Thursday, January 31, 2013

So you're sick. Or want to go on vacation.

I cover taking time off for being ill (Making People Ill, Part 1: Being Ill Yourself) and managing time off for employees who are ill (Making People Ill, Part II: Management and Illness) in previous blog posts.

Today we're going to cover how to actually leave the office at the office and still be viewed as a professional who is both a) competent and b) allowed to leave the office again. We'll also discuss how these are ideas to pass on to folks you manage or work with that will also make them look sterling when they may not be feeling quite so well.

Redundancy Department of Redundancy: A lot of corporate theories abound that being the only person that knows X in the company means you have job security for life.

For example, when I was in my last year of middle school, I was an assistant in the office for one period per day.  There was a lady there, who was mean to everyone, including me. However, she taught me how to manage the attendance in the ancient computer systems and eventually warmed up to me. Then she went on vacation. Apparently, she would only ever show students how to do that and only students in their last year at middle school, shortly before her annual vacation. As a result of frozen funding for schools and this practice should she could literally never be fired. In order to get their funding the school had to use the automated system, and she had been present and attended the classes on how to use it; she could not be fired for insubordination or no one would be using the system, and the school would lose its grants. I had taken extensive notes on how to use the system, which she swore that I should keep to myself, but I may have left in the school president's inbox on my last day of classes. I didn't enjoy middle school (not sure who remembers it fondly) but I was pretty sure it would be much worse without those grants, and that could happen at any time if that lady got taken out by a bus.

And that's kind of the moral of the story: attempting to horde information usually ends poorly for someone, and you (or the person hording it) are gambling on who that will be.  The guy who knows the code base like the back of his hand, full of spaghetti code and trap doors who doesn't show the new kids how to play in his sand box may be quite overwhelmed when the company gets tired of it and brings in a completely new repository and coding language to turn everything over into. They may not know how it's coded now, but they know what they want, and their know they can build it themselves, outsource it, or purchase a ready-made system. When that happens, the guy whose been hording the knowledge can either get on board the train or get run over (and get laid off).

As a manager, and an employee, it behooves you to build redundancy into your role. You don't want another person doing the exact same job that you do, but you do want someone who knows what you're working on, kind of how you do it, and can do it--at least temporarily--if you want to go on vacation or take a day off. Sometimes a car requires you take a day off to take it to be fixed. Sometimes a basement floods. Your boss isn't going to be okay with you leaving for a day (or more) and there being no one available who knows the status of your work. There will always be emergency projects that spring up that you can't have spooled up someone on, and there will always be more complex items that are just too complex for someone to handle while you are out. But making a good faith effort to cover all your bases goes a long way towards the patience of your boss and others who may be waiting on the results of that work you're not doing because you're out.

This also applies to people that you manage. I generally manage developers, testers, designers, etc. I also manage under a Scrum/Agile process, so an Extreme Programming technique, called pair programming, is not that uncommon. This is where two developers work a problem together, usually with one typing and the other one reading along/discussing the issue. They work out problems as they go. Some companies think this is a waste, but studies have found that paired programmers move faster than one programmer alone, and produce more quality work. They also transfer knowledge; so, for example, if one half of the pair is out sick, the other half can keep going. Whatever work you do, having folks spend a half hour every couple of days with another person on your team to get abreast of what they're working on is not a bad idea; people can get an idea in a status meeting, but there's really nothing like sitting together and setting time aside to chat and ask questions.

This is, in general, a good idea for unexpected outages. If you know you're going to be out, specifically schedule time with the person who will be "covering" for you while you're out. Honeymooning, giving birth, visiting family, or just stay-cationing at home, how awesome will it be if not one calls you in a panic while you're out?

Access/No Access: when you are out, what is your available level of access (if any) to work? If you are out sick, can you work from home? Are you available in emergencies only, or are you at the ER throwing up your guts and totally not available at all? If you're on vacation, will you be checking work email occasionally (and charging for that time, because, well, none of us work for free)? Will you be available for an emergency phone call, or will you be out jet skiing?

When you contact work to let them know you are out because of an unexpected outage, you need to clearly communicate at that time what you're availability will be. If you need to sleep all day, you may just say you're unavailable. If you can work from home, you should let people know when you're there and when you're not (as noted in my post on Perception v. Reality).

Despite the fact that you are often very popular and/or vitally needed at the office, you are allowed to be sick if you are sick, and that can and does include the ability not to answer the phone or check email so you can recover. Likewise, if you are going on your honeymoon, its okay to ignore work email. But that also means you need to have set up someone to cover you in advance (as noted above) and, as also noted above, you need to have a clear communication plan in effect and working.

Clear Communication: People need to be able to contact you in an emergency. If you manage other humans, there should always be a way to reach you. Whether or not you pick that option up/check that option is where clear communication comes in.

Clear communication = communicating to others about what your availability is, in a format they are most likely to see/review. This means emailing the general office, calling people who are remote that talk to you regularly, and talking to people like your boss or direct employees in person. It means that people who need things know where to go to get what they need (or try to get what they need) if you are not available. It is also how you communicate what your availability will be (if any) while you are out, across whatever devices you feel comfortable being available on.

So, if someone drops off a baby at the office with your name safety pinned to it, they have some recourse for themselves, child protective services, and of course, finding you. It also means that you have some ability to check in, keep things from piling up, and/or decide not to take a phone call from work because you've told them you won't be available.

Clear communication does not equal (=!) getting people to accept things about your outages. Some people will call even if you say you're not available. Some people will forget that you're going. Use appropriate communication to let people know your availability, access, and who can help them while you're gone, and you've done as much as you can. Acceptance is really up to them at that point.

Even if they're your boss.

Especially if they are your boss.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Its Actually Okay To Let Them See You Sweat

In general, in the work environment, people expect professionalism. I mean, if you're going for a degree in being a Mime, they're all as serious (and silent) as possible, I'm sure.

This typically means that, no matter how mad you get, you don't yell, and that, no matter how freaked out your are, you don't show the giant round stains of sweat under your arms.

It also means that, if you are a typical human, that you will yell, and sometimes they're going to see you flop sweat. The point of today's post is: that's okay. Being human is okay.

For example: recently, I had to speak to someone about their behavior. I had a sit down with him to discuss his behavior, done well away from the rest of the team except for the development lead who also managed him (as I feel all improvement talks should be done in private), and nearly resulted in my firing him on the spot. The point of mentioning this is that I became so angry, I literally had tears in my eyes. Yes, angry. Not afraid, not scared, not frustrated: PISSED. OFF.

A brief moment to note that I am female. I imagine that some male leaders may also tear up when they're very angry, but I've mostly seen it in myself and other females. A large number of employers do not like this behavior, and I'm not terribly fond of it myself in myself. Even writing about it is often considered a bold act, because future employers reading this blog may choose not to hire me because I "might" get emotional as a manager. Quite frankly, I have never met a manager, female or male, who knows what to do with an employee that has water leakage at the eyes. Usually they immediately assume some kind of weakness is going on, and desperately want to fix it or leave it's presence as fast as possible. Sometimes both. 

However, crying sometimes happens. Stub your toe hard enough, no matter your gender, and you'll be blinking back tears in a work environment, too, and subject to the assumptions that are made about people who tear up. Like being seen sweating during a meeting, when people will assume you're nervous, or worse, have poor hygiene. Or when your voice raises in response to someone else, even if you're speaking up because they indicated they couldn't hear you on the speaker phone: loud voices are often construed as rude. Or when you have to ask someone to repeat themselves more than twice, because their accent is so heavy/the background noise is so great/etc. In America, where I write this blog, asking someone to repeat themselves more than twice generally makes the person having to repeat themselves angry on the third repetition, with the automatic thought that they are not being taken seriously, and are literally not being heard...even if there's a really good reason for it.

I've talked about looking at things from the perspective of other people before in this blog, and I will again. But today's post is to understand their perspective--which in this case may well be wrong about you--and how to move on through that and get out through the other side, without being considered a jerk, crazy person, or idiot.

Expressions of emotion do happen in the workplace. Despite the former deodorant logo that sort of became part of corporate culture in the 80's, "Never Let Them See You Sweat" is a cool idea, but often lacks in the actual application portion of the program.  As a human, there are things you do try to adhere to that ideal, such as minimizing work contact with unpleasant reactions/bodily functions, and in so doing, perpetuate professionalism in the environment. But slipping up now and again, or dealing with biological forces that happen whether you want them to or not (ever been in a hot room and willed yourself not to sweat? I have), is something you're going to have to cope with as a manager and as an employee. 

No matter the bodily function--passing gas, yelling, crying, sweating, etc.--you have two options: 1) flee or 2) mitigate and move on. From time to time, fleeing is the right choice; if you are yelling, removing yourself from the situation can help calm things down and get them back to a professional place faster than staying put and trying to reason things out at high volume. Most of the time, however, you need to mitigate and move on to avoid or minimize the stereotype associated with being human at work.

In my example, above, as tears leaked from my eyes, I wiped them thoroughly and openly, and then told the men in the meeting, "I always get watery eyes when I'm passionate about things." Then, having addressed the watery elephant in the room, I went on with my job. Both men looked as if they wanted to comment on the behavior, but I launched right back into my role as manager, decrying the productivity of the discussion and moving us, with help from the development lead, back into more productive waters.  Neither of the two participants in the meeting said anything, though my development lead looked like he might end the entire conversation because he though I was going to break down and cry. Fortunately, he didn't attempt to do that, and so I didn't kill him.

I kept my words professional. My voice got louder. But the employee in question was three feet away from me, leaning in, and yelling into my face. So, in my book, I'm forgiven for getting so angry, especially since I didn't fire him on the spot, didn't say anything unprofessional, and managed to keep control of the situation.

I joke about dire consequences if the meeting had been disrupted because of my biological response. But I did address the issue with my development lead after the meeting: he wasn't aware that sometimes, when I'm very angry, I cry. Or that anyone did that. I took the time to educate him, we chatted about it, and then we moved on.

I mitigated, in that instance, by calling out the issue in question "My eyes are watering" and then I moved on in the conversation by not allowing the biological activity to change/manage my response to the situation. Fleeing might have played into the stereotype that crying at work = weakness. But by all means, sometimes there are other ways to handle the situation. Passing gas and explaining that your eyes are watering, for example, is funny, but not professional or helpful.I further mitigated the situation after it was immediately over, by talking about the concerns that the biological reaction had brought up, educating a friend and co-worker, and further minimizing the affect of being human in the moment.

If people didn't occasionally belch inappropriately or sweat under odd circumstances or tear up, they would not be human. And while I, for one, welcome our eventual alien overlords, I'm happy to deal with my current human overlords (lordettes, minions, etc.) by acknowledging that I am human, but I am still professional. You can, be, too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Being a Manager Outside Office Hours

You don't spend your whole life at work (I assume -- you could be a stalker, astronaut or other professional that lives where they work, but this article assumes that you aren't).

Neither do your employees and co-workers.

So, occasionally, you're going to see someone out and about. In some cases, you may even be friends with people from the office. In all cases where you see someone--company party, accidental encounter, planned birthday party with other friends--the sad fact is your still the manager/ might be "and" something else "manager and friend," for example, but you're always part of your work identity, even when you're not at work.

As covered in previous blog entries on all the horrible things that can happen at work for which you are responsible as an individual or a manager, all those same things can happen when you're not at work. In fact, there are often fewer reliable witnesses about what really is happening outside the office. Friendships and/or romances can go sour; ruffled co-workers can make up stories about how you behaved when they ran into you at the ice cream store, people with whom you don't really want to associate may take your kind and polite behavior to mean you are now "besties" at work.

This means you need to be scrupulous about confidentiality, even off hours--no heavy venting about work, for example, with your friend from work. If you spill something confidential, you put both of you in a bad situation: even if they don't disclose it, they didn't sign on to keep secrets for you, and if they do disclose it, you're both potentially in a lot of hot water...even worse if they act on secret information. You can still be friends and you can still vent a little about work, but you need to be careful what you say; this person can still be shaped by what comes out of your mouth, and their behavior altered at work by it.

Romances are potentially worse. As noted in the link above, sexual harassment is all kinds of bad. Something that starts out consensual and wonderful and romantic could be construed later to be forced or unwanted, depending on how bad the break up. Most people don't want to consider that there will ever be a breakup, but seriously, are you willing to gamble your professional and financial future on that?

You can't be romantically involved with someone who reports to you, or to whom you report. In general, its poor form to be romantically involved with someone higher on the food chain in general (even if its not direct chain of command) as preferential treatment could be inferred, or, later, the disparity in power in the work relationship could be cited as a reason for the relationship, more than any romantic feelings.

However, the heart does want what the heart wants. If you find yourself romantically entangled with a co-worker, tell your boss. If the boss is the person with whom you're involved, tell his boss. Together. If there is a rule in the workplace against workplace fraternization, then, and this going to sound harsh, don't do it at all. Wait until someone finds another gig and try to make it work. The reason is the company doesn't want to take the liability of any potential sexual harassment or hostile work environment complaints, so they can make a quick peck on the cheek a firing offense. If you're fired for it and then things go south with your formerly romantic partner, you no longer have the company back stopping you with legal help...they've washed their hands of you. Now all legal and potentially fiscal penalties are on your shoulders alone.

If there is no such penalty, tell someone: your boss, HR, whomever. You can often have your romantic partner managed by someone other than you (or vice versa) and get the status of mutual consent in the relationship into the HR files to protect you both against any issues that may come up later.

Switching gears from love and friendship to "I don't really like you," every office/workplace has someone you don't like at least some of the time. Maybe they're a loud gum chewer, last to take a cup of coffee but don't refill the pot, voted most likely to come into the office and start shooting...whatever. There's always one. In a perfect world, you'd have a good or neutral relationship with everyone. But if the world were good and perfect, I'd be having grapes peeled for me on a beach somewhere, so we can acknowledge: not a perfect world.

Now you run into this person outside of work.

Whether you've had issues escalated to bosses or HR, or just said catty things about each other to other people in the office, or even if this person is oblivious to the chaos and madness they invoke in your work life, keep it simple: a few polite words, an explanation of why you have to leave right now, and then leave right now. Don't try to confront them about previous problems. Don't try to be helpful and point out the fact that they might understand you better if they weren't texting on their phone all the time. Nothing about being in the wild away from the office really changes anything about the relationship with this person, except that there is no one there to witness the that if things come down to a he said/she said, you're basically tossing a coin regarding your current professional career. If you insist on that, I recommend not paying any of your bills and buying lottery tickets with all your previous month's pay, skipping work for a week to scratch them all of/check them against winning numbers. It's more satisfying and completely within your control as to whether you screw up your job or not in that situation, and you might win some money.

Finally, as a manager, and to some extent being managed, you still have obligations to your job outside of work at work events. Say the company decides to take everyone to a baseball game, or bowling, or to host a formal evening're still on as a manager. As an employee, your manager is going to try to be relaxed and leave you alone to have fun, but they're still going to be your manager. Sort of like having a teacher from elementary school over to your house for dinner--she can't bust out and make you write the first three pages of the "A's" from the dictionary, but she's still your teacher, even if your parents are calling her by her first name. You need to be polite and understand that she hasn't forgotten its her job to teach you, even if she isn't actively doing it right now.

For example, this is the (Im)Perfect Manager (on the left) with the handsome and amazing househusband/arm candy on the right at the last company party:

At this party, I wanted to make sure the team had people to talk to, mixed with other co-workers they might work with in the future, and generally checked in on them to make sure they had a good time, all the while attempting not to seem like a mother duck hovering over her ducklings (especially when several of the ducklings are older than I am).

It was a success, I think. People had a good time, and I did, too. Typically I only stay at company events long enough for the team to see that I attended and appreciate them, them flee as fast as my legs will carry me because while I'm there I'm "on" as their manager and, you know, they might want a break from that. But I stayed for three full hours, played games, talked, and generally had a very nice time...while continuing to be their manager, even if I tried hard not to smother them with it.

So there you go. Even when you're not in the office during normal business hours, you are still a manager (or someone who is managed). Keep it mind, but still make friends in the workplace and take advantage of being an ImPerfect Manager (or the employee of one).

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Island of Misfit Toys

As a manager, one of the jobs you sometimes have to do is hire people (we've talked about firing, and various aspects of hiring, so go with me here). Sometimes it's just one, sometimes you are replacing someone, and sometimes you are building a team from scratch.

I currently work in consulting; I often end up having to pull together a team from available co-workers within the vendor company or hire people to join the vendor company and, specifically, my team.

When I was building a team in the last year, I was talking about people I'd worked with in the past with interest in possibly bringing them to the new company where I work. Like all people, they have their quirks: some were socially anxious, others were under confident, others were overconfident, too talkative, not talkative enough, brilliant at switching between multiple items but less good at focusing on one...the gambit of positive and negatives you get when humans are involved. I had, in the past, worked with each one of them to highlight what made them good at what they did, and then tried as hard as I could give them that thing to do, as often as possible.

Working together, this had built me a rock steady team: people who were invested in me as a manager and the team as a whole because we'd worked to fine them a place where they could shine. Many of them knew that their negative traits were sometimes considered before their positive ones, and were extremely happy to find out that this team, and I, did not value them that way.

As I was discussing the values of working with various folks, I was interrupted and told that, given that I had a blank slate for hiring, I did not have to work with the "Island of Misfit Toys." No trains with square wheels or polka dotted elephants: I could hire to fit the job, instead of manipulating the job to fit the people.

So that's what I did.

Roll forward more than six months, and I realize that I'm currently Queen of the Island of Misfit toys, again, despite having the "power to hire for the gig."  This is because--simple lesson here--everyone is basically a Misfit. It's just a matter of time before you figure out how. With my former Island-mates, I knew that the train's wheels were square and I could arrange for his duties to not involve travel;  groked that the Jack-in-the-Box didn't always perform, so I arranged for work that involved him either being solidly in the box or out of it. With the new Misfits, I had to figure out what the deficits were, with them, and work with them to find them the work that suited them best.

This is not to say that people are the sum of their deficiencies, anymore than it is to say that they are the sum of everything their good at. At the end of the day, they're people; like the toys (who were not, technically people, but go with me on this metaphor) from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, they want to be liked for who they are, and not what people expected them to be.

So I don't have the go-getter with ADHD anymore, or the quietly brilliant no-self confidence architect, or the teacher who was always right but who never stopped lecturing, but I do have a new crop of folks. They are funny, and brilliant, and definitively infinity shaped pegs trying to fit into round holes.

You don't HAVE to pick from the Island of Misfit toys--people that you know, and know about--but don't for a moment expect that careful interviewing (the most careful of interviews are what...2-3 hours with a person?) will produce people without their own unique features and talents, their own deficits and their own credits. Sometimes the a walk on the the wild side is the right direction to go in, and sometimes the familiar part of the Island is the best way to run into and help/be helped by the doll that thought nobody loved her.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

I'm back!

Thank you for putting up with re-runs. Our book has been published, and my new blog, Screaming at Electric Sheep, which is published by Android Dissected is up and running as well. you can follow me on Google Plus, where I am there under my actual name, +Lori Priebe.

In the new year, I plan to take some additional classes on project management, just to keep the portfolio looking happy and to stimulate the economy because those types of classes cost a ton of money.

I've got some new topics all saved up to start ranting talking about next week. Please feel free to comment here about any additional topics which you might be interested in me covering. Upcoming topics look to be:

  • Saying Just Enough, But Not Too Much
  • When to Teach a Person to Fish...
  • Physical Intimidation Dos and Don'ts (mostly don'ts)
  • How do you keep a job fresh?

...and many more.