terse answer Thursday — 7 short answers to 7 short questions

It’s terse answer Thursday — seven short answers to seven short questions. Here we go…

1. How to get managers to share what’s happening in their departments 

I have recently been hired to increase communication within the company. I have thought about getting managers to write a few sentences every once and a while about what is going on in their departments and then posting those to our company intranet in a specified column. How do I go about getting a managers buy-in and precious time?

You have to convince them it matters, which can be pretty hard to do as a new employee. You might need someone higher-up to buy into the idea first, and then use their influence to make it happen.

However, are you sure this is the best way to get the outcome you want? These types of things often go unread (which then makes it still harder to get people to participate). A better way to get buy-in might be to involve people in discussing how to tackle the communication issue. Why not talk to managers (and others) directly and get their input? You might get ideas you haven’t thought of, and people will probably be more receptive to whatever you do decide, simply because they were consulted.

2. Old employer owes me back pay but can’t afford to pay it

I left my job at a tiny nonprofit in May 2012. It was a poorly run organization that lost the grant that had been paying 80% of the operating costs for years, and one by one my coworkers were laid off or quit. We all frequently went without paychecks for the last seven months I worked there, with our executive director taking the biggest cuts of all in order to pay the rest of us. The only reason a few of us stayed as long as we did was because we were committed to the mission and the population we served.

When I left, I asked for my back pay (about $10,000), and the ED told me that the organization simply did not have the cash to pay me but he would make sure I got paid as soon as possible. Over the past several months, I have checked in periodically to ask about the pay, and each time I have been told that they simply do not have the money. The last time I was told that they were trying to sell their building and once that was done they would be able to pay me. If I were better off financially, I would probably just let it go as a sort of “donation,” but I’m not really in a position to do that. The ED is a good man and I trust that he would pay me if he could, but I’m afraid that of all the people the organization owes money to, I’m on the bottom of the list since I haven’t threatened legal action (I know that at least one former coworker and a couple of ex-vendors have). I’m not sure what to do, and I would really appreciate any advice you can give me about how to proceed.

Did they pay the former coworker and vendors who threatened legal action? If so, it’s probably your only option to see the money anytime soon (or ever). But if they don’t have the money to pay you and others, even legal action might not change anything.

In general, I’d say that any time you’re working without being paid, you should assume you’ll never see that money — and only do it for whatever length of time you’d be okay with never getting compensated for. Sort of like with loaning money to friends or family — it’s only smart if you can handle the possibility that you’ll never see that money again.

3. Resigning to avoid being fired

Many applications I’ve turned in recently have asked a question like, “Have you ever been terminated or resigned to avoid termination?”

What does this mean? Say a manager tells an employee that he hasn’t met his goals the last two months and will be let go if it happens again this month. Employee realizes there’s no way he’ll meet this month’s goals, so he hands in a resignation letter the next day. Did this employee “resign to avoid termination?”

There’s no formal definition of the phrase, so it’s open to interpretation. The employee in your example could probably get away with saying that was a voluntary resignation, although reasonable people could certainly quibble over that.

The practical version of this question is probably whether the employer in question would say you resigned to avoid being fired, particularly when talking to a reference-checker.

4. Should I take an au pair job to escape a job I hate?

I’m 24 years old and have been in my first job for nearly 16 months. I’m a marketing assistant in a small indepedent company but was originally hired as a trainee manager before my boss decided I wasn’t management material and moved me sideways.

The bottom line is I don’t particularly like my job – a good day is a day I don’t completely hate it and 5pm comes round quite quickly but I’m rarely doing something I actually enjoy. I’m also no good at it as I seem to constantly make mistakes and feel incompetent most of the time (I know for a fact my manager thinks I’m stupid as well). There may well be an opportunity for me to go and live abroad in Italy as an au pair for 6 months if not longer and I’m really tempted to take it as I’ve always wanted to travel / live in another country. On the other hand, they are talking about giving me a few more opportunities at work and people have pointed out that I may dislike my company rather than my actual job, which I admit may be a possibility.

If I’m offered the job in Italy and I decide to take it, I know I won’t look as good next to someone who’s worked solidly since they graduated but I guess my question is how badly am I ruining my future prospects? Particularly if I decide I was on the right career path after all.

I’m not a huge fan of au pair jobs post-college — they generally don’t do much to build your professional resume and can look to prospective employers in the future as if you were putting off joining the adult professional world. You’ll definitely be at a disadvantage when compared to peers who stayed on a professional track. It’s not fatal, but it’ll make your job search harder, something I wouldn’t recommend in a job market like this one.

But it sounds like you’re attracted to au pairing because you see it as your exit strategy from a job you hate. However, that’s not your only exit from this job — a better one is probably to start an active job search and find a job that you can leave for without setting your career back.

5. How do merit raises work?

I wondered if you could explain how merit increases work and how they fit into an annual salary discussion. I haven’t worked for a company that offered merit raises before (we just broached the subject of pay on our own at my previous employer and didn’t get a cost of living raise or anything) so I’m not familiar, but I’ve heard my new employer usually offers them. Is a merit increase usually offered in addition to any other raise you may discuss, or in place of? How much leeway do you normally have in negotiating the amount?

A merit raise is a raise that’s based on performance, rather than an across-the-board cost of living increase that’s the same for everyone in the company. Some companies do annual merit raises, some companies do annual cost-of-living raises, some companies do merit raises in some years and cost-of-living raises in other years, and some do nothing at all until someone proactively makes the case for themselves.

The amount of raises can vary widely. The national average salary increase is lower than most people think — 2.8%. Some companies do more than that for everyone, and some companies do more than that for top performers. It depends on how your company operates.

6. When you don’t have any references

I have been unemployed for 6 years. My last job was while I was still in college. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree 5 years ago and, due to an illness, was unable to seek employment. I eventually had to go on disability. Although I still have this illness, the doctors have found a treatment that helps to keep it under control. My question is, who should I list as a reference? I have not stayed in contact with my former employer or any coworkers (very poor decision on my part). The only former employer who would remember me is from a part-time job I held in 2002 (the employer happens to be a good family friend). Also, I’m afraid I’m being passed over by potential employers because of this huge employment gap. I have been mentioning in my cover letters that I was unable to work due to a medical reason, but that it is well-controlled now. What is your take on this?

You’ll just need to explain — say that because you weren’t working due to a health situation, you don’t have recent references, but you can offer your manager from 2002. (No need to proactively mention it — wait until you’re asked for references.) If you can, I’d also start to do some volunteer work now — both to get something more recent on your resume and to start building up a new pipeline of potential references. Good luck!

7. Managing a low performer who needs to improve in every area

Several months ago, I was promoted to management, with two direct reports. Our group is within a larger division of a few dozen computer programmers. Since that time, I’ve struggled with how to give feedback to one of my reports, Jack.

Jack is a smart, and in some sense, is good at programming; we hired him several years ago right out of a top 10 U.S. News college. However, he’s been “undersupervised” for years, and has developed a very poor reputation among his peers, and has been close to being fired several times. Usually the problem is that his work quality is low in general, but he also can have problems following up and similar.

The main difficulty I have in giving him feedback is that, for the most part, there isn’t any single area he needs to improve. He really needs to improve all over. Also, in our environment, employees are generally expected to be both self-motivated and self-improving, to some degree, and he hasn’t been demonstrating that.

You’ve said that a good manager gives their employee adequate warning to improve before their fired. In this case, I’m sort of at a loss for exactly what warning that should be; I can’t just say “do your job better” and “work harder or we’ll fire you.” Do you have any advice? What is the right thing to do here?

Yeah, you’re going to need to be specific, but don’t shy away from addressing it just because there are multiple issues rather than only one or two. Meet with him and say you have serious concerns about the level of his work. Pick the biggest areas — say, work quality, follow-up, and initiative — and talk about those. If you’re having trouble knowing where to start, describe the bar that you want him to meet — describe what you’d be looking for if you were hiring for the position today. Then give him some examples of how he’s not meeting that bar, and what needs to change so that he is. Give him a limited period of time to demonstrate the significant improvement that you’re looking for, and be honest that his job is in jeopardy if he doesn’t improve.

Since he’s been close to being fired several times before, this probably isn’t the first time he’s hearing about these issues. The difference now is that you need to clearly lay out what needs to change, a timeline for changing it, and the consequences if he doesn’t.

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