Thursday, July 28, 2011

Should You Go Back to School?

When I graduated from college you could not have gotten me back in a classroom for any amount of money. Nope. Could not have paid me to go back to school. I was done. Kaput. Enough. No more term papers, no more boring lectures, no more studying for stuff I didn't care about.

Flash forward many years and the career I loved -- journalism -- was going down the toilet faster than a dead goldfish. I admit I considered going back to school. But, to study what? What else did I want to do? Was it worth the investment of time and money?

Fortunately, I've been able to survive as a journalist, and feel blessed every day. But should I still consider going back to school? It's a question explored in this column I did for Gannett/USAToday:

The question more midcareer people are facing these days is should I go back to school?

Dr. Mary B. Hawkins, president of Bellevue University in Nebraska, says that many mid-career adults first need to make an honest assessment of their industry when thinking about returning to school.

Finding the answer to such a question can be difficult because a myriad of issues are involved. The investment of time and money weighs heavily on those who may have limited resources and lots of family obligations. Or it can be simply a question of whether more education will pay off in getting a better job or help employment prospects in the future.

The question more midcareer people are facing these days is should I go back to school?

"Maybe the industry you're in won't last until your retirement like you had planned," she says. "But maybe you have skills that can be redirected in other ways."

For example, if you've been a writer and find opportunities waning, consider turning your communication skills to social media, a hot industry these days, Hawkins says.

"What you may need may be some different skills, but not an entirely new degree," she says. "Look at what related skills you have that can be transferred to an industry that is thriving. Or, maybe you don't need to go back to school but need an internship or a certification. In some cases, you may need to go back to school and get a degree if you're pursuing a new career field."

Before going back to school to pursue a new path, she also says you should try to meet with hiring managers in the field you're considering.

"Ask them what kinds of skills you need for that industry. When you're just asking questions to gain an understanding, people are really pretty good about being honest with you," she says.

Don't immediately dismiss the thought of going back to school because of financial constraints. Hawkins says many scholarships and grants are available for displaced workers, and schools should have information available on how to apply for such opportunities.

"Schools with a good program for adult learners will find ways to work with you," she says. "But any school you choose should be very clear with you about the debt you're going to take on."

Hawkins also advises that adults considering going back to school should:

Look for convenience. Many schools now offer online courses that make it easier for adult learners with family obligations.

Administrators, faculty, tutors and advisers should be flexible and willing to meet with you when you're not working. The school library should have extended hours.

"Those colleges that are really geared toward adult learners will support your schedule," she says.

Not feel guilty. Maybe you worry that taking courses will take time away from your children, but Hawkins says the opposite may be true.

"It's often very inspirational for the family to see you go back to school," she says. "You and your children can do your homework together. You can show them how much you value education. You should see the pride in the children when their parents walk across the stage (to receive a diploma)."

Do your due diligence. "You wouldn't contract with a homebuilder unless you know he knows how to build homes, would you? You'd ask others about his work, wouldn't you? The same thing is true for schools," she says.

Specifically, she advises doing more than looking at a school's website. Make sure the school is accredited and that past students have good things to say.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

10 Signs You're a High Maintenance Employee

There's been publicity in the past about demands by high-profile celebrities and music stars. They insist on only white in their dressing rooms -- from white M&Ms to white sofas to white flowers. Or, they may request that special water is flown in from a small town in the south of France via Air Force One. (The water is for their dog, of course. Their water must come from a monastery in the Alps and hand carried out by Russian eunuchs.)

You get the drift. These are high maintenance people who aren't really worth the trouble, and eventually they will fall by the wayside of all the other people who weren't worth the trouble.

Maybe even you.

While you may not think you fall into the category of high maintenance celebrity since you're not selling jewelry on HSN or serving as a judge on a talent show featuring only people who can sing while dancing backward, the moniker of "high maintenance" may still apply to you.

Let's see if any of this fits:

1. You're inflexible. You insist on a certain chair in the conference room. If you don't get it, you pout or glare at whoever is sitting in it.

2.You don't like new things. You complain when the brand of coffee you favor isn't used in the office coffee pot.

3. You claim you hate gossips, but have sent emails passing along the latest scuttlebutt concerning a colleague's dating habits after you overheard her on the phone. You use the office Skype system to pass along the tidbits to overseas colleagues.

4. Your personal dramas are always front and center. The dog getting fleas is worth a 10-minute discussion in the breakroom. Your mother criticizing your hairstyle is complained about for days. Your landlord's refusal to replace a leaky faucet is whined about endlessly, each conversation with him replayed for co-workers in great detail.

5. Whenever you travel for business, you always run into problems and have to call the office for help. It's often nothing more than you can't find a shuttle to the hotel or a meeting time has been changed. But you figure everyone 3,000 miles away in the home office should know you're having a really bad day.

6. You can't figure out Twitter. Or LinkedIn. You have no idea how to use the company Intranet, and have to ask others how to make a spreadsheet. Even though the company trained you to have that skill...about five years ago.

7. You're always losing or misplacing something and others have to stop and help you find it.

8. You're always late. Doesn't matter if you called the meeting, you're late. You keep your colleagues waiting at a restaurant for a lunch get-together. You are always stuck in a traffic jam, on a broken-down bus or in a slow-moving line at the post office. If you're involved, it means others will have to cool their heels waiting for you to show up.

9. You're too much. You wear too much perfume or cologne. Your hair color is too fake, and so is your spray tan. You're too loud on the phone, you're too sure your opinions are correct and you're too nosy about things that don't concern you.

10. You dither. You can't make up your mind on anything, even if given time to think about a decision. You flip-flop so much on the issues you look like a carp just hauled out of the water and plopped onshore. Your lack of conviction throws off schedules, delays projects and adds to the stress of co-workers.

If you recognize any or all of these behaviors, I am glad I don't work with you. For your co-workers, I have great sympathy.

And, for you....I'd advise you stop being high maintenance unless you're Jennifer Lopez. Because no one -- not a boss or a colleague -- will put up with it for long. And "high maintenance" is rarely a skill sought by other employers.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Are You Crossing the Line When It Comes to Online Communications With Colleagues?

When I was a young reporter -- way before the advent of social media or email -- a fellow reporter and I began leaving anonymous messages on an editor's computer. They were something about gremlins from outer space wanting to recruit him for evil purposes.

We, of course, thought we were hilarious, and finally fessed up to the prank after a few days.

The editor looked at us like we were a bit nuts, and I thought that was the end of it. But at 2 a.m., the editor showed up at my door -- drunk. After a confusing and rambling conversation, I finally gathered that he thought I was "interested" in him because of the notes. I was horrified -- the guy was my boss!!

After an assurance it was just a prank, he left. But I learned a valuable lesson about how such communications can't be taken lightly. What you consider a joke may be seen in a very different light by someone else. Read this story I did for Gannett/USAToday:

It happens easily enough: You and a co-worker begin chatting via Twitter or Facebook.

Pretty soon, you're sharing more personal information online with this person that you might otherwise in your workplace cubicle.

You may even confide some thoughts you've never revealed to a significant other. Your connection with this colleague grows stronger and you feel closer to this person with every message.

While experts often recommend that deepening relationships with professional online connections is a good way to help your career, this isn't probably what they meant.

Andrea Bonior, a clinical psychologist and author of "The Friendship Fix" (St. Martins Griffin, $15.99), explains that rules regarding online interactions are constantly changing and often difficult to navigate, but you have to be careful that you don't cross the line when communicating online with professional contacts.

"It can be easy to get carried away. You say something online, and then all of a sudden, you wish you could take it back," she says. "You have to be careful that the whole situation doesn't snowball."

What Bonior considers to be off-limits:
* Conversations include those that become sexualized.
* Comments you might justify by saying you're "joking around" but that other people might be see as very flirtatious or racy.

Or, you may begin to emotionally confide in this person online, more than you do with a spouse or partner. While the issue of "workplace spouses" — those who have our backs at work and become great confidants — has gotten publicity, such relationships can be slippery slopes because they invite an emotional connection that can fall outside any professional realm, Bonior says.

"We spend a lot of time with people at work, sometimes more than our own families," Bonior says. "So, it's totally natural that you would bond with them, and that can be awesome. These are the people who help us get through our days."

But you can't jump the gun with these relationships, she warns.

While you might begin to share something personal online with a colleague, like exercise tips, "that's no reason to begin sending this co-worker photos of you shirtless," she says. "People are going to react differently to something like that. My advice is to err on the conservative side. What would your grandmother think of it?"

Bonoir says that too-close relationships with a work colleague spurred through online communications can be damaging to your career. For example, if you and your colleague have a personal falling out, that can have a ripple effect on your job because the person may no longer want to work with you on a project.

Or you could face charges of sexual harassment if the online messages are seen as going too far, Bonoir says.

Bonoir offers a number of ways to draw a line so that online communications with a professional contact don't get out of hand. Among her tips:

• Don't overreact. You may be offended by someone's "borderline inappropriate" messages online to you, but that provocative attitude "is part of the person's m.o." she says. "Even if it rubs you the wrong way, this is who they are. They just don't have much finesse."

She says if the messages make you feel very uncomfortable, then you may want to change your privacy settings so you don't see messages from this person.

"And then I would only respond to emails every once in a while," she says. "Or tell them that you're being inundated with emails so you're not going to be responding much. You can find ways to be subtle."

• Use technology. "Technology is actually on our side," she says. "It gives us ways to protect our personal information, so use it. You don't have to reveal everything."

• Be honest. Don't fool yourself into thinking you only see your contact in a professional way when you're looking forward to checking your Facebook page for messages from this person, or you're hiding this person's emails from your partner, she says.

"Ask yourself: Is this just a friendship or am I kidding myself?" she says. It may be time to curtail the relationship if it's becoming too important.


Monday, July 18, 2011

How to Beat the Sunday Night Blues

Lots of people get the Sunday night blues, even if they love their jobs. There's just something about the thought of getting up early on Monday, facing traffic, dealing with a blizzard of e-mails and attending yet another meeting that can turn even the best weekend a little blue.

But I happened upon something I think can help, and all it takes is two minutes of your time on Sunday night.

Send someone an e-mail that begins with these words: "Thank you."

This does not have to be some big, hairy deal that rivals an Academy Award speech. In fact, keep it to less than 50 words or it doesn't count.

Just write something like: "Thank you for the time you spent last week explaining how to run the new copier. I appreciate it."

Or, "Thank you for considering my application for training in your department."

Even "Thank you for not laughing when I walked into the meeting dragging toilet paper on my shoe."

It doesn't have to be a big deal. But when this person arrives for work on Monday morning, your simple thank you note is going to make a difference.

When they dribble a latte down the front of a new blouse, when the boss screams he can't find the report when it's sitting on his desk, when a colleague begins clipping his toenails ....well, your appreciation is going to make a difference.

And doesn't that banish the Sunday night blues just a bit?

Any tips you can offer others on being more recharged to face Monday morning?


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Volunteerism: The Key to Recruiting Young Workers?

It's kind of interesting that I'm running this column I did for Gannett/USAToday on the heels of a post I did about getting annoyed that I am always getting hit up at work to contribute to someone's "cause." This is the flip side of that scenario, as a new study shows that if you want to recruit the best and brightest of young workers, all you need to do is tie their employment to a cause they care about....

Alarms are starting to sound in companies nationwide as the economy improves.

Employers are nervous that as the job market begins to recover, more workers will jump ship. And even if employees aren't looking for another job, recruiters are actively pursuing "passive" candidates — those not looking for work. And that also adds to the concern.

Some employers seem flummoxed about what to do.

Money concerns keep them from giving large pay raises to hang onto key workers. Offering benefits such as flextime or telework holds appeal for some workers, but others are so burned out and disillusioned with their current employers, who may have laid off employees during the downturn, that they yearn for something more meaningful.

Because staffs are already lean, the thought of workers wanting to leave is enough to keep many managers awake at night.

But one new survey may offer information that could help employers not only hang onto key talent but recruit new workers as well.

A Deloitte survey found that when young workers volunteer, they are twice as likely to say their corporate culture is very positive, are more likely to be proud of their work at their company, are more likely to feel loyal to their employer, and are more likely to recommend their organization to a friend.

Evan Hochberg, national leader of Deloitte's community-involvement initiative, says the survey specifically looked at younger workers since "they are our future work force and we wanted to note their expectations."

But these findings underscore what Hochberg says he sees in all age groups: Employees who volunteer often are more engaged and happy at work.

However, for millennials the need to volunteer is in their DNA, Hochberg says.

"These are kids that have grown up with school systems that required community participation," he says.

"They've grown up with 9/11 and (Hurricane) Katrina. They want to roll up their sleeves and make a difference."

Companies recognizing such a desire will not only be in a better position to retain key talent in the years to come but also to recruit those who have similar values, he says.

"To me, the biggest takeaway is that companies that don't appreciate the connection between volunteering and employee engagement are really leaving value on the table," Hochberg says. "A volunteer strategy must be a meaningful component of a recruitment and retention strategy."

But employers must pay more than lip service to employees volunteering in their communities and must set up policies and programs to support such efforts, he says. Companies can establish time-off policies for volunteer efforts or compensate employees while they're volunteering.

"These employees want to see the companies they work for believing in the things they believe in. It's a huge component of their satisfaction. It can't be just some do-gooder initiative on the side," he says.

One way Deloitte uses volunteerism to attract key talent is through an alternative spring-break program, where college students head to stressed areas of the country to offer their help.

Hochberg says that the program is run by the company's recruiting department because it's seen as a key way to not only attract future talent to Deloitte but also as a way for the company to see potential hires in action.

About 85 spots open each year for the program, but Hochberg says Deloitte gets about 1,400 applications annually from across the country.

At the same time, these millennials are savvy enough to know their volunteerism can pay off in other ways. In the Deloitte survey, millennials say that they're motivated by more than their passion to change the world; 51% report they also want to benefit professionally from their volunteer efforts.

Hochberg says the survey shows that employers who ignore young employees' desire for volunteerism may pay a heavy price.

"Look, it's clear that if companies want workers who are more satisfied, loyal and engaged, then they've got to offer them volunteer opportunities," he says. "Companies have got to integrate this whole area within an organization and connect it to what the company is all about."


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How Do You Feel About Donating to Causes at Work?

At least several times a month I get some kind of "free" thing in the mail. Mailing labels with my address. Free notebooks with my name inscribed on them. These "free" items come with a plea from the sender: Would I consider donating to "Doctors Without Mercedes"? (Or something like that.) If not, I am assured, I can still keep the "free" labels or cards.

But to me, this kind of stuff isn't really "free." It comes loaded with guilt. If I throw it away, I'm adding to the landfill problem. Of course, I didn't order the labels, but they're now my problem since "ANITA BRUZZESE' is emblazoned upon them. Or, I can contribute to "Save the Chipmunks" and hope that my $10 or $25 covers the cost of the labels I don't want, and saves a chipmunk or two.

Only here's the big problem. Once I contribute, I'm sunk. Because from now until the end of time, I will receive lots of free stuff I don't want and be asked to contribute.

This is often a painful cycle repeated in the workplace. There is the mother who is selling her chocolate bars for her daughter's band trip to Washington, D.C.. Or, the father who is helping his child sell magazines for school. The young co-worker who wants you to sponsor him on a 22-day trek across the Serengeti to raise money for orphaned zebras. The photo of an emaciated kitten in the breakroom with a note of "contribute if you obligation!" along with (of course) that pledge card and envelope.

Oh, geez. If you contribute, you're caught forever in the endless cycle of "Well, I contributed to Nancy's niece's field trip so I should be fair and contribute to Bob's charity cookie walk and then I should buy wrapping paper from the boss's daughter...."

As long as I have been in the workplace, someone is hitting me up for money for "a good cause." And, I usually contribute because, let's face it, how can sleep at night thinking I didn't save a baby zebra?

But in these tough economic times, when most of us are hanging on as best we can, isn't it time to give our colleagues a break? Stop asking for money. Stop saying our co-workers "don't have to contribute" when you know they feel obligated to do so or you're going to rat them out to the boss on some trivial matter, or conveniently forget to give them an important message.

Let's let our colleagues focus on hanging onto their jobs, worrying about their mortgage and spending a few bucks on an iced latte as a treat instead of bugging them to buy one more magazine they don't have time to read.

How do you feel about contributing to causes in the workplace?


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why Laughter May be Critical to Career Success

There are certain jobs I've had that I didn't like. The boss was a nut job, the commute was a killer -- and there was never much laughter. I thought there wasn't much to laugh about because the culture was so screwed up, but I realize after interviewing an expert on laughter in the workplace that I may have been missing the mark. The reason chuckles were few and far between was because of a much deeper issue of trust and relationships. Read this story I did for Gannett/USAToday and see if it doesn't expand your thinking ....

There's no shortage of advice on how to attract someone who interests you personally: Be more upbeat, wear your hair differently, don certain clothes, be a good listener.

The list is endless.

Yet many of us remain clueless about how to attract a potential employer or how to get the boss to notice us for career opportunities.

The secret: Many of the things that attract us to someone personally are also key ingredients needed to help us get ahead on the job. That doesn't mean you try to move things from a professional level to a personal one with a co-worker or boss just to climb the career ladder, but it does mean that you can leverage some of your personal traits to make professional inroads.

A good sense of humor can help you professionally.Norman Li, a psychology associate professor atSingapore Management University who studies relationships, says he's found that laughter can be a key indicator of a person's interest in you.

So if you're in a job interview and the hiring manager is cracking jokes — no matter how lame — that's a good sign. If you make an interviewer laugh, that's an equally encouraging sign.

"In general if someone likes you, they will laugh at something you say, or they try to make you laugh, as well," he says. "It's all about the laws of attraction."

In a blog post in Psychology Today, Li relates a story of how he became interested in the part laughter plays in relationships while working on a project. He writes that he didn't laugh at jokes told by supervisors he didn't like even though co-workers would chuckle along when the bosses made comments.

"The implications became clear on the day that we all received our performance reviews," he says in the post. "While those other guys were smiling at their glowing reviews, I was left wondering whether my subpar appraisal might've been better had I laughed at any of those jokes."

Laughter may be part of the success equation, Li says.

Most workers spend the majority of their waking hours with people at work, sharing challenges, eating meals together, coordinating activities — and learning whom to depend on. Those activities mimic what takes place in personal relationships, so it's not surprising that many of the things that attract us to a potential spouse also attract us to certain people at work.

That means that women, who through the ages have looked for mates that can are capable and have social status, may be drawn to successful, powerful men in the workplace and seek them out for professional collaborations, Li says. On the other hand, men always have sought women they deem physically attractive, so they may team up first at work with women they find appealing.

Laughing with others — or prompting others to laugh — can set a tone for relationships at work. As in your personal life, getting someone to laugh is really a way to monitor a relationship.

A husband who cracks a joke and is met with a chilly silence from a wife probably knows that something is wrong.

At work, co-workers who continue to laugh at your jokes or bosses that chuckle at your humor give you a sense that you are still on good footing with them. But a colleague who suddenly doesn't even crack a smile at your attempts to be funny may indicate a problem.

In a study of humor and relationships, Li and his colleagues found that "humor may allow individuals to indicate the direction of their interest and to build relationships incrementally."

So, if you do your best Jim Carrey impression or tell your favorite joke tomorrow and the boss doesn't react, you may need to check for a problem in the relationship.

After all, you don't want the last laugh on you.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Is Your Good Work Ignored?

I hate it when I do great work and it goes unrecognized by everyone except my own family, who I whine to until they say "good job!" (They usually have no idea what they're congratulating me for.)

Seriously, who wants to labor in obscurity without a pat on the back, or a bonus or even some pathetic "employee-of-the-last-10 minutes" award? The workplace is a grim place these days, as worker drones labor long hours in their cubicles with the boss stopping by every once in a while to bark a new order.

OK, maybe I'm exaggerating. I know there are rays of hope and light out there somewhere, but when did we become so stingy with a kind word now and again? When did we start believing that complimenting a co-worker on a job well done would somehow diminish our own worth?

"Nobody ever gives me a parade," you think to yourself. "Why should I offer a nice word to anyone else? It's called WORK for a reason. Dumbasses."

So, I've been trying a little experiment. Whenever I go into another workplace, I try to find something worthwhile. "I really appreciate the way you pack my groceries. Not putting the rat poison in with the bread is really smart. So great," I tell the checker at Wal-Mart.

Of course, her first reaction is to glance at me in suspicion as she rings up my Gummie worms and cauliflower (both high-fiber foods in my house). But then when she sees I'm sincere, she beams and says, "Well, thanks! I know it's the way I'd like my groceries packed, so that's what I do." She's still smiling as I leave.

I try it again at Dairy Queen. The two Justin Bieber lookalikes are seemingly floored when I tell them they mix the sodas just right. Not too much syrup, not too much water. Just right. "Well done," I tell them.

They break into big smiles and offer me coupons for a free smoothie on my next visit.

I think what I've learned is how much I get from sincerely complimenting a job well done. I don't have to say anything nice -- I could be the customer from hell and make it another bad day at work. But I've decided to try and find something positive in every worker's contribution and let them know I see what they're doing.

I realize this is no big deal. It won't change the world. But it will make the workday a little better, hopefully, for some of these worker bees who could use a good word every now and again. If their boss or co-workers aren't going to do it, how about it being