Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Working Life: Acing the Interview
How to make every interview experience a winner
The Radio Show Recap...

In this segment of The Working Life, Mary Abbajay gives the lowdown on how to ace interviews each and every time. By spending some time preparing properly--everyone can ace their interviews. The following article summarizes the key elements you need to know.

We all know that not every job interview, even a great one, results in getting a job offer. But sometimes a good interview can lead to an offer in another department, or a referral to another company or organization, so whether you get that job or not, the interview is the most crucial and memorable factor.

Prepare thyself
Preparing for the interview is key and there are four categories to cover.

  1. Know the company. This is the best place to start. You’ve got to know the company, their products, services, markets, etc. You should research their history, structure, management, recent trends, growth areas, stock price, etc. Read papers and magazines, search on-line. What are their key challenges? What is their culture like? What kind of people do they hire? Do you know anyone who works there? If so, talk to them. Brush up on who the company is and what they do. Interviewers are impressed with breadth of knowledge about their company, especially if it is relevant and timely. Read the trades and try to talk intelligently about a new product or service. Show that you follow the industry and the company.
  2. Know the job. What is it, what are the general responsibilities? Who will you report to? What are the expectations and daily responsibilities? Many of these will be answered in the interview itself, but it important to know what it is you are interviewing for, that way you can bring to bear your relevant experience. Find out as much as you can beforehand so your questions will be smarter and more targeted.
  3. Learn about the interviewer. A key element to a successful job interview is building a good rapport with the interviewer. So it helps to find out about him or her if you can. This is easy through Internet searches, trade publications, etc. Learn about the background and career progressions of the interviewer, so that you can understand who they are and where they are coming from. You might also discover some common ground, like a shared alma mater or a shared love of rock climbing. You can also flatter the interviewer by pointing out a career milestone or particularly impressive initiative. Just don’t come across as smarmy. Sincerity will always win out. Remember, the interviewer is the gatekeeper here, so play your hand well.
  4. Be up to date on the industry and the profession. At the job interview you should be able to discuss industry and professional trends. You should know where that company and others like it are headed. You should know the challenges and trends for that career and in that industry. Being able to intelligently discuss trends and challenges will set you apart. Remember, you are more than a candidate for a job; you are a potential problem solver and contributor to that organization.

Staying calm
You’re prepped and ready. You are brushed and polished and armed with facts and figures and impressive statistics. You’re also sitting in the waiting room sweating bullets. Relax. Easier said than done, right? Actually, there are lots of techniques you can use to stay calm.

The first is to make sure you are thoroughly prepared. By now, you should have practiced your answers, out loud. This helps you develop “muscle memory.” Literally talk yourself through the interview. Verbalize what you are going to say ahead of time. You’ll be amazed at much this will help relax you.

Second, visualize yourself doing well in the interview before the interview. See yourself talking confidently and easily. See yourself answering the questions thoughtfully and intelligently. See the interview going smoothly. Almost everyone at the top of their game, from professional athletes to actors, uses visualization techniques to achieve very real success. It works.

Next, remember to breathe. Taking long slow breaths is really the best and most proven way to relax your body and your mind. Inhale slowly counting to six. Start low in your belly and inhale up through your chest. Hold it briefly and exhale slowly, counting to six. Feel the oxygen course through your stressed out body. This will help lower your heart rate and calm you.
And keep a hankie ready if you get sweaty palms. No one likes a wet handshake.

Body language
A picture speaks a thousand words, and so does your outfit. Dressing appropriately is imperative. A first impression is made in the first three seconds—make sure yours is one of a confident and competent professional. For men, this means a dark suit and tie. For ladies, a conservative suit and blouse or shirt. Your outfit should convey confidence and good taste, but it is you who should stand out, not your loud tie or low cleavage

When you meet the interviewer offer a firm handshake. Make eye contact and thank them right off the bat for meeting with you. Wait for the interviewer to invite you to sit down. Then, be aware of your body language. You want to project open, relaxed and confident body language. Sit up straight. Make eye contact. Don’t fidget. Look the interviewer in the eye. Smile. Don’t cross your arms, don’t touch your face or hair nervously, don’t jiggle your legs or feet and don’t stuff your hands in your pocket or sit on them. You want to project confidence.

When responding to a question, speak directly to the person who asked it. Don’t look around the room. Listen carefully to the questions—your interviewer is giving you important clues—make sure you answer the questions asked.

Don’t talk too much. This is a fatal error many people make. Rambling on during your interview is a sure sign of weakness. Practicing beforehand, out loud, will help you give a complete answer without the extra baggage

Don’t be too familiar with the interviewer. Be friendly, but professional. Be energetic but not overly familiar. Do not overreach your position as candidate.

Don’t be arrogant. Learn the difference between confidence and arrogance and practice it.
Familiarize yourself with behavioral interviewing techniques where you use your past experiences and behaviors as an indicator of your future success. In other words, if you can demonstrate through examples that you accomplished something before, the interviewer may have the tendency to believe you may do it again. Be prepared to succinctly talk about past successes with concrete examples. Again, practice.

What do they want?
Obviously, they want something. They want a position filled, sure, but they really want a problem solved. Here is what the interviewer wants to know:
  • Do you have the skills for the job?
  • Are you motivated and enthusiastic?
  • Are you willing to learn?
  • Can you take initiative and problem solve?
  • Will you fit in the organization?
  • Do you understand the company and its purpose, goals and challenges?
  • How do you compare to your competition?
  • Do you want the job?

You should also have some questions for the interviewer. Many will probably be answered in the course of discussing the job, but this is also where listening well during the interview comes into play. The best questions come from listening to what is asked during the interview and asking for additional information. Other areas for questions should be around what is important to you as a potential employee—remember, you are interviewing them as well.

Some questions you may want to ask the interviewer:
  • What do you see as the biggest challenges goals in the next 24 months? (For the job and the organization)
  • What kind of person succeeds in this organization?
  • Where are you in the interview process and how should I follow-up after the interview?
  • How and when will you be notified about the position?

The follow-up
The first thing to do when the interview is over is go home and write a hand written thank-you note. The note should be written to the person with whom you interviewed (and make sure you have their name and address correct). The note should be on good paper and should be just a few lines long. It should thank them for their time and the opportunity to interview for the position, convey that you are excited about the prospect of working for that company and that you look forward to hearing from them soon. In this day and age, it is perfectly acceptable to send an immediate thank you via e-mail, but it should always be followed up by a hand written note.

In truth, the most agonizing part of an interview is the wait. Employers are notoriously bad about letting you know if you didn’t get the job. And by the way, if you are an employer, I need to remind you that it is totally unacceptable to invite someone to interview at your organization and then leave them hanging for long periods of time. You have a responsibility to the reputation of your organization to treat candidates with respect and courtesy. That said, as the interviewee there are a few things you can do to speed this along.

First of all, you should ask the interviewer or recruiter where they are in the interviewing/hiring process. It could be that they have structured a three-month window to interview for the position and you may have come in at the very beginning. If this is the case, you may be in for a long wait based on their time line. It is important to find this out when you interview so that you don’t spend months agonizing.

No matter what, get a date by which you expect to hear something. Then, follow up once or twice, no more, if you haven’t heard by the promised day. Of course, these dates may change if there is a second or third interview process. Just remember, there is a fine line between an appropriate follow-up and being a pest. The stronger a candidate you are, the more likely your call, note or e-mail will be received courteously. But unless invited to do so, don’t follow-up more than once a week.

What if you don’t get it?
If you didn’t get the job, it is perfectly okay to request feedback. Don’t push too hard, just ask politely who they hired and why. You want to find out what qualities or qualifications you lacked, what you could work toward. You don’t want to put them on the spot or make them feel bad. And you certainly don’t want to be confrontational or argumentative, so be sure to be courteous and respectful. Say, “Thank you for the opportunity. May I ask what things I might work on to be better prepared for a position like this?” Or “What experience or qualities did the person you hired possess that were lacking in my application?” Try to keep it positive and friendly. You can ask for feedback but very often people will not give it. But if you have built a strong rapport with the interviewer or recruiter and are courteous you stand a better chance of having your questions answered.

Remember, even if you didn’t get that job, if you have built a good rapport with the interviewer or recruiter they will remember you for another position or refer you to another department or organization. You can leverage that interview process into another job or networking resource if your behavior was professional and courteous. They will remember how you acted, how you dressed, whether you were prepared, the language you used, whether you followed up with a thank you note, whether you were gracious after not getting that job. If you handled it correctly, that relationship, even if it didn’t yield a job that time, can lead to one in the future.

To Listen to an archive of this show:
The Working Life: College Grads
Your Prescription for Success
The Radio Show Recap...

In this segment of The Working Life, Mary Abbajay outlines the basic building blocks for a successful post-college career launch. The following article summarizes the key elements for initiating an effective job search.

Congratulations and Good Luck!
Whether you’ve graduated from college or about to, congratulations. You’ve completed one major phase of your life and are about to begin another. Now, the hard work of getting into the working world begins. College life has changed dramatically in the past 10-20 years, and the pressure starts earlier than ever for graduating seniors to find a job and start their careers. Though there are many different areas to focus on, there is a simple prescription for a successful and smooth entry into the workforce.

The all-important resume
Resumes should tell a story about who you are and what your skills and talents are. Now, obviously, a 21-year old is not going to have the same resume as a seasoned veteran of the workforce. Employers know this, so don’t worry about impressive credentials. Just do the best you can with your experience so far and find things that highlight your strengths and applicable skills.

Most college seniors have had a few jobs and hopefully an internship or two. Any kind of job, internship, volunteer work or affiliation needs to go on your resume. If you were a lifeguard, put it on (that’s a position of great responsibility). If you worked in an ice-cream shop, put it on. If you babysat, put it on. Were you a member of a club, fraternity, sorority or sports team? Did you help with fundraisers or special events? Did you do volunteer work? Remember volunteering is work; it just isn’t paid. Volunteering also shows a level of social and community consciousness and commitment that many employers find valuable. It’s also good work experience.

The most important thing about “starter” jobs is to show that you were given responsibility. Did your manager give you tasks that reflected a level of responsibility, like locking up at night, opening in the morning, making deposits, running the register? Try to find those jobs or activities in which you were part of a team and helped lead it or had responsibility of some sort, however minor it may seem to you. Studies show that perceived leadership skills are as important in the hiring decision as your major, your alma mater, or your grade point average. Whatever you did or were involved in that reflects leadership and responsibility should go on your resume.

And don’t get fancy with your resume. Resumes should be simple, easily readable and written in a standard format. Don’t go over one page and don’t use fancy fonts or colored paper. Pink paper and unreadable type are annoying to an employer. You want to stand out because of who you are, not because your resume is kitschy. And always, always, spell check. Nothing sinks a candidate quicker than misspelling liaison.

What if you have nothing to put on your resume?
If you have absolutely no work experience (and remember volunteering is work), then you are going to have to talk about your academic achievements. Ironically, this is not optimal. Stellar academics are desirable, but employers are looking for leaders and marketable skills. But it is not the end of the world, depending on what kind of profession you are trying to enter. Try to convey your academic achievements in such a way as to be marketable to the employer. A high g.p.a. in and of itself doesn’t translate to being a good employee, unless you can draw the correlation between that success and employment success. In other words, did you work with a team, run a special project, assisst the professor, do independent research or study? Find something marketable about your academics and highlight that.

Internships and volunteer work are great for experience and are essential components of a resume. If you are a student or a graduate with no work experience, then you should really consider getting an internship, even an unpaid one. If you have to, you can always work nights while interning during the day. The same goes for volunteer work. Both look great on a resume and both can provide you with work skills. You’ve got to get some work experience--paid, unpaid, interning or volunteering. Just do it.

Using your college
You’ve paid a bundle for that education. The college knows this and wants you to be a successful alum. Almost every college has a career center and or an alumni network that you can use to your advantage. Though these services can be a mixed bag – some are much better and more serious than others – they are always worth checking out. Many offer job counseling, job fairs and internship programs. Some will set up real or practice interviews for you, help you with resume and hone your interview skills. Many offer personality and skills tests that can help you focus on your career choices.

You should definitely leverage the alumni relations department, especially at schools with a lot of school spirit. Most alumni who have taken the time to register with the career center are more than willing to help and will bend over backwards to help new graduates. Usually, these alumni are broken out by profession and can be counted on to provide information about a certain field, advice on getting into it and will review your resume. They may also off internships, informational interviews and invaluable contacts in your field. Don’t be shy here – this is called networking and it is one of the best ways to get a job.

Use your friends and professors, too. Does someone have a parent, sibling or associate in your field? Again, don’t be shy. This is what networking is all about.

Taking the summer off
Some people might argue that if you’re a graduating senior, this is the last summer of freedom, so why not just hang out, go to the beach, and have a few months of relaxation before hitting the job interview circuit in September? This is, of course, a personal choice. And while it may very well be true that this is your last summer of “freedom” you need to remember that there are millions of other graduates who may not be looking at it that way. Will all the good jobs be gone?

In order to decide, you have to look at the hiring cycle of your desired profession or industry. If you want to enter one that actively seeks college graduates, then taking the summer off may be a problem. In other professions, entry-level jobs may open up all the time, so taking one last summer off may not be a big deal.

One also has to weigh the fact that this is a huge generation, almost as big as the baby boomers, so while the economy is good and organizations are competing for top talent, one still has to recognize that this generation will face a lot of competition for the “good jobs,” no matter how much time you spend at the beach.

Helicopter parents
Let’s talk about mom and dad for a minute. A generation ago, parents were not involved in their children’s careers, academically or professionally. We all just got kicked out of the house after we graduated and found jobs. Now, however, parents are playing a huge role in their children’s lives, with many parents guiding and coaching their kids all the way through college and through their entry into the work force.
While some college graduates might actually enjoy their parents’ involvement, there is a point where a parent’s well-meaning but over eagerness to swoop in and manage their kids lives does more harm than good. This is called “helicopter parenting” and it can be very damaging.

The transition from student to professional is a huge one. It’s probably one of the biggest most people make. This transition is really about becoming a full-fledged adult. You stop being coddled and start being responsible for yourself. You start to really make your own choices, and if your parents are still heavily involved, you’re not really an adult, are you? If the goal here is to create responsible, independent, creative and resourceful adults, then parents have a fine line to walk here, in my opinion. They need to see that their children must make their own choices. You can help them be as ready and informed as possible, but they need to decide for themselves, even if it means making mistakes. After all, that’s part of being an adult.

Are you ready?
We hear the phrase “workforce readiness” quite a bit in the media, and the notion that what kids learn in high school and college doesn’t really prepare them for the workplace. Sadly, this is largely true and a rash of articles about how this generation is having trouble getting along in the workplace bolsters that view. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that many managers are having to praise their new recruits more because they have grown up in a culture where everyone is a winner.

On the other hand, this is the most well educated and technically savvy generation ever. The balance that has to be struck is between technical and academic readiness, which they may have, and professional polish, which they may lack. It is not an insurmountable chasm. College graduates just need to know getting the job and succeeding in the job are two very different things.

To Listen to an archive of this show:
The Working Life: Bad Apples:
Dealing with people who just don't get it

The Radio Show Recap...

In this segment of “The Working Life,” Mary discussed how to recognize and deal with "bad apples" in organizational life. These folks can destroy organizational morale and productivity faster than you can say William Tell.

Every company, organization or department has at least one employee who doesn’t carry his or her weight, who is actively negative or who sabotages others’ work or performance. You know them: they are the bad apples, and there is one in every bunch. These are the people who don’t do their jobs properly or, conversely, they perform but are complete jerks in the process. They can be lazy, arrogant, mean, untrustworthy, backbiting, condescending, etc. And they can be found in all echelons of an organization.

Basically these are people who don’t respect the organization or their coworkers. Essentially they don’t live the “values” of the organization. And, while values differ from company to company, I’ve never seen “being a jerk” on any company’s value chart.

A bad apple can take a huge toll on a company. Someone who doesn’t carry his weight, is obnoxious, or just plain refuses to play by the rules is like a bad virus. Their attitude and behavior can infect a staff or organization. That, in turn, can affect company morale, trust and productivity. If not addressed your staff will quickly become resentful, jaded and unproductive. And the bottom line will suffer.

The problem is that many managers allow bad apples to fester. Remember—you get what you reward. And when you ignore bad behavior you are essentially rewarding it. By not confronting it and dealing with it, you send the message that it is acceptable. People aren’t stupid. They are going to notice.

In the public sector, government, for example, managers allow this to happen because it is the path of least resistance. Terminating someone is just so time consuming and fraught with potential legal actions that many managers believe it is simply easier to allow bad apples to sit there and rot away. The private sector is more likely to put up with bad behavior if the person is a producer—that is, someone who seemingly serves the bottom line, so his behavior is tolerated. I’m here to tell you that you need to come out from whichever curtain you are hiding behind, because these people are hurting your organization. Do the right thing – confront the situation and get rid of the bad apples.

What is and isn’t bad behavior
So what constitutes a bad apple? Is an occasional outburst or flare-up acceptable? Is bad language okay? How about being late? Each company has to decide what is and isn’t acceptable. You must look to your own corporate value system for the answers. If being late really doesn’t affect the work, then that might be tolerable. But if being punctual is an important part of the job, or if being late angers other co-workers and brings down morale, then it shouldn’t be tolerated.

As an employer, I have tolerated more than I should have at times, especially when the employee was particularly talented and very personable. But if it affected company morale or the bottom line, then the behavior had to stop. I would tolerate the lack of soft skills over hard skills, but there is always a line; the key is to identify it, and it’s different for every company.

How to cope with the bad apples
If the behavior is not so egregious that the person needs to be confronted or fired, then there are some basic coping skills co-workers and managers can employ.
  • Avoidance. Try not to interact with this person any more than necessary.
  • Humor. Try to look at this person as a funny/absurd/opportunity to tell stories. Not the most gracious approach, but sometimes if you can find the humor and the innocence in a situation, it can help you get through it (sexual harassment is not one of them).
  • Consider the political landscape. Is this person really connected? If so, the reality is that you may have to work a bit harder to find a way to deal with this person.
  • Empathy: Most jerks are jerks because there is something deficient about them. And that is kind of sad. Chances are they are jerks in their personal lives as well. Try to find that part of you that would befriend something that was wounded. Try to find some glimmer of humanity. Think Michael Scott from The Office.

When all else fails
Peers and co-workers can play a big role in turning the bad apple around. If the bad apple is a peer, and you feel comfortable doing so, find a way to address the problem tactfully but directly. Do it privately or in a very small, trusted group. Explain to the person what you see him doing and your concerns about it. Express that you want to see him succeed but that you are afraid his current behavior may not be the best way to reach his goals. If nothing happens and you continue to see the ill effects of this behavior, then you must send it up the chain. Find a trusted leader or manager and let them know what is happening. Be sure you can speak articulately and specifically about the impact of the bad apple’s behavior.

If you’re a manager or supervisor and one or more of your employees comes to you with complaints or feedback about a troublesome employee, and you know with certainty that the complaint is valid, you must take action immediately.

There are five steps to take:
  1. Confront the person directly. Tell the person exactly what your concerns are with his behavior. Cite examples. Do not make it personal or single out who complained. Don’t say, “Carol complained about you.” Make sure you do your homework and use “I” or “We. Say: I am not happy with the way you are treating your co-workers.
  2. Describe the impact of the behavior. Use specifics: “When you call your co-workers white trash losers you destroy our teamwork and morale,” or “When you don’t do your weekly reports it adds more work for the rest of your team.”
  3. State the change you want to see. Again be specific. Link to corporate values. “I need you to stop that behavior immediately. You must treat co-workers with civility and respect.”
  4. Be explicit about the ramifications. “If you continue with this behavior, you will be terminated. This is your one warning.”
  5. Follow up. If the behavior is modified then make sure you acknowledge it. Remember, you get what you reward. If the behavior doesn’t change, then you must terminate.

A note about termination... The famous Jack Welch says if you terminate someone for not exhibiting corporate values then you should make that explicit when you speak of the termination. You don’t soft-pedal it by saying “Carol wanted to spend time with her family.” You say, “Carol was asked to leave because she was unable to be a good team player.”
When you get rid of a “bad apple” use it as an opportunity to teach and reinforce your corporate value system.

What if the jerk is you?
Yikes! What do you do if your supervisor has that talk with you? If you are the one with the bad attitude that your co-workers have been complaining about? What do you do? First of all, take a good deep breathe, because you’re going to need it. You have to look at this as an opportunity for growth. Chances are you’ve probably heard this feedback before, so take a good long look at yourself and try to accept the feedback. Make the choice to really look at how you currently operate. Ask your boss for a comprehensive 360 review, where you get feedback from all levels of the organization. This should be accompanied with a game plan for change and a follow-up schedule. You can also ask for a professional coach, who can be a very supportive neutral third party who can give you objective feedback as well as practical guidance in improving how you engage with others.

Above all, don’t spiral into self-loathing or denial. Remember, business is very much a social activity and your behavior may simply be a lack of basic social engagement skills. In many ways we are talking about emotional intelligence. The silver lining here is that with a little work and self-awareness, emotional intelligence and engagement skills can be learned. If you’re the bad apple, you don’t have to be tossed, you just have to accept the challenge to change.

To Listen to an archive of this show:

The Working Life: The Boss Hater:
How to recognize them and what to do about them!

The Radio Show Recap...

In this segment of “The Working Life,” Mary discussed the negative effects "boss haters" can have on organizational life. Whether you work with a boss hater (as a boss or a peer) it is important to understand that their negativity can have very adverse consequences for productivity and team morale.

The boss-hater is as common in offices as the bad apple, and can be just as demoralizing and destabilizing to a productive organization. The boss-hater is the person who has never worked with someone they respect. They trash talk the boss and use lots of “you” and “they” statements. They often accuse the boss of nepotism, cronyism or favoritism. They are not team players, they complain a lot, they use loaded messages, and they fume or ramble on at meetings and never praise anyone’s work.

In essence, they use the language of blame where everything is the boss’ fault. They are blamers who have fallen into the “victim” role. Boss-haters often shy away from leadership and authority themselves, refusing to take responsibility for events or circumstances.

Sometimes a boss hater is just the person who is simply able to articulate that their boss is, in fact, an idiot, but more often, the boss-hater has a real and disruptive aversion to authority figures. Some people may an ideological problem with authority or with “the man” as they said in the 70’s. For these people, hating the boss is more about how their own perception of authority is related to their value system. Other boss haters have a deeper psychological and personal reaction to authority, power and success. For these people, the boss often represents something that the individual doesn’t have but wants: success, power, authority, control, visibility, respect.

The problem is that the boss-hater’s aversion and negativity becomes a problem for the team or organization. Psychological studies have shown that emotions can be contagious in working groups and organizations -- negative and positive emotions can spread like wildfire. Like the bad apple, a boss hater who spews negativity can actually infect other workers, bringing down morale and productivity and creating a negative work environment. Boss haters can have “sticky” personalities, the kind of people who are actually very influential among their co-workers.

What to do about the boss-hater
If you are a boss, a manager or a supervisor and you have a boss hater on your team you’ve got to confront the person. Meet with him or her and try to determine the source of the problem. Does this person dislike you or has he disliked all his bosses? Does he have a real beef or is he a chronic and ideological boss-hater? Either way, the negativity has to stop.

Discussing it will help you and the employee determine the real source of the problem and will help build a better and more constructive relationship. But if you can’t find a solution, then get rid of them. While I am a big fan of owning and solving a problem–I am also a big fan of getting rid of people who don’t or won’t work out. I can’t tell you how much dysfunction and pain I see in organizations that could have been avoided if people were able to make the tough personnel decisions earlier. Keeping an employee who is miserable is not doing anybody any favors. It’s not helping the employee, the team or the organization. It’s just brings everyone down.

What if the boss-hater is you?
We’ve all had jobs where we have worked for someone who was a jerk or totally inept, or both. A bad boss can make your work more difficult, to say the least. As an employee, you have three choices: Leave the situation, change the situation, or accept and adapt to the situation. But staying in the situation and being a trash-talking morale-lowering boss-hater is not an option.

If you are being labeled a boss-hater because of the way you talk and act, then you have to take a good hard look at how you are interacting with others and learn to make some adjustments. You can change the way you say things and the way you act. Boss-haters have to realize that their behavior and perspectives are creating more negative than positive results. And if you know a boss-hater, tell them. Help them see that there is a better way to engage in the workplace. You’ll do them a favor. But for the boss-hater, make the choice: stay, go or accept the situation, just stop bringing everyone else down. Your job is in jeopardy.

To Listen to an archive of this show:
The Working Life: Performance Reviews:
Why they matter and how to make the most of them

The Radio Show Recap...

In this segment of “The Working Life,” Mary discussed the pros and cons of performance reviews. Believe it or not, there are ways to make them useful (and developmental) for both the organization and the individual!

Love ‘em or hate ’em, whether giving one or getting one, a performance review is one of the most important tools managers and employees have to gauge and improve performance in the workplace. Employee reviews provide a record of employee performance vis-à-vis company expectations and, ideally, that review should be used to help the employee develop and grow professionally. When done right, with the proper dialogue, feedback and follow-through, a performance review can be an effective way to measure performance, articulate company expectations and formulate a game plan for results.

When Should It Be Done?
Traditionally, employee reviews are done on a yearly basis. But I find a strict annual format limiting in its ability to promote effective employee development. Annual reviews are not nearly as productive as a more frequent system of, say, quarterly reviews. A quarterly review has several advantages. First, it can be a less formal scenario, which can lead to a more honest and productive session. Let’s face it -- most people approach their annual review with dread. And if you dread something and view it as onerous, chances are you won’t do as well and the review is less likely to be a successful and productive experience.

Second, and most important, a frequent review system is a much more productive and efficient way to evaluate performance. Why would you wait a whole year to tell an employee what they are doing well and what areas in which they need to improve? Why wait a whole year to get their feedback? Trying to cram an entire year’s worth of information and feedback into one review is too time-consuming. Quarterly reviews allow the information to be anchored in a more relevant and timely fashion. If the goal of the review is to improve productivity and help both the employee and the company develop professionally, then those reviews should be done in an efficient and timely manner and in the most productive way possible.

The Manager’s Mini-Review
Managers wear multiple hats in an organization, but I think their most important role is to build strong teams with the best employees for those jobs. Unfortunately, there is so much emphasis on leadership these days that organizations are forgetting to teach their managers how to manage their most important resource of all, their human capital. Managing people, as distinct from leading people, is actually the most important part of a manager’s job, and yet this skill is often neglected, so performance reviews are often done poorly.

An easy way to get in the habit of reviewing your employees is to institute quick reviews after the completion of a project – an After Action Review in the lingo of the armed forces. An AAR is a great way to start a dialogue, get feedback and get results. And it’s really simple: after a project, sit down with the team right away for 15 to 30 minutes and have a review session.

Ask your team members:
  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go well?
  • What could we do differently next time?
  • What could the team do more of/less of?

Have each team member talk about his performance. The immediacy of the project will keep it fresh in everyone’s mind and they will be more honest with their answers. An AAR has the advantage of being almost a self-review, where employees can reflect on how they, and the team, performed.

The Mega-Review
Some organizations do what is called a 360 Review, which entails soliciting feedback on an employee’s performance from all levels of the organization. Now, the idea of a 360 is really cool. It is an integrative process and reflects and emphasizes the importance of that employee’s role in the big company picture. The 360 message is, Let’s get company-wide feedback to help people develop into really effective organizational players.

The reality and the application of the 360 review, however, is often a lackluster affair. It’s just too much. But a 360, like any review, can be effective if it’s done right.

First, you must ask the right people for feedback. They must be relevant players and should be people who can really contribute constructive feedback. Second, the review needs to be tied to true organizational or positional success factors. For example, don’t ask about leadership if this person does not have a leadership position. Next, reviewers have to be honest and direct. It is a waste of everyone’s time if they aren’t.

Last, in order for a review to be effective, it must be followed up with a development game plan tailored for that individual. That plan of action has to be monitored and followed up on, or the review is pointless. In 360s, what often happens is that after the review is completed, the results are given to the employee and then nobody ever follows up on it. This is why the mega-reviews are often a complete waste of time. Someone needs to own the process to ensure all the time spent on the darn thing actually produces some tangible results.

How to prepare for your review
If you are going to be reviewed, it is imperative that you be prepared. The best thing to do is to sit down and do your own assessment of your performance and your job itself.
Ask yourself:
  • What have I done well?
  • What can I improve on?
  • Do I have all the tools I need to do my job?
  • What are my personal/professional goals in this job? In this organization?
  • What kind of professional development do I need to get to the next level?

Remember, the review is not just about how well you have performed. You should also put the review in the context of where you are now and where you want to be in five years. Think about what you want to get out of it, and then set some goals and intentions for your review.

Reviews can be very stressful. Two key things to remember during your review are to listen and to breathe. I know that seems obvious but it’s not. People get really nervous and remembering to breathe will help you relax. Ask questions that will help you really understand the feedback and your boss’ perspective: Say things like: "Tell me more", "give me more details,"" what would it look like", "give me an example," etc. What you want to do is build a dialogue with your reviewer in order to understand clearly what they are telling you.

Try not to rebut or argue. You want to understand how your actions and how your work is being perceived. The point is to create a dialogue with your boss about how you can improve your performance.

After the review, be proactive and follow up with an action plan to address your feedback. Request time with your boss in a month or two to follow up on and monitor your progress. This is key because part of what you have to do is change perception. Keeping your boss involved in your efforts to improve your performance will force him or her to “see” the improvements. Don’t let your supervisor off the hook in following up. It’s the most important part of the review process.

As an aside, if you are a manager who has to deliver a bad review to an employee, it is very important that you own up to your part of the problem; after all, it was your job to supervise that employee, so you have to be fair and take responsibility for your action (or inaction). This does not mean you let the employee off the hook, but you do have to take an active role in the action plan for improvement.

The right way to review

There are some very simple steps to follow to ensure that reviews are worthwhile, for both the manager and the employee.
  1. Be specific: If you are giving a review, provide specific examples of an employee’s strengths and weaknesses. Give concrete examples of what works and what doesn’t. Put the feedback in context of employee development and organizational contribution and organizational goals—here is why it is important for you to have this skill, here is what is great about you doing this, etc.
  2. Be timely: Provide frequent opportunities, if not full-blown reviews, to give and receive feedback. The more immediate the dialogue the fresher and more honest the answers and the solutions will be. This where the AAR comes in handy.
  1. Follow up: If you give a review you have to follow up on the areas you want to see improvement. The best way to do this is to develop a plan of action for the employee and then set a regular schedule to follow-up. No one will grow and develop professionally without a solid plan of action.

To Listen to an archive of this show:
The Working Life: Getting fired or laid off:
How to get survive and get back in the game

The Radio Show Recap...

In this segment of “The Working Life,” we discussed how to survive and thrive in the aftermath of losing your job. Whether you were fired or laid off--–there are ways to smooth the transition and get you moving forward more quickly.

It comes like a kick in the stomach. You may have seen it coming. You may have heard rumors or it may be a bolt from the blue. Either way, you’ve just been told you are fired or laid off. What do you do?

First of all, if you see a lay off or termination coming, take the time to prepare yourself and make a list of what is in your pay and benefits package, so you can ask about it. The person doing the firing is probably as nervous and scared as you are, so being prepared is key.

Obviously, if the termination comes as a surprise you will not have the opportunity to do this, so it is critical that you remain calm. In the drama of the moment, you may forget to ask relevant questions, so it is perfectly okay to ask for a few moments to collect yourself. You must stay calm and focused and as professional as possible. The goal here is to preserve the relationship you have with the organization or the manager and if you remain calm you’ll get more information that will help you.

The first thing to find out is why. Ask for specific reasons for your termination or lay off. If it is a lay off, is there a prospective rehire date? If the termination is for performance, ask why. Can you get a letter of reference? Will they help you find another job? Can you meet with the HR department? What will they do for you? This where being calm is critical.

Second, establish some ground rules about the language to be used to describe your termination. Later, when finding a new job, you need to know what you can say about the termination. Will you be able to say it simply wasn’t a good fit, that your department was downsized? Work out the language now with your employer so that when you tell people later you have solid phraseology, something more positive than, “I was fired.”

Next, you need to find out about the company’s severance package. Will you be paid for your unused holiday, vacation, sick or comp time? What about other things that may have been in your pay package, like relocation, mileage or educational expenses? Can you keep your health insurance? Can you take your Rolodex? How about your 401K or other retirement packages? Again, it is hard to remember these things when you are in a tense and upsetting situation, but if you know what is in your package you may be able to ask the right questions.

It is important that, no matter what, you put your best and most professional face forward at this moment. Chances are if you’re fired, you are leaving that day, if not right away. Does it behoove you to rant and rave and say nasty things about your boss as you’re packing up your desk, or should you calmly and quietly get your things and go? You don’t have to put on a happy face, but it is not okay to behave badly. Remember, everyone at your workplace is a potential contact, network or referral source for you. People will remember how you handle this situation, and you want them to remember that you handled it with grace and maturity. You want to preserve the relationship.

Taking the package

Some firms offer terminated employees a severance package and some ask them to sign a non-compete agreement. This depends on your company. A non-compete agreement is usually spelled out when an employees is hired and may not be able to be renogtiated at termination.

If a non-compete is offered at termination I would never sign it until I had a chance to look it over, possibly with an employment attorney. I also would not sign it unless it was tied to a severance package. Ask for a few days to review the document and any package with it. This can be a negotiation tactic on your part, so be professional and take your time to do it right.

Now what?
Financial experts say we should all have three to six months of living expenses salted away, so hopefully your finances will be secure for the short-term. You’re going to be upset, so go ahead and take three days to wallow in your misery. But just three. After that, get up and get started. Your new job is to get a new job. Get up everyday as if you are going to work: shower and dress, and sit at your desk to plan and execute your strategy. Don’t turn the TV on or play on the computer. Start looking immediately for a new job.

If your old firm offers career placement or counseling services, set up an appointment right away. Contact friends and colleagues right away. Make sure you get your story straight and that they hear it from you. This doesn’t mean you should lie, but get your spin together. Stay friendly with co-workers and colleagues (this is why leaving gracefully is key). The most important thing is that you stay positive and focused. The worst thing you can do is spiral downward into catastrophic thinking and feeling sorry for yourself. Don’t gossip with former co-workers. Don’t badmouth your boss or company. You’ve got to think positive and act professionally.

Build your network. Make a list of contacts. Redo your resume. Try to be as positive and productive as possible. Use this as opportunity to build your career or to make the changes you’ve been meaning to make. Consider professional temp work—it has always been a great way to land a job and, as everyone knows, it is easier to find a job when you are employed than unemployed.

The most important things to remember are to leave with professionalism and grace. Keep a good relationship with your former employer and co-workers and keep a positive attitude. Wallowing in self-pity will not land you your next job. But keeping your spirits up, your network alive and your mind open will almost certainly help.

To Listen to an archive of this show:
The Working Life: Getting Real to Get Ahead...
The Radio Show Recap...

In this segment of “The Working Life,” Mary discussed the importance of being authentic in the workplace. Can you get ahead by getting real?

Authenticity is one of the cornerstones of success in business. Not very many businesses or professionals succeed based on lies and deceit. The most powerful thing you can do to get ahead is simple: be real. Being authentic means being honest. That entails an emotional equation of confidence + self-awareness + transparency + consistency. In other words, it’s about establishing and showing an honest alignment between your personality, your words and your actions.

Now, we all know plenty of examples of the slick and sinister who manage to be very successful. But when you look closely, they are usually only capable of having successful careers as long as they are able to muster power and financial success together. Look at Michael Eisner. His despotic manners and abysmal treatment of others was tolerated (and even rewarded) while Disney was doing well financially. But when the ink threatened to flow red, his behavior was no longer acceptable, and he was gone. For long-term success, you need to decide how you want to do business and how you want to conduct yourself. How one chooses to engage in the world and with others is a choice we all have, and the choice to be honest and authentic is the smart one for success.

Finding your way in corporate life
Companies and organizations sometimes have a way of tamping down a person’s authenticity so that they will do things that company’s way. The simple solution then is to find a company that suits your personality. Companies and organizations, and even departments within those organizations, have cultures, personalities and ethics just like people do. If you don’t share the company’s values and business ethos, it’s not a good fit. Don’t force a square peg into a round hole. Find a company or a department that compliments you.

Sometimes, being authentic can rub people the wrong way. Being honest and real can often lead to feedback like, “Bob has potential, but doesn’t always fit in” or “Gina has some rough edges.” It is important to strike a balance so that you’re not tagged as “emotional” or with a “strong personality.” The first thing to remember is that being authentic is never an excuse to be rude or unprofessional. It is also not an excuse to forgo professional development. This is about acquiring the skills and behaviors needed to be successful in the workplace and weave them into your personality. For example, I tend to be a little irreverent and a bit informal. That is who I am. But there are ways to be both irreverent and respectful at the same time, just as there are ways to display perfect manners and still create an atmosphere of informality. You can still be yourself and be honest, while at the same time being respectful and treating people well.

What does “real” look like? And how do I get there?
Becoming more aware of your self, how you operate in the world and how you impact people is the key to using your authentic self in business. A good way to learn about yourself is to take a personality test like the Meyers-Briggs. That test and others like it are an excellent tool for self-awareness, as long as you get the proper training around the assessment. Make sure a professional is able to go over the results with you so you can understand and use the information properly.

Studying traits of successful but authentic business people is also a good way to understand what being real looks like. For example, here are three very different authentic leaders: Richard Branson, Warren Buffett and Donald Trump. They each approach life and work very differently, yet you can tell that they are all passionate about what they do. They are consistent in their words, deeds and ambitions. They are not apologetic about who they are and they integrate their personal qualities into their work life, personal life and leadership.

One of the most important traits leaders need is the ability to inspire people to follow them. This is where having strong emotional intelligence and being seen as authentic can really separate the little leaders from the big leaders. Leading people is about inspiring and motivating them. People respond to honesty, authenticity and genuineness. People respond to people who feel “real” to them. Nobody likes a phony and people get nervous and mistrustful when they can’t “read” a person.

In order to get there, there are five things you can do:
  • Be honest and consistent
  • Express yourself well
  • Align your intentions, your words, and your actions
  • Engage other people and treat them well
  • Don’t be afraid of being judged

You can get to the top without authenticity, but smart money says to get ahead—you need to get real.

To Listen to an archive of this show: