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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

my boss wants to know how I'm spending my vacation before he'll approve it

A reader writes:

Does it seem strange that my manager wants to know what I'm doing for any vacation request I submit? And not in the friendly conversational way of "where are you going" or "big plans?" but in the way that he's asking if it's worthy to give the vacation days. Is this right? I know it's the latter because he asks what the plans are before he grants the request. And I get the impression if I said staying home and relaxing, the answer would be no. Seems kind of odd to me. What are your thoughts?

Yes, it's odd. It's also unreasonable and bad management, if indeed your interpretation is correct.

Your vacation days are your own, to use in any way you want. You don't need to prove their worth in order to get them okayed.

However, there are two possible explanations that would let your manager off the hook:

1. He really might be trying to be friendly and doesn't realize he's giving you the impression that his okay your request hinges on whether your vacation plans meet his approval.

2. He might have someone else who has already requested those days off, and he'd rather not be short-staffed -- but if you want the time to do something like attend your brother's wedding, then he's going to okay it and just work around it ... but if it's something more flexible, he's going to ask you if you can pick a different week. In this case, he has a legitimate reason for asking but there's a better way to handle it. (He should say explicitly, "Jean already has those days off and I'd rather not have you both gone at the same time; are your plans flexible at all?")

My recommendation is that the next time he does this, smile and nicely say, "Does my ability to get the days approved depend on the answer?"

Monday, June 28, 2010

power will lead you to eat more cookies and chew with your mouth open

This is pretty fascinating:
"A particularly amusing study—undertaken by Keltner, Gruenfeld, and another colleague—shows that giving people just a little more power than their colleagues causes them to eat more cookies, chew with their mouths open, and leave more crumbs." -- Bob Sutton, writing for Business Week
More info from the study:
The experimenters "examined whether power would produce socially inappropriate styles of eating. In same-sex groups of 3 individuals, 1 randomly chosen individual (the high-power person) was given the role of assigning experimental points to the other 2 on the basis of their contributions to written policy recommendations concerning contentious social issues. After group members discussed a long and rather tedious list of social issues for 30 minutes, the experimenter arrived with a plate of five cookies. This procedure allowed each participant to take one cookie and provided an opportunity for at least 1 participant to comfortably take a second cookie, thus leaving one cookie on the plate. Consistent with the prediction, high-power individuals were more likely to take a second cookie. Coding of the videotaped interactions also revealed that high-power individuals were more likely to chew with their mouths open and to get crumbs on their faces and on the table."
I have crumbs all over myself right now, and I have no power over anyone anymore. So make of that what you will.

can I run my business with a 4-day work week?

A reader writes:

As a future employer (I hope!), I have an idea that I've been kicking around in my mind for awhile. I feel that a five-day work week is stifling and that people in general would be happier with a four-day work week at approximately 32 hours a week. 

However, in my scenario, this would be considered full-time: such employees would qualify for benefits through the company, and the wages (much of the initial staff will be exempt; however, I would apply this to hourly workers as well) would be roughly equivalent to working full-time. I believe in the living wage and it would be important to me to do right by my employees.

Is this just pie-in-the-sky thinking? Is it feasible to run a company like that, provided that the CEO is not making $5 million a year (in any for-profit business I owned I would have salary caps, I think, but this particular adventure would be a non-profit, so the salary caps kind of come with the territory anyway)? Do you think this would be reasonable, and welcomed?

Can it work? Absolutely. Will it work? That depends.

Things to think about:

* If you're going to shave off 20% of the standard work time, are you going to expect your employees to work harder/smarter in order to achieve the results that another organization of the same staff size would get with five-day weeks?  With a strong culture, strong management practices, and great people, it's feasible that you could achieve that, but you'd need to have a plan for how you're going to build that culture, find those people, and achieve that high bar.

* Or, if you don't have those things and instead are a more typical organization, does that mean you'll be producing at 80% of the rate you'd achieve otherwise? Are you okay with that? Alternately, are you willing to hire additional employees if that's what it takes to get your productivity up to what it would be with a longer work week?

* As a nonprofit, you have special obligations: Your donors are donating money to support your mission because they want to see it realized, generally as soon as possible, and you're accountable to them. If you're not getting results at least at the same rate as similar organizations, but you're paying similar salaries, a smart donor is going to send their money somewhere else. To attract donors, you'll need to be able to show that it's not going to take you 20% longer to get the same or better results at the same cost.

* Nonprofits also tend to have workloads far higher than their staffs can juggle, and in many cases have staffers who work long hours (depending, obviously, on the organization). Most of them are looking for ways to fit in an extra 20%, not shave it off. Is a shortened work week realistic for the mission you're setting out to achieve? Will you have to compromise on your goals or shortchange the interest groups you're serving?

Now, if you can pull this off without sacrificing results, it would be a huge recruiting and retention tool for employees. But the key would be to execute it in such a way that you're not losing the performance-oriented culture and drive for results that characterize high-performing organizations. So you'd want top-notch managers, really rigorous hiring practices, high performance standards, a willingness to let go of people who don't meet that bar, and a culture that reinforces that drive to achieve.

What do others think?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

does "we'll keep your resume on file" really mean anything?

A reader writes:

In most of the jobs where I've been interviewed and rejected the rejection letter says something like "We will hold on to your resume and contact you if we ever have any jobs that meets your needs" or something like this. Is this just being polite or is it possible that some time down the road they will actually contact me with an offer?

Well, it's highly unlikely they'll contact you out of the blue with an offer. But they might contact you with an invitation to apply for another position.

That said, this statement has become part of the standard pablum that a lot of companies include in their rejection letters and, more often than not, has little meaning. On the other hand, some companies do mean it and do search previously submitted resumes looking for well-matched candidates when they have new openings.

So the answer is unsatisfying: Sometimes they mean it and sometimes they don't.

(For what it's worth, I think the phrase has become so meaningless that I've started saying this in the rejection letter I send to candidates who I think would be promising for the future, since I want them to know I really mean it: "We are keeping your materials on file and will notify you about future openings that seem like they might be a good fit. We only keep on file the materials of strong candidates, so please take this as an indicator of our interest in talking further with you in the future.")

But either way, I would put them out of your mind and move on. If they do contact you in the future, let it be a pleasant surprise, rather than something you wait for (as it may never happen, no matter what their intentions).

Friday, June 25, 2010

turning down an employer's offer a second time

A reader writes:

Here's a situation I never would have seen coming in this market. I received an offer for a job about 1.5 years ago. Ultimately I rejected it to stay at my current employer because the compensation package as a whole was just not quite enough to allow me to pull the trigger. 

Fast forward to today - my current job has lost a little extra luster due to precarious security (ongoing layoffs) and reduced benefits. I start looking for jobs and lo and behold, the same company needs the very same position. Naturally I apply, although of course I'm looking elsewhere as well. I interview with all the same people and more. And now it appears an offer is imminent. I expect it to be similar to last year's, only this time I'd take it for sure. 

Except....I also have late word of another imminent offer (or at least I think it is) that promises a significantly better package and a comparable quality of job.

Neither offer is in hand yet, but I'm already dreading the potential of turning the same employer's offer down a second time - if it were to come to pass. I guess it's just human conscience, but that just feels like it's wrong in some way. But then I think I'm just following all the rules, applying and applying until I get offers in hand, and logically I can't think of anything I'm doing that's really wrong here. Can you? Give me some assurances that an employer, even in this situation, has to know that I'm not only looking their way!

I don't think you've done anything wrong at all;  you're just dealing with a convergence of events that's going to put you in an unfortunate situation (if having two job offers can be considered unfortunate).

My take would be different if you had allowed yourself to become a serious candidate with little intention of accepting the job, or if you'd had serious reservations you hadn't shared with them. But neither of those things is true. Your interest was genuine, you didn't hide anything from them, and you planned to accept an offer if you received one. And of course it's reasonable that you were looking at other jobs as well -- it would have been foolish not to, in fact, since there were no guarantees that you would get this job, no matter how promising things looked.

As is so often the case, the best way for you to handle this, if it does come to pass, is to be candid and straightforward. Tell the company that you've been seriously interested in the position all the way through and had every intention of accepting an offer if one came, but there's now another offer in the mix that you can't turn down. (Also, keep in mind that they may want to counter that other offer; you never know.) Explain that you're worried this is frustrating for them, and that you feel terrible and hope that won't think you wasted their time, and that that was never your intention.

Of course, a lot of people in their shoes wouldn't seriously consider future applications from you, out of fear that they'd be wasting their time. But if you express yourself well, a really good employer will be able to read you well enough to see that you operated in good faith. Good luck!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ask a Manager, now available for hire

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was moving into consulting, and I'm now officially opening my doors.  See that "hire me" link up top? You'll find more info there about what I do and how to work with me. So ... hire me!

If you're a new manager looking for some training, a more experienced manager looking for coaching, or any level manager looking for help with hiring, dealing with performance problems, role development, or other managerial issues facing you, I can help. As one example, here's an outline of my hiring boot camp.

And for inspiration (and because I love best-of lists), here are some highlights from posts on good management over the last three years.

you need the right person, not the almost-right person
10 mistakes employers make in hiring
how to fire someone
managing outside your area of expertise
mistakes bosses make when giving critical feedback
struggling to manage an overly social staff
should I fire the office assistant?
what reality-based management looks like

my coworker relies too much on my help

A reader writes:

I have a friend at work, Anne, who joined our office a couple of years ago. She is frequently asking for my help - most of the time, it's to explain procedures or policies (not to actually do her work for her). She seems to be understanding most of it, but she still comes back to me "just to check" that her plan of action is correct.

I wonder if I'm actually hindering her progress, because she relies on having that "safety net" there. I get that she might not be confident in her ability, but in our line of work, if you make a mistake, you just go back and fix it. Obviously, we don't want to make mistakes but we all do at some point and it's not like we're doing brain surgery or something that can't be fixed.

It doesn't bother my bosses that I help her and it doesn't affect my work. In a way, it helps me sharpen my skills by having to teach her. However, Anne is in a higher position so it looks strange to our coworkers and other people in our office that she has to run stuff by me. Sometimes people go to her for help, and she asks me to join the conversation. I've heard from coworkers that Anne's boss is befuddled that I seem to always be helping Anne. Anne's boss has made one teasing comment (in my presence) about how she should just give me Anne's job since I do the work. And Anne doesn't hide the fact that she asks me - she tells everyone how much I help her out.

So I'm wondering if there's some way that I can tell Anne that I believe she understands enough of what she's doing and that she should trust that she can take care of her work alone? I obviously don't want to just say "stop asking me - figure it out yourself!"

I think you should be straightforward with her and tell her something like, "You know, I'm happy to be a resource for you, but I worry that you're selling yourself short by not trusting your own instincts more often. I'm worried we're creating a dynamic where your boss and others think you rely on me, and then you won't get as much credit as you should."

However, Anne may not care. She may be someone who is simply happier having the security of the safety net you provide, even if that comes at a cost to her career advancement. So your obligation is really just to point out to her the impression she may be creating and the fact that it may have consequences to the way she's perceived. What she does from there is really her call.

Now, if you were annoyed and wanted to get out of helping her so often, I'd give you different advice -- along the lines of setting boundaries, being unavailable more often when she comes to you for help, and so forth. But you don't sound annoyed, and in fact -- wisely, in my opinion -- recognize that it's developing your own skills to be put in that role.

So I would say point out to Anne what she may not see, but then let her figure out how she wants to act.

And by the way, at your next performance review, you should definitely point out that you are a much-relied-on resource for Anne. This is the kind of thing that is often a precursor to higher level positions.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

it's not illegal to give a bad job reference

A reader writes:

My wife and I go back and forth about this one all the time.

A former secretary of hers was moving and searching for a new job in her new city. The problem was that this person wasn't the most reliable employee. She was always late, took days off without calling and had some other quirks but when she was there she did good work.

My question is if someone calls you about a former employee what can you say and what can't you say?

I have always believed that you have to tell the truth because if you give a shining recommendation to a crappy employee it will come back to you.

A lot of others tell me that it is illegal to say anything bad about a former employees.  Is it really illegal?

No, it is not illegal, as long as what you're saying is factually accurate. 

What has happened is that some companies, in an effort to avoid the headache of nuisance lawsuits, have implemented policies that they'll only confirm dates of employment and title, rather than commenting on performance. These policies are pushed by lawyers who believe in playing it safe; after all, even if you can easily win the lawsuit, it's still a huge pain to have to deal with. So, the thinking goes, why even invite that hassle? It's easier to just refuse to comment.

As a result, this urban legend has sprung up, where tons of people seem to believe that it's actually illegal to give a bad reference. But corporate policies are not the law. (They're often not even followed by the companies that have them.) It's perfectly legal to give a bad reference, as long as it's honest.

I have always given honest references, because I want others to provide me with the same courtesy. However, when I can't give an employee a good reference, I'll warn her in advance, so that she knows not to offer up my name. (Some employers will still call anyway; really good reference-checkers won't just stick to the list of names the employee provides.) 

In any case, you win the bet with your wife.

Monday, June 21, 2010

don't stalk my voicemail

In a comment on a recent post about employers who don't return phone calls, one commenter suggested not leaving voicemail when you call and an employer doesn't answer, so that you can then call repeatedly, until you get a live person.

Shawn took issue with this, responding:
it isn't uncommon for me to be at my desk between phone screens or meetings, talking with a coworker, or just plain busy, and to just let a call go to voice mail. we are a non-profit but can afford phones with caller id. i've had candidates call every 15 minutes. it's obvious when the same number keeps calling. this looks extremely needy, besides flat out annoying me.
find an email address and use it.
I agree wholeheartedly with Shawn. Most people have Caller ID these days. I frequently let calls go to voicemail when I'm in the midst of something else and not at a good stopping point, and I've seen candidates call over and over without leaving a message. You may think you're being strategic, but if the person is sitting right there, it's annoying. And you look a little stalker-ish.

I used to have a coworker who bragged about using this technique (not in a job-searching context; in a business context). He seemed to think he was being crafty, but in reality I'm sure he was annoying the crap out of the person sitting there seeing his number pop up over and over again.

Leave a message. And like Shawn says, email is better.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

employer left me a message -- but wouldn't respond when I tried to get back to them

A reader writes:

Recently I faxed my resume and cover letter to a company that had a job posting on Career Builders. About a week later I received a call from a lady in HR asking that I return her call. I got home about an hour and half later and returned the call and received her voicemail. I left a brief, polite message. 

Two days passed and the lady did not return my call. I called back on the third day and left another message stating who I was and that I had returned her call three days ago and asked that she call me back and said that I hoped to hear from her soon because I was eager for a chance to talk to her about the position available. Another week passed with no call from her. I emailed my cover letter and resume to her again with a brief message that I was interested in knowing if the position was still available. I never received word from her. 

What was the reason she called in the first place and is this just a missed opportunity because I missed her first call by an hour and a half?

Unfortunately, she has probably moved on and you should too. 

Here's what likely happened: She's looking for, say, four people to interview in-person. She's going to phone-screen promising-looking candidates until she finds those four. When she gets to four, she's done with the phone screens. And she found four before you called her back. (I don't like this method because it means the strongest candidates may never get identified, but it's not uncommon.)

There are other possible explanations too, although I think the one above is the most likely: After calling you, she found a stronger candidate who bumped you out of the running. Or she found out that the hiring manager has settled on a candidate. Or changed the job description. Or canceled the job altogether.

Now, in any of those cases, she should have gotten back to you to tell you, so that you weren't left hanging -- no matter what, but especially after seeing you follow up more than once. Not doing so is rude and inconsiderate. It's also sadly typical of the increasing number of employers who feel no obligation to treat candidates with politeness once they decide they have no further use for them.

Now, what could you have done differently? Short of never being away from your phone and always being prepared to talk -- which is unrealistic and no way to live your life -- nothing. It's something you've got to chalk up to an irritating reality of job hunting. And you're entitled to feel frustrated.

Friday, June 18, 2010

how can I get a job with a leadership role?

A reader writes:

I've been working since I was in high school -  retail gigs, etc were the norm for me until I went to jr. college and started temping in offices. It grew a bit from there, as I learned all the new programs, and because I was a fast keyer, was cast in roles like accounting.

Finally, in 2006, I took the reins on my work world and pursued a bachelor's degree in HR/Business. From everything I'd read, I thought for sure I could land a job as an HR Manager right after graduating. Not the case at all!

I graduated in July 2009 and have yet to find anything permanent at all. I've been temping this entire time, anxious to finally "land" somewhere again! I want a leadership role, and need to know HOW to get experience doing that.

I was in toastmasters for two years, and led committees, took roles no one else and served as an officer twice. I've done informal training, etc. I'm back in school again to pursue my MBA. After 20 years of office work and knowing everything I know and doing a bit of everything...what should I pursue???

It sounds to me like your expectations might be a little unrealistic, which is making you feel like you have to keep changing paths.

For instance, it makes sense to me that you wouldn't land an HR manager job right out of school. Degree aside, they're looking for people with real-life HR experience. Targeting a lower-level HR job and giving yourself time to work your way up would probably get you better results. 

Leadership roles, too, generally require experience. The best way to get that experience is by seeking out leadership opportunities in a current job -- stepping up and asking to take on new responsibilities in a way that will be a help to your employer while giving you experience that will pay off later. 

For instance, when I've seen employees who I thought had the potential to be great managers some day, I've eased them in by having them start small: managing interns, managing an assistant, being the leader of a team project, and so forth. Those are all things that you can volunteer for, and many employers will be grateful that someone is actually excited to do it. Meanwhile, you're expanding your skills, proving yourself to your employer and colleagues, and establishing a track record of doing well in this area ... which will pay off for you down the road when someone has a higher-level opening and remembers being impressed by you. (That assumes you do a good job so, uh, do a good job.)

Also, if you can target a position in a smaller company, you'll generally have more chances for these types of growth opportunities.

The above is always a good way to go, but it's especially true in a job market like this one.

What advice do others have?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

unemployed candidates need not apply, and fired for being too hot

Two job-related stories have drawn a bunch of attention recently: the woman alleging CitiBank fired her for being "too hot," and the Texas company that posted a job advertisement that specified that unemployed candidates shouldn't apply.

I'm interested to hear your take on both of these, but mine is this:

The Texas company is crazy, of course. Any sensible hiring manager knows that the job market has been horrible and that good people have had an awful time finding jobs. Good hiring professionals don't hold unemployment against candidates, as long as they've done something productive with their time away.

Also: People shouldn't assume that this one ridiculous company represents a trend -- it's just one company doing something stupid and short-sighted.

As for the woman who claims she was fired for being too hot, well, the video that came out of her talking about her breast implants and desire to be "sex on a stick" doesn't help her credibility. Neither does her behavior in the media; originally she sounded like a sympathetic victim, but the more she talks, the fewer favors she does herself. I have no idea if CitiBank did truly do what she alleges, but I do know that she's not the poster child I'd want for discrimination, and the way she's conducting herself all over the talk show circuit doesn't really support the idea that she cares about her professional reputation.

bitchy vs. authoritative - guess which one you are, ladies?

This is a post from November 2007 that I'm reprinting now because I'm feeling highly annoyed about this concept.

Management Line reports that a new study finds that "female bosses who are seen as unkind or insensitive are judged as worse managers. People, however, are prepared to overlook the same traits displayed by male managers. In other words, male and female managers are judged by different standards."

This adds yet another frustrating layer to that already-infuriating chestnut about authoritative women seeming bitchy, while authoritative men seem like strong leaders. I'll admit that I don't know how much of this is my own internal hang-up, but as a female boss myself, it's sometimes in the back of my mind that I might be being perceived as "bitchy" when I take a hard line with someone, when a man doing the same thing would just be perceived as resolute and authoritative. (I can also think of a couple of occasions in the past where just being friendly and empathetic -- stereotypically "feminine" traits -- has led some men to take me less seriously. I don't think that's happened in a few years though, which might be a result of me becoming ancient and withered.)

If I have to be seen as either the bitch who gets things done or the pushover who doesn't, I'll take "bitch who gets things done." It's infuriating that it has to be a choice, of course; I doubt many men are out there worrying that they're seen as insufficiently sweet.

Related post: On balls and lack thereof

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

why do companies post positions when they end up hiring internally?

A reader writes:

Another question along the lines of job rejections. I have been applying to jobs at the company for which I used to work (I left to stay home with kids). I still have great references from colleagues and managers; they pass my resume and cover along with recommendations if they know the hiring manager. While this gets me in for interviews, the jobs are invariably given to internal candidates. In the most recent case, the hiring manager called to tell me, was very apologetic, offered to help connect me for future postings, asked to keep my resume. I gained a great contact, but no offer. I emailed to thank her for calling me personally and said I would take her up on her offer.

That said, I wonder why companies post positions externally if they need to hire internally? Is it to save the time it would take to post externally if no appropriate internal candidate applies? I understand the need to give the job to someone already within the ranks, but it is really frustrating to go through the process, get one’s hopes up after a great interview, only to be told that they went with someone from inside. Can you provide any insight?

It's true that sometimes a company plans to hire an internal candidate and is just going through the motions with others, often because their internal rules require that every job be posted, that a certain number of candidates be interviewed, etc.

But this is often not the case, and I've noticed that candidates -- the external ones -- tend to assume it's true even when they don't have reason to believe it is.

Often what happens is this: A job opens up. An internal candidate expresses interest. The employer welcomes their interest, but isn't ready to anoint them and genuinely wants to consider other candidates as well. In this case, the internal candidate is one of many candidates on relatively even footing. They may get the job, or they may not. But in cases where they do, it can look like that was the plan all along, even when it wasn't.

Other times, all the candidates aren't on even footing. The internal candidate is the first choice -- but the employer is truly open to finding someone better. It's just that the bar is high, because the internal candidate will have a shorter learning curve and is a known quantity. That bar can be beat, but it's a much higher jump than it would be without that candidate there.

In both these cases, the company isn't acting with no regard for your time; they're genuinely open to hiring you. 

Now, there's an argument to be made that companies should tell applicants when there's a strong internal candidate, so that people can factor that into their expectations. I've done that in the past and never had anyone withdraw their application.

By the way, the obvious assumption is that internal candidates have a leg up because they know the people, the work, the culture, and this is true. But they may also be at a disadvantage, because the employer knows them so well that they know whatever weaknesses they bring. I've turned down internal candidates because of weaknesses that I knew about only through working with them, stuff that never would have come out in the interview process. Now, smart managers balance that knowledge against the knowledge that external candidates have hidden weaknesses too, ones that we just don't know about yet, but you can't ignore what you know.

Anyway, the point is this: Yes, sometimes companies go through the motions with external candidates, when they know all along that they're likely to hire someone internal, and that's rude and inconsiderate. But it's often that's not what's happening; often they're truly considering you. And remember, you can go through the process, have a great interview, get your hopes up, and lose out to an external candidate too -- it's just that when it's an internal candidate, it's easy to think, "Well, they must have known this all along." But maybe they didn't.

how can I get my temp job to hire me on permanently?

Two questions, one answer. The first reader writes:

I have been temping for a while and a few months ago landed a temp-to-perm gig at a financial services firm. I love the job and my coworkers and couldn't be happier. The pay is ok - tough for living in New York, but I scrape by.

The problem is, I've been living with a health problem and the whole not having insurance thing is a large issue. My parents are on the verge of filing for bankruptcy so there's no chance of finding help there. I have no siblings, and am not close with other members of my family (who have any money to spare, that is). I need insurance - preferably through a job, and soon.

I am certain my company wants to hire me - my managers have assured me so, and if I even briefly mention "going to Oklahoma" the head guy on the floor thinks I mean that I'm moving there (it was just a comment about visiting) and freaks out. But I can't wait forever, and it's really important to me that I get this health issue dealt with. I would love to stay at this company, as it's a wonderful fit for me, and I've already had the head admin on the floor push for me a couple times now. How would you suggest I broach the subject of being hired on, or at least of getting a target date? I'd prefer not to get strung along for a year or more only to find out they have no intention of hiring me, no matter how much they like me.

And the second reader writes:

I've been working for a company in a temporary position for 7 months. I was initially hired for an entry-level position, then after 2 1/2 months was promoted, with a pay raise, to a different position working for a department VP. I have much more responsibility, lots of projects, I've been given a lot of freedom to set my own schedule and even do a lot of work from home.

I really do love this job and I think I bring a lot of good qualities to the company. I'm cross-trained for a few different functions and have been providing quick results on the assigned projects.

My question is this: How can I ask if they ever intend to hire me directly? The terms of the staffing agency stated that the company couldn't hire me directly without penalty for 180 days after the assignment began. I'm now past that. I keep trying to find different ways to make myself indispensable, but being a temp makes me jumpy. Is there anything I can do besides express my interest and enthusiasm?

You guys both need to sit down and have candid conversations with your managers. Be direct. You want to say something like this: "I really love working here, and I'd really like to move into a regular staff position. But at the same time, if that's not likely to happen any time soon, I'd rather know that. Can you give me a candid assessment of how likely that is to happen so that my expectations are realistic?"

If you get vague platitudes about how they'd like to do it at some point, just hang in there, etc., then get more direct: "What needs to happen for me to move into a regular position? What is the timeline for that, and what are the next steps we could take?"

And, if you're willing to attach consequences to this, you can also add: "I want to reiterate that I love working here and staying here would be my first choice. But I need to look at other options if we don't have a path or a timeline for that, so I'm hoping to get a clear answer from you -- if not today, then very soon." But obviously, by throwing that out there, you risk them telling you to go ahead and look at other options ... but that's also an answer that will be useful to hear. (Letter-writer #1, this part applies more to you; letter-writer #2 seems more willing to stay a temp for now, whereas you have a pressing need to either go perm or move on.)

Also, letter-writer #1, it might be worth explicitly tell them that the issue is about insurance. It's possible that they're unwilling to make your position permanent right now, but that they'd be willing to give you health insurance if that would keep you. It's worth raising.

Good luck!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

should I work long hours for low pay in order to get experience?

A reader writes:

I have a question regarding my first "real" job. I recently had a second interview for a company that went really well. My interviewer and I developed a real rapport, and I think I'd really like the people I'd be working with.

The problem is, the job is really, really low pay for really, really long hours. I'm a hard worker and willing to put in time and effort, but the math works out to less than minimum wage in an expensive city. I'll probably need food stamps just to get by. And the hours - even if I wanted to get a second job tending bar or something to pay the bills, I would literally not have the time. Unless I actually didn't sleep and stayed awake through shots of Red Bull. It's long, long, hours.

My question is do I take the job if offered? I haven't had any success with my job search (the numbers are just depressing, so I'll spare you) and I would feel guilty, and somewhat desperate, if I turned down a resume-building job. I've asked several people, though, and they think the company would just be taking advantage of me.

What do you think would be the lesser of two evils? Taking the job and sucking it up for a year, or continuing my search with the chance I may not have another opportunity for quite some time?

The answer is ... I don't know. Only you can decide if what they're paying you and the experience you'd get is worth it.

But I can suggest that you see if you can turn the offer into a better one. For instance, you could tell the company that you're really excited about the work, but given the salary, you don't think you could swing those hours, since you'd need to take on side work to supplement your income. Would they be willing to let you work more reasonable hours in light of the pay? Or, in light of the hours, will they negotiate on pay? At a minimum, even if you ultimately decide to take the job as it currently stands, you want to at least ask about these things. Sometimes people are very willing to negotiate.

And if they say no to that, maybe you want to ask them if they'd consider part-time work at lower pay -- so that you're working fewer hours, leaving you time to take on other work, but you're still getting the experience that will eventually help you move on to something else.

It's completely okay to ask about these kinds of options. The answer may end up being no, but you shouldn't have qualms about raising the questions -- especially given the low pay. They may know that the pay is ridiculous but financially have no choice, and they might be relieved at some creative suggestions.

I'm also curious to know what the work is and why the pay is so low. Is the company or work prestigious? Is it a nonprofit?  Is this the market rate for this work, or is the company offering far less than other employers for similar work?  (And if you don't know if it's market rate or not, start doing some research; that's information you want to have.) 

In other words, is there some reasonable narrative explaining why the pay is what it is? There are some reasons to accept less than market rate pay, like the ones above, but you want to know that's what's going on, so you're making the choice deliberately.

Good luck!

how does everyone at work know about the job I applied for?

A reader writes:

I applied for a job with a competitor of the current company I work for. I arrived at work the next day and all my co-workers and people who don't even work with me, knew I applied for the job. Are there any privacy laws preventing this company from telling my current job that I applied there, they haven't contacted me for an interview or anything but yet my current job was put at risk because this company told them that I applied there. Please help...I feel my rights were violated as a job applicant.

It's not illegal, but it's reckless.

However, it's highly unlikely that this company called up everyone at your current company and told them you're applying for the job. What's more likely is that they talked to one person, and that one person is responsible for spreading it all over your office. 

Now, why would they talk to that one person? I suspect the most likely scenario is that the person reviewing your application saw that you currently work at Company A, and thought, "Oh, I know Bob at Company A. I'll see what he can tell me about this candidate." This kind of informal reference-checking goes on all the time -- but the assumption is that everyone involved will use discretion.  Which clearly didn't happen here -- whoever they talked to handled the information unprofessionally.

It's possible that you could get to the bottom of this by following up with the employer and asking what happened (although if you get an interview, it would be easier to ask at that point). 

I'm really sorry this happened to you!

Monday, June 14, 2010

in which I throw my life into unheaval

I resigned my job a couple of weeks ago.

I've always found it extremely bittersweet to leave any job, no matter what my experience was there, and in this case I left a job that most days I really loved.

But I left because it is time for something new.

For a while now, I've wanted to do management consulting full-time. Hiring, firing, performance coaching and assessment, role development, training, creating measurable objectives, identifying and solving problems, helping people manage up, reexamining core beliefs and attitudes that are getting in the way of doing the above well -- I know how to do it, and I have a weird, weird love of helping other people learn to do it well.

I have no idea if I can support myself this way, but I'm going to find out.

That means that I am officially open for business as a consultant. Email me if you're interested in working on something together.

P.S. If you're wondering why I'm still doing phone interviews, like I wrote about last week, and you're worrying that I have some sort of compulsion that makes me do them in my spare time -- don't worry. These were my first consulting work. Hurrah! Now bring me more.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

rejected for a job because I used the color green in my design exam

A reader writes:

I recently applied for a graphic designer job and the company rejected me for the sole reason that "my logo was green."

Originally when I applied, HR contacted me and said they were impressed with my CV and scheduled me for an interview with the company heads. However, this did not push through and I was given an exam instead.  My exam was to create a study for a logo. For my first two tries, they said my designs lacked impact but encouraged me to submit one more. For my third try, they flat out rejected me, saying, "Sorry, you did not pass. We find the color green too dull."

It was the most lame, arrogant, tactless and unprofessional reason I have ever encountered in my entire life! I mean, it would have been better if they had sent me a generic job rejection letter grabbed off the Internet. The way I was told was just something I could not accept.

Also, exams are supposed to just determine if a person has skills and potential. It was not to be used as a final material as stuff like this requires a detailed client brief and meetings to ensure that targeted design options are produced on the outset. For this exam, there were no clear instructions and I was given full creative freedom. And so what if I used green? It's only a color and for sure it's not something that cannot be corrected! And the strange thing was, the second study was actually green too, so if they hated the color green in the first place, they would have told me prior to letting me create a third one.

Not to brag but I have a very solid work experience and impressive portfolio, but apparently, these were all outweighed by the color green.

Anyway, my point is, I want to tell that lady from HR that the way she informed me was really unprofessional. Her job is simple and she can't even do it graciously. She was rude and even had the nerve to add smileys on her message. You don't send out rejection letters with smileys! I hope you can help me and give me advice on what to do. I really want to write her that letter but I'm not sure how to get started.

Don't write the letter. Put it behind you and move on.

One of the following things is going on here:

1. You were rejected because your designs didn't fit what they were looking for, not solely because you used the color green. But the HR rep heard some mention of the color and just passed that part on to you, rather than the larger explanation. This indicates lack of common sense on her part, but might make what she said more understandable.

2. Your designs didn't fit what they were looking for, but they're not designers themselves and lack the vocabulary to explain what wasn't working for them, so you ended up with this comment about green, which was only part of the story.

3. They really have a problem with the color green, and they meant exactly what they said. In this case, take a sigh of relief, because you just dodged a bullet. This is not a job you want. (It's legitimate to have color preferences for particular projects, of course, but this was an application exercise without back-and-forth to draw out the look and feel they're going for.)

So in sum, either they made a reasonable decision to reject you but it got communicated badly, or they're crazy people you don't want to work for anyway. Neither of these calls for an angry letter, and sending one wouldn't be in your interests -- you could run into someone from this company at some point in the future (someone who didn't play a role in this process but heard about it), and then you'd be the crazy guy who they remembered ranting about his rejection. That's not helpful to you.

So chalk it up as an amusing story to tell in the future, and move on.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

a recent grad success story

This is long but well worth the read, especially if you're feeling discouraged about your job search. A reader writes:

I am a loyal reader and have been since I stumbled across your blog in despair while job hunting for ANYTHING after I graduated in June of '09. I wanted to tell you an uplifting recent grad story, and it's kind of a long journey (plus, I can be wordy).

Despite my understanding of the economy, I was still getting really down about not being able to find anything at all. However, I think it was reading that you were inundated with multiple candidates you would be happy to hire that made me feel like it truly wasn't about me. So I started applying to everything I was remotely qualified for, instead of being a little picky about things like location, since I don't have a car, and eventually landed a job as a receptionist and concierge at an assisted living facility for seniors.

The pay and hours were pretty lame (including a twelve hour Sunday shift). It took me an hour by bus to get there each way. I was glad to have a job, but I was really despairing over not being able to find any job in my industry (interior design) and the overall lack of jobs in my industry. I applied for every job in my industry for which I could be considered - by even a hair's breadth - qualified, which I can count on one hand. I was excited to see a junior designer position, the first one I'd seen in the six months since I graduated, and applied. They had received over 150 resumes in the first couple days, and were only interviewing a handful of people (including me, which made me feel good). A few days after the interview, they called to tell me they had to turn the job into an internship, because their international client wasn't getting money. I really liked them and their aesthetic, so I took the internship. I worked for them for a grand total of two days before the internship disintegrated into nothing - they had to lay everyone off because their client refused to pay them for their design proposal.

I was disappointed, of course, but at this point my near misses and how terrible the economy was held a certain sort of dark humor. Then, at the beginning of March, I saw a job advertised at a company whose product I'd seen in a trade magazine and marveled at - and had no idea they were based in my city. I was really excited because I thought the product was ingenious and unparalleled and addressed an aesthetic concern in design that had been plaguing me. I applied right away...and heard nothing. In one regard, I knew they probably had a ton of applicants, but in another, I felt my mix of office experience, customer service skills, and design background made me the ideal candidate (but of course I would feel that way, right?).

A few weeks later, when I figured they weren't going to call at all, they did! I had an interview the following Monday, and they seemed to really like me and the questions I asked - they really liked the question about what distinguishes an excellent person in the position from a good one, and their answer was also very revealing. I left there feeling really good about the interview, the position, the company, and how they felt about me. I sent thank you notes to both of my interviewers the same day.

Then on Friday, I got a form email saying they chose someone else. It was a bit of a blow, just because of how I felt the interview went and their responses to my answers and questions. I also got another rejection email that day from an architecture and interior design firm who were hiring for a receptionist - they didn't even call me for a precursory phone interview.

So, as you might imagine, the last thing I wanted to do was send an email asking for feedback and saying I still wanted to work for them (which I did). But I did it anyway. If I can assess myself here, I was very classy and even wished them luck with their new hire. But I didn't hear back.

That also bummed me out, since I thought they liked me enough to at least give me feedback. A couple of weeks later, I saw the job posted again on Cragislist. I felt like I had been sucker-punched! I couldn't understand why they didn't respond to the email or call me again when they were hiring for the position - my sensors must've been way off, and they must not have really liked me all that much. But I was going to send them an email anyway, because it couldn't hurt. First, though, I had to spend the night eating cookie dough, so I didn't get to it.

The next day, just as I was steeling myself to write the email, they called me! They wanted me to come in for another interview and meet with the vice president. I went into the interview and met with two other people. Again, I thought the interview went well, but I was not going to get my hopes all the way up on cloud nine again. They said they were going to do second interviews the following week - or in my case, a third interview - and then make their decision. They called me a few days later to tell me I was their prime candidate, and they wanted me to do two days of paid job shadowing - and if it was a good fit, then the job was mine. I was totally psyched, but still all too aware that the job wasn't mine yet.

Well, it turns out that the candidate they hired before didn't work out. She had strong design skills, but lacked the necessary office computer skills - with programs like Excel and Outlook - to the extent that she needed to go through every step for every function multiple times. Because I grew up in a generation where I started using computers at age eight, not only did I have those skills, but I possessed an inherent understanding of how many computer programs are structured and the similarities they typically share. The prior candidate, however, didn't grow up in the same generation. I really do feel badly that there are job hunters out there with years of experience, but handicapped by a lack of prowess with computers not necessary before because of their skill set.

However, I wanted to email you, because after the job-turned-internship-turned-nothing, the interview, rejection, second interview, and job shadowing, I finally got the job, and am absolutely thrilled. I think it is due to a variety of things: the varied skill set many recent graduates have (and may not even realize they possess), my own natural aptitude and passion, the customer service skills I honed as a receptionist at the assisted living facility for seniors, and my gracious nature in the face of rejection - including the feedback email I never would've thought to send (or had the guts to) before I read your blog. I think your advice has been a big part of my success in this economy, in a city not especially known as a big one for interior design, and it has been invaluable to have the insight of someone on the other side of the equation. I may be the first person in my graduating class to get a design job she really wanted - as opposed to a more peripherally related one that would provide a foot in the door - and if I am, I do think it is, in part, due to your advice. So thanks, Alison!

Wow. This is awesome. Congratulations on the job, and I hope this story inspires others not to lose hope!

Friday, June 11, 2010

deathbed advice for managers

Back in November 2007, someone challenged me to list five pieces of advice I'd give to managers on my deathbed. I'm re-running that post because I like it.

1. Look for trouble. Assume things will go wrong and poke around to find out what they might be. You'll often uncover problems this way and have an earlier chance to fix them. Ask questions; don't wait for problems to come to you.

2. Do what you say you're going to do, by when you say you're going to do it, or update people accordingly. (A subset of this: Be responsive. If people have to follow up with you to get a response, you're not being responsive enough. It only takes 30 seconds to write, "I won't have time to look at this until next week." If nothing else, let people know where things stand.)

3. Ask for help when you need it. If you're overwhelmed, confused, exhausted, do not suffer in silence. A good boss will want to hear from you if you're approaching the end of your rope.

4. Be honest with your staff about the hard things. Even if you're uncomfortable addressing shortcomings, tell them where they can improve. Don't value your own comfort over their ability to grow and improve. And if deep down you don't believe they can succeed in their current position, talk honestly with them about that too.

And along the way, treat people with compassion, even in the hardest moments, like terminating someone. Don't assume anyone is stupid, insubordinate, or unmotivated; at worst, they are miscast (to steal a phrase from the great Marcus Buckingham). Truly believe this, because doing so will magically change the entire tenor of the experience for both of you.

5. You can't give too much positive feedback, as long as it's sincere. Seriously. It's like handing out chocolate. Take a minute right now to send a positive email or make a positive comment. Trust me, that email will be read over and over. You can make someone's day with only one minute of your time.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

is how I financed college any of this employer's business?

A reader writes:

A close friend applied for a job through their online resume/cover letter submission link. Then the company emailed him and asked him to fill out a separate application (which was not on their "apply now" link from their own site, but whatever). Most of the information the form requests was already answered on the resume and in the letter, but one stood out. In the section about education, it asks: "How did you finance your college education?" (This is not a company that offers tuition forgiveness, according to a current employee we know. This is not a company in the financial field, either--not banking or investments, not that I think that would matter, nor is it an educational institution.) Neither of us can figure out why this information would matter to a potential employer.

Do you think this is relevant information for a potential employer to know? Is it appropriate? Is this a usual practice--are companies doing this now? Neither of us has seen it, and we're both inclined to think that this is no one's business and irrelevant to the job, anyway. Why might a potential employer ask this? Can you think of any reasons why they might believe that they needed this information?

(The answer, by the way, is that he paid for college with a combination of loans and part-time work. He has not finished paying back the loans, though, partly because he got laid off several months ago.) 

Nope, I don't think it's appropriate to ask that on a job application.

It is interesting to know if an applicant put herself through school by working, since it's clear evidence of work ethic and drive. But it's really no one's business if you took out loans to pay for school or your parents paid or your grandmother helped out or you had scholarships.

Are they also going to ask how you financed your interview outfit? Or what you paid for your house? 

I'd love to hear a defense of this from someone.

how should employers respond to parents job-searching for their kids?

In response to a recent post on parents who job-search on their kids' behalf, one anonymous commenter left this question:
I am hiring - albeit only summer positions for teens - but have had several responses from parents on their kids behalf. I don't know how to respond. I want to contact the parent and ask them to let their kids apply, but now I am asking if this is more acceptable today when the kids are first looking for work. For young healthy teens, I don't think it's ever appropriate for a parent to find a job for their child.
I beg you, do not indulge these parents in this practice.

I recommend politely telling the parent that if the kid is interested, she should apply herself. If the parent pushes, add that you need to deal with candidates directly. Period. Do not waver.

After all, you want to be evaluating the candidate not just in the interview, but in everything throughout the hiring process -- email correspondence, how quickly a candidate responds to a contact, how well they follow application directions, etc. -- and it's not the parent you want to be evaluating.

And if the kid can't apply for a job on her own, how are you to assume she can handle the responsibility of the job itself?

There is an appropriate role for parents in helping teenage job-seekers -- but it's behind the scenes, preparing them for what to expect in an interview, explaining how a typical hiring process work, and (if they're like my mother was) pushing them to get up off the couch and go get a damn job to begin with.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

a day of phone interviews - experience it for yourself!

Today I did a slew of phone interviews for an open position and thought you guys might find it interesting to peek into the hiring process from the employer's side. This is pretty typical of how a day of phone interviews go.

The position I'm hiring for is an entry-level job, doing administrative work that isn't the most glamorous but which requires a high level of attention to detail and organization. It doesn't require related experience, although that's helpful; more important are "soft skills" like meticulousness and work ethic.

1. The first guy doesn't seem to know what the job entails, despite the job description being easily accessible online. (These were scheduled phone interviews, so he had time to prepare -- just didn't.) He's a "no."

2. The second candidate is promising, but when I tell him how quickly we're moving to fill the position, he mentions that he is in the running for other positions and not sure how fast they're moving (and this is a low-paying, entry-level job, so it's unsurprising that he'd prefer something else if he can get it). I explain that the reason we're moving so quickly is that we want someone hired while the previous person who filled the position is still there, so she can train the new person. If we hire him and then he takes a better offer a few weeks later, we'd be stuck without the predecessor around to train the next person. He's honest enough to say he'd be worried that would happen, and we agree that he'll withdraw his candidacy for this job but that I'll contact him in the future if I have something that might be a better fit. And I will -- he showed integrity by being honest and looking out for our welfare, not just his own.

3. This candidate is promising. Clear, to-the-point answers, able to describe in a compelling and intelligent way why this admittedly unglamorous job appeals to her, and talks about other detail-oriented work that she's done well at.

Also, one thing that's notable about interviewing for entry-level jobs is how few candidates have any questions of their own to ask. This doesn't surprise me too much -- knowing what questions you should ask often comes from experience in the workplace, and most of these candidates don't have a ton of workplace experience. But when someone does have good questions (meaning not just "what are the hours?"), it stands out. This candidate asks insightful questions about the work and what we're looking for and generally seems genuinely thoughtful.

I schedule her for an in-person interview.

4. Things start well, but it turns out that she isn't available until about a month after I need someone to start, so we abort the conversation.

5. Candidate #5 impresses me right away with clear, succinct answers about why she's interested in the position and her understanding of what it entails. But when I ask her what kind of feedback she's received at jobs in the past, she tells me that doesn't work well independently and prefers to be part of a group and that she's been told she needs to socialize less on the job. My heart breaks slightly.

6. Candidate #6 is overqualified for the job (has a law degree, among other overqualifications), but he convincingly explains why he wants the job anyway. Often with overqualified candidates, my concern is that they're deluding themselves about what the job really entails, but this guy speaks in clear and accurate terms about the work he'd be doing; there are no blinders on there, and he addresses my concerns head-on. I'm moving him on to an interview.

7. Candidate #7 has a decent amount of relevant experience, but his phone manner is casual to the point of being unprofessional, which alarms me. This is an entry-level job so it's not automatically prohibitive, as it would be with a higher level job, but it's a big enough strike against him that he'll be a back-up candidate, only interviewed if none of the other candidates work out.

So there you have it -- seven phone interviews. Anything surprising here, or is this pretty much what anyone would figure it would be like?

what kind of writing sample do employers want to see?

A reader writes:

I've got a question about something you've touched on in some of your posts, but never really talked about at length. Writing samples. When a job listing requests that you send in a writing sample along with your resume and cover letter, but doesn't specify a topic or style of writing, what are you supposed to write about? I'm curious because I've just come upon an ad for a position that I might otherwise have applied for, but they requested a writing sample and I have no idea what to send them.

Things not to send them: A 20-page paper from a college class. Something you wrote but that was heavily edited by someone else, until it no longer reflects your own writing. Blog posts featuring highly inappropriate personal details.

Ideally, you're using a writing sample that you already have, rather than writing something fresh (unless they specifically assign you something to write about). For instance, I used to use old articles I'd written; op-eds, if you've ever written one, are perfect for this. But if you don't have anything already existing, I'd create something specifically for your job search (which you can use with many different employers).

Of course, the ideal writing sample varies by job. If you're applying for a PR job, send a sample press release. If you're applying for a legal job, they want to see an excerpt of a legal brief or something similar. But if the type of writing you should send isn't obvious, something in the style of an op-ed or a case study is good (again, even if you need to write it specifically for this use). But in all cases, what's most important is that it be clear and concise and showcase your ability to write well.

And while it's great if you can use a sample directly related to the job, quality matters more. Pick an unrelated, stronger sample over a related but weaker sample.

And whatever you do, don't overwhelm them with a massive tome. In most fields, employers are looking for something around 2-5 pages (although some fields, like law, wanted slightly longer ones). It's fine to send just an excerpt from something longer.

Good luck!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

should I call out an HR person for lying to me?

A reader writes:

I recently applied for a city government communications position for which I was perfectly qualified. They asked me last minute to fly out for a four-person panel interview and even went as far as rearranging the panel date so that I could make it, even after I suggested an initial Skype interview at their original time to ensure neither of us wasted time if I was not a proper fit. All in all, I spent hundreds of dollars out of pocket to fly there last minute, rearranged my professional schedule, took a vacation day and completed an at-home lengthy written exam, in addition to a 45-minute writing sample on-site before the grueling interview process (in which one of the consultant from another city who was helping guide them on hiring this new position kept yawning, looking away and even left the room in the middle of the interview for several minutes).

When all was said and done, I had to follow up multiple times over the span of weeks (they kept saying the decision was being delayed) before finally being told "we decided to go with someone who is already in a similar city government position." That is fine and I gracefully understood that... at least until I found out who they hired. They hired someone who I use to work with at a previous company and even helped train for the position they currently hold. Since I previously worked in that role, I know for a fact it is not a city government role and that I definitely have more qualified experience, having currently worked with over 30 different city government communities simultaneously. So not only did the company I interview with lie to me as to why I was rejected, they hired someone who in my opinion (from personally knowing the person they hired) is not qualified for the position at all.

Should I say something to the HR person who lied to me? I want to maintain a professional attitude and take rejection with poise but really feel unethical about not calling them out on a lie.

What do you get out of saying something? It might make you feel better to say something, but it definitely won't help you maintain relationships with anyone there. 

Moreover, and maybe more importantly, you don't actually know that the HR person lied. For all we know, they planned to hire a different candidate, one who did already work in a similar position, but that person fell through for one reason or another, and then they ended up going with the person you know. Or the HR person just had her information wrong, but it wasn't an intentional lie. 

Or maybe you're right and she did lie to you, presumably because she thought it would make the rejection go down more easily. That's misguided, for sure, and kind of lame, but there's nothing unethical about just shaking your head and moving on.

I get the sense that what you're actually frustrated about is that you put all that time and even money into going through their hiring process, and they rejected you in favor of someone who you think is far less qualified than you. And maybe she is. And yes, that's frustrating. But you have to remember that they hired her over you for a reason. And sure, maybe that reason is something shady (like she's friends with someone involved in the decision, or whatever), but it's also likely that the reason is legitimate -- that you had a different idea of what they wanted for the role than they had, or she has strengths you don't know about or aren't acknowledging, or that you're overlooking a significant weakness of your own for the role, or that you were a bad cultural fit and she was a great one. Who knows? This is why guessing games about why you didn't get a job and someone else did are fruitless: Because you're always left with the fact that, no matter how much you disagree, the employer, who generally knows the needs of the job better than you do, made the decision that they felt was in their best interests.

My advice is to move on -- and remember, the job you really want is the one that's excited to get you.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

my mom is embarrassing me with my boss

A reader writes:

My mother and my boss are casual email acquaintances. They've also met in person, and my boss has given her some contract work over the last few months I've been here. So they have a relationship that is not-friendly but not quite professional either. I don't mind that he gives her work, because she's job-seeking and could use the cash, and he's a laid-back guy who is willing to help my family any way he can. That's not my issue at all.

My birthday was on Saturday of last week (the 29th). Today, I went into my mother's email at her request to find something for her while she was away from home. I got what she needed, and then happened to notice a gmail snippet between her and my boss (you can see the beginnings of conversations in gmail without opening the actual email) in which she actually REMINDED HIM that my birthday was on Saturday. I must confess, I opened the email at that point, because it concerned me. 

His reply was short but cordial ("I know, I'm taking her to lunch next week."), and he hasn't mentioned anything to me, but GOOD LORD. I am really embarassed, because I feel like this made me look entirely unprofessional and I think my mother overstepped her boundaries here. I asked her to PLEASE not do that again (and yes, I told her I read the email and she wasn't upset about that), but I'm wondering, should I apologize to my boss for my mother putting him in what seemed to be a "aren't you going to remember my baby's special day" position?

Please advise - I am TRULY embarassed over this one!

Don't freak out too much. As long as you're you're professional and mature, your boss is going to be smart enough to separate you from your mom. But if it will give you peace of mind, you can tell him you were mortified when you found out about this; he'll tell you not to worry, and then if your mom does do anything like this again, he'll have it in his head that you are Not On Board With It.

But you also need to sit down with your mother and have a serious talk about professional boundaries. Ask her to handle her relationship with her boss as if he doesn't know you. No references to you, zero. (This is actually slightly overkill, but since she's already overstepped the boundaries once -- that you know of -- it's not unreasonable.)

Now, this would work on some mothers and wouldn't work at all on others. If your mother doesn't take you seriously, I'm not sure what else you can do, short of threatening to call her boss at her next job and ask him/her to remind your mom to take her calcium supplements or something.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

can I ask my CEO to fund my side business?

A reader writes:

I work in an online marketing company. It is a small startup company and it feels like a family. The partners, CEO, and managers are great. I came up with a business idea that will be in a market that is totally different than the company. I want to pursue this on the side and it won't interfere with my work at the company.

Would it be a bad idea if I pitch it to the CEO to try to get some funding for my side business? I just don't want people to think that I don't like working there or am thinking about leaving. It seems like a risky move but the CEO is so well connected that it is tempting to pitch it to him. 

First let me say that, as always, my advice here is based just on the facts you've given me. You may know things about your relationships and office culture that should direct you differently. That said, I think it's a bad idea, for a couple of reasons:

1. You'll be putting your CEO in a really awkward position. This isn't asking someone to buy your kid's cookies for a school fundraiser; it's asking for substantial sums of money. I would be very uncomfortable with an employee asking me that. And I think it's highly unlikely that he'd say yes, since doing so would impact his primary relationship with you (making him your investor, not just your boss), and possibly even pose a conflict of interest. He needs to be able to manage you as your boss, not as someone with a financial stake in an unrelated side project of yours.

Of course he can just say no, but then you're going to be the guy who had the poor judgment to think this was a good idea.

2. The start-ups I've known have required so much focus and commitment from their employees that it's hard for me to think you could start your own side business without cutting into what's expected, or without at least raising that concern. They're going to assume that at a minimum, your focus will be split.

They're going to think this anyway, even without you hitting up the CEO -- but by pitching him for funding, you'll confirm that you are indeed going to be bringing it in the office.

I'm curious what others think though. Anyone ever done this successfully or think it's a good idea?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

should my boss proactively email a prospective employer to recommend me?

A reader writes:

I'm applying for a job in research at a big university, and a career coach gave me the following advice: in addition to submitting my resume and cover letter through the online system, I should also have my current boss (principle investigator) email the hiring manager with a short and sweet "hey, my assistant applied for the position of research assistant, she's very capable and skilled, etc. let me know if you have questions." He said to cc the lead research scientist on this as well (who does hold sway in the hiring process-it's his lab, after all). 

My boss said she'd be happy to do that, but expressed hesitation at emailing someone she doesn't know with information about someone they don't know. Should we do it, or is it just another annoyance to the hiring manager and I should let me resume and c.l. speak for themselves? Are there rules for this sort of thing in higher ed hiring vs. the business world?

It's absolutely worth doing if the email is going to really rave about you. If it's going to sound generic or tepid (which hopefully you can figure out from your relationship with your boss and her personality), skip it.  

I've done this for a small number of people before -- employees who I thought were absolutely amazing -- and as far as I know, each time I did it, they ended up getting an interview. 

But I've also been on the receiving end of this where the boss's letter just wasn't that enthusiastic -- reading more like a generic letter of reference that the boss had written as a favor. Those don't work. In order for it to be successful, the note has to give the reader the sense that the boss considers you truly above and beyond, that she feels she's doing the employer a favor by tipping them off to you. Every boss is searching for rock stars -- if the letter conveys that that's who you are, any smart hiring manager is going to be excited to take a longer look at you.

Which means that your boss needs to (a) really feel that way about you and (b) be capable of conveying that in an email. If she considers you average or the letter sounds like she does, it doesn't really get you anywhere ... but it's also still not rude for her to reach out on your behalf, so she shouldn't hesitate on that account.

Of course, one of the reasons it works is that so few people do it, so it stands out. If everyone learns this secret and starts doing it, it'll probably dilute the impact.