Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Oct 30, 2009

Career Path Stepping Stones

Instructor, Caroline Bender

Career path stepping stones can occur in expected places.  What is important to understand about the stepping stone metaphor is that the stones are already there.  You run into trouble when you try to carry them into the river with you.

If you have been following this story, you recall that 20 years into the world of work, Miss Bender is suddenly out of it -- but not for the first time. Planning the next move at times like this can be treacherous, especially when you have a poor track record of planning your next move. Top Recruiter Bob Beaudine, in his book The Power of Who (see carousel at right) reminds us that we can not make these decisions alone. He writes, "...If you're going to fulfill your destiny in life, you're going to need some wise friends and advisers to help you see a vision of your future that, perhaps, you can't see yourself."

It is only now, repackaging myself anew after all these years, that I can see the path those randomly placed stones laid out.

Stone 1:  Assistant Instructor for a state university
Found by: Contact at the university pointing it out to me.  This was a literal career path - step one of a graduate student's tenure track.
Led to: Institutional transfer.
I liked teaching more than I expected to, and the program was a good one, but I knew that I had not chosen it for myself and felt that I should conduct a more purposeful approach to graduate school goals if I was going to pursue them.  Left the school, state, time zone and started over.

Stone 2: Matriculated and Rejected
Found by: Mail.  And unfortunately after I had already moved away.  Accepted into the program as a student, but not as an instructor, which was to be my source of income.
Led to: Internal applications
My academic advisor tipped me off that employees were entitled to tuition reimbursement.  If I could get hired before the bill was due, I could stay.

Stone 3: Junior Secretary
Found by: Eye contact, Southern manners, and 65 wpm
Led to: Career A
It did pay for my purposely chosen graduate program -- the one I never once worked in -- and that valuable female accessory, the master's degree.

Stone 4/Career A: Student Affairs Officer
Found by: Opportunity + Credentials + Hard Campaigning
Led to: Career expansion
After nearly 4 years in that role, I began to evaluate my resume against others' in the field with an eye toward filling in those gaps.  With complete support of my manager, I waged an old-fashioned national search.

Stone 5: Student Affairs Officer
Found by:  Shoe leather and a box of Crane's.  In those days, in that industry, we cattle-called at national conventions.  After more than 30 interviews of various call-back levels, I managed to be hired by a school right across town.
Led to:  total collapse.  Famously described elsewhere.

Stone 6: Unemployment
Found by: Walking away.  Known in my circles as "selfish, immature, and unprofessional."  Until you understand what it led to.
Led to: Volunteer for life position, now in its 13th year.

Stone 7: Reader/Director, media access
Found by: Following a fantasy I had harbored for years.  The kind that in the movies have people opening a jam business or a bookstore.
Led to: Career B
With the experience, the connections, the references, and the confidence, I made the move into the best job-match I have ever known.

Stone 8/Career B: Audio Describer
("that's a job?"  "Yes, that's a job?"  "The words on screen thing?"  "No, that's captioning.")
Found by:  Synergy.  My father and I simultaneously, and miles apart, saw a demonstration of the service and got to talking about it.  With time on my hands, I was able to wage another campaign.
Led to:  Career C
Not directly, of course.  But what career B taught me was a new relationship with my work, and the things I needed to feel successful.  It also brought me out of the technological dark ages of 1990s higher ed and into a world of email, QuikConference, Meeting Manager, MS Office, and the Internet.

Stone 9/Career C: Internet Applications
The stones get very pebbly and the water rapid at this part of the stream.  There are a lot of zigzagging hops that can be broken down in another article.  2 Companies, 5 titles, lots of departments and managers, lots of steps back and mossy missteps.  But I want to get to a tidy 10, so I will put them together here as one rockfall.
Found by: It started with a colleague from Career A, and progressed with help of similar relationships and lots of encouragement, a few campaigns more cloaked than I had waged in the past.
Led to: Topping out.

Stone 10: Unemployment
So here we are again.  And a resume that a week ago looked like a Cheesecake Factory Menu now seems more like a progressive dinner.

The moral of the story?
You may feel like you are hastily jumping to the next little piece of high ground, without identifying the move that comes after it (and when you do spot it, it might feel very far away).  Remember that you are bringing yourself closer to the other side, and learning a lot more about river crossing as you do.

Related Posts:
First I was Afraid
Master's Degree Required...
Be the Chicken
Lady Executives
Common Pitfalls of the Internal Transfer

Oct 26, 2009

Ask a Manager: What makes a Good Manager?

Guest Lecturer, Dick Whitman, Manager in Residence 

Dear Manager,
What makes someone a good manager? How do you know if you would be good at it-what qualities should you have? How do you know if you're doing a good job? How did you know you wanted to manage people?

The most important thing I look for in a manager is the ability to see past the end of one’s own nose. It is about understanding others, being comfortable supporting others, and letting others take the credit for their own great work. I cringe when I see a manager who seems to think it is all about himself. To me, it’s just the opposite. You support and motivate your team so they can do great work and in the end, you are responsible for something great. You get recognized enough for that.

Put another way, I look for generosity. That is not to say that there is no room for a healthy sprinkling of ego. As great employees become great managers, I have seen that confidence as an individual contributor turn to pride and confidence in the entire team. The key here is that the manager should know his own ego and understand how to balance it with the needs of the team. He needs to have the perception skills and emotional intelligence to understand the varying styles and needs of the members of the team and make it all work. If I feel that an individual contributor is too caught up in himself, I generally will not expect him to be the kind of manager I want on my team.

You know that a manager is doing a good job when you see smiling employees. Ok that sounds really corny, but it’s true. I check in with my front-line folks to see how my managers are doing for them, and I know right away which managers are making it happen and which ones are not. Of course, when I am asking them from up in the tower, employees don’t openly bash their managers when they don’t like them. I still get my answers though. A positive response to the question, “how’s it going with your manager?” is clear and immediate. A negative response involves at least some measure of arm-crossing and squirming. These are the folks who tell me that their manager is “Good-yeah-good-mmhmm” in an uncharacteristic falsetto. That’s when I know I’ve got a problem.

The employees who are happy with their managers let you know right away. They have a special glow to them. What? Can’t anyone else see that? Oh well, just me. The important thing to factor in however is that the success of a manager has to be measured as a combination of the stability of his employees and the quality of work product. Happy employees don’t count for much if the business is all shot to hell. Effectiveness of the team is of course paramount, but I find that if you have a strong leader who supports the team properly while remaining focused on the work, the quality will take care of itself.

I think I knew I wanted to manage people from a very young age. I was always a responsibility junkie, I liked to help people, and I liked being the center of attention. I had a paper route when I was 12, and over time I grew it as a business and hired two of my neighbors to work for me for a salary of $20 each per week. A few years later, working in a supermarket after school and on weekends, I took a great deal of pride in having earned the privilege of “holding keys”.

I think what really locked it in for me came later on in some of my early professional jobs as a manager, when I would see the results of my coaching in real, tangible improvement in my employees. I was actually able to give people some insight into themselves and help them to see things a different way that helped them to grow. That was pretty cool. To this day, that is still what makes me love it. I don’t really care what the work product is, as long as I have a chance to build a team and develop the strengths of the individuals on it.

Oct 24, 2009

Weekly roundup 10-24-2009

The faculty recommend additional reading from the blogosphere.  here are some posts we discovered this week:

Career Advice from Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert: rather than try to be the best at 1 thing, try to be really good at two more things... (old post but good)

Feeling snowed?  Don't be dazzled by weak business arguments with this counter-argument from Cranky Product Manager

Tools you can use:   Small Business Grants for Women

Managers are People Too -  commentary from The Office Professional -- another reminder that we are all in this together

Oct 23, 2009

Youthful Management

Instructor, Caroline Bender

"...we may have to start planning careers that move downward instead of upward through time...Perhaps [one] should reach his peak of responsibility very early in his career and then expect to be moved downward or outward into simpler, more relaxing, kinds of jobs."
Harold J Leavitt, quoted in Alvin Toffler's Futureshock, 1971

The greatest direct supervisory responsibility Miss Bender has ever had was for a class of 52 college freshmen in my care 3 days a week for an hour -- during which time I was to teach them the basic reading comprehension and writing skills they would need to thrive in the Texas state university system. It was my first professional job. I was 22 years old and paid $600/month.

Four years later came dept head responsibility for about 20 paid staff and as many volunteers (some of whom overlapped), a $100,000 budget, capital improvement goals, campus committee requirements and jump-and-run responsibility whenever the President needed more folding chairs. And I had never been happier.

I think of the above quote often as I watch today's youthful managers and junior executives. The Company's top management tier is all younger than I am, and very good at their work. The people in my age group and older -- Late Boomers and Boomers, respectively -- have lower ranking or consulting positions.

In a knowledge-based economy, experience is a commodity. It has to be built the hard way, while young, when one has everything to gain and very little to lose; when the idea of reading trade magazines on the treadmill and a fat business book on vacation sound like excellent career-edge-building opportunities; and you haven't yet discovered that the Company will not keep you warm at night. Once today's knowledge worker does realize that (or makes her millions), there is an gentle dial-down to a consultative role. Eventually, like my generation, they will mentor the next, who are quite sure they are presenting ideas that have never been tried.

In higher education, where I began my career, there was no model for this. The faculty had their adjunct/visiting/emeritis system, where a person ran a cycle of TA, team/junior faculty, professorial ranking and chairmanships.  As one aged, she scaled back down to part-time work, research, then finally just being trotted out occasionally at awards banquets like Johnny Pesky. In administration, one worked one's way to a deanship, provost, perhaps a Presidency -- none of which had tenure, but all of which you hoped you could retire from if the stress didn't kill you.

In those "classical" industries, like education, the arts, and sports, there truly was a ladder one climbed as she got older.  Everyone above you had one stood where you stood.

In 1970, when Alvin Toffler predicted this shift in management skill would flip, and those above you would not have walked in your Doc Martens, he used the training of engineers as an example --  only marginally anticipating that technology and information would be the driving force of the US economy in "the future."

Industry and agriculture were economies rooted in history, which one excelled in over decades of practice. In "the future," he pointed out, the most recently educated and trained will be the most desirable, because knowledge will become obsolete. The young must lead because their skills are current, and the mature must advise them based on their experience, because their training is no longer applicable.

This can be unsettling for both parties, who are in such different stages of human development, much less career development, that the gap widens.  It can be difficult for report to someone your daughter's age; it can be even harder to motivate a staffer who has clocked 25 years already.

Toffler also wrote,
Thus we find the emergence of a new kind of organization man -- a man who,despite his many affiliations, remains basically uncommitted to any organization. He is willing to employ his skills and creative energies to solve problems with equipment provided by the organization, and within temporary groups established by it. But he does so only so long as the problems interest him. He is committed to his own career, his own fulfillment.   [gender bias forgiven; ladies didn't have their own credit cards yet]
Veterans of the protected class, please make an effort with your young officers.  They swing a little wildly, sometimes they can't get out of their own way, but you may not be helping.  Lead by your example and try to meet them where they are. 
Some easy wins, with all sweeping generalizations acknowledged:

1.  Ask for their help
It is good to have peers and mentors to turn to for the hard stuff.  But don't box out your management resources because you think they can't help you with the hard stuff.  Wisdom is not limited to the aged, and Gen X & Y have a few new tricks to teach us about problem-solving.  Gen Y particularly enjoys collaborative work, and Gen X just wants your respect.

2.  Support the mission
If you are not part of the solution, as they say...  Use your experience to support the Boss's vision. Think of Alfred the Butler and help save Gotham.

3.  Stop quoting your resume
Nothing is more annoying to the Boss in her 30s than hearing what you did at this or that company in the 70s or 80s.  It may be a good idea; it may also involve a WATTS line and a Kroy machine.  Just own it.  Suggest it on its own, and figure out how it will work here and now. 

4. Know when you are out of the circle
Sometimes the topic will be "after your time."  It will be a social moment, standing around a water cooler or waiting for a meeting to begin.  If all you have to add is "I was 32!" then keep it to yourself.  Let them have their moment.

5.  Play along
Boomers are the last generation who should complain about the group activities.  The Late Boomers and early Xers were raised in empty houses, and they generally scorn the karaoke night and corn-maze outing.  You will go a lot farther with the Boss (personally and professionally) if you can learn to participate in their reindeer games.

Oct 22, 2009

Your Unemployment Claim

Instructor, Caroline Bender

Because the unemployment insurance experience is handled at the state level, it is difficult to give a comprehensive breakdown of what you can expect from your initial claim.  Begin here if you do not know how the system works in your state.  Like most public services which have embraced new technology, the unemployment experience does not necessarily meaning standing in long lines until the office hours end just as you reach the window.  This can still happen, of course, but your state labor office is more than happy to have you contact them from home.

In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where I have begun my own journey, the tools are surprisingly simple and thorough, and the phone agents (in my case, "Dorothy,") have been efficient and compassionate.

Step 1: Read Up
Take some time to review the unemployment site for your state.  It can not hurt to do this now even if you are employed.  Our goal for this series on Unemployment is to help prepare you for what 1 in 10 of us are expected to experience.  The unemployment system relies on you, the person with time on her hands, to initiate and manage your own caseload.  If you are in a 10+% state like California or Nevada, you can see how expecting outreach is just too much to ask.

Your entitlement is a percentage of the salary you were severed from, and there is a ceiling.  Unemployment checks can not replace the salary you were used to.  But they can see you through grocery or utility bills, and supplement your emergency fund.

Step 2: The initial claim
If you have never been in the system before, the secret insider lingo for what you are doing in filing your "initial" claim.  If you have received unemployment insurance before, you are "reopening" a claim.  The procedure may vary in your state.  In Massachusetts the activity was not particularly different; it was all about establishing the record for the first time.  Picture Dorothy putting a sticker on a clean manila folder as opposed to pulling a dog-eared folder from a drawer in the back.

This can be done by phone, though you may be limited to what day you can call by your Social Scurity number, last name, area code, ZIP code, or some other method of traffic control.  You will verify your identity and set up some profile information.  Dorothy will explain the next sequence of events.  If she does not, ask her to.  It will only help in the long run, and you have a right to understand what is expected of you, and what you can expect of the state.

Step 3: Withholdings
Unemployment insurance is income, and will be taxed accordingly, sooner or later.  Consider carefully whether you wish to defer this tax to your annual return, or have it removed up front.  It can leave a hole, just as it was on your payroll check, and at times like this "20 bucks is 20 bucks," as we say in New England.  If the amount of the tax is not going to make a significant contribution to your household, arrange to have it withheld.  You won't want that coming around in April.

Step 4: Your weekly claim
As mentioned above, the burden is on you to claim your payments.  This can now be done by phone, online, or still in person.  As part of your Steps 1 & 2, be sure you understand what is required.

You will file your claim for the preceding week, and will be asked if you looked for work during that week, and if you were eligible for work. (You may not have been, for manhy reasons: sickness, jury duty, family care, travel, or even because you found some work to tide you over).  If you worked, declare what you earned, and your check will be adjusted accordingly.

Even if you worked, you must file your claim.  Missing a week signals to the state that you are back in gainful employ and your file will close.  Repeat Step 1.

Step 5: Feel OK

Unemployment insurance is not charity, and it was never meant to be. The "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" image you have in your head is misdirected. Unemployment insurance is paid into by your employer for events like this.

The Committee on Economic Security described it this way:
"Under an unemployment insurance system reserves are accumulated during periods of employment to be paid out as benefits to workers during periods of unemployment. Small contributions based upon wages are paid into reserve funds from which weekly benefits amounting in most cases to 50 percent of wages can be paid to workers for as long as several months when they become unemployed. Unemployment insurance benefits come to the worker not as charity but as a definite right to which he is entitled by reason of his previous employment...Instead of requiring an unemployed worker and his family to bear the entire burden of unemployment it spreads the cost over the largest possible section of the community so that many may without difficulty share a load too heavy for the individual to bear unaided."

You have earned it. Claim it.
And by the way, there is nothing wrong with accepting charity either.

Outside Reading

ACLU Civil Rights of the Unemployed, 1935
Unemployment Benefits Yanked for Earning
File Unemployment.org
Surviving a Layoff

Oct 21, 2009

Things I wish I knew before joining the corporate world

by Miss Minchin, Dean of Students

1. Your undergrad major doesn't matter, but your Alma Mater can help open doors.
I went to a great private liberal arts college that no one has heard of except college recruiters. Since I was planning to be a cultural anthropologist or a clinical psychologist, I wasn't aiming for name-drop-ability in business situations while shopping colleges. I wasn't even aiming for business knowledge. I studied behavioral sciences because I knew I couldn't make a living as "just" a writer.  But since I couldn't take 5 more years of being a poor student, the reality of my more than $20k in student loans sunk in and I joined Corporate America. I saw how well-known schools created opportunities for other recent grads. Executives would go out of their way to help the young whipper-snapper who went to the same school and reminded them of theirselves at that age. Bigger and better endowed schools can offer better support and larger alumni networks, and a known name makes for easier conversation ("you know, it's one of the X-colleges... it's in X-state.... it's near X-big name college..., ....X-celebrity went there" "Oh, I love that guy").  I avoided any post college jobs with big name firms because I thought I had to have a business or accounting degree to get in the door. I later realized that just having a degree in any subject was enough.  I probably wouldn't change the school I went to because I loved it (well maybe I'd find more ways to reduce my student loans), but I might have gone for the literature or writing major I really wanted to do.

2. You are your job; and internships teach you a lot more than entry-level skills 
Since I had no idea what I wanted to do (except not be poor anymore), I took an entry-level Administrative Assistant job in a big city after college. I had scoffed at internships at accounting firms during school while I applied for fellowships to study dance in India and volunteered for social causes instead. When my plans changed, and I became an "Admin", I was not prepared for the shock of job role hierarchy. People assume you do what you do because that's all you can do, that's all you are qualified to do, or that's all you aspire to do. If you are not in a job that is on a clear growth track, it's really hard for people to imagine that you have more to offer, and you will be "type cast" making it much harder for you to change roles without having to leave the company. And you'll be the one who has to listen to complaints about the free bagels you order or be asked to make copies of faxes and faxes of copies instead. This is not to say there is anything wrong with being an Admin, but if that's not your chosen career path you are better off  taking another entry-level job in an industry you might be interested in.
This is where internships come in handy. No one grows up thinking "I want to be a Senior Internal Auditor, HCM, Level 2" but this could be the perfect job. You won't discover this without exposure to it, and interning while still a student will give you a great opportunity to learn about what you might like and not like about corporate life. If I could do things differently, I would do an internship (or take that fellowship to study dance in India).

3. It's not like school.
In the corporate world, there is no straight line, no curriculum or degree program. If you work really hard you don't automatically move up to the next grade. There are no exams or report cards to measure your progress, and in your performance review you should be happy to get "Cs". No one is going to necessarily mentor you or train you. Success is a combination of luck, skill and negotiation. Presentation skills are very helpful too, and hard work is sometimes important.  If I could do things differently, I would take some speech/presentation classes to get comfortable speaking in meetings, giving presentations, and pitching ideas persuasively. I would have more realistic expectations for how to establish a career and I would seek out more learning opportunities in each role.

4. Corporate jobs aren't the only way to make a living wage.
Career counselors love to tell young people to follow their dreams and the money will follow. I knew this was just hippie fluff they were peddling, because no one I ever met made a decent living from something that made them happy. I mean, that's why it's called work. But now that I'm older and more jaded, I think they're right. The best time to follow your dreams is when you don't have responsibilities and house payments. If you do anything long enough you will become an expert. Why not become the sought-after expert on Peep swordfighting if that's what makes you happy? Apprenticing is an underutilized method for learning a skill, and careers are forged from the skills you aquire and the expertise you possess. When you pursue your interests, build skills and become an expert, a career will find you. If I could do things differently I would have found ways to apprentice with successful people who I admired.

What things do you wish you knew before you joined the work force?

Oct 19, 2009

Ask a Manager: Managing through a layoff

Guest Lecturer, Dick Whitman, Manager in Residence

Dear Manager:    What is Management going through during a layoff?

“Hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got…and all he’s ever gonna have”

-- Unforgiven

It's a line from one of my favorite movies,  where a young guy seeks out the notorious killer William Munny to join him in a job of killing some bad guys for pay. Well ole’ Will is not quite what the kid had pictured. After these two finally get around to killing the bad guy, the kid is very shaken, as it wasn’t the tough-guy adventure he had been expecting. It was ugly and it made him sick.

The kid, as a newcomer to this world of violence, turned to the ever-stoic Clint Eastwood at this point. Clint’s looking sadly off into the distance, and he says in his usual whispery cadence “Hell of a thing killin a man...."

When you fire someone, or lay them off, or perform a reduction in force, or my personal favorite, “right-size” someone, you certainly aren’t killing them. You aren’t even taking away everything they have. But you are taking a hell of a lot.
It’s not just the person’s job. It is his or her money and security. It is often the person’s sense of self, belonging, and maybe even sense of self worth and pride. You take that away and it’s going to have impact. This is not lost on the manager who is doing the deed. Not on this one anyway. It doesn’t matter how many times you go through it.

It is not simply the act of terminating someone’s employment that is at issue here.

As a manager, you need to deal with terminations all the time. However, the run of the mill termination revolves around “performance issues" -- in management speak,  a person isn’t doing his or her job adequately. The optimistic view is that the person is in the wrong job, and should be applying his talents elsewhere. Some people manage to be in jobs where they should be applying their talents elsewhere for years. I try to avoid including these people in my long term staffing model.

When I coach new managers on these situations, I tell them how I used to want to be a veterinarian because I love dogs, but I always thought I wouldn’t be able to put the dogs to sleep when it was needed. A vet once told me that this part of the job is not pleasant, but it is an important thing you are doing to help the dog get to a better place because he is suffering.
Think of dismissing an employee who is a “performance issue” as helping him end his suffering to get to a better place.

The thing about a layoff is you are usually putting down the healthy dogs. Now you are the poor schlub who works at the pound. Every day you’ve been feeding and walking them, little stroke under the chin now and then – hey why not? – and after so many days of no one coming around to claim the poor things, your job is to get the syringe. Gotta keep the cages clean, keep the operation moving.

When you are a manager, and it is decided that the business needs to reduce, the first thing you generally deal with is frustration over the need to eliminate resources from your team and still continue to get the same amount of work done.

This sensation quickly gives way to thoughts on how you will decide who to cut.
There are many different scenarios that can be in effect here.

A little, or a lot?

In a large-scale layoff, for example, you are typically removing several people, and in doing so, admitting that the business itself needs to be done differently, or that certain things you do today can no longer be done. This might mean laying off everyone who does a certain function. In these cases, it is easier to blame external factors like “the economy”, “the competition”, or another perennial favorite, “the recent acquisition”.

When you are asked to trim just a bit, you can sometimes easily identify one or two people on your team who have been “on the bubble” -- i.e. not performing as well as others -- but still generally ok. Or, to be incredibly candid about it, these are usually the people who are very likeable and try really hard, so you have always found a way to make it work. If you have already had these folks in a role that is perhaps less than 100% critical due to their (ahem) “unique mix of skills”, then you might find yourself in a place where you can now blame the layoff while taking care of something that you should have done to strengthen your team long ago.
Prime Directive
While this scenario is still painful to execute, the rest of the team generally understands the decision and can move on without any major scars. Taking the emotion out of it for a moment, that is really the key long-term objective: to keep the team effective and strong so you can continue on with the business.

How’s that for getting behind the curtain?

The worst scenario is the one where you have a tight, well-oiled machine of a team -- where you have already trimmed all of the excess, and everyone is doing a good job – and now you are asked to reduce.
Now you have to decide who stays on the island and who gets voted off. It is in these cases, when delivering the news is the hardest. Now in addition to pulling the proverbial rug out from under the employee, this person is going to realize that you, Mr. Manager, decided that this one is the one to go.
And where do you get off anyway?

You had to make a decision about how you can run the business with less staff, and you’ve chosen to retain the staff that you feel will put you in the best position moving forward. You are picking your highest performing or your highest potential employees, possibly mixed in with some data on compensation – think about a ball club who retains a potential rookie superstar in favor of the guy with the proven big arm who happens to be in a contract year. (Hey Sox fans, let’s see where Jonathan Papelbon ends up next year – it is business after all.)

For me, the problem here has always been about retaining trust and credibility – two things that have always been very important to me as a successful manager -- with the team.
Sitting across the table from someone and telling him his time is up and “it was based on a lot of factors that we considered for the future of the business”, you have to wonder what he is thinking about you and your contribution to the future of the damn business, thankyouverymuch! And then to later look the rest of the team in the collective eye and tell them that everything is going to be ok…well that can be tough. When you manage based on motivation, support, and trust, you can help but feel the hit that your credibility – and your effectiveness, at least in the short-term – is going to take from this.
Acts of kindness
A few weeks after picking up a remote team to manage the need to reduce staff came along. I flew out to the site to reduce this new team by only one, as I had insisted on telling the “chosen one” of his separation from the company in person rather than on the phone. I set up a meeting with this guy to give him the news, obviously without letting him know what the meeting was about. I also set up one-on-one meetings with the others to follow.

My intention in the subsequent meetings was to let the team know what had happened and to assure them that they were all safe. While I was able to get out of that day with the rest of this team reasonably reassured and intact, I found that every time I made a visit to that office for the next year or so, I would be greeted by a team of people with ashen faces and nervous laughs…”What time is your flight?” they would say. Translation: “how many hours until you are gone and I can know I’m safe?” So now look at me, I’m the damn Grim Reaper.

This was definitely not the environment in which I wanted to build up my kick-ass team.
Who hurts The bottom line is that layoffs are a part of business. I can’t pretend that they are not sometimes necessary or that I don’t understand the need. There have been times (more times than not) when I have been in full agreement with my company’s direction to run leaner due to changes in the market, declining sales, or the overall company resource needs. No getting off the hook there.

That said, the one thing I want to make clear is that the guy (or gal) sitting across the table from you on that horrible day is most likely experiencing a great deal of guilt, uncertainty, doubt, and most certainly heartburn, as he tells you that you need to collect your things.
In a role where you rely on people for success, you cannot ignore the human impact. That part doesn’t get easier over time.  It definitely hurts you way more than it hurts me. Still, you don’t want to be either side of that particular table. Unfortunately, hiding under it is not an option.

Ask a Manager: Your Questions Answered

The Finishing School welcomes you to our faculty mixer, where we have the pleasure of introducing a newcomer from the corner office, our Don Draper in residence, who will help provide some balance to the dialogue.  We do not say debate, because we are not in conflict with our Resident Manager.  We know he brings a fresh point of view to the topics we discuss, and we look forward to having him answer your questions about life in management and staff relations that we have not been able to address.

It is my pleasure to introduce Dick Whitman to the student body, and to invite him to tell you more about himself:

A Riff on Management
When the Finishing School came to me and asked me to represent the “Management” point of view, I had a very mixed reaction. The word “shudder” comes to mind…ok, let me explain.

I have long admired these witty observations of life in the workplace. The only thing is, one can’t help but notice there is typically a general theme of “management bad, oppressed worker bees good”.

And while I’ve often laughed along, I am realizing just now that I’ve always thought of them as representing something outside of the world that I occupy. I have been managing people in one form or another for more than half of my life, and I have always loved it. I love it because it gives me satisfaction to build a strong team and to transform an organization through motivation and leadership. Most of all, I love it because it sometimes gives me the opportunity to take an individual with some hidden potential that maybe only I can see, and with a little investment of my time and emotion, to pull that potential out of hiding.

When I think about the changes I’ve seen in certain people who have been willing to trust and listen to me over the years, and who have in turn made the investment in themselves to grow, it makes me feel true pride.

Growing up, I was supposed to be something IMPORTANT in life. (Translation: doctor…or, in the interest of variety, lawyer is ok too) Unfortunately, the most important thing I learned in college was that I couldn’t sit still long enough to make it through 4-6 more years of it. So…I took a different path. On this other path, sadly, I am not saving lives and I am not fighting for justice (and/or gobs of money), but when I feel like I’ve made a difference in an employee’s professional development, I feel pretty damn good. When I feel like I’ve turned a collection of dysfunctional, disjointed coworkers into an effective – dare I say kick-ASS? -- team, then I am truly able to slay those emotional dragons and feel like I’ve done something important.
(Oh yeah. That’s what you’re dealing with here.)

Now think about that guy I just described, and picture how he is going to react to being asked to represent “the management view” in this context.  I couldn’t help but think to myself, “(Self….) is that how they see me? As management?! Egad.  I’m Bill Lumbergh from Office Space!” Am I really associated with that one-dimensional, Dilbertesque view of “the boss”?
 More importantly, I don’t know if I am qualified to represent all of "management." This is not to say that I am trying to separate myself from management as a whole.   But that is an interesting paradox in itself: in this context, I am either one of the dirty ignorant bastids that “tells us what to do and takes away our jobs”, or….OR… I’m the exception to the rule, the sympathizer, the traitor to my brethren, the Uncle Tom.

But what the hell, I’ve never felt like I could fit everything into a neatly-defined little package (Ken Blanchard be damned). I’m still honored to have the chance to write for this fine publication, and I am sure I will love it. And I applaud my friends for looking to balance out the commentary with a management view. I will certainly try my best to be fair and candid in that context.

Mr. Whitman is now available to take your questions.  Please ask nicely, or we will not pass them along.  The Finishing School will post Mr. Whitman's replies and reflections "on a going forward basis."  That is not a phrase Dick would use, by the way.

Oct 17, 2009

Preparing for the worst: How much should you have in your emergency fund?

by Miss Minchin, Dean of Students
If you lost your job tomorrow, would you be able to get by until you found another job, even if that job search took you 8 months? What if you and your partner both lost your jobs? Do you have enough saved up for such an emergency? Do you even know how much you need to have saved for such an event? If you are like most Americans the answer is no.

We have all been touched in some way by the current recession, and we all probably know people who have lost their homes, their jobs, or are simply struggling to get by. If there is one positive thing that we can take away from this recession, it’s that we are relearning the value of living within our means and setting aside cash for unexpected life events. More and more people are starting to appreciate the peace of mind that comes with having a solid emergency fund in place. My goal is to give you the information and tools you need to figure out the right amount to have in savings for this worst case scenario.

First you need to know the numbers
Do you know what your monthly expenses are? Do you know what they would be if both you and your partner were unemployed? Do you know how much unemployment you would qualify for? How long you would qualify for benefits? Do you know how much Cobra would cost? Let’s take a look at some of these numbers:

• In my state, Unemployment Insurance will pay half of what you make today, up to a cap. The max is $628/week for up to 30 weeks, for a total of pay out $18,840, so anyone making more than 65k/year will be getting less than 50%. In other words, if you make $65k per year, you'd be living on a salary of  $32k year for about 4 months. If you make $32k a year, you'd be living on a salary of $16k for four months or so.(Currently there are extensions in effect, but you can’t count on that in the future and likely wouldn’t qualify if you were laid off tomorrow).

• You might be thinking, “my employer will be generous with severance pay" and I hope that's true. Don’t forget that the company will have to withhold taxes & social security from your severance check, so the lump sum you may be counting on could be a lot less than you expect. When my husband was laid off last year, the $12k check we were expecting for severance and employment assistance was a lot closer to $6k. Did you also know that you cannot collect unemployment for the amount of time that you are covered by severance pay? So if you get 2 months severance, you won’t be eligible to start collecting unemployment for two months. Not only that, but if you do earn any side income while looking for a new job, your unemployment check can be reduced by that amount (see your state's Department of Labor site for the rules).

• COBRA will keep your family covered by medical insurance, but you will have to pay the full premium yourself. (Currently there is a program in place that will reimburse you for up to 80% of the premium, but you have to qualify, there is no guarantee it will exist in the future, and you will still need the money to pay the premium first). At my place of employment, for a single person with the least expensive plan you would pay $150/month, and for a family covered by the high value plan you would have to pay $1462/ month to keep your current coverage. Add to that Dental and Vision coverage and you would be paying anywhere from $200/month up to almost $1600/month. Find out what COBRA would cost you if you were to be laid off.
Next figure out your monthly budget
Now that you know these numbers, work these into your monthly budget to come up with amount you would need to get by in a worst case scenario. Don’t forget to count bills that are paid annually. If your monthly budget seems high, you may want to analyze your spending to separate out what your true needs are, from the nice-to-haves. One exercise to help you do that is to picture yourself and your family in a homeless shelter getting a meal from a soup kitchen. Now start adding back in the things in life that you really need. This will help you to see what things are truly necessary to get by, and which things are optional in time of need.

Identify your safety net
Once you have a worst-case scenario budget, think about what dollar amount you would need to have in the bank to feel secure. Some financial gurus recommend saving 8 months of living expenses, this is based on the average length of time it takes to find a new job in a recession. Most will recommend a minimum of 3 months of living expenses or income. Think about what number sounds right to you. What dollar amount will make you feel protected? Everyone has a different level of risk tolerance, and many factors come into play: Is your job in an industry where it is taking even longer to find employment? Do you feel confident that you would get a new job quickly? If you rely on irregular income or commissions you may want to have more, if too much money sitting safely in savings makes you feel the pinch of lost investment opportunity, you may want to save less.

Don't play games with credit
If you have credit card debt or a home equity line of credit or loan, think twice about how you would allocate funds to these. In the recent past many financial advisors gave the advice to pay down debt and use your home equity line of credit or a credit card to pull you through a crisis. But if this recession has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t count on our homes steadily increasing in value, and many of us have lost any equity that we may have had. Creditors are shutting down credit for even the most responsible consumers. As soon as you pay down debt, they are reducing your credit limit to the amount owed. Relying on these tools in an emergency can leave you even deeper in debt. A better approach may be to pay the minimum or a small amount on any existing debt until you have a reasonable emergency fund stashed away. This way you won’t find yourself both without money and without credit.

Now start saving
Once you know the amount that you would personally need to feel covered in the event of an emergency, assess your budget and find funds to put away each month to work towards that goal. Take advantage of automatic savings programs to pay yourself first, and celebrate the progress you make toward that goal. Don’t give in to temptation. When you find yourself thinking "I should live for today, I work hard, I deserve it!"  You’re right, you work hard and you do deserve it, but that is irrelevant. You will need to make some sacrifices, don’t ransom your future for short-term gratification.

In uncertain economic times, it helps to know that you are taking steps to control your financial destiny. With knowledge, a good plan, and determination, you can put your financial fate into your own hands and feel confident that you can weather any storm life throws your way.

Oct 13, 2009

Your unemployment experience

Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 2009, lists the national unemployment rate at 9.8%.  10% of men, 7% of women, and 25.9% of teenagers.

"Among the unemployed, the number of job losers and persons who completed temporary jobs rose by 603,000 to 10.4 million in September. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks and over) rose by 450,000 to 5.4 million. In September, 35.6 percent of unemployed persons were job-less for 27 weeks or more. " (Employment Situation Summary)

By these stats, you stand a very good chance of becoming unemployed before the next benchmark revision, February 2010.  Unfortunately, you are not likely to know when this will occur, and being unprepared for unemployment can make that experience feel unmanageable.

The Finishing School has dedicated these past 4 years to preparing our student body for the world of work, and begins today a regular series that can help you prepare for the unpleasant turn of events that puts you out of work.  Use this simulation course to take stock of your own situation and ready your unemployment kit.  An ounce of prevention, etc...

Day Zero - Understanding the Law

Employment Law is not easily digested, but there are a few key pieces of legislation that you should be familiar with in regards to layoffs, furloughs and terminations.  You should also explore laws specific to your state and to your industry, which may outline additional regulations for employers and employees.

Pay close attention to the words that are said as you are being terminated.  This can be difficult to do if you are stunned and in disbelief.  Write things down if you need to.  Do not jump to litigation out of anger, but be alert to signals of non-compliance.

Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act (WARN)
Twenty years old this year, the WARN Act was actually evaluated as too confusing by the US General Accounting Office by 2004.  GAO recommended a re-do of this legislation, which was intended to require a 60-days notice to employees being laid off, but contains enough loopholes to render it avoidable in most situations.  That re-examination has not taken place, so a law written in different era is still in effect.

The subjective language "plant closing" and "mass layoff" are the core requirements for WARN, and do not have much teeth in a global information-based economy.  From a FindLaw  fact sheet
A plant closing occurs when it is shut down for more than six months, or when fifty or more employees lose their jobs during any thirty-day period at a single site of employment.
A mass layoff occurs when a layoff of six months or longer affects 500 or more workers, or 33 percent of the employer's workforce when the layoffs affect between 50 and 499 workers.

 Note that these manufacturing-centered definitions are not binding when it is only your department or division, if your company relocates out of state or country, or when it comes to simply eliminating your job.

WARN does not cover "new hires" (6 months or less on the job), or part-time workers.  Contracted workers with a fixed completion date or deliverable are not included.  Most importantly for 2009, "unforseen business circumstances" and "natural disaster" will waive WARN completely.

There are penalties for employers who violate WARN regulations, but you the employee will have to file the suit, and you will have better chance of reaching the US District court where it is enforced if you file a class action.

Employment at Will
Employment at Will is the "no-fault" divorce doctrine of US Labor.  It means that either employer or employee may sever the work relationship with or without cause, but this does not eliminate the possibility of breach of contract or wrongful termination suits.  It is best not to rest in too much comfort on this walk-away clause, but you do not need to live in fear of it either.

It is inaccurate to speak of "at will states" as if there are some that do and some that don't.  All states have some version of Employment at Will doctrine and exceptions to it.  Your best preparation is to understand your own state's laws and your employer's regulations.  (see Today's Assignment, below)

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
From the EEOC:
"Under the ADEA, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person because of his/her age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training. The ADEA permits employers to favor older workers based on age even when doing so adversely affects a younger worker who is 40 or older."
Burden of proof in discrimination cases is on the plaintiff, unless there is whistle-blowing involved.  Your selection for termination may not have been a case of age discrimination.  Before making such a charge, be sure you understand the broad (and lengthy) history of this act, which was originally passed in 1967.
Most employees are expected to sign a waiver on their intent to sue in exchange for other termination settlement benefits (such as severance, extended healthcare coverage, and the like).  If you are in this protected class (40+) you are also waiving your ADEA rights, and are given extra time to consider that decision, and the right to revoke it within a week after doing so. (EEOC fact sheet on age)
On your termination, the employer is required to provide demographic information about other employees terminated with you.  This is information is provided for your legal evidence only, and is considered a confidential document.

Veterans' Employment and Training (VETS)
Every employer should understand the fine details of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act when hiring, supervising, and planning to terminate a member of the armed forces or reserves.
Servicemen and women are entitled to keep their jobs during calls to duty.  They are also obligated to maintain certain periods of advance notice with their civilian employers. 
Choosing a service member for the termination list because their schedules are difficult to maintain and their attendance spotty is discrimination. 

Today's Assignment
Explore your state's employment laws.  This can be overwhelming, so concentrate on your specific industry, job, or situation.  Your goal is not to have "what are my rights?" be the first thing on your mind in a termination meeting.  Search for "labor law [state]," for example, "labor law Idaho."

Employers are encouraged to explore in-service training opportunities on these and similar topics at all line-levels of management to ensure that those who manage others are legally compliant.
Outside Reading

For the workforce
5 Top companies with no layoff
The UnEmployment Diary blog
Why the Wrong People Get laid Off

For management
Consultants decide who to fire
Best Practices for Layoffs

Next time: Day One: Set your house in order

Oct 12, 2009

Change is in the air

The Businesswomen's Finishing School and Social Club has been learning about the unemployment experience, most of it the hard way.  Your founders have both been personally touched by America's downsizing, and wish to pass that information along to you "what to expect" style.  (We considered "for Dummies" style, but don't you feel bad enough already?)

Beginning today, a continuing series on Caroline Bender's unemployment experience, with guest appearances by Miss Minchin, head-of-household.  Through this approach, we hope to cover both dependent and non-dependent issues, spouse and single impacts, mid-career/"older worker" information, and the breadth of view that you have come to expect from the BFS&SC.  But that's not all.....

In the coming months, you will also notice changes to the website itself.  We hope to introduce new features over the remainder of the year, and look forward to your feedback on expanded topic areas like personal finance, continuing education, employment law, non-traditional work structures, book and tools reviews, and more, while still providing the from-the-trenches advice you count on to enhance your career persona.

We'll be adding more interviews and guest posters, to help cover a wider range of experiences and disciplines, and connecting you to other resources for your research and development.

Finally, watch this space for an updated Blogroll and recommended reading through Amazon.

Class is now in session

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