Wednesday, October 28, 2009

2 Big Myths About Work You Need to Ditch

When I was writing my last book, one of the things I focused on was that the world of work was different than the world outside of work. OK, this isn't exactly an outstanding revelation to many of you, but to lots of people, it is.

When people are at work, they think it's sort of an extended living room. They believe that they can say and do anything they want, because, by golly, this is America. Home of free speech, independent living and 450 cable channels.

But the truth is, when you go to work you sign an employment contract, and that gives the employer the right to expect certain things from you. If you don't follow the rules, it can mean you are disciplined, fired or perhaps even criminally prosecuted.

I recently interviewed an employment law expert, who pointed out there are a lot of myths that employees believe, including the one that they can say what they want at work. But even more interesting are the things that can get you into trouble, even when you're trying to be a team player and help out an employer. Here's the story I did for my Gannett column:

You may believe that all those extra hours you’re putting in on the job without being paid will help you stay in the boss’s good graces, but you may not realize that you’re breaking the law – and you could be fired for it.

Shanti Atkins, a lawyer and president and CEO of San Francisco-based ELT Inc., which specializes in ethics and workplace compliance training, says that showing you’re dedicated by “volunteering” your time is a mistake.

“A lot of people are worried about their jobs, and they want to contribute in this recession by working off the clock. But 90 percent of people – and their managers – don’t realize they’re not complying with federal wage and hour laws and it’s a huge – huge – area of risk for companies,” Atkins says.

Atkins says class action lawsuits related to wage and hour claims outnumber all other class action lawsuits combined. The average federal settlement for these wage and lawsuits? About $23.5 million. State settlements are a little more at $24.4 million, she says.

“These are ‘bet the company’ lawsuits,” she says. “They’re very cut and dried. Did you pay someone overtime for the extra work they did or not? Records show very clearly what happened.”

Atkins says employees should refuse any “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” requests from managers that they work extra time without pay, “and the manager should be reported for asking them to do it,” because under the law, an employee can be disciplined or fired for not reporting it, Atkins says.

Atkins says this is just one example of employees being unfamiliar with their rights and responsibilities in the workplace. Others include:

• Speaking your mind. While freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment, what you say around the workplace water cooler can cost you your job. For example, if you “create a management problem” by making statements that could be considered harassing or discriminatory, you may be setting the groundwork for a pink slip.

“A real lightening rod in this area is when sexual orientation intersects with religion, such as someone saying at work that it’s a sin to have a gay lifestyle,” Atkins says. “Or, they try and pray for another employee to convince them of the error of their ways. Or, they refuse to go to sexual harassment training because they disagree with what’s said about sexual orientation.”

While employees may balk at a “Big Brother” atmosphere that monitors what they say on the job, Atkins says bosses are obligated under federal law to make sure they provide a “safe environment” for workers free of harassment or discrimination. That includes, she says, anything introduced into the work environment with personal handheld devices such as smart phones, which can show videos or photos.

“Just because it’s your iPhone doesn’t mean it’s OK to show a racist video in the break room,” she says.

• Social networking. More employees and managers “friend” one another these days on Facebook or “follow” one another on Twitter. The problem is that “this exposes managers to information they might not normally have,” Atkins says.

“Employers aren’t supposed to know about an employee’s sex, religion or politics, but the employee forgets about the boss now having access to the information (through social networking),” Atkins says.

For example, a boss may be considering termination of an employee for performance reasons. But because of Twitter or Facebook, right before that termination the boss finds out that the employee has health problems or reveals his or her sexual orientation. That’s when social networking can become a real problem for companies and may result in a lawsuit, Atkins says.

“Discrimination cases are based on what managers knew,” Atkins says. “Social networking reveals an awful lot.”

Atkins says even LinkedIn, which is considered the “professional” online networking site, could get managers in trouble because of the feature that allows you to “recommend” someone.

“Ninety-nine percent of companies have a policy that says you can’t give a letter of recommendation for an employee because it’s a liability and a risk if the employee doesn’t work out for the other employer,” Atkins says. “But if you recommend someone on LinkedIn, you’ve just published one.”


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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

4 ways to keep your confidence during a job hunt

I hear from a lot of people who are out of work. In the early stages of job hunting, I've found most people are usually pretty confident. They know they have valuable skills and have worked hard -- what employer wouldn't want to hire them?

Then they get initiated into this job market.

Months later, the confidence has left their voice. They're angry, depressed, frustrated and demoralized. I'm no psychologist, but I do my best to provide them with career information that might help them. Still, it's frustrating for me to see so many great people feel so bad about themselves because they can't find work.

So, when a book crossed my desk called "Think Confident, Be Confident" I knew it was something I had to look into for my Gannett column. Here's my story:

For the first three months he was out of work, Frank Myers says he was “fine.” But after 15 months without a job, five fruitless job interviews and applying for more than 150 jobs online, he admits there are days he can’t get out of bed.

“As it goes on and on, you start to get worried and your confidence goes down,” says Myers, of San Diego, Calif. “I’m getting to the stage that I’m being reclusive. I wonder if I’m smart enough to hold up a conversation with anyone. I do get depressed.”

Myers story echoes that of many other job seekers who have been shell-shocked by successful careers suddenly yanked out from under them, cut adrift in a flooded job market. The lack of confidence that comes from unsuccessful bids to find jobs starts to wear on their confidence.

“In the beginning of a layoff, there’s no reason to think that your skills won’t be transferable and you’ll find other opportunities,” says Leslie Sokol. “But when you begin knocking on doors and nothing happens, the confidence starts to turn to pessimism. We become more doubt-activated, and when that happens, then we’re really in trouble.”

Sokol, an instructor and psychologist with the Beck Institute of Cognitive Therapy and Research, says that once the doubt creeps in, then “we start to think back to the job we lost and we start to think of all the things we think we did wrong, and we forget why we lost the job.”

In Myers case, a successful career as a district manager for Radio Shack and 15 years of experience fell victim to the bad economy. “It really was a slap in the face,” he says. “I went from an assistant manager to a district manager in a little over four years, and I had done all this work. Then, it was: ‘Bye.’”

“Sometimes when you lose your job, you start to feel like you’ve lost your skills,” says Marci G. Fox, a psychologist and senior faculty member in the Beck Institute’s training program. “We start to make our unemployment status mean something negative.”

Sokol and Fox have written a book, “Think Confident, Be Confident,” (Perigee, $14.95), addressing what happens when doubt takes over. In the case of unemployed workers, they say these people often are ashamed that they’re out of work.

“We fail to see the reality of why we’re out of work,” Sokol says. “So, instead of using a strategy that’s going to help us find a job, we do just the opposite.”

Our doubt begins to overtake our lives, often dragging down our ability to be stay balanced in our lives and project confidence in interviews and be productive in job searches, they say.

Instead, they say anyone searching for work or losing confidence in their career should:

  • Keep a list of skills. “Write down your skills, and then be prepared to sell those skills,” Fox says. “If you see that you have some shortcomings that are hurting your job search, then you know that you need to get more training.”
  • Stop blaming yourself. “When bad things happen, we want to find meaning so we tend to blame ourselves,” Fox says. “That’s why it’s important to keep in mind those alternative explanations.” For example, you didn’t lose your job because you weren’t good at your job, but rather because market pressures forced your company to cut staff in order to stay in business.
  • Don’t set the bar so high. “Everything is a competition these days,” Sokol says. “What is going on in our society these days is just crushing people.” Instead, she says to remind yourself that “you don’t have to be perfect to be an asset.”
  • Find balance. Exercise, eat right, get enough sleep, spend time doing things you enjoy and stay in contact with family and friends, Fox says. “Treat looking for a job as a job,” she says. “That means you need to schedule time for other things as well. Don’t be afraid to take time off to do things that make you feel good.”


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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Could telecommuting be a career mistake?

While a lot of people think telecommuting is the answer to all their problems, sometimes you have to be careful of what you wish for. At the same time, this difficult job environment may mean that you have to work even harder and smarter if you're not in the office everyday. Here's a column on the subject I did for Gannett:

While telecommuting is more common than a decade ago because of advances in technology and more flexible workplace cultures, the tough job market has made some telecommuters nervous as they worry that the lack of face time and presence in an office may make them more vulnerable to being laid off.

Zack Grossbart, a telecommuter for the past nine years, says his advice to other telecommuters wanting to be seen as key players is this shaky job market: “Show other people what you do.”

Grossbart’s advice has come from personal experience. Working from his Cambridge, Mass., home as a consulting engineer for his employer in Provo, Utah, he was given 60-days notice in 2007 that he was going to be laid off. But he says people he had never met face-to-face in the company went to top brass and fought for him. He kept his job.

Grossbart says he believes that by constantly making sure others knew of his contributions to the company, he managed to avoid a layoff. Those are lessons he says other telecommuters need to take to heart.

“You’ve got to brag in the right way,” Grossbart says. “When you’re in an office, you think it’s obvious to others that you’re working. But when you’re telecommuting, you must constantly put yourself out there and communicate really effectively. I always make sure I’m out in front of people.”

That means that Grossbart makes an online presentation at least once a month for his company, and is always looking for chances to show small groups of people at his employer “something cool” such as a new software application. He also relies on various forms of communication, ranging from phone conversations to using social media such as Twitter or Facebook.

When he feared he was going to lose his job a couple of years ago, he launched a blog to showcase his communication skills and industry knowledge. It’s something he continues to maintain for the same reasons, he says.

“If someone wants to know what Zack is about, they’ll be able to find me,” he says. “When the economy is tougher, you’ve got to do more to showcase your talent.”

Heather Huhman, founder and president of Come Recommended, says that as the manager of 12 telecommuting employees, she finds that “over-communicating isn’t a bad idea.”

Still, “out of sight, out of mind works both ways,” Huhman says.
“We use all kinds of technology to communicate, from instant messaging to Skype. Right now, we don’t have two employees in the same state, so we schedule weekly team meetings, and I make myself available at regular times by phone. Do I wish we could meet more often face-to-face? Sure. The isolation can get to be a problem for some people.”

Huhman says some members of her team battle the lack of personal interaction during their work day by taking their laptop computers and going to a local coffee shop. One employee has taken a night job a couple nights a week “just to get out of the house,” she says.

Grossbart says that while some people may believe telecommuting “sounds like a dream,” they may find they hurt their career if they can’t handle the physical remoteness and need for constant communication and diligent self-promotion to their company.

David W. Mayer, executive director for mergers and acquisitions for Aristeia in Greenwood Village, Colo., says nine of his 24 workers telecommute fulltime, and agrees that some people don’t thrive as telecommuters.

“People get all excited, and then the first day at home, they say they miss the camaraderie of an office,” he says. “Social networking helps, but some people just need to be around other people.”

Grossbart says the problem can be more than social. “If you start telecommuting and do your job the same way you do in an office, you’re going to get laid off,” he says. “You actually have to be better than other people at your company. You can’t just sit there and do your job and think that’s enough. You have to do more.”

What are more tips on making telecommuting a viable option?

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How to Survive Working for a Jerk

I used to have a boss I detested so much I used to envision her falling down a manhole -- not to kill her, but just injure her enough to put her in the hospital long enough for me to find another job.

After I interviewed Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley for my Gannett column, I realized I wasn't alone in feeling so desperate when it comes to a bad boss. Here's the column:

There is probably nothing that impacts the quality of a job like a boss. Get a good manager, and you like going to work every day. Have a bad boss, and you don’t even want to get out of bed in the morning.

If you’ve ever had a bad boss, you often dream of how to get out working for a jerk, ranging from winning the lottery to getting a better job somewhere else. But in this job market? You’re feeling a bit desperate.

“People who are employed right now and work for a bad boss know they can’t immediately leave, because they know jobs are hard to come by,” says Kathi Elster, a business strategist and consultant. “It’s frustrating and depressing for them.”

Elster spends a lot of time listening to people gripe about their bosses, along with her partner in K Squared Enterprises in New York, psychotherapist Katherine Crowley. They recently put together some strategies for helping employees “manage their boss” called “Working for You Isn’t Working for Me,” (Portfolio, $25.95).

“The fact is, you need to manage the relationship,” Crowley says. “People often feel they don’t have power, and feel victimized. But you do have power in this relationship.”

Adds Elster: “The key is to manage yourself to minimize your boss’s behavior on you.”

In the book, Elster and Crowley say there are four keys to improving a bad boss relationship:

1. Detect. You first must identify exactly what it is that “drives you bonkers” in a bad boss, such as verbal attacks or unwarranted criticism. “Once you can detect it,” the authors say, “you can correct it.”

2. Detach. By learning to see the boss for who he is, and educating yourself on how not to react so strongly to the annoying behavior, then you’ll be able to eliminate the stress a bad boss brings to all areas of your life.

3. Depersonalize. No matter how miserable a boss may make you, you’re not the first person to go through this and you must realize “it’s not about you,” the authors say. By understanding the boss’s behavior existed long before you arrived on the scene and that one of the reasons it is so upsetting to you is because it’s triggering your “worst fears,” then you can learn to view the behavior more objectively.

4. Deal: This involves creating a customized plan so that “when the boss acts out, you can defend yourself” and take a more objective and constructive approach to your job and career, they say.

Crowley says that the bad economy may be triggering even more bad boss behavior, as the stress only emphasizes poor management skills. In other words, the over-controlling or “checked out” boss may become even more so, increasing worker tension.

The authors note that employees typically will try to cope with bad boss behavior with tactics that don’t work such as: avoiding the boss at all costs; sulking; becoming full of self-doubt; obsessing about how to handle the boss; wishing for the boss’s demise; gloating over the boss’s behavior; bad-mouthing the boss; confronting an annoying manager; retaliating; or giving the boss the silent treatment.

But employees need to understand that unless they take steps to resolve problems with a boss in a more constructive way, they may continue to have problems no matter where they work, Crowley says.

“People tend to attract recurring situations unless they learn to resolve them,” Crowley says. “Sometimes bad boss behavior feels familiar – it’s like you’re drawn to that kind of person.”

Elster notes that employees should also learn to “take back their power” in a difficult situation by taking care of themselves physically. She recommends coping with the stress by exercising, eating right, spending time with supportive family and friends, doing enjoyable activities and learning relaxation breathing for tough times.

How do you deal with a bad boss?


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