Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What Tony Bennett Can Teach You About Your Career

When I was growing up my parents listened to Tony Bennett. I still listen to him and am astounded that at 85, the man still has such a vital presence in the music world.

The other night I watched a show that recorded his duets with artists like Lady Gaga, Faith Hill and Andrea Bocelli. In each of those instances, Bennett was relaxed and appeared to be having fun. (Except when he knocked it out of the ballpark with Aretha Franklin. They were both sweating by the final note.)

The other singers appeared to be having just as much fun, although at times they said they were very nervous because they wanted to do well and not mess up in front of such a music icon.

Seriously...there was Lady Gaga with blue hair and John Mayer nearly shaking with nerves, and there was Tony Bennett, just as gracious as if he was still working with Frank Sinatra or Mel Torme.

He's 85. An age when many of us consider that anyone still working should be in a blue vest with a "How can I help you?" tag on. But jamming with some of the best in the business? That's not something many of us may envision for ourselves at that age.

The reason may be because we have a tendency to want to collaborate with people our own age, whether we're 50 or 25. We may not like what we know about other generations, or we may have stereotyped an entire age group based on a couple of interactions.

But I think if we took a page from Tony Bennett's songbook -- and learned to embrace, enjoy and collaborate with those of a different age and background -- we'd have a much more rewarding and vital career. Even at 85.

How to do you feel about collaborating with other generations?


Thursday, January 26, 2012

What References are Really Saying About You

I remember the first recommendation an editor wrote for me. It was glowing. It was wonderful. It told editors they would be idiots not to hire me.

I still have copies of that recommendation. I found one the other day and preened around the rest of the day, even though the cats seemed singularly unimpressed.

What would I have done without that glowing report? I know it helped open a lot of doors for me, and I'm eternally grateful to that editor.

But what would I have done if that editor had not written the recommendation and was secretly bad-mouthing me behind my back? You can bet a lot of doors would have slammed shut and I would never have known why.

This latest story I did for Gannett/USAToday should open your eyes to the possibility that not all your references have your best interests at heart....

If you've been frustrated that you haven't managed to nail a new job despite your qualifications and solid interviews, your references could be the root of the problem.

"You should never assume what other people will say about you," says Executive Vice President Jeff Shane ofAllison & Taylor Inc., a professional reference-checking company.

References from former workplaces, especially supervisors, carry a lot of weight with a potential employer. But even a hint from a former boss, such as an unenthusiastic tone of voice when talking about you, is enough to kill your chances of landing a job, he says.

While you may believe that a former employer will follow its policy and provide only dates of service to someone checking your references, don't count on it.

"Those who call to check your references know once they get someone (from a former workplace) on the phone, they can get them to divulge more — especially supervisors because they tend to be more talkative," Shane says.

Even if a supervisor or human-resource manager tries to avoid giving any additional information because of liability worries, recruiters often can find a way around that requirement.

"They'll ask questions like 'can you enthusiastically recommend this person?' or 'what were this person's strengths and weaknesses?' " Shane says. "They're going to ask if there is someone else they should talk to. They're going to find people who will talk."

You may think that one way around this is not giving a potential employer permission to contact a former employer.

That's a big mistake, Shane says.

"That's just a red flag to them," he says. "That may kill your job chances right there."

Shane says it never ceases to amaze him that more than half of the references on a candidate come back with negative. Former colleagues or supervisors can be very vindictive when providing references.

"It explains a lot about why good people aren't getting jobs," he says. "Any negative thing can knock you out in this job market. There are lots of very good candidates for most positions, so any weak link is often fatal."

Employers use Shane's company to check references. But job seekers who can't figure out why they've been rejected for several jobs when they're well qualified and have good interviews are also clients.

That's when some digging turns up references who are trash-talking or leading a potential employer to believe the hire would be a bad idea.

"You may even have a reference say, 'Let me check the legal file to see what I can say,' and that tips off the recruiter that there may be something negative about you," Shane says. "Even hesitation in the voice can tip the scale against you."

So what can you do to combat negative references killing your job chances? Shane suggests:

• Cultivate relationships. "Try to find out what (former colleagues) will say about you. Talk to them about the job description and how you're qualified for the job," he says. "Make sure you always check in with your most recent supervisor."

• Google yourself. Do you see anything that can be perceived as damaging?

If someone has written something negative about you online, try to reason with the person about why you need it removed.

"Tell them their off-the-cuff remarks are hurting you. If they won't listen, tell them you may take legal action if they don't rescind them," he says.

• Confront vindictive sources. Shane says his company has sent a number of cease-and-desist letters to people providing negative references about someone, and in all those cases the people have stopped making the comments.

Since company policy forbids many to reveal more than employment dates, they realize they're violating the rules and could lose their jobs, he says.

"My final advice is to never assume anything. References are key, so be proactive and do your due diligence. Find out what people are saying about you," he says.

How would you react if you knew someone gave you a bad recommendation?


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

When You Make a Fool of Yourself in Front of Colleagues

Let's say that despite all the good advice out there (including, ahem, my own) you decide to go out with some people after work and hit happy hour. And once again, despite the good advice (did I mention my own?) you get a little past tipsy and say or do something that in the bright light of your cubicle the next morning seems, well....stupid.

Maybe you danced a little too intimately with a co-worker that before the fourth peppermint Schnapps you wouldn't even consider giving a hug. Or, you think you remember gossiping about your boss near a colleague you know hates gossip.

So, along with your raging headache and your retinas being burned by the fluorescent lights the next morning at work, you've got a serious case of regret. How are you going to face the co-worker you snuggled up next to during a Marvin Gaye ballad? Will the colleague who heard you make snarky comments now view you with less respect or consider you unprofessional?

The best thing to do when in this situation is not panic and start firing off emails with subject lines such as "I'm so stupid!" to all your co-workers.

To make the best of the situation:
1. Be respectful of the other person. Don't take out your self-anger on anyone else and say something like, "I hope you don't think that slow dance meant anything. I was totally drunk and would never consider doing it if I had been sober." If you feel you owe someone an apology, make it in private and in person. Be gentle but direct if you feel you did something the other person may have misinterpreted.

2. Stay mum. It's not your place to provide details about your behavior or that of anyone else. Keep your head down and stay busy if someone tries to pry details out of you. "I'm on deadline! I've got to get busy!" you say to anyone who stops by to chat. Don't make any mention of it on Twitter or Facebook.

3. Be honest. Why did you snuggle up to the workmate? Do you have feelings for the other person? Why did you gossip about your boss? Are you mad at her for something or just frustrated your career isn't going as you planned? Consider why you behaved badly and don't just blame it on the alcohol. Probe for something deeper that you may need to address and handle.

Have you ever had morning-after regrets regarding your behavior with colleagues? What would you recommend?


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why You Need to Grab for Training Opportunities at Work

You may be so busy at work that you're lucky to hit the bathroom once a day and find time to grab a sandwich to eat at your desk. When your boss offers you more training, your immediate response may be to decline. More training? Who has the time?

But in this story I did for Gannett/USAToday, you'll see that it's to your advantage never to turn down a chance to learn something new....

One of the more frustrating messages in this poor economy has been employers' contention that they have job openings but the skilled labor needed to fill them isn't available.

Now, instead of complaining, more companies are beginning to train employees for the skills they need. Some are even working with high schools and colleges to develop students who will be ready to take on those jobs when they graduate.

Chief Executive Marc Blumenthal of Intelladon, which provides talent-management solutions to employers, says some employers now are designing very specific career development paths for workers, arming them with the skills needed now and in the future.

Among the most popular skills employers want are communication, writing, finance and customer service, he says.

Still, an employer won't target all of it's current workers for development. If you're not on the list, your company might not consider you worth the effort and your future there could be limited. Also, missing out on a company-paid training opportunities or education can put you at a disadvantage if you have to look for another job and lack critical skills.

So how do you position yourself to be selected for more on-the-job training?

Many companies have employee-development plans clearly outlined in their performance guidelines, so Blumenthal suggests first making sure you're following those steps to the letter. This can include getting certain certifications before being eligible for the next step.

If your company's career guidelines aren't spelled out clearly, you still can make yourself stand out as someone worth the investment, he says. Watch employees in your company whose work is being recognized already.

"You want to model them and make them your mentors," Blumenthal says.

Another key: Be known as someone who treats customers like gold, he says.

"These days, it's all about service," Blumenthal says. "Everyone has to be focused on keeping the customers happy."

Deborah Shane, a career brand strategist, says you want to show an employer that you're a disciplined and focused worker, but one who also is eager to embrace new opportunities.

"Go into management and tell them that you have an idea on how to streamline a process or improve something. Show that you want to be a part of the process," she says.

Blumenthal says it's important to be seen as someone who can offer solutions or jump in to help with a problem. One way to do that these days is through an online wiki or intranet that companies use for employees to collaborate and seek solutions.

"Employees who are massive contributors (to online boards) and answer the most questions and provide the most solutions are more likely" to be considered for additional opportunities within the company, such as training or education, he says.

Shane agrees, noting that employers favor those who are "go to" people and willing to be a resource to help other team members. Most employers want to see employees with she calls an "entrepreneurial mindset."

"It's having the attitude that you may work for an employer, but you act like it's your business," she says. "Employers want to see you bring your very best, just like you would if you owned the company."

Even if your employer doesn't have a formal training program, Blumenthal says you should pursue improving your skills. For example, you can ask your boss if she will pay for you to take a computer training class because it will help you use new technology and be more productive. Many training programs now are available online, making it even more convenient.

"Always relate it to how your job can be done better," he says.

In addition, federal money targeted for job training means that you may be able to find local programs that will pay for some or all of your training, he says.

"Most companies do want to invest in their people," Blumenthal says. "You can help them see that it doesn't have to be expensive."


Monday, January 16, 2012

Casual Friday Has Gone Too Far

Last Friday I took a couple of hours off to run some personal errands. I wish I had stayed home, because my retinas are forever emblazoned with the visions I saw in "casual Friday" workplaces as I went to take care of my business.

Casual Fridays were instituted as a sort of morale booster years ago, a way to let employees ditch the tie and pantyhose and wear something a little more casual. But I'm pretty sure employers never intended it to go this far and I know that as a customer, I never again want to see a grown woman at work wearing Uggs covered in silver sequins.

So, for the sake of your career, I'm going to go over some rules of casual Friday. (This doesn't apply to those of you who need to wear casual clothes every day because you assemble SUVs or work in the county landfill.)

The biggest don'ts:

1. No boots with fur on them. Leave them at home to wear when you take the dogs slushing.

2. No shirts with sayings on them. I don't want to read your chest before I can conduct my business.

3. Forget the jeans. I don't care how nice they look, they still look like jeans. You may say, "but what about my $200 pair of chic jeans that don't look like jeans?" The truth is, jeans look like jeans whether they cost $20 or $400. Don't wear them to work.

4. No sweatshirts. Especially any that say, "World's Best Nana."

5. No tennis shoes.

6. No shoes that look like you should be boating with the Kennedys.

7. No shorts. I don't care if you wear tights under them, wear boots with them or they make your butt look really cute. Shorts are shorts. (See above reference to jeans.)

8. No hats. You're not a Kardashian or Indiana Jones. It looks stupid and we all know you're doing it because you didn't wash your hair.

9. Nothing you classify as "comfie." You want comfie, work from home. When you're at work, I don't want to see you in pants you could sleep in, a sweater big enough to wrap around yourself and your desk and shoes that you "slop, slop, slop" across the floor in because they're really house slippers.

10. No stamps. Wash off the stamp on your hand you got from the club last night, or put makeup over it. I'm not doing business with someone who could possibly be hungover and/or is still drunk on Jello shooters.

The important thing to remember about casual Fridays is that you don't want to do anything that would unravel the professional image you've created during the week. You never know when a customer or potential new employer seeing you on a Friday is turned off by your beat-up sweatshirt and jeans and heads toward a more professional-looking worker.

Anything you think I should add to the list of "don'ts?"


Friday, January 13, 2012

Could You Telecommute From Italy?

Sometimes the highlight of my day is meeting the new UPS driver. Or cleaning out my keyboard that has become gummed up with peanut butter (the hazards of eating at your desk.) That's why I was intrigued to talk to someone who broke away from the mundane working world and set himself up to work from a truly fabulous place. Read this latest story I did for Gannett/USAToday.com...

If you think you have a pretty sweet deal because you're allowed to work from home one or two days a week, consider the arrangement Barry Frangipane managed to make with his employer.

He worked for 13 months telecommuting from Venic -- no, not Venice, Calif., Venice Italy, the stie of glorious architecture, canals and historic treasures.

Frangipane says his was a work arrangement that many can emulate.

He argues that if you can telecommute five or 25 miles from your office, why can't you telecommute from another part of the world? And even though he lived in Venice in 2004 to 2005, he says what he did is still possible today.

"When I returned to my job in the U.S., I had a renewed sense of vitality toward my job and my life," he says. "When you experience life outside the U.S., you get to look at life from a different lens. You then realize that you can look at everything differently. I even came back and looked at problems at work differently."

So at a time when many Americans feel overworked and stressed, could telecommuting from Venice — or another desired location — be possible?

First you have to do a little planning. Frangipane's advice:

• Start slowly. Frangipane had been working for a software company where he is still employed five miles from his home in Florida.

He began telecommuting one day a week then eventually increased that to full time. His productivity increased, and he kept in touch via email, phone and teleconferencing.

That helped convince his bosses that a full-time telecommuting arrangement wouldn't hurt his work.

"Except for the Christmas party, I didn't miss a meeting or event," he says. "I had my tools in place to show it could work."

• Deal with questions as they arise. For every issue that might be a roadblock to working in Italy, Frangipane was able to come up with an answer.

For example, he worked 2 to 11 p.m. in Italy so he was putting in the same hours as his employer's East Coast workers, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST.

• Set a departure date. If you don't set a timetable, you'll continue to put it off, Frangipane says.

As the date neared for Frangipane and his wife to leave for Italy, they took care of items such as renting their furnished home and selling their cars. With the money they received from the cars and rent, they were able to get an apartment in Venice and make up for the salary lost when his wife quit her job.

• Be realistic. Frangipane's wife quit her job as an administrative assistant and knew it would be nearly impossible to find another job in Italy.

Frangipane says his wife found much more discrimination than in the United States; most employers won't hire non-Italians. Months before returning to this country, Frangipane's wife applied for jobs online and had another position lined up when she returned.

• Understand technology overseas. It took a while for Frangipane to figure out that the main government provider of Internet service was unreliable, so he finally contracted with a private company.

He also discovered that cell-phone service was much more widely available and reliable than land lines.

• Understand the language. Frangipane and his wife took Italian classes while they were there.

"When you know the language, you become a part of the society because you can have real conversations instead of just being able to ask where the bathroom is," he says.

Frangipane, who still visits Venice yearly, believes that his experience made him a better worker and a happier person and that others shouldn't dismiss such an idea as impossible.

"Venice is a family. Your friends and relationships become much more important, and you're less likely when you come home to live in a cocoon," he says. "It's given me a renewed interest in my work and in relationships."

Where would be your dream place to telecommute from?


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

5 Ways to Establish Friendly Relationships at Work

One of the most difficult things about starting a new job is trying to become friendly with your colleagues without making yourself seem like a total dweeb.

Be too friendly and you come off as a bit of a stalker or maybe a motormouth. Be more reserved and you might be perceived as snooty or weird.

So, how to strike the right balance and start relationships off on a friendly note? Here are some ideas:

  • Ask the right kinds of questions. Don't ask new colleagues about their romantic life, health, politics, religion or how much they make. Safe subjects can include asking about good restaurants, recent travels or their favorite sports teams.

  • Listen carefully. In the beginning it can be difficult to know what subjects shouldn't be touched with a co-worker. For example, you may innocently inquire about a pet, only to have the co-worker break into sobs because her 22-year-old Mr. Kitty just went to cat heaven. Listen for the subjects workers discuss with one another, and watch for cues that some issues shouldn't be approached.

  • Don't sound like a broken record. There's nothing that will get you the reputation of being a complete and utter boor like telling the same story over and over again. No, your co-workers don't want to know every morning about your horrible commute.

  • Don't give up. Just because you commit a gaffe and talk about an issue that rankles others or ask a question that is awkward, don't withdraw into your cubicle to die of mortification. Everyone makes mistakes when getting to know others -- make a sincere apology and move on.

  • Give up being snarky. While your best buddies may love what they consider to be your hilarious commentary on the state of the world, this trait may be unappreciated and misunderstood by new colleagues. Rein in your tendencies to be sarcastic or satirical until they get to know you better. Any cruel or gossipy comments are never appropriate in the workplace.

What other tips do you have for new workers to form good relationships at work?


Friday, January 6, 2012

How Do Others Perceive You?

My friends in college used to tease me because they said when someone walked into a room, I looked them up and down, from head to toe. I wasn't aware I was doing this -- until I realized that I could later remember everything the person was wearing.

I worried that this habit of mine would be seen as rude -- even judgmental -- so I worked to curb it. But as I got older, I realized that we all make assessments within seconds of seeing someone. It's ingrained in us, and even though I was more obvious about it when I was younger, I know that I still "size" someone up -- especially when meeting for the first time.

Do you make assessments within minutes? What would someone glean from your appearance or behavior, do you think? It's a subject I explored for my latest Gannett/USAToday column....

If you think you'll be recognized at work or garner a promotion just because you work hard, you need to get a clue.

While you may believe you're a diligent worker and deserve to be rewarded, others may not perceive you the same way. And it's others' perception of you that will determine your success, says Joel A. Garfinkle, a career coach.

"Perception is important because how people view you and how their minds gets made up about who you are directly impacts your career," he says. "Everyone gets to the point at sometime in their career where you can't just expect to be noticed for what you do."

It's critical to let others know what you do and how your efforts directly help a company, Garfinkle says. That doesn't mean you become an arrogant blowhard who brags constantly about your efforts, but do keep others informed of the facts about your work that are helping the bottom line.

Instead of bragging how you're the only one able to handle a certain customer, send an email to a boss noting how you used strategies suggested in a recent industry article to deal effectively with an unhappy patron. This shows the boss that you not only made an important contribution, but that these are valuable strategies that could help others.

"Too often people feel that if they promote the good work they're doing, people will look down on them," Garfinkle says. "But you can talk about your role in the process and what you achieved. Or, relay the good comments people make about your work to the boss. You're just passing on information, and that starts to change their perception of you."

What happens if you find out that others don't have a flattering perception of you? If that happens, Garfinkle says you should try to find advocates within the company willing to speak positively about you.

If just one person holds a negative view of you, try building a better connection and rapport with the person, he suggests.

"Engaging this person and getting to know him or her takes courage and a lot can be gained by it," he says.

In his book, Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level, (Wiley, $24.95), Garfinkle outlines several "influencers" on perception that may be out of your control, such as your life experiences or where you grew up. He says you can take some steps to deal with such perceptions. For example:

• Your cultural upbringing taught you not to stand out or be too visible.

That's a problem in American business climates where you must learn to call attention to your contributions. To battle this problem, seek high-profile projects and learn to share your accomplishments with colleagues.

• You behave in a certain way because of the region where you grew up.

A New Yorker may be more direct while a Southerner may be more reticent. Garfinkle says it's a good idea to learn where your colleagues or boss grew up. That may help you connect with them better.

Making an effort to understand differences will help give others a better perception of you.

• You're a woman in a mostly male environment.

Such women workers may be judged because they are in the minority and may have a more difficult time being heard if they don't speak strongly.

A male mentor can help give advice to women in such a position, Garfinkle says. He also suggests women develop advocates among their male counterparts.

• You can be judged by the company you keep.

If you mostly hang out with people at work who don't have good reputations, you may be perceived in the same way. Try to limit interactions with gossips while spending more time talking to those who are well respected.


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

4 Easy Ways to Make Your Career Better in 2012

I know a lot of people say you shouldn't make resolutions because you're just setting yourself up for disappointment. But I feel just the opposite -- when I make a resolution, I feel hopeful.

I think that's because I do a gut check as I make a resolution. I mean, I know that if I say I plan to give up Diet Dr. Pepper's and M&Ms, I'll know in my gut that is never going to happen.

But I do know that the resolution I made to pick up the phone and call one family member a week is something that feels right in my gut. So does the resolution I made to stop using my lunch hour to read the newspaper or catch up on emails while eating. I'm going to take Keith Ferrazzi's advice and start learning to invite others to lunch. Not only will it make me a better networker, but I think it will just make me happier to have a lunch with a nice person instead of the New York Times.

I've come up with a list for anyone's career that feels right in my gut. It doesn't feel too ambitious, and I believe it will not only make you happier, but help your career. Here's some ideas to make 2012 better:

1. Join a professional organization. It doesn't have to be directly related to your field. For example, maybe you're working for a technology company, but you have an interest in becoming a better writer. There are dozens of professional writing associations -- and gaining diverse contacts and skills can really pay off.

2. Put your hand up -- or down. If you're always the one volunteering for committees, it's OK not to take on the work this year. Give yourself a break and use the time to just have more breathing room. If you've always hung back, it's time to take the step forward and volunteer to head up a committee or board in an organization. Remember: It's not a death sentence and you will survive.

3. Make at least one referral a month. Look through your LinkedIn contacts, and find one person to introduce to someone else. Send an email, or invite them both to lunch. The only thing you're committed to is the introduction. Let them take it from there.

4. Send a handwritten thank-you note every month. It doesn't have to be for anything critical. Just give a note to the IT person who took the time to explain how your new iPad works. Or send one to the co-worker who covered for you when you left early to see your son's hockey game.

Admit it: None of these suggestions are difficult. They are things you can easily do to make an investment in your career. They don't require taking a test or spending a bunch of money. Don't hold back in making your career better this year.

What else do you feel are easy ways to help a career this year?