Wednesday, June 27, 2012


There's a good chance I'll do more on this topic over the course of my blog. defines professionalism as professional  character, spirit, or methods and 2. the standing, practice, or methods of a professional, as distinguished from an amateur.

I think you can act like a professional whether you are one or not; which is not to suggest bursting into an operating room and just taking over on that lung surgery, but more about ethics and behavior in the workplace,

Yes, I said the "e" word. I'll say it (type it) again: ethics. Ethics in the workplace is also a much larger discussion. For the moment let's define being ethical as doing what movies would consider "the right thing" regardless of the fact that in real life the right thing can sometimes get you fired or defenestrated. Also, to clarify, I don't mean gangster or mobster movies, or movies where evil is the winning character.

Basically, professionalism in the workplace is behaving as people expect a professional to behave. Note the word "expect." People have expectations. They will vary between jobs, groups, and individuals. This, I think, just makes things interesting, but can throw you or others for a loop.

My basic, every day professionalism in the work place includes (but is not limited to):

1) Dressing appropriately. A lot of tech shops are cool with jeans and t-shirts, but some consulting gigs have you in suits and ties (and everything in between). Dress to the level of the person that is paying you/managing your reviews would prefer. Every once in a while, dress down to mingle more with other folks (and to keep from seeming like a suck up). But the gist is, T-shirts and jeans might be allowed, but ones with rips in them worn daily to the office produce a lower review score from a supervisor than clean ones with no holes.

A lot of people suggest to dress for the position you wish to have. This is interesting because it doesn't really include the full world of options of jobs you have v. jobs you wish to have. For example, if you're a member of the administrative team (customer facing) you're probably wearing very nice clothes daily. But if you are trying to move into the System Administration position within your company, they are wearing non-customer facing clothing like jeans. The Sys Admins may have to work at 2 am and something has gone wrong if they are meeting with customers, so typically the dress code between you and them will be very different, and dressing for the job you want could get you fired from the job you have.

This is why I recommend to dress as nicely as expected by your current boss. To move anywhere, you need their support (with very limited exceptions). This means you need them on your side and supporting you. Doing what they want, in something as simple as dressing, goes a long way, because most people don't think of what other people want very often.

Dressing appropriately is acting professionally because you are thinking about and reacting (hopefully properly) to what those other people think in a positive way. This is a sign of maturity in life, let alone in the office, and it sets a tone for professionalism that may help cancel out those bad days when you're short with people or your jeans rip on the way into the office.

2) Treat everyone you meet as if they're someone. I talk about this much earlier in this blog--Help People Even When it Doesn't Benefit You--and I stand by it. The person you're kind to today might turn out to be a VP at another company where you want to get hired tomorrow. To paraphrase the Bible, it says that you are judged by God in how you treat the least of his creations (Matthew 25:45). Religious or not, you are judged the same way by your co-workers, employers, and others every day, conciously or not, by how you treat the people they see you interacting with.

For example, you have two people scheduled for a job interview. There's a pan handler on the street outside your building. You can see out, people coming in cannot see in and probably think that no one can actually see them, anyway. Candidate one walks past the pan handler not making eye contact. Candidate two gives half the sandwich he/she is gulping down before the interview to the pan handler and exchanges a few polite words before coming in. Most people are going to be inclined to hire Candidate two before he/she even opens his/her mouth at the interview; random acts of kindness say a lot about a person, ESPECIALLY WHEN THERE IS NO BENEFIT OTHER THAN TO THE PERSON TO WHOM YOU ARE BEING KIND. People want to work with kind people, even in businesses that are fast paced and require a lot of shark-like behavior; you want to trust and like the people you work with. That means that you need to behave in a way that can be liked and trusted.

3) Don't swear. I don't care how nice your office is about it, don't do it. Unconciously, people put a check in the "not like so much" column when you swear. Things they hate about themselves when they swear get associated in the back of their head related to you when you swear. Many people don't like swearing, and they won't say anything, especially if the culture allows for it, which means you're burning relationship bridges by swearing and don't even know it.

Finally, I kind of think of swearing as a cop-out: I can be so much more creative with my language than what I am limited to by swear words. Call someone a shithead or let them know that you found the village where the idiot is missing and can give them a ride there, and I'll bet that people in the room will be way more amused by the second than the first.

4) Be amusing, not annoying. It's a fine line, but humor bonds people. Don't denigrate others, and ration self denigration sparingly (I use it to diffuse situations between two parties that are actively hostile towards one another; if they're laughing at me and not at each other, we've made our first step towards getting things sorted out). This also doesn't mean memorize knock knock jokes or anything. It means don't be afraid to make people smile; when they do, all kinds of awesome hormones are released, and when they smile and associate it with you, you are literally conditioning them to like you.

Yes, being amusing can be professional, by the way. Never work "blue" (off color or HR sensitive joking), and don't make everything a joke. But treating people well, like they are important, and making them happy in small bursts is professional behavior and it both benefits you and gets stuff done.

Watch the annoying part, by the way. Its not just a poorly told joke or bad timing when to try and make a funny. It's not being late to meetings, or apologizing when you are. A lot of places scheduled 10 am to 11 am and then your next meeting 11 am to 12 pm. You will be late to the second meeting unless you can teleport (or the meeting is in the same room). Apologize, let folks know the situation, and move forward. Don't keep people waiting.

Don't tease people. I know, I said humor was okay, and a lot of places allow for teasing. Being professional, however, doesn't allow for teasing. It is literally a time bomb in your hands; people might silently hate you for it (whether they're the object of the teasing or not), others might just find you a bore, and worst of all, someone might report you to HR for harassment. Just don't do it.

5) Do what you said you will do when you said you would do it, OR notify people as soon as you know otherwise that isn't going to happen. This means no lying. This also means not saying "yes" to everything that crosses your plate. It also means reviewing your workload and being honest with yourself about whether or not you can make your commitments and communicating if you cannot as soon as you find out (not after working a few late nights trying to fix the unfixable). This builds trust. Being trustworthy is being professional.

There are a lot more "secrets" to professionalism, and I'll go into them in future blogs. Start with these five, and you're well on your way.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Making People Ill, Part 2: Management and Illness

As discussed in my previous blog post on being ill in the workplace, traditionally you have specific options to look at: set number of sick days, or a pool of days that you can use for your illness or vacation. Without directives from management or the company, employees can and will do what they want to make the most of these like coming to work with a fever and sneezing on everyone to avoid losing vacation time with the family.

In the previous post, I talked about what employees have to consider, and also about the rate at which normal humans actually get sick. Today we're going to talk a little about Mangement and the Company and illness (oh my).

As a manager, I don't want people coming to work contagious. That is different than coming to work sick. Basically, if someone is sick but has something that isn't contagious, I'll feel sorry for them, but if they feel they can at least do 60% of their normal work, I welcome them in. An excellent example here is a sinus infection; they are really, really hard to give to other people who are not intimately involved with a person. Knowing a sinus infection from the flu, pneumonia, etc., however, is hard to tell if you or they are not a medical professional. Typically, if someone is producing extra liquids--nosebleed, phlegm, other gross stuff--I'm going to ask them to make sure they aren't contagious.

A trip to the doctor or Urgent Care is preferred, but typically I'll take 24 hours without a fever. Note, many medical studies still argue today about when you're infectious: most agree that before you have full on symptoms you could be spreading the virus or bacteria, but there are different agreements about whether you're still shedding the bacteria/virus the entire time you're sniffling, coughing, etc. or just after the worst of the fever is over. As I'm not a doctor, and they can't even agree, I've come up wtih the 24 hours after a fever rule.

I've also got the one I just casually mentioned above, which is 60% effective to their normal quality work. When people are sick, they are not doing top notch work (typically). As long as they're at least at 60%, its ok with me if they want to work through it (and not infect me). For me, personally, this means I have to be able to drive to work; if I can't operate a motor vehicle due to illness (coughing too hard, head too fuzzy, balance off, etc.) then I don't come to work. It's a nice rule of thumb to discuss with employees. If you feel unsafe in heavy machinery, please don't come in and try to make coffee or code.

If they are sick, I like to do the magical "work from home" option, again, up to the 60% effective option. Sometimes, people cannot drive their cars because the car doesn't come with an in-car bathroom and their issues are related to that. Their brains are relatively clear. Maybe they can work from home. With folks who are full on shedding virus/bacteria--with a fever or being told by a doctor/nurse they're doing it--if they feel they can produce up to 60% of their productive work, I'm typically good with them working from home.

Note, however, not all COMPANIES are. I've worked in healthcare; often if you're ill, they want you to simple take a day off and not work from home. In some states, cities/zones, it might not be okay to work from home when you're not well enough to be in the office. And some companies just don't count work that isn't done under the company roof, either for auditing purposes or because of some esoteric rules about managers being able to walk around and see people click-click-clicking away. As a manager and an employee, you should check the company guidelines about working from home.

If there aren't any guidelines, and the employee feels confident in taking responsibility for any state/local/zone laws, then I'd recommend for reliable employees that you just let them work from home and see how it goes. If it goes well, make your own policy and keep it on the down low. If it doesn't work well, then you may need to cancel that policy for all employees to avoid the ones that don't 'work' for the "Work from home" policy from complaining to HR. Alternately, if you determine its not working and tell someone they no longer have the privilege, you can talk to HR about your overall work-from-home policy. Please remember, though, from my post on HR: HR is here for the company, not for you, and not for the employee. Plan accordingly.

The world of comp time is complicated and harrowing. You should review all materials at the office/company handbook to see if its mentioned. If not, and as long as the employee knows that it is completely between members of the team and you as a manager, and that comp time banked or otherwise could be lost at a moment's notice, I typically am of the opinion to go ahead. However, you need to make sure you're not violating any labor laws (ie: in banking that time you need to make sure you comply with the laws, or in making time up) and that you and the team are not actively being untruthful about overall hours worked. Any employee unhappy with this can and will blow the whistle to HR on the practice, and unless you have a policy already in place, you, as a manager, are risking reprimand or worse for allowing for comp time. So, if you choose this option, know that doing so has risks attached to it.

As the boss you also approve sick time/PTO. An option you have is to just not count sick time or PTO for good employees/people so long as they are not abusing the privilege. Even if they start abusing it, a firm discussion with them and notification of accomodations that can be made by HR should be had before you withdraw this privilege. I would use it sparingly, but it is always an available option to managers who are pretty sure that the star employee isn't actually pretending to cough from a fishing boat somewhere on a lake.

Finally, as the boss, you have to enforce policies at your company about time off. Maybe you don't have the leniency to use your own judgment because of law or company policy, or because someone with pneumonia whose been out a week is kind of noticeable. My natural tendency on the matter of sick time is to never question it; even, and especially, at emergency time or crunch time. People burn out. Mental health is a recognizeable illness, so if someone wants to bust a sick day to sit at home and play video games, I don't care--it's their benefit. I won't be happy if it leaves me in the lurch, but I'm not going to drop by to see if they're "really" ill. They and I (well, I most of the time) are adults.

Some employees will be more sick than others; if you can provide flex time for them (they are in the office core times, but can work from home or stay later or come earlier) to help accomodate, great. People with kids really need this for both their own illnesses and general kid stuff. I'm not sure who in the school randomly decides to create holidays where none were before, but, surprise, parents, SCRAMBLE, you have three days to find childcare because we're cancelling school on Friday. Happy Wednesday!

If an employee uses all their sick time, you should work with them and HR to find out what their options are when they get sick again. With luck, they won't, but if you read my last post, you'll grasp that people get sick a lot. This may mean they go "in hoc" with the company; it may mean they take days off without pay; it may mean that they use vacation days. But work something out with them before their next illness, when they're awake and alert and (hopefully) at their mental best, so things can be done as fairly as possible, and they don't have to worry about being sick and figuring out how to handle it with the company (or worse, worrying about being fired) at the same time.

When you have employees who have been sick or the threat of illness abounds in the office, I recommend frequent hand washing reminders and, if your company doesn't already provide it for free, picking up hand sanitizer and dropping it off like a little present for every employee. Science has proven that, statistically, people with cleaner hands get sick a lot less often, hence the imperative regarding hand washing in places like hospitals. Also, as illness makes the rounds, I recommend fewer in-person meetings in enclosed spaces; stand outside or use a conference call. Do normal things to prevent transmission, like suggest people cough/sneeze into the crook of their arm instead of into their hands, and, you know, covering their coughs in general.

I don't like to be sick anymore than anyone else, so this is less about being an excellent manager (although you do get that as a nice side benefit) and more about staying healthy yourself. A healthy manager has a much better chance of being a good manager.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Making People Ill: Part 1, Being Ill Yourself

The current technology management environment is kind of flummoxed about what to do with sick people. If you work in technology and health care, its a little more clear cut, but no less confusing on the actual, you know, sick days side of the equation.

As an employee, what do you do when you're sick? As a manager, what do you preach when members of your team are ill? As a company, what is your policy on employees who are sick? Today we're going to talk about the typical options and what you can do when you're an employee. Future blogs will cover what the manager is expected to do (both as an employee and a manager) and some tips about how to handle company policy on illness.

Today, though, we start with tracing out the problem: how is time off for illness being handled across most of the technology management environment?

If you are lucky enough to have a job with benefits (I am currently that lucky) and those benefits include sick days (I am not that lucky), typically you get them in one of two forms: 1) specifically designated sick days, and usually not a ton of them; most companies do 5 formal sick days or 2) Paid Time Off, which is a pool of sick days and vacation days.

Both policies kind of suck, which, if you have them, you know why. First, let's look at the limited sick day plan. If you are very lucky you might get more than 5 days, but I haven't actually been anywhere that's been the case. I have caught flus every 3-4 years that eat up five days at a time. There is nothing different in those years that prevents me from getting ill other than that 5 day stretch, but since I don't have sick days, what do I do on the sixth day I'm so sick that I can't come into the office?

Alternately, PTO, if you're lucky, is 15 days to spend on being sick or taking vacation time. It's the same pool. So, if you have a horrible headache, fever and cough, do you burn a day you could be spending healthy with your family in Disneyland, or do you go into the office and infect everyone else?

I don't have children. Look at people who do. There is a family leave act in place in most states and there is a national law. Basically, if your mother, father, husband, children, brothers, sisters, or in some very rare cases, extended family get very sick--like cancer kind of sick--you can legally take time off to help them/be with them. Many places have paternity/maternity rules in place so you can have some time off after a baby is born, or after your spouse goes back to work so you have flexible time to be with the baby. Neither of these particularly helps you when the baby gets YOU sick (or if the rest of the family does). On the bright side, that's not how things like cancer work. On the downside, as children gain immunities and encounter strangers (other kids in daycare for example), THEY CATCH EVERYTHING. Everything. Their little immune systems are the engines that could--they're down for a day, two, maybe three at the most and then their running and screaming and getting infected (or infecting others) with something new.

Adult immune systems rock, but cannot keep up with the traffic coming with and out of the little ones. You may be able to use either of those options as needed for long term illness or during the time of the paternity/maternity leave to help take care of the kids when they are sick, but things start getting iffy when the kids are getting you sick. A parent with a child freshly in daycare is going to blow through 5 sick days in the blink of an eye. And just how much of their family vacations do they want to give away by staying home sick when they're sick once or twice a month for a year or two while their kids immune systems spool up?

What if work requires you to be in places where your immune system has to work hard? People who travel a lot--locked inside metal tubes with tons of other people who have varying ideas of what hygiene is and are all breathing shared, recycled air--either get hearty immune systems or they get sick more than their fellow employees (or some combo of both).

Then, there are folks who have actual medical issues; people with compromised immune systems or ongoing conditions that cause them to have to take additional sick days or who get sick more often than others. In a lot of cases they can apply for accommodation, but it still often means they may end up eating their sick days, vacation days, etc.

Now that we've reviewed how lame the policies for time off are, how do we answer the question:As an employee, what do you do when you're sick?

As an employee, without being a manager, you're just as screwed as anyone else with the 5 days or the PTO thing, but you are not substantially more screwed, which is nice. Companies often have policies but don't communicate them (or did that one time when you were first hired) or don't enforce them around sick time. Very often, the company doesn't have a policy beyond "you get this many days to decide what to do if you don't feel well."

This means when you're sick, you make the call about how sick is too sick to come into the office; as an individual, if I can drive AND I haven't had a fever in 12 hours, I go to the office. This exposes my co-workers to any germs that may still be coming out of me--there are lots of articles on the fact that after a fever leaves you aren't contagious and just as many that say that you are until you stop "shedding" virus/bacteria, and by "shedding" they mean all the gross stuff trying to claw its way out of your lungs, throat and/or sinuses. As an individual, however--unless I'm in a medical firm or medical profession where I can literally endanger others who compromised systems and am aware of that fact--I can make the decision to come in contagious if there is no set company policy, or if there is a policy and it's not enforced.

If you're thinking this means the 5 days off or PTO policies suck even more because it drives people into the office where they can spread the illness and get even more people sick, you are correct. However, as an individual with no policy or direction from company or manager, you get to make the call--eat up one of those 5 precious days when you might be much sicker later, or go into work now propped up on cold medicine and caffeine?

Whenever I take a position I always ask about working from home as an option. It's not always an available option, but if it's possible, I ask about it, especially around times I might be ill. Some companies cut you off--if you're too sick to come in, you can't work from home. Most companies that allow work from home will allow you to work when you're home ill, provided you don't abuse the privilege (this might be a good time to take a look at my blog post on perception with your bosses, especially when working remotely).

Whenever possible, I try to take this option. In this way I can continue to meet deadlines, email doesn't pile up, and I can work as much or as little as I can stand--as long as I report what I'm doing and when. This doesn't give you carte blanche to take a nap and then act as if you've worked those hours, but it is acceptable to let your boss know you're offline and when you're back online and either make those hours up (more on that later) or take hours out of sick leave or PTO (rather than entire days).

I like to talk to bosses about comp time, as well--this is time that is "comped" back to you. Some companies are formal about it, other companies prohibit it, and some companies don't want to know about it, but are okay with you doing it (seriously) as long as it's not written down and no one tries to push being paid for comped time. For example, during crunch month you might work later nights, longer weeks, even on the weekend; this might mean that your boss "comps" you time after crunch time is over. If you worked Saturday, you might get the Wednesday after launch off if you like. It can also mean that if you regularly work more than 40 hours a week, your boss may not care if you have to take two hours to nap in the middle of the day, and nothing comes out of PTO or sick time. In some cases, bosses may always not take time out of your sick leave or PTO for a day or two illness if you "make up" that time later, or if you've "banked" that time by working overtime before.

You can NEVER count on comp time. Let me repeat that: YOU CAN NEVER COUNT ON COMP TIME. Even if your company has a formal policy on it, they rarely track it. It is an agreement between you and your boss, and you need to be absolutely clear with your boss about banking and making up hours. If the boss is crazy, forgetful, or say switches out between when you banked the time and when you need to use it, it can vanish. Comp time is lovely, but don't depend on it.

Finally, you are now in the realm, as an individual, of "what the company will allow" if you need time off. Say you've used your sick days. Some companies may make you use your vacation days if you need to stay home after that. Some companies only give sick or vacation days on an accrual basis, which means that in addition to burning that time you could be on the beach soaking in the sun on vacation, you're actually going into debt on days you could be on the beach until you're health recovers and enough time passes. Some companies allow you to take time off without pay (though they often force you to use all your sick and vacation days first). It varies company to company.

The gist is, when you take a job, know your options. If you have one and don't know them, don't go directly to HR, go to your boss and ask. Obviously if you have an illness in the family or are expecting a child from childbirth, surrogacy or adoption (or alien landing from the moon, changeling, or anything legally acceptable for this category), talk to HR and use the available options. But always start with your boss--what her/his views are on time on and off, working from home, comp time, etc. It can help to know how to spend your sick days or your PTO days, but also how NOT to spend them.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why I've been Away...


Hubby and friends and I have been working on this book for about 9 years. It will be available for sale sometime in the next few weeks (trust me, I'll update here).

This is part of my life as a member of Dreams of Deirdre (link on the right); I've learned a ton about managing people through doing so in the course of my social life--playing games--as well as my work life, where typically I am a manager, project manager, and scrum master.

I am so very proud of my name on the cover!

More details as they become available.

We will return to our regularly scheduled program next week.

Thanks, so much, for your patience and tenacity.