Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Working Life: Office Q & A:
Listener Questions Part 1

The Radio Show Recap...

In this segment of The Working Life, Mary Abbajay answers listener's questions about their working life dilemmas. Pregnancy, Managing Up, Body Odor, Ghetto Talk and more!

Listener Question: I'm in the process of interviewing for a new job and I just found out I'm pregnant. Do I have to disclose this in an interview or when I get a job offer?

Mary’s Answer: Do you mean do you have to disclose this personal information in the legal sense? Ethical sense? Or Strategic sense?
o Legally: No.
o Strategically: Depends.
o Ethically: Maybe.

Generally (and strategically) speaking, I would say the appropriate place to discuss your pregnancy is during the job offer. At that point, the organization has much more information (and investment) in you. So if you want to increase your strategic chances of getting the job—wait until it is time to talk turkey.

That being said, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the slightly murky area one enters when one withholds important information. I know, I know, it is very un-feminist of me to say this—but I think you should at least consider the employer’s point of view here. If you know that your pregnancy would require serious disruption of your employment contract—then maybe you should speak out sooner or better yet seek a job that is a better fit for you.

Which brings us back to what is really important here—and that is finding the best overall employment opportunity for you and your newly expanding family. Be strategic about your changing life. You need to look for more than just a job. Ask yourself what kind of job, organization, lifestyle, do I want to pursue? What kind of employer is best for me? Where job will be the best fit for me and for my family?

Listener Question: My boss is so disorganized. He forgets that he assigns tasks to someone, and then asks someone else on the team to do the same thing. It's really not productive, and because I'm one of the managers in the group, I often end up having to fix his mistakes. How can I bring this up with him, without sounding critical or that he is forgetful or disorganized?

Mary’s Answer: Let me see if I have this correct. You want to be able to criticize someone’s shortcomings without him realizing that a) you are criticizing him and/or b) that he even has shortcomings AND at the same time find a resolution that addresses those aforementioned shortcomings. The way to do that is called “managing up!”

Assuming that your boss is not psycho (see psycho boss question in part 3 of this series) and that this really is a problem that needs to be addressed…you need to gather your facts. Think through potential solutions. Prepare your opening statement. And then walk into his office and discuss this situation like the most skilled, tactful manager you can be! Your opening statement must:
  • Name the issue (succinctly and without judgment, aspersions or blame)
  • Describe the impact (why this issue is important)
  • Give a brief example that illustrates the situation (be succinct)
  • Offer to help resolve (either offer solutions or assistance)
  • Ask his for opinion/perspective (seek to create a collaborative conversation)

So your opening statement might go something like this:
“Bob, I need to talk to you about some problems with our department’s task assignment process. The team is experiencing overlap and confusion causing duplication of effort, wasted resources, frustration and conflict. This has happened on several important projects this month including the Pinsky and Festivus projects. I have some ideas on how we can improve this situation. We could incorporate a master project board that would help us clarify our roles. what do you think?”

Please note—while you addressed the issue head-on, you didn’t actually call him disorganized or forgetful. You didn’t blame him directly. This is what we call managing up—being direct without committing career suicide. Always remember, the key to being tactful with someone who is your “superior” is to allow him to save face and retain his elevated status. (Conversely, if he was your subordinate, I would recommend being more direct—“I’m here to talk about your disorganization and forgetfulness...”)

The truth is, most disorganized & forgetful people know they are disorganized and forgetful. So, this probably won’t be the first time he’s been approached on this issue—in fact his wife is probably endlessly harping on this issue, which makes being tactful and solution oriented even more important.

Listener Question: I'm planning to relocate to another city in 6 months after I get married. I'm already working 60 hours a week, planning a wedding, and managing everything else in my life. I don't have a lot of time to figure out how to find a job in another city at the same time. Are there any resources other than job web sites that I can tap into to get the ball rolling? How do I find out what headhunters are good, or what employers I might want to consider?

Mary’s Answer: Yikes! I’m stressed after just reading your question. So that I don’t risk making your head spin off with a long answer—here is the short scoop.
  • Temp Agencies. They are not your mother’s typing pool anymore. You’d be surprised at how many skilled/professional jobs are “temped” out now due to corporate downsizing and outsourcing. It is an excellent way to get to know a job market and meet potential employers.
  • On-line local publications in your new city. Every major newspaper has an online version of the paper—complete with want ads. Do a quick scan to see what the market looks like.
  • Chamber of Commerce web sites. You can learn who are the power employers in no time.

As for Headhunters—they are probably not the best strategy for people merely looking for “jobs”. Headhunters are hired by companies or by accomplished executives—i.e. we’re talking the six figure salary people here. They get paid with a percentage of those aforementioned big executive salaries. So unless you’re swimming in a big salary pond, you’re probably not worth the effort of most headhunters. It’s just a marketplace reality—you’re simply not a big enough pay day for them.

Try the temp thing. It sounds like a perfect solution to ease a stressful transition. Good luck!

Listener Question: A man in my office has a serious B.O. problem. Because we work in an open plan situation, even though he is about 6 desks away from me, the smell is so overwhelming that my clothing ends up smelling like his armpits. What can I do? Our team leader refuses to address it. Can HR do anything?

Mary’s Answer: First of all, I am sorry that your team leader is a total weenie. He/she should be addressing this issue—either directly with B.O. man or indirectly with HR. But since weenie-face is too chicken, that leaves it up to you (and your colleagues) to manage. This is one of those times, where I actually recommend letting someone else do the dirty work. Go to HR and ask them to step in. Also, if this is really as dramatic as you make it out to be, then I would ask other colleagues to join you in your HR request. Once HR knows that this is a serious office-wide problem—and not just one overly sensitive nostril complaining—they will be more compelled to take some action. Your HR people should be trained in exactly this kind of delicate and uncomfortable situation. And on the plus side, you’ve just given HR folks great cocktail party fodder for months…

Listener Question: I am an African-American woman and there are some white people I work with that don't necessarily tell racist jokes, but they do speak in ghetto-talk when they're joking around. I know people do it on TV and in the movies all the time, but at work, it makes me uncomfortable. How can I bring it up without it escalating into a big issue? I really like these people and enjoy working with them, and I don't want anyone to get in trouble, but I also don't want this kind of talk to continue. What can I do?

Mary’s Answer: Wow. I have to say. This is really an interesting dilemma. One the one hand—it is a “where do my rights start and your rights end” kind of workplace quagmire. But on the other hand, it is a huge socio-cultural, socio-economic, and socio-lingual situation that bears some public discourse and conscientious. I mean who owns language? At what point does the social zeitgeist of expressions become independent of the originating group? In other words, at what point does “whaasss up” become less a symbol of a particular group’s dialect and more of a shared cultural phenomenon?

Language is a powerful thing and we often forget that. I know I am guilty of letting loose with an occasional “no, you didn’t.” I’m also guilty of using the pretentious “dahling, so good to see you” (complete with air kiss) as well as the lamentable cockney inspired “not bloody likely.” And unfortunately for my companions—I’m not good at any of them. In a media drenched society it is only natural that we are going to pick up and use language patterns of other social groups. We tend to pick up things that we are attracted to for reasons of usefulness, richness or humor. It is not so much the reality of the expression as much as the media projection of that expression which draws us. In today’s fast paced 24/7 media world, language patterns and expressions can quickly become part of our social fabric before anyone stops to think whether they should be. In other words, is it okay for one group to co-opt the language of another group? In what situations? Under what circumstances?

But what makes your situation particularly dicey is that it touches upon race and socio-economic status. And, in America, those are very difficult and sensitive topics to sort through. But sort through them we must. If you are sure it isn’t intentional racism, why don’t you try to sort through this issue with your co-workers directly? It is highly likely that they have no idea that ghetto talk makes you uncomfortable. So tell them. Be sincere but non-judgmental. Tell them how much you like working with them and how hard this is for you to bring up. Tell them how much you appreciate their openness to talk about this issue. Go from there and see what happens.

While you may or may not be able to resolve this situation satisfactorily for both groups—at least you have begun a much needed dialogue. You’ve also shed some light on my own thoughtless behavior—and for that I thank you. Hopefully, so will your colleagues.

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