Month: April 2013

From the Great State(s) of Winnesota

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I work in Minnesota, but live in Western Wisconsin. It’s only a 20 mile commute, much shorter than that of some of my coworkers who live in Minnesota. The thousands like me who live in the one state but work in the other are referred to as Winnesotans.

I enjoy my job, but every now and then I catch wind of position that is so appealing I have to apply. A job came along recently, not far from where I am currently working. After dutifully sending off my resume and cover letter, I received an automated email (no person, just a department) stating that they were only looking at local candidates, but if I did not require relocation assistance, I should reply to the email link provided. Here is what I sent them (I modified it slightly to remove anything which would identify the company):

Good afternoon:
Please note that I do live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. I live less than 30 miles from your office, and my home town is for all intents and purposes a Twin Cities suburb.

A cursory look at my resume would have shown that my current and previous positions have all been in the Twin Cities metro. I am guessing that I received this email because an automated search did not show me as living in the Twin Cities area. This is no doubt either a problem with your electronic application or an issue with your search criteria.

Also, please note that the link provided does not work.

I realize that mentioning these issues may decrease my chance of being considered for the position. However, I felt it necessary to let you know. Not only can it hinder your ability to find the best possible candidate, but also reflects poorly on your organization.

If you are looking for an HR professional with over a dozen years of experience to help you with these and other issues, please contact me.

No surprise they never contacted me. No one wants to be told that they are doing a poor job, no matter how tactfully it is written.

If they had contacted me, I could tell them exactly why this happened. The company’s internet-based application system required my address. Once I entered this information, it required me to enter the nearest metropolitan area. But the system would only allow me to select Wisconsin metro areas, not Minnesota metro areas. The system was already instructed to filter out anyone who did not state that they were in the Twin Cities metro and send the automated email I received. No person, not even a recruiting intern, ever saw my resume, ever saw the locations of my workplaces, ever saw that I was a local candidate.

It’s not the first time this has happened.

Now, I’m not one of those bitter job-hunters who believes that online application systems are keeping me from the job of my dreams. I use an application system in my current position. The system relieves me and my staff of the mundane filing and mailing we would otherwise have to do. We can track applicants and recruiting sources more effectively. Overall, it allows for a smoother process.

But organizations need to be weary of relying too much on automated searches in selecting candidates. They need to make sure they are using the proper criteria, and, even then, they may be missing out on unrelated criteria indirectly relate to potential success. Taking time off to raise your children may not show up as valid experience, even though doing it well takes patience, organization and dedication. Going on a three month hiatus to build houses for Habitat for Humanity may not be in the search’s list of criteria, but certainly illustrates someone’s compassion and caring.

When misused in such away, the job search becomes less about being the most qualified candidate, and more about understanding how searches work and what keywords to use. Searches may help employers find qualified candidates, but can also keep them from finding the best candidates.

So what’s the answer? Back in the old days (meaning 10 years ago), I used to go home some evenings with a stack full of resumes. I’d plop my self down in front of the TV and review them each one-by-one, sometimes 200 in an evening. I would not just review the resumes against the job qualifications, but look at how the resume was laid out, whether it was well written, if there were experiences or skills that struck my interest. Sometimes, I’d even find that the person was not right for the job being applied for, but we would end up hiring that person for a different position.

I don’t want to go back to the paper resume days. I can now by pull them off my laptop, and someday soon, upload them onto my phone (I’m sure some of you already have this capability). So until the search engines have the intelligence of a HAL 9000, without the insanity, I’ll keep going through resumes one-by-one.

And for those recruiters who say they don’t have the time, since when don’t you have the time to do a great job?

Second Chances

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A colleague of mine has a son with a criminal record. At the age of eighteen, he was arrested for going into someone’s open garage and stealing beer out of a refrigerator. He is in his twenties now, and has kept his nose clean ever since. My colleague wanted my advice on how he should handle this on a job applications.

I told her he should answer any questions about his criminal history openly and honestly. Anyone worth working for isn’t going to care. I know I wouldn’t hold some stupid teenage mistake against someone when making a hiring decision. As I see it, we’ve all done dumb things when we were young. He just happened to get caught. I would have more of a problem with it if he didn’t disclose the information during the hiring process, and it later came out in a background check.

A law currently making its way through the Minnesota legislature would make it illegal for private employers to ask about criminal histories on job applications. Employers would still be able to take criminal histories into consideration during the interview or job offer process. Proponents say that this would ensure that otherwise qualified candidates weren’t rejected outright based on a criminal history.

I’m all for second chances, but I can’t see how this law would make any difference whatsoever.

All it does is ensure that a candidate will get past the first hurdle in the hiring process. An employer can simply ask the criminal history question during a phone screening and get the information before the process goes any further. Perhaps the bill’s sponsors figure that if the candidate can get through the initial application screening and talk to someone, the candidate will be so impressive that criminal history will be overlooked. For those employers who mistakenly use this as a screening tool, however, it won’t matter what the candidate does or says later on in the process. And if lawmakers think they’ll catch employers acting illegally on these grounds, they’ve never hired anyone before. An employer can always think of an alternate excuse not to hire.

Does a criminal history even matter? Some say that we shouldn’t judge someone on the worst thing that person has ever done. I agree, and have always had the practice that a criminal record should not automatically disqualify an applicant. If someone has committed a crime and served their sentence, paid their fine, etc. then they have paid their debt to society, and it should not hang over their head forever. However, future performance can often be predicted by past performance. It can’t be denied that about a third of those who have spent time in prison end up reincarcerated within three years. The question is, do the one-third of non-repeat offenders have to suffer for the sake of repeat offenders?

This depends. A company I worked for once made an offer to a person for a position with a great amount of financial authority, contingent on a background check. Through the criminal background check, we learned he had a fraud conviction while working at a previous employer. He never brought this up during the interview process, and did not check the box provided on his application. We asked him to explain, and while there were extenuating circumstances, we had to rescind our offer. Even if we as employers wanted to hire him, how could we explain to our Board and our Examiners that we had given substantial financial authority to this person? If he committed fraud against us, it would be our jobs on the line.

In this same light, a trucking company would be justified in not hiring a person with a DUI conviction. A daycare center definitely should not hire a person convicted of possessing child pornography. Has the person been rehabilitated? Who knows. Can the employer take that chance. They could be held negligent if they did.

We also have to accept the fact that there are those who have committed heinous crimes, for whom redemption is not possible. With these hardened criminals, we just have to lock them up and throw away the key. I leave it up to experts to determine who those people are and act accordingly.

Still, many deserve a second chance. I’ve hired people with convictions that were in no way job related. Many worked out fine. For those that didn’t, it wasn’t because of their criminal record.

An employer who is doing a blanket ban on hiring those with criminal records is not doing a good job of evaluating candidates to find the best possible person for the position. And if the employer is banning these applicants outright, the proposed law eliminating a check box on an application isn’t going to change that.

If lawmakers truly want to address this issue, they need to invest the resources in order to ensure children receive the proper education, direction and upbringing that will prevent them from becoming convicted felons in the first place. They need to look at our mandatory sentencing laws and stop filling our prisons with people who have committed non-violent, drug related offenses. Then, when someone is incarcerated, they shouldn’t just give up on that person. They should partner with companies that have a shortage of skilled workers, and train them for those positions. Incentives could even be provided for employers who hire these candidates in order to lessen the risks. When compared to the cost to incarcerate people, the benefit of such programs would far outweigh the costs.

Sounds to good to be true? Maybe. Still, it would be worth a try. It is already being done in some places on a limited scale. But legislators would never go for a large-scale program of prisoner education. That is because, to too many law-abiding citizens, this would seem like a reward. Commit a crime, receive free job training. They think that when someone commits a crime, they need to be punished, not helped. But when we consider our overcrowded prisons, our recidivism rates, the cost of our criminal justice system, aren’t we all being punished?

The Mad Men Workplace

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A woman in her sixties once told me she had no desire to ever watch an episode of Mad Men. “I lived it,” she said, “Why would I want to watch it?”

Me, I’ve never missed an episode. I’ve become absorbed in the flawed nature of its characters, the subtleties of the storytelling. Most of all, I’m fascinated by a workplace from before the alphabet soup of HR legislation ( FMLA, ADA, etc.) existed. When an employer could refuse to hire a married woman, or regulate blacks to positions as bus boys and janitors, or not have a Jew on your staff simply because you didn’t like Jews. When gays remained closeted for fear of being fired or even arrested. When you could tell a secretary how great her legs looked in heels, or that she was putting on weight. When you could even use the term secretary instead of Administrative Assistant.

I know it’s fiction, and the situations are sometimes exaggerated for effect. But I also know that in some cases, discrimination was even worse than what’s depicted. I’ve talked to women who had to come into their offices on Saturday mornings to clean while the men stayed home. I’ve known women who were asked, “Are you done having children?” at their job interview. I’ve seen classifieds advertising for a white married men or a Girl Friday.

Being reminded of this makes me thankful for all those HR laws that usually cause me to swear under my breath. It helps me to understand why we have all these laws in the first place, and all the good they have done.

But I’m not writing to denounce Mad Men’s workplace of sexism and bigotry. That’s too easy, and has been done too many times before. No, with the new season of the show underway, I’m writing about what we can actually learn from it.

Political Incorrectness
I recall a documentary I saw several years ago in which several black men who lived in the South pre-Civil Rights were being interviewed. One of the men said, “In some ways, those times were better. At least back then you knew who hated you.”

We have become so concerned with saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, of offending someone or having them bring a discrimination case against us, we often don’t say anything at all. The problem with this is that while we don’t express our biases, we all still have them. I know. I’ve heard the comments over the years. Usually, they are made behind closed doors and prefaced with phrases like, “just between us” or “I don’t want to generalize, but …” Most people are not dumb enough to make their biases public, so they seep into the workplace in more subtle and insidious ways. They don’t hire the man in the wheel chair because they don’t want to make accommodations. They don’t layoff the older worker because they don’t believe she can adapt quickly enough to change.

In Mad Men, all these prejudices are right out in the open. If we acted like this today, employers would know if they had bigots working for them and act accordingly. At the same time, employees would truly know how their employers thought of them, and make an informed decision of whether or not they wanted to give that employer their time and energy.

I once had an issue with two groups of people in an organization. The older, white workers and the newer, minority ones. They talked around each other for months, creating tension and animosity. Part of me wanted to put them all in a room together and say, okay, tell the other side what you really think. Let’s get it out in the open and then deal with it honestly. I didn’t, though, mainly because, if given the chance to speak honestly, I don’t think most of them would have said a word.

Brutal Honesty
In one scene between Don Draper and his protegĂ©, Peggy Olson, Peggy complains that she isn’t given credit for her work. Don replies, “I give you money. You give me ideas. That’s how it works.”

Don can be direct, even hurtful, but at least his subordinates know where he stands. I once asked a boss for a raise. Instead of telling me no and giving me the reasons why, she put it off, ignoring the question for over a month, forcing me to ask again. Only after I pushed her did she finally decline my request, without saying more than senior management said we couldn’t at this time.

What bothered me more than not getting a raise was the fact that she wouldn’t come right and say no, when I suspect that was going to be her answer all along.

Most people dislike conflict. Managers included. They pussy foot around saying anything negative. They couch the bad in terms like Opportunity for Growth, or Areas for Improvement, instead of saying, “You are doing a bad job, and if you don’t quit, we’ll fire you.” Then, when the employee doesn’t get that promotion, or gets fired, they don’t even know why, or what they could have done to improve their chances of success. Managers think they are being kind by not being brutally honest, but in reality, they are avoiding uncomfortable situations, and in doing so, they are doing employees a disservice.

Performance Matters

While Don Draper may be brutally honest at work, his private life is one big lie. Don Draper isn’t even his real name. When the ambitious Pete Campbel learns his secret, he tries to blackmail Don into giving him a promotion. When this fails, he tells one of the partners, Bert Cooper. Bert’s response: “Who cares?”

Don is great at his job. He’s a rainmaker. He attracts and keeps clients. We all have secrets, Bert figures. What are secrets compared to the success of the business?

I deal with managers all the time who are more concerned with style than substance. They are concerned because an employee is always ten minutes late, instead of asking whether or not this hurts the employee’s effectiveness (it may, but they still don’t ask the question). They are concerned because an employee spends too much time surfing the net during unofficial break times, not considering whether the employee is just an efficient time manager or works extra in a crisis, and so deserves an extra break now and then. When hiring, they are more concerned with a candidates alma mater than with their qualifications.

One could argue that Bert shouldn’t trust Don. He has lied about his personal life, so why wouldn’t he be dishonest about his professional life.

If Don was new to the organization, perhaps that could be the case. But Bert has worked with Don for years. He knows that on a professional level, he can be trusted.

He knew results matter.

One last aspect of Mad Men I have to mention. The Advertising firm of Sterling Cooper has no Human resources manager (or Personnel manager, as they would have called it). Then again, they probably didn’t neeed one. If I had been born fifty years earlier, I would have been looking for another job.

High School with Money

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For me, high school was a prison, except that at least in prison you don’t have homework.

My high school even looked like a prison. It was a solid, brick of a building, with small windows and cement block walls painted in muted hues. Some of its doors were even locked throughout the day for the sake of “student safety”. All that were missing were the barbed wire fences and watchtowers. You weren’t even trusted to use the bathroom without permission.

I hoped that when I graduated, started to work for a living, I would at least be like an inmate on parole. Free as long as I kept my nose clean.

My first job out of college I realized how wrong I was. While I enjoyed the work, the place was a case study in dysfunction. It was rife with infighting and lack of trust. Interdepartmental communication was non-existent. New ideas were squashed. Management refused to recognize and adjust to the changing business landscape. Employees were not recognized for results. They were not trusted. A lot of time was wasted through inefficiencies and spending time on tasks that did not meet organizational goals.

The place went out of business shortly after I left.

One of the most important lessons I learned from that experience was that the old adage is true: Work is just high school with money.

I’ve done extensive research on the origins of that adage (meaning I did both a Google and Bing search) and haven’t been able to attribute it to any one person. It’s been attributed to everything from show business to politics, but examples can be found in almost every industry.

I realize that everyone did not loathe high school as much as I did. I have a friend who told me it was the best time of his life. He was a basketball star in a small town school. For him, it was four years of fun.

I’m happy for him. Today, he has a good job, a great family. He’s funny, smart, and by all appearances, seems well adjusted.

Then again, so do I.

Now, let’s get two important aspects of the Work is Just High School with Money premise straight. First, I in no way blame my teachers for my experience. Like any profession, some were better than others, but most of them were dedicated to pounding some knowledge into my tiny teenage mind, saturated as it was with thoughts of girls and the desperate need to fit in. They did a great job, considering what they had to work with. And unlike what some people think, they did not live in the lap of luxury with their summers off and healthy pension plans. They worked long hours for less pay than they deserved out of a dedication to their craft.

And unlike the students, they don’t just have a four year sentence. They’re in for life.

Second, while I didn’t see it this way at the time, I know that as bad as the institution of high school was, I did not do anything to make it better. I was self absorbed, rebellious, a smart Alec who thought he knew everything. Looking back, I missed a lot of opportunities to make a bad situation, if not great, at least good.

So I’ve started this blog to examine how work is just high school with money, what lessons can be taken away from this idea, and what we as individuals can do about it. Not all posts are going to directly relate to this premise, of course. That would get tedious. To quote David Bowie, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but i promise it won’t be boring.”