll get to plenty of "how do I tell my friend that our friendship has run its course" and "my parents won't let me drive even though I'm in my 20s" and all kinds of other more traditionally advicey topics).

Friday, July 24, 2009

interview questions to ask when hiring a manager

I recently put this together for someone, and I'm recycling it here: interview questions to ask if you're hiring a manager of a department, organization, whatever.

As you'll see, the idea of most of these to give you a good feel for whether this is someone who gets things done, is a strong manager who's focused on results, etc. Please add in your own!


Send the candidate your annual report or other materials ahead of time. In the interview, ask him/her to explain the organization's work to you as if you were a prospective funder or investor.

How would the people around you describe you?

What's a common misconception some people have about you?

Tell me about a difficult decision you had to make recently. Walk me through the problem and what your thought process was, and how you ultimately handled it.

What is one thing that you have had difficulty over coming in your career, and how did you do that?

What is some of the most useful criticism you’ve ever received? Why?

Have you ever been given criticism that you disagreed with? What was it? How did you handle that?

Getting things done

What has your biggest achievement been at ___? What results there that you produced are you most proud of? (Then ask the same question for other jobs they've had. You're looking for someone with a pattern of taking things from X to Y -- with Y being greater than X.)

What were the big things you were trying to achieve in the past year at ___? What things were/are worrying you? What were/are you doing about it?

What were your organization or department's major goals last year (depending on whether the person was managing the organization or a department there)? How did you settle on those? To what extent did you meet them? How did you measure whether or not you met them? Were there targets you considered setting, but ultimately rejected?

What’s an example of a goal you didn’t meet? How come? How did you respond to that?

What will success look like for you this year? Why is that important? How hard will it be to get there?

If I were to ask your ___ (someone who reports to the person) what her goals are, what would she say? Does that match what you would say they are?

Tell me about one of the organization's largest or most important projects and how you managed it, from start to finish. I'm interested in something where others were doing the work, but you were overseeing it.
- What was the vision for it?
- What happened?
- How did you ensure that happened? (You’re looking for managers who leave little to chance: either they have good reason to rely on the person in charge of the project, or they keep their hands in things enough to ensure success.)
- How do you know it happened?
- What lessons did you take away?

What are some of the biggest obstacles your organization/department (whichever they are responsible for) hit in the last few years? What did you do to address them?

Tell me about something you got done at ___ that someone else in your role probably wouldn't have.

Managing people

How would you describe yourself as a manager? How do you think others would describe you?

What is your philosophy about management?

What do you think the fundamental purpose of a manger is? (You're looking for someone who knows it's about getting things done, not something touchy-feely.)

How has your management philosophy evolved as you’ve gained more management experience?

What do you do to work on being a better manager?

What do you think are some of the most common ways people fail at management?

Talk about the balance between not micromanaging but still being involved enough to be able to catch problems early on.

Tell me about an employee who became more successful as a result of your management.

How would you describe the bar for performance at ___ (or in the department you manage)?

Who are your best people? What are you doing to retain them?

What do you look for when you hire people?

Tell me about your most recent high-level hire. How did you go about searching for the person?

When was the last time you fired someone or coached someone out? How many people have you fired in the last two years? Why? (You’re looking for a manager who fires people who don’t perform at a high standard.)

Walk me through one of more challenging times you had to let someone go -- what did you try first, how did you make the decision? How much time did it take from when you first started having concerns until when you ultimately let the person go?

Tell me about the most difficult employee situation you ever had to handle. What did you do and what was the result?

Tell me about a time you were managing a poor performer. How did you handle it and what was the outcome?

What was the most difficult management decision you’ve ever had to make?

Tell me about a management mistake that you made in the past. What would you do differently?

Even the best bosses generate complaints from their employees now and then. What complaints do you think the people you've managed would have about you?

don't list basic computer skills on a resume

A reader writes:

Is it really necessary to list computer skills on a resume? Shouldn't basic skills be assumed at this point in history? I'm great with Microsoft Office and I know Macs and a couple of other miscellaneous programs, but I don't know Photoshop or Dreamweaver or HTML or anything specialized. And my most recent position is "Administrative Assistant," so isn't computer use implied in the title? Can I save that space for something a little more, I don't know, stand-outish?

Yes, yes, yes! I totally agree. There is no need to list basic computer skills, like Word, Excel, or Outlook, on a resume.

If you have specialized computer skills -- in a program that isn't being used by everyone in any office in the U.S. -- list those. Or if you're known for something really amazing in these basic programs, you could put that -- like "became office Excel guru and trouble-shot all complicated Excel functions." But otherwise, skip any mention of computer skills; there's no reason to use up valuable resume real estate with it.

Frankly, in my dream world, candidates would instead list the expected skills that they DON'T have -- like: "warning: I've never used a word processing program, and I don't know how to attach a file to an email, nor am I likely to pick it up easily."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

changed mind after accepting offer

A reader writes:

In August 2008, I relocated for work and a boyfriend (we don't live together through) and ended up with a job in an industry in which I've been doing the same type of work for 10 years. The company and environment ended up being horrible and thus my job search began. I was so burnt out, in fact, that I felt the need to get out of the dept. and job altogether (it is a high stress position). After months and months of applying and trying to network, 2 opportunities finally came up.

Job A was with my former employer who I was with for 5 years before I moved and has an office in my new city. The manager contacted me about an opening they finally had, I interviewed and they made me an offer. Same type of job/dept, better environment, great pay, great account, closer to home, etc.

Job B is for another company in my old city that an old friend/co-worker has been with for 6 years. Another great opportunity. Even though it's the same industry, I'd be getting out of the job/dept., learn something new, less stress, less pay, but great benefits. However, Job B is in the city I was in previously before I relocated.

I accepted the offer with Job B and turned down the offer for Job A.

However, now, being faced with moving again and especially leaving my boyfriend and having a long distance relationship, I am worried I made the wrong choice. I am already thinking about moving back down here and I haven't even left! I am in a panic and thinking of going back to Company A to ask if that job is sill available (although the manager told me she had another great candidate lined up). I am afraid, however, I will burn bridges all over the place and will look unstable and indecisive. Please help!

Well, yes, you may look indecisive, since you, um, were being indecisive.

But that's not the end of the world.

You need to decide definitively whether or not you want this job you accepted (and all that comes with it, like the move). And you need to decide quickly. If you don't want it, you need to tell them as soon as possible.

Now, I always tell people not to renege on job offers you've accepted. It screws over the company -- they've already turned loose their other candidates, possibly invested money in preparing for you, and may need to start the hiring process all over again with those back-up candidates gone. (Although if it's a big company, I'm way more willing to let someone get away with this than if it's a small one, where the damage is larger.)

But it also screws over the company if you accept a job you don't really want, because your heart won't be in it and you're likely not to stay long.

So if you're realizing you made a mistake here, tell them. Apologize profusely. You'll probably burn your bridges with them, but that's better than being in a job and city you don't want to be in.

And call Job A and see if it's still available. Say you're reconsidering your decision, realize that you want to stay in the city where you are, and would love to return to that company. They may say it's still available; they may not. But I would consider Job A independently of Job B. In other words, if you decide you don't want Job B, then you're back to job-searching, period -- hopefully you can still get Job A, but if not, don't settle for a job you don't want just because it's been offered to you. Good luck!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I said I was okay with a salary range when I really wasn't

A reader writes:

I had a first interview with a hiring manager that went very well, and I was asked to interview again. Before moving forward with the entire process (extensive interviews with VPs and clients), the recruiter wanted to make sure I was comfortable with the salary range. Although it is 25-35% below my last salary, I told her that I wanted to move forward, that I am excited for the job (true) and that salary is not the sole factor in my job search (also true, but it's still a big factor for me).

I may be coming close to an actual offer - can I negotiate salary after this conversation or was the interview process a complete waste for the company?

I do like the job for what it is, but by taking such a large pay cut, I will have to make some major lifestyle changes (move to smaller apt), and I'm not sure I would be comfortable with the salary as much as I thought. I have an MBA and lots of debt to go with it.

Well, you're in a tough position. Because you already told them that you were comfortable with their range and they moved forward on that assumption, there's a decent chance they'll feel like you acted in bad faith on the salary question and wasted their time. At a minimum, they'll be annoyed.

But all isn't necessarily lost.

First, I can't tell from your letter whether there's any chance you would accept this job at the salary range they stated, or very slightly above it. But if you're really uncomfortable doing that, you should probably stick with that feeling and not compromise. Taking a salary you really, really don't want (especially when it's that large of a cut) rarely goes well.

So then the question becomes: Do you just bow out or do you try to negotiate for more, even though you already told them you weren't going to do that? If you do get an offer and decide to try to negotiate for more, the only way to do it is to give them some sort of compelling narrative that makes what happened understandable. You're going to have to acknowledge that you earlier said you were fine with the range, and you're going to have to explain why you're now not. You're also going to have to apologize profusely for the possibility that you've wasted their time.

They will either hold firm, go up very slightly but not enough, or go up a lot more than you think (depending on whether they want you enough, what their back-up candidates are like, and what their budget permits).

You mentioned a recruiter. Is it their in-house recruiter or an outside recruiter? If the latter, you might also talk candidly to her and explain what happened and see what her advice is on how to proceed. She probably has a good feel for their likely reaction. Good luck!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

help -- manager is giving me negative feedback

A reader writes:

I have an issue with my manager. She often gives me negative feedback without specific resolution. She has said to another manager that I am belligerent. This has bothered me for weeks and had a negative impact on work and virtually everything. I never got such feedback until this year when I moved into this new group and it is a challenge every day to say the least.

I have no details or examples of why she said this or specifically what she is referencing. Her behavior has been such that I am experiencing a degradation of my character. She micromanages me, singles me out and pings me when I have a call or meeting that she doesn't know about. I have to give feedback for the year-end review.

You need to talk to your manager. She gives you negative feedback without you understanding why, and she told someone she thinks you're belligerent? These are not good signs.

There are two possibilities here:

1. You are not performing well and you are belligerent. You didn't get this feedback previously because you had a manager who was too wimpy to address it, and now you have a manager who's more assertive about problems (or the problems didn't come out until you moved into this new job). She is micromanaging you because she's concerned that if she's less hands-on there will be problems with your work.


2. Your manager is the problem. Her feedback is unwarranted or she doesn't know how to deliver it properly, and she doesn't know how to exercise appropriate oversight without micromanaging inappropriately. Hell, maybe she even has a personal problem with you.

We don't know which one it is. Remember that if it's #1, chances are reasonably good that you wouldn't realize it, because many people in situation #1 have trouble seeing that and assume that it must be #2.

But what we do know for sure is this: You can't just let this go on without addressing it, or you risk having your professional reputation affected or even losing your job. You must address it with her.

I recommend sitting down with her and telling her that you can see she's unhappy with your work and you'd like to get a better understanding of what she wants you doing differently. Then listen with an open mind. Don't focus on defending yourself; focus only on hearing and understanding what she tells you. If she's vague, ask her to help you understand by giving you a specific example or two. When she does, remember: Don't focus on defending yourself. You are just trying to understand what her concerns are with your work. (In fact, read and practice the advice here on hearing critical feedback.)

Then thank her. Yes, really. It doesn't matter if you agree with her assessment or not. Thank her for giving you honest feedback. This can be disarmingly effective.

Now, once that's over, hopefully you have a better idea of how she views your work. Spend some time thinking about it. Don't react -- even in your own mind -- immediately. Let the information sit for a while. Start asking yourself why she sees it that way. Is there any truth to it? If there's not any truth to it, is there an explanation for why a reasonable person could perceive it that way?

The goal here is for one of the following to happen:
1. You'll realize that she's pointing out things in your work that you can/should change, and you can work on changing them. If this happens, let her know.
2. You'll realize that she's pointing out things in your work that you don't particularly want to change, and you can decide to look for other work.
3. You'll realize that after giving her feedback a fair hearing, you just can't see any merit in what she's saying, and so the two of you are at an impasse. This likely means it's a bad fit and you'll know to look elsewhere.

The point here is that it doesn't really matter if she's crazy or a bitch or not. What you need to know is where you stand with her and why, so that you can make good decisions for yourself, based on candid discussion, not speculation. Good luck!

extending the length of an internship

A reader writes:

My current summer internship is amazing. I want a full time position at this company but I do not think one is available. However, my internship doesn’t have a set “end date” and I am not sure how to bring it up with my boss (we have a good relationship). I am pretty sure time is running out for me, but I’d like to stay here as long as possible so I can get as much experience (and save money) as I can.

Just talk to your boss. Tell her that you're loving the internship and that you're wondering what they usually do for ending dates, because you're hoping to stay longer and not get kicked out at the end of the summer. The worst she can do is say that they can't extend it because they haven't budgeted for it, but she also might be thrilled to have you stay.

This is a normal thing to ask about; don't feel weird. You don't need to wait for a context or opening to bring it up in. Just email her or ask to talk in person.

I often would love to have interns stay on and curse school schedules for taking them away from me.

You should also mention that you'd love to work for the company full-time at some point. Just because you don't know of any available positions there doesn't mean that doesn't know of some coming down the pike.

Monday, July 20, 2009

mostly bad behavior that isn't illegal

Things that many people think are illegal that actually aren't:

1. There's a widespread but incorrect belief that it's illegal for an interviewer to ask about your religion, national origin, marital status, number of children, etc. In fact, in most states, the act of asking these questions is not illegal. What is illegal is basing a hiring decision on the answers to these questions. Therefore, since the employer can't factor in your answers, there's no point in asking them and smart interviewers don't. (That said, it is illegal to ask about disabilities.)

Here's some advice on how to handle it if you're asked these questions.

2. At least once a month, I hear someone say it's illegal for employers to provide a detailed reference, or any information beyond confirming job title and dates of employment. Not true. It's legal for an employer to give a detailed reference, including a reference, as long as it's factually accurate. (That said, some companies do have policies that they won't give references, but these policies are easily gotten around; I've never had a problem obtaining a reference for a candidate, and I've checked a ton of them.)

This item is the reason for "mostly" in the title of this post; I'm a believer in honest references. But if you're worried you'll get a bad reference, here's some advice on handling it.

3. It's not illegal for your boss to be a jerk. It's unwise, but it's not illegal. The exception to this: If your boss is being a jerk to you because of your race, gender, religion, or other protected class, then you do have legal protection. But 99% of jerky bosses act like jerks because they just are, and that's legal.

4. It's not illegal to not give 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. Of course, most employers do offer paid vacation and sick days in order to be competitive and attract good employees -- but there's a difference between what's smart/customary and what's legal.

5. It's not illegal to reassign you to different duties or even a whole new job, assuming you don't have a contract that says otherwise.

6. It's not illegal to require you to attend work-related events outside of regular work hours, although if you're a non-exempt employee, you must be paid for it.

Disclaimer: There may be one or two states where something above is illegal (California, I'm looking at you). Some states make their own policies on this stuff, but in general, the above is true.

what do do when you're frustrated at work

I frequently hear from people who are frustrated and unhappy with their jobs and want to know how to change whatever is making them unhappy. Often what they're chafing against is some inherent aspect of their job or their manager or their workplace.

Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about what to do when you're in this situation -- frustrated by some aspect of your job and not sure what to do about it.

I suspect this topic applies to everyone at some point in life (more likely, many points), so please head over there and check it out -- and leave your own thoughts in the comments over there.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

how to deal with employee performance problems

A reader writes:

I'm preparing to visit with an employee who appears to need coaching.

The employee has good qualities such as a perceived ability to do the things asked to do. Also, a sense of dedication to the overall concept of work.

Problems are: He is reluctant to follow through on tasks which he should be familiar with by now and co-workers often have to jump in and assist, which is a source of frustration. He also has a tendency to spend time doing tasks that are not specifically his responsibility. This causes his primary responsibilities to be neglected.

In discussing this with him, I would like to use the coaching process if possible utilizing the style of writers such as Dick Grote in his book "Discipline without Punishment." I have been reading this book and it seems like a workable recourse.

Are you familiar with this style, and if so, do you have any suggestions of how to proceed? From what I can see it looks like I need to mention his good qualities, and move into the topics of concern. My main hope is to carry this out without frustrating him, but giving him a sense of direction and allowing him to take it from there. Any thoughts or other suggestions?

I haven't read the book, but I think the most effective way of dealing with employee problems is pretty much always this:

- Be straightforward about the problems you've noticed. Clearly describe how the person is falling short of the bar you need him to meet, and what a successful performance would look like in contrast.

- See if you can figure out what might be causing the problem, by (a) asking the employee to tell you how he perceives the issues ("I'd like to hear your thoughts about what’s causing these issues. What’s your sense of what might be going on?") and (b) asking your own questions. (For instance, in this case: Does he need more training so he's not reliant on his coworkers? Is he clear on what his priorities are and how he should be spending his time? Is he a poor time manager?)

- If you’re able to identify factors contributing to the problem, make any suggestions you have about how he might do things differently. For instance, if he has a time management issue, you might suggest he begin planning projects backwards and set interim deadlines for himself to better structure his work. If he has a different idea than you do about how he should be spending his time, use this chance to get aligned so that you're both on the same page about expectations.

Now, after this conversation, in many cases the employee will make the improvements needed. But if the problem persists, you talk about it again, this time escalating the seriousness of the conversation. This is different from the first conversation, in that you’re making it very clear that this isn’t routine feedback. You’re talking about a more severe problem that is holding the employee back and has the potential to become an even more serious problem if not fixed.

Now is the time to be clear about potential consequences if improvements aren’t made. For instance, assuming the problem is about something fundamental to the job, you might say something like, “If your performance improves and you sustain that level, then we’ll just move forward. But if we’re still seeing these issues a few weeks from now, I’ll need to put you on a formal improvement plan and after that, if it doesn’t improve, I’d need to let you go. So my concerns here are serious ones – I think you have a great deal of potential, but I also need you to be performing at a higher level.”

Difficult? Yes.

But no matter what the outcome is, you will be doing the employee a significant service by speaking honestly about where his performance is falling short. Too many managers never put aside their discomfort about such conversations, and as a result, many employees never have the opportunity to learn how they could do better. Good luck.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

annoying vendor behavior

From a colleague of mine:

I've noticed that many of our vendors have an old-fashioned way of doing business: They seem to think that calling or coming by (in response to an e-mail) is the way to show me that they value me as a client, when I would like to see that they respect my time enough to efficiently provide me with the information that I've requested via the same medium by which I requested it.

For example, if I e-mail one of our reps about pricing for a new module, she replies by calling me back (which I don't answer) and asking me to call her back for the information. (I've taken to emailing her back and asking her again for the information.) Plus, when I talk to her on the phone, she always wants to upsell me.

I can't be the only person who finds this behavior strange and annoying.

She's not alone. I totally agree with this.

Like her, I rely heavily on email because it makes my job a lot more efficient. I can send and read information at a time when it's convenient for me, and so can the person I'm emailing. It means I get info in a more streamlined fashion, without small talk. It eliminates phone tag. Good god, I love it.

I assume some vendors often prefer to return email queries by phone because they think it will help them to build the relationship more than email will. But in the process, they're actually damaging the relationship with people like me and my coworker, who become progressively more irritated by their refusal to use the medium we're clearly trying to operate in.

Have you been guilty of this behavior yourself? Tell us your side.

internships: stay where I am or seek out new experiences?

A reader writes:

I am currently awaiting the start my junior year at a D.C. university and was fortunate enough to spend my summer in Washington, D.C. I threw myself into 50 hours of work per week - with two part-time internships and a part-time job.

With the summer now in full swing, I have already started applying to some fall internship opportunities. However, my concern is jumping around too much. I'm at two rather "entry-level internships" (if that's even a phrase) and would love a more prestigious position before I graduate. On the other hand, I love my internship coordinators and both organizations where I currently intern. As a career guru, what would you recommend? Is it better to sit still at an internship you like (I'm also doing an independent study in the non-profit's specialty) or climb the internship latter and experience all you can in four years?

I think it depends on the details of your current internships. Do you feel like you're on an upward trajectory, where you're continuing to learn new things and develop yourself professionally? And if you stayed with them longer, do you think that would continue, or would you quickly hit a point where there wouldn't be much more change or growth?

In many jobs, it takes a significant amount of time to truly master the job before you hit a point of diminishing returns -- which is why I think people should stay in any remotely challenging job for at least a couple of years, at a minimum. But internships are different; they're designed to be short-term -- often just a few months -- and so they often don't ever really get all that challenging.

I think you should talk with the internship coordinators at each of your current internships. Tell them how much you love being there and express an interest in staying on longer, and ask if they'd be open to letting you take on new projects and responsibilities if you stayed, so that you'd continue to gain professionally. If they're open to that, you've got a strong argument for staying.

On the other hand, there's no real wrong answer here. If you want to go out and explore other places instead, you should feel good about doing that too. There's an advantage to being exposed to different workplaces, different office cultures, different management styles, and different work.

You pretty much have a win-win situation here: Either you stay where you are and get the experience of growing within an organization, or you take advantage of the fact that you can actually do a lot of internship-hopping without it looking bad, because that's expected with internships. And by the way, I looked at the resume you sent and it's excellent -- so you're in really good shape. I'd go with your gut. Good luck!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

obligated to accept internal offer?

A reader writes:

A job was posted to my company's internal site. I applied for it and have an interview scheduled, but I am not sure I really want the job because it involves an extensive amount of travel (75-80% of the time, sometimes more).

Am I under any unspoken obligation to accept an offer? Could I foster ill will within the company (and especially with the department I am applying to) by applying, interviewing, and not accepting an offer if it came across the table?

I am well qualified and pretty confident that I will get an offer. It is not a popular position for internal candidates since there is so much travel. This is a job I once really wanted but I have since reconsidered, but I thought it couldn't hurt to apply for the interview practice and to see if the travel requirement might be flexible. Additionally, I am filling in temporarily for the position that is being offered (traveling out of state to provide training to a customer). Could this add to the possible ill will?

You're never under any obligation to accept an offer, but you're right that there are additional considerations when you're applying for a position internally. Often when you apply for an internal position, people assume you know enough about the job and the culture that you already know if you want it or not.

But a lot of this depends on the specific politics and culture at your particular company. Do you have a relationship there with someone in a position to give you good advice? If so, they're going to be able to give you advice that's more tailored than mine. But if not...

I wouldn't recommend doing an internal interview just for interview practice or for a job you know you don't want -- that's wasting the time of people you work with and not something they'd be happy to hear. I'm also skeptical that the travel requirement could turn out to be flexible -- if it's 75-80% of the job, that's so much of the job that removing it would turn the job into something totally different.

I think the best thing you can do is to be up-front. If you know that the only way you'd be interested in the job is if it didn't include all that travel, I'd tell them that right now -- before the scheduled interview -- and ask if it's still worth moving forward with the interview.

Otherwise, if you don't bring it up until during or after the interview, you risk looking naive, illogical, or even a little presumptuous, or just like you're not paying attention. The courteous thing to do would be to fill them in on your thinking now and asking if it's worth proceeding.

I know someone is going to point out that job requirements can be changed, and that's true. But that's why you ask ahead of time that's the case here. Someone may also point out that you should go through the interview and wow them and see if they're willing to make adjustments after that being blown away by your interview ... but again, this is an internal interview and these are your coworkers, and you care about your reputation with them. I'd ask ahead of time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

things I like

1. Tea, hot or iced

2. These sheets

3. Elinor Dashwood

4. Sriracha sauce

5. The pygmy slow loris

6. Watermelon agua frescas

7. "Freaks and Geeks"

8. Chaise lounges

9. My RSS reader -- or anyone's, really

10. This place

Thanks for letting me impose on you. Now back to regular programming.

boss fired me but her assistant keeps calling

A reader writes:

I worked in a domestic capacity and lived in the house where I worked.

After a couple of months of working non-stop, I took a weekend off (didn't take time off before because I didn't want to and there were problems finding cover). A few days later, I was fired and was bundled out of the house on the same day. I was told it was nothing personal, that's just how they deal with firings and that they didn't need a live-in anymore. I had nowhere to go as I wasn't from the area so the employer paid for one night in a motel. I was on my own after that, although the assistant's last words to me were that if I needed "anything at all" to call her.

Needless to say, I was pretty shocked when the next day and every week since the firing, their assistant has been in touch with me, trying to touch base and asking me to keep in touch. I am not sure how to take this apparent concern so, except for the day immediately after the firing, haven't replied.

Are they trying to get me back? I know I was good at the job because their manager said she thought I was good and said it was "them, not (me)" and that it was nothing to do with me.

Even though I haven't had a formal offer to return, I am wondering how to deal with the communication I am receiving in such a way that I leave the door open to returning (I'm not crazy - the money was good for my field), but at the same time not be a doormat. The person who had the job before me kept in touch every week, and every time she called, the lady of the house was pretty disdainful after hanging up the phone. I don't want that situation, which is why I haven't kept in touch with the family - but maybe the assistant is a different matter?

First let me say that dismissing you from where you live without any notice and then only paying for one night in a hotel is not nice behavior, especially when they're saying you did nothing wrong. In fact, let's officially categorize these people as asses. (I do realize this is not unusual with domestic live-in's, thanks to a book I just read about nannies, but that doesn't make it okay. And I don't know why I read that book, since I don't plan to have kids, but it was fascinating nonetheless.)

Anyway. Would you have any interest in keeping in touch with the assistant if you knew for sure that it wasn't going to lead you back to the job? If so, why not do it for its own social merits? But if not, I'd just be straightforward and just ask the assistant what's going on. For instance, "Hey, I really appreciate hearing from you, but to be honest, I'm confused. Are you calling just to be nice? If so, it's really a nice gesture but also not something I want you to feel obligated to do. Or should I be reading something else into this? If you think the possibility of returning at some point is open, I'd be interested in talking about it, but I'm not at all sure if that's what this is about."

When someone is confusing you, ask them to un-confuse you.

But I'm skeptical of these people anyway. They sound volatile and not especially considerate. And maybe a little tyrannical, if what triggered the firing was that you took a weekend off. If you get anything from them, you might want it to be just a reference for your next position. Good luck!

manager told me I'm not doing enough work

A reader writes:

My workload is zero. I was told by my manager that I have to ask for work and that everyone else at my level is asking for work and is very busy. I have been here for just 15 months and was surprised at this comment during my yearly review.

Following my manager's advice, I sent an email out letting other managers in the company across the U.S. know that I was available for work and received no reply. My manager told me not to be paranoid, but that they cannot understand why I didn't get a response. I wasn't paranoid before, but now I am. I feel like I'm being punked. None of my peers at other companies, and my friends in other industries, understand this comment from my manager.

Now, my manager has to meet with our partner in charge to discuss this problem of me not being useful and asking for work, before it gets elevated to the HR department and I have to go on probation. I have to meet every day with my manager now to see why I am not working.

I feel like I'm going insane and it has put an emotional strain on me. Shouldn't the managers be responsible for staffing projects? Am I in the wrong for comparing my management experience with the managers here? Most, if not all of the managers in the company are PMP-certified (Project Management Professionals). I was thinking of reporting this to the Project Management Institute.

You're thinking of reporting this to the Project Management Institute, really? Don't do that. What do you think will happen, that they'll revoke your managers' credentials? That's not what will happen. What will happen is that you'll fast-track your exit from this company.

I don't mean to add to your paranoia, but what's going on here is Very Bad. What you're describing are not good signs. If you aren't doing any work, you won't stay on that payroll for very long. If you want to stay, you're going to need to ask for help, take your manager's advice seriously, and probably execute a change in your mindset about all of this.

Regarding your mindset ... You don't think your managers are doing a good job. You think they should be assigning staff to projects, rather than expecting staff to find their own work. You think you're more qualified than they are. I have no idea if your managers are doing a good job or not, but I do know that it's totally irrelevant if you're more qualified than they are, because they are in charge at this company. Also, there are indeed places where some types of staffers are expected to seek out and identify work. According to your manager, this is one of them. I suggest you believe him and stop focusing on whether you would run things this way; the reality is that this is how your company works, and you will only make good decisions for yourself if you stop fighting that.

You have two choices: You can decide this system isn't for you and leave, or you can try to figure out how to work well within it. Those are the only two choices.

If you decide to try to stay, you need to go to your manager and ask for help. Explain that you've been trying to take his advice and seek out work, but that no one is responding to you. And this is the key part -- ask him if he has any insight into why. You're going to need to be non-defensive and listen to what he has to say with an open mind. Maybe no one is giving you work because they're worried you won't do it well. Maybe they've found you difficult to work with in the past. Maybe you need to take a different approach in asking for it. I don't know what the answer is (it could be something else entirely), but since you don't know either, you need to seek your manager's help in figuring it out.

Hopefully he'll be helpful. If he's not, you should still ask him for advice about how to proceed. And if he's still not helpful, well, I'd start looking for other jobs, because you pretty much have to be doing work in order to stay employed, and it seems like the writing is starting to appear on the wall here. Don't ignore it.

Good luck!

Monday, July 13, 2009

16-year-old seeks advice: jobless and losing hope

A reader writes:

I'm 16 and I have absolutely no job experience. I fear that along with my lack of experience, the economy being crap right now will entirely prevent me from getting a job. Am I truly hopeless? Another reason it may not be working out for me is that I started applying right after my birthday in May, right after other students had applied for their summer jobs. I'm going to start applying again a week or two before school starts again, when students will probably quit their summer jobs.

I go in the morning to turn in applications, which I've heard is when managers are still there in fast food stores. I dress nice and try to hand them in directly to the manager... but that doesn't seem to work at all.

I've been applying at various jobs in my city, ideal first jobs like fast food places, coffee joints... places that don't require a lot of experience. I haven't had one single call back from any place I've applied at. My friends and family tell me to call repeatedly... but I feel very odd doing that, and I'm sure it would be annoying.

I'm so sick of having to share a car with my mom (a result of having no money, of course)... I just don't know what to do. So my question is: What can I do to stand out to managers without being ostentatious and/or seeming like a stalker?

And another completely different question: Does having a GED really look horrible to employers? I'm getting one and starting at a local community college... it's not like I get bad grades, I just think high school's pointless.

Okay, I'm going to try not to gush, but I so want you to send me a resume when you're out of college. And I don't mean that in a condescending, cheek-pinching way; I mean it sincerely.

So. No one has any job experience at 16, because in most places you're not allowed to hold a paying job before 16. So you're not in any way behind the curve. And in a ton of ways, you're ahead of it. For instance, I'm pretty sure you're the only 16-year-old who's written to me, and probably the only one who's reading me or other career blogs. Which means you're picking up a ton of info and advice that your peers don't have, but even aside from that, it says something really important about who you are: You're someone who seeks out resources and knowledge, someone who's probably pretty resourceful, and I strongly suspect someone who's pretty smart. This may not be paying off in obvious ways for you right now, but oh let me tell you, it's going to pay off massively down the road.

You just need to survive your adolescence, and then it gets a lot better.

I don't think most employers care if you got a GED instead of doing it the traditional way, but they do care about what came after that -- meaning they do want to see a college degree, preferably from a four-year school. So think about transferring to a four-year college after you rack up some credits at your community college. It might be a pain in the ass, but it'll make things easier for you later.

Now, on to your main question. You're right that the economy is making it hard for everyone right now, and I like your idea about trying again toward the end of the summer, when there's likely to be some turnover in the types of jobs you're targeting. As for what's going to make you stand out to employers: Being professional, poised, personable, organized, reliable -- all those "soft skills" I talk about elsewhere on this site -- can move you to the top of the pack.

On the question of how much to call after applying, calling daily is too much. But it's fine to call a few days after turning in your application, and if you don't reach the manager herself, it's fine to call every few days until you do. (This runs counter to my advice for professional jobs, where that kind of thing comes across as too stalkerish, but in my experience, for some reason it's fine to do with retail, restaurants, etc. Different culture.)

You might also consider volunteering somewhere, even if it's just one afternoon a week, because it'll give you additional experience to put down on applications.

What other advice do people have?

blogs I like

Some of the sites I like and recommend -- not a comprehensive list by any means:

1. Evil HR Lady. Evil HR Lady inspired me to start Ask a Manager two years ago, so blame her. She's lazing around in Switzerland these days so not posting as much as she used to, but her archives should keep you entertained for some time. Personally, when I discover a new blog I really, really like, there's nothing better than reading and reading and reading through the archives -- and hers are very well stocked.

2. Clue Wagon. Kerry Sandberg Scott is always right, every single time. It freaks me out a little bit. And she's funny.

3. Punk Rock HR. Laurie Ruettimann writes about more than career stuff but you won't care because she's entertaining while she does it. Also, she agrees with me that swearing makes things better.

4. I Hate HR. Rachel strikes exactly the right balance between amusingly irritated by all things stupid and yet still willing to say something constructive. I get excited when I see she has a new post.

5. Jezebel's "Crap Email from a Dude" feature. Jezebel is a sister site of Gawker, but what you need to know about is their occasional feature where they post real-life crappy emails women have received from dudes. It will blow your mind. See, for instance, this one. (If you browse the archives, start with the older ones; they're the best ones.)

6. You Should Only Know. Again, not about management/career, but smart, funny, and charming.

P.S. I've been in a posting mood lately. I hope I'm not wearing out my welcome by bombarding you with posts, as I intend to continue unless you all tell me to cut it out.

should I give away my ideas for free when I'm looking for a paying job?

A reader writes:

I interviewed with a nonprofit two years ago and didn't get the job. I also donate a small amount of money every month to the organization -- like $25 per month. The group had a phone-a-thon the other day and called me to get my opinion on a variety of their issues. I answered the questions so well that the executive director now wants to meet with me to discuss my ideas. All the topics they want to know about are what I would be doing for them if they hired me two years ago. There was no mention of possibly getting a job and I don't know of any available now that match my background. I obviously want to provide meaningful insight but I'm unemployed and want to be paid for my expertise as well. How should I handle this meeting?

Head on over to U.S. News & World Report to read my answer, and please leave your own thoughts in the comments over there.

can I be fired for this?

A question I get a lot is "My boss is firing me for ___. Can he do this?"

Yes, probably.

Most employees in the U.S. are at-will, meaning that you can be fired for any reason at all, as long as it's not based on illegal discrimination (i.e., firing you because of your race, gender, religion, or other protected class). There are two exceptions this: (1) if you have a contract, or (2) if your company has an employee manual that commits to always using specific disciplinary procedures before firing someone -- if it does, it's generally obligated to follow those procedures first.

But aside from that, it's generally legal to fire someone for any reason, even if the reason is unfair or illogical.

Is it smart to fire someone for silly reasons? No, of course not. But that's a different question.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

manager struggles with overly social staff

A reader writes:

A first-time female manager takes a post over 9 other women. Manager and workers are all fully qualified, trained, and competent. However, the group has a track record of lots of social chit chat, much time on telephone with friends and family, and enjoy a social atmosphere at work that is considerably less than professional. Two are in HR counseling due to talking to each other on the phone at around 11 hours per month. Two others are clearly looking for another job due to warnings regarding similar issues of too many personal calls.

How does the new manager get a handle on this and turn this group around?

So the problem is that the chit chat and phone calls are interfering with the group's productivity, right? I'm asking because you say they're all competent. There are some jobs (probably not most, but certainly some) where people can socialize on the job without it interfering with their performance, but for the sake of answering your question, I'm going to assume that these issues are about productivity. So...

The manager needs to spell out clear expectations, making it clear in what ways this bar is currently not being met and what needs to change. And then she needs to stick to what she says -- meaning that people who don't meet the new standard need to hear that clearly from her and see consequences if the behavior continues after a warning or two.

She should be very clear about what is and isn't okay, since clearly these employees have a different idea about that. So, for instance, she might say something like, "Of course it's fine if you need to make a personal call to deal with an emergency or some quick logistics about something, or to deal with something that can only be dealt with during business hours. But these calls should be exceptions, not a daily or routine happening, and they should be used to accomplish a purpose, not just to check in with family or friends for social reasons. I wouldn't expect anyone to regularly spend more than 5 or 10 minutes a day on personal calls, if that."

She also might say, "I'm glad that that there's a warm, friendly atmosphere here, and I value that too. But for the vast majority of the day, we need to be focused on work. I know there will be occasional times when you'll get into a longer, personal conversation with a coworker, but during the workday, that should be an occasional exception, not the norm. There's too much work to do for it to be otherwise."

Speaking of workload, if a light workload is what's allowing people to spend large amounts of time doing non-work-related things, she should consider that she may be overstaffed. If the workload isn't light, then it becomes a different question: If people have a full day's work to accomplish, how are they spending a good portion of their day doing other things? Is it because they're not held accountable to a certain level of productivity? Is it because the work doesn't have deadlines associated with it? She might want to build more accountability into what people are expected to get done in a given week, which creates a natural pressure against wasting time and will make it clearer when someone hasn't used their time well that week.

I also suggest that she acknowledge that this is different from how things have been previously, and that she be prepared for an adjustment period (of a few weeks, not months). It's also possible that some people will be unwilling/unable to adjust to the change, so she needs to be prepared to enforce consequences if that happens.

And because she's a first-time manager, she needs to make sure that she's comfortable exercising authority appropriately. Here are two previous posts that may help:

Friday, July 10, 2009

when do I tell my interviewer that I'm dating one of their employees?

A reader writes:

My girlfriend recently accepted a job at a new company. A day later, completely coincidentally, I applied for a job at the same company. I didn't know it was the same company until the recruiter got back to me and told me, but now I do. I haven't told the recruiter that I am going out with one of their new employees, and I haven't told them. I've had one interview, two online tests, and am having the final interview today.

When do I tell them that I am in a relationship with one of their new employees? We've been going out for over three years so its not a short-term fling or anything, and since we will be in different departments (if I get the job of course) I don't think we'll even see each other during the day that much.

There are three options, and currently I am going to go with option 1:

1. Wait until I have an offer, then call up my line manager who interviewed me (bypassing the recruiter) and tell him. I would say that I wanted to get the interview "on my own merits" without any external influences, and that I may have not got an offer so it wouldn't have mattered. I'd say that I wanted to tell him so that I have been honest with him, and I don't feel it will affect my performance in the office at all. It was a complete coincidence.

2. Tell him in the interview today. I think this would be jumping the gun as I may not even get an offer, and may jeopardize my chances if they do have an issue with it.

3. Don't say anything, start working and pretend we started going out very soon after starting to work there, or just admit it once I start working. This feels wrong as I'm an honest person and think it would create a very bad impression of me.

What do you think?

I think it's none of their business, especially at this stage, and you shouldn't mention it before you get an offer, for that reason.

However, some companies (fewer and fewer, but still some) have policies against "fraternization." These policies are silly, but some places do have them. Your girlfriend should know, or be able to find out, if this one does. If it does (again, very unlikely), you'd have to decide whether to turn down the offer or hide your relationship. (Or, you know, dump your girlfriend.)

But assuming they don't have any policies against it, it's really no one's business, since neither of you would be managing the other and you won't be working in the same department.

Is this a large company? If so, I wouldn't bother mentioning it at all. I also wouldn't try to pretend like you met on the job; I'd just not address it all, because who cares?

But if it's a smaller company, I'd go with your option #1. If they do for some reason think it's a big deal, better to find out at that point than on your first day.

Alternately, if you're the sort who likes causing intrigue, you can generate some major gossip by telling no one, but being seen leaving together on your first day and then many days thereafter. People will think you win over the ladies really, really fast, and you'll be the subject of all kinds of speculation.

and the winner of the contest is...

And the winner of the stupid interview questions contest is...

Rebecca, who managed to work e.coli into her answer, always a winning strategy!

Rebecca, please email me and let me know what product you'd like from CSN Office Furniture (up to a $125 value), along with your shipping address and phone number, and they'll send it out to you.

And thanks for all the amusing answers. If I'm ever asked one of those questions, I think I'd just start laughing. You all are much more creative (and patient/tolerant) than me.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

stupid interview questions (and win a free office chair!)

If you could be a tree, what tree would you be?

What type of animal are you most like?

What would I find in your refrigerator right now?

Who the hell is asking these sorts of interview questions? Apparently someone is, because complaints about them abound. But they're lame, and more than being lame, they're useless. People who defend them say that they're supposed to show how creative the candidate is, or how able to think on her feet. I say there there are plenty of other ways to determine that, while still being actually related to the job.

Recently, a friend and I were debating how we'd respond if we were asked any of these in an interview. Our conclusion: not in a way the interviewer would like.

Have you ever been asked these sorts of questions? How did you answer? How would you answer if someone were so lame as to pull this on you?

Leave your answer in the comments section. The best answer will win a free office chair for your home office or any other office furniture of your choice, generously donated by CSN Office Furniture. The winner can pick any item from their site, with a retail value of up to $125.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

should I warn my friend he's about to be laid off?

A reader writes:

About 8 months ago, we hired a new manager who moved very close to me and my family. I am his direct supervisor.

Shortly after they moved here, we invited them over for dinner and we have since become good friends ... dear friends, in fact. Our kids play together, we've been camping together. You know the kind of friends I'm talking about, the kind you wanna keep your whole life long.

Our company is having to initiate a round of layoffs and his position is being eliminated. The announcements won't come out for another two weeks and of course, until then I'm supposed to keep the details (i.e., names of those affected) confidential.

My friend is making plans to travel this summer and he is aware that there are rumors of cut-backs in the air. He's told me, "the sooner I know, the better" as he is in the process of enrolling his kids in school for the fall, his wife is taking college classes, etc.

Do I give him a heads-up and tell him? Or do I wait until D-Day to let the cat out of the bag?

If I tell him, there is a chance that others will find out and my supervisors will eventually discover I broke confidentiality. If I wait until D-day, the late notice will cause considerable stress and hardship - financial and otherwise - for him and his family.

I'm leaning toward not telling him ... but I'm perplexed. Any and all advice appreciated.

Ugh. This is a terrible situation.

Your position gives you access to information that you cannot share with others. If your manager finds out you've broken that confidentiality, it would rightly call into question your ability to keep information confidential in the future, your ability to have personal relationships with people you manage, etc.

However, I think it's all kinds of BS that the company knows it will be laying him off and isn't telling him yet. Yes, I know this is how it's done, but I still think it's unfair and inhumane.

I think there's a middle ground here. I would tell your friend something like, "You know I can't really talk about this, but what I can do is urge you in the strongest terms to wait until the end of the month before making those kinds of decisions." Your friend should get the message, at least enough to proceed with caution and to not feel later like you stood idly by while he made financial commitments that you secretly knew he'd regret.

Plus, it's sensible advice for anyone at a company where there are rumors of layoffs, so you have plausible deniability if ever needed.

What do others think?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

are employers finding out I was a stripper?

A reader writes:

I moved away from home, and got into a bad crowd a couple of years ago. I made some crappy decisions, the biggest one being that I was working in a strip club/business for about three years. Now, obviously, I cannot be absolutely honest in that particular job aspect, and having no tax forms to show I worked there, it's hard to trace. My dad, who knows the situation, told me to put down that I worked for him doing administrative work for those years. I am experienced (worked and took a class) in the basic duties of administrative work, and every test that I have had to take I have done well in (Microsoft Excel, Data Entry 10-Key, Typing). I know that it is basically dishonest to fudge my employment record, but I know the programs, that is what I put as my knowledge, and my dad will back me up.

The problem is this: I get only so far into the interview process, until I sign the form consenting to a background check, and then -- no calls, or outright denied employment. I've been reading your site for awhile now (and have remarkably improved my rusty interviewing skills -- thanks), and figure you could give me an insight on things. Should I say I was an independent contractor for those years? What do employers look up on background checks? I'd appreciate your feedback.

Well, as I'm sure you know from reading this blog, lying about past employment isn't a good idea. You might be better off not making up past employment and not mentioning the strip clubs, and simply starting with no job history. You wouldn't be the first. It will pose an added challenge, for sure, but then you won't be living in fear of the lie being uncovered.

But you don't need me to tell you that, and I'm in a sympathetic mood, so let's move to the substance of your question.

What kind of background checks are these companies doing? If they're looking at your credit report, they may be seeing a red flag in that you have no reported employers for the period in question. However, if they deny your application based information they find in your credit report, they're required by the credit reporting laws to tell you that. So if you're not receiving those notices, that's not what's happening. So let's assume it's not that. A more general background check could also reveal past employers (and in your case, it sounds like they'd find none for that period, which would be suspicious).

But I think there's something else going on, although I don't know what it is. Are there people they might be calling for references who aren't giving the sort of reference you want? (Keep in mind that companies aren't limited to just the list of references they hand them; they can and do also call other employers on your resume.)

It's also possible -- maybe even likely -- that there's nothing going on here; it's a hard economy and your work history isn't extensive, and maybe it's not about this at all. That's a real possibility.

I suggest trying to get some feedback from some of these companies you've applied to. Plenty won't give you any, but you might get lucky and get someone who tells you something useful. In order to have any chance of anyone being honest with you, you need to be really, really clear (in words and in tone) that you are not trying to debate the decision, just trying to get an understanding of why you're not getting job offers. Make them want to help you. There's some advice on how to do that here.

What input do others have?

Monday, July 6, 2009

when a coworker gets special treatment

A reader writes:

How do I deal with a manager who clearly gives special treatment to a coworker? She is very irresponsible, and yet my manager takes her lateness to work as almost cute behavior on her part. A couple of times, my coworker did not even show up to work but my manager never took appropriate action. They have a good relationship, and any other manager would have already fired my coworker for her behavior. How should I handle this situation? It makes me sick sometimes.

You can read my answer to this question over at U.S. News & World Report today. Please check it out and leave your own thoughts in the comments over there.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

an alternative for bored students/grads who can't find jobs

The New York Times had an article on Thursday about college students and recent grads who are finding that the work world is looking a bit different than they'd planned:
The well-paying summer jobs that in previous years seemed like a birthright have grown scarce, and pre-professional internships are disappearing as companies cut back across the board. Recession-strapped parents don’t always have the means or will to bankroll starter apartments or art tours of Tuscany.

So many college students and recent graduates are heading to where they least expected: back home, and facing an unfamiliar prospect: downtime, maybe too much of it. To a high-achieving generation whose schedules were once crammed with extracurricular activities meant to propel them into college, it feels like an empty summer — eerie, and a bit scary.

... Across the country, there are countless tales like that of Morgan Henderson, a student at the University of San Francisco, who, along with friends, planned a big road trip to Las Vegas this summer. With so few of the friends finding jobs, they downgraded plans to a road trip to Reno, then to no road trip at all. They’re spending time watching DVDs at one another’s houses.

Or Kathryn Estrada, a high school senior in Hialeah, Fla., who has no summer job after Circuit City, which employed her during the school year, went out of business. She is finding that even this early in the summer, attempts to while away the hours playing Scrabble and Cranium have grown stale. “We all just wish school would start so we would have something to do,” she said.
Um ... Has no one thought about volunteering? Instead of getting bored trying to pass the time with Scrabble and DVDs, you could help where it's needed (and for many nonprofits, it's needed now more than ever), plus give yourself something to put on your resume that's going to look a hell of a lot better than empty space.

I have to thank my mom here, who would never have let me sit around like this. Before my sister and I were old enough to have paying jobs, my mom required us to spend our summers volunteering -- and we did. I volunteered at the local library (where I enjoyed overhearing a parent tell her toddler son that he wasn't allowed to read Curious George books because he was a bad influence, something that amuses me to this day), at a vet clinic (where I discovered I was wrong about wanting to be a vet), and as a candy striper at a hospital (where I discovered I hated candy striping). I thought she was totally tyrannical and ridiculous to require this, especially since all my friends were spending their summers at the pool. But I have a work ethic now, something I definitely was not born with, plus I've continued to volunteer on-and-off ever since, and her being a hard-ass on this issue probably had something to do with that. If nothing else, it gave me a head start on understanding how the work world functioned, something most of my friends didn't get until a lot later.

(That said, for the record, I'm a big fan of lounging about unproductively when/if life allows you to, but (a) the people in this article are complaining about boredom, and (b) since they're facing a highly competitive job market, it wouldn't be a bad idea to do what they can to make themselves stronger candidates.)

Friday, July 3, 2009

did I offend the company that just offered me a job?

A reader writes:

I'm a fresh grad and I just received a job offer from a company I really want to work for (let's say Company A), but I have a pending interview at another company I am also considering (Company B). Company A gave me 24 hours to make a decision, and just before the deadline ended, I asked them for an extension (I asked for less than a week's time), telling them that I wanted to evaluate my options better after I get all the results of my pending applications, and to discuss things with my family.

The person who interviewed me then told me that they were surprised about this, because in the interview I told them that I would be prioritizing Company A over my pending application at Company C (another company). The day Company A interviewed me, I didn't see Company B as an option yet. She then proceeded to tell me that one of the factors to why they offered me the job is because I seemed to have a strong interest in the company and because I sent them a thank-you note that reiterated my interest. In fact, they were leaning towards another candidate but because I was very interested in the company and seemed "100%" about it, they chose me. Nonetheless, they gave me an extension for my final decision.

Should I apologize to her? I still want to work for the company, and I am planning on confirming it on Monday. I don't want to have any bad blood between us. Did I mislead her in the interview when I really told her what my thoughts were at that time? Should I have not sent a thank-you note? I thought that these were the things interviewees usually said/did during interviews. Could they rescind the offer because my interest level waned a bit after they gave the offer? What should I do?

Yeah, I can see why this happened and also why you didn't see it coming. You're right that you were honest and sincere at the time that you told them they were your first choice, and of course you were correct to send the thank-you note.

Then things changed. But Company A was still operating on the information you'd given them, which was that they were your first choice and you were excited about them. And that kind of thing does influence a hiring decision, because, all else being equal, managers want to hire someone who really wants that particular job. So of course Company A was surprised and probably a bit annoyed when you told them that you were evaluating other options.

Here's the thing: It's totally fine to ask for time to think over the decision. But say it's because you want to make absolutely sure it's the right choice for you, your finances, whatever. Don't say it's because you're waiting for other offers, because that comes across as sounding like, "I'm not all that excited about this job but I may settle for it, depending on what else is offered to me." That drains away the excitement that the hiring manager had and makes them question your enthusiasm; it's not good. And it's especially not good when it happens after you'd been telling them they were your first choice; of course things can change, but from their end, it looks like you might have been disingenuous with them.

To answer your question about whether they can rescind an offer, yes, offers can be rescinded. However, you can salvage this. I recommend calling her and saying, "I want to apologize; I got sidetracked. You've been my first choice throughout this process, and I'm so excited to have an offer from you. After we interviewed, I did hear from another company that also seemed promising, but this is the job that I want, and I'm so sorry if I caused confusion about that. I'd be honored to accept your offer."

Of course, that's only if it's true. If you really do still want to wait and see what happens with Company B, then you have two choices: (1) You can call Company B and tell them you have an offer you're in danger of losing if you don't get them a decision within a few days and see if they're interested enough to expedite their timeline (but be prepared for them to say no), or (2) You can turn down the offer you have from Company A and take your chances on getting an offer from someone else (potentially risky in this economy). But what you can't do is keep putting Company A off or, even worse, take the offer from them and then bow out later if Company B comes through.

By the way, don't beat yourself up over this. You're new to the work world and handled this all honestly, neither of which are bad things. Good luck!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

things I don't want to know about you

I'm cool with you blogging about chronic masturbation if that's what you want to do, but then probably you shouldn't include a link to your blog in your job application materials. I wasn't really prepared for that.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

is staffing agency lying to me?

A reader writes:

I've been out of work for 6 months and have been looking and there have been a few interviews. Two of the interviews were generated through staffing agencies. The first interview did not go well and I received no confirmation from the agency to confirm a rejection. I followed up with them a month later and they mentioned the company had decided to hire from within, which I felt was just a flat-out lie.

The second interview through a staffing firm was recent and the interview was very positive. I followed up with thank-you letters to both people I had met with and got a call 3 days later from the staffing agent, stating they desired a 2nd interview in a couple of days but she didn't know the time. She said she would get back to me soon with more info. After that I heard nothing. 3 days went by and I called her office and did not receive a call back. I then called the hiring manager at the company and left him a very cordial and professional message asking about the status of the second interview, but had no response from either party. I waited until yesterday (3 business days after the phone calls ) and emailed the staffing woman requesting a reason why they had stopped everything in such an odd manner and how I might be able to improve anything on my end for upcoming opportunities. I received a response from her that they still wanted to meet with me, hopefully sometime next week, and the reason was they were quite busy, etc, etc. I thanked her for her help and mentioned I would follow up in a week if I didn't hear anything by then. Then today I get a call from her and she tells me they decided to hire someone internally but they might be bringing me back in for a different position interview in a few weeks, "but no promises."

What happened here? Truthfully, I don't believe the staffing agent's story and figured you might be able to decode this ridiculous turn of events.

I hate to tell you this, but I think you're reading way too much into all this and being too suspicious.

Your staffing agency sounds like it might be mediocre, possibly disorganized and unresponsive. At a minimum, they don't put a premium on keeping candidates in the loop in a timely way. But believe me, they are soooo not alone in that behavior; it's very common, although obviously it shouldn't be. I happen to believe that not getting back to candidates who took the time to interview is the height of rudeness, but plenty of companies operate that way.

But being slow to get back to you and not being responsive to your calls doesn't indicate that they're lying to you. People who hire for a living are used to having to dispense rejection; they don't make up cover stores when it's so easy to just tell the truth -- "we went with another candidate," "we didn't feel you were the right match," etc. I can almost guarantee you that unless you somehow stumbled upon the one staffing agency in the world that isn't comfortable rejecting people, they're not lying to you.

Job hunting is frustrating and even more so when your calls aren't getting returned. But don't leap from that to assuming there's some kind of mysterious cover-up going on here.