Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bonus Blog: Help! I hate my job!

As noted in earlier posts, I occasionally get private messages from folks with questions. The writer wished to remain anonymous:

I am having problems with work. How do I stop my boss from acting one way and expecting something else? Should I even try? How do you know when to get out?

First step: Do nothing.

Yes, take all the stuff that is making you crazy and do absolutely nothing. Acting when crazy = bad (whether you're a manager or driving a car). Suck it up, get to a place where you can think clearly (or, with the car example, pull over), and then mull your options.

In a bad situation at work, whether it's with a bad boss or a haunting in the office, the following are your available choices:

1) Do nothing. If the economy is full of suck and/or your options for employment are limited, sometimes continuing to suck it up is your best option, and you can review your choices later. Alternately, you might look at your choices and realize sucking it up is the least bad alternative.

This is not me advocating you stay in a job where you are unhappy; this is me saying you are the only person who knows what works for you, and its perfectly ok not to make any change at all if it works out that way in your personal calculations.

2) Take action in the workplace. This can start with talking to the offender causing the problem for you. Traditionally if you're going to do that, you need to be non-confrontational, come with problems and solutions, and do your best to put both of you on the same side in the conversation, so it's in the best interest of the person causing you misery to stop causing you misery. This is sometimes impossible, but typically you won't know if it's even an available option unless you try. In the case of your boss saying one thing and meaning another, talking to him/her is likely to reveal that this is not the only part of their lives where they are having this problem, and a particularly open-minded person can help you with solutions that work in other parts of their lives.

Non-opened minded individuals may respond with "What the hell are you talking about, I'm totally not like that," or "How dare you?" or "What? This is the first I've heard of this." Any of the defensive responses should be talked through, up to the moment you worry you may be pissing them off. Then back off, and contemplate other options.

"Take actions in the workplace" is way more than one step; if its more than one person, you need to talk to them all. If it's a ghost moving stuff around your desk and whispering "Get Out" in your ear, you need to talk to HR about working from home. All action taken to change the status quo will cause some kind of waves. Typically, however, it is totally worth trying to fix the situation; you deserve to work in as a comfortable environment as you can make it. It makes you more productive and happier.

In the case of a boss who gives mixed messages, btw, "take action" should span to include new behaviors to protect against the trap of mixed messages. With bosses I have had in the past, I typically wrote down everything we talked about and sent it as an email to them with the message "This is what I got out of our last convo, if this is not what you meant, please respond ASAP and let me know, otherwise this is what I'll assume." Most bosses don't LIKE this, but will understand and accept it. Bosses that give mixed messages and specifically tell you not to document what they told you and email them about it generally raise a red flag in a good, productive working environment. In that case, I'd keep my own running notes of each meeting (date and rough time) and try to have witnesses present whenever deliverables are discussed. It's not a fun way to work and live, but it can be done.

Finally, after you've talked to the perpetrator(s) and modified your behavior to reduce the issue, sometimes the only remaining option is escalation. This is the most dangerous part of breaking the status quo, as going over the head of your boss can sometimes get your head cut off in an organization. Best to dot all T's and cross all I's in terms of trying other things, so that management doesn't see this as a standard behavior and more as a behavior of last resort; never escalate above your boss without doing everything in your power to get what you need at his level or below. Upper management remembers people who go around the chain of command, and they frequently do not like people who do it--they assume that makes you hard (if not impossible) to manage.

My suggestion is, before escalating, visit your local Human Resources rep and talk over what's happening and what you've tried. The HR person is interested in making sure neither you nor your boss sue the company (as that person's primary goal) and therefore is likely to provide a lot of good data on communicating with your boss before escalating any further. He/she may have additional things to try. If they don't (or, if they do and you've tried them and they didn't work), this person can help you follow the appropriate process to escalate above your boss. While you could go over your boss's head rather easily without involving HR, its better to involve them to prove that whole crossing T's, dotting I's thing.

As a note when talking to HR: HR's primary goal is to protect the company. They can be kind. They can be nice. They can be helpful and friendly and awesome. Some folks reading this may well be in Human Resources. However, their primary purpose is to prevent HR incidents and to avoid financial or other liability to the company. That comes before all other things that an HR person is. It's like asking a police officer to stop being a watchdog for the law. He/she may be off-duty, but they can't watch you commit a small crime and let it go. It's their JOB to enforce the law (or in the case of the HR person, the company rules).

Escalation above your boss is never going to end well. I have no happier way to write that last sentence. Asking someone above your boss to help with your boss's behavior will be seen as a slight by your boss. It's like you automatically added a negative item to their yearly review. Do it if you are getting low on choices--eg: you're going to quit if things don't change. It takes a lot to restore trust/balance in a relationship after this type of escalation.

Likewise, escalating issues with your boss only works (in my experience) about one time in every three, assuming that you have logic, data, etc. on your side. It's hard for your boss's boss to agree to alter the behavior of your boss without setting a bad precedent for everyone else below your boss. One in three times upper management is typically willing to take that chance for various reason--the infraction is so severe, the boss's boss doesn't like your boss, the problem is a hot button for upper management, and a few very special other exceptions. Otherwise, 2 out of 3 times you've pissed off the person who writes your yearly review and calculates your bonus and raises and you get nothing from it. So think very carefully.

3) Finally, you have an option to change venue. This doesn't mean that you quit your job. You could find another position within the company. You could talk to your boss about a move to another manager (or build up political good will with another manager to ask you over to his/her team).

You always have the option to "walk" when you're upset in your position. I recommend thinking carefully before doing it, however. You rarely want to burn bridges behind you--the employer you leave today is the person called by another HR department tomorrow to ask about your employment. Legally they cannot say anything hurtful or bad about you (or they could be sued), but legally they aren't prohibited from saying things like "Yes, she was scheduled for termination when she quit."

If you look at your choices, try everything available, and still hate where you work, leaving is a good option. I typically look at it in the happy/sad test way: If I am sad more than half the time because of work or at work, then I need to find a new place to work. If I'm happy more than half the time because of work or at work, I'm right where I need to be (for now). Simplistic, yes, but happy/sad taps a wealth of subconscious information.

So, you have decided you're leaving. Things to consider: the state of your finances, any big events upcoming (at work or at home), and the state of the job market. In a bad economy with good finances you could quit without having any additional work lined up, but that's a medium risk proposition. Leaving your friends in the lurch during a massive project when the market is good and your finances are not might make you interested in hanging out a bit longer. A baby on the way can also complicate when you want to leave--do you need the insurance (answer is typically yes), and if so, how will you pay for things insurance pays for if you leave?

If you are pissed off or angry, go do something else before contemplating your leaving time frame. While you might not be able to shake either completely when you're contemplating a change, changes made out of negative moods rarely bare a positive influence on your overall resume (or networking). Basically, if you're cranky you are probably not making decisions that are going to benefit you greatly in the long run without a lot of careful thought.

Always try to give at least two weeks notice. I know most people know this, but you'd be surprised at how many people still don't give that. Don't try to poach people where you currently work for your new place--it's actionable (legally) and also quite rude. You would also be not surprised to know how many people try this (both during their leaving period and six months later).

Finally, think carefully about what you're going to say is your reason for leaving. As heartening as would be to say "I'm leaving because my boss is a doodoo head with the reasoning of a three year old," it falls into the "burning bridges behind you" category (and in some cases, when negotiating for unpaid vacation time, bonuses, or raise installments, can be like setting fire to the bridge while you're still standing on it). Unless you are specifically attempting to make things officially better for people (through the use of HR) as you leave, typically cite a more vague reason about other opportunities when asked why you are going.

One other thing on not saying what you actually think: will it actually help? Are you just sabotaging a future reference? Usually by the time that you get to the point of quitting, you've tried all the reasonable methods of communicating your displeasure. Is saying something as you go really going to be effective? If so, by Jove, do it! If not, preserve your reputation and leave sleeping dogs lie. Alternately, split the difference and tell HR quietly about what happened, what you tried to do to resolve it, but then still make your official reason for leaving something vague and not specific to the issue itself.

Your mileage may vary by state, by the way, but in some states quitting in a situation where any reasonable person would quit means that you may still collect unemployment; for example, I left a job in the early 2000's because of health reasons. The company did not dispute my claim for unemployment and the state in which I lived granted it because anyone quitting to preserve health was understandable and appropriate.

So there you go. Way longer than expected, and I'll likely come back to these ideas and touch on them in future posts. To sum up: you can do nothing, take action, or change venue. Hopefully my blog has given you a little more info about the best ways to look at and implement these potential choices.

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