Nov 17, 2009

Etiquette Cubed: a cube dweller's guide to a more tolerable work place

I'm going on almost two years of working in a cube farm and over the past two years, I've developed a fairly comprehensive set of guidelines for things you should and should not do if you, too, have the misfortune of working mere feet from dozens of your closest colleagues, with nothing between you but a flimsy wall that you can see right over when you stand up. Considering that many 20-somethings will find themselves in a cubicle at some point, I think this information is worth sharing.
  1. Smells. Smells carry in a cube farm, so you owe it to your neighbors to keep the odors at a minimum. These smells can include: general personal hygiene (shower regularly, wear deodorant), strong perfumes and colognes, food (seafood is off-limits and please don't throw away food products in your cubicle trash can--it could be a few days before anyone picks it up, and you don't want your cube to smell like a dumpster), post-smoke break smells (they may never say anything to your face, but people do talk about you and find your odor just as offensive as the guy who never wears deodorant), scented aerosols, plug-ins or cleaning products, and by all means, KEEP YOUR SHOES ON.
  2. Sounds. Sound carries even moreso than smell in the cube farm. Whether you are having a conversation with your cube mate or are in a phone conference with a colleague at another location, you should always be aware that the people around you are trying to work. Mind your voice level at all times, because many people will find your loud talking abrasive and distracting. Whenever possible, please take phone conversations or personal discussions with other coworkers to an area away from the workspace. Break rooms, meeting rooms, stairwells, the cafeteria. I don't really care where you are, so long as I can't hear your voice. Other sounds I don't want to hear: smacking when you eat (if you haven't learned to close your mouth while you chew yet, perhaps it's time you do), music so loud others can hear it despite your head phones, finger or toe tapping, clipping your fingernails or toenails (GROSS GROSS GROSS!), belching, farting, or any of the other things your mother taught you not to do before you even started kindergarten.
  3. Keep your business to yourself. This is an extension of the "sounds" section, but it's such an egregious offense, I felt it deserved its own special paragraph. No one wants to know about your medical history or troubles. Ditto on the medical history of anyone you may know or have even heard about. Nobody wants to hear about personal arguments with your significant other, family, or friends, and nobody wants to hear about any of their personal arguments with each other or anyone else. No arguing with divorce lawyers on the phone. No discussions of dirty nappies or diaper rash. Not only do those conversations have no business in the workplace, those discussions are often distracting and even repulsive to the people around you. Either way until 5 o'clock or step away from the cubes while you have those discussions.
  4. Mind your own business. If you overhear someone in a cubicle near you that has absolutely nothing to do with you, do not go and ask the people having the discussion later what they were talking about. If that conversation was for you, you would have been included in it. Do not look or read over other people's shoulders, whether they are looking through paperwork, reading a book, or on their computer. I'm not sure where you got the idea that this was appropriate behavior for any setting, but this behavior is inappropriate at work and inappropriate pretty much anywhere else you may go. Unless someone invites you to look at what they are looking at, keep your eyes to yourself. It's none of your business.
  5. What's mine is mine. Hands off! If it's not yours, don't touch it. If the owner is present, you may ask for permission. If the owner is not, DON'T TOUCH IT. If you are sitting in someone else's cube, do not touch their things or rifle through their belongings...even if they are sitting there with you. This might seem obvious to most of you, but I guarantee you that there are some people out there who are clueless. But let me reiterate: IF IT'S NOT YOURS, DON'T TOUCH IT, unless you have the express permission of the owner.
These are really the key things you need to know about working in a cubicle. There are many other items that I could list, but the offenses that seem to keep coming up over and over again, at least in my workplace, are summed up in the above. I think the whole thing can be summarized by saying: Keep your hands, eyes, sounds and smells to yourself.

Keep in mind that your neighbors are pretty much trapped in the same small space as you for at least 8 hours of the day. Be courteous, and be aware of how your behavior might be annoying others.

Nov 16, 2009

There are no safety nets in blogging

Ina over at Ina Nutshell (hee!) posed the age old question: how much personal information should I reveal and how much should I discuss my job on my blog in an age where people are more and more routinely fired for blogging? This is something I've vented my frustrations about in the past.

Generally speaking, I think it's silly that employers fire their employees over things written in blogs or on social networks, BUT it's one of the many obnoxious realities that must be dealt with. As such, I am very against revealing too much personal information, and I am even more against revealing too many specifics about where I work or whom I work with. As I've said before elsewhere regarding a litany of things I choose not to blog about, I choose to write a blog about my life and therefore I have permission (my own) to write about myself. The people in my life didn't choose to keep a blog, and they certainly didn't choose to be part of my blog. Out of respect for them and the fact that they don't have much choice over what I write regarding them, I try to limit what I write about them and be careful about how I portray them. I think this is a good rule of thumb in general when you blog. You wouldn't necessarily want people talking about you on their blog (with or without your knowledge), so why do the same to them?

When it comes to work, I've been fairly open about my complaints, but for the most part, I try not to be too critical of any one person, and I try to paint my job as realistically as possible. My job is far from being the worst in the world, and many of the problems with my job are a necessary part of the kind of job I have. I try to acknowledge that in all, my company works just fine for many people. It's just not a good fit for me. I try to frame my unhappiness at work as a personal problem as opposed to a problem with my company, and for the most part, that's exactly what my unhappiness is. Even if someone I work with does read my blog and does recognize me, I would hope they'd see my (mostly) respectful comments about work and look the other way. At most, I think I'd get a warning to be more careful about what I write.

What I worry most about is being let go because I am so dissatisfied, and if my employer read my blog, they'd become immediately aware of my feelings toward my job. However, I do good work, and I'm a valuable employee. Plus, I've already made my dissatisfaction known to key supervisors. If they were going to let me go, they probably would have already done so. To my supervisors' credit, they seem to be more interested in keeping me happy than they do in getting rid of me because I'm not a perfect match...one of the many positives about the company I work for.

My advice to people who keep blogs: keep the personal information at a minimum--about you, about the people you write into your blog, about where you work--and keep it respectful. The worst thing you want to do is embarrass your company. Notably, you can do that even without bad mouthing your employer or your clients. You can also do that by talking about bad behavior on the weekend or irresponsible behavior outside of work, and for some employers, particularly those who are concerned with how you could be representing yourself (and by association, your employer) to potential clients, blogging about your non-work-related unprofessional behavior could be just as fatal as talking badly about where you work.

It's a fine line to walk, and ultimately you have to be responsible for your own actions and words. I don't think I would ever get fired over anything I've written, at least not in my current position. (Other places very well might react differently.) And even if I did, I feel fairly confident in saying that we'd be fine if I lost my job, and it wouldn't be the crushing blow it might have been even a month ago. So, I'm being slightly less cautious than I was before.

However, I'm still not going to call out colleagues in specific, give out identifying information regarding the company I work for, or give enough information on my blog that I could be found via a google search. (Although honestly, I'm still pretty easy to find if you know what to look for.) Just be cautious. And the more concerned you are that your employer would take your words seriously, the tighter you should keep your lips zipped on the subject of work and unprofessional behavior in your private life. Focus on personal performance and personal improvement in your blogging instead, if you choose to write about work, and save the rants for friends IRL or for a private blog/journal that is for your eyes only.

There is no safe way to blog if you do so for the general public. Everything you say goes out into the ether, and you have no way of knowing who will find those words, who will read them or how they will interpret them. Some people will like what you have to say. Others won't. And for the most part, the internet is filled with strangers who don't matter in the least to your day-to-day life. Occasionally, though, someone who does matter may find something you wrote and take it the wrong way. If you choose to write about your career or about your colleagues or about your personal exploits outside of work that may not be completely professional, you are taking a risk, and you must be willing to accept that as a possibility and be able to deal with the fall out.

If you're not comfortable with that risk, blogging is probably not the right medium for you.

The fiancee has a job!

HOO-RAY!

It's with the company he interned for a little over a year ago. He really liked the company then, and when he went back for his interview, he spoke with many people that he worked with before. Not that his superior intellect and social skills didn't have a lot to do with it, too. But it certainly helped that many people were familiar with the calibre of work he turns out and know that he's an all-around great guy.

He's not as excited about the work he's going into right now because it will be moving away from the embedded engineering that he loves so much, but I think that Kellen, as he usually does, will make the most of it and end up loving it. I think he's just feeling a little disappointed because he had to pass up on the second round of Microsoft interviews, which he was so excited about. They were unable to schedule his next interview before he had to return an answer to the company that extended the offer. The good thing is, though, that if he does end up being unhappy with the work, Microsoft has agreed to hold onto him as a candidate and will extend him a chance at a second-round interview in the spring.

The upshot is that we won't have to move, and I won't have to find a new job. He will be able to start the new job immediately after he finishes his current one, so he'll be able to maintain income. I think my favorite thing is that the benefits at his new company are markedly better than mine, so not only will he have health insurance for the first time in over two years, but I will be able to move over to his. I pay $140/month on my premiums by myself, and both of us on his will only be $200/month. Plus, his plan has better co-pays, better coverage, and OOP limits. That will save us some money for sure.

Also, because his new job pays well, we're really going to be able to enjoy our wedding/honeymoon in Mexico, pay off credit cards and put a serious dent in our student loan debt, and generally speaking put ourselves well on the way to responsible adulthood.

I know this is a lot of talk about money, but...I've been so worried that one or both of us would be out of work come the new year, and that best case scenario I'd be trying to support both of us on my salary. This good news has been such a relief! Now back to worrying about wedding stuff (btw, you can track the progress of our planning process at my new blog, The Better to Wed You With /shameless plug) and my old standby: what I want to be when I grow up.

Nov 9, 2009

The recession is really still on?

Even knowing that we're going through a pretty massive recession, it's still hard to believe that a year later, things still haven't bounced back. I found a post from a friend from October of last year discussing the difficulties the recession has presented, particularly to young newly-graduated women. I did a double take at the "2008" date.

Has it really been that long? Good grief. Almost my entire professional experience has been framed by a recession, by the resulting professional stagnation. I have watched as coworkers have been laid off, as an increasing number of jobs that previously would have gone to my team have been funneled off to a new team in Malaysia that works for a fraction of the price that we do. I occasionally dip my toe into the job market, seeing what my city has to offer. (Not much.)

I've spent well over a year being afraid of losing my job. I've spent a year what-if'ing what will happen if Kellen doesn't manage to find a job shortly after he graduates. And even more worried what-if'ing over what we'll do if I lose my job, too.

You read things like this, which highlight the abysmal statistics of getting hired in this economy:

Since the beginning of the recession in December 2007, job openings declined from 4.4 million to 2.4 million and the number of officially unemployed persons grew from 7.5 million to 15.7 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If the 15.7 million officially unemployed workers were to apply for those 2.4 million jobs, the chance of any one of them finding a job are about 15 percent, or roughly the same odds as being accepted to the University of Pennsylvania.

The official figure only counts workers as unemployed if they have searched for a job within the past four weeks. But, does it make sense to exclude people who have not looked for work in the past month? Probably not, given that statistics show workers are trying harder than ever to find a job and only give up looking after prolonged periods of unemployment.

The average duration of official unemployment -- which, by definition, requires that people be actively searching for a job -- has increased to 26.9 weeks, or just over a half a year. But after many months of unsuccessful job hunting, some people do give up hope. And after four weeks of not looking for a job, they are dropped from official unemployment. It is primarily for this reason that since May, the official labor force has shrunk by 1.1 million people.

The exclusion of these so-called "discouraged" workers from statistics means that the official number of unemployed severely understates the weakness in the labor market. If you include these workers, the unemployment rate would rise to 13 percent, or 21.3 million. If these workers were to apply for the 2.4 million jobs available, the odds of securing a job would be 11.2 percent, or roughly the same as getting into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It gets worse. Another group excluded from the official unemployment report is the growing number of part-time workers who would prefer to have a full-time job. These workers are forced into part-time jobs or are forced to take part-time hours because no full-time work is available. During the current recession, workers who are "part time for economic reasons" have grown from 4.6 million to 9.3million.

Adding part-time workers to the number of officially unemployed and the discouraged workers, as labor market expert Leo Hindery, Jr., has observed, results in a rise in the real unemployment rate to 19.2 percent, or 30.6 million people. The odds of any one of these 30 million securing one of the 2.4 million full-time jobs available is 8 percent, the same as the admissions rate of the Ivy League gold standard, Harvard University.

Then you have articles like this, which say things like:

But the economy has shed well over 7 million jobs in this recession, and economist Lakshman Achuthan tells Mason the hardest hit is manufacturing. "Even if GDP grows at 10 percent, you're not getting those jobs back. It's a structural permanent change," he said.

[...]

October was the 22nd straight month the U.S. economy has shed jobs, the longest on records dating back 70 years.

These numbers go flying across my dashboard over on Tumblr, a social network/blogging platform inhabited in large part by 20-something professionals (and an ever-growing number of grad students), almost daily.

I'm so tired of the recession. Thinking about it makes me physically weary. And I worry that it will never really end. That much of the job loss is permanent. That much of what is going on is the inevitable collapse after decades of poor business and political decisions which have allowed the jobs to be utterly drained from our economy.

I have two college degrees, special training in a tech field, and supposedly all of the things going for me (in terms of work ethic, ambition, intelligence, professionalism, etc.) that a young person should, and even I feel like I have failed to gain traction in the so-called real world. What must this be like for everyone else?

Nov 3, 2009

In honor of the boyfriend's second job interview...

I'm sharing a fantastic article I came across from CareerRealism: 10 Things Recruiters Won't Tell You.

A lot of these are things that you've probably heard about if you've ever taken a seminar on interviewing, visiting a career counselor, or, you know, read or heard anything about doing well in job interviews. What this recruiter drives home is how all of these little things which in better times wouldn't have gotten your resume immediately tossed are guaranteed deal breakers in today's saturated job market.

Read it, and then begin to think about how you could improve your first impression.

Some advice for employers

Prior to coming to work in my current ultra-corporate environment, I worked for a university. I held several positions there, but the last one was as a student web designer. My group developed various and sundry multimedia for professors, including websites. I adored my job, and not simply because they gave me total creative control over the websites I designed from the ground up. (Although that certainly helped!)

My previous supervisors worked very hard to create a positive environment, where the focus was as much on growth, creativity, and learning as it was on turning out a good product. If you expressed a desire to learn a new skill or work on a new and different project, you were not only allowed to do so, but given the resources and the support necessary to be successful. Obviously, if there was a time crunch, they would want the most experienced developers on the job, but for the most part, they did what they could to help their employees realize their full potential. This was good for the student employees because they were learning a lot and working on things that made them happy, but even better for the professors who relied on us for course materials and CV sites because our quality of work improved so rapidly and also for our organization as a whole, which had a steadily growing and improving body of work to refer to when trying to get more funding and more clients.

I have experienced none of this in my corporate environment.

My supervisors have more or less taken the position that whatever skillset you had when you began working here--or whatever skillset they decided you had, a determination not always based on your testimony or your portfolio--is the extent of your talent. If you were hired to do html and CSS, you can do HTML and CSS. If you were hired to do Flash, you can do Flash. If you have other talents or abilities, though, that you did not possess at the outset or that they were not made fully aware of early on, don't expect ever to incorporate those into your daily work.

There have even been a couple of instances where, instead of utilizing the existing talent pool, they've hired from outside because, as they say, "No one here has that skill." Or, in other words, no one here is currently using that skill, so instead of taking a chance on you and letting you prove yourself, we're going to keep you doing what you're doing and simply hire someone new.

The way my employers have put their employees in a rigid box has had an incredibly negative impact on the work environment. People are frustrated because they not only feel their skills are going unused, but they feel they are being passed over in favor of outsiders for team changes and promotions. It also highlights how disconnected management is from their employees and the lack of confidence they have in the people they have hired. What it really shows is how little they are invested in their employees.

Investing in the long-term growth of your employees is crucial to building a strong and capable team. Particularly in a tech field, your organization needs people who are constantly growing, learning, and building new skillsets. Failing to acknowledge and take advantage of the professional growth of your employees will have the effect of one (or all) of the following:
  1. Your employees will become angry and frustrated by the sense that management is not paying attention to its talent pool, and they will feel overlooked.
  2. They will become discouraged of learning new skills, since they know that those skills would be overlooked yet again.
  3. The best of your talent will move on to greener pastures, where their work and skills will be acknowledged and put to better use.


To be honest, there is no reason why you shouldn't be fully aware of your employees' abilities, their efforts to improve and develop their skills, and their goals in terms of long-term growth. Moreover, there is no reason why you shouldn't be taking advantage of their abilities and goals as you move your organization forward. There is little to gain in passing them over and failing to use their skills, and everything to lose: morale, your best talent, and eventually, the quality of your product and your clients.