Monday, July 6, 2009

Tougher Times May Mean Tougher Performance Evaluations


If you thought you hated performance evaluations before now, you ain't seen nothin' yet.I recently did a story for Gannett/USAToday on where job reviews may be headed:

Performance evaluations have often been derided by managers and employees alike as being unfair, dysfunctional and morale-busting. But in this tough economy, it could just be they become more popular than ever as employers position themselves to not only get rid of “dead wood” in their employment ranks, but as a way to justify the trimming of employee numbers.

“I think we’re going to see a real blooming in corrective actions on the part of employers,” says John Robinson, an employment lawyer with Fowler White Boggs in Tampa, Fla. “Employers are in a ‘what have you done for me lately’ mood.”

That means that if you’ve been showing up late for work for 10 years and no one has said anything, you may be in for a rude awakening in your next performance evaluation. Your behavior may be cited as unacceptable and you will be placed on probation and told to improve your performance or even possibly face being fired, Robinson says.

At the same time, Robinson says workplaces may see more managers write up employees for various infractions, ranging from unmet project deadlines to not getting along with co-workers. This is to avoid the dreaded “naked file,” which is an employee’s personnel file void of any reports citing unacceptable behavior – something needed if a company wants to let an employee go and not face future legal actions for an unfair dismissal.

“If you don’t write it down, it just becomes the employer’s word against the employee’s,” Robinson says. “But performance evaluations and reviews can be used as ammo against people.”

What should employees do if they receive an unfavorable report or performance evaluation? Robinson advises:

• Write back
. If there has been a misunderstanding, then write your side of the issue and have it submitted to your manager and put in your personnel file.
• Move forward.
“Don’t get into a ‘he said, she said’ kind of thing,” Robinson says. “Outline your action plan and show how you’re going to rise above it and move on. Outline how you see your future at the company and what you’ll contribute.”
• Be specific. Make sure that you point out your skills, training and any certifications as a positive counterpoint to any negative comments made by your manager concerning your performance in a review.

Robinson also warns workers to be cautious if the boss wants to do a review “out of cycle” – before the usual evaluation time. “It’s usually not good news when that happens,” he says.

Robert Hruzek, a project manager for a large global engineering firm in Houston, says that he remembers early in his career when he made mistakes that came back to haunt him during a performance evaluation. Looking back on the experience, he says he was “embarrassed and ashamed” when he received the negative comments from his boss.

“Work started at 7 a.m., but I thought it started at 8 a.m., so I would come meandering in about that time,” Hruzek says. “I was not very well prepared.”

After being offered a token pay raise based on what he now calls his “ridiculous amount” of tardiness, Hruzek decided to stick it out and try and improve his performance. “On reflection, I could see that the boss was right about me. I could have given up and gotten another job. Instead, I decided to stick it out and start showing up on time.”

Still, Hruzek says that times are much tougher now and he agrees with Robinson that employees who have bad habits such as tardiness or absenteeism might not be given another chance.

Notes Robinson: “In this environment, companies are looking for the key players that can give them a winning team. The others may be more expendable.”

What are some lessons you've learned from performance evaluations?

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Using Stories to Demonstrate Your Personal Brand


If you want to see a group of children get quiet very quickly, just let the teacher pull out a book and proclaim it's time for story hour. Nothing seems to hold the attention of a bunch of wiggling little bodies more than the magic of a good story.

Several months ago, I blogged about the power of telling a story in your career. That prompted some great responses, including a book from Katharine Hansen called "Tell Me About Yourself."

I interviewed Hansen, curious about how job seekers and current employees in this tough and very competitive job market could learn how to be better storytellers.

While it is tough to tell a story in a resume, there are many more opportunities, Hansen told me, such as a cover letter than tells a story of your career interest and determination or stories about solving a problem.

Or, there are the opportunities to tell stories at networking events, or when you've got some time with a boss. He or she will be much more interested -- and you will be more memorable -- if you can tell a story about your ability to work with a difficult customer or why you are interested in a big project. (Remember no story should be more than a couple of minutes long.)

In her book, Hansen also advises people to use stories to communicate their personal brand. "Take a minute to write down what you are most known for," Hansen says. "In what area(s) can you offer yourself as an expert?"

She adds that while you may consider yourself an expert in a certain professional arena, "hobbies and interests can be fair game."

Once you've written your branding statement, then you can consider what stories would support it. Some examples Hansen gives:

* A story demonstrating your passion about your field.
* A story that shows your understanding and experience with your audience's needs.
* A story that demonstrates a pioneering idea you've developed.
* A story that shows how you fit in with the history of your field.
* A story that illustrates alliances and partnerships that support you.


The key, I believe, is knowing the difference between telling a story that makes sense to your audience, and holding them "hostage" while you ramble on about something they don't understand or care about. Practice your delivery and work on telling your stories to trusted colleagues until you believe you've developed your skills enough to use it in other professional contexts.

One final note: Be truthful with your stories. These are not fables for you to spin in front of a campfire. These stories are to be a testament to your abilities, to strengthen your career and make you memorable.


What are some other ways to use stories to help your career?




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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Learn How to Handle Those Tough Questions


Many of us are more comfortable sending e-mails or memos at work, never having to directly face other human beings who — gasp! — want to ask us questions.

But sometimes you have to speak with people face-to-face, and sometimes it can get uncomfortable. Like when you're required to make off-the-cuff remarks or answer difficult questions.

“Why are you late with that project?" “You're being paid more than me and we do the same job. Do you think that's fair? “I know we don't get along, but will you be a reference for me?” These are a few of the queries we might be asked that put us on the spot, making us long for our keyboard where we would have time to tap out a response.

Of course, you want to sound reasonable when someone asks you a question. You want to sound intelligent. But somehow your brain goes into denial, causing you to stammer and then blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. Then for hours or even days, you beat yourself up about how you should have given a better response, but you were unprepared for the question.


And that's the key. In order to avoid being caught flat-footed, you must be aware of what questions may be asked, and then write out what your answer should be. And, of course, don’t assume because a subject is unpleasant that someone won’t bring it up.

That's why the first thing you've got to do is give some consideration to the
questions from hell that may come your way, then decide what a reasonable response will be. If you can’t come up with an appropriate answer ("How much money do you make?" then ask someone else for help. That way, you get the answer with the right "spin" and one that you feel makes sense.

If you feel like you need to gain better control over your face-to-face interactions, here are some tips that may help:

* Keep moving. Let's say you're giving a presentation or speech, and someone asks a question. Provide a concise answer, but try to move onto other audience members as soon as you can. That way more people feel included, and keeps you from getting into long-winded discussions or confrontations with just one person.

* Build in thinking time. When you're asked a question, repeat a few words of it back to the person. This gives you time to formulate your answer. It also helps take some of the bit out of a hostile or awkward question. You can ask the person something like, "What would you like to see happen?" or "In your opinion, what is the best outcome?"

* Keep the answer manageable. If you are asked a difficult question that defies a quick answer, break it down by saying, "There are three parts to my answer and the first part is..." This helps you keep track of where you're going and makes the other person feel like you're giving a thoughtful answer.

* Don't admit ignorance. Perhaps you don't know the specific answer to a question, but you can say, "That's a great question, and I'm looking into it. But did you know that..." This helps you save face and still provides your listener with information.

What are some other ways to deal with tough questions?



Lijit Search

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Monday, January 26, 2009

It's Time for Managers to Get Weird


I feel for managers these days, I really do. Or, at least I feel for the good managers. The evil troll managers I don't really think about too much, because they're going to get theirs one day no matter what I think about them.

But the good managers -- those men and women who are trying to hold it together when it feels like the entire workplace is a huge Titanic without Leonardo DiCaprio to at least provide a distraction from the looming iceberg -- I feel for what they're going through.

I know they're losing sleep. They're worried about their job, sure, but they're worried about dozens or even hundreds of others. The good managers know their people really well. They know who has health problems and can't afford to lose insurance coverage. They know who is struggling to pay a mortgage with a kid in college and they know who is a single parent with no help.

So, they go into work every day trying to stay calm and rational and upbeat. They're trying to keep frightened and disillusioned employees on track, trying everything to keep employees feeling creative and productive.

That's why it's time managers got a little weird.

Let me explain. I once interviewed a restaurant manager who needed to make sure employees were cleaning the place thoroughly, but knew that constant nagging would not help. In fact, it would probably just make workers annoyed and angry, or perhaps apathetic. Not a good thing when a health inspector was on the way.

So instead he devised a system where he stuck small colored stickers in various places around the eatery. Employees who cleaned well would soon find these stickers. And, by turning these stickers over to management, they gained a prize — and the restaurant gained quality work and a top-notch health inspection.

While such a practice sounds simple, many managers wouldn't even think of such a different approach to work. They simply keeping nagging employees — and losing morale and motivation in the process.

But if managers these days want to keep their best workers -- and that is another huge worry -- they've got to quit caring what someone else will think of their methods and just focus on getting people to do what they do best.

In other words, give the employees a reason to get out of bed in the morning and not worry about what may be around the corner. Someone else might think your methods are a bit weird, but hey, you're just being a good manager.

So here are some ideas given by other managers as a way to make a job more interesting and fun for a worker, while gaining higher productivity and quality work:

* Let them play.
Everyone knows that employees play solitaire on the computer, or some other kind of game. In fact, studies show that a little “down” time is good for recharging the batteries. So, why not devise internal company games that get employees to solve crosswords or anagrams or puzzles that have to do with company products or history? That way, employees are being educated while having fun.

* Put mentors in reverse:
It’s not only the older employees who have something to teach younger employees. Many younger workers can help older employees master some technology dilemmas through interactive sessions where information is shared in a relaxed way.

* Use training theater.
I learned that one manager feared that some of his younger male employees were being a little too forward with female customers, so instead of lecturing them, the manager had several male managers dress as women (heels, lipstick, dresses) and role-play with other male employees. It soon became apparent after the laughter died down that some behavior was not appropriate, and it brought the message home without pointing fingers.

* Take a road trip.
Take employees to visit a competitor and find out what the other business “does right.” Or, visit businesses known for their customer service, even if it’s not your particular industry. Many retailers are known for top service — ask employees what they noticed about how employees in these stores behaved.

*Put out the welcome mat:
Every month have one department hold an “open house” for others in the company. Handouts should be given telling what the department does, as well as a tour and narrative that gives information about how the department functions, who works there, etc. (It’s always a good idea to offer a little food and beverage — one company found a cotton candy machine to be a big hit.)

What are some other ways managers can help ease the stress and engage employees?



Lijit Search

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama Has His Cabinet in Place -- Do You?


As Barak Obama begins his first days in office, he'll be surrounded by trusted advisers.

Before he makes a decision, he's likely to consult members of his Cabinet. He'll probably ask their opinions on everything from foreign policy to domestic issues. In the end, of course, the final decision will be his. But he will make that decision based on input he's received from people he trusts and respects.

So, who is in your Cabinet?

You may think you don't need a trusted group of advisers. After all, you're not the president of the United States, and may believe that it's a luxury reserved for world leaders.

Not so. In fact, no one may need a Cabinet today more than the average worker.

That's because times are tough. It's hard not to be pessimistic about the future, or at least concerned that your portfolio has taken a huge hit and no raise or bonus is on the horizon. But with a Cabinet in place, you not only can do a better job of keeping difficult times in perspective, but you can have in place people to advise you when times are bad -- and good.

Who should be in your Cabinet? Well, let's consider who Obama has chosen. Some descriptions that come to mind: Smart, savvy, experienced and diverse. His advisers are not wilting lilies -- and Obama has reportedly encouraged them to be true to themselves and offer their unbiased opinions.

That's exactly what you're aiming for with your Cabinet: Smart, savvy, experienced and diverse. Now, let's look at how you put a Cabinet together:

* Make a list. Think of those you've worked with in past and current positions, or others you've met through various professional functions. For your Cabinet, it's best to steer away from personal friends and family members. You want people who are more concerned with what's best for you professionally, rather than just becoming emotional about what happens in your career.

* Don't rush. Putting together your Cabinet won't happen overnight. You need to carefully consider each person, and the strengths and experience they can offer. And, you need to be able to offer something in return. You're not a monarch -- this is supposed to be a relationship that is beneficial for them as well. Perhaps you'll be a Cabinet member for them or be able to offer valuable contacts or help when needed. If you don't think you can offer reciprocal benefits, you may need to consider someone else.

* Who has your back? In the working world it can often be tricky to know exactly who to trust. A person may say they have your best interests at heart, but actions speak otherwise. When looking for a Cabinet, think about who has covered for you at work without whining about it. Or, the person who gave you a heads up about a new project that you might like or the person at another company who alerted you to a great new job that was opening up. Your Cabinet members should be supportive of you, and show they have your best interests at heart.

* Always assess your Cabinet strength: If you put a Cabinet together and then discover that someone isn't really contributing, it's time to cut your losses and find someone else. Don't be ugly or unprofessional about it -- just tell them that you've learned a lot and probably won't need to be calling on them as much in the future. Remember: You never want to burn bridges with professional contacts.

* Be realistic. Your Cabinet isn't going to do your work for you. That's still your responsibility. They're in place to give you advice, to act as a sounding board and to give you their honest opinion whether you're doing the right thing or headed for disaster. Don't abuse their talents and don't take them for granted. Make sure you always offer something of value in return, and you and your Cabinet will go far in the coming years.

What are some other considerations for a career Cabinet?


Lijit Search

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Creativity Can Help Save Your Job -- Here's How to Find Yours


Be creative.

These are the words being echoed in workplaces across the world.

Be creative in coming up with new ideas to grow the business.
Be creative in finding ways to outsmart the competition.
Be creative in finding ways to work more efficiently.
Be creative in coming up with ways to cut costs.

They're just words, but two words that pack a wallop for a lot of people.

Be creative. OK. But....how?

What if your idea of being creative is taking a different route to work? Or wearing a blue shirt with brown pants instead of black? Bosses have said over and over that those who add the most value will be the ones who keep their jobs. Does that mean if you're uncreative, you could be in danger?

Probably not. If you're adding value by doing a great job, then there's no reason to believe your lack of creativity will hurt you. At the same time, coming up with new ideas is a sure-fire way to not only solidify your position currently, but possibly even garner you a promotion -- or increase your appeal to other employers who may be willing to pay more for your creative talent.

And let me be clear here: Creativity is not just the purview of those in areas such as marketing or design. Every workplace needs creativity in order to survive in today's highly competitive marketplace. You may not believe you're a creative person, but I bet you are. You may just need to exercise different muscles in order to really get yourself in top shape so you can call on your creativity more often.

So, let's look at some ways to develop your creativity:

1. Play. I'm not talking Guitar Hero. I'm talking about learning to look at everything in your world as something to explore. There's a reason that kids rip into toys on Christmas morning and then spend more time playing with the box it came in. It's more fun because it can become anything and everything for that child. Start playing with things in your job -- would you be more productive if your desk faced another way? Should invoices be another color or another shape to avoid getting mixed up with other paperwork? Why can't all meetings have a big bucket of Legos for everyone to play with? Experts say that children learn through play -- so why have we stopped playing as adults?

2. Challenge yourself. The next time you're stuck in traffic, look at what's in your glove box. Think of how you could use each item if you were a) stranded in the woods b) asked to make an art project or c) had to describe each item using at least 10 words. You can also do this while at home -- just use items in a desk or kitchen junk drawer.

3. Understand "no" is your friend. Lots of creative folks are told "no." John Grisham is a famous case, receiving dozens of rejection letters for his first novel. Why do you think artists are often starving before they are multimillionaires? It's because they were told no over and over again, but kept plugging away. Often, being rejected really boosts your creativity. So if your boss says "no" to an idea, that just means you're being pushed into a new realm of creativity. Be grateful for it and keep thinking.

4. Be vulnerable. No one likes to do things they're not good at. You don't want to take ballroom dancing lessons if you're so klutzy you can't take a flight of stairs without tripping. You may think art classes are for people who actually know the different between white and ivory. Not so. In fact, the more inept you believe yourself to be at something or the more you don't like it, the more you should embrace it. If you're conservative, take the most liberal person at work to lunch. If you hate country music, listen to Hank Williams. Learn to speak another language. Only by exposing yourself to new and different experiences can you start to jump-start your brain into seeking out new ideas.

5. Go for it.
Once you begin embracing your new-found creativity, you may be shy about sharing it. You may hesitate to propose your new ideas to the boss or co-workers. I'll be honest -- they may reject them in the beginning. After all, if you've not been known for your creativity, people may be a little taken aback when you seem to have morphed into something new. We often have a hard time initially accepting change. But don't let that stop you. Once you consistently offer new ideas, others will begin to see you in a new light -- as someone who is creative and energetic, as someone who is willing to pursue new ways of doing things in a challenging marketplace. And who doesn't want someone like that around?

What are some other ways you can become more creative at work?



Lijit Search

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Monday, January 12, 2009

How Teaching Can Make You Unforgettable


Recently, I posed this question on Twitter: "What was the name of your favorite teacher and what did he/she teach?"

I immediately got nearly a dozen responses, and the enthusiasm was palpable. English, history, economics, drums and literature teachers were lauded by fellow Twitterers who noted how the favored teacher was "encouraging," "brilliant," had "patience" or a sense of humor.

What I also found interesting was that no one forgot the name of that great teacher, which is kind of amazing when you think how many people claim they are "bad with names" even if they've met someone in business many times.

So, this got me to thinking about the power of teaching, and how we can use that in our careers.

While using LinkedIn and Facebook and other online networking tools can be helpful, and attending business and industry functions can be beneficial to your career, don't forget that teaching may have one of the greatest positive impacts on your success.

Teaching, I believe, can take many different forms in the workplace. You can teach the new employee how to use the phone system, you can teach an older employee how to streamline a process, you can teach your boss how to access material on the Internet or you can teach a co-worker how to handle a difficult colleague.

The point is that you're doing what great teachers do: Giving of your time and efforts with the purpose of passing on the gift of knowledge so that the student's life will be enhanced, better and richer for having met you.

Don't ever believe that you're not patient enough, or smart enough or giving enough to be a teacher in the workplace. Even the smallest effort to pass on your knowledge can have a huge impact on someone else, and that's very valuable in a workplace culture that is often so fast-paced and stressful that we forget someone's name the minute we delete their e-mail.

Think back to your favorite teacher. What did he or she offer you that made you always remember him or her? How did they help you expand your mind and absorb the knowledge they offered you?

Now, consider what you have to offer someone else in the workplace. How can you use that knowledge to make yourself memorable, to form a connection that will last? Because let's face it: Solid connections in the workplace not only benefit you now but in the future. Who do you think will help you when you're looking for a new job or an important business contact -- the person you helped teach, or the person you brushed off because you were too busy to help show the ropes?

"Teaching," Albert Einstein said, "should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.”

What are some ways you can "teach" in the workplace?



Lijit Search

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Idiotic Things People Say in Interviews


"Welcome, Ms. Jones. Thank you for coming in for an interview today. I'd like to spend some time talking with you about your application and past work history."

"Oh, thank you for calling me. I'd be very happy to answer any questions you might have."

"OK, well let's start with an obvious one: Why do you want to work here?"

"Well, I just think it's a great company. You have such a great reputation, and I think my skills would be of great benefit to you. I'd work really hard."

"How nice. Well, can you be more specific about --"

"Oh, and it would be so nice to work with people who are educated. I mean, some of the people I work with now. Well, let's just say they're not the sharpest tools in the shed...."

"Uh. OK. Well, let's talk about this project you mention on your resume where you headed up the team that brought in a very lucrative project."

"You bet. We got that contract because I kicked ass and wouldn't take any crap from anyone. I didn't want to hear a bunch of whining about sick kids or lung transplants. I mean, we were there to make money, and I made sure we did that."

"I see. So...."

"You know, I just want to be clear here. If you hire me, I'm going to pull my weight and then some. When my parents kicked me out when I was 17, I didn't sit around and complain about poor little me. I did what I had to do, and sometimes it wasn't pretty. But it got the job done. And that's what I'll do for you."

"Ms. Jones, you certainly have given me a lot to think about. We have several other candidates to interview, so I appreciate you coming in."

"Sure thing. I can't wait to get out of this suit, anyway. These pantyhose are cutting off my air, and my feet are killing me in these stupid shoes. I'll wait to get your call."


(Ms. Jones leaves. Hiring manager wads resume into a tight ball and lobs it into the trash can.)

I'll bet there's been a time in your life where you've regretted something you said. Maybe it was a harsh word to a friend or a criticism of a loved one. You may have gone back and apologized, or tried to make it up in some other way.

But the problem with saying the wrong thing in a job interview is that you probably won't get another chance. If you're annoying, unprofessional or just plain weird, chances are you're not going to hear from that potential employer again.

So, here's a list. Memorize it. Recite it as a mantra. Text yourself. Just don't forget to:

1. Stay positive: Interviewees may try and explain why they want to leave their old job, or why getting laid off hasn't been such a bad thing. But instead of saying they're looking for a new opportunity, they talk about how Bill in IT was a dork and the boss was a real a**hole. This is an immediate turnoff for interviewers -- if you talk trash they know you may do the same about a new employer.

2. Clean up your mouth: While swearing may seem like a minor thing to some people, to some people it is a very big deal. And how do you know the interviewer isn't one of the latter?

3. Keep confidences. Don't reveal personal details about others. "Ted is a great guy but more than once I had to take his car keys after some company party. He just doesn't know his limits." Interviewers have to wonder if you'd blab company secrets or personnel confidences if they employed you.

4. Be a grown-up. Whining and complaining about people or events, talking about what a bad temper you have or how you suffer from low self-esteem will not get you hired. Hiring managers will see you as a boatload of anxiety or trouble that they don't need.

5. Keep your personal life personal. While some interviewers may try and lead you to talk about yourself in order to understand you better, it's best to steer clear of comments that put you in a negative light. For example, don't talk about how you used to be a "wild child" or "rebel" or "party girl." It's also best to refrain from saying "I'm a typical Irish guy" or "my religion is very important" or "during baseball season I'm a maniac." You want the interviewer to focus on your professional skills, not your personal life that they may feel will interfere with your ability to do the job.

Finally, remember that it's the interviewer's job to make you feel comfortable so that he or she can really get to know you and your strengths and weaknesses. It's your job not to let your guard down so much that you think you're chatting with your best friend and say things you will come to regret.

How else can a job candidate prepare for an interview?


Lijit Search

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Monday, November 24, 2008

When Was the Last Time You Made a Career Deposit?

When I was a child, my mother often talked about living through the Depression. As the oldest child, she was sent to live with relatives when her family could no longer afford to feed all three children. Even though her time away from the family only lasted about a year, it greatly affected her life.

She hated antiques. She thought of them as old, and old stuff meant poverty. She wasn't a tightwad, but neither did she spend money she didn't have. She carefully monitored the family finances every month, and was meticulous in balancing the checkbook and making sure that something went into savings every month.

She never forgot the lessons of such a difficult period in her life, even though she was only about 6-years-old.

I've been thinking of her stories about what she learned from the Depression as I've watched -- along with everyone else -- the devastation many people are experiencing because of this economic mess. And what I see makes me realize that when we have gotten past this difficult time, we will not only have learned economic lessons that will govern the rest of lives, but career ones as well.

How many of us have kicked ourselves for not being better networkers so that when the layoffs came, we didn't have many places to turn for help? How many of us have regretted that we didn't promote our skills and abilities better so that when bonuses were scarce, we didn't garner one for ourselves? How many of us regretted not attending those seminars or training sessions or take advantage of tuition reimbursement from our employers that might have helped our chances of landing a better position during these tough times?

Of course, hindsite is 20/20. But I do think that when we pull out of these difficult times, we need to learn important financial lessons just like those who survived the Depression did. We need to learn those financial lessons -- and those career ones as well.

Specifically, it's time we all stopped living just for the next promotion or title and started putting something in our career "savings account." For example, career investments should include:

* Going back to the early days of your career and re-establishing contacts. You might be surprised that the guy who washed dishes at your first job now owns his own company, or that the girl who was an intern with you now is a top executive. Check out online sources to track people down and start investing in these contacts.

* Fix your burned bridges. Sometimes in the heat of the moment we say or do things that we regret. Now is the time to start making overtures to those who may think you'd run them over with your car given half a chance. Your reputation is the most important commodity you have -- you don't want anyone thinking less of you because you never know who they're influencing.

* Get a second opinion. Have someone you respect in your industry review your current resume. Even if you're not currently looking for a job, get some ideas on where they think "holes" exist, and what you can begin to do to patch them.

* Help someone. Every day, try and do something on the job that helps another person, whether it's pitching in with a project, making a recommendation for someone on LinkedIn or writing an article for an industry newletter. It's a way of saving a little bit all the time in your career "bank."

What are some other lessons we can learn during these difficult times?

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How to Get the Boss To Listen to You



Do you sometimes think you've become the invisible employee? Do you think the only way your boss might pay attention to you is if you were holding a phone and saying: "I've got Oprah on the line for you!"

You're not alone. Many people have felt ignored by their managers, but they are really beginning to fret more about it these days because they fear that "out of mind" may mean "out of a job" if layoffs hit their workplace.

Unfortunately, some employees go about getting attention in the wrong way. They begin to slack, believing that if the boss doesn't pay any attention to them, what does it matter what they do? Or, they may believe the boss's inattention gives them license to sort of "creatively" handle their job, which can mean anything from illegal acts to taking advantage of other workers.

I once interviewed James E. Lukaszewski, one of those super management gurus, and he had some great advice for finding a way to get yourself heard by the boss. In what called the "three-minute drill" he said that you had to really hone your message, to practice and to do your homework so that when you spoke to the boss, she listened just like you really did have Oprah on the line.

He suggested that you write out your three-minute pitch (or about 450 words) to the boss. It should go something like this:

* In 60 words, describe the nature of the issue, problem or situation that requires decision, action or study by the boss. What you're saying is: "Hey, boss, this situation requires your attention and we've got to talk about it right now."

* Lay out for the boss what it all means. Is it a threat from a competitor? Is it an opportunity to grow the business? Let the boss know WHY is all matters. Again, keep it to about 60 words.

* Say what needs to be done in 60 words.

* Give three options: do nothing, do something or do something more. Giving multiple options is what helps you keep the boss's attention, instead of her just tossing you out when she doesn't like your recommendation. This should be about 150 words.

* Once you give the options, then you need to be prepared to give your recommendation on which one to choose. Being prepared to give an immediate answer keeps her focused on you and your solutions. Hint: Give the one that has the least negative consequences. Total: 60 words.

* Forecast what you think will happen, both the positive and the negative, if any. The boss needs to understand -- in 60 words -- the consequences.

What are other strategies you can use to become more "visible" to the boss?

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Friday, October 24, 2008

10 Things Overheard at the Last Management Meeting


As an employee, it's often nerve-wracking to see managers troop into a meeting during these difficult financial times. What are they talking about? Is it good? Is it bad? Are they debating who is going to get laid off? Plans for a big project? What critical decisions are they making that the fate of dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of employees hinge upon?

It would be interesting to a fly on the wall during these sessions. That's why I thought I would speculate about 10 things overheard at the last management meeting:

1. "I told you we have auditors."

2. "We need to make some decisions about personnel. Anyone got a quarter? OK -- call it. If it's heads, Trish goes. Tails, it's Larry."

3. "We've got to find a way to cut down on distractions around here. All those in favor of moving our next meeting to the golf course, say 'aye.'"

4. "I could have been the next David Hasselhoff, but noooo --I had to get that MBA."

5. "It's unanimous: We use the 'Deal or No Deal' model for payroll this next quarter."

6. "So, no one really batted an eye when I told them to re-use envelopes. But the 'bring your own toilet paper' memo didn't go over so great."

7. "Hey -- I'm hitting the dollar store after work to pickup up a few 'forced early retirement' gifts. Anyone wanna come along?"

8. "It was all I could do to keep a straight face when I told my staff: "Don't panic. Everything's fine."

9. "I just found a great new website to help with performance evaluations. It's called "make-em-squirm.com."

10. "Oh, Lord. Is that the FBI?"

What else might be overheard in a meeting of managers these days?

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Is There an Addict in the Cubicle Next Door?



Six months ago on this blog I wrote about a smart and talented lawyer with four beautiful children who had a drug and alcohol addiction. The story, I said, was that of my cousin and her struggle for recovery in a world where she had once had it all -- but was stripped of nearly everything because of her battles with her addictions.

She died last week.

I had not seen her since my father's funeral eight years ago, but through family contacts I kept up with her health and addiction struggles. I'm not going to go into specifics, but suffice it to say because of her disease she at one point had lost custody of her children, divorced and lost her law license.

I debated writing this post, but after watching stress taking it's toll on everyone in this country because of the economy and the heated political atmosphere, I think it's important that we all make a promise to look out for one another. Addiction doesn't reside just on the street corner with junkies looking for the next fix -- it's also in the meeting rooms and boardrooms and cubicles where we work.

For my newspaper column earlier this year I interviewed Eric Goplerud a Ph.D. and the director of Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems at The George Washington University Medical Center, who told me that while workers’ alcohol problems cost employers millions of dollars each year and contribute to skyrocketing health insurance costs, the problem often is not effectively dealt with in the workplace.

“I think one of the reasons that more employers have not addressed this issue is because it’s perceived as a private issue in the life of an employee,” he said.

He told me that one of the most effective ways to help someone at work is to use what he called "AIM" – aim, inform and motivate.

“You go to someone and you say, ‘You know, you seem to be drinking more – how much are you drinking?’ Then, you inform them that what they’re drinking seems like an awful lot. Finally, you motivate them to get help, by expressing your concern and saying: ‘Have you thought about changing?’”

Goplerud also told me that even those who have not become alcoholics according to the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) guidelines are running a risk by drinking too much.

“What we’ve learned is that many people drink alcohol in ways that are unhealthy to themselves and others,” Goplerud says. “There’s no need for them to go to AA, but it does affect their health and there may be a need to go to counseling in order to handle the progression.”

He stressed that employers need to be aware of situations that can lead to overuse of alcohol by employees, such as workers who labor with little or no supervision or in remote locations – or who travel a lot for business. Also, younger workers (males under 21 have the highest alcohol dependencies) can be greatly influenced to drink more in a company culture where older employees drink heavily.

Unfortunately, research also shows that only 10 percent of working people with serious alcohol problems receive any kind of treatment, Goplerud said.

“This is a problem that is a whole lot easier to treat before it gets out of control,” he said.

You may not want to get involved in someone's addiction battles at work. After all, are you your colleague's keeper? In memory of my cousin, I sure hope so.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Learning To Love a Job You Hate


For whatever reason – it has great health benefits, you like the location and there’s a really cute programmer who works on the fourth floor – you have made the decision that you’re staying with a job you hate.

It wasn’t an easy decision. People job hop these days faster than Matthew McConaughey can rip off his shirt. But even though you have to drag yourself into work every day, you’re not going to quit. The boss seems to like your work, so there’s not even the chance you might get fired. In fact, you just got a pay raise. Dammit.

That was the last straw. Now you really feel trapped in this job you despise, the job that you began with such great expectations.

To be honest about it, the job wasn’t that bad in the beginning, or even in the middle. It’s just been lately that you’ve come to feel you’re being led to the gallows every time you enter the front door. You look around at others, and they don’t seem to be as miserable as you. Why, you think, are they so darn happy? Why aren’t they mired in the same pit of despair?

You know you’re staying put, but can you survive? Are you just kidding yourself?

The answer is “yes” and “no.” Yes, there is a way to survive, and no, you’re not just kidding yourself.

I speak from experience. I once had a job that I despised so much I used to think about chucking my degree and all my years of hard work and going to work at an IHOP. I envisioned getting pancakes at an employee discount. That seemed like a pretty good alternative to spending my days writing about subjects that were so boring I thought I would lose my mind.

And then, the boss took me out for lunch. I thought I was going to get a scolding for sleeping with my eyes open, but he offered me a lateral move within the company. That didn’t sound so appealing – why would I want to move from one job I hated into something equally as noxious?

But he talked me into it. He didn’t know at the time how bad I hated my job, and how the call of an all-you-can-eat pancake feast was a constant battle. In the end, he persuaded me and I took the new job.

By the end of the first day in the new position, I had been transformed. While I was doing much of the same work, it was different.

I wasn’t bored anymore. It was a new subject, new territory to be conquered. I could feel my sluggish brain begin to re-engage, to fire all cylinders. I met new people, immersed myself in learning new stuff. Within the week, I realized I no longer craved pancakes. I liked the new tasks I was given. And then it hit me: I loved my job.

The lesson: Yes, Virginia, you can learn to love the job you hate.

Here are some tips to get you started:

• Make a list of what you like and don’t like about your job. It’s OK to say you really like the cute programmer or the hours you work, but also think of what tasks you enjoy doing. I always liked writing, but I didn’t like the subject. By changing the focus of my work, it made a world of difference.
• Envision a new way to work. Think about all the things you need to make you like your job again. Would you like a chance to experience something new, such as interacting with others in another department? Receive more recognition from your boss? Get a mentor?
• Structure a plan. Put together some ideas for how you’d like to change your job, the new duties and goals.
• Talk to the boss as soon as possible. Don’t let a manager put you off until a performance appraisal; let the boss know you’ve got a plan you’d like to present. Explain to the boss in a reasonable, conversational tone that you’ve been thinking a lot about your current situation, and you believe you’re ready for some new challenges. Point out your contributions, and how you’re committed to continuing to do a great job. Lay the groundwork about the changes you’d like to make, pointing out the advantages for the company.
• Don’t give up. It may take weeks, even months, for changes to be made. Bosses can be resistant to changing employee duties, not wanting to upset the apple cart. But if you remain professionally persistent, and keep pointing out what a positive move it can be – you may find that reinventing your job was the right move for you.

What are some other ways to find more satisfaction and joy in a job?


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Friday, August 15, 2008

Why Accepting an Apology is Harder Than It Looks

When you make a mistake at work, do you apologize? Many of you will say “yes”. It’s easier, after all, to move on if you admit that you messed up and simply say, “I’m sorry” to whoever your actions may have impacted.

Now here’s a possibly tougher question: Do you always accept an apology?

Well, of course, you may say. That’s what happens when someone apologizes. You are adult about it and say something like “It’s OK” or “It’s fine.”

But is it really?

Because the truth is, when you get smacked around by life, you want someone to blame. You want to hold someone responsible for whatever happened, for whatever hurt was caused.

Let’s say a co-worker apologizes to you for forgetting to forward you important information, and that caused you to make an error in a report to your boss. The erroneous report made the boss pretty unhappy, and you caught the brunt of that displeasure. Now, the co-worker is saying she is sorry for causing you problems.

In most situations like this at work when someone apologizes, we say “It’s OK” or “I understand” or at least grunt some kind of acceptance. But the truth is that you’d like to lash out at the colleague who caused you such problems, to say that the ass-chewing delivered to you by the boss was all her fault, and her actions were hurtful.

Hurtful? You may think that’s too strong a word. After all, she didn’t “hurt” you in the same way as would a friend or loved one might, but still, you feel the sting of her actions.

So, while you may say you forgive her -- and give the appearance of moving on -- the truth is that you’re nursing a grudge. You think about her behavior. She’s unorganized. She’s unprofessional. She’s immature. She’s selfish. All attributes that led to your problems, right?

You start to feel a little better. Your self-righteousness starts to blossom. It was all her fault. You never would have made such a mistake. You would never have been so sloppy.

By the time you have lunch with several other co-workers, you’ve worked up a head of steam. You share your righteous indignation with others over the unfairness of it all, how you had to take the blame for someone else’s poor performance.

While it may feel good in the short run to play the blame game, you’re really losing in the long run. Why? Because you’ve never stopped to consider your own part in all of this mess and how it can be avoided in the future. In other words, you’re dooming your career to experience these setbacks again and again.

Let’s look at the way you should really accept an apology:

• Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You may discover that the person who made the mistake has been saddled with the work of two other people who were laid off. She has been struggling to keep up with the workload, and has little support from the manager. You come to understand that if you were in the same position, you might forget a thing or two.
• Fix the problem, not the blame. In evaluating what happened, you see that you could have double-checked the information and found the error before presenting the report to the boss. You decide that you need to build in some extra time to verify information, and give others a chance to weigh in to make sure no errors slip past you.
• See the outcome as good and bad. Yes, you got in trouble with the boss because of the error. That’s bad. On the other hand, you see that you need to be more diligent in double-checking information, that your process needs to be tweaked and improved. Such attention to quality will be a good work habit to develop and will positively impact your performance. That’s good.

The next time someone offers you an apology at work, stop for a minute and think about what’s really the best way to handle it. Instead of focusing on the “I’m right and you’re wrong” mentality, remember that no one is perfect. You have – and will – make mistakes in the future, and so will everyone else. It’s the ability to truly accept an apology and move on that will determine your future successes.

Have you ever had difficulty accepting – and moving on – after someone offered an apology? What’s the best way to get past your hurt or anger?


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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Is Your Manager Setting You Up to Fail?

Recently I ran into a friend of mine who told me he's quitting his job and going back to school to become a registered nurse. I was a bit surprised: Quit a job in this economy? Take on more student loan debt?

When I asked him why he was leaving a job that he seemed to love the last time I spoke to him about a year ago, he told me that he was simply exhausted, both emotionally and mentally. The position that he had fought so hard to get had become an anvil around his neck.

Over cold drinks at a nearby cafe, he told me that the job he was leaving in no way, shape or form resembled the position he had accepted two years ago.

"We had two people leave, so I took on a lot of their stuff. Then, a third was laid off," he said. "I was given those duties in addition to what I was already doing."

While he said the boss often assured him that he would get some help, it never materialized. When he would remind the boss that he was being spread too thin and he worried about the quality of the product, the boss told him that better time management -- and better use of technology -- would solve the problem.

That's why a recent story about companies combining mid-level and lower-level jobs -- and then hiring someone at the junior level for a lower salary -- really struck a chord.

I have been hearing similar stories for a while: Companies laying off workers, then rehiring one person with what I call a "kitchen sink" job description to do the work of many.

Let me give you another example: A woman I have known professionally for years works for a company that has been bought and sold so many times she jokes that she's not even sure who she works for anymore. But under that humor is a lot of stress: In the last three years, at least five people have been laid off in her department, and each time she has been given their duties.

I asked her whether she's received additional compensation for her additional duties. She told me no. Instead, she's been continually reprimanded for missing deadlines and not meeting goals. I have to wonder why the company doesn't fire her for her "poor performance," but I suspect it's because they can pile on the work -- and keep those notes critical of her performance in her personnel file to drag out when she wants to discuss more money.

(You may think this woman should have bailed on this job a long time ago, but because of her personal circumstances, she needed to stay in the position and try and make it work.)

I just don't get it. Why would companies set employees up to fail? If they hire lower-level workers, pile on the work until they break, then what's the point? They may have saved some money in the beginning, but it takes time and money to recruit and train a new body, so it seems that's pretty short-sighted.

At the same time, how can you ever make a good hire if you're using job descriptions that are laundry lists of so many disparate duties that no one human being can meet it?

I know that many employees rise to the challenge. But what I'm hearing goes beyond that. If we've got workers limping for the exits, where does that leave us in terms of training the next generation of managers? If we think that only time management and technology is the answer to overworked staff, then how can current managers create a team that's capable of competing in a global economy?

Please, someone clue me in. I just don't get it.


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Monday, July 28, 2008

Watch Out for That Wrinkle -- It May be a Career Killer

Recently, a friend told me about a party she attended called "Botox or Bangs." For those of you unaware of this trend (as I was), it means that when you get of a "certain age" you can either cut bangs to hide the wrinkles in your forehead, or you can get Botox to freeze your forehead so it doesn't move for months and it looks unlined.

My friend opted for the bangs -- and the Botox.

When I asked her why she would ever willingly let another person stick a needle in her face, her answer was this: "I just got a new boss -- and she's younger than me."

Yeah, so?

"Well," my friend says, "I know it may sound stupid, but I don't want to be the 'older employee' in my office. It's very competitive these days. I consider it to be an investment in my career."

OK. Well, silly me. I always considered an investment in a career to be attending a training session on PowerPoint presentations or taking a class at the university. But needles? Never crossed my mind.

My friend -- always very honest -- also confided that she was contemplating an eye lift, which I assume means even more needles and a couple of knives.

Why?

"Because," she explained slowly to me as if I were a 3-year-old wanting to know why I couldn't shave the family dog, "the people I work with are getting younger and younger. I don't want to have to look for another job at my age. I've got to hold onto this job, so I need to be as 'fresh' looking as possible."

I realize some of you are not going to be surprised by this in the least. After all, we see television programs that promote the young, the nubile and the unlined. We watch reality shows on everyday people becoming "swans" after undergoing plastic surgery, and books on how not to look old are bestsellers.

Still, it's disturbing to think that older workers believe they are no long viable unless their faces resemble something out of Madam Tussaud's wax museum. Back fat, jiggly arms and crow's feet are now career liabilities?

According to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, about two thirds of its members say that men and women are requesting cosmetic surgery because they wanted to remain competitive in the workplace.

Earlier this year I interviewed Dr. Gordon Patzer, founder of the Appearance Research Institute, and he told me that employers consistently hire and promote the best-looking candidates in a pool of equally qualified people. At the same time, he talked about the ugly downside of a society obsessed with youth and good looks, noting the rise of unhealthy body obsessions.

My friend assures me that she knows what she's doing, and won't end up looking like Priscilla Presley. The Botox, bangs and impending eye lift are not just for career reasons, she says, but also because they will help her feel better.

"I just want to look as young as I feel," she says.

I understand, believe me. But I can't imagine where this country would be without people like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa, all people who didn't look that "fresh" during some of the most productive years of their lives. Would bangs have meant they had even more impact? Would Botox have meant they were smarter or could earn more money?

I don't mean to sound naive. I know in this world many people have "procedures" and feel great about it. But I can't help but wonder if a few lines on the face, a bit of gray in the hair, and perhaps wisdom and experience conveyed in the action of a worker wouldn't be of value to a younger manager.

If not, then maybe the newest employee benefit offering should be a payroll withdrawal option for "Botox or bangs."


Are older workers feeling more pressure about the way they look? What should they do about it, if anything?
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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How to Know When It's Time to Take Your Job Off Life Support

You can't exactly put your finger on it, but somehow your job has started sucking the life force out of you.

Every day you feel a little more depressed, a little more like maybe you should just call in sick and sit home and watch "Cash Cab."

Still, the thought of looking for another job is even more depressing. There's the business of writing the resume. You know you'll face rejections. You'll have to go on interviews, and that ranks right up there with with having someone wax your entire body.

OK, maybe things aren't that bad at work, you think. Maybe you will somehow pull yourself out of this rut. After all, it's better to keep bringing home a paycheck than try to get another job when millions of others are trying to do the same thing, right? Who knows...the next job might be even worse.

Not so fast. It may be it's time to consider what your gut is trying to tell you, and it's this: Your job is headed down the toilet.

How to recognize that it's time to get the resume together? Consider these signs:
* The paper trail. I'm always amazed when people don't understand that a case is being built against them whenever they start getting those snarky memos from managers, using words and phrases like "failed" and "falls short" and "not up to standards" and "missed deadlines."
* The "whammo" performance evaluation. Sort of a Whack-a-Mole game for managers, where everything positive you bring up is slapped down. Another sign a case is being built against you.
* You have tread marks on your back. Those are signs that others have been running you over on their way to promotions that should have been yours. Missing a couple of opportunities may not be a big deal, but more than that means you're on the fast track to Doomed.
* You repel money. Pay raises? Forget it. Your budget is reduced or put under the jurisdiction of someone else. You're not part of a project that is expected to bring in big money or spend big money. The office manager always seems to lose your request for new equipment.
* Everyone is too busy for you. Your calls are not being returned, and your e-mails seem to suffer the same fate. You're not included in key meetings, and no one stops to shoot the breeze with you anymore. While you may think this is OK, it's really a sign that others perceive you as someone on the outs.

Finally, keep in mind that even though the job market is tough right now, it's much better to be looking for work on your terms. It's always easier to look for a job when you have a job. Don't wait until it's too late and you're forced to join the unemployed masses.

What are some other signs a job may be in trouble? Is there a way to recover?


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Monday, July 21, 2008

Going Over the Boss's Head: Like Swimming With Sharks While a T-bone is Strapped to Your Butt

Before I get into discussing the issue of whether you can -- or should -- go over your boss's head, I'd like to share a little story with you....


Once upon a time there was a young woman named Letitia Hood. Because her hair was a vibrant auburn color, and she was a bit vertically challenged, she was known in her office as Little Red Riding Hood -- or "Red" for short.

Red was a diligent worker. So diligent, in fact, that she felt she deserved a promotion and a raise. But her boss, Jack Wolfson (know as "Wolf"), believed that Red still had some work to do before he could grant her wish.

One day, Red became very frustrated with Wolf, and decided to pay a visit to Granson Mayer III, who was Wolf's boss. She thought that if she just explained to Granson Mayer III (known as Grandma) that Wolf was being short-sighted, she could get the raise and the promotion, and everyone would live happily ever after.

But Grandma, having been in the business world a long, long time, knew that he couldn't grant Red's wish because that would be breaking the management code of honor, which states that no employee can ever, ever go over a boss's head. (It just isn't done.) He did not, however, share this information with Red.

"Thank you for coming to see me, Ms. Red. You've given me a lot to think about. Please return to your cubicle. I need time to ponder your request," Grandma said.

Red, believing she had victory close at hand, nearly skipped back to the elevator that would take her to the lower levels where employees labored. But as she left the elevator on her floor (13), Wolfson emerged from his office.

"Well, hello Red! How are you today?" he said, grinning widely.

Red noticed that Wolf's teeth seemed a bit larger on this day, but she felt so optimistic from her meeting with Grandma that she smiled in return and said, "Well, Wolf, I'm just terrific! Thanks for asking!"

As she started to continue on her way, Wolf said, "Wait, just one minute, Red. Can I see you in my office for a moment?"

At this point, Red felt her beautiful auburn tresses begin to stand up on the back of her neck. But she ignored the feeling, and instead said, "Sure!"

She entered her boss's office, where he gently -- but firmly -- closed the door behind her.

Later that day, a co-worker went looking for Red to ask her a question. But he could not find her. He searched the lunchroom, the conference room and even asked another female employee to check the women's restroom. But no one could find Red.

Days later, Red still was missing. Her lunch remained uneaten (and frankly, began to smell) in the offfice refrigerator. Her frumpy sweater, used when the air conditioning chilled her delicate shoulders, hung forgotten on the back of her chair.

After a while, someone new moved into Red's cubicle, donated her sweater to charity and dumped her wilted ficus into the trash. Her rancid lunch was swept away, and her e-mail bounced a "recipient not found" to anyone who tried to reach her.

Soon, no one mentioned Red's name aloud, referring to her only in hushed tones and usually only late on Friday afternoons when the bosses had already left for their golf courses and lake houses.

It was often the new employees who would bring up Red's name, having heard whispers about her. Older employees would tell the tale of Red, how she had visited Grandma with her request and then been lured into Wolf's office. The moral of the story, the elders warned, was this:


"No one goes over the boss's head and lives to tell the tale."


Red's story is just that -- a story. But it is one that rings all too true with many people who have tried to go over the boss's head and ended up losing.

Why? Because managers -- even if they don't really like one another -- will stick together. They won't tolerate an employee trying to "undermine" their authority. Such mutiny is seen as not only detrimental to the management ranks, but disloyal to the company as a whole. So, as in Red's case, trying such a strategy can be extemely risky.

Sort of like jumping into shark-infested waters with a T-bone strapped to your butt.

But if you do decide to go over your boss's head, make sure you have a very clear idea of why you're doing it and what you want to accomplish.

You're going to need documentation to take to your boss's boss to prove your point, and you're going to have to be very clear, professional and unemotional.

But here's the most important point: Never take this step unless you are prepared to lose your job. Because that is a very real risk. You might not lose it immediately, but once you've gone over the boss's head, there is a real chance that your boss will not want to have a thing to do with you -- and neither will any other manager in the company. So, you may find yourself on a career track to nowhere in that company. In other words, even if you win the battle, you may lose the war.

Of course, anytime your boss is doing something unethical or illegal, you really have no choice but to take it to the next level, leave, or do both. Not only is this a professional obligation, but if the boss is doing something that serious, then you don't want to be associated with it.

The decision cannot be made lightly. Some people have done it and gone on to be productive employees. But remember: You've got to make sure that what you might lose isn't greater than what you might gain.


What do you think about going over the boss's head? Can it be done?

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Monday, July 14, 2008

What's So Bad About Being No. 2?

As Barack Obama and John McCain try and decide who should be their vice-presidential running mate, let's take a look at what's so great about being No. 2.

OK. Hmmmm...

1. You're not No. 3.
2. You usually get a good parking spot.
3. See reason No. 1.

All right, all kidding aside, is it really so bad to be No. 2? Well, it can be kind of tough to proclaim that you're really proud to be second-in-command in this country. After all, aren't we programmed from an early age that we want to be -- no, must be -- No. 1?

Our children must go to the top preschool, elementary school, high school, college, etc. No one, after all, holds up those foam fingers at football games that proclaim "We're No. 2!" Companies proclaim they have the No. 1 laundry detergent and we must be the No. 1 sales team before we get our bonus from the boss.

But what if your life's aspiration is to be No. 2? Does that make you a loser?

Hardly.

The No. 2 can wield enormous power. Just look at Dick Cheney. (OK, on second thought, let's not.)

Let's instead look at all the reasons that being No. 2 isn't such a bad gig:
1. It's action-packed. While No. 1 gets to make the final decision, it's the second-in-command who puts it into play. If you like facing challenges, being the go-to person, this may be a job you love.
2. You can be a fly-on-the-wall. People pay a lot of attention to No. 1, and may carefully watch what they say or do around him or her. But the No. 2 can often sit back, observe and learn. Seeing people in their unguarded moments can be a fascinating adventure.
3. You learn from No. 1's mistakes. It's called second-mover advantage by game theorists: No. 2's gain an edge simply by observing what the first mover has done.
4.You get to keep your head on your shoulders. When times are tough, people are looking for someone to blame. That usually is No. 1. And No. 1 usually is asked, or forced, to take a hike.
5. You get a great parking spot. Did I already mention that?

Of course, there are downsides to being No. 2. In a sort of "kick the dog" syndrome, the No. 1 can take out frustrations most often on the second-in-command. Or, it can get frustrating seeing No. 1 taking credit for your hard work. And, when you're No. 2 sometimes you have to do things you don't agree with, but you have to because your boss is -- you got it -- the boss of you.

But if you can get past some of the frustrations, some of the blows to your own ego, No. 2 these days may be the best position on the field. You can be exposed to important people and jobs, you can have a real impact on a company's direction and outlook and you probably won't take the hit if things go south. If you have problems saying you're not No. 1, just remember the words of Margaret Thatcher: "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."

Do you think being No. 2 is a good thing? Why or why not?

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Five Reasons It's a Good Idea to Stay on a Sinking Ship

There are always some sure-fire ways that you can tell your company is in trouble.

The floors haven't been vaccumed in recent memory because the cleaning crew is now one 80-year-old woman who comes in every other month to dust. You are asked to re-use ovenight envelopes -- and not because the boss cares about the company's carbon footprint. Unknown people are seen going into top brass offices and holding closed-door meetings for hours. You catch the boss working on his resume.

All signs that the ship is sinking, and the rats are headed for the exit. Time for you to join the exodus, right?

Not so fast.

Have you ever thought about leaping onto that sinking ship because it could be the smartest career move you've ever made?

Sounds crazy, but it has worked for plenty of people. I once interviewed a woman whose company was in deep financial doo-doo and was doing everything but selling the copy machine on eBay in order to survive. But while others were frantically sending out resumes, she decided to stay put. She volunteered to take on duties left by departing employees, and soon had access to key managers and top decision makers.

The woman told me that the organization became much more open to new ideas, including ones she proposed. She took on duties that challenged her, and was considered a key player when things started to turn around. While she left a year later, she says it was those skills and opportunities presented by the floundering employer that taught her the most.

So, before you grab the resume and head for the exit of a troubled employer, consider:

* The opportunity to grab a dream job. Even if it's only offered on a temporary basis, the chance to fill a position that greatly interests you isn't an opportunity that comes along every day. It gives you a chance to learn the needed skills and really see if it's something you want to pursue.

* The chance to work with others who are at the top of their game. If you're a new employee, chances are it might be years before you gain access to some key people. Even if these people also depart, any chance to work with them for a short time and form a professional relationship could be key in netting you future opportunities.

* The atmosphere may provide more education than an MBA program. Companies that are in trouble can adopt an "anything goes" style, allowing you to try out a variety of skills and learn at a rapid pace. It's a go-ahead-and-try-it environment, and that's something many MBA students would kill for.

* You're going to be on center stage. Floundering companies don't have time to handhold anyone. You're going to be asked to deliver immediately, and your limitations will be only what you make them. Sleep? Who needs it, right?

* It can help you set up your own company. Sometimes learning what not to do is the best lesson . There are lots of successful people who will tell you they learned most from their failures. Just think of how much you'll learn about what to do -- and what not to do -- being on the front lines of a failing enterprise.

How about it -- do you think the possible rewards make it worth the risk to stay with a failing company?



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Friday, June 20, 2008

Uh-Oh: You May Not Be Worth What You Thought

If you were offered a job you really wanted, would you be willing to accept less money than what you expected?

That's the question many people are facing these days, even in those positions that were in such high demand they were supposedly bulletproof.

According to a JobFox survey, some median annual salary ranges dropped $10,000, compared to a month ago. Some examples include software design/development; product management; networking/system administration; finance; and government contracts administration.

These numbers reflect what the Department of Labor is saying, that wages are failing to keep up with inflation. That's pretty grim news as we face rising prices for energy and food, while coping with huge credit debts.

Still, there are some ways to cope in this economy:

1. Don't become overfocused on wages. Look for the growth opportunities in a job. You want a job to increase your knowledge and skills, and make you even more marketable in the future.

2. Ask for reviews. When you take a new job, ask for a review in the first 90 days to review your performance. This helps set the groundwork for a salary bump before your annual review. If you're already in a job, ask your boss to set up some quarterly meetings to review where you stand and make sure you're on target to meet goals.

3. Negotiate for other compensation/benefits. If an employer isn't offering you the salary you desire, ask for training opportunities -- either in another department, or to attend an industry event where you'll not only learn something, but make valuable professional contacts. As for other benefits, I know one worker who nabbed a good laptop from her company for $75 when the employer decided to upgrade. Make sure you're friendly with the office manager and the IT people so you know when good stuff may become available for purchase. Or, see if you can work from home at least one day a week to save on fuel costs. Some employers will pay the cost of monthly Internet service if you put in work time from home, or pay your cell phone bill if you spend time using it for business. The point it to be creative in presenting win-win options to your boss.

4. Ask about tuition reimbursement. Some companies still offer the benefit, and any education is worth the time. Recent schooling always looks good on a resume, and many companies cannot offer higher salaries unless you meet certain educational or training requirements.

Still, the question of whether to accept a job at a salary you believe is too low is a tough one. In this economy, it can be difficult to negotiate when employers are cutting back not only salaries, but positions.

Do you think it's a mistake to accept a job for less money than what you desire -- or is this a salary trend we must learn to accept?


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