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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

boss is a non-communicative micromanager

A reader writes:

My boss is intermittently non-communicative and micromanaging, neither of which I can tolerate. We will go weeks without meeting to discuss a project and then at the last minute she will “fling” across very unclear direction to me to execute (usually in the same day). She typically talks to me about a project as if we’ve been planning and discussing it for weeks. I literally have to tell her, “did I miss a memo? I don’t have any requests from you asking me to do this until now."

It’s driving me crazy and it’s causing a breakdown in what once was a really good relationship. On the other hand, when she does “fling” her very unclear direction, when I ask questions to get clarification, she seems exasperated. So then I schedule a meeting to discuss my questions, and she goes in completely the opposite direction by editing documents for me or wanting to watch me schedule meetings in support of the project. All I can say is WTF!!!! And finally, last year I presented at our annual sales meeting, which is like the Academy Awards at my company, and this year, she won’t answer me why I haven’t been invited (I went to the sales coordinator and he sent me the info).

I am so confused, as I have always been given very high ratings, and even this quarter, I’ve gotten very positive feedback, but the performance eval score has not improved. I was told that the company is defaulting everyone to this score to make it more difficult to get a higher rating.

I have been with this organization for several years, have 15 years of industry experience in my field, and I am perfectly capable of doing these tasks on my own. All that I ask is to be treated as part of the team and not someone in a supporting role who is always the last to know things. I’ve even tried to schedule meetings with her, but she doesn’t show up. I feel like she is trying to sabotage my employment there because our numbers are down and either wants to find cause to lay me off/fire me or wants me to leave.

Talk to her. About the big-picture, not about a specific incident.

I see this a lot on both sides -- from managers and from employees. Someone is increasingly frustrated about something the other is doing, sees it as a pattern, is wondering what the hell is going on, and yet, for some reason, doesn't sit down with the person and talk about it. People tend to address each specific incident as it comes up, all the while growing more frustrated, when what would really help is to talk about the overall big picture.

So what that means is this: Tell her that you'd like to schedule some time to talk about how things are going. (And if she cancels, reschedule and tell her it's important.) When you meet, say something like, "I want to talk about something that I've noticed happening with the two of us recently. I might be misinterpreting this, but sometimes you give me an assignment and seem surprised that I don't know details about it yet. And I've been getting the sense that you're frustrated when I ask questions about it. We used to communicate really well, and lately it seems like we're not, and I wonder if there's something you're seeing that I'm not, or something I should be doing differently. I'd really like your feedback, and please don't worry about offending me; I really want to hear your thoughts."

Your tone during this matters. You want to be calm, non-defensive, and genuinely receptive to feedback.

One other thing: Her swing between non-communicative and micromanaging is a typical one of managers who aren't managing well and feeling frustrated as a result. Frequently a manager will start off at one extreme, discover that it doesn’t get the results she had wanted, and react by moving to the opposite extreme, only to find that doesn’t work either -- because neither extreme works. The secret these managers are missing is that they need to be more hands-on in certain specific areas and more hands-off in others, and usually they're getting it backwards. They need to be more hands-on in clearly communicating their expectations for the outcomes of the work at the start, in making sure they and the employee are on the same page about how the work will proceed, in monitoring the work while it’s ongoing, and in creating accountability and learning afterwards ... and more hands-off in actually pushing the day-to-day of the work forward or doing the work themselves.

What that means for you is that she's displaying the signs of a frustrated manager who doesn't know how to get that balance right, and that's an opportunity for you, the employee, to manage up to help her:

* Ask to try a different system for checking in and getting questions answered. For instance, you might have a regular weekly meeting, plus ad hoc conversations throughout the rest of the week as the need arises. I'm also a huge fan of keeping an ongoing list in your email program of issues, questions, and information for your boss, which you tweak throughout the day – so when she can grab a few minutes to talk, your list is organized and waiting.

* Apply the principles of good delegation upward. When a good manager delegates a responsibility to an employee, she should articulate the desired outcome, constraints, and prioritization. Do this yourself when your manager gives you an assignment, in order to make sure you’re on the same page. For instance, if your manager asks you to oversee the development of a new logo, you might say, "So we’re looking for a logo that’s professional and modern, with a global feel. It sounds like the budget needs to be kept under $2,000, and I’m guessing I shouldn’t tackle this until after we’re done with the spring conference. Does that sound right?"

You should also read this post I wrote on being micromanaged, and see if anything in there helps.

But my advice here is to talk to her, big picture. Find out how she's seeing things and what she thinks is going on. Good luck!

addressing a disability in an interview

A reader writes:

I am legally blind, but it rarely hinders my ability to do most things (except for more dynamic things like driving and playing basketball). For most other things, I can use common tools like the "Zoom" options on most computer programs and simple handheld reading magnifiers, and I'll be just fine.

Ideally, I would like to just keep my disability a secret in an interview, but I also have a condition called nystagmus which causes my eyes to move involuntarily from side to side, especially when I'm nervous or in an unfamiliar setting.

My concern is that, if I don't explain this to an interviewer, they might think I'm crazy or on drugs or something. But, if I do explain, it will open doors for discrimination and under-estimation of my abilities.

Some approaches I have considered are just not saying anything about it or explaining that I have a visual condition but that it is not severe and I can accommodate for it with magnifiers, etc. -- much like a near-sighted employee who wears glasses.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

If the choice is between an employer thinking that you're crazy or on drugs, or risking discrimination by explaining, I'd risk discrimination. Being thought crazy or on drugs will disqualify you every single time. Explaining gives you a good shot, and plenty of employers don't discriminate. (Some do, of course, but your math is still better with explaining.)

I think the best thing to do is to be low-key about it, and after your interview is scheduled, say, "By the way, could you explain to whoever I'm meeting with that I have a condition that affects my eyes? New people notice it when talking with me face to face, but I accommodate it pretty easily with magnifiers and people generally don't even notice it after we get to know each other."

Anyone else want to weigh in?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

should we reimburse employee meals for same-day travel?

A reader writes:

Our office has a number of staff that travel to our various satellite offices – most of the travel is same day (home to office back to home)(no overnight stays). There are a few staff members that feel like they need to be reimbursed for breakfast and lunch and sometimes even dinner (if they leave after 5pm) from these satellite offices. Our accounting department has asked me to create a policy for same day travel prohibiting reimbursement for food. Can we do this? (Or, really, should we do this?)

Can you do it, legally? Yes, absolutely. Should you do it? Well, maybe it's because I'm from the nonprofit world, but I agree that, at least at first glance, asking for meal reimbursement without overnight travel might be excessive. But let's look at it more closely.

Is there some reason why a local journey that doesn't involve overnight travel is sticking them with higher meal costs than they would have had if they spent the day in the office? Maybe there is -- maybe, for instance, they're traveling to locations that make it impossible for them to stick to their usual lunch routines, whether that's brown-bagging it or grabbing something cheap outside the office. And if there is, you should consider that; you don't want to financially penalize people for doing their jobs.

Or maybe these day trips have them on the road from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. If the hours are unusually long during these day trips, then I'd recommend reimbursing them in recognition of the hardship and quality of life imposition.

So the first question is: Would a reasonable person expect to be reimbursed in this situation, or are these employees trying to take advantage of the company?

And even if a reasonable person wouldn't expect it, you might also ask: Do you have the luxury of doing this as a perk for your employees anyway? If the company is flush, you may choose to treat employees extra-well in ways like this -- because doing so can help with morale, retention, and even recruitment. You want to be able to attract and keep the best people out there, and perks don't hurt. On the other hand, you may not be flush, or you may be a nonprofit, where you generally don't want to spend donors' money on luxury-type perks.

So I'd think about all of these things before deciding this. And ideally, the decision wouldn't be made by the accounting department, but by someone who's charged with thinking strategically about employee relations.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

my company throws A List and B List parties for employees

A reader writes:

I am a "peak period employee" of a large company. Although I have worked 1000+ hours per year for them every year for the last decade, employees of my status are not invited to the annual holiday party. This is reserved for full-time permanent employees, and is usually a very splashy affair: evening dress, wine, dancing, etc.

In 2009 the human resources department inaugurated a B-list party (my term, not their term). Employees not invited to the A-list party were invited to go to a local $9.99 buffet that features plastic bibs emblazoned with the slogan "Put on a Bib! Oink! Oink! Pig out on Ribs! Oink! Oink!" Several tepid speeches were given, and paper awards handed out to all.

I will not be attending this party next year, if it is given. Non-attendees of the 2009 B-list party were gently chastised for not showing up to claim their holiday thank-you certificate (not quite all A-list people got year-end cash bonuses, but most did. No B-listers ever get them, even when vastly outperforming A-listers at the same job in far fewer hours).

I find it difficult to believe that my company does not understand that having two separate but unequal parties is just rubbing salt in the wound. I will say something in our end-of-season job satisfaction survey about this, but are they really going to pay attention to an anonymous survey response? If I approach HR about this will I merely sound trite and whiny? How seriously would you take this as a manager?

Yeah, this is a weird (and rude) practice. It's hard to imagine how someone thought this wouldn't produce resentment, irritation, and mockery.

That said ... I wouldn't make a big deal of it, because there are bigger things to care about. Things like: Do you have a fair and effective manager? Are you given clear goals and expectations? Do you receive recognition for good work, and feedback about ways you can do better? Do you have the resources to do your job? How's the pay? Do you like the people you work with?

Now, if these dual parties are representative of other poor treatment from the company, then that's an issue ... but in that case, you should be focusing on those bigger issues anyway. If they're not, and it's just some weird and misguided decision on their part, I'd let it go. Enjoy it for the piece of ridiculousness it is and don't dwell on it too much beyond that.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

why you should take the time to debrief after a project

Did you know that Harvard Business School researchers found that among a group of surgeons learning a new operating technique, those who discussed each case in detail and debriefed with team members after procedures managed to halve their operating time … while those who didn’t discuss and debrief hardly improved their time at all?

People don't debrief enough after a project is over, particularly when a high workload makes you harried. But as that study shows, there's real value in it. Even when things have gone well on a project, both you've likely learned from the experience and picked out things that could be done differently next time to get even better results. Writing those up, even as just a quick bulleted list, can be an invaluable resource to have on hand the next time you conduct a similar project.

One small step that can help you do this is to build a brief reflection meeting into your schedule when you're scheduling out a project. If you have it on your calendar as part of the project steps, you're more likely to do it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

my manager complains about me online

A reader writes:

I'm having a problem with my manager. I work at a convenience store to help put me through college. She's hated me from the start, most people say it's out of jealousy, I learned to ignore it.

Now she is discussing my work performance online with a coworker who is not even of management position. Never once has she come to me to tell me I'm doing something wrong but she posts all these horrible things about me online saying that I screw everything up and my paperwork is always a mess! It's on their Facebook so everyone in their network can read it and everyone in their network also are customers in the store I work at. They come in and tell me the things she says. I got online and looked and sure enough it was all there.

What should I do? This is completely unprofessional and an invasion of my privacy! No one needs to know my work performance! I feel like I'm being harassed because they are criticizing my work, I don't even want to go into work I'm so embarrassed. I had no clue I was such a burden to everyone! What should I do? Isn't that illegal for her to do that?

Illegal, no. Jerky and terrible management, yes.

If your manager has a problem with your performance, she's not doing her job if she's not discussing it with you straightforwardly. So even if she's right and you're having performance problems, she's having even bigger ones by not doing her job as a manager.

And obviously, she's being horribly unprofessional, toward you, toward the coworkers she's talking to about you, and toward the customers (!!) who she's sharing this with.

You should do the following:

1. Be as professional as she's being unprofessional. Talk to her face-to-face and in private and say, "I understand that you're unhappy with some of my work. I'd really like to hear your concerns so that I can work on whatever I need to do differently."

2. After you've done #1, tell her, "I really want to have a chance to resolve these problems. Can I ask you to give your feedback to me directly and not to share it with people online? Customers have seen it and asked me about it, and I'd prefer to keep these conversations between us."

3. Although her behavior is in no way excusable, you should still think about whether her complaints might have any validity. Is your paperwork always a mess, as she claims? Do you make a lot of mistakes? Try to divorce your anger from the substance of what she's said and think honestly about whether there are changes that you should be making.

4. Consider going over her head and reporting her behavior to her boss or your company's HR department. Take screenshots of some of her most outrageous posts so that you have them even if she removes them, and say that you'd like advice on talking to her about giving you feedback directly rather than publicizing it online. They will not be happy about this once they learn about it.

Good luck!

should I color my gray hair while job-searching?

It's physical appearance week here at Ask a Manager! A reader writes:

I am a 43-year-old woman getting back into the job market after nearly 10 years away raising kids. This is not the best time to be hunting, but it is what it is.

My question seems rather superficial in comparison to others asked of you. I have been growing increasingly gray over the past year, so much that my siblings and friends comment on it. I’m rather short, so pretty much everyone can see it. My question is: does this matter to the average interviewer? If an equally qualified and not gray-haired person and I were vying for a job, would the other get it? Does having one’s hair colored make one look more professional or put together? It’s a big commitment to get your hair professionally done on a regular basis, and I’d like to get some opinions before I make the decision.

I don't think it really matters. Sure, you may find an interviewer here or there who cares, but you may also find some (like me) who think it's a plus to hire more seasoned people, which gray hair may imply you are, so the two groups likely balance each other out.

I think you should handle your gray however you personally want to.

Monday, March 22, 2010

can I ask why my predecessor was fired?

A reader writes:

I've recently started in a new role with a company I've admired for years. I'm excited about the job and before I started I felt inspired by the confidence shown in me by my new manager.

Now that I've started, I've found that the reason the big cheeses were so keen for me to start was that the previous incumbent left suddenly because he was fired. I want to make the right impression in this organization and progress, and I'd like to find out what it was that my predecessor did that warranted such extreme action so that I don't make the same mistake. At the same time, I don't want to come across as someone who is nosy, liable to make mistakes or lacking in confidence in my own ability.

What do you think?

You can absolutely ask, and it's potentially useful for you to know the story anyway, because it might give you additional insight into things you uncover as you take over the job. For instance, if it turns out that your predecessor was covering up the fact that work was going undone, this is useful for you to know because if you're, say, having trouble locating a report that he should have written, now you'll know that maybe it was never completed -- whereas otherwise you might put a lot of time into trying to find it. Or if it turns out that your predecessor had terrible relationships with other departments, it might signal that you need to put extra effort into repairing those connections.

So by all means ask. Word it like this: "Can I ask what happened with John? If you can't talk about it, I understand, but now that I'm taking over the position, I thought there might be history there that could be helpful for me to know."

Chances are that your boss will tell you.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

should I address my weight gain in an interview?

I'm back! The week without posts was because I moved, and I'm so exhausted that I can barely move my fingers to type this. However...

A reader writes:

I had a phone interview last week for a position that seems like the perfect job for me. I'm supposed to hear from the interviewer to arrange a face -to- face meeting next week. The job's with the federal government, which I've worked for in the past and am well qualified for.

My problem is that I've gained quite a bit of weight in the past two years (situational reason - I ran my own company for a couple years, working 12-15 hours/day and fell off the fitness wagon for the first time in my life) and am afraid it will hinder my chances of scoring this job. Pre-employment medical exams are required. Do I address the weight issue (and that I'm back on track to fitness) or ignore it?

Please don't bring up your weight or your work-out plan! It's unnecessary, and it'll make for an awkward conversation -- what is the interviewer going to say in response, after all? It's just going to be uncomfortable.

Your weight is only relevant if it makes you physically unable to perform the job -- and if you're unable to perform the job, plans to lose the weight in the future won't matter.

Go, do the interview, and don't fixate on your weight. Good luck!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

how to manage a problem employee

A reader writes:

As you hail from the non-profit sector just as I, you can probably lead me down the right path with this one. I'm a new HR rep for this mid size organization, and have inherited this situation:

We have two employees who work in our fundraising department. They both work full time, but telecommute at their will, which is fine. They both also do consultancy work on the side. Now employee 1 does not worry me so much -- she signed the conflicts of interest policy, great work ethic, and we're happy with her work. We know when she is telecommuting, she is still working for us.

Employee 2 manages our donors -- databases, relationships and so on, unlike employee 1, who mainly puts the feelers out there for donations. My worry is this -- we know that she is managing donor accounts for other organizations as her freelance work. She could be using our donor base for her own consulting work, and she could also be using our data to levy her work with other non-profit organizations, i.e comparing donations, targeting similar client bases etc. which would hurt us significantly.

She also signed the policy, but her work is less than par and her general attitude indicates that she does not have the best work ethic. She delays in responding to her emails and calls, and is sometimes unavailable when donors call -- so we suspect when she is "working from home," there is little work going on.

Aside from a suspicion of foul play, we have not much else. If I had hired either of these people, I would have let them know that they could not do consultancy work while they were our employee. But this has gone on for nearly a year, and only now have eyebrows been raised.

We are not able to prove that this is happening, and we also have the situation where both have declared their consultancy work, and both have been allowed to continue. We are working on corrective action for her sub-par work, but the bigger danger is this -- that if she becomes a disgruntled employee, she will exploit our databases. What are our rights as an employer? Our conflicts of interest policy does not stipulate what to do if we only have a suspicion.

We are also in a situation where we have one employee who we trust is not exploiting us, and one who we suspect is, so do we treat them both the same, or do we go ahead and take action for the one we suspect? What is your take on this situation?

Why is no one managing here? It sounds like there are three things holding you back: that you're worried you can't "prove" your case, that you're concerned about treating her differently from her more responsible coworker, and that you're worried she may exploit your database for her other clients.

There's no requirement that you treat a reliable and an unreliable employee the same. You have two different situations, and you should handle them differently, tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of each. That's just good management.

And you don’t need to "prove" your case with courtroom accuracy. The question for you is whether or not you’re getting what you need from the employee, not whether you could convince a jury. And right now, you're not. So either she starts giving you what you need (after you clearly let her know what that is), or you need to replace her.

As for your worry that she may exploit your database -- well, you're already worried this is happening anyway. Second, the fact that you don't trust her in this area is yet another sign that you need to deal with the situation promptly and assertively. You cannot have employees who you don't trust to behave with integrity, particularly in that type of work. Now, if your employees don't already sign a confidentiality agreement, you should have everyone sign one anyway. But beyond that, you can't be held hostage to this worry -- you need to manage her far more aggressively so that the situation is resolved.

And that's my big question: Why is no one managing this employee's performance? She's unresponsive when she's working from home, you have reason to think there's little work happening, and you guys are just sort of wringing your hands over it. Her manager needs to get in there and manage. This means telling her that she's expected to be completely available and responsive when she's working from home, with prompt responses to calls and emails from staff or donors. Period. Unless there's an immediate and significant improvement, she will no longer be allowed to work from home. Frankly, you could just pull the working-from-home privilege right now if you wanted to; it's a privilege, after all, not an entitlement, and unless someone demonstrates that they can do it responsibly, it's foolish to allow them to do it at all.

And you say her work is less than par. Her manager needs to spell out for explicitly what the bar is that she needs to meet, and what the consequences will be for not meeting it. And then those consequences need to be enforced (termination, presumably).

Regarding the work for other nonprofits (which frankly sounds like the least of your worries, compared to the other stuff), it's completely legitimate to say, "We're not comfortable with you managing donor accounts for other organizations, given the nature of your work here" and someone should have said that when she first proposed it. It's a bit more complicated now, since it's been allowed to go on, but that doesn't mean that you can't still address it. You just need to explicitly say, "I understand that this has been allowed up until now, but we've reviewed the situation and we can't allow it to continue because it creates a conflict of interest." I suspect someone out there is going to say that this is an unfair action since you don't actually know that she's doing anything wrong, but this absolutely is a conflict of interest and it should never have been allowed to start. Most nonprofit fundraising teams wouldn't allow it.

Get in there and manage (or get her manager to). Here are some other posts that may help:
how to deal with employee performance problems
which employee should be let go?
you need the right person, not the almost right person
new managers and authority
And I don't usually plug my book, but it sounds like it would be helpful, and it's directed toward nonprofit managers. Start with the chapter on managing performance problems.

Good luck!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

how do managers feel about blogging employees?

In the comments on a recent post about blogging with your name attached to it, Andrew asks:

How would you feel, as a manager, if one of your employees kept a blog? I feel like you may be on the progressive side of the spectrum, so I'll follow up with: how do you think MOST managers feel about this issue? Is it an issue people should legitimately be worried about?

I think it totally depends -- mainly on what your blog is like, but also on your company and your manager.

For instance, I once learned that an employee was writing a blog that contained fairly extreme political positions. He was working on a state political campaign for us at the time. The blog had to go -- had it been discovered, it would have reflected on our campaign, despite the fact that he was doing it as a private individual, not as a campaign staffer.

That's an extreme example, but it makes the point: If there's any chance that your blog would reflect negatively on your employer if people knew you worked for them, any smart employer will have concerns.

Now, what kinds of things might raise concerns for them? In some environments, politics will. In almost all environments, sexually explicit content will. Glorification of drug and alcohol abuse. Complaining about your company, your boss, or your co-workers. Also, things that just make you look bad -- incoherent ramblings, for instance.

On the other hand, it's possible that your blog might reflect well on your employer and actually be seen as a bonus. For instance, I write my blog on my own, not as a representative of where I work, but it's nice for my employer to be able to say, "Alison writes a pretty well-received blog about management issues."

(Of course, if I were giving out horrid advice, that would be a different issue.)

Personally, I think the litmus test should be this: If your blog were for some reason featured in a company newsletter that got sent to all clients and staff, what would happen? If the answer is "boredom" or "acclaim," you're on the safer side. If the answer is "raised eyebrows," "offense," or "shame," you're in trouble.

But it's true that there are some managers who would be worried about anything that isn't, say, a cooking blog. If you work for one of those, stay anonymous.

in which I work miracles

A reader writes:

I had an interview Friday before last and was rejected the following Monday. I was exceedingly disappointed as I was really excited about the job, helping youths find work. Then last Sunday I was reading your blog and you suggested e-mailing to follow up on the rejection and ask what I could do to make myself a stronger candidate. I did that at 1:30 am right after I read your advice. The next day I got a call and they offered me the position I had interviewed for!! I believe I would not have gotten this job if I hadn't followed your advice. Thank you so much.

That. is. awesome.

Seriously. Congratulations!

(Please send me a percentage of your first year's pay.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

online photos when you're job-seeking

A reader writes:

I know more and more employers are looking to online profiles for information on job-seekers. I am curious if you have any information about the "do's and don'ts" of profile pictures? Is having one helpful? Should I leave the picture spot blank? Is having a friend take one on a regular camera going to hurt my chances, or should I hire a photographer to do a professional shot?

There are so many variables here that it's hard to give one answer. But in general, I think you should do what you feel comfortable with -- post a photo if you feel like it, and if you don't, then don't post one and don't stress about it.

If you do post a photo, all the obvious advice applies -- look professional, look happy (but not so happy that you look drunk), wear something appropriate (doesn't need to be a suit, but it shouldn't be a bikini), etc. It doesn't need to be a professionally taken shot.

There are also a couple of other factors you could consider, neither of them savory:

* Are you attractive? Plenty of studies show that attractive people get hired more easily, and also that very overweight people don't.

* Are you worried about triggering any conscious or unconscious discriminatory biases based on race or age?

And whatever you do, do not include a photo on your resume itself. Yes, people do that, and it freaks me out every time.

Monday, March 8, 2010

requiring a handwritten cover letter

A reader just sent the following letter to me and the Evil HR Lady, and it takes overly demanding employers to a new high (low?):

I just responded to a job ad that included “good handwriting” as a required job skill. To prove that you possess this skill, it also requires a “handwritten cover letter.”

Is this an ingenious solution to the employer’s screening process, or is this employer mad with power and exploiting the “buyer’s market”? My sore hand suspects the latter, but I’ll defer judgment to the experts.

I am dying to know what this job is. Calligrapher? Engraver? Cake decorator?

I don't want to write my cover letter out by hand, unless it's one of these three jobs.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

bad interviewer behavior

I've created a new tag for posts: bad interviewer behavior. So if you're in the mood to read about interviewers behaving badly, a bunch of shocking posts are compiled here.

HR missed our scheduled phone interview and didn't respond to follow-up

A reader writes:

About two weeks ago, I received an email to schedule a phone interview with a large firm on the West Coast (they also have a branch on the East Coast, where I am located). This interview was supposed to happen a week ago on Friday. When our scheduled time arrived, I waited patiently for a call. I continued waiting patiently for ten minutes, after which I called to leave a voicemail. I had no response at all that day, so I sent off an email late Monday asking to reschedule. The HR contact had an autoreply saying that the person was away and that should there be an urgent message, to call him on his cell phone (number included).

Is this type of behavior normal? Should I expect any kind of closure from this quasi-interview?

Judging from my mail, it's more normal than it should be. It's obviously incredibly rude and inconsiderate, and it indicates that the employer is disorganized too.

You did the right thing by calling when they didn't call at the scheduled time, and then by following up in email. I would follow up a couple of more times reiterating your interest in rescheduling. However, brace yourself from not hearing back from them, as may happen if they are rude, which we already know they are, and have spoken with enough other candidates that they're now done with phone interviews. And for that matter, be braced for them calling you again two weeks later after you've already written them off. Because what you know about these people for sure is that they are going to be sloppy and unprofessional in the way they handle the hiring process.

Now, does that indicate that you shouldn't pursue a job with them if they do get back in touch? I'd love to say yes, but the reality is that job-seekers don't always have that luxury. It's also true that it's possible that this one person's incompetence isn't representative of the rest of the company. I wrote a couple of months ago about some options for handling this; you can read it here. Good luck!

asking for feedback when you were hired as the second choice

A reader writes:

I wondered if I could ask you a question about feedback after not being hired (a subject I know you have covered before); I am in a somewhat interesting position regarding this issue.

A bit of background: I worked for nearly a decade in the entertainment industry, before deciding to completely change careers; I went back to school for a masters' and a PhD in a particular branch of history. I then found a part-time job listing at a museum where I had spent quite a bit of time as a student. I applied for the job, and was granted an interview, which I thought went quite well. But two weeks later I received a curt email from the HR department saying only that my application had been unsuccessful. Disappointing, but fair enough.

Then two months later I received a phone call asking if I was still interested in the position. Apparently they had hired someone else, who had either quit or been fired quite abruptly. I was still very keen on the job, and accepted it. I have been with the museum for nearly 18 months now, and have done very well, I think. I have established a very good relationship with my supervisor (who was one of the people who initially interviewed me), my hours have been extended significantly, and I have received consistently excellent evaluations for my performance. In the past few weeks I have been made aware of several new full-time positions that will open up in the department, which I would like to apply for. Because of the policies of the institution, these openings will require an entirely new set of applications from me and another round of interviews, and hence my question... My next performance review is in a few weeks, and I am considering whether I ought to ask my supervisor about why I was initially turned down for my current position.

I am concerned that this not come across to her as me complaining about why they didn't 'love' me at first sight; I am more interested in any advice that she could give me about how to improve my chances in the future. Working in entertainment had probably not adequately prepared me for the kind of formal interview system they use at the museum (they have checklists and a very elaborate points system using the STAR method of evaluation, apparently), but I'm wondering if there's something else that put them off.

Well, it's likely that you didn't do anything that put them off in that initial interview, since they called you and offered you the job down the road. It's more likely that the other person simply seemed like a better match. A lot of times, people feel like they must have done something wrong if an interview doesn't lead to a job offer -- but I can't tell you how many times I've had to reject candidates who I would have been perfectly happy to hire, but someone else was simply a stronger match.

That said, go ahead and ask for advice, because maybe there is something that would be helpful to you to hear. That said, I would couch it less in terms of "why didn't you hire me originally" and more about how you're planning to apply for the new openings in the department and would love her advice on the interviews. Within that context, ask her to think back on your original interview and whether there's anything you could have done better there.

Remember too that you now have a very significant advantage that you didn't have back then: not just more experience, but more experience with them. You're now a known quantity with a great track record. That's a huge leg up when you're interviewing. Good luck!

Friday, March 5, 2010

is it better to get to a job fair early on or later in the day?

A reader writes:

I'm about to attend a federal job fair. It's all day, but I can't imagine that I would stay more than an hour or two. Do you think it would be best to show up first thing -- showing eagerness (hopefully) and before these agencies are inundated with job seekers (though I'm thinking they will probably be inundated right off the bat) -- or toward the end of the day, so they might be more inclined to remember me? I'm thinking probably the former, but am not positive.
I have no idea, actually, because I have no experience with job fairs -- but I am very sure that other people have opinions, so I'm posting it here in the hopes that people will weigh in.

I'm also curious to know how useful people have found job fairs to be. Tell us!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

company made me a tentative offer, then hired someone else

A reader writes:

I have a question about what I should do after, I feel, I have been lied to in my job search.

I applied for and was interviewed at a local university. During the interview I was unable to meet with the head of the department because she was recovering from a surgery. The next day they set up a telephone interview for me to have with her because she was unable to meet in person. At the end of the phone interview, she said: "We are very impressed with you, I would like to tentatively offer you the position providing your references check out" (well that is pretty much what she said). Then she continued to say she would call my first two references that were not my current supervisor, work with the university to put together a job offer, then she would send me the offer, if I accepted she would call my current supervisor and if everything checked out, I would be hired. I was really excited!

I provided her with all my references knowing they would check out. Two days later, a Friday, she emailed me to say she had not gotten a chance to call my references, but would call early next week. Two and a half weeks went by, one of them was during a huge snow storm, and I decided to follow up to see if she was able to contact my references, etc. I know these things take time.

She answered that they had decided to hire someone else who had a different skill set then me. I was angry, I replied and told her I was under the impression I had the position contingent on my references; I asked if she had contacted them and if it was something they said. She replied and said it was not that at all, they were still interviewing when she had talked to me and thought the person they hired was a better fit. She then said everyone really liked me and I should continue to apply to jobs in their department.

I have not followed up yet. I know I should not think I have the job until I have an offer and was prepared for some possibilities, but not that they were interviewing other people still! Should I follow up with her? Is this normal, should I get used to it and I actually have no reason to be angry?

Ugh. It's true that you shouldn't count an offer until you have it writing.

She was sloppy in how she handled this though. She was sloppy in her language when she let you think the job was yours, pending a reference check, and I can't believe that she didn't apologize profusely to you when she then had to deliver a different message later on. Your account here makes it sound like she was weirdly cavalier, like she thought it was no different from any regular job rejection. I really, really don't like that.

(Plus, what's up with her not even bothering to tell you until you called her to check in? I am not a fan of this woman.)

In response to your question of whether you should be angry, I'd say that you don't get anywhere by being angry in a job search. Take in all the information you're receiving about an employer treats people, but don't get angry. Use that information to make good decisions for yourself. Maybe in this case you decide that this woman is flighty and you wouldn't want to work for her. Or maybe you decide this was bad luck, or even a miscommunication, and that you're open to future jobs with them.

And always, always assume you don't have an offer until you're reading it in writing.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

hirng manager knows my current boss

A reader writes:

How confidential is the whole application process? My issue is the following: I would like to apply for a job posting, and through linkedin I was able to find out who the hiring manager is and I found out that they have a direct connection with my current supervisor. Obviously, I would not want it to get back to my supervisor that I am job seeking. Is this anything I need to worry about?

Maybe. It depends on how well they know each other, which you probably can't tell from Linked In.

If I get a resume from someone who used to work for someone I know but doesn't currently, I'm going to call my contact and ask about them. (I want to know if they're great, if they're crazy, etc.) If I get a resume from someone who currently works for someone I know, I'm going to keep it quiet, because I don't want to jeopardize someone's current employment (and if this is someone I end up wanting to hire, I certainly don't want them hating me for outing them to their boss).

But not everyone plays by these rules. There are undoubtedly people who would call up the contact -- especially (and maybe only) if they're close -- and say, "Hey, guess what, Susan Jones is looking."

So there's some element of risk. On the other hand, there's always that risk. You've probably sent off plenty of other resumes without worrying about whether they'll end up with someone who happens to know your boss, but it's always possible. You just happen to know about the connection in advance this time.

But another option, if you wanted to be super cautious, would be to call the hiring manager and say you're applying for a position with her, saw that she knows your current boss, and would appreciate her discretion in regard to your application because your boss doesn't yet know that you're looking. All but the biggest jerks will honor a direct request like that. Good luck!

must I send thank-you's to all 5 of my interviewers?

A reader writes:

I interviewed at a company where I met with 5 different people. Am I supposed to write and send a thank you card to each person I met with, or only the one person who is making the hiring decision and would potentially be my boss?

Well, you don't have to, but it's a nice touch and it'll be noticed. You have the chance to generate this conversation:

Person A: I got a nice thank-you note from Jane Smith.
Person B: So did I! She must have sent them to all of us. I really like that.

That doesn't mean that you will always generate that conversation, but if you have the opportunity to stand out as well-mannered/classy/memorable, why not take it?

That said, job-seekers don't need yet another obligation to stress out over, and if you don't do it, it's not a big deal. And thank-you notes don't get you the job on their own. But they contribute to an overall picture of a candidate, so why not do it?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

on not being anonymous

When I started this blog back in May 2007, I was anonymous. I stayed anonymous until May 2008, when I started writing a weekly item for U.S. News & World Report and decided, what the hell, I'll use my name.

Overall, I'm glad to be able to attach my name to this site -- it's an awful lot of work to toil away in secret over -- but there have been a few weird effects:

* Sometimes people who are applying for a job with me make a reference to it -- as in, "well, I'm not going to answer the weaknesses question that way because I know you hate it" or whatever. It's a weird cheat sheet to how to interview well with me. Fortunately that hasn't skewed things too much, because ...

* Perhaps more interesting is the number of people applying for a job with me who clearly don't read it. People, google your interviewer. You may find a cheat sheet.

* I once received a cover letter from an applicant that was MY cover letter -- the sample I have posted here. She'd made a couple of alterations to it, but it was mine. I didn't know if she'd done it intentionally, realizing the site she'd taken it from was the site of the person she was applying with, or if it was pure coincidence, so I asked. She claimed it was the former, but that's so weird that I'm still not sure.

* Since my coworkers now know about my blog, I worry that they think that I must think I'm some perfect dream manager, which I'm not. I always want to tell them that I'm not deluded about this. I'm a better than average manager, but it's easier to give good advice most of the time than to get real life right every single day. (On the other hand, I have no idea how often they read it, if at all.)

I'm curious: Have other people who have switched out of anonymity been glad they did it? Regretted it? Suffered ill effects?

Monday, March 1, 2010

HR rejected me, but interviewer said I'm still in play

A reader writes:

I interviewed with a company about a month ago, and I'm not sure what the deal is with these people.

I had an in-house interview on February 5th, and they initially told me it'd be a week or two before they made a decision. Everything seemed to have gone well and I felt like I had a good rapport with everyone. Two weeks later, I get a phone call from their HR rep and she tells me that they're still considering me but that it will take another week or two. That was a Friday.

The subsequent Monday, I get a form letter rejection. I sent a nice email to everyone I spoke with thanking them for their time and asking if they had any advice. One of my interviewers responded right away saying there was some glitch in the automated system and I'm still being considered. About an hour later, I got a call from their HR rep and she said that they filled the position I interviewed for and that it was a really close call. However, the team wants me to apply for a job that will be open early this week.

I know it's still "early this week" but I haven't heard from anyone, and I'm starting to get a little paranoid here that I'm just being jerked around. This company isn't known for swift hiring. In fact, one of my friends who works there in another division said it took him 8 months to go from "interview" to "hired."

My question is how much should I be calling/emailing these people? I don't want to be a pest, but I want to stay on their radar. Everything else about the position and the company is awesome--it's this stage of the interview process that is driving me nuts.

Okay, this is a good illustration of a principle that I wish more people would follow: If something is weird or contradictory, speak up. Speak up nicely, but say something.

You're getting rejected (twice!) by an HR rep while the interviewer is telling you that you're still in the running. We need to find out what's up, because they don't seem to be on the same page.

Why not say to the interviewer, "Thanks so much for telling me I'm still in the running - I'm really glad to hear it. But about an hour after you told me that, I got a second contact from HR, reiterating that I'm not being considered for that position any longer (and that it's been filled). I don't mean to cause confusion, but I'm not entirely sure where things stand."

Now, it's entirely possible that the HR rep is right, and word just hasn't made its way to the interviewer yet. But it's also perfectly feasible that the HR rep is an incompetent. Don't assume either way -- just politely point out the discrepancy and wait for them to resolve it and give you a clearer answer.

So, to your question: How much can you follow up? Well, first you want to wait for the timeline they gave you to play out. They said you'd hear from them "early this week," and it's Monday. I'd give them at least until Wednesday, and follow up on Thursday if you haven't heard anything. As a general rule, don't follow up before the timeline has expired.

Also, on the subject of whether or not they're jerking you around: I propose that it doesn't matter. You should continue an active job search, regardless, and don't count on anything from these people until you have a firm offer in hand. (That's always true, but it's especially true when you feel like you're not getting clear and reliable signals.)

By the way, eight months to hire? I'm skeptical about this place. In general, you want to work somewhere that can make decisions.

company makes us share hotel rooms

A reader writes:

Whenever we have an out-of-town business trip, upper management sets us up in double rooms (with a "roommate"). I understand trying to cut costs with the economy what it is, but this seems odd. It's nice to come back to the privacy of your hotel room after a full day of business meetings or conferences. Have you heard of this practice at other companies? How would you recommend handling this?

Yep, it's not uncommon, especially for junior level employees. In the nonprofit world, it's more common than not.

I'm right there with you on wanting privacy, and traveling for work can be a real pain in the ass so it would be nice to have more amenities when you're doing it ... but yeah, not uncommon.

This is a particularly lame and short answer.