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Thursday, September 30, 2010

should I work for free to get experience?

A reader writes:

I'm an engineer with a technical job in the pharmaceutical industry. However, I really want to work as an engineer at a large corporation that produces chocolate and confectionery products. I have some relevant training and plenty of transferable skills, but no direct experience in the food or confectionery industry. 

I am currently working with a career advisor who suggested that I should volunteer at the particular companies that I'm interested in, with the goal of getting hired for a paid position. I have no problem with volunteering to gain experience. However, I'm concerned that I will come off as desperate by asking for an unpaid technical position at a large, for-profit corporation. It's a different story if internships are available, but I rarely meet the criteria because I've been out of university for a few years. I would think that there are also legal issues, trust issues (who wants to reveal the trade secrets to a volunteer?), never mind that most for-profit companies aren't set up for volunteers. At the same time, it seems like it would be a good opportunity for me to gain experience and visibility. Do you think it's worthwhile (or even possible) to approach a company for an unpaid technical position?

There are so many issues here -- starting with the fact that your career advisor might be full of crap. I don't have enough details to say with confidence, but I'm questioning her assertion that you need experience in the food or confectionery industry to work as an engineer in it. (Any engineers want to back me up or refute me?)

But to your direct question, yes, there are problems with volunteering for a for-profit corporation. With the exception of nonprofits, the Department of Labor requires that unpaid work be primarily for the benefit of the volunteer, not the employer. And if it's not, they can reclassify you as an employee and require the employer to pay back wages for all the work you did.

Now, do companies violate this rule all the time? Yes. (Although the Department of Labor is supposedly cracking down on it.) But a smart company or a company with an alert HR or legal department isn't going to mess with this.

I think you'd be far better off making contacts at this (delicious-sounding) confectionery company you want to work at and seeing what their advice is for you. And I am going to view your career advisor with great skepticism until/unless someone corrects me.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

help, my bullying ex-boss is out of control

A reader writes:

A year ago, I took a part time job while my daughter was at school. It was for a pet-sitting company walking dogs. I was an independent contractor. While I knew the owner was passive-aggressive, I learned to just limit my contact and did what I had to do and developed a loyal group of clients who routinely called requesting me for their dogs. I was up-front with my boss that I had a chronic disease  (Crohn's) that required me to go into the hospital for treatment on a regular basis, but I made sure it never impacted my job.

Fast forward a year. The manager of the company goes on medical leave and my boss asks if I want to fill in for the manager. I was made an employee, my hours were to be 9-6 Monday to Friday. The old manager e-mails to say she does not want to come back. I was not asked if I liked the job and wanted to keep it, it was just assumed that I was keeping it.

Long story short, in a month I lose 20 pounds, my health plummets, I am working 6:30am-10pm 7 days a week. I was making $900 for 2 weeks of work. My doctors demand that for my health I have to quit. I notify my boss. Her husband calls and start trying to bully me that don't I understand that this is a $350k a year business, how could I do this to them? Wasn't our relationship better than this? 

I have barely been gone a week and I am still receiving emails to my personal account and phone calls to my home, some of it work-related, like do I know about this client, or non-work related, like if her sunglasses are at my house. She has everything, the problem is she does not want to actually do the work and actually look for the information.

Since this is not a contract that I had to be let off of or anything even remotely close and she has all the information at her fingertips if she actually wants to take the time to look it up herself, she is just choosing to harass me knowing that I am supposed to be seeing my doctors, taking new medications, and getting extra treatments in the hopes of not forcing my husband to have to get an emergency transport back from Baghdad (where he is stationed) because I couldn't tell her to take a hike sooner.

Do I have any legal rights in Virginia to tell her to stop contacting me?

Uh, yes. You are not in perpetual servitude to her just because you once worked for her. You don't work for her anymore, and she has NO rights to your time. None. This woman is taking advantage of you. Stop allowing it, today.

Email her and say that you need to focus exclusively on your health and you can't return any more calls or emails. You can add that your doctors have told you to eliminate stress in your life (as stress is a huge factor in Crohn's), and you must ask her to stop contacting you while you focus on recovering.

Or, if you want to be less direct, say that you're leaving town for several weeks and will no longer be reachable.

Then program your email so her messages go straight to your trash and you don't have to deal with the headache of seeing them.

Update: As I was partway through writing this, I received the following update from the letter-writer:

I just got a voice mail from my former boss telling me that I would not be getting my last check since I told her I would be having a lawyer review the termination papers she sent since they clearly stated that I had to initial a line stating that I did already have the opportunity to have my lawyer review them.

Figures. But she doesn't have the option of just deciding not to pay you. Send her a brief email explaining that Virginia law (Va. Code § 40.1-29) requires that a final paycheck be issued to a resigning employee no later than the next scheduled payday. Furthermore, an employer who violates the law is guilty of a misdemeanor (or a felony for subsequent convictions) and a fine of up to $1,000, plus interest to you on the overdue wages.

Send her an email noting the above and saying that you hope she won't force the issue, since you would rather not cause her that hassle, but that if you don't receive your check on time, you'll have no choice but to contact the Virginia Department of Labor in order to enforce the law. Tell her that if you haven't heard from her with 48 hours, you will file a complaint with the DoL. (And then email me again and I'll do it for you, because you don't need the stress.)

This woman is an ass. I'm glad you're not working for her anymore.

informational interview when you've already applied for a job

A reader writes:

I recently applied for a job with a closing date of a week and a half ago. A colleague of mine also applied to this organization (for a different position) and was told by a representative from this organization at a career fair today that the best way to "keep himself in the running" was to email the department he was applying to and ask for a 20-30 minute informational interview. I've always thought that an informational interview was only for when you weren't directly asking for a job, not once you've already applied.

Should I follow my colleague's tip and email the department I've applied to, or would I ruin my chances by requesting a short informational interview?

That's really odd. You're right; informational interviews are normally not for when you're applying for a particular job, but rather for learning about a field you're new to or otherwise want an insider point of view on. (Of course, lots of people try to use them as a back door to a job, but that's a different rant.) And if a candidate asked for an informational interview while also being considered for a job, it wouldn't come across much differently than "I'd like to schedule my job interview now, please."

So either this company has an unusual way of doing things (which is entirely possible), or the person who advised your colleague didn't really know what she was talking about (also entirely possible). Either way, your colleague should take the advice -- since it very well might be good advice for this company -- but should specifically say that Jill Smith or whoever advised him to request the meeting. That way, if Jill Smith was misinformed, the employer won't blame your friend.

You're in a different boat though. First, you can't attribute your request to Jill Smith, because she didn't make the recommendation to you. And second, Jill Smith's advice might have been specific to the department your friend is applying to. So then you're back to it normally being a really weird request in the middle of an application process. Thus, I would err on the side of safety and proceed as if your friend had never told you this -- i.e., don't ask for the informational interview.

Anyone want to argue this one differently?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

over-sharing in your out-of-office messages

A reader writes:

I work in R&D for the computer industry, where technical staff have few meetings with customers and generally are given a fairly flexible schedule. It's not uncommon for people to send to a broad team mailing list (~20-50 people) messages like:

"I'll be in around 10:30. The contractors are just starting to pour the new foundation this morning." 

"Leaving early at 4. I need to take my kid to the dentist."

Now first, I really don't think the details of why you're going to be away from the office are important. We're all adults here. We trust you to make good decisions on what constitutes a good reason to be gone. Besides, work hours are flex. If you take off a couple hours in the morning or evening one day, maybe you do some more work later that day, or sometime in the next week.

But what I take the biggest exception to is the lack of discretion when deciding on what to send in a mass email to the team. Sure, you should let your direct manager know, and any core people that you work with very closely who might be looking for you. But to send it to the entire team seems overkill. Seriously, what are the odds that someone other than your manager or your closest co-workers will need you while you're out? Especially in the era of smartphones.

Back when I managed people, I used to tell my employees to just block the time off on their calendar and make sure that at least I had their cell number. Seriously, you don't see people sending messages like "I'm going to be in a 2 hour strategy meeting this morning, but I'll be out by 10:30 if anyone needs me." If the time you're out of the office is about as long as a meeting you might be in while at work, I don't think you really need to tell anyone your plans.

Ok, so it's not really a question. More of a recurring situation that I've seen at every company I work at. What are your thoughts on this situation?

Before anyone complains that this is too nitpicky, let me say: Nitpicky stuff can be fascinating, and I think this is a perfect example of it. No, you don't want your company to issue policies and directives about things at this micro of a level, but it's interesting to dissect nonetheless, especially when you enjoy over-thinking things (as many of us do).

I agree that the reasons you're going to be away aren't relevant. What's relevant is simply that you will be away. And yes, sometimes even that is overkill. As you point out, at least in cultures like yours, a good rule of thumb for people who aren't regularly looking for you or aren't your boss is, "If the time you're out of the office is about as long as a meeting you might be in while at work, you don't really need to tell anyone your plans."

Sometimes the over-sharing of plans can even come across as suspect -- similar to how when someone's calling in sick with genuine illness, they usually just say, "I'm going to be out sick," but fakers will generally give you a long list of overly specific symptoms, like they feel they have to convince you.

On the other hand, sometimes it's interesting to hear that your colleague is remodeling his kitchen or taking his kid to her first day of school.

But it can become too much. I used to work with a guy who used to all-staff his every move: "I'm running some errands after lunch and will probably be back by 2:30 but it might be 3:00."  "I'm leaving 15 minutes early today, so see Dan with any end-of-the-day questions." "I'm going to be on a conference call about our new report all morning." It got to the point where I started to expect to receive, "I'm headed to the bathroom. Probably back in 5 minutes, but it might be 10."

And then there are the self-aggrandizers. Another guy I used to work with was notorious for messages like this: "I'll be late today because I pulled an all-nighter getting our new ad ready."  He claimed to have "pulled" so many "all-nighters" that people generally assumed he was either (a) lying in a bizarre attempt to inflate his image or (b) really, really inefficient. 

Overall, though, I'd argue that this kind of thing adds entertainment to the day. You're best off simply appreciating its amusement value and not getting too annoyed by it.

(By the way, for people who enjoy analyzing this sort of minutiae, the Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece about overly-personal auto-replies.)

how to answer employer's worry about your previous self-employment

A reader writes:

I just called a hiring manager to see what the status of my application is. He informed me that I made it to the next round, but that his concerns about hiring me stem from the fact that I have been self-employed for the past five years, and he is not sure how I will settle into a strict 9-5 job where I have to answer to other people. What is the best way to address his concern during the next interview?

To some extent, the best answer to this stems from your own thoughts on his question. Why do you think that shouldn't be a concern for him? For instance, maybe working for yourself has given you a ton of insight into the burdens and challenges of being a manager, and you expect to be especially sensitive to and empathetic about that once you have a manager again. Or maybe you'd absolutely thrilled to work a 9-5 schedule, after years of having to work at all hours to drum up business for yourself, and can't wait to get back into a more traditional routine. Maybe you're more business-minded than ever after being in a position where you were entirely dependent on your own efforts to generate income.

Basically, the employer is seeking to make sure that you're not going to have problems accepting someone else's management and management style, and that you're not going to realize that you hate the switch after a few weeks on the job.

How do you feel about having a boss again, and working a more traditional schedule in a more traditional setting? Your answer lies in there.

Monday, September 27, 2010

should you point out a typo when applying for a job?

In a comment on an earlier post, one commenter asked whether it's helpful to point out proofreading errors in a job post:

Should an applicant point out the typo and suggest if they were in the job last week, they would have caught it before the ad went live?

I've seen this done well, and I've seen it go horribly wrong. I've also heard people argue that it presents you as detail-oriented -- and others argue that it presents you as pompous.

I think it's fairly hard to pull off well, and potentially risky, but in the cases where I've seen it work, the applicant was sort of charming about it -- not pompous or know-it-all-ish, but had more of an attitude of "I'm sure this is a mistake no one noticed and I figured you'd want to know," maybe even with a little humor thrown in.

But again, you need to be careful.

I once had an applicant tell me a comma was misplaced when it wasn't. (Serial comma, how I love you.) If you're going to point out a mistake in this context, you really want to make sure that you're right.

What do you think? Would you be impressed or annoyed if an applicant did this?

calling on readers again: lazy coworker in a medical setting, with tenure

Our earlier experiment with throwing a reader's question out to other readers to answer was a huge success (who knew so many of you are librarians?), so let's try another one:

I am a pediatrician in a training program at a medical school to become a specialist. One of the faculty members of our division refuses to answer his pager or phone when he is on-call for our specialty service. He is on-call about one week out of five. He does not answer pages from the emergency department, the residents working on the wards, the clinic, nor does he answer his cell phone or home phone. As a result, I am frequently called whenever (which is usually) he doesn’t answer the pager or phone. Bear in mind that these calls are almost always regarding the care of one of our patients. Numerous written complaints have been sent from the emergency department and others to the chairman of our department regarding this issue. Additionally, several people have complained to the chief of our division (who reports to the chairman).

The response has always been that this person would be “talked to,” which has resulted in no change in his behavior. He also does not complete all of the chart documentation for many of his patients (such as writing the drug prescribed and the dosage). Our clinic starts at 8:00 pm and he does not arrive until 10:00 am, which he always blames on traffic. I have spoken numerous times to our division chief, who tells me he can’t do anything because this person is tenured.

I feel that many patients are having their care compromised by this person’s actions (or inaction). I have tried to speak with him personally about the issue and told him how difficult it makes it for other people to do their jobs and to assure that people are receiving appropriate care. I think I was very calm and kind during the discussion, but he got mad at me, threw a fork on the ground, and started cursing. He is 63 years old and keeps saying he wants to retire, but he needs to get his 401K built up, so he may be here another 10 years. Other people who have worked here for a long time tell me this behavior is not new; he has “always been this way” and he’s worked here for 25 years.

I am leaving soon because my training will be complete, but I feel guilty leaving without seeing that something is done to prevent people from getting sloppy care, or in some instances no care. Do you have any suggestions?

I am a big believer in the principle that if your manager won't manage -- and if no one above him/her is willing to force the issue -- there's very little you can do, and you need to either resign yourself to the problems continuing or leave for a new spot where managers are willing to do their job. This question brings a new spin though, because it involves patient care and tenure. I'd love to hear from readers with experience working in medical settings -- or from anyone else who wants to weigh in. What's your advice? 

loads of career advice without leaving your couch

If you're in the job market, this is something you should know about: the Career Summit.

The Career Summit is an virtual career conference that lasts for three weeks (October 26 - November 17). If you're like me and hate leaving your house, the greatest thing about it is that you don't even have to leave your couch -- the entire thing is virtual. You buy a ticket and then you get access to more than a dozen live webcasts on different career management topics, with Q&A, as well as access to the recorded archives of each session. 

I'm presenting a session on everything you need to know about moving into nonprofit work. Other presenters include Laurie Ruettimann, Mary Ellen Slayter, Anita Bruzzese, Alexandra Levitt, Alison Doyle, Susan Joyce, and lots of other career experts, plus recruiting staffers from Microsoft, Starbucks, and Facebook.

If you register now, you'll get early bird pricing of $99 (regular price is $199). 

Agree that this is kind of awesome? Get more info and sign up here.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

guilt over leaving team behind as I leave a toxic workplace

A reader writes:

I've been in a fairly toxic workplace for two years, and in one week I'm finally done with my contract and am moving on to greener, and saner pastures. This is all well and good, except I'm leaving behind a small team of people who I've grown very close to while I've managed them.

And I know things are about to get much, much worse for them at work.

The company is in trouble financially, which we all know: it was used as an excuse to downsize, move us to tiny offices, increase unpaid overtime, not give raises, bonuses or paid leave, etc. We've all pulled together to make that work because we loved what we do. We used to have a really incredibly bad owner, who recently sold the company to her partner and fled: we're still uncovering the mess she made of things. I'm the manager, and as such even though I'm leaving, I'm still being called into meetings about the future of the company. This makes me nervous on a couple of levels as I never want to be accused of taking company secrets to my new employer, and I'd really rather prefer if they DIDN'T have the money talks in front of me, but I'm not quite sure how to make that stop- I'm still here, doing my job, for one more week (I gave 3 months notice), and part of my job is planning for the future. It also means I'm privy to things my team is not- like further plans to downsize, or that they're planning on moving another company also owned by our new owner into our small workspace. 

Our direct manager as well is feeling the pressure, and with the prospect of me leaving, has started to make some changes to the workplace that I feel will be detrimental, to the work, the culture, and the team I'm leaving behind. Add to that that I found and hired my replacement, who I'm now worried is going to get burned by all this, and I'm feeling incredibly guilty and confused.

My question: what can I do for them? Do I have a responsibility to stick my nose in all this mess that is going to come raining down as of Monday (my last day is Friday) or does my leaving mean I can't have anything to do with it? Is there some trick to just washing your hands and moving on?

Okay, some principles to keep in mind about all this:

1. It is normal in a situation like this to feel guilty that you're jumping off a (possibly) sinking ship and leaving people behind you. But these are adults who are getting plenty of signals themselves about what's going on. The downsizing, the smaller offices, the halting of paid leave (!), the fleeing owner -- your coworkers may not have all the same information you do, but they have enough to understand that the situation isn't secure or stable. Anyone who is shocked by further downsizing in that context and didn't see it coming was almost willfully not paying attention. So you don't need to struggle with whether you need to sound an alarm for them -- the situation is already warning them. They may not know the specifics that you know, but they know the situation isn't good, and they're making their own calculations accordingly.

2. And that's good, because you really can't share confidential information that your job makes you privy to. This is the nature of some jobs; you signed up for a job that would expose you to internal decision-making and you agreed to keep it confidential. That stuff is not always easy, especially when you're learning about things that will affect your coworkers, but there's no exception in the confidentiality provision for "when it becomes hard."

3. What you can do is talk to people in ways that don't violate your confidentiality obligations, particularly since your own departure provides an obvious context. So if a coworker expresses uncertainty to you about whether they should be job-searching themselves, you can point out that in an unstable situation like your company is currently in, it's always smart to line up options. And particularly for the people you manage, I could even argue that part of the job means having a final talk with them about their career plans before you head out. Ask questions, listen, and give advice. Just don't violate your confidentiality obligations.

4. You can also strongly advise your manager to be as transparent as possible with the staff about what's going on. You can direct her to information about managing downsizing well; there's a lot out there that argues that being open and transparent is the key to recovering from periods like this. She should read it, and you should push her to. (Whether she does or not is ultimately up to her, but you can strongly advise it.)

5. Similarly, regarding your manager making changes that you see as detrimental, all you can do is give the best counsel you can. Make your case for why these changes would be harmful and offer alternatives. Tell her you feel strongly, if you do. But from there, it's up to her. You've done all you can do, and you shouldn't beat yourself up for not being able to somehow stop her.

6. Regarding your concern that they're continuing to involve you in meetings and you're worried about being accused of taking company secrets to your new employer -- they know you're leaving. They're freely sharing information with you (probably because part of your job is to be involved in this sort of planning and they still want your expertise). I don't think you need to worry about later accusations.

I know a lot of people's response to all this would be, "It's no longer your problem." And to some extent that's true, and you're probably going to feel like that in a month or two. But this in-between period -- when you're on way out but not quite out yet -- is really hard.

Update: After I wrote this response, I received this P.S. from the letter-writer:

I should also mention that my direct manager hasn't been handling this too well either. I've attempted to make a few suggestions/comments about her proposed changes I think aren't a good idea, and the general response has been something like we need to do these things in order to stay solvent (not necessarily true) and that if I want my end-of-service benefits, vacation payout, and all the other end of contract payout stuff that I'm entitled to, we have to do x, y, or z. So basically, all of the really brutal stuff that's about to happen is happening because I wanted what was contractually promised to me so I can leave. There's a lot of guilt going on right now. 

No, it's not happening because you want what was contractually promised to you. It's happening because the owner of the company mismanaged things. And I don't buy that fulfilling their obligations to you -- which sound pretty standard and not extravagant -- will be what triggers brutal cuts elsewhere. I think that's BS, unless your end-of-service benefits are equivalent to an entire salary or two, which I strongly doubt. Your manager is telling you that out of frustration or in an outright attempt to guilt you into giving some of them up. This is a contractual obligation, the company is obligated to fulfill it, and their mismanagement is on their hands, not yours.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

there's a high likelihood that your job postings suck

Someone recently sent me this link to a job posting as an example of a company that finally got a job ad right. What's awesome about this ad is that you can actually read it and understand what the job is all about. There's no incomprehensible jargon, no sentences that sound like they were lifted out of a poorly-written internal processes manual at the most bureaucratic company imaginable. It's just ... someone normal talking about what the job is like, who would be good at it, and why you might like it.

In other words, it's both everything a job ad should be and the exact opposite of what most job ads are like.

To illustrate my point, here are some real quotes from the first page of search results I pulled up on Monster for jobs in my area:
"Develop and leverage key relationships with stakeholders that enable collaboration across the enterprise"
"Coordinate with applicable business areas to define/implement remediation activities"
"Design, develop and manage proprietary Electronic Data Capture (EDC) system's electronic Case Report Forms (CRFs) and implement Case Report Forms that adhere to company standard operating procedures"
Do these excite you?

Job descriptions like these are a sign that someone in that company has lost sight of the whole point of a job posting.

When you're advertising for a new hire, a job posting is a marketing document. You're trying to attract people who will be excited about the work; potential candidates shouldn't have to wade through heavy jargon and overused buzzwords to try to figure out what the job is all about.

The great mystery of all this is that most managers can talk enthusiastically and compellingly about a role they’re hiring for, but for some reason all that life gets drained out of the job posting. Managers need to start refusing to let jobs on their team be represented by deadly dull, dense, and semi-incomprehensible job descriptions.

I'm hereby proclaiming three principles of writing job descriptions that don't suck:

1. Stop losing sight of the fact that your job posting is a marketing document, something that needs to, you know, market the job. You want good people to imagine what it would be like to work in this role, at this organization, with these people -- and to be excited about it.

2. Drop the jargon. And there are no extra points for using extra words. You should write in clear, simple language that someone outside your organization would easily understand. And it's fine -- even desirable -- to be relatively informal. Don't write "the communications manager is responsible for all communications-oriented operations for external audiences" when you can write "the communications manager runs the show when it comes to public outreach."

3. Figure out why someone would be enthusiastic about the job, and talk about that. Maybe the position is an opportunity to change the lives of students, or a chance to be mentored by a successful leader, or an opportunity to work with cutting-edge technology. Say so or candidates won't know.

In other words, talk like a normal person and think like the candidate you're looking for.

Friday, September 24, 2010

should you tape-record job interviews?

A reader writes:

I have two related questions that I'd be interesting in getting your take on:

First, is it common for interviewers to record the interview so others can listen to it who would be affected by the hire but were unable or uninterested in interviewing? Would that be helpful, do you think, to the hiring process, or just nerve-wracking?

Also, do you think it would be considered weird for a person coming in to be interviewed to request to record the conversation? After all, these are two parties discussing a possible partnership, so it seems reasonable that someone being interviewed should record the conversation. But again, would that be helpful for candidates trying to determine which offer to accept?

First, on interviewers recording the interview: It's definitely not common; I've never heard of it being done, in fact, although I'm sure that somewhere out there, some company is doing it. And probably making many of their candidates significantly more nervous in the process.

On the question of the candidate asking to record the interview: First, let me note that I'm answering this in terms of how employers are likely to react, not necessarily how they should react, so I don't want anyone haranguing me in the comments about how I should be more accommodating of a perfectly reasonable request from a candidate.

The reality is, I think it would make most employers very, very uncomfortable, since they'd worry the intent was adversarial in some way -- i.e., the candidate thought they might do something illegal and wanted to capture that on tape (or simply use the the presence of the tape recorder to deter it), or use the recording later to say "you said the job would include X, Y, and Z, and never mentioned I'd also be doing W."  

Unfortunately, while there could be a perfectly innocent motivation to ask to record -- the one you suggest -- it's so outside the normal range of interview behavior that asking it would be close to announcing, "I'm litigious and/or high maintenance."

And even though the majority of employers have no intention of screwing you over, legally or otherwise, they'd still worry about this, because no one wants to hire an adversarial, litigious, or high-maintanence employee.

(I suppose someone might have a disability for which recording for later playback was a useful accommodation, but that's about the only time I can see most employers being comfortable with it.)

In both of the cases you ask about -- the employer recording or the candidate recording -- I think it's one of those things that might be reasonable and useful in theory but is so far outside the convention of what's normally done that it would be very hard to do it without making people uncomfortable. Sort of like how it might be useful if you could ask your boyfriend if you can record your break-up conversation so you can reflect on it later, but it would likely make him think you were slightly crazy.

Anyone ever try asking to record an interview?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

what's the goal of multiple 30-minute interviews?

A reader writes:

I recently applied for a support position at an academic institution. The phone interview went well and I was invited to come in for an in-person interview. The interview is scheduled for 2 hours and 15 minutes and consists of two thirty-minute interviews with high level researchers, two thirty- minute interviews with HR staff, and one 15 minute interview with an Executive Assistant. 

A succession of five interviews with five different people crammed into two hours and fifteen minutes does not seem like enough time to have a thorough, two-way conversation with each person. In my experience with job interviewing, the interviews have always been for a longer amount of time and with fewer people. Can you please tell me a little bit about what is expected from rapid, thirty-minute interviews and what the goal of these conversations should be?

Yeah, they're not going to be able to do an in-depth assessment. They're just going to be able to have five people get a general sense of what you're like, whether you seem initially crazy or not (which is always more of a concern than you might think), and whether they have a generally positive response to you. They're not going to learn much about your skills or experience that they haven't already learned from your resume.

This isn't that uncommon though. In fact, I'd say that more employers lack rigorous hiring processes than have them -- which is why so many employers end up hiring the wrong people.

Your goal in all this should be to be pleasant, to be prepared to answer basic interview questions multiple times, and to ask your own questions so you can get enough of a sense of the job and the culture that you can determine whether you'd be a good fit -- since they're probably not going to be equipped to do that for you.

contacting the person who used to have the job you're applying for

A reader writes:

On Monday, I'm going into a first face-to-face interview (after a phone interview) for a job for which I am well qualified and would be thrilled to have. I'd like to tap into your wisdom about a strategy I want to employ to prepare for the interview.

In my research on the position and the organization, I discovered the name and current employer of my would-be predecessor and I'd like to email her to ask a few questions about the position, office culture and expectations placed on her while she worked there. According to her LinkedIn profile, she just left the position for her new job this month.

Am I overstepping my bounds? Would this be too big an imposition on this person? If she were to inform the potential employer of my inquiry, would it be seen as nosy snooping or would it be a testament to my interest and enthusiasm for the position as well as my research skills?

Can I guarantee that no employer will find this nosy or overstepping? No. But I think the majority would see it as evidence of your genuine interest in the job.

The key, however, is in how you do it. What you don't want to do is contact this woman and ask generic, stilted-sounding questions that sound like you're pulling them from some list you found of "questions to ask your predecessor." That comes across as "I was told this would be a good idea and now I'm imposing on your time so that I can check an item off my job-search list."

 So you want to ask real questions that you honestly are curious to hear her answer to.  And you should also confine yourself to questions that you specifically want to hear her take on, not questions that you'll get answered at the interview anyway. 

At the same time, of course, you shouldn't get too candid. You don't want to ask anything with a negative bent at this stage; make sure you really pay attention to what the questions might signal about you.

Let us know how this goes!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

how interviewers can screen out candidates who will have attendance problems

In response to a previous post from someone frustrated that her co-worker is chronically absent, one commenter asked:

If anyone has suggestions on how to screen for this issue of not-showing up for work, please let me know.

I work in a call center, most of the folks we hire know what that type of environment is. And yet we still end up terminating people on a regular basis for not showing up for work. Extremely frustrating!

As a side note, we do everything we can to make it a fun place to work and whenever we do hire we have people recommending their friends to apply so I like to think it's not the environment.

The fabulous Jamie responded:

If there is a way to screen for those who are internally rather than externally driven, I am sure AAM knows it (I certainly do not).

I do think most performance problems, including going AWOL, come down to how people approach their jobs far more than the job itself. I temped for quite a while when I was starting out - and some of those jobs were awful. But I showed up on time and did the best job I could because I wasn't doing it for them - I was doing it for me. I couldn't abide people thinking I was a slacker or incompetent, even though I would never see them again. Hire someone who will do a good job because of their own ego, and not as a favor to the company, and then at least there will be consistency.

For what it's worth, when I was on the market I would never apply to a place that claimed to be a fun place to work. I interpreted that (rightly or wrongly) as being lax and not performance oriented - and I personally have to be in a performance oriented environment to find any job satisfaction. I'm not implying that your workplace is lax - just that the wording might be a red flag to those of us who love the days the metrics are published and loathe the birthday cakes and company picnics.

Here are my thoughts on this:

First, no hiring process is perfect. No matter how thorough your screening processes, you can't screen out attendance problems with 100% accuracy. However, there are a lot of things that you can do to minimize it:

1. Really probe for motivation in the interview. For instance, you can ask things like, "Tell me about the workplace you were most satisfied with. What made you so satisfied? What about the time you were the least satisfied?" You're looking for people who talk about getting satisfaction out of productivity and results and a feeling of accomplishment. Also, if you're really probing deeply into past work experiences (getting them to walk you through a past project in detail, with lots of questions), you're going to start getting a sense of what drives the person and how they think about work.

2. In the interview process, talk explicitly about your company's culture and values. Talk about having high standards, a strong work ethic, a commitment to results -- because some candidates will self-select out if they're not a good fit with that environment.

For instance, I'll sometimes say in phone interviews, "One thing to know about our culture is that we hold ourselves to high standards. We strive for excellence in everything we do and the work ethic here is higher than anywhere else I’ve worked -- you'll never see someone on Facebook during the day, or spending an afternoon goofing off in the kitchen. And we’re direct about addressing it when things aren’t working out. Some people absolutely love that, but it’s not for everyone."

Candidates who will fit in well with that culture become excited and more invested in the job prospect at this point, and candidates who aren’t good matches tend to reveal that through their responses or drop out on their own.

(This gets into Jamie's point about what you choose to emphasize -- candidates who respond to hearing that you have a "fun" culture may be different from candidates who respond to hearing that you have a "fast-paced, results-driven" culture.)

3. Reference checks can be extremely helpful at ferreting out this kind of thing. Aside from asking straightforward questions about attendance and reliability, find ways to make it "safe" for references to give you the truth about the candidate. For instance: "Some people are at a point in their careers where work is a top priority and they're really throwing themselves into it with enthusiasm. Other people are looking more for a 9-5 job that pays the bills, but it's not a passion for them. Both are entirely legitimate approaches. Where would you put Bob on that spectrum?"

* * * * *

Now, all that aside, addressing the call center environment question that the commenter brought up initially, I do think there are some jobs where the nature of the work means that there's just going to be a revolving door element to the staffing. Call centers are a prime example of this. You should still do the sort of screening above, and also be very transparent during the hiring process about what candidates can expect once working there, but to some extent, in call center and similar environments, this may be part of the package.

What do others think? Did you ever have an employer do an excellent job of communicating culture to you during the hiring process? How did they do it? Did you ever work in a traditionally high-turnover environment like a call center that found ways to have more staffing stability than its competitors?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

my co-worker is chronically absent

A reader writes:

I work in a children's program part-time alongside another teacher who works the same hours as I do (about 10/week). We are the only 2 regular teachers in this program. Anyway, my co-worker chronically schedules appointments on the mornings we are scheduled to work. She has many crises in her life so between her and her children, she has many appointments. Historically she has done this in the past, but I thought that with a new director/boss, it would be a brand new start for all of us there.

Anyway, our director/boss knows about her upcoming appointments and we are scrambling around to get substitutes, but it's difficult for me to work alongside someone new every time we run a program because then I have to fill them in on what we're doing. It's difficult for the children because they don't know who's going to be there from one week to the next. In the next 3 weeks, she will only be working 1 program out of 9 scheduled.

What can I do or say to my boss and/or my co-worker? I did ask her the other day not to schedule appointments during the mornings we're scheduled to work (2 mornings/week!!). But I need some help in how to deal with this so I don't become negative about work. I want to enjoy my time there, not worry constantly about who's going to be there and who isn't.

Ideally, your boss would sit down with your coworker, tell her that the program needs to count on her being at work reliably, and ask whether, going forward, she's able to commit to being at work reliably, with absences only in rare circumstances. (And ideally she'd quantify "rare," since not everyone defines that the same way.) And she'd let her know that, while she's sympathetic to your coworker's situation, the job does require a reliable presence and if that's not realistic for your coworker right now, the job isn't the right fit. And then she'd stick to that, meaning that if the problem continued, your boss would replace her.


The fact that your boss hasn't done this indicates that either (a) your boss somehow doesn't know the extent of the problem or its history or (b) your boss is a pushover who isn't assertive about holding people accountable. 

You said that your boss is new -- is it possible that she doesn't realize the history here and thinks that your coworker's upcoming absences are an aberration?

If I were you, I'd talk to your boss, explain the duration of the problem, and explain the impact on you and the program. You want to do this calmly and unemotionally -- don't attribute motivations to your coworker, just focus on the facts and the impact. If you get the sense that your boss feels helpless to do anything about it -- which hopefully isn't going to be the case but, realistically, might be -- suggest that if she agrees that reliable attendance is an essential part of the job, she should find out if your coworker can meet those requirements going forward, and hire someone new if your coworker can't.

From there, it's in your boss's hands. At that point, you've done what you can do, and if your boss doesn't act, you probably need to accept that you have a boss who doesn't set standards and hold people accountable to them -- in other words, a manager who doesn't manage

Sunday, September 19, 2010

explaining to my boss that marital stress is impacting my work

A reader writes:

I'm a software developer, and I've been separated from my wife for eight months; we've been together over ten years. I brought the house into the marriage, but didn't get a pre-nuptial agreement, so family law in my jurisdiction says she gets half the value of the house. When she gets her half of the family capital, she's moving out -- yes, we've been living together for the last eight months. The older step-son is attending university, and I've said I'll pay for that while he stays with me. My younger step-son is moving out with my wife, and will finish high school while living with her. If I want to keep the house (I do), I'm going to have to re-mortgage the house; with interest rates rising I'm not sure I'm going to be able to get approval for that, which means selling the house I've been in for 20 years, paying the real estate agent a huge commission and moving.

While this has been going on, I've been driving my wife into work and picking her up on the way home -- so I'm on her schedule. In anticipation of taking the house back, I've been paying all of the family-related bills, including insurance on the van she drives and her cell phone.

I tried to resolve the marital issue -- when I knew things were going downhill, starting about 2.5 years ago, I tried to discuss things with my wife, without success. Eventually, I arranged sessions with a marriage counsellor, and we saw her every two weeks for 14 months; the conclusion was that we were trying to revive a marriage that had been dead for some time. I then contacted a lawyer, collected all of the family's financials, and got the lawyer to do the calculations to suggest a buyout that I could offer my wife. My wife ridiculed my lawyer's calculations, demanded more than twice what my lawyer suggested would be fair, but refused to get a lawyer of her own until three weeks ago.

I've been with my employer 2.5 years, and is my six month review is coming up. Friday I got a hint from my team lead that he was hoping my production would improve soon. The complication is that he's a good friend of mine -- we've known each other for close to ten years. He's aware of the stresses I'm going through; when I'm able to focus on my work, I'm very good at what I do. Sometimes I can't focus, and I surf the net, read the headlines, and generally goof off (no games, no porn, I'm just not doing any work).

I understand this sounds like a ridiculous and tragic soap opera; all along I've tried my best to resolve the situation, but right now I'm carrying a lot of stress, and on of the things it's affecting is my job performance. I just hope I can explain that in a rational way at my performance review. Your thoughts?

Tell your boss that you know the stress is impacting your performance. It's far better to have him think that your performance is suffering due to stress in your personal life than just that your performance is suffering. Tell him you're aware of it, it's a difficult time, and that you're making a concerted effort to get past it. Ask for some flexibility in the meanwhile. 

Good bosses understand that employees are human and that they have personal lives, and that sometimes really difficult things happen in their personal lives. If you were dealing with the death of a close family member, I wonder if you'd be being so hard on yourself for being impacted by it. Divorce is stressful too, and you should allow yourself that.

That said, you do need to make a point of working on strategies to minimize the impact on your work. Stop giving in to the impulse to goof off online at work. You might even consider one of the programs that block you from the Internet for specific chunks of time.

On a personal note, it might be worth considering that driving your wife to and from work everyday might really be above and beyond the call of duty, particularly since it's impacting your ability to devote more time to your job, and particularly since your wife isn't exactly being nice to you in return. You might also do whatever you can to speed up your wife's exit from your home, since I have to think that continuing to live together is simply prolonging this suffering, and delaying the day when you can start moving forward.

This sucks. Talk to your boss about how it's impacting your work, ask him to work with you while this is playing out, and good luck.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

how can I build my reputation in my field?

A reader writes:

I have been working on developing my career and as part of that I am wanting to build up a strong portfolio of recomendations from people that I am working with. I am using LinkedIn and have started my own blog (on my career interest). I am seeking recommendations from people I work by simply asking them to pass on their postive feedback to my manager when they tell me how happy they have been with my work. However, I am not sure that they are taking the time to do that.

Is there any suggestions that you / your readers could make to assist me in collecting feedback in a non-pretentious way? I certainly take the time to offer the best of my skills and work hard to ensure my consistency in dealing with others and my work ethic. I would like to build that into a good reputation within the business as the "go-to" person for my career interest and I am not sure how to go about this.

This is actually a question that we talked about in last week's episode of HR Happy Hour, so if you're in the mood to listen rather than read, you can hear it discussed there (around 23:45).

My advice is this:  If you're seeking to build up your reputation, it's not really about compiling Linked In recommendations and emails to your boss (although emails to your boss are nice, and more people should send them). 

Building up your reputation is, at its core, about being fantastic at what you do. The very best thing you can do is to be absolutely awesome at what you do, and get as many people as possible exposed to it. Volunteer your skills to nonprofits that need them. Blog (as you're doing) and leave comments on other people's blogs in your field. Become known in your industry's corner of the blogosphere. Become active in your field's professional associations. If you do all those things, you'll find that your reputation starts to build, and suddenly people will know you.  That's going to be a lot more effective in making you a go-to person than just accumulating Linked In recommendations.

That said, a more effective way to get Linked In recommendations, rather than sending a generic request for someone to write one, is to be very specific about what you'd like them to write about -- such as "I was hoping you could write about my work on the ABC project." People sometimes have trouble thinking of what to write, and a specific suggestion like this can help.

But don't make those the cornerstone of your strategy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

help! my department is imploding

A reader writes:

My department is imploding, and I'm struggling to decide what I should do.

I've worked in in the IT department for a small health clinic for 10 months. In that time, 5 employees have left, and the rest are actively looking for new jobs elsewhere, including the VP and my direct supervisor. Reasons for leaving include the president of the company, who is demanding and hostile to employees, and the department's current managers, who seem to have checked out completely.

I've moved around a bit over the past few years (this is my third company in 5 years), and I was hoping to stay here for several years. I like a good portion of my work, and I have friends in the company who I admire and respect. Still, I feel worn down by the negativity in my department and constant whispering about potential job interviews and company gossip. Owing to the small size of the company, an internal transfer or promotion seems unlikely, as I'm the only employee who works in my field of technology and I don't have the expertise to become a manager yet.

Should I stick it out? If I decide to look for another job, how should I explain my current situation to a prospective employer? What questions should I ask during an interview to hopefully ensure that I find myself in a more productive office next time?

I can't tell if you're thinking of leaving because you too are bothered by the company's president and managers, or if it's that the instability of so many others leaving and actively seeking to leave that's bothering you. I get the sense that it's more the latter -- and if that's correct, then my advice is this:  Tune out everyone else's opinion of your bosses. The fact that they find conditions there intolerable doesn't mean that you do (unless of course you do, but again, I'm not getting that from your letter).

Different people have different deal-breakers. I once had one of the best working relationships of my life with a boss who a lot of other people found challenging to work with. You've got to get clarity about what your deal-breakers are, not what your coworkers' are.

And yes, high turnover can be stressful, but it can also be filled with opportunities for the people who remain, depending on your mindset.

Now, all that said, if I've interpreted your letter completely wrong and in fact you're miserable because of the management too and would be thinking about leaving even if your coworkers weren't, then that's a different matter. In that case, you need to decide what you value more: having a longer-term job on your resume or getting the hell out. What's your bottom line in this context? Only you can decide that and there's no right answer, but it's important to get really clear in your own mind about what matters most to you.

And if you do decide to leave, you have a fairly understandable reason you can use to explain your decision:  "In the 10 months I was there, __% of the employees in my department left." That kind of thing tends to function as social proof that you're not overreacting. And as for what you can ask next time to avoid a toxic situation, here are some previous posts that may help:

But remember, figure out what's tolerable to you, not your coworkers.

I'm afraid my old boss is going to out me as transgender

A reader writes:

I'm a trans-woman. (Ed. note: For readers who may not know what this means, this is a transgender person who was born biologically a man but is living as a woman.) Over the past couple of years, I transitioned at my job. One of the two groups I worked with took this in stride, and with some expected and reasonable hiccups, generally referred to me correctly. The other didn't, and very rarely used the correct pronoun on me, no matter how I asked (I even talked to HR). After more than a year of this, I couldn't take it anymore, so I gave notice, completed the documentation they asked for, and left.

Now I'm applying for a position that I'm really excited about with an apparently wonderful company. The technical phone interviews went really well, so they've asked me out for an in-person interview. Oh,
and they've asked for my references.

I've done some consulting work, and I'm comfortable asking one of my clients to be a reference. I can ask my better supervisor to be a reference, too. But that's only two people. Making matters worse, I've
been working full-time with the other group for most of this year, so the most recent (and most interesting) work I've done has been with them. And I know that no matter who I put down as a reference, the recruiter will probably find a way to talk to that supervisor---and that supervisor almost never used the right pronouns while I was standing right there, so I have little faith that he'll use the right ones on the phone.

On the plus side, this company has said that they won't contact references without asking me first, and that they generally don't do so until they're ready to make an offer. They also have a strong non-discrimination policy, and seem to be a socially progressive company overall. When the recruiter asks if she can call my references, should I come out to her and tell her what to expect? I'm not actually really opposed to being out, but after my last experience, it's really a decision I'd really like to be able to make
for myself, after I've developed relationships with my coworkers and better understand the company culture.  Help! What should I do?

Aside from knowing clearly that your old boss is a jerk, this is beyond my expertise, so I consulted with Dr. Jillian Weiss, the expert on transgender issues in the workplace who helped us a few months ago with another transgender issue. Here's what she said:
Coming out to a prospective employer is a tricky thing. Advice, no matter how knowledge and well-meaning, is always risky, particularly when an outsider doesn't know all the details, and all courses may run ill. 
On the one hand, coming out shows admirable forthrightness and demonstrates comfort with one's core identity. It also alleviates the surprise (or shock) and questions about honesty that could arise when the potential employer receives the news from a none-too-friendly former employer. On the other hand, it raises issues that are more in the personal sphere than in the business sphere, and it could make a hiring manager wonder whether personal matters are going to distract a new employee from getting the work done. And, of course, there are those who are prejudiced against transgender people, and will see this as a good reason not to move forward on the hire. 
The longer you can wait before providing this information seems to me the better course. It may also make sense to have your lawyer write a short letter to that company's CFO or VP in charge of HR, warning of dire consequences should information of a personal and confidential nature be revealed, and to follow up with a phone call to ensure that the message was clearly received. (If you don't have a lawyer, find one who understands the business setting. Writing a letter shouldn't be too expensive.) 
If that is not an option, however, given the choice between hearing it from my lips, and hearing it from the lips of the former manager who never used the right pronoun, I would prefer to be the one setting the context. But I would wait until it is really necessary, and hopefully, by that point, the prospective employer has gotten to know you well enough to judge you on your skills and not on your gender.
This makes a lot of sense to me. I'd also add that it's better to find out before taking the job if they're bigoted or hostile, although of course it's unfair that you should have to deal with that limitation. Anyone else want to weigh in?

you are making me very, very forlorn

Lots of you who get my posts through a news reader haven't changed your RSS subscription over to my new feed:

And that makes me sad, because someday soon the old feed is going to stop working and then you will not get my posts. Don't make me sad! Update your subscription!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

how to announce a demotion

A reader writes:

We have a manager who we are replacing due to performance issues. He's a long-time employee who has a lot of skills that are beneficial to the company but since his promotion to management a couple of years ago, he has not been managing his department. Rather, he continues to complete incomplete work of his employees, doesn’t motivate them to work to deadlines, and overall just isn’t managing his department. We have tried for 8 months to coach him but he chooses to do what he thinks is important rather than what the owners require of him. 

So, we are going to replace him, but keep him in the company. He’ll still work in the same department, same office, same salary (frozen for a while). We have told him of our decision. He understandably pushed back a bit, but he recognizes that he still has a job. He brings a lot to the table. He just won’t be managing the department, and he’ll have a new boss. 

We set the bar very high for candidates and found a great candidate, with years of managing in our industry (something that the previous guy did not have), and overall a great set of credentials and attributes that meet our criteria. We extended the offer, and he accepted. We were completely honest with him about why we were looking to fill this position, and when we sat down with him, he immediately expressed his sensitivity to the situation and made us feel at ease with how he would handle the transition with the former department head and how to best utilize his talents and skill sets. So, both people knew going into this what was going to happen. 

I’m looking for any pointers on how to make this announcement to the company (we are about 30) and the department. Any advice will be appreciated.

The most diplomatic way to frame this is probably to announce that because the old manager is going to be focusing more on ___, you're bringing in someone new to manage the department.

But no matter how diplomatic you are about it, even though you're not explicitly saying "Bob was a bad manager," it's pretty likely that people are going to read between the lines and understand that Bob was just demoted. There's not a lot you can do about that; it's the reality of the situation. All you can do is try to protect Bob's dignity and help him save face to the extent possible.  (Speaking of which, make sure you have a matter-of-fact attitude with him and others about it; if you're giving off "poor Bob" vibes, it'll make it more awkward for him.)

It's worth noting that of the employees who figure out what happened, they're likely to see this in one of two ways: Some will think it was really nice of the company to keep Bob rather than firing him outright, and this might even engender more loyalty in those people ("they treated Bob well, so they'll probably treat me well"). Others might be annoyed that Bob kept his job after months of poor performance and may see favoritism or weak management there. There's not really any action to take there; these are just things that you want to be aware of.

Also, over the coming months, make sure you periodically check in with the new manager about how things are going with Bob. Some people in Bob's shoes would be relieved to be back in a position where they could excel. Others would quietly start job-searching. But others might become resentful and bitter, which can be toxic. If it's the latter, you want to make sure the new manager is attuned enough to quickly spot it and address it.

What do others think? Would you want it handled differently if you were demoted?

dealing with a micromanager

I'm quoted in this article on dealing with a micromanaging boss. Here's an excerpt:
First, figure out why your boss is a micromanager. Usually, you've either given her reason to micromanager you by your performance, or she's a micromanager in general. It's important to figure out which it is, says Alison Green, author of the blog "Ask a Manager." 
"People rarely ask, 'What have I done that's inspiring this scrutiny from my boss?' Instead, they're often just annoyed by it, which prevents them from being able to take the actions that could change it. Ultimately the manager's job is to ensure that the work is done well, and [if you aren't delivering], a good manager would have reason not to go on faith," Green says. "But if you're confident that your boss has no reason to doubt your work and/or your ability to stay on top of it, then this may simply be the style she uses with everyone."
The article aside, let's expand on this. If you drop the ball on things more often than very occasionally, forget details, don't follow up on things, miss deadlines, or produce work that requires a lot of changes from others, a good manager would get more closely involved—because ultimately the manager's job is to ensure that the work is done well. (Of course, if this sort of scrutiny continues to be required in the long term, a good manager would also address the problem in a larger context—meaning helping you improve or concluding you're not the right fit.) So, the first step is to ask yourself some tough questions to figure out if the problem is actually you.

But if you're confident that your boss has no reason to doubt your work, and this is just her style with everyone, try talking to her. Give specific examples of projects where you felt you could have worked more effectively if you weren't on such a short leash, and ask if there's anything you're doing that makes her feel she can't trust you and how you can work with more autonomy. Suggest other ways to keep her in the loop, such as weekly reports or weekly meetings, so that she doesn't feel she needs to check in as much. If she's resistant, suggest she experiment by giving you more autonomy on one specific project to see how it goes.

In the best case scenario, this approach can persuade a boss to ease up and find more appropriate ways to stay involved. But if nothing else, this approach will at least tell you whether or not things are likely to ever change. And if you learn that they're not, you can then decide if it's something you're willing to live with or not ... which is pretty much the formula for dealing with any workplace frustration.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

calling on readers to help with these questions: giving up a career dream, and billable hours

I recently got a few questions that I could use some help from readers with, so I'm hoping you guys will share your ideas in the comments.

#1 The first question is from someone who wants to be a librarian. I know we've got a couple of library people who comment on here from time to time, so I'm particularly hoping they'll have some industry-specific insights to share -- but comments welcome from everyone:

I have wanted to be a librarian since my senior year of high school, and I recently graduated with a Master's degree in Library Science. I knew finding a library job would be difficult because of the economy, but my situation is made worse by my lack of geographical mobility and the fact that I live next to one of the largest library schools in the county. I've only been looking for a library job for 4 months, but in that time I've had only one interview.

I was recently volunteering in a place where I got to do what is basically my dream job, but I had to stop so that I could find a second part time job (outside of the library field). Sometimes I feel like I should have kept volunteering. My supervisor said that she wished she could have hired me, but that they simply don't have the funds. Although I love this work, I feel like I would have to sacrifice so much and put my life on hold to even have a shot at getting a paid position. For example, I could have continued volunteering, but then I wouldn't have been able to work enough to afford moving out of my parents' house.

I beginning to think that continuing to look for a library job is hopeless and irresponsible. Right now I am working two part time jobs while looking for a librarian position. Do you think I should look for a more permanent full time job outside of the library field? Should I give up on a profession that I love, but which doesn't seem to have any room for me?

#2 Our second question comes from a reader who wants input on his firm's billable hours practices. This seems unfair to me, but I don't have much experience with workplaces that use these billable quotas and I'm hoping we'll hear from people who do:

My firm has a practice that seems disingenuous if not flat-out unethical. Everyone has a billability target, that is, the percentage of our time directly billed to clients. This is usually 80% and upwards for technical personnel, allowing some time for supervision, training, proposals, etc. (Some employees are expected to be 95-100% billable though there has been some leniency on this given the overall slowdown). But it does not allow for paid time off.

Billability is determined by Hours Billed divided by 2,000 hrs. But since by definition I cannot work when I am on vacation, shouldn't my leave time be subtracted from the denominator in this equation?

For example, one must bill 1,600 hours out of a 2,000 year to reach a target of 80% billable. If I take three weeks vacation I should hit my goal by billing 1,504 hours out of a 1,880 hour year. That is 80% of all hours I was at work. But my firm calculates 1,504 over 2,000 and it looks as though my billability was only 75%. Or stated another way, I actually have to work at 85% billable during the hours I am present in order to hit the 80% goal. I hope that makes sense.

Billability is a key metric used in evaluations and whether or not one gets a raise. The firm makes it harder to hit these benchmarks by using a higher denominator.

I'd be interested to hear your opinion.

So go for it -- you have the pulpit. What do you think?

rejected for an internal promotion

A reader writes:

I am an aspiring manager in the organization I work for. I have been there for three years and have repeatedly acted as the deputy manager within my section (my boss was on the verge of retirement, so was out a lot) and have handled some very stressful and high-profile situations. Basically, I feel like I have proven myself and have become an invaluable member of the organization.

Recently, my supervisor's position came open and I applied for it. After two interviews, I was informed that I was the first choice but because I had never had a formal management position before (I'm relatively young), I could not be placed in the position. The hiring manager expressed a desire the help me move toward that goal, but now I feel as if I am essentially stuck unless I somehow get my job description changed and become a manager of some temporary employees (albeit, for less pay and less benefits that the job I was up for).

So basically, how can I handle this gracefully? My new supervisor has way less experience than I do and I have been asked to still perform the duties, however he would have the pay increase and benefits. I feel like I should basically take this as a sign to move on to greener pastures. Should I believe the hiring manager when they say they want to keep me and help develop my professional experience, or are they just telling me that to soften the blow? Truthfully, I've never been rejected for a promotion before (I've had three within this organization) and it's hard to put aside my disappointment!

Any advice would help! I plan on working within the same industry for awhile, so I don't want to burn any bridges or make myself seem unprofessional!

You should ask for specific help in formulating a professional development plan that will allow you to get the sort of experience they've said you'd need. Ask what you need to do to get a management position the next time one is open, and what they can do to help you get that experience. Whether and how they follow through will tell you a ton.

At the same time, there's no reason you shouldn't also explore what opportunities might be available to you outside your company. Identify and apply for jobs that seem like the right next step for you. There's nothing that says you have to take a new job if offered, but you might as well know what your options are.

You can pursue these two tracks simultaneously; you don't need to pick one over the other.

There's one thing in your letter that's potentially troubling, although I'm not positive what you mean by it. You wrote: "I have been asked to still perform the duties, however he would have the pay increase and benefits." Do you mean that you're being asked to perform the duties of a manager without the pay or title?  Are you talking about mundane administrative tasks like scheduling employees or signing time cards, or real management fundamentals -- like setting expectations, giving feedback, and addressing performance problems?  If you're being asked to do the latter, that worries me -- not just because of fairness but because it is difficult to manage people without actual authority to set consequences, and you'd be being put in a very hard position if that's the case.

Again, I'm not sure if that's the case here or not. If it is, it might be something you want to address, by pointing out that you're being asked to do the work of a manager without any of the rewards, or even credit for the experience when seeking a promotion. Of course, if you point that out, their reaction may be to stop having you serve those functions, which may not be the outcome you want (particularly if you want to parlay that experience into a management role somewhere else), so you want to assess risks and likely outcomes as you proceed. Good luck!

Monday, September 13, 2010

company won't respond - could it be discrimination?

A reader writes:

Our local Goodwill here has been posted a good number of hiring ads in the last 5 months and I've honestly applied every time and never got a call back. I followed up by calling and even this last most recent time followed up in person. The day after I followed up in person, they posted yet another ad... Now what I've realized just a few days ago is that every worker there is female, so is it possible I'm being discriminated against or something of the sort?

If so, what should I do, if anything? One of my friends who has been a hiring manager at a few places said I should call up the corporate headquarters and (of course while not being rude) talk about it with them. I don't really know how to go about that though, honestly.

Sure, it's possible that you're being discriminated against, but it's also possible -- and probably more likely -- that you're not getting called for an interview for other reasons, such as: you don't have the qualifications they're looking for, you do have those qualifications but so do 100 other people who applied and they can't interview everyone, your cover letter isn't very good, your resume has typos in it, someone there worked with you previously and didn't think you were very good, or any of a number of other reasons. 

Most importantly, keep in mind that lots of very qualified people aren't getting interviews in this economy, and that's a function of plain old math: There are five times as many job-seekers as job openings. That means that to get an interview, you have to really, really present yourself well.

My suggestion is to email one of the hiring managers you've applied with over there and explain that you're really interested in working for Goodwill because _______, and ask them to do you the favor of giving you advice on how you can present yourself differently to be a more attractive candidate. You may not get a response -- but you might get useful information.

(Do this in email, not by calling or showing up in person. Email allows people to answer at their convenience, think about their answer before responding, and so forth.)

I don't suggest calling corporate headquarters to complain, unless you really have evidence that there's some sort of discrimination going on, because if you're just speculating, you could harm rather than help your chances. If there's no discrimination going on, and it's actually just that you're in an extraordinarily competitive market, a complaint would be like waving a flag reading, "Hey, if you hire me, I'll misinterpret things in the workplace and sue you!" Rightly or wrongly, companies don't hire people who they fear might be litigious.

Redo your cover letter, proofread the hell out of it and your resume (or have someone else proofread them), and ask for feedback since this is a company you're really targeting. Good luck!

Ask a Manager has a new domain name

I've finally dropped the "blogspot" from my domain name. I'm now publishing at:

Yes, .org. Because someone owns and will not sell it (or use it, for that matter). So now I'm a .org, like a whole Ask a Manager organization.

If you subscribe to my RSS feed, please update to the new feed:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

should an employer pay travel costs when inviting out-of-town candidates to interview?

A reader writes:

I've been invited to an interview for a senior-level job by a potential employer who is only willing to cover part of my travel costs to the interview. Because the invitation was silent on this topic, I had to raise the reimbursement issue. I was surprised about this based on my prior experiences as a job seeker and on my own HR experience. Based on my application materials, it should have been clear that I would have to fly to the the interview. 

I initially responded asking about whether they wanted me to make travel arrangements and submit receipts or have them make the airfare purchase directly. They responded that I should make arrangements directly, and that I should send them the cost so they could decide what portion they could cover. I submitted my projected costs and they replied that they could cover 60%.

I've already accepted the appointment, since delaying to negotiate wouldn't work in my favor as an applicant, and could make my share of the expenses go up if fares increase. But I'm concerned that if the interview goes well, it may spell trouble down the road. (E.g. have I put myself at a disadvantage during salary negotiations by signalling desperation? Once on the job, will I be working in an institution where reasonable expenses aren't built into budgets?) Obviously, I haven't gotten to that bridge yet, but these concerns are real. Is this a red flag, or just par for the course in an employers' market?

Here's the deal with interview travel expenses:

When an employer has a ton of good local candidates, there's no incentive for them to pay to bring in candidates from out-of-town. So if you want to be in the running, you may need to assume the cost of getting yourself there (and possibly of relocation too).

For instance, I recently hired for a position where I had two out-of-town candidates come in for interviews. I never even raised the issue of reimbursement and neither did they.  I simply said, "We'd love to interview you next week if you can get to D.C."  It wasn't a specialized job, I had more qualified local candidates than I could interview, and while I was happy to consider them as candidates, I didn't have sufficient financial motivation to pay to do it.

Now, in other cases, where my candidate pool is more limited, I assume from the start that I'll probably have to pay to bring in non-local candidates. It really comes down to the nature of the job and the depth of options facing the employer. Remember, this stuff is all business transactions.

All that said, if you do end up in a situation where you'd have to cover your own travel expenses, it’s completely reasonable to say something like, “I’m happy to cover my own expenses, but would it be possible for us to conduct a phone interview first to make sure that I’m a strong match?” (They may say no, but you're entitled to ask and you're entitled to decline to fly out.)

It’s also reasonable to say, “I’m extremely interested in this job and happy to pay my own way out there if you think I’m likely to be a strong match. However, given that money is tight for everyone right now, could you give me an idea of how strong a candidate you think I am?”  Their answer may help you decide, since there's a big difference between "you're our leading candidate" and "we're interviewing six people and you're all about evenly qualified" in terms of the risk you're paying for.

So, back to your questions -- have you put yourself at a disadvantage during salary negotiations by signaling desperation? No, I don't think that flying yourself out signals desperation. You've simply signaled that you're interested in the job, which you'd also signal by, you know, applying and interviewing. (I hope you've first ascertained that the salary is in a range you'd accept though -- you don't want to fly yourself out and then discover later on that you're wildly out of their price range.)

And once on the job, would you be working somewhere without reasonable expenses built into budgets? Again, I don't see reason to assume that, for the reasons I explained above. But if given a job offer, you could certainly ask about budgets and resources.

Ultimately, travel expenses are -- in many but not all cases -- one of the many casualties of this bad job market. If you want a job outside of your local area, the large number of candidates competing with you means that there's a good chance the employer isn't going to be motivated to cover your costs.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

what role should gut instinct play in hiring?

A reader writes:

As a fellow recruiter/manager, how much do you count your gut instinct into the hiring decision? If someone on paper has all the experience you want and answers all the technical questions correctly and the hiring manager loves him, but he just for some reason gives you a creepy vibe or is a little off-putting -- I'm sure you have been through that before -- do you make a call based on that? Do you share that gut instinct with the hiring manager? 

I'm sure this will be a controversial answer, but I put a lot of stock in my gut -- if what it's telling me is negative. Every time I've ignored a negative gut instinct in hiring, I have ended up regretting it. Every single time. 

Now, there are two important qualifiers I'd add to this:

1. I pay attention to my gut when it's saying "don't hire."  But I try to ignore my gut when it's saying "hire." I want my decisions to hire to be based 100% on solid, real-world evidence -- track records of success and so forth.  If I'm going to make a hiring mistake, I would much rather it be that I mistakenly pass up someone good than that I hire someone bad.

(And I've found that positive gut reactions are more likely to be wrong. They're often based on things that really shouldn't matter in hiring -- such as that the candidate feels like your type of person, or that she reminds you of your sister. It's also easier for someone to send off "competence" cues that aren't backed up by the reality, whereas "incompetence" cues or "bad attitude" cues tend to be linked to something real.)

2. You need to be brutally objective about how qualified your gut is. Has it been educated by experience? Does it has a track record of being right in this area? Do other people agree with your assessment of your gut instincts or are you the only one who thinks they're great? Is there any chance your gut is engaging in racial discrimination or other forms of bigotry? These are all things you need to think hard about. 

(And if your gut frequently tells you someone would be a bad cultural fit when that person happens to be a difference race than you or has a disability, your gut is officially suspect and thus is banned from participating.)


As a side note, what are gut reactions all about, anyway? I do not think they're some magical mystery that can't be explained. I think they're reactions to fact-based evidence that you're just not processing consciously. Gavin de Becker makes this point in a totally different context in his fantastic book, The Gift of Fear -- he points out that when crime victims had a bad gut feeling right before the crime, that alarm wasn't coming out of nowhere (although it felt like that to them); rather, he noted specific factual things their brains were picking up on subconsciously that were leading to what seemed like an inexplicable bad feeling but was actually traceable to real signals.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

listen to an hour of awesomeness

On the HR Happy Hour tonight, I had an awesome discussion with Steve BoeseShauna Moerke, and lots of people who participated on Twitter ... plus phone calls from Laurie Ruettimann, Victorio Milian, and Mark Bennet!

Topics covered included:
- what the hell is wrong with employers these days
- prostitution in the workplace
- how to convince people you have expertise and they should take your advice
- talking to your boss about problems in your personal life
- fudge
- and much more

You can hear it here:

Listen to internet radio with Steve Boese on Blog Talk Radio

interviewers who suck: our next installment

I know you guys like interview horror stories -- because you're sadists? -- so here's a great one for you. A reader writes:

I interviewed with a company this morning for an entry-level position. HR called me yesterday to schedule an interview with me for 10 am today. I arrived at the interview approximately 3 minutes early and there were 2 women waiting to go in for their interviews. The interviewer finally took one of the people waiting for an interview in at about 10:05. I found out that she was scheduled for an interview at 9 am and the guy doing the interview didn't arrive until after 9:30.

The first lady came out from her interview and the second one went in. While I was waiting for my interview, one of the field agents came into the waiting area and was waiting to talk to his manager, the interviewer. The manager and the field agent had a 10:30 conference call with their corporate office and it was currently 10:25. 

While we were waiting for the manager to come out of the interview I was talking to the field agent about what type of work I could expect, how he liked his job and stuff along those lines. The field agent then asked me if the manager was interviewing a man or a woman, so I told him that he was interviewing a woman. The field agent told me that they haven't hired any women yet because they interview well but can't perform like the guys can out in the field. I should have stood up and walked out at this point. 

It is now 10:45 and I am getting ready to go in for my 10:00 interview, I will admit that at this point I have really negative thoughts about this job/company going through my head. Before I sat down the guy told me that the interview had to be short since he was already late for an important conference call. The total time of the interview was maybe 5 minutes. The second question of the interview was, when are you available to start? I gave him a start date about 2 weeks out. I thought 2 weeks was standard for a notice that you are leaving so I assumed most companies would be okay with hiring you and needing to wait 2 weeks. To the interviewer, 2 weeks was too long of a time frame and he informed me that I was just "wasting his time" being at this interview so far in advance. He then told me to call him at a time when I can start sooner to see what he has for available positions and we can do the interview process again.

This was by far the worse overall experience I have ever had interviewing for a position. Looking back, I should have just walked out. I have already turned down 2 similar jobs in the past year and am certain that if offered this one I would not have taken it. And in case you are curious, I will not be calling him back in 2 weeks to schedule another interview.

There's so much to choose from here, but I think my favorite part is that he told you that you were "wasting his time," after he'd just warehoused you in his waiting area for 45 minutes.

To make this somewhat educational instead of purely voyeuristic, here are links to posts about danger signs when you're interviewing for a job and more danger signs.