Sunday, July 6, 2008

Warning! Have You Become a Toxic Sponge?

I once had a job where the boss was a toxic leader. You know the kind: arrogant, small-minded, belittling, etc. (In short, what Bob Sutton refers to as the "asshole boss.")

But no matter how miserable she made my life, no matter how unhappy she made the lives of everyone in the office, I kept a smile on my face.

"Good morning!" I would chirp at the beginning of every day to my co-workers. "How are you? Great day, isn't it?"

I would listen to others whine about how the boss was piling work on them, about how the boss yelled and humiliated them in front of others, about how the boss called them at home over the weekend and made them come into work for some bogus reason.

I would nod sympathetically, offer some encouraging words and then try to get my work done. But of course, the boss would get on my case about something, and I would try to just stay calm and not let her rattle me. I always thought, "Well, if she's yelling at me, then she's not yelling at so-and-so. I can take it."

By the end of the day, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I had spent eight hours or more reassuring co-workers, making them smile or laugh, trying to instill a sense of calm in a workplace that resembled an asylum. I did all this, of course, because I felt like I was the stronger one, that I was grace under pressure. I was made of sterner stuff than others, I thought. The truth was, I felt like a nice breeze would knock me over.

Reality was catching up with me, and the reality was this: I had become a toxic sponge.

I was taking on not only the unhappiness of my own situation, but that of others. I absorbed the mental and emotional blows of a workplace gone bad, trying to shore up each co-worker's battered self-esteem as well as my own.

I'm sure you can guess the outcome. I developed bad headaches and could hardly get out of bed in the morning. The things that used to give me pleasure no longer had much meaning. On Friday nights, I would often fall asleep soon after I got home from work and not wake until late the next morning. By Saturday afternoon, I began to get a sick feeling as I contemplated that Monday was only a day-and-a-half away. Forget the Sunday night blues. I was depressed by noon on Saturday.

Of course, I finally got out of the job and learned a valuable lesson. I could not take on the woes of everyone in a workplace. The reasons behind me becoming a toxic sponge were noble in the beginning, but to continue down that path was dumb. And yet, how could I not be there for the people who obviously needed me?

I see many people in this exact situation today. As companies cut jobs for the sixth straight month, it's rough out there. Despair, anger and even hopelessness have hit many workers, and so the toxic sponges are stepping up their efforts.

These sponges can be rank-and-file workers -- as I was -- or they may be in management. But few will acknowledge they have fallen into this role. They like to think of themselves as optimistic, or upbeat or supportive, or some other term besides toxic sponge. But the reality is that they are absorbing much of the stress in the workplace for others and they cannot keep it up.

So, as a recovered toxic sponge, I'd like to offer a bit of advice:

* Talk about it. Get a mentor, either professional or personal, and let them know what's going on. What you need is an acknowledgement that your efforts are appreciated, but that you're going to harm yourself if you don't get some distance. A mentor can help you see different ways to offer support without taking on the world's woes.

* Learn to say "no." Don't step in every time someone needs help. Saying your plate is full or that you're overloaded and simply can't help at this time is not a federal crime.

* Take a break. It's critical that you physically remove yourself from the situation. If you can't take a vacation, take several long weekends. It will help you regain your footing and help you focus on things that make you happy or help you relax.

* Focus on your health. You will be especially vulnerable to physical ailments if you are under intense emotional strain. The thing that saved me during my toxic sponge days is that I had to walk quite a ways to the bus and subway to get to and from work, which helped release some of the stress. Make sure you focus on exercise, eating right and getting enough rest.

Could you -- or someone you know -- be a toxic sponge?


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Monday, March 17, 2008

Turning a Rejection Into an Opportunity

The pubs will be full today with revelers celebrating St. Patrick's Day, but the truth is many people will be swilling that green beer not to celebrate, but to drown their sorrows.

Times are tough, as any job seeker will testify. The latest news of Bear Stearns Cos. being sold at garage sale prices has sent another shudder through the job seeking masses, because they know that more people are nervous and will begin dusting off their resumes to join the ranks looking for new work.

Looking for a job is tough, and rejections are never easy to handle.

But there's something that many job candidates miss: "No" doesn't always mean "no."

Sometimes a hiring manager tells you that you didn't get a position after you've interviewed, and you consider that the end of the road. Time to head for the green beer, right?

Wrong. Now is the time to use that contact -- however brief -- with the hiring manager to establish a firmer relationship. Begin by saying that you really like the company, and would like to be considered for another position. Is there anyone else the hiring manager could refer you to? Being able to use the hiring manager's name with another department head is very valuable.

Also, tell the hiring manager that you would like to learn from the process. Was there something you did or did not do that eliminated you from the position? Was there a particular skill that the winning candidate had? Most managers will remember positively the job candidate who didn't take his or her rejection personally, but instead focused on personal improvement.

Another idea takes some chutzpah: Inquire whether the hiring manager knows anyone else who is hiring. Managers belong to professional associations and have networks of friends and colleagues that may be looking for qualified job candidates. Even if they don't know someone right away, your name will come more easily to mind in the future because you inquired specifically about it. Be sure and follow up in a couple of months with the manager to still express your interest in working for the company -- persistence often pays off.

Finally, make sure that you send a hand written note to the manager, thanking him or her for the consideration and giving your best wishes for the company's success.


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Monday, September 10, 2007

Job Loss: You Could Be Next

If you’re feeling a little uptight about your job these days, you’re not alone. And if you’re not feeling a little uptight, you should be.

That’s because the employment figures released last week weren’t so hot. Those lost jobs – the first time that’s happened in four years – comes on the heels of a lousy housing market and continuing costly overseas military actions.

Of course, the more optimistic among you will cite the good retail sales figures and the strong corporate profits as signs that things will again be good, and that you’ve got no reason to be worried.

Are you absolutely sure about that? Well, if so, then continue on your merry way and don’t worry about tomorrow. But for those of you who are concerned that your job may be threatened (remember, companies keep those profits high by using employees as commodities), then it’s time to take stock and prepare.

While I’ve covered some of these in my “What To Do When You Lose a Job” posting, I’d like to beef it up a bit. Even if you feel like your job is safe, you’d be foolish to turn your nose up at these opportunities that will not only benefit your job now, but help you should the pink slip be in the next paycheck:

1. Attend the next professional event. You’ve been putting this off because, frankly, you’re so exhausted after work the last thing you want to do is talk business and eat stale pretzels while trying to remember some guy’s name you met a year ago. Go to the next event and not only should you learn everyone’s name, but come away with at least three new contacts. Is your industry vulnerable to the ripples going on now in the economy? Are other companies already making noises about layoffs? What are other professionals in your industry seeing at their companies?
2. Do some snooping. Get to know the boss’s executive assistant if you don’t already. Get friendly enough to take him or her to lunch or meet for a drink after work. Is this assistant hearing anything about the boss being told to tighten the budget? Is the boss – or the boss’s boss – thinking of jumping ship? What departments are scheduled for new training, and who is being cut off from decision-making?
3. Start blogging. Make sure it’s OK with your company policy first, but this is a good chance to set yourself up as an expert in your area. Post important information from other sites, and refer readers to other places for information. Even if you aren’t allowed to blog about your job, find other bloggers in your industry and post comments. This is a good way to become known for your knowledge and expertise.
4. Know what’s being said about you online. You want to make sure that what is being presented about you online does not give a company the excuse it’s looking for to get rid of you. Remove anything questionable, and ask friends to remove photos or descriptions that make you look or sound like a total moron or dangerous human being.
5. Know where the jobs are. Make sure you understand not only what you’re worth, but what areas of the country (or world) are hiring people with your skills and abilities. Constantly assess your network and how up-to-date you are on current trends, how fast you could hit the ground running for a new employer. If you’re lacking in an area, don’t wait – get the training either through your company or on your own.

Remember, you want to make sure you’ve got a game plan in place before you see someone from security standing by your desk with a cardboard box. Waiting until you and everyone else from your company is filing out the door with those boxes could mean that you should have heeded this warning in the first place.

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