Thursday, August 30, 2007

Job Interviewing 101

I remember when my older son was just learning to read and write and I found his name written boldly in pen on the white marble of our fireplace hearth.

“Did you do this?” I asked him, pointing to his name.

His big blue eyes looked boldly into mine. He shook his head “no.”

“Then who did?” I asked him.

His chubby little finger quickly pointed at his infant brother, who was happily sucking on his sock as his older brother tried to sell him down the river.

Of course, the written evidence was to the contrary, so my son spent some time scrubbing the fireplace and learning a valuable lesson not only about where and when to write his name, but the consequences of lying. (OK, so I took away “Barney” watching for a week, which was really more of a reward for me.)

After speaking with some hiring managers this week, I think a few of them are feeling like they’re dealing with some 5-year-old children at times who believe they can deny written evidence of their misdeeds.

Specifically, it’s becoming a chronic problem that job candidates lie on their resumes. They’re lying about their education, about their experience and even their references.

Now, while it’s true we try to put a positive spin on our skills and abilities in order to gain the attention of hiring managers, it’s also true that nothing will get you dumped faster from the interviewing process than lying. And, keep this in mind: if it doesn’t catch up with you now, it will later – just look at the former RadioShack CEO who was forced to resign after owning up to the fact that he never received the two degrees listed on his resume.

And, here’s what’s making the problem worse: Job candidates are lying about lying. A survey by DDI found that while 31 percent of hiring managers claim job seekers “misrepresent” their education, only 3 percent of potential employees agree. And though only 15 percent of job seekers admit to using a personal, non-work friend as a reference, 40 percent of hiring managers say it's happening. Almost 70 percent of the businesses surveyed by a professional organization say lying on resumes happens occasionally to frequently, in all kinds of companies.

So, here’s the deal: You’re smart enough to do Internet research on your blind date, your former girlfriend and whether Jamaica is nice this time of year. Do you honestly think a potential employer isn’t going to do a background check on you? Do you really believe that if you say you can fly the space shuttle that someone isn’t going to ask you to take it for a spin to make sure you really possess those skills?

All right, one last thing: nearly nine out of 10 (88 percent) executives polled said sending a thank-you note following an interview can boost a job seeker’s chances, but at least half of applicants fail to do so.

The bottom line: Listen to your mothers. Write your thank-you notes and don’t lie. We know what we’re talking about.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Learning to Mind Your Own Business

The report was just sitting there, almost under your nose. OK, so it was on the boss’s desk and you were sitting a few feet away, but you have really good eyesight – and the ability to read upside down – so it wasn’t really your fault you read a co-worker’s recent performance evaluation, was it?

And it wasn’t really snooping when you were looking for a pencil in a colleague’s desk and came across her pay stub – your eyes just accidentally happened to focus on how much she makes a month.

But chances are if someone took a peek at your performance evaluation or looked at your paycheck without your permission, you would probably be a little angry or upset. While we all delight in having the lives of celebrities exposed in all their demented ways, it’s not nearly so enjoyable when our private information is exposed to those at work.

And here’s another consideration: Some companies have strict policies on what employees may or may not discuss, and blabbing that you know what someone else earns or revealing confidential details of a co-worker’s performance evaluation could cause the boss to take disciplinary action against you.

So, while it’s true that it makes the workplace more enjoyable when we’re all friendly with one another and perhaps share some personal information, the key is to remember that we all deserve dignity and privacy, and that should temper our actions. Some ways to do that include:

1. Locking your desk. This also includes your files during lunch or at the end of the day, or when you’re going to be away for a certain amount of time, such as in a meeting. Don’t keep personal information – such as your pay stubs or health information – at work. Take them home and file in a secure cabinet.
2. Using a paper shredder at work. Avoid putting confidential information into a recycling bin if it has not been shredded first. Personally shred your own information and don’t rely on someone else to do it.
3. Reading carefully. When receiving internal mail, always make sure your name is on the front before opening, even if it was hand-delivered to you. NEVER peek inside an envelope to someone else, and NEVER snoop in someone else's e-mail.
4. Standing firm. Unless you receive a supervisor’s permission, do not allow anyone to have access to information that you consider confidential.
5. Resist being too friendly. When attending a company function, ask your significant other not to reveal too many personal details about you. It’s one thing for your husband to tell them you love fishing – another to reveal that you’re about to default on your mortgage. At the same time, don’t try and corner the boss’s partner to try and find out the inside scoop on the manager. That’s unfair and unprofessional.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Happy and Laughing at Work

I spend much of my time listening to people gripe about their jobs and their bosses.

That’s why when I had two surveys land on my desk that show – gasp! – that not only are some people happy at work but – double gasp! – think their bosses have a good sense of humor – I knew that either I’d fallen down the rabbit hole or things weren’t really as bad as sometimes portrayed.

I decided that there’s no better way to start the work week than to cite some positive statistics about the workplace, so here goes:

1. You think your boss is funny. Some 87 percent of workers polled said their supervisors have a good sense of humor, which is good thing since a whopping majority (97 percent) of professionals said they thought it was important for managers to have a good sense of humor.
2. Most of you are happy at work. And if you live in the West, are married and Hispanic, you’re more likely to be content.

So, while I get plenty of letters and e-mail from people griping that their boss is an ogre and their workplace is one of the seven levels of hell, it’s nice to know some of you are happy – and laughing with the boss along the way.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Save the Assistants

They are often the unacknowledged heroes of the workplace – the assistants. Not many companies could get by without them. They know tons of critical stuff – from how to fix the office copier to how to set up conference calling with Switzerland to how to get a company party catered for 200 with less than 24 hours notice.

They are smart, tough and critical to the success of their bosses, and yet they can be treated like doormats. No wonder they set up their own Web site to vent their frustrations, share tips for success and yes, plan for their escape from the jobs they sometimes love and often hate.

Recently, Lilit from Save the Assistants reviewed my book, and that led to her asking me questions – and now me asking her questions.

1. Tell me about "Save the Assistants" it got started, what kind of topics you address, the goal of the Web site, etc.
My first job in New York after graduating from college was at a very corporate media firm. I had no idea how to be an assistant, and my company didn't really invest time in job training. The only reason I survived was because the other assistants all pitched in and helped each other navigate the day-to-day particulars of our jobs. I started wishing there were some kind of online forum or Web site were I could talk with other assistants. I'm from North Carolina, and many of my college friends were at smaller companies where they were the only assistant – they didn't get the same kind of office camaraderie.

After leaving the company, a former coworker, Ashley, and I, founded Save the Assistants. We wanted it to be a mix of horror stories, practical advice, success stories and other resources to empower assistants. It's helped us as much as it's helped our readers. We always regard our audience as a resource. They send us e-mails and post comments and help continue the conversations we start on the blog.

2. What is the biggest misconception about assistants?
There are two. The first is that assistants are incompetent or stupid – the misconception is usually that if they were smarter or better at their jobs, they wouldn't be assistants anymore. The second is that assistants are secretly plotting to take over their boss' job and will stop at nothing. That “All About Eve” mentality often makes bosses second-guess
their assistants' motives or not trust their assistant to do more complicated, interesting projects, instead saddling them with thankless administrative duties. The truth about assistants is somewhere in the middle of these two misconceptions: they're learning how to do a job, and eventually want to move up and get promoted, but understand that they have some ways to go.

3. So, what do bosses do that drive their assistants crazy?
The biggest thing assistants complain about is their bosses “not treating them like people.” What that boils down to is a boss who talks down to his or her assistant or sees the person only as a faceless employee.

4. How can a boss make an assistant happy and satisfied with the job?
It's amazing how far a little personal gesture can go. A boss and an assistant shouldn't be BFF outside the office. However, a boss personally congratulating an assistant in front of everyone at a meeting or sending the assistant a birthday present can do wonders for improving their relationship. People want to admire and be proud of who they work for, and they also want to feel appreciated for what they do.

5. What do a majority of assistants dislike about their jobs? What do they like the most?
Assistants hate unnecessary busywork, being condescended to, and not feeling useful to the company. Even though spending time as an assistant is necessary, it's way more beneficial to an assistant's career in the long run if she gets to take on projects and learn new things at work than if she sits around and make scopies all day. Give your assistant one or two meaningful projects in addition to her administrative duties, and you'll see her
approach all her work in a more eager way.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Don't Let the Numbers Get You Down

I’m the first to admit I have never been a math whiz. In fact, when my kids have homework that starts off with something like “If a train leaves the station and is traveling at 80 m.p.h…” I sort of hear this buzzing sound in my ears and my vision starts to blur around the edges.

But I know that math is critical in our world, and I still hold in high esteem anyone who managed to make it through Miss Boren’s algebra class.

At the same time, I have to admit that numbers are starting to cause me the kind of anxiety I haven’t experienced since my statistics final in college. They seem to be everywhere. There are the book rankings (see below for “A Recovering Amazoniac”); the number of visitors to this Web site; the readership of my syndicated workplace column; the number of e-mails in my “in” box; the phone messages awaiting my attention; and the amount of money I’m earning.

Then, of course, there are the other numbers that stalk me in my private life – my car’s gas mileage; my exercise time; my weight; and whether I have enough credit card points to earn a dinner at Applebee’s.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m exaggerating the fact that numbers can often cause problems in our lives, especially at work. There is the employee who can’t get a promotion – or gets fired – because the numbers of a performance evaluation don’t add up, or the manager who gets burned out and leaves a company because he’s tired of spending more time filling in numbers on a report rather than focusing on his employees.

And, of course, there’s the unethical corporate leaders who have been seduced by huge amounts of money and abandoned their responsibilities to their employees and their company, causing much damage and heartache.

So, what is the solution? For me, it’s remembering that numbers are just, well, numbers. They are often out of my control, and constantly changing. They can be a tool, but just one tool and certainly not the only one.

When I’ve asked those who seem to be happy with their careers how they keep numbers from ruling their lives, they often ruefully admit that even they sometimes have problems with that issue. But, they say, they try and keep the numbers is perspective by focusing more on quality than quantity. They contend that the “good” numbers will follow the “good” work. Some of their tips include:

  • Giving back. If you’re not in the “gimme, gimme, gimme” mode all the time trying to boost your numbers, you retain better balance in your work and private life. That means that you mentor others unselfishly, and give credit to others when it is due.
  • Being honest. An executive once told me that when he worked at Microsoft Corporation he was trying to choose a new ad agency while preparing to launch a new product that was a direct challenge to a Lotus Corporation flagship product. It seems one agency thought to woo Microsoft business by telling him trade secrets about Lotus. His reaction was immediate: he reported the unethical conduct to company lawyers who then forwarded it to Lotus.
  • Sharing ideas. While it’s easy to hunch over the keyboard and commune only with the Internet, it’s the creative give-and-take with other people that generates the most satisfying work. I once interviewed two “co-leaders” of a company who told me the secret to their success was the fact that one “hacked through the forest undergrowth” while the other one “climbed to the top of the trees to see what was ahead.” They sat within a few feet of each other at work, and said they relished batting ideas back and forth all day, sharing what they learned. By sharing their ideas, they made the best decision for the overall well-being of their company.
  • Rooting for someone else. By cheering someone else’s success, by offering words of encouragement, you spend more time focused on the positive instead of harboring ill feelings or jealousies that can sap your emotional and professional reserves.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Learning to Ask for Help

First, let me admit that I am not big on asking for help. I think part of the reason is that I’ve always been sort of an independent spirit – I like to do things my way without anyone else telling me how to do it (which is why I’ve threatened on numerous occasions to leave the males in my family along the road somewhere the next time they try to tell me how to drive).

I think some of my other reasons are pretty common for a lot of people: asking for help may cause others to think I’m weak or incapable; I’m afraid I’ll be turned down by asking for assistance, embarrassing everyone involved; or I just think it will be easier to buckle down and do everything myself.

Then I read M. Nora Klaver’s book and had a change of heart. For the first time, I saw that asking for help doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve somehow lost. Instead, asking for help at the right time, for the right reasons and from the right people can be, as she says, a blessing.

In “Mayday! Asking for Help in Times of Need,” Klaver writes: “The act of asking for help is not only an invitation, it is a declaration, an assertion that we are deserving of assistance. When we venture to ask for what we need, we learn quickly that we are not alone and that there are resources, friends, and partners available to help. Asking for help can also re-introduce us to the beauty and inherent strength of gratitude.”

At a time when we’re all struggling to have work/life balance, Klaver says that asking for assistance may just lead us to a simpler, easier life – one that helps us achieve that balance.

Still, asking for help is not always easy, especially at work. The key, she says, it not to reach out for help as a last resort, mired in desperation. Rather, she says, asking for help should be thought of as a way to help ourselves grow and make meaningful connections with other people.

Klaver offers numerous tips and suggestions in her book about how, when and why to ask for help, but I’d like to focus on some questions you can use to get your conversation going when asking for help:

1. Would you be willing to help me with something? Is now a good time?
2. I’ve got something I’m trying to resolve, can you give me a hand?
3. I’m desperate, can you help me please? (This humorous approach should be used when you know the other person pretty well.)
4. I’m stuck and I can’t see clearly how to resolve this. Would you be willing to help me come up with a few ideas?

And, if they’re not able to help, ask:
• Can you suggest someone else who might be able to help?
• Do you know anyone who has had a similar suggestion? Do you know how they resolved it?

After I interviewed Klaver, I began to think of all the times I helped someone in need. I thought about how great I felt by doing it. In this world of chaos and stress and uncertainty, helping someone else – whether it was providing a business contact or offering someone a ride home on a hot summer day – made me feel good, more at peace.

So, the next time you need help, don’t suck it up and do it all yourself. Spread the blessings around and reach out.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Communicating Effectively at Work

I spend a lot of time trying to be a good communicator. Sometimes I’m better at it than at other times (anyone related to me by blood never seems to understand my request to take out the garbage), but I keep at it.

Despite technological advances, trying to communicate effectively can be frustrating. Trying to connect via e-mail or phone can be tricky when everyone is so busy. And to be honest, there are some people I either wish I never had to speak with or give me an overwhelming urge to swat them across the nose with a rolled up newspaper.

We’ve all had those challenges, which seem to be compounded by the increasing stress in our workplace. From the co-worker who is rude and abrasive to the boss who yells, we often have a tough time communicating effectively. Still, there are some ways to not only stand your ground against verbal assaults, but to make sure your message is being heard clearly and directly in this fast-paced communication environment. Try:

• Being straightforward. When you are direct – whether giving positive or negative feedback – it is appreciated by most people. Begin your statement with “I” and deliver it in a way that isn’t mean-spirited. Once you start dishing out the b.s. and being less than truthful, people will be less willing to communicate with you, and that will impact your ability to do your job.
• Learning to say “no” and meaning it. Too often, we say “no” but our whole demeanor conveys our doubt. Learn to say “no” when a request is first made, then state your reason for the denial. Don’t fidget, and make eye contact. This shows that you’re serious about what you’re saying.
• Spotting the mixed message. Haven’t we all dealt with the person at work that smiles or laughs while delivering an insult? For example, this person may say to you: “So, how did you enjoy your two-hour lunch?” That’s when you calmly look the person in the eye and say, “I appreciate your candor, but I think I’m the best judge of how I use my time.” Act as if the message were straigthtforward, or that you’re taking it literally: “Thanks for asking. The lunch was great.” If this fails, you can always become the broken record, repeating that there seems to be a problem: “I feel uncomfortable when you ask me about my two-hour lunch. I’d like you to let me know directly if my going out for a long lunch is a problem from your point of view.”
• Staying calm. When under a verbal assault, don’t offer justifications, apologies or qualifiers, because there is no way to win with a person who yells opinions. (This is especially true if it’s the boss.) Just keep repeating in your mind that the person is acting like a jerk, and keep breathing. In these cases, you might try admitting that there is some truth to what the person is saying, which can buy you some time and help turn down the intensity.

Finally, remind yourself in difficult communication situations at work that when someone is rude, belligerent, yelling or insulting, there may be more at play than you know.

For example, the person may be having a personal crisis, and you responding in kind may be something you come to regret.

Say to yourself: “This is difficult, but I believe in myself. It may be upsetting, but I can deal with it and getting angry only lets the other person win. I can’t control what they say, but I can control my reaction.”

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Miserable Job

My oldest son, a teenager, has been a busboy/dishwasher for about two years now, and he recently told my husband and me that he had come to an important realization about his job.

“You get yelled at for doing something wrong, but no one ever says anything to you if you do something right,” he said, in apparent disgust. “And it’s the same thing, every day.”

My husband reached out and shook my son’s hand. “Welcome to the world of work, son.”

Then we laughed while my son scowled at both of us.

Still, part of me was saddened that my son had come to this realization about work so early in his life. He used to enjoy going to work, thrilled with the thought of earning his own money, enjoying the camaraderie of the guys in the kitchen and getting a kick out of being part of a busy family restaurant.

But lately he’s come home from work more tired, more critical of some co-workers (“I worked with dumb and dumber tonight, who are going to get us all fired,” he groused) and more cynical about what it takes to earn money (“Who the heck is FICA and why is he taking all my money?” he complained).

I don’t think it’s what Patrick Lencioni would call a “miserable” job, but it’s headed in that direction. In his book, “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job,” Lencioni outlines what he considers to be a miserable job:

1. The people you work with don’t know you or care about you.
2. You don’t know how your job matters to others.
3. You can’t assess how you’re doing in your job.

Workers who are miserable are less productive, efficient, and more likely to have physical ailments that affect their professional and personal lives. With the increasing focus on remaining competitive in a global marketplace, Lencioni points out that managers should ask themselves what they can do to guard against workers becoming miserable in their jobs. As part of a self-assessment, he suggests managers ask themselves:

• Do I really know my people? Their interests? How they spend their spare time? Where they are in their lives?
• Do they know who their work impacts, and how?
• Do they know how to assess their own progress or success?

Finally, he says bosses should develop a plan to do a better job of getting to know and understand employees. He suggests one-on-one meetings, team sessions and clearly outlining what is trying to be achieved.

While this seems like a simple concept, Lencioni says that many companies and managers miss the boat. He also has a deeper message to impart to those in charge:
“By helping people find fulfillment in their work, and helping them succeed in whatever they’re doing, a manager can have a profound impact on the emotional, financial, physical, and spiritual health of workers and their families,” he says. “That is nothing short of a gift from God.”

Amen to that.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Listen to My Interview

If you've never heard an honest-to-goodness Okie accent, you might want to check out my interview with Peter Clayton at Total Picture Radio. Peter and I have been trying to hook up for months, but he's been busy moving (I understand after moving five times in 13 years), but we finally got together.

The interview was fun and interesting, and of course, the first subject we discussed was how I lost my perspective -- and got it back. We also talked about my book, "45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy...and How to Avoid Them."

Oh, by the way, the Okie accent is mine. You can take the girl out of Oklahoma, but....

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Recovering Amazoniac

OK, this doesn’t really have a lot to do with career advice, but then again, maybe it does. It’s more a note to myself (and maybe someone else can learn something from it).

When my book was published, Feb. 7, I did the first thing any author does: I checked my ranking. When I wasn’t No. 1, I checked a few hours later. Hmmm…still not No. 1.

Thus began my downward spiral on that cold winter day into what I called Amazonitis. For those of you who are not book authors, you may not be familiar with the term. Let me explain: It’s the habitual, debilitating checking of your book’s rating at all hours of the day or night. Doesn’t matter what else is going on – giving birth, winning the Nobel Peace prize or having Oprah on the line – you have the overwhelming urge to check your book’s ranking.

Of course, the more smug book authors among us will say they never check their rankings, or only do so every once in a while “on a whim.” They’re lying. No book author who cares about his or her work can resist logging onto from anywhere in the world and checking the ranking.

Think I’m making this up? Just Google “Amazon book rankings” and see the number of stories and opinions and philosophies devoted to rankings. The general consensus is this: The rankings mean NOTHING. Next to nothing.


To book authors, they mean a lot. They represent what the world thinks of our endeavors, of our dreams to enter the realm of “book authors,” to be forever linked with the profession that turned out Edgar Allen Poe, Jane Austen and Donald Trump.

Still, after months of sneaking around to check my rankings day and night (“You’re not checking that *&^% ranking again, are you?!!” my husband would yell from the other room), I’ve finally reached my saturation point. I need help. I know I need help, and thus I’m posting these 12 steps for anyone who becomes obsessed with his or her book rankings or any other work-related matter that really doesn’t really matter a hoot.

With inspiration from various 12-step recovery programs, here is the process for Amazonics Anonymous:

1. I admit I am powerless over book rankings – and that my life has become unmanageable.
2. I have come to believe that a Power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. My book agent informed me that those rankings don’t mean anything. If a New York literary agent says it doesn’t matter, then it must be so.
3. I have made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand Him. Well, at least I’ll always rank No. 1 with God.
4. I have made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself. OK, I admit it. I’m pathetic. I bet J.K. Rowling never checks her ranking.
5. I’ve admitted to God, and to myself, and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs. I told my husband that one night when I couldn’t sleep I checked my ranking at 3 a.m. “You’re a whack job,” my soul mate surmised.
6. I am entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Want to hear something truly sad? I nearly ruined my computer trying to check my rankings while brushing my teeth. Crest doesn’t remove easily from between the keys, let me tell you.
7. I humbly ask Him to remove all my shortcomings. At the very least, take away my high speed Internet until I get more control.
8. I’ve made a list of all persons I have harmed, and have become willing to make amends to them all. That includes my family, the PTA, my dog, two cats and the two Jehovah’s Witnesses I ignored at the door while feeding my addicition.
9. I have made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. My family, the PTA and the animals all were gracious – the Jehovah’s Witnesses surmised I was a “total whack job.”
10. I have continued to take personal inventory and when I am wrong I promptly admit it. I admit I also check Barnes and Noble’s rankings, although they don’t update as often and so don’t feed my ranking fetish nearly as well.
11. I have sought through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God as I understand Him, praying only for his knowledge of His will for me and the power to carry that out. Hey God, it sure would be great if I knocked Harry Potter off the bestseller lists…
12. I have had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, and have tried to carry the message to other Amazonics Anonymous members, and to practice these principles in all my affairs.

FYI: The next meeting place of Amazonics Anonymous has yet to be determined. There will be plenty of coffee, however, and a Wi-Fi connection….


Monday, August 6, 2007

Always Needing to Be Right

When you went to school, did anyone ever tell you to be sure and choose the “wrong” answer on a test?

At work, does your boss regularly tell you to make the “wrong” decisions?

Probably not. From the time we are children, we are counseled to make the “right” choices, and how to look “right” and how to do the “right” thing. That often continues in the workplace, that need to be ”right.”

And, the more “right” we are, the more likely we are to become rigid in our way of thinking. But here’s something to think about: By denying there is anything left to learn, we undermine ourselves and our companies. Failing to acknowledge that other people may have the right answer can really affect an individual’s and organization’s success. The most successful people, after all, often challenge others to come up with a better idea and then learn from that input.

Of course, letting go of being “right” all the time takes courage. It means that you first have to admit that you’ve gone too far and you need to improve. But once you’ve done that, you should:

• Define what winning looks like to you. Think about what you really want, how you feel about certain issues in your life and at work, and how your life experiences have impacted how you regard those things.
• Look at how often your need to be right really interferes with what you want. If you shut people down by interrupting them with your “right” solution, or they turn away because you have proven them “wrong,” note this interaction in a journal. Keep track of what happened, your reaction, and what the price was, such as a less creative answer or hurting a relationship with a co-worker.
• Ask questions. Instead of jumping in with the answer all the time, become more curious. Ask others what they think, and give them a chance to respond. Only then should you offer your opinion.
• See the world in shades of gray. Consider how often your thinking is automatically “right versus wrong.” Try to look at all sides of the issue before making a decision.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

How the Heck to Use LinkedIn

Several months ago when I got caught up in the frenzy of thinking I needed to get involved in anything that came into my line of sight (see previous post), I was told about LinkedIn.

Immediately I visited the Web site and realized that a) it wasn’t a porn site and b) it was in English – so I signed up. If you had asked me at the time what LinkedInwas exactly, I could not have told you.

Several weeks after that, someone sent me an e-mail and said they had seen my name on LinkedIn. “How,” the person asked, “are you using this?”

Huh, I thought, I kinda wonder that myself. “Not sure,” I quickly responded. “How about you?”

The reply: “I’m still trying to figure that out.”

Welcome to the evolving world of LinkedIn, where everyone seems to sign up but is still learning how – or if – it has value for them. It’s been called everything from the “digital equivalent of chain mail” to “a dorky service” for the "never weres" while others say it has netted them millions of dollars worth of business in a matter of months.

I spent some time talking with Kay Luo, LinkedIn’s director of corporate communications, whose job it is to answer pesky questions from journalists who want to know the answer to this burning question: So, how the heck do you use LinkedIn?

Luo says that LinkedIn is trying to make it clearer how to use the networking site for professionals, providing guidelines online. Luo’s criteria seems pretty straightforward: “I connect with who I would give my cell phone number to,” she says.

In other words, connect with those people you trust, believe in, or know to have qualities you admire. No serial killers, no bullies and no spammers need apply.

There are some great ideas from others who have learned to use LinkedIn effectively, and I’ll post some of those thoughts, as well as my own. If you have anything to add, please let me know in the comments section. We can all learn together.

Using LinkedIn:

1. Add connections. This means more people will see your profileand want to work with you because you know some of the same folks they do.
2. Customize your public profile. Luo told me to select “full view” instead of using the default URL and customize my public profile’s URL to be my name.
3. Check your messages. Try to do this at least once a week. I’ve sent messages to some people and they haven’t responded for weeks simply because they didn’t know to look for e-mail on their site.
4. Be clear about your intentions. Be direct about why you’re approaching someone, and they’re generally happy to help out. Don’t lie or puff up your credentials. The truth will come out and you’ll look like an idiot – and get lumped in with those serial killers, spammers and bullies.