Best Social Skills with Career Objective
“Big data is fast becoming a vital component of the modern Human Resources toolkit and the advantages go far beyond the ability to identify the brightest and best talent,” reports Orlaith Finnegan of Digimind Insights, a social intelligence blog. Companies are now retaining firms like Entelo and Talent Bin to help them in the recruiting process. These, and other organizations, not only analyze prospective candidates’ activity on social media platforms but also on other sites specific to their fields.
Mary, head of Human Resources, has been interviewing candidates all month for a good position at Stellar Insurance Company but still hasn’t found the right person. Her boss has run out of patience. “We need an underwriting assistant now!” he tells her. “Choose the best candidate and get ’em in here first thing Monday morning.”
Mary reviews the candidates. There was the college grad who asked Mary what the company did exactly. There was the woman who said if she could not bring her cat to work, there was no point in continuing the conversation. Then there was the young man who brought his mother into the interview room for “another set of ears.” Mary also recalled the middle-aged man who arrived, unapologetically, 20 minutes late. He told Mary he was completely overqualified but needed a job, so he’d take it.
And then there was Chloe.
Chloe had the right skill set, but her appearance was alarming. A snake tattoo coiled up her arm to her neck, in homage, she said, to her pet snake Rumplesnakeskin. She had multiple piercings in her ears and wore a tank top sans bra and flip flops with glittery blue nail polish on her toes. But Chloe was the best of the lot. So Mary offered her the job on one condition: that she come to work appropriately dressed for a conservative insurance company.
First thing Monday morning, Mary gets a call from her boss. “May I see you in my office—now?” he asks, with unmistakable anger in his voice. Mary rushes to his office and sees Chloe sitting demurely outside his door, dressed in what Mary surmises is her version of conservative: a hot pink suit with a plunging neckline and micro-mini skirt, six-inch stiletto heels, heavy gold chains and bracelets, extreme makeup, and of course, Rumplesnakeskin in plain sight.
The interview process has undergone dramatic changes in the last 20 years. Today, every candidate is expected to be tech-savvy, to have a strong social media presence and an unassailable “digital footprint,” and of course, to have the education and experience to do the job. These attributes are essential, but what employers value most are well-honed interpersonal skills.
Fresh out of Bates College, one of the most highly regarded liberal arts schools in New England, a 23-year-old psychology major Tully knew how fortunate he was to be offered a personal recommendation for a job at a top software company. This got him in the door. The rest was up to him.
On the day of the interview, Tully groomed himself impeccably from head to toe and dressed in what he called his best “techie attire”: a plaid shirt pressed khakis, and brown loafers. Tully spent the next six hours in meetings with an HR rep, a team leader, and team members, all of whom would offer input on his candidacy. He was told he would hear from them that afternoon. Tully went home feeling hopeful and waited. Two hours later, he got the call—and the job.
How did he do it? Tully had done his research, boning up on the company’s culture and the position he sought. He found common areas of interest with his interviewers, talking about his recent travels to Thailand and Greece, his fascination with nature photography, and his love of running. Tully attributed his success to his ability to successfully establish rapport. His interviewers warmed to him because he himself is a genuinely warm person.
Just how important are social skills? Tom Malone of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence says, “It is becoming increasingly important to think about business and organizations not just in terms of how efficient or how productive they are, but also how intelligent they are.”1 When Mr. Malone conducted research, he found that just having “a bunch of smart people in a group” does not necessarily make for a smart group. What does make a group smart is the average social perceptiveness of the group members.
Employers agree. In its article “15 Traits of the Ideal Employee,” Forbes states, “The most intelligent companies hire on future success and heavily weigh personality when determining the aptest employees.” Of course, most employers do look for technical skills as well, but depending upon the job, not having them is not necessarily a deal breaker.
Even in a workplace that demands the ability to master tech tools, many employers are hiring for attitude and training for skill. They have found that you can teach technology but it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to instill in individuals the critical qualities of patience, kindness, and empathy.
Many hiring managers say that they know within a minute or two whether or not they will hire someone. Immediate red flags are candidates who are late, inappropriately dressed, do not make eye contact, or leave their cell phones on and out. Once a conversation is underway, a candidate who knows nothing about the company’s culture is too focused on himself, or disparages a previous employer is disqualified as well.
In her Business Insider article, “The All-Time Worst Interview Mistakes Job Candidates Have Made,” Vivian Giang writes of the applicant who warned the interviewer that she had probably taken too much Valium that day, the one who asked for a hug before the interview began, and the one who pretended he was getting a call from the interviewer’s competitor. The applicant who asked for the phone number of the company’s receptionist because he really liked her also made the list.
The Hiring Process
It’s been 30 years since Bob, a business service consultant, has looked for a job. Bob has worked at the same telecommunications company for his entire career, and he knows the job search and interview processes have changed dramatically in those 30 years. Now that his office has moved out of state, he is about to find out just how much.
The first thing he does is call the local competitor, where he wanders through a maze of telephone options. He finally reaches a live human voice in HR and is promptly told that they do not field employment inquiries. All information about available jobs and application instructions would be on their website.
It was on the website that he sees what he is up against. Bob would first be asked to register, complete a detailed online application, and attach a current resume with references. Next, he would need to take a two-hour three-part pre-assessment test to determine his technical ability, behavioral profile, and problem-solving acumen.
If he met all of the requirements, he would then be contacted for a telephone-screening interview. If all went well and he was selected for an in-person interview, he would first meet with a hiring manager. Any subsequent interviews would involve meetings with company representatives at various levels, as well as presentations and role-playing exercises. If he were to be offered a job, he would then submit to an extensive background check.
Bob sighs. He knew he had his work cut out for him in getting a job, but he didn’t know how much of a job it would be just to get through the interview process.
Job seekers who have been out of the market for any length of time are in for a big surprise. The scenario of “mail in your resume and wait by the phone” has long since been replaced by technology. Indeed, Luddites, those opposed to technology, need not apply. Even though the majority of jobs are still found through networking and internal opportunities, not online, one still needs at least a baseline of tech ability to apply. Companies typically require an online application to even begin the process and candidates’ social media will likely be vetted.
Social media is a double-edged sword for job candidates. They must have a social media presence, especially on LinkedIn, but anything discovered and deemed inappropriate can be held against them. This can be a big problem for digital natives, as online sharing is just what they do. John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, offers some hope to those who have ever made a misstep online.
“There is more understanding of these communications tools, as well as the realization that if you eliminate every candidate with problematic Facebook or Twitter posts, you would quickly run out of candidates,” he says. But counting on a stranger to generously overlook an online misstep is a risky strategy, especially if there is a lot of competition for the job.
Employers go deep in their research. They begin with Google, going back several pages to see what is in a person’s background. Then they move on to Facebook to get a sense of the candidate’s personality and attitude. They look at pictures but also read posts to understand the tone with which the person interacts with friends. Does she come across as positive, encouraging, even funny, or is there a drumbeat of negativity? The person’s grammar and spelling are noted and judged. The employer begins to form an overall impression of a candidate—her intelligence, judgment, and character—all before they even meet.
A check of Twitter comes next. Here, recruiters first want to see if candidates are on the platform and if they are, exactly what they are doing. Are they tweeting and re-tweeting relevant information? Are they sharing interesting articles and helpful links? Are they following thought and industry leaders? Are they promoting professional affiliations and memberships?
Or are they recounting the mundane details of their daily lives? Answers to these questions help recruiters gauge a candidate’s level of seriousness and provide additional character clues. From there, recruiters move on to LinkedIn to view candidates’ executive summaries, references, and industry memberships. Finally, they check YouTube.
What else are companies doing to identify and vet candidates? More and more, they are relying upon big data, a term that refers to the vast amount of information now available from a multitude of seemingly disparate sources. Gill Press, a contributor to Fortune/Tech, says big data is “a new attitude by businesses, non-profits, government agencies, and individuals that combining data from multiple sources could lead to better decisions.”
Employers may also be factoring in Klout Scores, a ranking of 1–100 by which online social influence is measured using social media analytics. Klout scores are determined by the number of engagement people generate from their use of social media based upon the amount of content they share. In his article entitled “Does Your Klout Score Matter?”
James A. Martin quotes Ron Culp, instructor and professional director of the Public Relations and Advertising (MA) Program at DePaul University College of Communication. Mr. Culp says, “Klout matters big time to hiring managers, often serving as a tiebreaker in hiring decisions involving two equally solid candidates.” Not everyone agrees about how important Klout scores are to hiring managers, but candidates must be prepared for the fact that their scores could matter.
A Conduct a social media audit. Review everything that you and others have posted, going back years. Take down posts that reflect poorly on you, and ask others to do the same. Remove photos of drinking, drug use, offensive activities or gestures, or inappropriate clothing. Remove posts that include profanity, intolerant views, or unethical behavior, and those of a political, religious, or very personal nature.
A Be judicious with future posts. Refrain from putting anything online that could hurt your job prospects in the future.
A Block or remove friends and connections, if necessary.
Do not allow others’ posts to possibly reflect negatively upon you.
LinkedIn is considered the primary platform for professional networking, but savvy job seekers do not overlook Facebook. With some 1.71 billion monthly users at this writing and at roughly four times the size of LinkedIn, Facebook has become a major job search tool. Using Facebook to your best advantage means first completing the section on work and education.
Next, organize your connections to create lists of professionals with whom you want to share work-search updates. Use search bars to find out who among your connections work at certain companies, and stay active by posting relevant articles, liking connections’ posts, and liking target companies’ pages.
On LinkedIn, make sure you have completed your profile and are a member of relevant industry groups. Post thoughtfully at appropriate intervals. To help recruiters find you, use keywords in your profile and branding statement. Avail yourself of the numerous online tools and sites available for job seekers.
The Interview Experience
When Ginger congratulated Scott, one of her LinkedIn connections, on his new job, she had no idea how important this relationship would become. A few months later, after a company downsizing, the 55-year-old HR executive became unemployed herself. She was now in the job market and needed the network she had nurtured to help her. Scott, the LinkedIn connection she had congratulated, now had a job lead for her! Three months and 13 in-person interviews later, Ginger got great news. She would once again be employed as an HR executive!
Ginger accomplished this by paying careful attention to detail. She did in-depth company research, videotaped herself in practice interviews, and prepared an extensive list of thoughtful questions. She dressed for the conservative culture in which she hoped to work, wearing tailored suits and dresses, understated jewelry and makeup, hosiery, and appropriate shoes. She carried her resume in a black leather portfolio and made sure she had two elegant working pens.
When introducing herself and shaking hands, she made sure her name badge was placed on her right, in the direct line of vision of the person she was meeting. In the interview room, Ginger waited to be offered a seat, asked if she could take notes, maintained eye contact, asked salient questions, mirrored her interviewer’s tone of voice and facial expressions, and was respectful of any time constraints. She sent a personal thank-you email after every meeting or conversation.
After the interview process was completed, Ginger followed up at weekly intervals. She did not ask about compensation, vacation time, or benefits until after the job was offered. It all paid off to ensure her final success.
Debbie Monosson, president of Boston Financial and Equity, a capital equipment leasing company, describes her interview process. She starts by placing ads on LinkedIn and in college career centers. She then contacts interested candidates by email, asking them to respond with short paragraphs about why they want the position.
The professionalism of their responses determines whether they are invited in for in-person interviews. The candidate who wrote back asking if she would remind him of what the position did not get an invitation to interview. There are deal breakers during the interview, as well.
The candidate who showed up wearing chinos and a T-shirt was not offered a job, nor was the one who put his cell phone on the table. “It vibrated. To his credit, he did not answer the phone,” Ms. Monosson said. But just having it out, and the interruption it caused, cost him the job offer. When an interview goes really well, however, she says she often offers a job on the spot.
Today’s interview process often starts with an online application. A telephone screening call may come next, followed by a Skype interview and anywhere from one to a dozen or more one-on-one and/or team interviews. Depending upon the position, interviews may include behavior-based questions to see how candidates handled specific challenges, and questions about their decision-making and problem-solving processes. They may also be asked about their communication and management styles and their goals for the future.
They will certainly be asked what they know about the company and the position, why they want to work there, and what they will contribute. They will be asked about their employment and educational backgrounds, their salary expectations, and what questions they have for the interviewer. A request for a presentation or completion of an assignment may also be part of the process.
Even after a job offer is made and accepted, a candidate cannot relax just yet. She may be subjected to a complete background check including credit reports, criminal records, bankruptcies, military service, worker’s compensation claims, and some medical records. Employers may check education, certifications, licenses, salary history, job history, and driving records. Drug testing may also be part of the process, and references from former employers may be requested.
Resumes and Cover Letters
Well-written resumes and cover letters are still necessary even when online applications are required. Regardless of the position, a resume needs to be organized, concise, and easy to read, with perfect spelling and grammar. It also needs to be attention-grabbing and compelling enough to get more than a cursory glance. A typical hiring manager sifts through dozens of resumes at a time and may spend just seconds looking at any one resume.
There are many serviceable boilerplate resume and cover letter examples from which to choose, but it is important to avoid writing anything that looks formulaic or that could be used for a variety of positions. You will also want to research firms and fine-tune your resume and cover letter so that your experience and skills align with what the employer seeks.
It is useful to note that hiring managers are increasingly using technology to help them sift through their databases of resumes. Incorporate keywords from their job ads into your resume to increase the odds of having yours read. You may decide that a career coach and a professionally written resume are excellent investments of time and money.
The Job Search
Although the majority of jobs seekers today still find jobs through networking and internal opportunities, many are going online in their searches. To keep private information out of the wrong hands, avoid posting a resume on a job board, and send it directly to the hiring manager. You can also use job-site privacy settings and a temporary phone number or address for the duration of your job search.
Searching for a job is a full-time job, which can be problematic for someone already employed. But a well thought out approach will help you stay organized.
A Networks. Include every contact you have ever made personally, professionally, and through social media.
An Internet and social media. Create a blog through free blogging services, such as Google’s Blogger.com. Use of a resume distribution service may also be helpful.
A Job boards. Use advanced search options available on all major sites, including Monster Jobs , CareerBuilder, indeed, and Simply Hired. A Goals. Establish job search goals and keep detailed notes. Use a spreadsheet for keeping track of applications made, persons contacted, dates interviewed, correspondence sent, follow-up dates, and additional companies and individuals to contact.
Being contacted for a telephone interview indicates that you have made it through the preliminary screening process. Usually conducted by an HR representative, it is used to determine whether or not an in-person interview with a hiring manager is in order. During a telephone interview, which usually lasts about 30 minutes, your demeanor, confidence, and verbal communication style are noted and evaluated.
The interviewer’s task is to ascertain enough basic information to make a decision about whether to recommend you for an in-person interview. It is critically important that you consider this conversation the most important one in the process. All subsequent interviews depend on its success.
When preparing for a telephone interview, select an environment that is conducive to a business conversation. This means controlling potential distractions, such as noisy electronic devices, and ensuring family members, roommates, and dogs are out of the room. Additionally, plan to hold the conversation in a private place and never while walking or driving. If possible, use a landline instead of a mobile phone. A dropped call or tenuous connection will impact the flow of the conversation and potentially affect your confidence and concentration.
Do your homework and prepare good questions about the job and how you can help the organization. Allow the interviewer to lead the conversation. Be prepared to talk through your resume in detail. Answer all questions truthfully, even if they are about potentially tricky topics such as gaps in employment or job change frequency. Do not ask about salary, vacation, or start date at this point.
Your tone of voice will account for 70 percent of the message you convey on the telephone. Be energetic and humorous, if appropriate, and smile! The interviewer will not see your smile, but it will come through. Take time to answer questions thoughtfully, but do not worry if you do not have time to say everything you would like. If all goes well, you will soon have that opportunity at an in-person interview.
At the conclusion of the call, thank the interviewer for her time. If you are interested in pursuing this opportunity, follow-up with an email relating your qualifications to the job requirements and expressing your continued interest in the position.
The Skype interview, or one conducted via Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), has many similarities to the telephone interview. But of course, on Skype, they can see you! This will require extra preparation to be sure you are appropriately groomed and attired and that the physical space in which you are sitting is appropriate as well.
Sit in front of a neutral background with no distracting photos or decorations behind you. Maintain eye contact with the interviewer by looking at the camera, and not at yourself on the screen. Sit up straight, keep gestures to a minimum, and keep your hands away from your face and hair. Nods of understanding and smiling as appropriate are great, but try not to frown or show displeasure. Practice a Skype interview beforehand with a friend. You want no glitches on the big day!
At an in-person interview, you are evaluated by a whole new set of criteria. Your interviewer is trying to get a sense of you as a whole person, not just a list of academic achievements and skill sets. He immediately notices your attire and grooming, whether you are late, even by a minute (or too early), how you introduce yourself and shake hands, the degree of respect in your tone, your eye contact, and facial expressions, and your standing and seated posture.
Once the conversation is underway, your attitude, enthusiasm, engagement, and level of preparedness are now all on display. You are judged on how well you listen, the questions you ask, and whether your focus is upon your needs rather than upon how you can add value within the organization.
No two interviewers are alike in their styles or in the kinds of questions they ask, but all know a respectful, prepared, and confident candidate when they meet one. You can show your preparedness by researching beforehand on Glassdoor Job Search to learn about a specific company’s interview process, or by visiting http://readyprepin-terview.com for the interview questions most often asked for this job.
Candidates should be prepared for unusual questions. Ostensibly used to determine how quickly and creatively candidates think on their feet and how well they deal with stress, the practice of purposely asking difficult or unanswerable questions is questionable in my opinion. But if candidates are faced with such questions, the best they can do is deflect the questions with humor and keep calm! Some real-life examples from Glassdoor Job Search:
A “Using a scale of 1–10, rate yourself on how weird you are.” —Capital One
A “How many bricks are there in Shanghai? Consider only residential buildings.” —Deloitte Consulting
A “You are in charge of 20 people. Organize them to find out how many bicycles were sold in your area last year.” —Schlumberger
A “What’s your fastball?” —Ernst & Young
If, after the interview, you would still like to be considered for the position, send an email that day to thank the interviewer and to reiterate your interest and the strength of your candidacy. Follow up no more than once weekly or as directed by the interviewer. Perhaps the most difficult, but most critical, aspect of the interview process is exhibiting patience. Enthusiasm and interest work in your favor; a sense that you are desperate does not.
After all of your hard work, you’ve got the job. Congratulations! What are you going to do first? Share your great news with everyone who helped you. Whether they provided advice, introductions, encouragement, or assistance, let them know how grateful you are and that you would welcome the chance to be of help to them in some way in the future.
At this point, it is also considered good form, and good strategy, to let other prospective employers know you have accepted a job offer. Thank them for their interest, and tell them how much you enjoyed meeting them and how impressed you were with their organizations. This will allow them to keep their lists of viable applicants current and distinguish you as a considerate job candidate.
There is a chance you will receive job offers you choose not to accept. Handle such situations with the same gratitude, grace, and tact. You need not get too specific, such as saying you did not like someone you had met or that you thought the company was subpar. If pressed, just say the fit wasn’t quite right for you.
And always keep your eyes on the future. In her 2015 article in Business Insider, Jacquelyn Smith says, “The business world, your industry, and market are all small. Your hiring manager can likely reappear in your career. So put your best foot forward, especially when you refuse a position.”
There is always the remote possibility that despite your very best efforts, you did not win the position. Clearly, this is a difficult situation, especially if you were one of the finalists. But, believe it or not, the way in which you handle this “rejection” may actually end up working in your favor. First, try to see all the good that came of this process. You met new people, got to hone your interview skills, and learned more about the requirements for the position. And to get as far as you did, you obviously impressed a lot of people. Now it’s time to cement their good impressions.
Start by thanking everyone who interviewed you. Let them know that you would still be very interested in joining the organization should another opportunity arise. Ask for feedback about why they selected another candidate and how you could possibly improve your technical or interview skills.
Candid feedback is not always easy to get, but a recruiter may be willing to do this. Ask if you can stay in touch from time to time, and assuming the answer is yes, do so by forwarding relevant articles, offering congratulations for good news, and recommending candidates who you think could help them.
All of this may come back to help you sooner than you think. If you came in second place, and the job is either not accepted or does not work out for the first-place candidate, you will be the first person they call. Interviewers will be far more likely to recommend a gracious candidate to their networks than one who seemed to sulk, or worse, badmouthed a prospective employer because she did not get the job. Remember, your brand is always on display. How you handle disappointment tells others a great deal about your character, professionalism, resilience, and maturity.
The Generational Challenge
The interview seems to be going really well for recent grad Alex. He thinks he may be offered the job, as the hiring manager is now describing the next steps. With a big smile, the interviewer asks Alex if he has any questions. “Just one,” says Alex. “What’s your lead time for drug testing?” That’s when the smile froze.
Most job search challenges are faced equally by candidates of all ages. But there are some generation-specific challenges with which candidates might need to contend, challenges often fueled by stereotypes. For example, millennials may have to combat the notion that they all feel “entitled,” and baby boomers that they are all “over the hill.” Here is some advice on what the generations can do to challenge any preconceived notions or age-related speed bumps they may encounter.
Millennials, you are not in charge—yet. But you soon will be. And as long as you alone create the code, don’t you own the market-place? Perhaps . . . if tech skills were all one needed to succeed. But this is not now nor will it ever be the case. Even if it were the case, millennials would not have a corner on technical expertise for much longer.
Generation Z is coming up fast. The oldest of this cohort of true digital natives are now around 20 years of age. As they begin to enter the workplace, technical skills will no longer be the exclusive domain of millennials, and social skills will once again become the distinguishing commodity.
Fairly or unfairly, Gen Y has been painted as a socially clueless cohort. In his article for Monster Jobs, “How to Help Millennials Fill the Soft Skills Gap,” John Rossheim wrote, “Gen Y employees, raised to believe that hard skills matter most, often fall short on soft skills.” He adds, “The soft skill gaps most likely to trip up millennials include written and oral communications, social skills and the ability to engage and motivate, business etiquette, and professionalism.”
As a millennial job candidate, you can overcome these preconceptions by realizing that interviewers are on the lookout for such stereotypical behavior. They’ve also done additional homework. They know that technology is part of your DNA. They know of the social conscience you embody as a group, the flexible work-life balance you seek, the feedback you crave, the aspirations you have for fast and continuous development and advancement, the casual work environment you prefer, and yes, your interest in food, food, and more food!
All of these are things you do not need to tell them. Your fellow Gen Ys will ask about job perks, gym memberships, office decor allowances, bringing their dogs to work, and using company equipment for their new start-ups. Those are their issues. Just be sure they are not yours.
Why shouldn’t candidates announce their clear wishes from the get-go? Because employers who are seriously interested in them will not only be willing to share the many benefits their companies offer, they will be shouting these benefits from the rooftops. Applicants of all ages need to guard against thinking that they are more important to their prospective employers than the employers are to them. It is only after a job offer is made that a candidate is in any position of strength.
The good news for millennials is that they do not have to do much to tip the employment scales in their favor. If their education and experience match their prospective employers’ needs, brushing up on such social skills such as small talk, eye contact, handshakes, and turning devices off may be all that’s required to get the jobs.
Older job applicants face their share of challenges in the interview process as well, starting with who interviews them. Anyone in the job market who is not a millennial is almost certainly going to be interviewed by one at some point during the process. This means trying to impress a potential boss some 20 or 30 years one’s junior.
Applicants interviewing with millennials will want to keep in mind the defining characteristics of this generation. Applicants should speak to what millennials value most: work-life integration, teamwork, and continuous learning. They should offer positive feedback to interviewers on their questions and insights and keep the focus squarely on the present and future, not on the past.
Albert Einstein once said, “Learning is not a product of schooling but the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” Older applicants know they need to stay current with technology, but wonder how they can when it moves at the speed of light. The answer is through education, in whatever form they can find it.
Community college and online courses, YouTube videos, paid seminars, free classes, and reverse mentoring with younger colleagues, children, grandchildren, and neighbors can all provide excellent low-cost or no-cost sources of up-to-the-minute information. Older workers should not be afraid to ask for help. They have so much of value to offer in return—college referral letters, key introductions, and free room and board among them!
Despite proof to the contrary, older workers suffer from misconceptions about their energy, stamina, productivity, and adaptability. To keep age from being your defining characteristic, Carmine P. Gibaldi, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Management at St. John’s University and Harvard University, advises working late one or two nights each week, letting co-workers know you exercise, keeping current with your clothing, and staying positive.
He also recommends not talking about how things used to be done, not advertising your lack of tech savvy, and not complaining about your bad back! Older candidates and employees also want to make sure that 21st-century tech-speak and skills are part of their repertoires. professional presence
Gen Xer Joe doesn’t know when his alarm clock buzzes for the second time how much his job will be on the line later that morning. Now, with his heart pounding wildly, he is in full panic mode. Joe’s new district manager is visiting this morning and will be addressing rumors about a possible company downsizing. Joe knows he had better get to the office before the DM does.
Joe grabs the pile of clothes lying on the floor, the same ones he had worn the day before, and after a quick sniff test, wildly pulls them on. He brushes his teeth and drags a comb through his hair before he is out the door.
Joe has a lot of time to make up and his foot is heavy on the gas. Weaving in and out of traffic, he gets pulled over. Politely accepting his speeding ticket, Joe is now desperate to get to work. At the company parking lot, he barely misses the car stopped at the front entrance. He blares his horn as a passenger leaves the car and slowly walks to the entrance. Joe finally parks and rushes into the building. He dashes up the stairs into the meeting room disheveled, breathless, dripping in sweat, and two minutes late.
His boss and coworkers stare at him in disbelief. And then, the man at the far end of the conference table stands, and Joe and the district manager lock eyes in mutual recognition. Here is the passenger of the car stopped at the entrance, the very same car at which Joe had blared his horn. And he looks very unhappy. Joe sinks into the nearest seat, head bowed, and prepares for the worst.
If you’ve ever wondered if you have a personal brand, wonder no more. You do. We all do. Where we live, what we drive, with whom we associate, what we wear, how we communicate both in person and virtually, our work habits and our leisure activities combine to create an indelible image and powerful message. Who we are and what we value, in essence, define our personal brands. Your personal brand precedes you and stays long after you have left. Says Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon,
“Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.”
The Right Brand
It has been almost a month to the day since Karen, a 33-year-old CPA at a major accounting firm has taken her “voluntary” Professional Presence training. Indisputably brilliant at her job, Karen has rapidly worked her way up from staff auditor to tax manager and is on track to become one of the firm’s youngest partners. That is if she is able to convince the senior partners that she can project the image they have so carefully developed for their firm.
Karen knows she can be a little rough around the edges. Inpatient and demanding, she is a perfectionist. After all, time is money—her clients’ and the firm’s—and she’s not going to waste any of it. Still, her salty language, severe attire, and unsmiling face intimidate the junior staff and even put off some of the partners, as well. But this is who she is, Karen thinks, an accountant, not a cruise director. Besides, a “lipstick” approach to changing her image will never work.
Karen had no choice but to take the training if she wanted to become a partner—which she desperately did. But she was skeptical when the consultant said that little tweaks could actually make big differences. If Karen was willing to make a few changes, she said, she might be pleasantly surprised at how powerful the effects could be. They would meet again in a month to assess her progress.
Karen figured she had nothing to lose. She made an appointment with a personal shopper and a hair salon to update her wardrobe and hairstyle. She visited a cosmetics counter and was astonished at what a difference a little well-applied makeup made. At work, Karen began greeting colleagues as they passed by and was surprised when her greetings were invariably returned.
Rather than her usual all-business approach, she engaged her staff in light conversations about their weekend plans and outside interests and truly listened to their responses. She even invited some coworkers to coffee—something she’d never done in the past—and began to forge some new relationships. She was amazed at how receptive people were. But the biggest shock for Karen was that she had begun to receive compliments about her appearance and attitude—that was a first!
Karen’s confidence was sky-high, and she had to acknowledge her new approach wasn’t hurting her team’s productivity at all— in fact, it actually seemed to be helping it. Karen looked forward to her follow-up meeting with the consultant, eager to share her successes and to ask for additional tips. All of a sudden, her partnership dream seemed very much within her grasp.
The concept of brands is not new. First introduced in 1937 by Napoleon Hill in his book Think and Grow Rich, personal branding was again brought to the fore in 1981 by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. It was later popularized by management guru Tom Peters in his 1997 article in Fast Company, “A Brand Called You.”
Professional image and reputation have always been important. But there is a new sense of urgency in having a positive brand, due to the proliferation of social media. In the past, the implications of a person’s brand, whether good or bad, were largely contained. Only specific family, work, and community audiences were privy to them. Today, the possible ramifications of a negative brand are enormous because everything is out there for the whole world to see.
Occasionally, personal branding suffers from a negative connotation. When less than truthful self-promotion reveals itself, a letdown inevitably occurs. Conversely, while openness is to be valued where matters of character are concerned, sharing too much information can work against you. Today’s workplace mantra is “transparency and authenticity,” but the fact is, true civility requires good judgment and a measure of nondisclosure.
It is easier than ever to inflict permanent damage to our brands. We would be wise to heed the advice of Guru Sai Baba, who said, “Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?” If what we are about to say does not meet these criteria, it may be better left unsaid.
Dan Schawbel, the author of Personal Branding Book, says personal branding is “The process by which individuals differentiate themselves and stand out from a crowd by identifying their unique value proposition, whether professional or personal and then leveraging it across platforms with a consistent message to achieve a specific goal.” The benefits of having a strong personal brand, he says, include the ability to demand a premium price, a higher salary, and enhanced visibility within professional communities.
One’s in-person persona and online activities combine to create a brand—a brand that can easily be compromised. Online, a brand can be undermined by one’s failure to include a professional photograph, poor judgment with posts, relentless self-promoting, and over-sharing. In person, it can be marred by behaviors at work, on public transportation, in restaurants, on elevators, while waiting in line, and while walking on the sidewalk or into buildings—virtually anyplace one is seen or heard.
Perceptions of people are also fueled by stereotypes. If one wishes to overcome the preconceived notions that millennials are flighty narcissists and baby boomers are cranky has-beens, one will need to build an authentic, compelling personal brand that flies in the face of these stereotypes. To accomplish this, deliberation is key, and it begins with self-reflection.
Brian Lawrence, a career development specialist at Saint Louis University, says that a personal brand is first and foremost personal. “Your brand should not be a character you create but instead should be a representation of what employers can expect when you are hired.” Once you determine who you are and what you want to convey, you can align all aspects of your personal and professional personas and begin to clearly and consistently communicate your brand.
Sometimes rebranding is in order. One of the most famous comeback stories is that of Steve Jobs. He founded Apple in 1976, got kicked out of the company in 1985, and 12 years later was rehired. Henry Blodget, co-founder and former CEO of the business website Business Insider, wrote, “During his time in the wilderness—the 12 years he spent away from the company that became his life’s work—Steve learned the skills and discipline that he needed to lead Apple’s resurrection.
Steven wasn’t born with these skills, he developed them.” Bill Gates and Richard Branson, among others, also faced significant setbacks in their careers. What is encouraging is that no matter how great the challenge or how long it takes, rebranding is not only possible, it may land one in a far better position than before.
The newly hired are at an advantage because they are in the process of making their first impressions. They can turn these good impressions into good brands. Tenured employees, on the other hand, or those who have made less than positive first impressions may need to do some rebranding. This involves first convincing themselves, and then others, that they are not only capable of making successful changes but also would thrive in doing so.
A Take seriously all feedback received. Make personal improvements with an eye toward the future.
A Determine how current skills align with future job requirements. Learn the necessary skills for a new job before pursuing it. Find mentors to lend support and give advice.
A Realize rebranding takes time. Be persistent and confident.
Eventually, others will change their minds about you and your capabilities.
The Right Attitude
Helen approaches Tom, the new manager of the regional office. “Do you have a minute?” she asks. Eager to assist, Tom invites her in to his office. With a worried look on her face, Helen, one of the company’s sales assistants, begins. “I am hesitant to say this, but as the new manager, you have a right to know. And I really just want to help.” Helen now has Tom’s full attention.
“Unfortunately, we have some big problems on our team.” In a voice full of concern, Helen reports that Tina’s difficult home life is affecting her attendance, Brett’s drinking problem makes him late most days, Jeff’s money woes are making him miserable to be around, and Susan’s poor performance is because she can’t get along with her clients. “Rich’s behavior is the most problematic, though,” Helen says with great drama. “Now that his marriage is on the rocks, he’s beginning to hit on all the young female interns.”
After she finishes describing virtually every person on the team in an unflattering, personal way, Helen sighs heavily, a barely perceptible look of smugness on her face. Tom thinks for a moment and says, “You’re right, Helen, we do have a problem. It’s your attitude. What are you going to do about that?”
The importance of a positive attitude cannot be overstated. In his article, “The One Thing That Determines How Successful You Can Be,” author Jim Rohn says attitude “determines the level of our potential, produces the intensity of our activity, and predicts the quality of the result we receive.” Charles Swindoll, pastor, and author, says attitude is a greater determinant of future success than one’s background, education, financial means, position, or reputation with others. He says attitude is more important than the past, the future, and even the facts.
Still, bad attitudes on the job run rampant, and those who have them run the gamut. From the complainer, the victim, and the martyr to the self-proclaimed overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated, these individuals share and often over-share their feelings, about, well, everything. Nothing is off the table: relationships, politics, ill-health, weather, traffic, long lines, discourteous commuters, bosses, coworkers, work conditions, job loads, paychecks, deadlines—the list is endless.
On the job, bad attitudes are evidenced by tardiness, rudeness, gossip, poor work habits, inappropriate attire, and negative tones. They are also demonstrated through disrespectful nonverbal communication such as slouching, eye rolling, glaring, smirking, and the use of electronic devices.
There are myriad reasons people exhibit bad attitudes, including to get attention, avoid responsibility, achieve common ground, and gain validation. Fear, insecurity, jealousy, and bad habits are also factors that lead to negative attitudes. And blameless colleagues, unsuspecting customers, and innocent business partners all take the hit.
Of course, there are issues of legitimate concern that can affect attitudes, including serious health, family, and money matters. And there are generation-specific concerns as well. Digital natives, in particular, are worried. While the current national unemployment rate of 5 percent means many are landing jobs, they still carry an average of $37,000 in school loan debt alone.
According to the Census Bureau, some 30 percent of young adults aged 18–34 are living with their parents, creating a challenging “full nest” situation for parents and their adult children. At an age where thoughts traditionally turn to establish relationships, buying homes, and starting families, such considerations are on the back burner for many millennials.
This lack of money and independence contribute to a high degree of stress for many in this cohort. Digital immigrants also have a lot on their minds as retirement security, health and health care, employment security, children’s educations, and the needs of aging parents weigh heavily.
Regardless of the challenge, it is still our responsibility to choose the right attitudes, because the alternative is just too costly. Negative attitudes have deleterious effects on physical and emotional health. They drain energy, weaken immune systems, contribute to depression, lengthen illness recovery times, and shorten life. Negative attitudes at work decrease productivity, lower morale, overshadow accomplishments, damage relationships, and jeopardize business, jobs, and promotions. Bad attitudes permeate corporate cultures from top to bottom.
Positive attitudes, on the other hand, provide enormous benefits. They engender respect, encourage the perceptions of confidence, strength, and leadership ability, facilitate optimum job productivity and satisfaction and promote strong professional relationships.
You can become a member of the “positive attitude club” with a few simple steps. First, do a gut check by acknowledging your feelings and recognizing how you are broadcasting them. Ask yourself whether an issue will matter tomorrow, next month, or five years from now. If the answer is no, let it go. Improve the situation if you can, but be prepared to move on in a healthy way when there’s nothing more you can do.
With coworkers, demonstrate your good attitude by treating everyone with respect and kindness. Use positive language, banishing words like problem and impossible from your lexicon. Offer compliments, encouragement, congratulations, and apologies as warranted. Show optimism and appreciation. Go above and beyond, without expectation of recognition. In addition to doing your part in creating a positive work environment, all of these efforts can reap you great personal and professional rewards.
Now that you’ve put on the right attitude for work, it’s time to put on the right clothes!
The Right Appearance
After a career that spanned nearly five decades, Walter, a 74-year-old financial advisor at one of the country’s largest wealth management companies, was about to retire. But before he did, this very successful man needed to devise a succession plan for his longstanding clients, many of whom were high net-worth individuals in their 60s, 70s, and above. They trusted him completely, and Walter knew the importance of this last business decision for his clients—and for his legacy. He was not going to let them down.
Walter had a dozen or more skilled advisors in the office to whom he could pass his clients, and all of the advisors were technically proficient and would do a fine job. But in the end, he chose 35-year-old Patrick. Walter’s final decision was influenced not only by Patrick’s overall professionalism but very much by the way Patrick dressed.
His clients still respected formal business attire, including shined shoes, pressed suits, and “neckties,” as they called them. Walter was confident that his clients would feel very comfortable being transferred to Patrick and that the company had an excellent chance of retaining their business for years to come. A career’s worth of valuable contacts and business went to Patrick because he “dressed the part.”
Attire is a big part of one’s personal brand. Attire tells the world what one thinks about oneself and others. It conveys competence and judgment, or the lack thereof. It inspires confidence or elicits concern. It enhances credibility or creates confusion. It matters. Attire is the first thing others notice at an interview and on the job.
It can be a deciding factor between the person who gets the job, the client, or the promotion and the person who does not. Dressing professionally is not about the latest styles or comfort. It is about reflecting and supporting a specific workplace culture and industry standards by meeting expectations, not defying them.
It is often argued that attire, as mere “packaging,” is not important. It’s what’s inside that counts. But in order to entice others to be interested in what’s inside, they must be intrigued— or at least not put off—by what’s outside. The importance of packaging was reinforced for me daily during my 11 years working in the business sales division of Tiffany & Co. Known for its trademark “little blue box,” the venerable jeweler has never lost sight of the power of its packaging and goes to great lengths to defend infringement upon its brand.
On occasions when I was asked if I could supply a Tiffany box, I would always say yes, as long as it contained paid-for Tiffany merchandise. I understood the assumptions made about this packaging. The mere sight of a Tiffany blue box held a promise, if not a guarantee, that whatever was inside was of unsurpassed beauty and quality. Attire, or one’s packaging, has similar power.
Digital immigrants remember well when there was no question about what to wear to work: for men, it was a suit and tie, and for women, it was a dress (or skirt and blouse) and hosiery. Today, these standards have been relaxed dramatically, even in the staidest environments. Whether this is a good thing is under debate.
In his Financial Times article, “Sorry, JP Morgan, Smart Guys Still Wear Suits,” Robert Armstrong took issue with the announcement by the world’s leading bank urging its employees to adopt business casual attire. Among Mr. Armstrong’s arguments against this standard of attire was “Put a suit on, hotshot, it’s other people’s money.”
In deciding what to wear, the culture of the organization is always the major determining factor. There is no “one size fits all.” Even within a corporate culture, there may be different or relaxed standards depending upon the physical location of an office or what a person does for an organization.
Expectations for attire at corporate headquarters where executives and important clients roam may be different from dress standards in field offices; warmer climates may dictate lighter fabrics and fewer items of clothing; regional standards of dress in a conservative Northeast work environment may be different from a laid-back West Coast concern.
We dress to meet expectations—not to cause confusion or concern. A uniformed police officer, firefighter, or nurse reassures us that a professional is on the scene. A hard-hatted construction worker or white-coated scientist suggests someone who respects and is prepared for the job. A suited and buttoned-down accountant or banker instills confidence in us that good care will be taken with our money. In an operating room, you hope the surgeon is wearing scrubs; in a court of law, you hope the judge is wearing black robes.
What you wear depends on what you do and where you do it. If you work in a conservative field such as law or financial services, conservative attire is the way to go. If you’re in a creative field, such as marketing or advertising, dressing in an avant-garde style is in order. Hoodies are often the uniform of the day in the high-tech field, and the fashion industry requires the latest runway styles.
It is incumbent upon job candidates and employees to find out what is expected of them and to dress accordingly. Job applicants can get the information they need by conducting online research for industry-specific attire, asking for advice from someone who works for an organization, or calling and inquiring about a company’s dress code. One applicant did a “stakeout” by sitting in his car in a parking lot for a first-hand view of what employees were wearing. Employees will ensure they dress appropriately by adhering to the company’s dress code or simply by observing how higher-ups in the organization dress.
In your research, you will come across a head-spinning array of categories of business dress. They will include business formal, business professional, traditional business, general business, and interview attire. You will also see business casual and its possible subdivisions of campus casual, active casual, sporty casual, smart casual, rugged casual, and small business casual. Then there is the formal and semi-formal attire for special gala events.
Knowing exactly what the categories mean is problematic because the interpretations vary so widely across organizations and industries. Do your best reconnaissance, and prepare for any error to be on the side of formality. Fortunately, the following business attire rules span industries.
BUSINESS ATTIRE RULES
A Cleanliness. Keep everything clean, including body, hair, clothing, nails, breath, and teeth. Keep a toothbrush and breath mints on hand for unexpected meetings.
A Grooming. Style hair in an acceptable fashion for your work environment. Avoid extreme colors and cuts unless that defines your company culture. Keep facial hair neat and trimmed. Wet hair is unprofessional, ear and nose hair are unsightly. With perfume, less is more.
Quality. Fabric, stitching, pattern, color, buttonholes, and linings all give clues about the quality of a garment. Make sure they are top-notch.
A Cost. Employ the “cost per wearing method” before buying anything. A seemingly expensive item could cost just dollars per wearing.
A Fit and condition. Clothes need to fit well and be in good repair. Do not wear ripped, stained, frayed, or threadbare items or those that have missing buttons or holes.
A Taste. Avoid plunging necklines, garish colors, clanging bracelets, visible underwear, facial bolts, and conspicuous tattoos unless, of course, such styles define your workplace.
More than a few hiring managers have reported their dismay when the well-dressed millennials they hired bore no resemblance to those who came to work. It was as though they thought that once they landed the jobs, any additional sartorial efforts were unnecessary.
Older workers have their dress challenges, too. Some see no need to change styles that have served them well for 30, 40, or even 50 years. Others cling to the hope that the practical and conservative dress that comprises their wardrobes will once again be the standard. But attire, like everything, evolves with the times, and it’s important to evolve with it.
The Right Way to Travel
“ON YOUR LEFT!” comes the loud shout. Today, for what must have been the hundredth time, Liz is practically run over on her walk to work by a passing bicyclist. Or at least it feels that way. Liz appreciates the positive impact more bicycles and fewer cars have on collective well-being and the environment.
What she doesn’t appreciate are the heart palpitations caused by a cyclist shouting in her ear as he speeds by with just inches to spare at 30 miles an hour. Startled, angry, and practically knocked off her feet—again—Liz begins to shout back at the cyclist, but he is long gone. “How can people be so inconsiderate?” Liz says out loud.
Liz’s route to work is via Boston’s Charles River, a beautiful and very popular location surrounded by trees and flat paved paths that go for more than 20 miles. In the course of a given day, thousands of runners, walkers, cyclists, bladers, moms with strollers, and dog lovers with their dogs all share the river’s paths. But an unfortunate chasm has developed between cyclists and pedestrians, as each vociferously and indignantly laments the other faction’s lack of consideration. And if she is honest with herself, Liz knows each side has valid complaints.
So Liz makes a decision. While she can’t change everyone’s attitude and behavior, she can change hers. When the next cyclist comes riding toward her, Liz gives her ample room to pass and smiles. To her amazement, the cyclist smiles back and thanks her. She tries this several more times and finds that almost everyone returns her smile, and some even say hello. Liz decides that showing a little courtesy toward those she encounters on her commute may just encourage others to do the same. No matter, it will make her commute more pleasant, and that’s a start.
How do we annoy one another en route to work? Whether on foot or horseback (yes, a few folks do commute that way), in automobiles, or on buses, boats, mopeds, skateboards, planes, or trains, commuters are driven to daily distraction by their fellow travelers. Presuming that none of us set out to get others’ blood boiling and are merely oblivious, the issue of traveling to and from work needs attention from a number of perspectives.
Employees begin to broadcast their brands the moment they leave home. Are they rushing down the sidewalk with ties undone and hair wet, bumping into slower moving pedestrians as they try to catch trains or buses? Do they push to get onto public transportation and vie for scarce open seats, giving scant, if any, thought to others? Are they impatient behind the wheel, weaving in and out of lanes, crudely gesturing at the slightest provocation and blaring horns with abandon? These behaviors do not go unnoticed.
Travel can be stressful, especially during rush hours. Meetings with clients, bosses, or coworkers, project deadlines, or relieving team members may all be dependent on our timeliness. Trying to deal with uncontrollable factors such as weather, traffic accidents, and breakdowns by giving vent to our frustrations may give us breakdowns of our own.
There are approximately 128.3 million commuters in the U.S., 76 percent of whom travel to and from work in their own cars. Another 12 percent carpool and approximately 8 percent combined to take the bus, walk, bicycle, or ride the subway. The rest use alternate means (horseback?). Where we live determines how we get to work. In cities, up to 15 percent of workers travel by foot and up to 5 percent by bicycle.
To protect your brand and ensure safety all around, the following guidelines are offered for the various transportation modes.
WHEN IN AN AUTOMOBILE:
A Personal auto:
Use good judgment and observe the rules of the road. Speeding, following too closely, flashing headlights, using the breakdown lane to bypass traffic, or zigzagging between lanes will win you no friends and may get you pulled over.
DO NOT text or use social media while driving. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reports that in 2014, more than 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving-related car crashes, and 431,000 were injured. The average time eyes are off the road while texting is five seconds, which, if traveling at 55 MPH, is like covering the entire length of a football field blindfolded.
Resist the urge to text even at stoplights. Invariably, the light will turn green, which you will know by the horns blaring behind you. You may make the light, but others will not, and this may come back to haunt you at the next intersection.
Establish costs and payment guidelines up front. If everyone takes turns driving, split all costs evenly. If one person does the driving, consider a mileage approach factoring in costs for fuel, maintenance, parking, and tolls. The IRS offers mileage rates, which it updates on a yearly basis.
Keep on hand a list of co-riders’ cell, work, home, and emergency phone numbers. Be ready when your ride arrives. Requiring others to wait is inconsiderate. Doing so habitually may get you kicked out of the carpool.
Respect the culture of the carpool. If food and drink are allowed and conversation welcome, participate as you like. If instead, quiet is desired, observe that.
Be meticulous about personal hygiene. Apply fragrance sparingly, if at all. Be neat, and take newspapers and trash with you.
Decide upon seating based upon practical considerations, such as the needs and the sizes of the passengers or drop-off order.
Stick like glue to the no-stopping policy. If anyone is ever to get to his destination, personal errands cannot be allowed.
Be reliable. If you are the driver and are sick or delayed, give your passenger's as much notice as possible. Allow for unexpected traffic, construction, accidents, long lights, tollbooth backups, and weather delays.
A Taxi and transportation services:
Be respectful of the driver and of the automobile, and be aware that any bad behavior on your part may become part of a file on you. Uber and Lyft rate their customers and share this knowledge with fellow drivers who may elect not to pick you up in the future. (Want to know your rating? A feature on the Uber app lets you find out. Or just ask the driver!)
Engage the driver in conversation if you are so inclined, but only if he seems receptive to it. A driver’s first priority is to get you safely to your destination, which may require his full attention to the road and directions.
Do not eat, drink, or engage in personal grooming while in the vehicle.
Keep calm if traffic or weather delays your ride, and, of course, do not blame the driver. He or she is equally, if not more, frustrated than you are.
WHEN ON A TRAIN OR BUS:
A Attend to personal grooming tasks before you board. This means no hair brushing, shaving (yes, it’s done), nail filing or clipping, tooth picking, or applying makeup.
A Do not travel if you are sick. But if you decide you absolutely must, cover coughs and sneezes, and stand or sit as far away from others as possible.
A Allow passengers to get off a bus or train before you get on. Board quickly, being careful of others’ toes, shins, elbows, and belongings. If you bump into someone, apologize.
A Do not eat or drink when commuting, especially on short commutes.
A Respect for fellow travelers. Occupy no more room than that to which one person is entitled. Do not allow briefcases, luggage, or umbrellas to occupy needed sitting or standing room.
A Keep your voice down and music to yourself. Loud phone calls, conversations, and music distract and disturb fellow passengers who may be trying to work, rest, or think.
WHEN ON A PLANE:
A Comply with boarding instructions and then move to your seat as quickly as possible. Do not obstruct others as you stow your luggage. Move out of the aisle so others can pass. Remember, this is a public mode of transportation and other travelers’ comfort, convenience, and safety are as important as yours. Take up space, including storage and foot room, for which you paid and no more.
A Recline your seat, if you desire, but look back first and ask politely if you may do so. Yes, you are within your rights to recline, but considering the person behind you who may be eating or working is just courteous. Do not ever employ a device that prevents others from reclining. Not only is that presumptuous, but it is also against airline rules. There are simple solutions to get more legroom: pay for it or fly with airlines that offer more space.
A Follow the instructions of the crew for seatbelt and electronic device use. Do not argue or cause a disruption. Airlines have zero tolerance for such behavior, and you may be required to deplane.
A Do not presume your seatmates want to engage in conversation. Read their nonverbal cues, and respect signals that they wish to work, read, or rest.
A Accept delays as part of travel. Everyone is in the same situation. Arguing with gate personnel makes you look like an inexperienced and unsophisticated traveler.
WHEN ON A BICYCLE:
A Obey all traffic signals and rules of the road.
A Make sure you and the bicycle are properly equipped.
A Use hand signals to alert others of your intentions.
A Give notice before passing and a wide berth when doing so. Try not to startle pedestrians or other riders as you pass by them.
WHEN ON FOOT:
A Watch where you’re going. Observe traffic signals and never try to beat a light, especially when there is oncoming traffic. Do not assume drivers see you.
A Step aside to use your electronic device. Texting and taking photos, especially with selfie sticks, are to be avoided in the middle of a sidewalk. They can slow you down, cause you to abruptly stop or collide with someone or something, or even cause you to walk into traffic. Using earbuds that restrict hearing is equally dangerous.
A Keep to the right on the sidewalk and try to keep a brisk pace so others do not continually need to pass you. Be considerate of those who are slower, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and those pushing strollers or with arms full of groceries.
A Do not walk two-, three-, or even four-abreast or have impromptu mid-sidewalk meetings. Others may be forced into traffic to get around you. Getting the ingredients right to achieve the highest level of professional presence enables employees to present their best versions of themselves in the workplace.
Jake, 23 years old and eight months on the job, only wishes he had known when he started what he knows now. His job as a representative at a call center had been described as simple and pressure-free: He would answer callers’ questions about products, and if they expressed interest in buying, he would transfer them to the sales department to handle the sales.
The first couple of months were fun as Jake learned about the products and bonded with the other new hires. But once he was on the phone full-time, this “no-pressure” job turned into anything but.
Jake was quickly informed that too many of the calls he was sending through to the sales department were unqualified prospects, wasting the sales representatives’ time. He also learned that the number and length of his calls were measured, his conversations were monitored, his emails were counted, and his time on social media was logged. And all of these statistics would factor into his job evaluation, affecting any potential pay raise or promotion.
During the interview process, Jake had been delighted to hear about the company’s unlimited vacation policy, flexible schedules, and flat organizational structure that gave employees unfettered access to the higher-ups. “How great was that nap room!” he said to himself at the time.
But Jake soon realized that no one actually used any of these highly touted benefits, as though there was some unwritten rule against it. And although they had access to the executives’ calendars to schedule meetings with them, no one ever did. Instead, there was not-so-subtle pressure to stay late, forgo vacation time, and keep one’s ideas and concerns to oneself. Jake knew he was in the real world now. He just hadn’t anticipated what reality would look like or how fast it would be upon him.
A surprise awaiting digital natives, in particular, is that the flat organizational structure they envisioned is not so flat after all. Designed to eliminate unnecessary layers of management and foster collaboration, decision-making, and creativity, the flat structure is particularly attractive to millennials eager to share their ideas.
It’s not just young start-up companies with little hierarchical structure to dismantle or e-commerce companies like Zappos that have embraced flatness. Staid manufacturing companies like General Motors are also dipping their toes in the flat waters. According to Tim Kastelle in
Harvard Business Review, “There is a growing body of evidence that shows organizations with flat structures outperform those with more traditional hierarchies in most situations.”
If there is agreement that flatter is better, in theory, there is less agreement on whether it works in practice and whether organizations are actually as flat as they claim to be. Google itself dabbled in this approach back in 2002 when it decided to do away with the management level in its engineering operations, but within months, management was back.
Going forward, there will likely be degrees of flatness determined on a company-by-company basis. To be on the safe side, new employees will want to find out what kind of structures their organizations have and make no assumptions.
Penni Connor, a vice president at the Fortune 500 energy company Eversource, says, “Eversource is deliberately trying to create a workplace that encourages entrepreneurial thinking.” She also says there are a time and a place for sharing. “In a rush to get their questions answered, there is no hesitancy (among millennials) to take their questions right to a higher-up who could answer it, but is not necessarily the best person to answer it.” She adds, “They need to ask themselves how to navigate the hierarchy better.”
Older workers used to a hierarchical structure can also make missteps. If their new culture is one that not only encourages but also expects employees to speak up, holding back will do them no service. Become keenly attuned to expectations within your organization, and proceed with caution. Your CEO may welcome weekend texts from employees, and if so, text away. But you’ll want to make sure of that before you interrupt his golf game, a dinner party, or a nap.
What awaits you on your first day is a plethora of people, all eager to pass and share judgment about you, the new kid. You’re a curiosity to all, a threat to some, and more work for others. Your attitude, energy level, attire, style, demeanor, confidence, judgment, grace, and overall professionalism will say volumes about you, even before you’ve had a chance to say “good morning.”
Your level of comfort and skill in making polite conversation will add to what becomes a practically indelible first impression—the only first impression you’ll get to make. The success of your first day may have an unalterable impact on the success of all of your future days. It is wise to execute it thoughtfully.
THE FIRST DAY
A Arrive early. Be well rested, well dressed, and raring to go. Shake hands and introduce yourself to colleagues, and try to remember their names.
Thank everyone. Thank the person who announces your arrival, escorts you to your desk, arranges for your security badge, sets up your technology, walks you through stacks of paperwork, directs you to the break room and restroom, invites you to lunch, and offers you information. Your gratitude will be remembered.
A Look and listen. Pay attention to the general office vibe. When do people arrive? How quickly do they get to work? How do they interact with one another? When do they leave? What is the noise level? Respect the culture and follow suit. Take notes. Record important information on your phone or a notepad. Having new codes, names, numbers, and emails at your fingertips will help you assimilate quickly.
Brimming with confidence, Connie had aced her telephone and Skype interviews for a fabulous new job as a sales manager with a leading consumer products company. She has one more hurdle today, the in-person interview, after which Connie believes the job will be hers!
An experienced 34-year-old sales professional, Connie is confident but is taking no chances. She leaves three hours early for a drive that would usually take two hours, getting to the company parking lot with plenty of time to spare. Connie had decided she would do her hair and makeup when she arrived, to look as fresh as possible.
She drives around to the quiet far side of the building, out of sight of parked cars or incoming traffic, and picks a sunny spot for good light. She brought her portable curling iron and begins curling and spraying her hair. Perfect, she thinks! In the bright light, she notices and tweezes a few stray hairs on her eyebrows. She adjusts her bra straps and her blouse and after a quick underarm “sniff test,” applies a little more antiperspirant.
“Just to be safe,” she thinks. She brushes and flosses her teeth, looking in the car mirror to make sure there are no leftover poppy seeds from this morning’s breakfast bagel. She swishes around some mouthwash then spits it into her cold coffee. She puts on her lipstick, rubbing with her little finger a bit that had gotten onto her tooth. Finally, she pours the mouthwash and remaining coffee on the ground. Finished.
With a satisfied smile, Connie drives to the building’s entrance, parks, and enters. It takes a while for the hiring manager to arrive and escort her to his office. He seems to avoid making eye contact with her. Is he shy? As they make their way down the long corridor, Connie struggles to make small talk, to no avail and begins to experience a growing sense of dread.
As the door to his office opens, Connie sees the view immediately outside his window. It is exactly where she was parked just minutes ago, performing her beauty and personal grooming rituals in the brightest, whitest sunlight.
Each day, people who have a great deal of influence over our current and future careers have their eyes peeled and their antennae up. The good news is we have a great deal of control over how others perceive us. It’s just a matter of making the right decisions.
PAY ATTENTION TO OTHERS
A Do you look back as you walk into a building to see who might be coming in behind you, or do you absentmindedly let doors shut on co-workers?
A Do you cheerfully greet security personnel by name or treat them as if they were invisible?
A Do you look up when walking in corridors, or are you glued to your device, oblivious to the passersby?
A Do you check to see who might also be trying to catch the elevator, or do you hit “close” the minute you are aboard?
A Do you keep right on stairs or position yourself squarely in the middle, impeding others trying to get by?
A Do you talk loudly on the way to your desk or keep the decibel level down out of respect for colleagues who are working?
The number of ways in which colleagues can potentially offend or irritate others before buckling down to work each day pales only in comparison to the opportunities they have to do so once the workday begins. These unintentional behaviors may seem trivial, but when regularly subjected to them, they become a monumental nuisance. Resentment builds, relationships suffer, and brands are bruised, all for want of a little common courtesy.
What annoys people at work? The list is very, very long. It includes not allowing others to get off of elevators before getting on, constant tardiness, leaving dirty cups and dishes in the lunchroom, wafting food aromas, personal grooming at desks (nail-clipping, flossing, hair-brushing, etc.), poor personal hygiene, incessant and loud personal calls, gum-chewing, loud talking, humming, whistling, singing, noise-emitting electronic devices.
Conducting conference calls and speakerphone conversations in open spaces, never contributing to collections for gifts, coming back late from breaks, not reimbursing coworkers for miscellaneous expenses, never making coffee or lunch runs, always asking for but never having stamps (or tissues, gum, mints, etc.), eavesdropping, noisy jewelry, heavy walking, foot-tapping, finger-drumming, knuckle-cracking, throat-clearing, nose-blowing, pen-clicking, and sniffling.
The list goes on.
Staring, failing to observe personal space boundaries, lurking outside someone’s cubicle or office door, interrupting others’ work instead of calling or emailing ahead, reading coworkers’ computer screens, emptying but never refilling candy jars, incessantly talking about new babies (or relationships, homes, cars, etc.), being overly dramatic, being lazy, boasting, yelling, arguing, swearing, fist-banging, door-slamming, leaving break rooms (or restrooms or meeting rooms) dirty.
Taking up too much parking lot space, stealing food, leaving coffee pots (or water jugs or copy paper trays) empty, slurping coffee, eating noisily, pranking, dressing inappropriately, not thanking others for holding doors, laughing or commenting out loud at text messages or emails, not asking permission before borrowing others’ property, not returning borrowed items, emitting bodily sounds and odors, decorating office spaces unprofessionally, and currying favor with bosses.
The advice regarding these behaviors is simple: don’t. Like Henry Ford, Sr., said, “Paying attention to the little things that most men neglect makes a few men rich.”
Did you ever wonder just how much time people spend in meetings? According to a study by the Australian software company Atlassian, most employees attend 62 meetings a month of which 50 percent are considered the time wasted. During an average of 31 hours per month in meetings, 91 percent of employees daydream, 73 percent do other work, 47 percent complain, and 39 percent sleep. The cost of unnecessary meetings in the U.S. per year: an eye-popping $37 billion in salary.
Regardless, executives overwhelmingly agree that face-to-face meetings are still the best way to persuade, lead, engage, and make decisions. Rather than do away with meetings entirely, simple strategies can be employed to make yours as productive as possible.
MAKE SURE YOU ARE NOT THE ORGANIZER WHO:
A Fails to have a valid reason for the meeting, invite the right people, or send an agenda
A Neglects to reserve a meeting room, test AV, or order materials and refreshments
A Forgets to send pre-meeting assignments or reading or to advise attendees what will be expected of them
A Schedules ill-timed meetings such as early Monday morning or late Friday afternoon
A Fails to intervene when attendees show disrespect through words or behaviors
The biggest complaint about meetings by far is that they were not necessary, to begin with. These complaints are valid if the information could have been communicated in other, better ways, if key stakeholders were not available, if there was not enough time to prepare, or if nothing would have been gained in holding the meetings.
An Invite only those who can contribute to and/or benefit from attending. These include both stakeholders and opponents. Send agendas and assignments/reading in advance. You need not invite higher-ups, but inform them of meetings and let them know they are welcome to attend.
Prepare tent cards. This is especially important when attendees do not know one another, and it’s a nice touch even when they do. At formal meetings, decide on seating and arrange tent cards accordingly. Make introductions, invite attendees to help themselves to refreshments, and let them know where the restrooms are located.
A Consider timing of meetings. Early mornings when people are fresh are great if high participation is required. Mid-and late-morning meetings are good as long as they do not run into lunch. Lunch meetings can work well, as long as attendees are fed! Mid-afternoon meetings require energetic presenters, activities, or engaging topics to keep people awake. Late afternoon meetings are fine if they do not conflict with departures.
Set meeting expectations up front. These include how and when attendees will be asked to contribute when breaks can be expected, and whether using devices is permitted. Electronic device use at meetings can be a big problem because others often feel disrespected or ignored. A client told me that the person using a device is saying, “You are not worthy of my time.” The culture of the group may allow it, but unless everyone is on his or her device, it is wise to stay off of yours.
A Thank people for their attendance. Discuss next steps, and then confirm them in an email. Adhering to these guidelines will stand you in good stead. If, in addition to these, you start on time, stick to the agenda, and end on time, you will be inducted into the meeting organizer hall of fame!
Attending a Meeting
As a meeting attendee, you also have responsibilities. What you do before, during, and after a meeting will be critical to its success. Occasionally, you will be invited to a meeting and wonder why. It may have been a courtesy invitation or, possibly, an invitation sent by mistake. If you are ever unsure about why you were invited, it is perfectly permissible to ask the organizer. In some cases, you will have the opportunity to gracefully bow out.
A Arrive early and prepared. Introduce yourself to other attendees and take advantage of this golden opportunity to “work the room.” Be sure to comply with instructions given by the meeting chair about seating, breaks, partici-pation, and electronic device use.
A Respect others’ opinions. Do not interrupt, argue, or hold side conversations.
A Display attentive body language. Do not slouch, cross your arms, roll your eyes, look out the window, frown, shake your head, yawn, doze off, or doodle.
Stay in your seat. If you think there is a chance an emergency might arise, such as a call about a sick child or expectant wife, ask the meeting chair beforehand if it would be all right for you to keep your phone on for this reason only. But even then, keep it out of view and silent. A Take notes on a laptop or tablet if allowed. But do not get caught doing anything extracurricular.
Today’s workplace is all about teams, and it’s easy to see why. Put together a group of people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and talents, and a more creative solution to a problem or situation is sure to follow. The benefits that accrue to organizations and employees from effective team interactions include greater productivity, better human resource utilization, increased learning, improved morale, and greater efficiency. The bottom line is that when people work together in a positive fashion toward a common goal, anything is possible.
But it’s not always easy. Egos get in the way. And if they do, conflicts arise, resentments build, power struggles develop, alliances form, and feelings get hurt. The result is wasted time, energy, and resources. If teams do work effectively, it is because members have taken personal responsibility to do their respective parts.
A Polish their attitudes. The nature of a team is to bring together divergent views and experiences to achieve the best possible result. Disagreements are welcomed but disagreeable behaviors are not. Effective team members show respect, humility, a willingness to learn, and an acceptance of the wisdom of the collective. They keep calm even when others do not and keep the focus on the issue at hand.
A Hone listening skills. Good team members encourage others to share their expertise through active, attentive, and respectful listening. They never argue or interrupt, but instead allow others to express themselves as they choose, presuming it is respectful of other attendees.
An Exhibit exemplary verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Good team members are respectful in their tones, words, and body language. They always take the high road.
A Execute their responsibilities. Good team members are responsible, responsive, thorough, and timely. They never pass the buck or lose sight of the team’s goal.
The Cubicle Farm
Patrice cringes. Here comes Dottie, and she looks like she wants to talk. Again. Patrice likes Dottie, but she comes into Patrice’s cubicle three or four times a day to talk about whatever is on her mind. The topic could be anything—her brilliant new grandson’s most recent milestones, the latest company gossip, a recap of last night’s TV shows, or the weekend weather forecast—no thought goes unshared.
The problem is, every visit breaks Patrice’s concentration. She has tried every subtle means she can think of to discourage Dottie, from keeping her eyes on her computer screen when she approaches to piling her office chair with books and binders so there is no place for her to sit. Sometimes she offers Dottie only a brief smile or a one-word acknowledgment to her greetings, and she has even said, “Sorry, I was concentrating. What did you say?” But none of these have worked.
So Patrice decides it’s time to be direct. She gently tells Dottie that to keep on task, she needs to keep their visits to break times. Not the least bit offended, Dottie, says, “I only stopped by because I thought you really liked my visits. You should have just told me. Really!” Problem solved.
Today’s workplace looks nothing like what digital immigrants remember when they joined the workforce pre-1990. Then, it was primarily comprised of offices, with sizes and locations determined by hierarchy and rank. Executives occupied large, beautifully appointed, carpeted corner offices with magnificent top-floor views.
Everyone else worked on floors below in spaces and square feet determined by their positions and tasks. There was little collaboration between the ranks. If a worker was unlucky enough to be “called on the carpet” for a conversation with an executive, it was not a good thing. Open-plan spaces did exist but were reserved for entry-level employees or those who performed specific functions such as clerical staff.
The office has changed dramatically, largely because of technology. Employees now also work from their homes, cars, hotel rooms, or local coffee shops. Business is conducted on a treadmill, a train, or a plane. Today, 9 to 5 is 24-7. The corner office, if it exists, has walls made of glass. But offices are hard to come by because collaboration is king, and the open-plan layout is its castle.
The Open Office
Creativity. Productivity. Agility. These are the promises of the new workplace. Designed to encourage communication and improve effectiveness, in open-plan offices, employee work side by side at desks, in chairs, or at long tables. They stand, they sit, they wander. According to the International Management Facility Association, a full 70 percent of U.S. employees currently work in such an environment.3
In concept, the design makes sense. But in reality, it has its challenges. Studies show that the majority of employees are not happy about open-plan offices, citing lack of privacy as their greatest concern. A study by the global design firm Gensler reveals that open-plan offices actually lower productivity and focus and significantly increase sick days.
Tenured workers, in particular, may have a hard time adjusting to the concept, especially if it means giving up the cherished privacy and status they equate with private offices. But technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter are all on board, and such traditionally conservative industries as insurance and financial services are increasingly adopting the concept. Love it or loathe it, open-plan is the new standard.
The form and function of the entire office are evolving. Companies are going to great lengths to design spaces in which ideas can be captured from chance encounters. Among them are wider staircases that allow for side-by-side conversation, booths in lobbies and lunchrooms for spontaneous brainstorming, bar-stools in cafes for tête-à-tête communication, free transportation shuttles for sharing ideas with seatmates, and on-site laundry facilities for impromptu discourse over the dry cycle.
Employees may not agree on the merits of today’s workplace evolution, but they can perhaps mutually agree on best behaviors for working within them.
If you still happen to work in a cubicle, you will notice its size is shrinking and its walls are lower. Cubicle dwellers face challenges in getting work done without interrupting or being interrupted by, neighbors just inches away.
conduct speakerphone conversations and meetings in spaces designed for these purposes.
A Don’t eat at your desk. Pungent foods, such as Indian or Mexican food, or reheated fish, are not welcomed aromas for many. If you do eat at your desk, dispose of food wrappers in appropriate receptacles.
A Be aware of all olfactory issues. Fragrance, worn gym clothing, and bare feet can be unpleasant smelling to those nearby.
A Keep décor tasteful. Tasteful photos, appropriate objet d’art, quality desk accessories, and small plants are fine. Do not display items that could be considered offensive or controversial. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t display it!
A Respect for co-workers’ privacy. Do not enter cubicles unless invited, read others’ computer screens, touch others’ belongings, help yourself to coworkers’ candy or snacks, purposely listen in on conversations, or comment on anything overhead.
Using common amenities and areas requires a great deal of trust and honesty among coworkers. Incredibly, employee theft in general and theft of coworkers’ food, in particular, are extremely common occurrences. According to a 2015 report by statisticbrain.com, employee theft amounts to $50 billion per year, and 75 percent of employees admit to having stolen at work at least once.
Inc. magazine says 43 percent of employees report they have had food stolen from them. A good rule of thumb to employ: Unless you brought it, bought it, or someone expressly invited you to it, do not help yourself to anything. This also applies to food left in common areas after lunches and meetings. While it may seem to be there for the taking, there could be plans for the food, and you may be advised of this while helping yourself to it.
If you decide to take advantage of any of the common areas available to you for collaboration or privacy, resist any temptation to take up residence in them. We all want and need privacy from time to time, but common areas are meant to serve as temporary oases, not permanent solutions to privacy quests.
The New Schedules
“This is not working,” a frustrated Grace says under her breath.
A 43-year-old career advisor at Jefferson Junior College, Grace recently returned to her job after a five-year hiatus following the birth of her daughter. She was happy when a new job-sharing arrangement with her colleague, Jim, a long-time employee, presented itself. Jim had been on the verge of retiring but decided a part-time paycheck would be perfect as he got his gardening business off the ground. Grace thought it would work well for her, too, because she would be able to drop off and pick up her young daughter from school three days a week.
It’s only been a few weeks, but the arrangement is beginning to fray. Increasingly, Grace feels like she is doing much more than her share and that Jim’s communication is woefully lacking. Just yesterday, a recruiting visit they were supposed to arrange for a key local employer fell through because Jim did not let Grace know that the recruiter was expecting to hear from her. It’s like Jim’s mind is elsewhere, probably on his new gardening business, Grace thinks.
Grace cannot do this entire job by herself. She has spoken with Jim, who promised to do better. But nothing has improved. Grace hates the thought of going to their boss, but cannot think of another alternative.
Telecommuting, flextime, part-time, and job-sharing have changed how often and during what hours employees come to the office, and even if they come at all. Driven by millennials, this flexible approach to work is what this cohort wants and expects. Older workers like it, too. Depending upon what you do, it is likely your organization does or soon will offer some kind of flexible work arrangement.
The popularity of telecommuting among employees and employers alike has gained huge traction. Advocates of telecommuting, generally defined as an employment arrangement where employees work at least half of the time at home, point to increased productivity, improved job satisfaction, and save time and money. Employers benefit from reduced employee attrition as well as substantial savings on costs associated with providing office space.
Telecommuting is not for everyone. Some employers simply do not trust workers to be self-directed and motivated enough to get their work done at home. Some managers feel threatened by the arrangement, wondering if their positions are redundant. And some employees who have tried it reported experiencing loneliness and difficulty in setting clear boundaries between their professional and personal lives.
To achieve the best results, telecommuters should organize their workdays with the same dedication and professionalism they would if their bosses were sitting right next to them. Yes, a home-office worker does have the opportunity to throw in the occasional load of laundry during the day, but generally looks at this workday as he would any other: as the opportunity to produce an excellent work effort in exchange for a paycheck.
MAKING TELECOMMUTING WORK
Create an office space. Start at a designated time, take regularly scheduled breaks, and at the end of the day, close the office door. A business associate of mine says to get herself in the right frame of mind each day, she dresses professionally, leaves the house to get coffee, and returns promptly at 8:00 A.M. to start her day. Make sure friends know your working hours and that unless it is important, you are not to be disturbed.
A Dress the part every day. Even if you don’t see anyone face-to-face, attire still matters. A study from the Kellogg School of Management found that the symbolic meaning clothing holds for people might affect their productivity. Besides, you never know when you might get called to a Skype meeting.
A Communicate, communicate, and communicate! You need never be out of the loop if you keep yourself firmly in it. Use technology to stay on top of others’ minds. And do not forget the telephone. The sound of a human voice has its own immeasurable magic.
An Arrange face-to-face meeting with your team and boss.
Attend company events and after-hours celebrations. It lets others know you are still very much involved.
On-site part-time and flextime employees will incorporate similar strategies around their schedules, particularly if they do not overlap with their bosses’ and colleagues’ schedules. Punctuality and reliability are key for part-time and flextime workers.
Sharing an Office
When telecommuters eventually come to the office, they need somewhere to sit! Enter “hoteling” and “hot-desking.” The terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinction between the two. Hoteling is reservation-based unassigned office seating, while hot-desking is reservationless unassigned seating. Both are designed to provide dedicated, supported office space for those who only need it occasionally. In addition to adhering to the guidelines for open-plan spaces, a considerate hotelier or hot-desker observes these rules.
A Reserve only needed time and space. Cancel reservations you no longer need or can’t use. Tying up space unnecessarily may impact your ability to secure future reservations.
A Introduce yourself. Smile and offer a friendly greeting to those sitting nearby, but take care not to interrupt them if they are obviously busy or concentrating on work.
A Keep the space clean. Sanitize all surfaces and equipment with disinfectant wipes upon arriving and departing. Take trash with you when you vacate.
A Leave the space as you found it. Store personal items in desk drawers while using the space, and make sure to take them with you when you leave. Do not rearrange or remove furnishings.
Sharing a Job
The concept of job-sharing is increasingly the answer for parents wanting more time with their children, millennials interested in volunteering, older workers looking to design their “portfolio lives,” and employees seeking less stress and more work-life integration. Employers benefit, too, from improved employee engagement and retention, increased accountability and productivity, and the combined intelligence, experience, and perspective of two employees.
Employers can help ensure the success of job-sharing by pairing employees with complementary skills and temperaments, setting clear expectations, and supporting efforts through ongoing feedback and coaching. Job-sharing partners will explicitly define their roles, agree upon reporting methods and frequency, communicate consistently, hold themselves and one another accountable, learn to respectfully disagree and reach consensus, present a unified front, and share both the responsibility for and success of, their efforts.
The Benefits Buffet
Forty-one-year-old Lori was a billing department representative at a large hospital. For 12 years, she had juggled the responsibilities of two children and a Monday through Friday 9 to 5 job, an hour away from home. After work, she’d go grocery shopping and hurry home to make dinner, hoping to spend at least a little time with her young daughters before it was time for bed.
It bothered Lori tremendously that her job made it impossible for her to attend any of her girls’ school plays or soccer games, even though they never complained. (Well, maybe they complained a little.) But the billing department needed staffing during normal work hours, and Lori needed her job.
And so when it was announced that the billing office hours were being expanded to 7:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. and that employees could now self-schedule their hours, Lori was elated. Lori did not know who was more excited—her nine-year-old daughter or herself! Today, for the first time that did not involve her taking personal or vacation time, Lori was going to see her little girl play soccer. The cookies made, Lori would be there on the sidelines, cheering away and smiling from ear to ear.
Are you a parent concerned about new baby expenses? Facebook has you covered with $4,000 in “Baby Cash.” Worried about how to feed that new baby while traveling for work? Zillow will pay for moms to ship their breastmilk home. Travel bug biting? Airbnb will give you a $2,000 travel stipend to any of its lodgings worldwide. Eager to finally finish (or start) your novel? Deloitte will pay you for four weeks off, for any reason at all, and another three to six months at partial pay for volunteer work or a career-enhancing opportunity.
Employers know perks matter. According to a Glassdoor survey, “nearly three in five (57 percent) people report benefits and perks being among their top considerations before accepting a job, while four in five people say they would prefer new perks over a pay raise.” The same report indicates that while perks may get key talent in the door, they will not necessarily keep them there. Once on board, a company’s culture, values, senior leadership, and career opportunities are the things that get the best to stay.
Subsidized transportation, the company paid meals, dry cleaning services, and closing early on Fridays in the summer are now almost ubiquitous. Depending on the industry and company, today’s work-life smorgasbord might include concierge services, web-monitored day care, adoption subsidies, family leave, prayer rooms, tax preparation assistance, paid volunteer time, free subscriptions, pet sitting, massages, on-site doctor’s visits, nap pods, organic food, wine bars, home cleaning services, marital counseling, vacation money, help for aging parents and grandparents, in-home dinner delivery, international assignments, and paid sabbaticals.
Perks are defining the workplace. In the New York Times article “Housecleaning, Then Dinner? Silicon Perks Come Home,” Matt Ritchel says, “That shifting mind-set—the idea that life and work must be blended rather than separated—is increasingly common.” The article quotes Google spokesman Jordan Newman saying, “What you’ve seen is benefits moving away from free food into thinking more holistically about individuals and their health.”
Amenities cannot make up for bad corporate cultures and, if they are seen as ways to buy employees off, can even backfire. But if the culture is healthy, and everyone is happy, perks can provide a win-win situation.
The New Realities
The 21st-century workplace can be disconcerting, even as employers try to make the lives of their employees ever more comfortable. Recognition of new workplace realities is everyone's responsibility. This starts with accepting the fact that we are under digital and visual surveillance many of our waking moments and virtually all of our working moments.
Our commutes are chronicled by tollbooths, stoplights, and highway cameras that take our pictures while recording tolls paid, lights run, and speeds traveled. Mobile phones track our movements. Office parking lots, garages, entrances, and elevators are watched. Walks through security and to desks are logged. And once at our desks, Internet use, email communication, and telephone calls are monitored.
In the Financial Times, Adam Jones writes, “The Spies in the cellar are now sidling up to your desk.” He says, “Offices, in particular, are becoming havens for monitoring equipment with varying levels of intrusiveness.”10 Among them, he writes, are sensors in name badges that monitor how people move around the office, who they talk to, and even their tone of voice. Workplace occupancy sensors indicate how often desks and meeting places are used.
Organizations defend these and other measures as ways to identify problem workers, maximize resources, and save costs. While few would object to the green benefits of smart rooms turning off lights when unoccupied, we find it disconcerting to realize that these rooms also know exactly when and for how long we are in them. Those seemingly unnoticed late arrivals, long lunches, and early weekend departures are perhaps not so unnoticed after all.
Perhaps this is not a problem in laid-back cultures, but it could be in more formal ones. Debating whether such monitoring is legal (it is), whether the information it provides to employers is useful (it is), whether the atmosphere it promotes feels like “Big Brother is watching you” (it does), and whether employees like it (they do not) are all non-starters. As with all elements of corporate culture, our options are these: Accept them, reject them and join new ones, or start our own. The surveilled work-place will become more and more the norm.
Success in today’s professional arena requires more than a job well done. Surviving and thriving require that you accept the realities of the new workplace and manage them as well as possible.
She hasn’t been even one week on the job at Push Hard Marketing and 23-year-old Abby knows she made a huge mistake. There had been warning signs. Her new employer’s rating on Glassdoor was a mere 2.9 out of 5. The interviewer’s vagueness about the team, the manager, and even why this sought-after position was available all raised red flags. But the website’s job description dovetailed perfectly with her interests and education, and the company billed itself as collaborative and inclusive, all major advantages in Abby’s book. And besides, she needed a job.
Her reception is chilly. One week in, virtually no one has spoken with her. Her questions illicit one-word answers or shrugged shoulders. There is a supposed “welcome to the team” meeting about to begin, but the manager is late. The team members wait. Some glance furtively in Abby’s direction. One has his eyes glued to his iPhone. Another grouses that he’s got better things to do. Then Abby overhears a complaint about having to break in another new hire.
The manager finally arrives and launches immediately into the team’s dismal quarterly results, telling them they have three months to turn things around or they’ll all be looking for new jobs. And, “Oh, by the way, make sure you get your new team member up to speed.” The manager gets a call and leaves. The team unleashes a diatribe about their clueless boss before the meeting deteriorates into a cacophony of complaints and interruptions.
While they completely ignore Abby, she decides, then and there, that she will start her new job search today. We are all familiar with the ancient and venerable Golden Rule, which impels us to treat others as we would wish to be treated. While noble, in today’s world and workplace of diverse ages, cultures, sexual orientations, experiences, preferences, goals, and lifestyles, the Golden Rule falls short.
Its basic premise is that there is only one frame of reference—one’s own— for determining how another would like to be treated. A newer rule, the Platinum Rule, goes one big step farther by requiring truly respectful people to treat others as they would wish to be treated.
Dr. Milton J. Bennett, founding director and CEO of the nonprofit Intercultural Development Research Institute, introduced the term in his 1979 article, Overcoming the Golden Rule: Sympathy and Empathy. Dr. Bennett says the Golden Rule is based on an assumption of similarity between individuals while the Platinum Rule assumes there are differences.
By most accounts, the workplace has a way to go toward the widespread adoption of the Platinum Rule—or the Golden Rule, for that matter. Whether accidental or deliberate, the lack of respect in the workplace is a pervasive, serious, and costly problem. Inroads are being made as organizations expand inclusion strategies, but there is still a great deal of work to do.
Jane, an administrator at well-respected Bay Farm Hospital, had been looking forward to this year’s healthcare conference. Many of her colleagues will be there, and she’ll have a chance to network with peers from the world’s leading hospitals. The luncheon is an open-seating buffet, and Jane sees Phil, who she knows casually from her hospital, at a table with a free spot. She asks if she can join him and the four other men at the table. Phil nods, quickly introduce Jane, and then continues to regale the group with the very “blue” sexist joke he is telling.
As Phil reaches the end of his joke, he inserts Jane’s name in the punch line. Phil, laughing loud and proud of how clever he is, at first does not realize no one is laughing with him. When he finally notices the embarrassed looks on the other men’s faces and the horror on Jane’s face, he tries in vain to salvage the situation. With a forced laugh, he announces to the table, “Way to ruin a punchline, Jane!”
The foundation of civility is respect, which is the outward expression of esteem or deference. This is the foundational requirement and, without that, no other behaviors ring true. Respect extends to peoples’ privacy, physical space, property, viewpoints, philosophies, religion, gender, ethnicity, physical abilities, background, age, beliefs, and personality. Respect and disrespect can be shown by language, gestures, and actions.
Respect is what employees say they want most from their employers and coworkers: respect for their experience, education, intelligence, skill, creativity, hard work, dedication, and the results they produce. Yet respect is what employees say they get least.
Employees, management, and organizations at large are characterized by the behaviors they exhibit and allow. Disrespectful behavior runs the gamut from neglecting basic civilities and outright rudeness to discrimination and bullying. Throughout managements’ ranks, disrespect manifests itself with favoritism, subtle pressure, condoning damaging behavior or speech, neglecting to follow up on complaints of harassment or bullying, and criticizing or firing employees who voice concerns. Organizations that engage in illegal or unethical activities, such as deceptive business practices, embezzlement, and predatory pricing, and the cultures such activities create, also contribute to this problem.
It’s not enough to say an organization values respect and civility. The boss who preaches the importance of respectful listening without practicing it is better off saying nothing at all. Dr. Todd Whitaker and Dr. Steve Gruenert, professors of educational leadership at Indiana State University and authors of the book School Culture Rewired, say, “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” It stands to reason that a culture would also be shaped by the best behavior a leader is willing to model.
An incredible 80 percent of employees believe they get no respect at work, and a whopping 95 percent report they have experienced or witnessed disrespect in the workplace, according to Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, authors of the book The Cost of Bad Behavior. Mike Miles, head of social strategy for online retailer SmartSign, said in his article “Work-place Bullying Costs Companies Billions, Wrecks Victims’ Health” that the price tag to the U.S. economy for all of this bad behavior is an estimated “360 billion annually due to turnover and decreased work productivity.”
Disrespect also comes in subtle forms through microaggression. Dr. Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University, defines microaggressions as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Reflecting unconscious bias, a microaggression can be a “compliment” to an African American colleague on how articulate he is or a remark to a female executive on how impressively she balances work and family responsibilities.
Workplace disrespect affects employees’ morale, engagement, productivity, and health. It also negatively affects coworkers who witness it, causing them stress and job insecurity. It becomes contagious, creating a greater likelihood of rudeness throughout the employee population. Disrespected employees are more likely to leave jobs, increasing their companies’ severance and benefits pay, recruiting, hiring, and training costs, and potentially, legal fees. As Dr. Robert J. Cuomo, Ph.D., dean, and professor of business at Dean College said, “People don’t leave jobs. People leave people.” Disrespect ruins companies’ reputations, loses customers, and eats up managers’ valuable time.
The benefits to companies that establish genuinely respectful cultures are enormous, including everything from greater productivity and increased bottom lines to happy shareholders.
The enhanced reputation of a respectful organization means it is able to hire and retain the best and brightest, resulting in a distinct competitive advantage. Teamwork, trust, and creative problem solving are also fostered, and employees realize greater job satisfaction, self-respect, and even enhanced earning potential.
Employers must enforce a zero-tolerance policy in order to realize the benefits of a respectful culture. The law now protects victims of the most egregious forms of disrespectful behavior, but how much better it would be not to need to rely upon the law for enforcement. Management can educate employees on the company’s Code of Respect and invest in civility training to make sure all employees understand the policy.
Employers need to look closely at their hiring practices. Carefully watching for behavioral clues during the interview process and not hiring candidates with red flags is easier, faster, and less costly than dealing with them after they are hired. The candidate who casts blame on a former employer exhibits disrespectful body language, or comes across as arrogant during the interview can be expected to display the same or worse behavior once hired.
Employers can hire for “attitude over experience” as the Four Seasons does, or heed the call of Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, for civility and values-based leadership. They can emulate the practices of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” and view corporate culture as their greatest tool.
Employees, on the other hand, need to know bosses mean what they say. Management should encourage the reporting of disrespectful behavior without fear of consequences. This can be achieved through anonymous 360-degree reviews or by identifying an HR representative or independent workplace consultant to whom employees can make confidential reports.
And if disrespect is reported, management must confront it specifically and immediately and take appropriate action.
Companies can reward good behavior with positive reinforcement. At Zappos, employees who show exemplary behavior can earn “Zollars” (Zappos dollars) and peer-to-peer “Wow” awards from their coworkers. Anything from holding a door open, to smiling, volunteering, or cleaning a common area might qualify someone for a $50 reward.
Regularly scheduled employee recognition luncheons, holiday parties, and summer outings that bring together various employee populations can do wonders to build trust. Bosses can also publicly recognize and value employees for their ideas and accomplishments and reward initiative and creativity.
Most important, bosses must consistently model the behavior they want to see in their employees. Smart bosses recognize that treating employees with respect is critical to attracting and retaining workers. They also realize that what happens at work does not stay at work. Sites like Glassdoor which has a database of more than 8 million company reviews, enable job seekers to evaluate rankings of companies’ cultures and values before deciding whether or not to join their ranks. At such sites, salary and benefits reports, CEO rankings, interview questions, and insights into what it’s really like to work at a company are all at a job seeker’s fingertips.
Employees also need to do their part, beginning with becoming aware of any unconscious biases they may harbor. Recently, I had a personal experience with the concept of unconscious bias. While walking home through the Boston Common from the gym early one morning, I heard a voice say, “Hey, lady, you don’t have to be afraid.” Lost in thought, it took me a second to realize the person was talking to me. I stopped and walked toward two African American men sitting on a bench. I said I was not afraid and asked them why I would be.
One man said, “When you saw us, you walked to the other side of the sidewalk.” I assured him I did not; he assured me I did. What ensued was a remarkable 15-minute conversation about the concept of unconscious bias. We exchanged names and parted as new friends, promising to pick up our conversation if our paths crossed again. In continuing to think about what happened, I know for sure I was unaware of any bias. But did I cross to the other side of the walkway? I simply do not know. This question and its lesson have stayed with me.
Employees can embrace everyone’s uniqueness and extend simple common courtesies such as listening attentively and valuing others’ opinions. While not always easy, they can also challenge disrespect when they experience or witness it. When you witness what you think is disrespectful or exclusionary behavior, it is important to assess the situation to make sure you are reading it correctly.
Once you are certain, it’s time to take action. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, you could try to diffuse it with humor by saying something like, “Don’t hold back. Tell us how you really feel!” Such an approach might get an interaction back on a respectful track. If this does not work, you’ll need to be more direct. You could say, “Something seems to be bothering you. What is it?”
To improve a relationship, you could say, “I want us to work well together. How can we do that?” If someone interrupts you, you could say, “Hold on . . . I’d like to make my point.” If someone displays aggressive body language, you could say, “You look upset. What’s wrong?” If someone uses inappropriate language, you could say, “Can we rein in this discussion?
We’re at work.” If someone is spreading gossip, you could say, “I was surprised to hear you said (something) about me. Is that true?” And if someone is blatantly rude, you could say, “You may not realize how negative that sounds.” Sometimes none of these work, in which case it’s time to get management or HR involved.
Once the personal and institutional groundwork for showing respect has been laid, we are ready to consider what respect means to the various populations of today’s workplace.
Respect for Experience
Bill takes a deep breath and braces himself for today’s weekly staff meeting. Sixty-five years old, Bill is a workplace survivor. He has lasted 42 years with the same large bank and has had nine different bosses and seven different jobs in four different locations. He has assiduously played the political game, always keeping his head down. Bill has risen through the ranks to management and enjoys a comfortable salary.
Bill knows the workplace has changed dramatically and has tried, as much as possible, to keep up. Despite his best efforts, he still cannot seem to connect with his much younger staff. At last week’s meeting, Bill rolled out a new marketing plan that Josh, the new hire, immediately questioned before offering a “much better idea.”
Drew asked for feedback on a project but seemed put off by Bill’s constructive suggestions. Colin, three months on the job, asked Bill, again, when he would be promoted. Gina said she hadn’t prepared a report for the meeting because she doesn’t listen to voicemail or read email, and in the future, would Bill please text her.
Bill has tried very hard to stay current. He’s taken Salesforce and database management training and mastered Excel. He’s up to speed on social media and active on LinkedIn. He knows he has a lot of experience to share, but somehow his staff treats him like a “has been,” as though he should just retire. But with a couple of kids still in college, that is not an option for Bill. So he squares his shoulders and enters the meeting room. He will continue to try and relate to his staff as well as he can—he has to.
Millennials are the fastest growing, most sought-after demographic in the workplace. By 2020, there will be 86 million millennials in the workplace, representing 40 percent of the total working population.6 Should a new business etiquette playbook be designed exclusively with them in mind?
The simple answer is no. Millennials, born roughly between 1981 and 2000, are still outnumbered by traditionalists, baby boomers, and Generation Xers combined. And these folks are still largely in charge. According to statisticbrain.com, the median age of an S&P 500 CEO is 55.7 Warren Buffet and J. Willard Marriott, Jr., are in their 80s and 90s, with countless lesser-known CEOs in their 70s and 60s.
The U.S. retirement age is also going up. A 2014 Gallup survey reports that the average age at which non-retired Americans expect to retire is 66,8 the highest age Gallup has found since first asking the question in 1991. What’s needed is a new playbook for respect that acknowledges the perspectives and values of all ages, not the least of whom are those still making the hiring decisions and signing the paychecks.
The current four generations in the workplace come from distinctly different social, political, and business times in history. Their perspectives evolved as they were exposed to people, places, and ideas, but were still largely informed by the prevailing social mores of their formative years. The great disruptor, digital technology, has only widened the gap. While opinions differ on their precise characteristics and birth years, the following represents generally held views of the generations.
Born before 1946, traditionalists joined a work world where women were primarily in support roles and social behavior was the template for business behavior. Men traditionally showed respect to women by doffing their hats, holding doors open, pulling out chairs, paying bills, and refraining from vulgar speech.
The flip side of the coin was a kind of Mad Men approach to women, job and wage discrimination, and bias along lines of race, religion, class, age, marital status, and sexual orientation. Traditionalists are respectful of seniority and rank and are loyal, disciplined, and self-sacrificing. Technology for this cohort consisted of a radio, a rotary telephone, and a television.
Born between 1946 and 1964, baby boomers came of age between the mid-60s and the early 80s. They witnessed or participated in the civil rights movement. The Equal Opportunity Act of 1972 was enacted when the first of the boomers were in their 20s. By 1986, when the last of the boomers had entered the workplace, more than half of college graduates were women taking their places beside men in traditionally male-dominated fields such as law, medicine, and business. Acceptable behavior on the job was changing dramatically.
It was no longer considered appropriate to focus on gender rather than ability. Boomers, while less respectful of rank, still believe in corporate hierarchy and strive to climb the corporate ladder. Touch-tone telephones were one of the technological innovations of their time.
Born between 1965 and 1980, Generation X entered the workplace in the mid-80s. The Civil Rights Act (1991) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) were both enacted while they were in their 20s. Astronauts Sally Ride, a woman, and Guion Bluford, an African American man, broke ground by going to space during this time.
Members of Gen X were the first to have two parents work outside of the home in great numbers. They also saw many of those parents lose their jobs. As a result, this generation does not have the same respect for job titles or rank, nor do they believe in job security. Known for being distrustful, self-reliant, and tech-savvy, Gen Xers are protective of family time and value work-life balance. They were the first to experience mobile technology.
Born between 1981 and 2000, Gen Y/millennials do not remember a time before mobile devices. Entrepreneurial and tech-savvy, they have fostered relationships with people all over the world through social media. Laws enacted as this generation grew up and came of age included the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2004, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009. Millennials value diversity and social responsibility and are known for being especially close to their parents. They’d like to make more money but seem less concerned about that than about making a difference.
Respecting Age Difference
The need and desire for respect, appreciation, and acceptance cut across generational divides. By taking the time to learn about other generations, we can begin to embrace rather than judge or discount others’ experiences and points of view and realize the vast personal and professional benefits that accrue to us in doing so. Younger generations can also keep in mind that if they’re lucky, one day they will be part of the older generation and that karma—good or bad—may await them!
Respect for Diversity
Ginny didn’t sleep well last night. New to her job as an event planner, she is due to meet with her boss today and needs to steel herself to discuss the evaluations from last week’s annual clients’ conference in New York.
Ginny knew from the initial tepid response that attendance would be low. But she had not anticipated so many complaints from those who did attend about everything—the food, the venue, the transportation, the speakers—virtually the entire conference had been panned. She realizes in hindsight that if she had put a little more thought and research into the conference, she would have saved herself a lot of trouble.
She had been pleased to find a great rate, within her budget, at a fabulous hotel for the last week in March, but she completely failed to anticipate that Passover and Easter, coinciding this year, would affect turnout. She thought she’d covered her bases with food by offering two menu selections: a vegetarian and beef option.
It had not occurred to her to request that vegan and kosher meals also be available. She had made sure that the entrance to the venue was accessible but did not think to see if there were some low cocktail tables or if the coach she’d hired was accessible for people with disabilities. She thought the speakers she had invited represented an interesting mix of experience, but it had not occurred to her that they were all middle-aged white men.
Ginny prepared for the likelihood that the meeting with her boss would be as much of a disaster as the conference had been. Now she was wondering if this first meeting would be her last.
Today’s workplace has many faces, and those faces have changed considerably since the oldest of the workforce first entered. Approximately 70 years ago, non-Hispanic white men made up about 80 percent of the workforce. Today, the workplace is approximately 66 percent non-Hispanic white, 16.4 percent Hispanic, 11.7 percent African American, and 5.8 percent Asian.
Census data tells us that by 2050, there will be no racial or ethnic majority in the U.S. In general, most respectful behaviors are appropriate for all employees, but some groups require different or additional considerations.
Diversity refers to race and ethnicity, but also to gender, sexual orientation, persons with disabilities, and former military. Women make up 46.8 percent of the workforce today. In 1950, it was just 29.6 percent. Gay and transgender workers represent another 6.28 percent of the workforce, persons with disabilities, 5.5 percent, and former military, 9 percent.12 Employers have embraced diversity, not only because it is the law, but also because a diverse workplace is a productive, adaptive, competitive, and innovative one. But there are challenges.
Make no mistake; sexism is still alive and well. An older male employee of an insurance claims office tells a young female colleague that he’d love to have a “front-end collision” with her. A recent college graduate who works for a high-end clothing retailer is given some “friendly advice” by her boss: If she wants to get promoted, she will have to lay off the cookies.
Management doesn’t promote “fat girls.” A top producer at a tech company rebuffs advances from her male boss and is then passed over for promotion because she is not a “team player.” A young male employee has an impressive physique. His female boss responds by squeezing his bicep. The older male coworker is expected, yet again, to pick up the check at lunch.
Men and women in the workplace represent close to a 50-50 split, and mutual respect is imperative. Yet sexual harassment and sexist behavior, illegal and unacceptable as they are, still exist. While men are considered the main culprits, women may also be guilty of sexist behavior toward men or even toward other women. Language, presumptions, or behavior that relegates particular responsibilities or excludes, demeans, or offends based on gender is considered sexist, no matter who the perpetrator is.
It is critical that employees present a united front against sexist behavior in the following ways: Eliminate the use of sexist labels such as men are “assertive” and women are “aggressive.” Reject sexist expectations such as women make coffee, arrange celebrations, and take office collections, while men change water coolers, lead meetings, and open doors.
Don’t exclude based upon gender by inviting only women to join book clubs, take cooking classes, or get pedicures, or by inviting only men to join golf outings, have after-hour drinks, or play cards. Don’t use sexist language, tell sexist jokes, or make sexist presumptions. And finally, scrupulously avoid offering unwelcome compliments, unwanted advances, and making any inappropriate gestures, gazes, stances, or touching. In a nutshell, treat all coworkers respectfully, professionally, and the same, regardless of gender.
You notice, at a departmental meeting, that your Japanese colleague does not look you in the eye. At a business lunch, your German client frowns when you address him by his first name. At the company Christmas party, your Indian guest seems not to appreciate the leather picture frame you give him. The new proposal you send to your Argentinian business partner garners no immediate response, and when you meet, it seems to take him forever to get down to business. And now your Middle Eastern prospect fails to show up at an important meeting.
What is happening here?
As businesses become part of the global arena at an increasing rate, it is vital that we understand how cultures differ and how respect is shown for those whose backgrounds are unlike our own. Everything, including history, language, religion, value systems, communication style, the formality of interactions, business practices, greetings, humor, and attitudes toward hospitality, time, money, minorities, women, and age could be startlingly different. Successful professionals accept and embrace these differences, rather than challenge them, paving the way for mutually respectful and successful relationships.
In showing respect across cultures, we want to remember we are dealing with individuals first and cultures second. It is a mistake to assume that “Asians think this” and “Latin Americans do that.” It is important to learn as much as possible about other cultures, but this information is to be used to help us understand individuals, not to define them.
Begin by researching colleagues’ or business partners’ cultures of origin, and by asking questions and showing genuine interest in the answers provided. In conversation, listen patiently and speak slowly, at a normal decibel level. Avoid using nonverbal communication such as the “thumbs up” sign, which is considered offensive in the Middle East, or the “A-okay” sign, which is an obscene gesture in Brazil.
In verbal communication, avoid sarcasm, humor, and words that could be easily misunderstood. Stay away from potentially controversial topics, such as politics, religion, and human rights. Above all, avoid showing judgment or disapproval or comparing cultures in any negative ways.
The LGBT Community
In 2014, Apple CEO Tim Cook came out as gay, “forever changing the game for equality in corporate culture,” according to Sara Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLADD. Indeed, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community is coming out in the workplace as never before and in the process, contributing to the continued shattering of the “glass closet.”
Building relationships with and avoiding inadvertent offense to the LGBT community requires that employees educate themselves. Steve Petrow, Washington Post columnist and author of The Essential Book of Gay Manners and Etiquette, says the questions he receives for his column “Civilities” “reflect both the confusion of the social landscape and the hurt and anger caused by bullying and discrimination.”14 But he says respect and kindness go a very long way.
To show respect for your LGBT colleagues and business partners, educate yourself by learning the correct terminology. Refer to members of the LGBT community in the ways they wish to be referred and if unsure, ask. There are now 56 ways in which Facebook users can identify, including “gender questioning,” “intersex,” “androgynous,” and “neither.” Facebook spokesman Will Hodges said, “While to many, this change may not mean much, for those it affects, it means a great deal.”
Refer to married colleagues appropriately. In the past, married same-sex couples were often referred to as partners or spouses. With the 2014 changes in the Defense of Marriage Act, the husband and wife are now the legal and appropriate terms and are used unless a couple indicates that they prefer otherwise. And if a colleague has a boyfriend, girlfriend, or fiancé(e), use that term, not friend or roommate.
If an LGBT colleague is celebrating an engagement, marriage, promotion, or new baby, home, or job, offer congratulations and join in the celebration. Do not ask an LGBT colleague personal questions, offer religious advice, suggest counseling, tell offensive jokes, use inappropriate language, or—need it to be said— whisper, gossip, stare, make fun of, or exclude.
It is critically important to keep an LGBT coworker’s confidence, especially if he or she has not come out to all. Finally, be an ally. In her article “How to React When Someone Comes Out: Dos and Don’ts for Straight Allies,” Miranda Perry of Care 2, a social network website for activists, says, “If you’re straight, you can be an ally by creating a safe space for them to come out. You’ll help combat homophobia and transphobia, and support the LGBT people in your life—even those you may not know about yet.”
People with Disabilities
Well-intentioned individuals sometimes make mistakes that range from the comical to the offensive when interacting with colleagues with disabilities. According to United Cerebral Palsy, “the rules of etiquette and good manners for dealing with people with disabilities are generally the same as the rules for good etiquette in society.” It cautions that everyone is different, however, and that its published guidelines hold true for most individuals most of the time.
United Cerebral Palsy recommends that one speak directly to a person with a disability, not a caregiver, and shake hands if possible (using left hands is fine). If someone is unable to shake hands, another physical greeting such as a tap on the arm or shoulder is appropriate. Adults are always to be treated as adults.
The National Center on Workforce Disability advises using “person first language” such as a person with a disability instead of disabled or handicapped. It advises respecting all assistive devices and animals, such as canes, wheelchairs, crutches, and service dogs, and using a normal speaking tone and style.
When speaking with someone who is visually impaired, identify yourself and others with you. When speaking with a person who is deaf, look directly at the person, and then speak clearly, slowly, and expressively. When speaking with someone using a wheelchair, place yourself at eye level. There is a wealth of additional information available that will ensure interactions with people with specific disabilities are helpful, positive, and professional.
Most importantly, display the right attitude. Never pity or assume someone is unhappy with his life, or exhibit fear or apprehension. Do not presume someone’s disability has affected his intelligence, comprehension, memory, job effectiveness, sense of humor, or interests. And finally, relax! Do not be embarrassed to use common expressions that seem to relate to someone’s disability such as “See you later” or “I’ve got to run.” People with disabilities use similar phrases all of the time.
According to the Center for American Progress, approximately 38 million Americans have severe disabilities. Workers with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as their nondisabled counterparts. Employers can take advantage of the underutilized talents and vast potential contributions of this population by creating an accepting, understanding, and inclusive culture.
Adjusting to a new life is challenging under any circumstances and is especially so for a veteran who may be dealing with physical, emotional, financial, and family issues in addition to the pressures of a new job. There are a number of things coworkers can do to make this transition easier. They can welcome a new colleague by inviting him to coffee, lunch, or after-hours events.
They can ask how his transition is going and express interest in his military work experience. They can (and must) avoid asking prying questions (“Do you have service-related physical or emotional issues?”) or judgmental questions (“How could you have left your family for so long?”).
The Brain Drain
Traditionalists and baby boomers are retiring, cutting back, or moving on to new careers. And unless organizations figure out a way to harvest and transfer their institutional knowledge and relationships, they are going with them. “Brain drain” is an enormous risk to the bottom line and another important reason employers need to ensure respectful communication among generations while there is still time.
The first year all baby boomers were at least 50 years old was 2014. Eighty million strong, they possess the greatest amount of institutional knowledge and represent the largest pool of mentors in the workplace today. Granted, many boomers do not expect to retire until their late 60s, and some have no plans to ever retire. But employers cannot rely on boomers staying on as a way to protect their intellectual capital. Many are leaving for better opportunities, beginning new careers, and starting new businesses. And they are taking their lifelong professional experiences with them.
Employers and coworkers who want to capture this knowledge need to act fast. John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., the outplacement and career transitioning firm, said, “With the leading edge of the Baby Boomer generation reaching age 68 in 2014, it is critical that companies understand their exposure to brain drain related to retirement.”
There are now roughly two times as many boomers in the workplace as there are Gen Xers. When the retirement floodgates open, there is a legitimate concern that there will not be enough qualified mid-level workers ready to take their places. Those who are ready will be in great demand, and able to command larger salaries as a result.
Employers should communicate with their over-50 employees to evaluate their skills, knowledge, contacts, and retirement plans in order to gauge and limit their company’s exposure to brain drain. They can offer creative solutions to those who do not necessarily want to retire but would like less demanding jobs or schedules.
Sabbaticals, flexible time, shared responsibilities, and fewer hours—the work-life integration benefits so important to millennials—may be enough to entice these individuals to stay on. They can create a mentoring program to ensure the succession of vital institutional knowledge and relationships to the next generations. They can also “hire for age” by replacing retiring baby boomers with employees of similar backgrounds and levels of experience.
Savvy younger employees can also avail themselves of the treasure troves of information sitting next to them by asking questions and truly listening to answers. Not only are experienced coworkers a font of company information, but they also have career-spanning relationships with people to whom they might just be willing to make introductions.
While gathering information, younger workers want to remember to show patience and express gratitude for the time, advice, and perspective their senior colleagues are willing to offer them. They can also offer advice in a reciprocal mentoring mode.