Monday, April 20, 2009

Secrets Revealed: What They're Really Looking at When You're a New Employee


It's your first day at a new job. Everything seems to be going well, but then... (ominous music) ...then you eat a doughnut at your desk.

You can feel the change in the atmosphere. People try to hide their shocked expressions, but you see them anyway. A few pitying looks are cast into your cubicle, even a few smirks. Suddenly, your Dunkin' Donuts chocolate cake doughnut tastes like sawdust in your mouth. Crumbs drift down the front of your shirt, and the chocolate you were about to lick from your fingers is now hastily wiped on a napkin.

You don't know exactly what has happened, but you know without a doubt that your "new kid" jitters have just been ratcheted up to a level you haven't felt since you performed "Thriller" for your school's talent show.

Welcome to the pitfalls of being the new kid on the block. Because while the human resources department may have provided you with two days worth of training and given you an employee handbook as thick as the Trenton phone book, you've just screwed up in a way you never imagined: You ate at your desk.

How were you supposed to know? you wonder. No one told you that it's not OK to indulge in a harmless doughnut when you hit that mid-morning slump! But now that it has happened, people just look at your differently. You begin to wonder if you've damaged your professional reputation before you've even learned how to use the phone system.

Recently I interviewed several employers who told me that it's often the little things -- like eating at your desk when everyone always eats in the break room -- that can trip up a new worker. By not being observant of the culture in a company, new employees can find they have a more difficult time of not only meshing right away with a new team, but of impressing a boss.

"It's the little things that often put a stink on you for the rest of your career," says Maureen Crawford Hentz, manager of talent acquisition, development and compliance for Sylvania in Danvers, Mass. "Then you have to work twice as hard to erase them."

If you're taking on a new position, here are some things to consider in your first days on the job:

* Learning appropriate ways to communicate. Can you question a boss in a meeting? Is it OK to Twitter at work? Should e-mails be formal? Is it OK to address everyone by their first name, or does it depend on their title? "Spend time walking around and watching what people do. Do they talk casually with one another, or do they use formal e-mail?" Hentz says. "These are the things people don't tell you, but you need to figure out on your own."

* Not watching the clock. Don't be late and don't rush out the door as soon as the clock says it's time. You want to make it appear to others that you're happy to be there.

* Maintaining a professional workspace. "There is a difference between the workplace and the front of your refrigerator," says Bob Horst,head of recruitment and professional development for Nelson Levine deLuca and Horst LLC. "I like to see a tasteful family photo because my family is important to me. But I don't want to see a whole bunch of your child's artwork all over the place. It is a workplace."

* Keeping socialization under control. "It's important to fit in, but your main focus should be learning your job," says Linda Matzigkeit, senior vice president of human resources for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

* Listen and learn."No one wants to hear the new guy endlessly spouting advise and wisdom on his first day. And I don't want to hear about how you used to do things at your last employer," Horst says.

* Understanding the difference between policy and reality. "Yes, lunch is 12-1 (p.m.), but do people really go? Is it acceptable to eat at your desk?" Hentz asks.

Hentz says that while it can be tough knowing what to do and what not to do, new workers can always go to human resources to get the inside skinny on the new workplace.

"Sometimes there are no hard and fast rules," Hentz says. "You just have to understand what's happening and then make your choices."

What are some other good guidelines for new workers?

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Is Your Definition of Success Making You Miserable?


Is your definition of success a fatal mistake?

For some, success is defined in terms of the dollar amount on a paycheck. For others, it's the title on their business card. Others may define success in terms of the accolades and awards they have won.

But the problem with how people define success these days is that when they're forced to change it, they can't. Look at the businessmen who have committed suicide because they have lost fortunes. Consider the workers who are fired and then go back to work, armed with a gun.

Extreme cases, sure. Not everyone considers killing themselves or others when their livelihood is threatened. But it does point out that maybe we need to revisit our own definition of success.

Start by completing this definition: "Success to me is...."

After you complete this sentence, then review it and determine if you're on the path to achieving that success. If you were to lose your job or money tomorrow, would your definition of success still be valid? Or, would you consider yourself a failure?

I remember a job where I worked long, stressful hours and often labored for a boss who had mood swings like a freaking roller coaster. It made for a tense situation, to say the least. One day I was talking to a co-worker and the exhaustion was overwhelming. I felt so dissatisfied, frustrated and even angry. Then it hit me: If I died that day, I didn't want the only thing on my tombstone to be "Always met her deadlines."

Ugh, I remember thinking. I wanted my life to account for more than that. It wasn't until months later that I started making some real changes in my life, changes that I know made me much better able to balance my life and devote time and effort to more than my job.

Right now, times are tough and some of us are beginning to panic. But I think it's a golden opportunity to really think about what is important in your life, and weed out the things that don't really matter.

You are the one who must define what success is to you. One thing I know for sure: You are more than a job title, you are worth more than a number on a paycheck and you are more than an award to hang on your wall. Is the destination you have in mind worth the road you must travel? Only you can answer that.

So, how do you define success?



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, October 1, 2008

Is Any Job Worth a Bad Boss?


When there are stressful times in the workplace, you can bet it's going to bring out the best in a lot of people -- and the worst.

Unfortunately, job seekers may not discover which category a boss falls into until it's too late.

For example, good bosses will understand that the continuing tough economic news means they need to rally the troops, to stick close to employees and make sure employees see they are calm in the face of bad economic news, determined to keep doing the best possible job. They make sure their door is always open to listen to worker concerns, and even spring for a pizza every once in a while just to help lighten the mood.

And then there are the bosses that crack under the strain. They hole up in their offices, the door tightly closed. When they do emerge, they are uncommunicative with workers, except to criticize or be short-tempered. They may be sarcastic, rude, insulting and thoughtless. Employees become tightly wired and depressed, alternately sniping with one another or lapsing into brooding silences.

Enter the hapless job seeker. With shiny shoes, a bright smile and firm handshake, the job candidate enters the door of a company, hopeful that in this crappy job market, he or she may land a job.

Many are desperate. They try not to let that show (a definite no-no in the job search world), but they know their current company is sinking fast, their industry on the rocks, their job security a thing of the past. They need another job, and they need it now.

So, they may be willing to overlook a few things they would not have in the past, when job seekers had the upper hand in a thriving economy. Now, with rising unemployment, they don't care about the long commute, the less-than-generous benefits, the lack of stock options. In other words, they are willing to overlook a lot of the frayed edges if it just means they can keep a paycheck coming in.

Understandable. You gotta do what you gotta do. But there is one area that may bear closer scrutiny: the boss.

As anyone who has had a bad boss knows, a rotten manager can affect you in ways you never dreamed. You can't sleep. You can't eat -- or overeat. You yell at your kids or partner when you get home, you develop bad headaches and stomach pains. You feel like you've aged 10 years overnight and secretly envision the boss getting hit by a bus. (Not killed of course, just in the hospital for the next five years.)

That's why it's still important that while you may be willing to settle on a lot of things when you go for a job these days, don't settle for a bad boss. And here's a bit of good news: The bad bosses are being exposed as never before. It's going to be easier to learn who is a lousy manager simply because he or she is cracking under the strain.

Here's some ways to find out a boss's true colors:

* Ask to speak to other employees. Sometimes you will not always be given this opportunity, and other times, the workers may not be truthful because they fear for their own jobs. Ask questions such as: "What has been your favorite assignment and why?" "What gives you the greatest satisfaction working here?" "What three words would you use to describe your boss?"
* Find the favorite watering hole. This may be a neighborhood pub, or a lunch spot where employees hang out. It may even be a nearby park. The idea is to strike up a conversation away from the eyes and ears of the boss so that you can get an employee to open up about the true management style of the boss.
* Be objective. Just because one employee trashes the manager doesn't mean the boss is terrible. It could be that this person doesn't get along with anyone. Try and talk to several employees so that you can get a real feel for what's going on.
* Don't think you're special. I'm always amazed by job candidates who take a position knowing the boss is an ass. They always think they can find a way to get along with the manager, that they somehow possess special powers to overcome a bully boss. Not so. If the boss is a jerk to the majority of workers, chances are you're going to experience the exact same thing.

What are some other ways to spot a bad manager?


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Monday, September 8, 2008

Do You Know When to Run Like Hell From a Job?


Sometimes it's hard to know what you want. Sometimes it’s easier to know what you don’t want.


I mean, there are a lot of career advice people – myself included – who give pointers on how to get the job you really want. But what if you’re not sure what you want? What if you’re not sure what you should do next?


In that case, you flip it. You look at the other side of the equation – figure out what you hate, and then you’ll know what to avoid at any cost. You’ll end up with a rough road map of where you need to go.


The key is to make sure these are things that you are absolutely, positively don’t want to do ever, ever again. Ever. In your lifetime. They are the deal breakers, the things that make you run like hell if you ever see them again.


Now, let’s put on our 20/20 hindsight glasses and see what we wish we had never done, and what we never want to do again in the future:

1. Location, location, location. People never consider what it will be like to sit eight to 12 hours a day in cubicle in a windowless office until they have done it. Some people hate it so much they would rather be carrying a “will work for food” sign on an interstate interchange. Or, if you have to commute 40 miles one way every day and you’re developing a galloping case of road rage, then you know that working far from home doesn’t make you happy. The lesson: Don’t apply for jobs that will stick you in a cubicle or have you tucking a Louisville Slugger under the front seat of your car.

2. Hours of operation. My dad worked shift work my entire life. He worked Christmas and Halloween and President’s Day and just about every holiday I can think of. One week he worked 4 p.m. to midnight, and the next he would work 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. It seemed like when he was home, he was always asleep. I can still hear my mother telling my sisters and me: “Don’t slam the door! Be quiet! Your Dad is sleeping!” When I went to work in newsrooms, it never bothered me to work Christmas or any other holiday. It didn’t bother me to work until 2 a.m. or be called out on a story on Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t a big deal to me because odd hours and days seemed normal to me. But it bugged plenty of other people, and they ended up hating the job because of it. If the hours of a job don’t mesh with what you consider “having a life,” then don’t consider it. You’ll be miserable, and there’s no point trying to stay in job when you resent the hours.

3. Flexibility. There are two types of workplaces these days: Those that say they provide flexibility – and do – and those that say they provide flexibility – and don’t. I’ve always been amazed by those “best places to work” lists that report XYZ Corp. is a great place to work because they provide all these really cool benefits: Employees take time off to train for a marathon or attend a kid’s soccer game. Then you dig a little deeper and find out that yeah, that happens, but only for six people in corporate headquarters. The rest of the poor saps get the evil eye from their boss if they request time off for open heart surgery. So, if flexibility is really important to you, then do your homework and find out if flexibility is just lip service. If you hate your job because you feel chained to a desk or workstation and the boss would rather poke out his own eye with a sharp stick than let you work from home, then forget it. Talk to those in industry and professionals groups – even alumni associations – and see if you can get the real story on what happens within a company’s four walls.

4. Benefits. When I was a young worker, I could have cared less about health benefits. They were not a deal breaker for me, as I probably got a cold about twice a year and that was it. That changed as soon as I got married and had my first child. While I know that everyone would like a job with health benefits, it’s probably more critical for parents – especially single parents. If this is one of the reasons you hate your job, then don’t bother seeking positions that won’t offer you health insurance.

5. Travel. I recently interviewed a woman who traveled a lot for her job. I was ready to hear her tales of woe – delayed flights, missed family, uncomfortable hotel rooms – but she couldn’t have been happier. I’m talking happy. She loved traveling for her job, she loved being in different offices and meeting different people. The travel actually made her love her job. Now, I’ve known plenty of people who hated their jobs because of the travel. They thought being out of the office several days a month wouldn’t be so bad. But they ended up hating it, and found the stress unbelievable. If you hate your job because of the travel, then steer clear of a job that requires it.


Every day we have to make choices. Some of them are harder than others. And, when it comes to a career, those choices can become scary and confusing and intimidating. The easiest step, in that case, may be to simply decide what you don’t want. Once you do that, then you will clear away a lot of the clutter that keeps you from getting the job that you do want.


What others deal breakers should people consider when making career decisions?




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Thursday, September 4, 2008

When Times are Tough, How Do You Keep Workers Focused and Engaged?


While no one would dispute the fact that workers are stressed because of continuing layoffs, stagnant wages and rising consumer prices, the pressure may be compounded for the people in charge of keeping workers enthusiastic and motivated -- managers.

I recently interviewed Michael Stallard, CEO of E Pluribus Partners in Greenwich, Conn., and he told me that at times like this, managers have to be even more vigilant about staying close -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- to their staff.

That's because employees can become unfocused and unproductive when times are so uncertain and challenging.

“Stress sort of short-circuits the brain,” Stallard says.

Still, Stallard says managers have some tools to help bring teams together, such as making sure all workers "feel like they’re connected.”

That means that managers need to make sure they keep an open-door policy" and assure workers they’re available to talk about any anxieties they may be experiencing. At the same time, Stallard says managers should actively work at finding ways to get employees out of the office, which can be ground zero for work stress.

“Go to lunch with your employees. Go for a walk with them. Spend time with them one-on-one, and let them express their feelings,” he says. “And make sure that when they are at work, you give them some tasks that they enjoy doing.”

Stallard advises managers trying to energize and engage employees during these tough economic times to:

• Stay focused. Employees should be reminded that they have an obligation to their other team members, and that means everyone must pull his or her weight and work toward targeted goals. Remind them how important their work is for everyone on the team, he says.
• Keep the panic at bay. “Let them know that if they’re feeling especially anxious, they should come and talk to you,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure they know they can talk about whatever they’re going through.”
• Use social media. Some employees may be more comfortable communicating through e-mail or social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. “Face-to-face contact is always the best, but more managers have employees on different continents or in different cities. Social media is a great way to stay connected with your team and keep them engaged.”
• Remember to laugh. “Humor is a great reliever of stress,” he says. “Try and find ways to have some fun with your employees.”

But what if the worst thing happens – and a manager must lay off workers?

“The first time I had to lay someone off it made me physically sick,” Stallard says. “You have an obligation to be respectful, and show empathy. That’s critical. You also need to try and help them as much as you can in finding another job.”

Stallard says he strongly disagrees with employees being immediately escorted from a building upon dismissal from a job, which he calls “humiliating.”

“You should let them finish their day and communicate with the other employees,” he says. “One other thing to think about: The existing employees will remember how you treated those who left.”

Finally, Stallard says the key for managers trying to cope with these challenging times is to practice a management philosophy that treats people with respect and compassion through good times and bad.

“A lot of what goes into keeping people engaged through the tough times is the history of how you have managed,” he says. “It’s almost like you’re building up an emotional bank account.”

What else can managers do to help keep employees engaged and enthusiastic?


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Monday, August 25, 2008

Would You Rather Have Your Pinky Toe Cut Off?


We had just spent several sweaty hours at a professional baseball game, and my youngest son was balking at getting in the car for the two-hour drive home. Having gotten a bit carsick on the way to the game, he was negotiating getting a hotel room and staying the night.

All I could think of was a cool shower and the comfort of my own bed, so I stood tough in the face of some serious whining.

"I'll tell you what," I said. "I'll play a game with you on the way home."

"It's dark! We can't see to play anything!" he argued.

"Sure, we can," I said, trying not to let the exhaustion I felt creep into my "enthusiastic mommy" voice. "We'll play 20 questions. It will be fun!"

My son, still in negotiation mode, said: "How about if we play 'which would you rather?'"

Since I had never heard of such a game, I asked him to start us off.

Settled into the cool, dark confines of the back seat and headed home, he launched his first question: "Uh, OK. Which would you rather have: Your pinky toe cut off -- permanently -- or both arms broken and in a cast for a year?"

I was sort of taken aback by the game (was this going to be about missing body parts?) but after a moment's consideration I said: "Well, I can do without my pinky toe. It's not like I would fall over without it. And I'd hate to be in two casts for a year. Think of all the bad hair days. I'll go with the pinky toe."

For the next two hours, we played the game. My husband and other son quickly joined in. At times the questions were fun: Which would my 13-year-old son rather do -- carry a Hannah Montana backpack to school or have his head shaved? Would my oldest rather have a date with Jessica Alba or get a new Porshe?

Often, the questions to me were about my career: Which would I rather do, work for the former boss who yelled at me a lot or the other past boss who was sneaky and mean?

While giving up my pinky toe was a pretty easy decision, some of the queries were much more tough. My initial response would often come to a halt as I pondered aloud some questions about where I wanted to go in my career and my life.

I was struck by how simple the questions were, but how much they clarified the things that I found truly important. It wasn't one of those cases where I said, "Oh, gee, I can't make up my mind. I don't know whether I'd want to work for the yelling boss -- who could be nice at times -- or the sneaky and mean boss." I knew I'd rather work for someone who was openly a jerk than someone who gave snakes a bad name. (It dawned on me that was probably why I had recently decided not to apply for a job where the management had a bad reputation. To me, the money was not worth the stress of a snarky boss and I'd rather put my energy into something else.)

In the last couple of days, I've thought a lot about the game my family played on that summer night. I not only learned a lot about myself, but also about what others thought I considered important. They also learned a lot about me.

So, on this Monday morning, I'm going to ask you to play "which would you rather." Spend some time playing this game with people who are close to you. You're going to be amazed at what you'll learn about yourself:

1. Which would you rather have: Three months doing a job you really hate -- for a lot of money -- or a job for a year that you love, but for much less money?

2. Which would you rather have: A prestigious award from your industry or a 25 percent pay raise?

3. Which would you rather have: Three weeks vacation at a destination of your choice or your boss giving you much more recognition?

4. Which would you rather have: Being able to work on an important project or everyone getting along at work?

5. Which would you rather have: Catered lunches for a month or an hour alone with the CEO to tell him/her your ideas?

What would you answer and why?


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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Is Astrology the Next Business Tool You Need?

Let me just say up front that I am an Aquarian. For some people, this may mean a great deal. For others, it may mean as much to them as also pointing out that I am brunette or that I have blue eyes.

Interesting, but hardly meaningful.

Unless, of course, you are someone who finds astrology useful in your life. Like Nancy Reagan or the late Princess Diana or businessman J.P. Morgan. All powerful people who have made decisions that affect hundreds, if not thousands of lives.

Then, of course, the question becomes how much astrology -- defined as “the study of positions and aspects of heavenly bodies with a view to predicting their influence on the course of human affairs,” -- influences your life.

I recently interviewed Steve Weiss, author of a new book, "Signs of Success: The Remarkable Power of Business Astrology" for my Gannett News Service/USAToday.com column.

Weiss made it very clear that while he's been fascinated by astrology for decades, he believes it is only one of many tools we need to understand one another in the workplace.

Still, I would imagine there are plenty of questions about using astrology in business.

How comfortable would you be if your CEO were using astrology to make business decisions? Do you think understanding the 12 signs and their traits could help you make better decisions and understand co-workers, bosses or competitors? Or, should we make astrology part of our Sunday newspaper reading -- along with the comics?


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