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Friday, October 29, 2010

2 reasons your cover letter sucks

Two reasons your cover letter sucks:

1. It doesn't exist. You just send your resume. Adding a three-sentence note in the email doesn't count.

2. It exists, but it might as well not, because it just repeats the same info that's on your resume. Think about this for a minute: Why would an employer want a cover letter that just gives them the same information as you are already sending them in the next document? Answer: They don't.

99% of job applicants, I'm talking to you. Go redo your cover letter and tell me something that isn't in your resume!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

application deadlines are misleading you

You know when you see a job posting and it lists an application deadline? And then you figure you have until that deadline to apply?

Well, you might not.

Here's why: A lot of job sites require the employer to list a deadline or closing date when submitting a post. There's often no option for "we're looking at candidates on a rolling basis." So employers are forced to pick a date, even if it doesn't reflect how they're actually handling the search.

This is a bad system, because it forces employers to list information that might not be true and that will mislead candidates.  On the candidate side, you see that date and think "great, I have four weeks to submit my application." But if the employer is actually looking at applications as they come in and talking to good candidates on a rolling basis, when you apply in four weeks, they may have already assembled a group of finalists they're excited about, and thus the bar is going to be a lot higher for adding someone else in last-minute. Or they could be poised to make someone an offer, or the job could even have been filled already.

Of course, like everything in hiring, this is not universal. Different people handle things differently. But from the outside, it's hard to know. (Personally, I will take a fantastic candidate at any time, even if the deadline has passed -- I'm not going to turn away a great candidate because of an arbitrary deadline. But I also evaluate applications on a rolling basis, and if I find someone great before the deadline is up, I'm not going to risk losing her to another offer while I wait for the clock to finish ticking.)

So if you see a job you want to apply for, apply now, no matter what the application deadline says.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

you should not do a phone interview at 55 miles an hour

I'm not sure why anyone would do a pre-scheduled phone interview while they were driving, but since I've recently discovered that some people do in fact engage in this behavior, please consider this a formal suggestion not to.

It baffles me that this happens, because:

1. First of all, you can't focus fully. Why, why, why wouldn't you want to be able to focus fully on presenting the strongest case for your candidacy possible?

2. Second, it denies you one of the greatest benefits of a phone interview: the ability to have notes in front of you.

3. Third, has it occurred to you that you might have to honk at someone or slam on your brakes or that you might get rear-ended (or worse)? Obviously I hope you don't get rear-ended for entirely different reasons as well, but as far as the interview goes, why are you that cavalier about possible disruptions?

4. Fourth, you're sort of signaling that you're not prioritizing the interview enough to even pull over to the side of the road, and that's not a great impression.

5. And fifth, there's a not-insignificant number of people who are staunchly, passionately against talking on a cell phone while driving. I once had an industry VIP refuse to speak to me when he realized I was answering my phone from my car. (To say nothing of the in-your-face, screaming meltdown I watched one of my neighbors unleash on someone last week for driving while talking on his phone.)  If your interviewer feels even a little like that, do you really want to jeopardize your interview performance over cell phone politics?

Frankly, I wish everyone would use a land line for phone interviews, although I realize my dream is becoming increasingly out of reach. But at least pull over to the side of the road.

Monday, October 25, 2010

does a cover letter have to sound like an informercial?

A reader writes:

I really appreciate your blog and your candor, and I have used your advice many times during my job search. In fact, the interview chapter from your e-book made a huge difference on my last interview and I really felt like I was on equal footing with my interviewer. It resulted in winning a contract for a project that went well and will hopefully lead to more work in the future.

My question is about cover letters. I have poured over your “example of a good cover letter” post, as well as the section on cover letters in the e-book, and it has again made such a difference in the way I see the issue from the reader’s side. However, the opening line of a cover letter is so challenging for me to write because I want to make an impact and say something more than the position title and the place I found it posted, but I don’t want to sound like an infomercial.

I’ve read some advice that suggests asking a question that the reader would answer "Yes" to, but examples of these sound like a used car salesman to me, and that is just not my personality. I’m applying for creative positions in a marketing and advertising, so I want to write an opener that would be interesting and make them actually want to continue on to my resume. What kind of cover letter openers appeal to you?

Ugh, I know exactly the sort of cover letter openers that you're talking about -- "Are you looking for a detail-oriented self-starter with a background in engineering?" and so forth -- and I hate them!

They sound overly salesy, and no hiring manager wants to feel she's being aggressively sold to.

Frankly, I think standard openers are perfectly fine. You don't need to have a gimmick, after all; just make sure the rest of the letter is compelling. "I'm writing to apply for your field organizer job" is straightforward and gets the job done.  

Or "I'm really excited to apply your field organizer job" would be a little more interesting (although be prepared to show that you really are excited and why).

Or even re-writing that salesy opener to something like this: "Reading over your ad, I suspect you're looking for someone detail-oriented and organized, and that's why I'm responding." For this one, make sure the ad didn't specifically list the qualities you cite here, or this won't work -- it's a good opener if it shows you read the ad and deduced some things on your own, but not if you're just regurgitating what they wrote. Although if you want to do the latter, you could change it to, "Your field organizer ad called for someone detail-oriented and organized, and I'm continually lauded for those qualities." (Again, be smart and genuine about this. If you write, "Your ad called for someone with an English degree and I'm continually lauded for mine," that won't pass a straight-face test. People are rarely lauded for their degrees by anyone other than their parents.)

But really, straightforward and basic is completely fine. The real action of the cover letter is going to be in what follows the opener.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

can I accept a job knowing I plan to leave it in a few months?

A reader writes:

I have recently been offered a job with a company locally and have accepted it. However the hiring process a extensive background investigation is needed and will not be able to start this position until the January of 2011. I have more recently been offered a another job a couple of hours away. I would prefer to accept the position locally but I need an income that I could get from the other job a couple hours away. Is it acceptable to use this job until the other job and background investigation on done?

I get versions of this question all the time, all ultimately wanting to know:  When is it okay to take a job knowing you're likely to leave it quickly as soon as something better comes along?

First, two situations where I'll give you an immediate pass:  (1) If you're being honest with the first employer about your intent and they hire you knowing that, go for it, and (2) if this is a job or industry where high turnover is typical and routine, such as retail, call centers, and so forth, fine.

But aside from that, here are some principles that you should apply to any question along these lines:

* If you're not being candid with the employer, what will the impact be on them? In many businesses, an employee leaving after just a few months means that time, money, and other resources were wasted on training; they have to go through the time and expense of a new hiring process; and often the area your role was responsible for suffers setbacks, either minor or major. Is this a large business that can more easily absorb the impact, or a small business that will feel it much more? Is it a nonprofit that will have to divert resources away from a valuable mission to respond? Different organizations are impacted to different degrees by this, and you want to think about what the impact will be in your case.

* Are you willing to accept a possible hit to your own reputation?  It's likely that you will always be "the guy who left after we spent two months training him." You won't just burn bridges with the first organization; it may impact you other places too, because the world is fairly small. Are you willing to accept the possibility that you might be going after a job you really want some day and find that your interviewer was the co-worker who picked up the slack after you disappeared -- or knows one of those co-workers? (I know this sounds like a loaded question, but it's a genuine one. You might weigh everything and decide that, yes, you are willing to accept this. That's fine; I just want you to think it through first.)

Speaking of reputation, it's also worth asking yourself what your new employer will make of this. They may assume you're willing to do the same thing to them.

* This one is hard to quantify, but you should at least be aware that there were probably other people who really wanted that first job and would have been thrilled to get it ... and might have gotten if it the employer had known that you had secret plans to leave after a few months. Again, your call to make, but this should be part of the ethical landscape that you think about.

Now, whenever this topic comes up, someone points out that you don't owe employers any loyalty because they may fire or lay you off without notice, etc. But it's a rare employer who will hire someone planning to fire her in a couple of months, or who will hire you and then rescind the job offer when a better applicant shows up. And yes, plenty of employers treat employees badly, but it's far from true of everyone, so at least make sure you know who you're dealing with before you paint everyone with the same brush.

All that said, it's certainly true that employers make decisions based on what's in their own best interests. But the reason they don't, for instance, hire someone planning to fire her in two months, is because that's not in their best interests. It's not in their best interests to become known as an employer who does that kind of thing, or to make their current employees worry they'll do it to them. And it's not in their interests to become known as a company that treats people unfairly or callously, because they want to be able to attract and keep good people. And something similar is true for you: It's not in your own interests to get a reputation as someone who doesn't keep commitments, who cuts and runs, or who acts without integrity or concern for others -- because you want to to be able to work with good people too.

So just as employers will act in their own best interests, you should too. But you should make sure you have a really comprehensive picture of what those interests are -- and for all the reasons above, it's not as simple as "Job A is better than Job B."

Friday, October 22, 2010

should you work for free?

Should you work for free?  I want to know what you think.

But wait, it's not that simple. Here are six separate scenarios. Would you work for free in any of these situations? Why or why not?

1. Doing some work for free, for a limited time period, in order to get experience in a field you want to move into (and in which you currently have no applicable experience).

2. Lending your skills as a volunteer to a nonprofit organization that does good work on a cause you care about. This nonprofit has very limited financial resources and its staff works for low salaries.

3. Lending your skills as a volunteer to a nonprofit organization that does good work on a cause you care about. This nonprofit is well-funded and its (talented and in-demand) executive director earns six figures, but the organization uses volunteers in order to put more funds toward its program work.

4. Doing regular work for free for an organization that will look prestigious on your resume. The work is demanding but people are impressed when they learn you're associated with them.

5. The same prestigious work as in #4, but now you've already been doing it for a year or two. Have you derived all the benefit you need/want from it, or do you continue?

6. Offering your services for free for a limited time to prove yourself to an employer or client you really want to work for. 

Have at it in the comments! I'm very interested in hearing what people think.

something nice -- and interview guide is getting results!

A reader writes:

I follow your blog religiously and I love it, although I’m a lurker and don’t comment (yet). I just wanted to send you a quick note to say that I have sent out your interview guide twice to friends of mine who have had upcoming job interviews. They both told me that they *loved* the guide and it was extremely helpful to them! One of my friends is expecting a job offer as a result of her interview. 

I just wanted to pass along the great feedback. I really appreciate you providing this as a resource, and I am sending it to all of the employees that were affected by layoffs in my department this year.

This came exactly when I needed it to come. Thank you! It feels awesome to hear things like this.

And anyone who's job-searching and hasn't yet downloaded my interview guide (it's free), you can get it here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

my new favorite interview question

This has become my new favorite question to ask job candidates:

Tell me about something you achieved that you think someone else in your same job would not have gotten done.

It's basically the flip side of what I tell job-seekers to do on their resumes.

It's an awesome question, because you can immediately see if the person operates in a way where they're naturally pushing to do better and better, or if they're content with just doing the basics. It tells you about resourcefulness, drive, initiative, the bar they hold themselves to, and their general approach to work.

I love it so much that there's a danger I may start using it on dates, etc.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

don't check references? here's a horror story for you

This post is for anyone who has ever said or secretly thought that reference-checking is a waste of time.

Not long ago, I had a job candidate on the verge of being hired. He had wowed everyone in the interview and clearly had the skills to the do the job well.

Something was strange about his reference list, though: The references he offered were from several jobs back; his list didn't contain anyone from either of his last two jobs, even though he said his current boss knew he was looking. And one was a former professor, although he'd had several jobs since school. Red flag or someone who just didn't know how to put together a good reference list?

We asked him to put us in touch with two recent managers, and he did. Okay, I thought, his lack of push-back or caveats could be a good sign.

And then we called them.

We found out that he'd been fired for theft and fraud at both of his last two jobs, and even served time in jail for one of those cases.

Imagine if we, like some employers, hadn't bothered to check references at all, or hadn't pushed back to get more relevant and recent ones. More to the point, would your reference-checking practices have kept this from happening to you, or would this guy now be working down the hall from you, defrauding you too?

Check references. And to make that check more valuable, use these tips too:

* Don't limit yourself only to the candidate's list of references. If the candidate has offered peers (or professors or "personal" references) rather than managers, or people who haven't worked with her recently, ask to be put in touch with the specific people you want to talk to.

* Call main switchboard numbers. If you know the reference works at XYZ Company, look up the company's main number online, call that, and ask to be transferred to the person, rather than just calling the direct number you were given. It's not unheard of for candidates to give you a friend's phone number so the friend can pose as the former boss. [Or even to pose as the reference themselves; see the incredible comment from MJB on this post (toward the end of the comments list.]

* Ask the right questions. If you just run through a perfunctory list of questions, you may never get to the most useful information. Rather than asking questions like “Is there anything Joe could improve in?” (to which a lot of references might respond “nothing comes to mind”), ask, “If you had to pick two ways Joe could improve, what would they be?” Also, you can provide options where there's no “bad” choice and ask the reference to select the choice that sounds most like the candidate – for instance, “Some people thrive in fast-paced environments but might err on the side of losing precision, whereas others are incredibly precise but do better when there’s more time to focus on their work. Which sounds more like Joe?” (If you want a list of great questions, here's a really good one from The Management Center.)

References are only a waste of time if you treat them like just an item to check off your list, rather than as a genuinely valuable part of your assessment process.

using confidential resume posting? read this caution

My friend Kat, who's doing some I.T. recruiting, offers up this PSA about a common mistake people make when posting confidential resumes on online job boards:

The omission of people's city, state and zip in a confidential resume means that they are not searchable once entered into a database. I understand that people like to post confidentially on job boards as there is a means for confidential return communication, but once that resume gets into some other ogranization's hand, it is useless without contact info. And more often than not (maybe 75% or more of the time), their resumes are being farmed out elsewhere from the job boards, and are therefore useless without personal information.

This is me and said friend
in our misspent youth,
probably doing something
ill-advised. Do you really
want job advice from
these girls?
I don't care if I have your last name, or even your phone number (although it is certainly desired). What I need is at least a first name, city, state, zip and current email address. If there is no zip code available, the candidate will not get searched in our database for future matches.

Perhaps the most frequent mistake I see made is people who put their address and phone on their resume but don't put their email address, not realizing that their resume document may get separated from their original submission email or their job board resume entry. Resumes always always get detached from emails or job boards for review, so you shouldn't omit an email address on the actual resume.

I've never recruited from job boards, so this is useful information to have. On a similar note, I've received resumes sent directly to me without containing any contact info, just a name, which is also strange. So today's message:  Contact info -- use it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

when I asked for a raise, my boss responded, "who should I fire?"

A reader writes:

I'm in the media world. I'm emphasizing this because it seems that every attempt at getting advice use it seems that every attempt at getting advice for any work-related issue ends with "Hey, it's media, the rules don't apply." Maybe you can help me.

My boss is a monster. Exceptionally inappropriate, emotionally abusive, manipulative, etc. I've dealt with it. But what happened to really set me off was the following: After 3 years+ at my current job title, I asked for a promotion. My workload had increased by 70%, my responsibilities are in-line with those of a higher title, I've put in another jobs' worth of extra hours--all without sacrificing quality. Other co-workers had received the promotion to my desired title, though their workloads had not increased, etc. So I thought I was pretty good for the bump finally. I asked professionally and received the following response: "As much as I want to, you're definitely qualified, you do an exceptional job, but in order to do that...I'd have to fire another person to justify to our CEO the title change. Who should I fire?"

I believe I sat there, a bit dumbfounded, and instead asked what I could do to get the title change. "Nothing, you're definitely doing the work and you're more than qualified." She said that she could make a case for me in a few months, during budget review, but couldn't make any promises. Since then, she's told all of my coworkers how I asked for a promotion and did not get one.

These are all inappropriate things, right? I'm losing my perspective as to if this is an OK thing for her to do. 

Yes, it's highly inappropriate.

First of all, she can't change your title without firing someone? That's BS. And even it were somehow true, which it's not, her asking you, "Who should I fire?" is a transparent and disgusting attempt to manipulate you into backing down. 

Look, maybe she really is facing budget constraints, but a good manager would have said, "I agree that your work is great and warrants a promotion. Unfortunately, I don't have a slot to promote you into right now, and my hands are tied from above. But I'm committed to making sure your work is recognized, and we're revisiting the budget in two months, and I'm going to see what I can do then. Meanwhile, what else can we do to ensure you feel valued?"

Second, she told all your coworkers that you asked for a promotion and didn't get one? I cannot imagine in what context she would bring this up, or why. It's astonishingly unprofessional.

This woman is a jerk, plain and simple. Go get that promotion from another company.

Monday, October 18, 2010

would Hunter S. Thompson's cover letter get him an interview?

Have you seen the old cover letter from Hunter S. Thompson that's been going around, written before he was famous?

Some choice quotes:
"I stepped into a dung-hole the last time I took a job with a paper I didn’t know anything about (see enclosed clippings) and I’m not quite ready to go charging up another blind alley."
"By the time you get this letter, I’ll have gotten hold of some of the recent issues of The Sun. Unless it looks totally worthless, I’ll let my offer stand. And don’t think that my arrogance is unintentional: it’s just that I’d rather offend you now than after I started working for you."
"I didn’t make myself clear to the last man I worked for until after I took the job. It was as if the Marquis de Sade had suddenly found himself working for Billy Graham. The man despised me, of course, and I had nothing but contempt for him and everything he stood for. If you asked him, he’d tell you that I’m 'not very likable, (that I) hate people, (that I) just want to be left alone, and (that I) feel too superior to mingle with the average person.' (That’s a direct quote from a memo he sent to the publisher.)"
Now MediaBistro has asked a few career writers if they think the letter would work today. I'm quoted (saying "hell no," basically), along with Laurie Ruettimann and Nick Corcodilos. Check it out here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

will people think it's irresponsible that I quit my job?

A reader writes:

I am in a competitive field in a competitive market. I am also a second-year MBA student. I joined a brand-name non-profit right before the recession started and instantly knew the position was a poor fit. Unfortunately, I felt stuck due the increasing unemployment. I've stuck around around for almost two years and started looking for a new position four months ago. I've had two interviews, but nothing has come to fruition.

My job is taking an emotional toll. In addition, the limited resources at the non-profit are adversely affecting my employability and skill-set. Financially, it is feasible that I can quit my job. My thought is that I can spend more time networking, finishing my MBA and working on my skill-set (aka being the best in the world at something).

I'm afraid to just quit my job. How do I message to people I interview with in the future that I just up and quit my job? Doesn't that come across as irresponsible? Any other thoughts on this topic?

You know, it shouldn't come across as irresponsible. If you're okay financially, why shouldn't you do this? You should be able to say, "Financially I was able to quit and not work for a while, so that's what I did." But for some reason, a lot of people get very judgy about that, as if you must have a job all the time, even when your finances don't require it, unless you have one of a short list of sanctioned excuses (raising a kid, taking care of a family member, returned to school, etc.). This is stupid, and as a society, we need to stop thinking like this.

You, however, have a pretty good excuse that you can use with those people: You wanted to spend more time focusing on your MBA. It's reasonable, and it gets you out of having to deal with people who think there's something wrong with recognizing that your finances allow you to do something other than work for a while.

Friday, October 15, 2010

is this job going to be a nightmare?

A reader writes:

I applied for a position that looked great on paper - the organization, job duties, position, etc. I sent my cover letter and resume and within a week I had a call-back. I did a phone interview with one of my potential co-workers about my skills, salary expectations, and experience. Then, I was invited in to do a HR interview with a computer test before I met my potential co-workers and boss in-person.

The HR interview and computer test went well - no complaints. I was given the full job description packet, which had more detail about the position. Again, everything looked great and concise on paper. I then met with two potential co-workers for a face-to-face interview before I could meet with the actual boss. I felt as if the entire position had done a 180 on me. The two women had little information about the position and often contradicted what would be expected of me. They kept saying vague things such as "this position still needs to be defined" and "we need someone who is flexible." I assumed at this point that they were simply disorganized and perhaps new at interviewing. They assured me that the boss would have more information about the position.

A week later, I went in to meet with the boss. She talked at long detail about herself and how busy she was - how involved she was in different projects, what her weekly schedule looks like, etc. I tried to keep the interview on track by asking about the job duties and what the most important aspects of the position were. Again, I was met with more confusion and contradictions. Afterwards, I met with the first 2 people for another interview and some written exercises. I left confused again, and ever since then I have had this bad feeling in my stomach I shouldn't take the job if offered to me.

I was told that they would be making the final decision this week. However, I received an e-mail today stating that a completely different person wants a phone interview with me tomorrow. I was told that this person was in my job description and was mentioned to me previously. She was not. I have no idea who this person is or what my job relationship would be with her.

My question is - Is this job worth taking? Or am I creating unnecessary problems for myself? In this economy, and being a recent college graduate, I want to have a job. I want to work. However, this position seems highly inconsistent and I can't shake this feeling that it may be more trouble than it's worth. I'm not sure what I should do if offered this job.

It's not always a terrible thing to walk into a situation that's relatively undefined and to help define it. Sometimes it can be a great opportunity, in fact, because you can help mold the role and wear hats you might not have had a chance to wear otherwise -- and other times it can be a nightmare.

What you don't want to do is accept this job without asking a lot of questions. Things you want to know:

* While the job is still somewhat undefined, what's the range of areas it could end up encompassing?
* What will the process be for figuring that out, and what factors will come into play? What's the likely timeline for figuring it out? 
* What are the challenges and obstacles they're running into as they try to develop the role? (There must be some or it would be done by now.)
* Are there any directions the role might end up going in that you wouldn't be well-qualified for?
* What's the thinking behind hiring for the role now, before it's been fully defined? Are they looking for someone who can help in that process (or have they just not thought through how they're going about this)?

You want to go about this in a way that's collaborative and friendly, expressing sincere interest in getting a better handle on what to expect. You don't want to make them feel like you're passing judgment on them for being disorganized or contradictory (even if you are). But you do need to gather this information before you make any decisions. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that interviewing is a one-way street; you need to interview them right back.

Once you have this information, then you can decide if this is a situation you want to take on.

One other note: I'm a big, big believer in listening to your gut, so if you're still feeling dread after getting more information, pay attention to that. But get your gut some more information first.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

ridiculously helpful resource for managers

If you manage people, this is an awesome free resource that you need to check out:

The Management Center's resource library

They've got sample scripts for difficult employee conversations, worksheets designed to help you plan projects, the best list of reference-checking questions you'll ever encounter, sample rejection emails, and much, much more.

(Note: You need to sign up for their free monthly email list in order to get access to the library. But their email list is also ridiculously useful, so don't be deterred by that.)

The Management Center is near and dear to my heart: It's run by Jerry Hauser, my co-author on Managing to Change the World, and they're obsessed with helping nonprofits become more effective, an obsession that I share. And they're great at what they do. Also, one time they bought me a small pie.

You should get to know them. Go download all their free tools and then spread the word.

when traveling to an interview, how fast should you be expected to get there?

A reader writes:

When asked to travel to another city for an interview, how soon should an applicant be willing to get there?

A nonprofit recently asked if I could travel to its office to interview for a mid-level professional position that had been vacant for more than six months. This was on a Thursday (Sept. 16), and I said two Mondays from then (Sept. 27). That seemed to really turn off, even irritate, the interviewer. He said he had hoped I could come in next week, and it was clear he was no longer interested in talking to me.

I would need to take time off and travel six hours each way on my own dime. I also work in a small office and like to give my boss decent notice when I'm taking time off. Am I wrong to think he should have given me more time? Do I need to be more flexible, or was that a red flag?

I don't think you were unreasonable at all; the timeline you suggested was just under two weeks, which isn't crazy when someone needs to make travel plans. If it posed a problem for the employer, he should have explained that to you and given you the chance to incorporate that information into your thinking, not become irritated or uninterested.

There are legitimate reasons why they could need to move more quickly than what you proposed, regardless of how long the position has been open. For instance: Let's say you're one of their two top candidates. The other top candidate has been offered a position by another employer and needs to accept or reject that offer within 10 days, so needs an answer from this employer before then. They don't know which of you will end up being their top choice, so they want to interview you before that deadline expires. Or, alternately: The decision-maker for the position is about to go out of town, and they want to wrap this process up now, because it's already been six months, for the love of god, and they have enough other strong candidates that they're willing to cut you loose if you can't fit into that timeline.  

But the point is that they should have explained the time constraint to you and given you the chance to decide how to respond.

This is another reason why long-distance job-searching sucks, of course. It's true that if you're job-searching long-distance, you should be prepared for timelines to be tighter than what you can easily accommodate; at that point, you need to decide if the job prospect is worth it to you or not. (And it's perfectly reasonable to decide that it's not.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

angry and insulted by coworkers doing my job

A reader writes:

I was sent on a business trip overseas for 3 weeks, with 5 people from 5 different departments. Because of some business complications, the timeline for what we needed to do there was super tight. While I understand that and understand that everyone works together and does a bit of everyone's work where we can help, last weekend, two of the guys (let's call them E and C) decided to do my job and over the weekend did what I was supposed to produce. They sent it out, saying they took the weekend to do this, when it was clearly my department's deliverable. I became very, very mad that they did such a thing because I feel they should have at least included me in the discussion since it was clearly my department's responsibility. 

I sent an email to my manager (who for personal reasons couldn't make this trip) letting him know of my feelings regarding what had happened. I sort of "went off" - in the email, I stated that I am shocked that this happened and asked what his advice would be. I also met with C the next day and told him that it was insulting to me because it made me feel like I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do, or not pulling my weight.

After a few days of cooling off, I'm starting to think I shouldn't have sent out the email to my manager. What is your take?  I still think what they did was disrespectful and insulting, both on a personal and professional level, for someone to go right out and do someone else's work without involving or at least letting them know about it.

I understand why you feel the way you do, but yeah, you didn't really handle this well -- largely because you jumped to the worst conclusion immediately.

Rather than immediately deciding to feel insulted and disrespected, why not start off by thinking, "Hmmm, we're clearly on different pages, so let's figure out why."  Ideally, if you could re-do this, you would have thanked E and C for their help, but also nicely explained that you need to be in the loop when your department's work is being done -- because you might have already been in the midst of finishing it, or because you might have information they don't have that would impact things, or simply because that's what you're there to do. You would have then asked them, "Going forward, does that sound reasonable, or should we handle this stuff some other way?"  And then you would have waited to hear their response with an open mind. Maybe they actually had good reason for what they did, and you might have changed your mind if you heard them out calmly and non-defensively. Or maybe they'd realize they had overstepped their bounds and would agree to work with you differently in the future. But this approach is the best way to get at that in a professional way.

The key to this way of thinking is that you're not just "mad because they did my work." You need to go beyond that to explain why that's a problem (even if the "why" seems obvious to you). That's how you turn an emotional reaction into a professional one. Otherwise, even though of course division of labor is important and there for a reason, your reaction can sound more like a turf war, that you're not a team player, etc. You might have completely legitimate reasons for being upset about this -- but you have to calmly articulate why this creates a problem, not just fall back on "this was mine to do."

(By the way, a disclaimer: I'm assuming that E and C really shouldn't have done what they did -- although it's possible that everyone was supposed to be pitching in on everything. Since I don't know, I'm assuming the former.)

Your email to your boss was a bad idea for the reasons above. I'd send a follow-up telling him that you overreacted and that you're going to take a more constructive approach with C and E. Keep it short, calm, and unemotional.

Last, this has to be said too:  It's worth thinking about why C and E stepped in. Maybe they did your work for innocent reasons (eager to help, on a roll, unclear about division of labor, working on something related and this was natural to include, just not thinking, etc.) ... but maybe they did your work because they don't think you're going to do it well, or fast enough, or at all. This last possibility is the one that insulted you, of course -- but you should ask yourself honestly if there's any reason for them to think that. The fact that you were so emotional about it might indicate that there's some truth to it, simply because if you were 100% confident about your work, I don't think this would have felt as threatening to you. So be really, really truthful with yourself if there's anything like that going on ... and if there's not, great, but it's worth taking a look at.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

stop sending me two resumes!

There's an alarming new trend of people sending two resumes within one email message -- generally one longer version of the resume and one shorter version, but sometimes one version highlighting one set of skills and one version highlighting another. It's like they can't decide which version is better, so they'll just send them both.

This must stop.

should you end a job interview early if you realize you're not interested in the job?

A reader writes:

In a recent interview, I learned some things about the job that hadn't been in the job description, and those things were deal-breakers for me. (I had not known about these things until the interview, so I wasn't just wasting everyone's time just getting some interview practice.) There had already been other things that made the position less than ideal (pay, location, etc), and the new information told me definitively that it wasn't for me.

If something is brought up during the interview and your honest reaction is, "This position isn't going to pay me enough to put up with that," is it a good idea to just tell them right there that you are no longer interested if that task is a regular part of the job? Or should I just wait until I send them a thank-you note to let them know?

Go through the rest of the interview and stay friendly and engaged, and then let them know afterwards that the position isn't quite what you're looking for. 

Why should you bother, when you've already determined the job isn't for you? Because these people may have a job opening you like better in the future, and if you impress them now, that'll give you a leg up then. And also because if you impress them now, they might refer you to another company that's a better fit. And because the world is small and people talk, and you don't want to be "the guy who abruptly announced that he'd never take a job that involved ___ and got up and left."

Think of it as networking and/or interview practice, so that you don't feel like you're wasting your time.

And when you contact them later to let you know that the job isn't the right fit for you, you might consider letting them know why. For all you know, they'll come back with, "Oh, if you hate doing ___, that's no problem -- we can easily structure the position around just X, Y, and Z instead." And even if they don't, it's still useful for them to know your thought process, so they know whether the next opening that comes up is one that would interest you or not. If they don't know why you withdrew, they won't know if it was their entire company culture that you disliked or something specific to just that position.

But you've got to be pleasant when you do it; don't word it like you did here! For example:

Good: "I'm actually looking for something that doesn't involve significant customer contact; my heart is more in behind-the-scenes work, and it sounds like you really want someone to work with customers."

Bad: "I won't take a job that involves that much customer contact."

As a side note, last year we addressed this same issue from the other side of the equation -- whether the interviewer should cut an interview short if she realizes the candidate isn't right. It raised different, but related, issues and it's here if you want to check it out. (The comments are especially interesting.)

Monday, October 11, 2010

is it bad form to joke in a job interview?

A reader writes:

I was wondering what your thoughts are on joking in an interview. I recently had a phone interview that I thought went very well. I was well prepared, am very qualified for the job and had competent answers to all questions. I even threw in a few well meaning jokes (none having to do with sensitive topics) that I thought showed my personality. 

It's been a week and I have not heard back (they said they would contact in-person interviews by the end of last week). I am starting to think that my jokes may have put them off. One that stands out occurred when I was speaking and got cut off. They called me back and I said, "I'm sorry, I'm not sure what you heard last." The main interviewer seemed to have a hard time remembering and I joked that they must have been "listening with rapt interest." I thought it was funny and well meaning, but perhaps it was not in good taste? Your thoughts are appreciated!

This is tricky. Senses of humor can be wildly different.

Now, I'm a big believer that you should be "real" in an interview, so that you find out right up front if you and the employer just don't mesh very well. And a joking remark can establish rapport, if it's the right joking remark, delivered at the right time. But you also need to remember that things can come across differently when said by a stranger than when the same thing is said by someone you know.

And you have to be careful about how someone else might take it. For instance, the "listening with rapt interest" joke might have come across as sarcastic, which is a type of humor that not everyone likes or gets. It could also have come across as a dig at the interviewer, rather than in the self-effacing way you probably meant it.

For what it's worth, it's taken me years to accept that not everyone finds my sense of humor as amusing as I do, particularly in situations where people barely know me. In some situations, it doesn't really matter; if they're not entertained, so be it. But there are certain situations where it's worth turning it down.

All that said, it's entirely possible that this has nothing whatsoever to do with why you haven't heard back -- that they have other candidates who are a better fit for unrelated reasons, that they're just moving more slowly than planned, and so forth.

What do others think?

Friday, October 8, 2010

should I accept a job without a manager in place?

A reader writes:

I have been interviewing exclusively with one company, and they finally offered me a sales position. On paper, everything looks fine, compensation, territory, requirements, responsibilities, etc. The negative is there is no Sales Manager in place. They are being very selective in hiring for that position so I don't know who my manager would be. 

I've decided to turn the job down for fear of the unknown. What happens if my manager's style is different than mine? What if his/her expectations are different? What happens if we don't get along? The questions and concerns kept building.

I don't know if I made the right decision. I'm happy with my current manager but don't love the product I'm selling. I'm not looking at any other jobs. I have had bad managers in the past so I'm worried about that repeating. Once I let the company know of my decision not to accept, they told me, "You don't get to pick your manager" and "the world is evolving and changing where people come and go -- there are no guarantees anywhere." Who's right here? Should I have done/do anything differently? 

I'd argue that the manager should be a huge factor in evaluating any job offer, right up there with compensation and the type of work. The old saying "people don't leave jobs, they leave managers" is true; your manager will be an enormous factor in your quality of life and can make you either miserable or thrilled to come to work every day.

Now, of course there's an obvious difference: You could be excited about the manager and accept the job, and then the manager could quit a month later, which is what this company was pointing out. That's always a risk, and there's no way around that -- but what bodes badly in your situation is that the company is deriding your concern. And that's a red flag.

When you're interviewing for a job where the manager hasn't been hired yet, the best thing you can do is to get a really solid sense of how the company expects their managers to approach management. I would address it head-on -- for instance: "Normally I'd be paying quite a bit of attention to the manager for this position, her style and approach, and making sure that we're a good match. Since there's no manager in place yet, I hope I can instead talk with you about what the company seeks and values in a manager."  You want to know what the employer's management philosophy is, what other managers in the company are like, and what they look for when hiring a manager. You want to know whether the company wants all its managers aligned on things like expectation-setting and performance management, or whether each manager run things differently. You want to hear about times in the past when a manager hasn't worked out and why. 

And throughout this conversation, you are listening for thoughtfulness -- has the company even thought about these issues or are they winging it? If they haven't thought much about this stuff, you have little reason to assume that their hiring process will lead to a great manager. 

If an employer doesn't seem to understand why you're asking these questions, or why this would be a concern for you, that's a huge sign that this is an employer that doesn't appreciate the value of good management. 

In this particular case, the company who you turned down falls in that category. When they told you "you don't get to pick your manager," they were displaying a fundamental disregard for the impact of management and why an employee would care about that management.

Plus, they're also wrong: People pick their managers all the time -- by leaving them.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

manager borrowed money, refused to repay it, then fired me

This is long but really outrageous. A reader writes:

I was fired from my job 3 months ago. The reason I was given was "due to personality conflicts with your supervisor," which was shocking, considering that we were actually were pretty close in the office. I had been there longer then her and anyone else, and I never had any conflicts with anyone throughout the duration of my employment. To the contrary, I had wonderful relationships with every single person.

A couple of weeks before my termination, I did go to HR for some assistance because my supervisor began asking to borrow money from me in late 2009, and she continued to constantly ask through out 2010. She was pressuring me so much that it got to the point that I was so uncomfortable at work that I felt obligated to loan her the money. 

The last time she borrowed money ($750), she agreed to pay it back by our next pay period because I told her that could only afford to loan it to her if I got it back by that specific date; she agreed. Well, that date came and she didn't pay me back. A week went by and she didn't mention anything. When I sent her a message asking her about the loan, she simply ignored it. At this point, not only was I in financial trouble because my bills were unpaid, but she began to be really hostile towards me. When I asked again that she at least pay me back half of the money, she said that she needed to check her account and she could probably give me $100. Well, after that reply there was NOTHING. No payback, no message or email, nothing. 

So, since she was refusing to pay me back, I went to our HR person (hesitantly, because they were actually friends outside of work, but I had no choice). I told HR what was going on, and by the immediate reaction I knew there was something else going on, but she did not disclose anything, obviously. She did, however, want to help me and said that she was going to have to talk to the owner of the company about this, which I said would be fine. Two weeks go by and nothing, I then go to HR and ask what was going on, and she said that the owner told her not to get involved and at this point it is getting even more weird in the office. So, HR redirects me to the owner of our company. 

A day or so later the owner calls me into his office and says that my supervisor was told to repay me immediately. Then he asks me about my work environment, so I tell him how she has been making me feel, etc. He then continues to say that he wants to resolved as I have been the longest employee there and she was wrong, etc. Then he shared that she had already been warned not to ask anyone in her "work -related" environment for money or loans. One week later, I finally get my money paid back and that Friday I also get fired. 

After I was fired, I was contacted by the mail carrier who delivered our daily mail, who I'd known since I began working there. He said he was shocked to find out that I was no longer there, and when I told him the reason for my termination, he revealed that my supervisor had asked him to borrow $4,000 and that he reported it to our company.

I never had even one incident with anyone in my company, there are no disciplinary actions in my personnel file at all whatsoever, and throughout this time I remained cordial and respectful to my supervisor as I simply needed my money because I was suffering financially. So how do I explain this to a prospective employer? I guess I am still in shock and I can't even come up with the words to articulate it.

Wow. First let's talk about this firing itself, because I have to think that you might have a wrongful discharge claim. I'm not a lawyer and I don't have all the facts about what happened, but if, for instance, your employee handbook says that you'll get a formal warning before being fired, and you weren't warned, that would be legally relevant. There are also some jurisdictions where you have a claim for wrongful discharge if you were fired in a way that violated the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Any employment lawyers in the audience want to weigh in on the legal side of this?

Now, I'm not necessarily recommending that you explore an actual lawsuit (although you might have that option), because lawsuits are expensive, exhausting, and can take years. But I am recommending that you contact your old company (go to HR and the owner, not your old boss) and try to negotiate a very, very good severance package, based on how improperly they handled this -- including a sizable severance payment and an agreement about what the company will say about your tenure there and the reason for your departure. And you might want to have a lawyer help you with these negotiations, because the involvement of a lawyer sends an implicit "or else there's going to be a legal problem" message.

As a side note, it's interesting to speculate on what the hell this company was thinking. They're retaining a manager who apparently has a reputation for asking employees (and the postal carrier!) for loans and who ignored warnings to stop, and they've fired one of the employees she pressured for money without presenting a concrete performance-related reason. I'd love to know to what extent your manager's boss and/or HR were involved in the decision to fire you. My hunch is that (a) they aren't especially aware of employment law that might come into play here, and (b) they think firing a manager is a huge deal and they don't want to rock that boat, so they're willing to let her run wild all over everyone else (always a bad approach).

Anyway, let's answer your actual question, about what to tell prospective employers in interviews: Ideally, you'll have worked out an arrangement with your previous employer that requires them to say that you were a great employee and were driven out by a problem manager. In the interview itself, you can then say, "I made the mistake of loaning my manager a large amount of money, and it soured the relationship. It ultimately made things so uncomfortable that I ended up leaving as a result."

And to everyone else:  Loans in the workplace -- giving or receiving -- are not a good idea. Say no.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

coworker won't wash her hands after using the bathroom

A reader writes:

We have a very distasteful problem at work that I just don't know how to handle, and it's really disgusting. We have a co-worker who absolutely refuses to wash her hands after she uses the rest room, and she refuses the alternative of using gel sanitizer. She has fecal bacteria, ecoli, and Lord only knows what else on those bacteria covered hands of hers. These are the same hands she uses to open the office door the rest of the office staff has to use. She touches the copy machine buttons, the postage machine, all the other office equipment the office employees have to share, and there seems like there is nothing we can do about it.

We have approached her directly, but she just laughs. We have approached our supervisor, who spoke to her, but nothing changed. I am at the point of actually looking for another job over it. We keep sanitizer and handiwipes in the office, and wipe common use areas down frequently, but we should not have to, and I resent the filth. This is so disgusting! Is there anything we can do?

You're thinking of leaving your job over this?

Look, yes, this is gross, and yes, it's unsanitary, but ... do you really think that you're not encountering the same sort of problem in other places?  I assure you that this woman is not the only one engaged in this behavior; she just happens to be the one you know about. When you go to the mall, the grocery store, the park, wherever -- you're undoubtedly encountering things that have been touched by other people who also don't wash their hands. The only difference here is that you happen to know who a specific culprit is.

(I just looked this up to see if there were any statistics on hand-washing, and I found this study, which says that 28% of adults don't regularly wash their hands after using the bathroom. And to make matters worse, this study found that even people who wash their hands don't wash them well enough to wash off germs.)

I suppose a manager in your office could lay down the law on this -- requiring employee hand-washing in the same way that restaurants do, to prevent the spread of germs, and talking to this employee in a more serious way to let her know it's not optional ... but (a) do you really want your managers monitoring people's bathroom behavior, and (b), even if they did create some rule around this, are you ever going to really trust that she's washing her hands when someone isn't around to observe her?

Keep hand sanitizer around, use it liberally, and socially shame her if you must -- but quitting over it? For that to make any sense, you'd also need to wear gloves and a mask every time you emerged from your house. People are often gross. The world is germy. Write this woman off as one of the many gross people out there and move on.

Monday, October 4, 2010

8 ways to get what you want from your boss

Thinking about asking your boss for a raise, flex time, or permission to telecommute? Wishing you had eight tips from me to maximize your chances of getting what you want? Then you'll want to check out the guest post that I wrote for NPR's Marketplace website, which, for a huge public radio fan, was -- combined with my interview on Marketplace this weekend -- pretty much the most exciting thing ever.

employer wants me to shadow an employee as part of interview process

A reader writes:

A colleague of mine with whom I’ve previously done business recently recruited me for a job at his company. It’s a VP position reporting directly to him. It’s an important position in the company and it would be an awesome job for me. He said he feels like the position was made for me and he’s sure I’ll be a fit, but he needs the rest of his staff to think so, too. Fine, then. Let the process begin. And I do mean process.

First, I came in for an interview with him. Normal. We ended up in the interview for over 3 hours. Relatively normal, considering I know this guy already and the nature of the position.

Then, I came in to interview with HR and another VP. Again, fairly normal. They did go on a bit about the culture and how it’s very different (but good, they assured) from other companies and it takes a special person to work there. Okay, fine. I’m special.

But here’s where it starts to veer off into an episode of The Apprentice. They now want me to come in for a few hours during the day this week and shadow another member of management with whom I’d be working closely, so I can “get a better feel for their culture.” Of course, I’ll have to take time off from my current job for this, but I’ve done that before for interviews, but shadowing? Is this normal at the VP level? I’ve never heard of such a thing and I’ve never been subjected to it at lower levels.

What’s your take on this practice and what it says about the company? Should I do it?

This type of investment of time in the hiring process isn't necessarily a red flag; it says they care about making sure they're hiring the right people, which is smart (and will probably impact your quality of life positively if you end up working there). But the shadowing element is unusual -- not necessarily troubling, just unusual.

My question would be how this "shadowing" is going to work exactly, and what you'll really learn from it. Frankly, a better use of the time might be to have you come in and actually do some of the work you'd be doing in the position, or meet with the people who would be your new team. That can give both sides a lot of insight into whether the fit is right. Shadowing, though -- well, I'm not sure how much insight that's going to give you. (I also wonder if they really mean "shadow" in the normal sense -- i.e., are you just going to watch this guy answer emails and go to meetings, or is it going to be more interactive?)

On the other hand, there are plenty of people out there who wouldn't have accepted their current jobs if they'd been able to peek behind the curtain for a couple of hours and see how things really worked at that company. You're getting that peek, and it's hard to think that's a bad thing. In fact, more information when you're deciding whether or not to spend a huge chunk of your waking hours somewhere for the foreseeable future is pretty much always a good thing.

So I'd say do it, keep an open mind, and see what you think of the whole experience. (And then come back and tell us, because I'm curious now.)

Overall, the biggest point I'd take away from this is that they clearly think there's something unusual about their culture and that not just anyone will be a good fit. And when people emphasize culture in the hiring process, there's usually important information there for you -- about how happy you're going to be in that workplace and how happy they're going to be with you. So pay attention to what they're telling you, take advantage of the chance they're giving you to look behind the scenes, and figure out whether or not this place feels right for you.

how to explain you were fired, when interviewing

If you were fired from a recent job, you’re probably dreading being asked about it in an interview. Is there any way to tell the truth without killing your chances of getting the job?

Fortunately, yes. There are five keys to handling this well, which I discuss over at U.S. News & World Report today. Head over there and check it out.

angry boss writing angry memos

A reader sent me a link to these fantastic memos from a Tiger Oil CEO in the 1970s.

They are awesome.

Some excerpts:
"I swear, but since I am the owner of this company, that is my privilege, and this privilege is not to be interpreted as the same for any employee. That differentiates me from you, and I want to keep it that way."
"I have noticed the rugs throughout this office are very dirty from people spilling things on them. I will have them cleaned (which will cost me $1,000.00); and, in future, if people cannot carry their coffee without spilling it on my rugs, we will do away with the coffee pots entirely just as we did away with the food."
"Do not speak to me when you see me. If I want to to speak to you, I will do so. I want to save my throat. I don't want to ruin it by saying hello to all of you sons-of-bitches."
And there's plenty more. Read them immediately, preferably from somewhere where you can gasp loudly and laugh without disturbing anyone.

(I always suspect things that are slightly too awesome of being a hoax, but as far as anyone seems to be able to tell, these are real.)

Friday, October 1, 2010

I'm on NPR's Marketplace Money this weekend

I'm on NPR's Marketplace Money this weekend, talking about how to ask for a raise or other "extras" in this economy.

You can listen to it here (the segment with me starts at 31:30):

should you have to buy office supplies with your own money?

A reader writes:

This past week, my boss's boss paid a visit to our branch. He was telling me that he wants to see beverages, candy and snack-type foods available for when clients visit. He reminded me that corporate does not provide petty cash, and so I would be expected to pay out of pocket for these items, which I can then submit to payroll for reimbursement. 

Is it normal for a company to expect employees to do this? I am already living paycheck to paycheck (and searching for a new job with a different employer). I don't want to "loan" this multi-million dollar company any of my money. Am I being unreasonable?

You aren't being unreasonable at all. These are office supplies. They should provide petty cash -- or, better, they should just order this stuff using a company credit card, like they would with any other supplies. Are they also going to tell you that you need to purchase toilet paper and hand soap for the office and then submit for reimbursement?

Talk to your boss and tell her that it would be a hardship for you to make these purchases out of your own money and suggest alternatives, like ordering them online and charging them to the company. If you want to, say that you keep yourself on a strict budget. (You don't owe an explanation, but offering one often softens these kinds of conversations.) And if your boss won't implement any of your suggestions, explain that financially you simply can't do this and someone else (like your boss) will need to.

One note: Even though you're feeling irate, don't take that into the conversation. Be polite and friendly; don't make it adversarial. You're much more likely to get a good outcome that way.

And a good boss would find a solution to this, because a good boss wouldn't want you to feel personally burdened by the company's expenses, and also wouldn't want you to have to take on the awkwardness of having to push it.