Monday, April 13, 2009

Critical Considerations When Jumping to a Small Employer

If you've ever worked for a big company, you know the advantages: everything from a comprehensive employee benefits package to a great holiday party every year. Letting go of those goodies can be tough, but what if you don't have a choice? What if your large employer has kicked you to the curb along with the thousands of others who have been laid off?

One of the options to consider is going to work for a small company. But hold the phone -- jumping from a "battleship to a fishing boat" as one small business owner put it may not be that easy. For one reason, you may not like doing without all the corporate-world goodies (including the salary), and for another, a small employer may not want you.

That may be a hard pill to swallow. Not want you? Who wouldn't want your big MBA degree or your prestigious pedigree from a top corporate firm (even if it is limping like a three-legged dog) and everything you have to "teach" the little guy?

In interviewing small business owners for my Gannett ContentOne (formerly known as Gannett News Service)and column, I discovered that there is some trepidation about hiring "big company" employees.

“There’s a tremendous fear when you hire someone from a large company that they won’t stay because we can’t offer them the same level of benefits,” says Greg Redington, of REDCO Engineering and Construction Corp. “It’s a big stumbling block to hiring these people.”

While Redington has hired several people over the last three years to work for his 15-employee company in Westfield, N.J., he says the key is finding those workers who are willing to let go of their “corporate mindset” that is “completely contradictory” to a small business.

“If the phone rings here four times, then that means the receptionist is doing something else and you need to pick up the phone. If we need toilet paper in the bathroom, you need to go get it from the supply closet,” he says. “If you come from a big company and consider that an insult, then you don’t understand working for a small company.”

Steve Jakes, owner of Drake Co. in Chesterfield, Mo., which employs 22 people, agrees.

“The key is understanding the culture. In a small company, it’s sort of like family in a way. You need to be able to mix and mingle and interrelate with the other people. There’s no room for silos,” he says.

So how does someone from a large employer land a job at a small company and be content with the change?

Kathryn Kerge, president of New York-based Kerge Consulting, which provides human capital strategies to small businesses, says that those making the leap from what Drake calls the “battleship to the fishing boat” need to focus on the positive aspects of working for a small employer.

“It’s going to be obvious to any hiring manager if you are going in with any trepidation,” Kerge says. “If you’re not 100 percent sold on the idea of working for a small employer, then they’re going to know it.”

Currently the Census Bureau estimates there are 27 million businesses with fewer than 100 employees. A recent survey by Network Solutions and the University of Maryland found that of 1,000 small businesses surveyed, 69 percent made a profit in 2008.

Kerge says one of the big advantages for those seeking small business employment is the opportunity to have interactions with company leaders, and to have a greater influence on the decision-making. “At the same time, the skill set you will acquire will be incredibly more diverse, you will learn strategies much faster and see results much quicker,” she says.

If you are interested in working for a small company, those interviewed for this story suggested you should:

• Remember that every day is an adventure. In a large company, it’s often pretty clear-cut what your duties may be and how and when you should do them. In a small company, “our future is directly impacted by your present actions,” Redington says. “In a large company, it’s more like an assembly line and you just pass the stuff off to the next guy when you’re done. In a small company, something could stop and die at your desk if you don’t follow through. What you do every day can be life or death for us.”
• Be realistic about your needs. Maybe you had a Blackberry, a travel service, a car and an espresso bar at your big company, but that isn’t likely to happen at a small company. While Drake doesn’t offer a 401(k) plan, he does offer health benefits. “I talked to my employees about whether they’d rather have higher pay or health benefits. They said they’d rather have the health benefits, so that’s what I do. It’s what’s important to them.”
• Speak up. Maybe you can corporate-speak with the best of them, but small employers are looking for employees who can do more than talk. To emphasize how your skills could translate, Kerge suggests telling a small business hiring manager how you were “first” do something for your employer, or how you took a grassroots approach to achieving success with a project or team.

What other considerations are there when you switch to a small employer?

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Help Your Career By Stepping Onto a Sinking Ship

Who, in their right mind, would jump onto the Titanic instead of off?

In this tough job market, maybe it should be you.

This may not make any sense at first blush, but when you consider the payoff, you may just decide it's a risk worth taking.

Let's say that you're looking for work, or you believe that your job may be in trouble. Why would you take a job with a company that looks to be on shaky ground?

The most obvious reason is that it will give you an opportunity you might not otherwise have. For example, you're re-entering the job market after taking years off to raise your kids. Or, perhaps your age is preventing you from getting a job in many companies -- you're either too young or too old or too inexperienced or perhaps even too desperate. But a company that is equally desperate -- all their top-notch talent has already left the building -- may be just the place willing to take a chance on you.

So, even if the job doesn't last very long, it gives you exactly what you need: Experience.

Let's consider another reason to jump onto a sinking ship: The address would look good on the resume. Maybe you've had second- or third-tier jobs up until now. No impressive titles or big names to rock the world of a recruiter looking through thousands of resumes. But now an opportunity comes along to either grab that fancy title or the prestige of the company name. With those under your belt, a whole new world of opportunities may be opened to you.

Of course, one of the best reasons to jump into a leaky boat is because you're probably going to work like a dog. Everything and anything is going to be thrown your way, the rulebook will probably be burned and you may notice the captain heading for the exit. Good. Now is the time when you're going to learn the most, when it's going to take all your smarts and daring and ingenuity just to keep your head above water. You're going to work like a dog, and your time will be measured the same way -- one year at that job will be like seven years somewhere else. But every one of those things you learn will be valuable in one way or another. You'll be able to tell other employers what you learned and how that can be put to work for them. That's the stuff that makes any resume sing and a hiring manager sit up and take notice.

Finally, bosses that are still on a sinking ship are much more likely to let you spread your wings. They're going to let you cut in line, they're going to listen to more of your ideas and make you a key part of any process. Why? Because they know that you're fighting to save your ass -- and you could save theirs in the process.

What are some other considerations for anyone contemplating taking a job with a company that may be on shaky ground?

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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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.

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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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Does Your Career Tell The Right Story?

Let's say someone held a taser to your chest right this minute and said: "Tell me the story of your career." Could you do it? I'm not sure I could -- being zapped by a taser is bound to make me a bit nervous and the most I might be able to do is give my name and e-mail address.

But more and more, people want you to tell them career stories. They want to know of a time when you handled a problem at work, when you dealt with a difficult customer or when you led an important project. Oh, yeah, and this story has got to be quick, concise, compelling, riveting and memorable.

I found it interesting that one of the commenters on this blog noted that when I wrote about the "Seven Random (and Sorta Weird) Facts About Me," he said he "can never think of the simple things who make us who we are."

That got me to thinking about how difficult it sometimes is to come up with stories that illustrate our career. I think part of the problem is that we're so busy with our jobs and everything that goes along with it (answering e-mails, phone calls, Twittering, checking Facebook) that we just don't get the time we need to think about what makes us "who we are" on the job.

So, as this year winds down, I think it's a good time to stop and reflect on what we know about ourselves and our career. What really makes us unique? What is something we have brought to a job that makes us valuable? What stories can we tell to others that will make us memorable?

At a time when everyone fears for their job, when we may be facing an important job interview or performance evaluation, let's look at some ways to shape our career stories.

1. Keep if professional. Try to avoid a lot of references to your family and friends. Those are certainly great stories, but you want the listener to see you in the primary role, to have a vision of how you impacted a particular situation.

2. Showcase your ingenuity. I've interviewed many management experts over the last several months, and the one thing they all agree on is that the companies that will survive are the ones who will come up with new and innovative ideas. Think of times you showed you could roll with the punches and still come up with a creative or innovative solution. This not only shows you can handle adversity, but are adaptable as well.

3. Be truthful. I love Aesop's Fables as much as the next person, but anytime you tell a career story, make sure it is true. And believable -- try not to embellish too much.

4. Don't be offensive. Your story loses its power when you use profanities, racial or gender stereotypes or otherwise show you need diversity training. Never tell a story that would embarrass someone else.

5. Keep is short. A story should never be more than a couple of minutes long. If it's a great story, look for ways to shorten it and just highlight the key points.

6. Be interesting. While you should know your stories well enough that you could tell them even if you're nervous (envision that taser), you don't want to sound like you're reciting the Gettysburg Address for a fifth-grade teacher. Tape record yourself, or ask someone else to listen to you tell your story. Does your voice have good inflection? Do you pause for effect? Do you sound and look confident?

7. Do you sound sane? I've heard career stories before that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. While the tellers of these tales thought the stories made them sound tough, or forceful or innovative, I just thought it made them sound a bit deranged. You want to make sure that your stories are logical. They should show that you understood a problem or issue, thought of an appropriate response and then acted professionally.

What are some other tips for telling career stories?

Lijit Search

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Can Losing a Job Save Your Life?

Would you do your job if you didn't get paid?

If you burst out laughing after reading this question, then this column is for you. If you've broken into tears at the question, this post is for you. If your stomach cramps and your vision starts to blur, this is definitely for you.

This post is for all of you who can't imagine who or what you'd be without your job, but you do know that the word "love" or "passion" has never entered your consciousness when you talk about what you do for a living.

It was much the same story for Kathy Caprino. As a corporate vice president with a high powered job, she thought she had it all: security, money, prestige. She had done what she was supposed to do, and achieved the desired status symbols of a nice office, people at her beck and call and a new home.

Then 9/11 happened and a week later, Caprino was laid off. While she did tell her husband the news, somehow the reality didn't connect with Caprino. For a week after her layoff, she arose each morning, put on her business suit, got in her car -- and drove around each day.

"It's so demoralizing to be laid off," she says. "You're stripped on any kind of self-esteem."

Finally, Caprino was forced to deal with her layoff, and she found herself in therapy "weeping."

"I hated who I had become," she says.

Who Caprino had become was someone who suffered chronic health problems, a stressed, desperately unhappy woman who felt trapped by her job and everything that went along with it. As a middle-aged woman who was the primary breadwinner, Caprino had never thought of doing anything else until she was forced into it with the layoff.

That, Caprino says, is when she discovered that even though she was middle-aged, she could "choose the next chapter."

It's that message that Caprino hopes many people -- especially mid-life professional women -- will hear during these tough times when they may lose their jobs.

"My prayer is that this (job loss) is a wake-up call. When something bad happens, it's time to assess whether you're really aligned with it," she says. "Don't make the mistake of glomming onto the first thing that comes along. Step back. Approach it from an empowered position."

Caprino, who went back to school and has become a therapist and executive coach, says that she has some words of advice (also available in her book, "Breakdown, Breakthrough") for those faced with job loss:

1. Believe you can move forward. Find someone -- a coach, therapist, etc. -- who won't feed your fears, but will help you believe that you can create a new place for yourself. Caprino does say that one coach, whom she paid $800, said that she was in the "perfect" job. "I wanted to stab myself in the eye," Caprino says. "But I recognized that he was as stuck (in his thinking) as I was. It was a friend who said to me: 'I love you dearly, but you're always unhappy.' That's when I knew I had to change."

2. Let go of the beliefs, actions and thoughts that keep you small. Just because you're not 20 anymore doesn't mean you don't have dreams and goals. Look deep inside yourself and think of what else you'd like to do. "Don't assume that a certain job is your role and nothing else. Don't over identify yourself with a job."

3. Say "yes" to honoring yourself. "Don't believe someone else has the power. You have the wherewithal to make your dreams come true."

Are there are other ways someone can find a job they love?

Lijit Search

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

7 Random (and Sorta Weird) Facts About Me

Right before the Thanksgiving holiday,Miriam Salpeter tagged me for this meme, but I was rushing out the door for time with family, so I'm just getting around to playing along. Here goes:

1. I know firsthand the pain of layoffs. When I was a college senior, my Dad was laid off from a job he'd had for more than 20 years. The refinery employing more than 900 people closed, devastating my small town. I managed to piece together some scholarship money to finish the last year of school. My Dad, 10 months from retirement, lost his entire pension. For the next several years, he ran a gas station to make ends meet.

2. I hate wooden spoons. And popsicle sticks. Just writing about them makes the hairs stand up on my arms.

3. I had a '72 Cutlass when I was in high school. I now kick myself for getting rid of it whenever I watch those muscle car auctions on television. Who knew that today some fool would pay $7 million for it?

4. I've never had writer's block. Go ahead, hate me.

5. I never get tired of interviewing people. Being paid to be snoopy? Heaven.

6. I once had a woman write me a letter about her miserable career, and say she wanted to kill herself. I immediately called the local authorities. I never did find out what happened, but I think of her often whenever I write workplace stories. I know that people often are truly in a lot of pain.

7. I love turtles. During the summer, when they seem to want to cross the road all the time, I'll pull my car over, get out, pick up a turtle and carry it to the other side of the road so it doesn't get run over. I can tell you I don't do the same for armadillos or possums. They're on their own.

Here are the people I'm tagging for this meme:

Marsha Keeffer

Robyn McMaster

Ian Tang

Virginia Backaitis

Dan McCarthy

Diane Danielson

Lindsay Olson

Here are the rules for my fellow bloggers:

• Link your original tagger(s), and list these rules on your blog.

• Share seven facts about yourself in the post - some random, some weird.

• Tag seven people at the end of your post by leaving their names and the links to their blogs.

• Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving a comment on their blogs and/or Twitter.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Workers Behaving Badly: Why Our Stress May be Bringing Out the Worst in Us

After 9/11, I was struck by the sense of caring we showed for one another. It was a horrible, stressful time, but it seemed to bring out the best in us. We began to look out for one another, even at work. We shared our mutual pain about what had happened, and even expressed our fear for the future. Office squabbles seemed ridiculous, and petty jealousies even more so.

Now it's seven years later, and we're facing another horrible, scary time. We see empty chairs at work, evidence of the people who have taken early retirement or other buyout packages. Almost every one of us know someone who has been laid off. Our own employers have stated they will not be filling empty positions for now.

And yet, office politics are on the rise. Gossiping, backbiting and negative campaigning dominate the airwaves, and we seem to mimic that behavior at work.

So, instead of pulling together on the job as we did after 9/11, we seem to be our own worst enemies right now. Of course, much of that is due to the enormous stress in both our private and professional lives. No one can predict what will happen next week, let alone in the coming year.

If makes workers feel powerless, and that's a lousy feeling. It makes us want to grab whatever we can and hold on, everyone else be damned. But here's the thing: We actually DO have a lot of control right now. We have control over how we treat one another.

It's not a easy thing to admit that we've been a jerk to people we work with, either through our silences or our short-tempers or our snide comments. But we've got to own up to our bad behavior, because until we do, we won't begin to fix what needs fixing.

So, today, I want you to think about the person in the cubicle next door or down the hall. I want you to think about how fear and anxiety has made you and others behave, and what you can do to start making things right.

Remember, the evidence supports the fact that when we are friendlier to one another at work, when we genuinely care about one another, we are not only happier but more productive. And right now, that's definitely a very good thing.

What are some ways to improve relationships with others at work?

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Monday, September 15, 2008

How to Survive When Your Company's Ship Sinks

Is there any more disturbing site than watching employees cart their belongings in a cardboard box out of a failed company?

As I watched Lehman Brothers' employees leave the building over the weekend, it reminded me of that awful scene of stunned workers leaving Enron after it went belly up.

One of the most difficult aspects of a large employer failing is that you suddenly have thousands of people in the same boat -- and not everyone will do as well as others. Some will never regain their earning power, some will fall into depressions so deep it will take them years to re-enter the job market with any real enthusiasm and others will simply drift away to less-than-desirable careers.

The key for any employee who is suddenly out of a job with hundreds of co-workers is speed. At this point, you can't afford to sit back and bitch about how unfair the world is and the employer misled you about how serious were the problems. Because while you're moaning and groaning, others are scrapping for available jobs.

You need to:

* Make a game plan. Write down what are your absolutes -- the things you must have in a job. If it's health insurance, living in a certain city, specific hours, etc., then you know not to waste time looking at jobs that don't meet those criteria.
* Rally the troops. Get together with family and friends and let them know the situation. Brainstorm about people they know who might be able to help you submit a resume or get an interview. Remember: Most people still get jobs based on who they know.
* Contact a career coach or alumni association. Many universities are already geared up to help those who have been hard hit on Wall Street. If you don't think you can afford a career coach, consider giving up some of the extras in your life (a gym membership, eating out, cable television, etc.) which can can help you pay for a coach.
* Don't immediately think "entrepreneur": Times are tough right now, for everyone. Starting a business may be a dream, but it may be wiser to put it on hold until they economy brightens.
* Pride goeth before the fall: Keep in mind that there are going to be potentially thousands of people looking for a job as this financial debacle unfolds, so you can't afford to let your ego get in the way of a potential job. Be realistic about what you can accept as a salary, and don't get caught up in a job title. Keep in mind that if you get a job offer, you can usually negotiate a bit on the salary and benefits.
* Be ready to get the hell out of Dodge. I know people who live in New York City are passionate about the place. They can't -- and don't -- want to imagine living anywhere else. But the truth is that you may have to consider other cities if you want to land another job. And, even if you have kids, they can adapt to a relocation easier than they can to losing their home if you don't have a job.

And finally, if you find yourself out of work, remember to be good to yourself. Surround yourself with positive thinkers, take care of your body with proper nourishment and rest, and do whatever sustains your soul, whether it's yoga, gardening or attending religious services. Do not hesitate to ask for help from friends, family and colleagues. Most have been in -- or will someday be in -- your situation.

What other steps should someone take who has lost a job?


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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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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Survival of the Fittest in the Workplace

My oldest son is preparing to take final exams, and so I decided it was time to share with him my secret tip for writing a great essay on any test: Darwin.

Yep, that's it. Darwin, the "survival of the fittest" guy.

"It doesn't matter what subject," I told him. "Always mention Darwin and his theory and you'll score well."

He was a bit skeptical, and my other son wanted to know exactly how Darwin fit into subjects like math. "When you're older, I'll tell you," I said, sagely.

The whole discussion about survival of the fittest got me to thinking about ways that people can survive on the job these days. Things are tough, and it's those people who use all their bag of tricks that may be the the last ones standing. Sure, you should take on tough projects, make sure you're giving great customer service, be organized and efficient, blah, blah, blah.

But let's look at some not-quite-standard ways to impress the boss:

1. Have her over for dinner. Let the boss see you as a human being, not just Joe in accounting. Invite the boss's spouse or significant other. Don't serve anything fancy or she'll think she's paying you too much. Sit at the kitchen table and serve her good, standard food. Be interesting, be polite and don't talk about work too much. This is a chance to make a more personal connection with her.

2. Volunteer at the boss's favorite charity. This gives you a chance to rub elbows with her in a positive setting, and again establish a friendlier relationship -- or at least one where she likes you a bit better. So what if you don't like picking up trash along the highway on a Saturday morning? She cares about the environment, so get on that bright orange vest and start tramping the road right beside her.

3. Become interested in her hobby. If she likes NASCAR, then talk about Carl Edwards' last race. Or, drop off a golf magazine in her mailbox with a note, "Check out the story on page xx...unbelievable!" Maybe she's a big animal lover, so talk about how much you love your dog or how you ride horses.

4. Stand in her shoes. Most bosses are under a great deal of pressure these days and anyone who provides an understanding ear will be appreciated. Don't forget that bosses need a pat on the back, so offer sincere, supportive comments. "It must have been difficult dealing with that customer. You handled it well," you can say. Try to remain upbeat and optimistic, and the boss will gravitate toward your energy.

Maybe you're already taking on tough projects or making sure you're going the extra mile in customer service in order to impress the boss. But the point is that in these tough times, when gas prices are headed through the roof and a bag of potato chips costs $4, you're going to have to pull out all the stops in order to survive. Now, go make Darwin proud.


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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Feeling Angry and Frustrated When Change Happens is Natural

By our very nature, we human beings don’t like change. Children as young as 2-years-old will pitch a screaming hissy fit when the furniture at home is moved. Teens struggle to cope with the new world of high school or college. Even adults have a hard time saying goodbye to the familiar – especially when it has to do with work.

Work for adults consumes a lot of time. Many of us spend 12 to14 hours a day at work, so when things get turned topsy-turvey, we’re not always pleased with the results. In fact, our behavior may closely resemble a toddler’s hissy fit.

Except quieter.

We sit at work, fuming that our company is being downsized and peers are losing their jobs. We’re angry that we will have to move to another facility in another state in order to keep a job. We’re totally ticked that we will have to learn a new system.

But that’s change.

At first you may deny what is happening, and you put up some resistance, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Why? Because it shows that you're ready to do something, instead of just sitting around in a numb complacency.

Now begins the grieving process. But for many companies, acknowledging that employees are unhappy with change is the last thing desired. And that is why many workers have trouble moving on. Because if companies don’t recognize it -- the need for employees to talk about how much they hate what is happening -- then they cannot learn to deal with it. It is often the emotional piece that everyone misses.

Bosses need to understand that it is a natural reaction for people to be furious and frustrated when work patterns change. Humans are creatures of habit, and a lot of people have not yet learned how to become more flexible. People can learn to be very resilient, but they also need a chance to grieve.

If you are facing change on the job, here are some things to consider:
· The loss. If you feel that you are fighting the change, take a step back and consider what it is that you believe you are losing. Remember: If you cannot handle loss in your life, you cannot have growth in your life.

Perhaps it is the fact that you are afraid you will lose your visibility on the job because technology is taking over, or that you will lose yourself somehow when a job is lost.
Human ingenuity on the job is still critical, no matter how much technology is put into place. For those who suffer when they are laid off, remember: Your job is not your identity.

· The signs. Angry? Crabby? Blowing up at stuff that doesn’t matter? These are all indications, along with feeling blue, that change is causing problems in your life. Find a way to acknowlege these feelings and perhaps talk to a family member or friend about how you feel. If you have a case of the blues that simply won’t get better or go away, seek professional help.

· Saying goodbye. Many companies do not realize that desks can be moved, but not hearts. That means that even if an office is just moving across town, then employees need a chance to confront their feelings – maybe they will have a longer commute, they will miss their favorite coffee shop or their desk by the window that had a view of the park. At the same time, employees should be allowed to say what they may miss about the old way of doing things, then talk about their concerns for the future. Once that's out in the open, managers can help workers accept the changes to come.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Protecting Your Job in Tough Times

I've spent the last week talking to a lot of people about the economy, and their predictions about where the job market is headed in the next few months. The general agreement seems to be this: we're not officially in a recession, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be looking for ways to protect your job.

While I'll get to some of the suggestions in a minute, one of the things that bothers me the most about these conversations is the emphasis on the fact that the worst time to be looking for a job is when you're out of a job. In other words, desperation makes employers and recruiters avoid you like the plague.

How is that fair? If you've been downsized or laid off, how is it OK to compound the pain by saying you're somehow too needy to be considered for a job? How does wanting to pay your mortgage or feed yourself somehow make you less desirable? Wouldn't your eagerness to have a job mean that you would be a more enthusiastic and committed worker for anyone who hired you?

I guess that's just one of the mysteries of the universe I may never quite grasp, sort of like why we call the male presidential candidates by their last names or formal titles (Senator McCain) while referring to Senator Clinton as "Hillary," as if she's the girl who takes coffee orders for the office.

Now, onto some ideas for recession-proofing your job:

* Keep your butt in the chair. Now is not the time to ask for more flex time or take a three-week vacation. Hunker down and put in lots of face time with the boss to show that you're committed 110 percent to your job. If you do telecommute, try to put in more appearances at the office. Stay strongly connected to co-workers so you know the latest news.

* Reach out. Find out what's going on in other departments so you have a good picture of whether there may be trouble ahead for your company. If you think your employer's in trouble, start getting those resumes out there. There are warning signs, which I wrote about here.

* Network like crazy. Attend industry and professional events, start sending "hello, how are you?" e-mails to your contacts and look for ways to provide value to as many people as possible. Don't be just a "taker", but instead look for ways to make the connection worthwhile.

* Be on the cutting edge. No matter your industry, be aware of the latest developments and how you can position yourself to be of the most value. The people I talked with this week said there may be some shakeout in various industries (finance, retail), but those who know the latest technology, trends, markets, etc., and are ready to move -- and lead -- into those arenas will be of the most value.


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