wee answer Wednesday — 7 short answers to 7 short questions

It’s wee answer Wednesday — seven short answers to seven short questions. Here we go…

1. Reaching out to a long-ago boss about a job he might be interested in

About 20 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I had a part-time job on my college campus. For the sake of anonymity, let’s say I was a chocolate teapot maker. My boss was truly an incredible boss: he knew the work we did inside and out, was supportive as long as you were doing your job (he always, always had our backs when we were doing what we were supposed to), and addressed it when people weren’t doing their work.

Anyway, I didn’t really keep in touch with Old Boss after leaving school, although I did randomly run into him when I was on the campus for other reasons some years ago, and he remembered me and we talked briefly. Where I work now, I’m not a chocolate teapot maker. But I’ve just seen a brand-new position open up that is a Director of Chocolate Teapot Making here, which made me think of Old Boss. I think he’d be incredible in this position, or he might know someone who would be interested if he’s not wanting to make a move himself.

I googled Old Boss and found an email address for him (yes, I’m sure it’s him). Would it be weird to email him out of the blue, remind him of who I am, and mention this position? Normally I wouldn’t hesitate, but it’s been quite a long time since I’ve been in touch with him, and I wondered if you thought that would make a difference.

Not weird at all. First of all, previous bosses nearly always appreciate hearing from past employees, as long as you say nice things, and second, nearly everyone appreciates being referred to jobs they might be interested in (unless the position is far below what he’s qualified for, in which case it can of course be insulting, but then you could ask if he knows anyone who’d be interested). Write to him right now.

2. What to do when peers constantly miss scheduled meetings

I work at a college in a service function (I direct our grant activity, but my question could apply to a number of service functions). I’ve written you before because management here is weak, indecisive, wasteful, uncommunicative, and focused more on touchy-feely crap than actual results. I’ve had five managers six years. In the last year, my department budget has been cut; my grantwriter quit in frustration, and I’ve not been allowed to fill his position. Yet administration insists that my work is a priority and that I MUST increase funding, or face further cuts. There are many, many cues that it’s really not a priority, but let’s start with a simple, concrete example.

How do I manage the immediate issues of peers missing meetings, when it’s an uphill battle to schedule them in the first place? I just came back a colleague’s office, where he did not show up for a scheduled meeting. Others in his division have missed meetings with me or showed up 20 or more minutes late, often with little or no advanced notice. I understand that things crop up, but this sort of cavalier behavior is chronic. Is there an effective way to manage other people’s behavior, or at least my own reaction, while still doing my best to do my job? I am looking for other jobs.

Given your first paragraph, this is sort of like asking, “A volcano is erupting all over me; how do I make sure the lava doesn’t stain my shoes?” But in any case, you can only control the pieces of this that you can control. If people aren’t showing up at meetings, you can (a) talk to them and ask them to start, (b) talk to their managers or yours about the issue, or (c) find some other way to get the information you need. In your case, I might try to do (c) if at all possible. Can you get what you need from someone/somewhere else? Can you call or email for it rather than trying for a meeting? Find some way to go around your lame coworkers, rather than relying on them.

3. How to get feedback from a terminally hands-off manager

I’m a post-doc in a research lab at a university, and have been working there for a little over a year. Professors are notorious for being extremely hands-off managers, and my boss is no exception. He never, ever addresses problematic work performance (even in the case of a graduate student who essentially did no work at all for months), and he’s very open about the fact that his management strategy is to let his students and post-docs go about their business, and watch the ones who succeed thrive and find professor positions, and let the ones who don’t fizzle out and eventually leave academia.

For the past few months, I’ve noticed that my boss has been more cold and stand-offish with me than with other members of the lab, which makes me worry that he has found my performance wanting in some way. I want to ask him to give me feedback on how I’ve been doing and if there are areas where he thinks I can improve, but, frankly, I have no idea how to go about doing it, especially given his clear distaste for this part of his job. Should I send him an email asking to set up a time to discuss this? Ask him about it when we’re meeting about something else? Just walk into his office and ask him if it’s a good time to talk? We don’t have regular meetings–I only set up a time to meet with him when I need his input/advice on a project, and those meetings rarely last more than 15 minutes. I know that if there is something he’s unhappy with, it will make him very uncomfortable to discuss it, and I’m concerned that he’ll resent being asked to do it and it will make our relationship even worse. Any advice on how to handle this situation?

If it would damage your relationship to ask for feedback, then yeah, I guess you have to give up on getting any from him. But are you sure it really will? Because that’s pretty insane. It’s not like you’re going to go to him and demand to know his deepest thoughts or scream “why do you hate me.” You’re going to ask your boss how you’re doing and what you could do better. While he might be inept enough not to be able to answer that, if it would really harm your relationship, that’s a whole new level of dysfunction that we rarely see, and it makes me want to put my head down and take a stress nap.

4. Staffing agency is getting too much for my work

I’m told that if a organization controls when, where, and how someone works, then that someone is not a contractor but an employee.

I work for an organization that takes 50 percent of what I’m paid hourly and I feel that this is too much. I understand that, for example, a staffing firm will make a certain percentage off their employees’ hourly wage, but the 50 percent I believe is questionable. I do not work for a staffing firm but a organization that provides services to other organizations and pays me (taking taxes out of my check). And according to the law, I’m not a contract worker and don’t see why my employer should be getting 50 percent of what I’m paid hourly.

Since taxes are being taken out of your check, you’re not being treated as an independent contractor. You’re a regular W2 employee; you’re just an employee of the staffing agency, rather than the firm where you’ve been placed.

The staffing agency negotiated a wage directly with you, which you agreed to. It also negotiated a fee with the company you were placed at in exchange for its services to them (finding, screening, and placing employees and handling the administrative oversight of those employees). That’s a completely separate issue that the pay they negotiated with you. But if you don’t like it, you’re free to try to either negotiate for more or leave and strike out on your own.

5. Asking for a different title

An academic requirement of my Master’s program is a second-year field practicum to help students link theory and practice. I’ve secured my placement for next year and it’s a great fit with my academic and professional interests.

My practicum host organization is working on the terms of reference right now and have suggested “Intern” or “Program Assistant” as my official title. Before going back to school, I worked as a project manager with an international consultancy. Beyond ensuring that I’m actually doing substantive work and putting my degree to use, how should I broach a discussion about something as seemingly petty as a title? I want to show on my resume that that I’ve taken on more responsibility over the years rather than taking a step backward.

Well, I’m not sure that it will be more responsibility than what you had as a project manager, so I wouldn’t necessarily frame the discussion as a desire for that — because that might be unrealistic (unless I’m misunderstanding what the practicum involves). But you can certainly be straightforward about your desire for a different title: “Would it be possible to call the position X? It would helpful to me in the future to be able to convey to prospective employees that the position involved A, B, and C.” Just make sure that whatever title you do suggest is realistic and reflects the work you’ll be doing.

6. Did my typo make this HR manager stop responding to me?

I’m going through a hiring process with a great company and for a position that I dream about. The first interview with the HR manager happened 3 weeks ago, and the next interview (in-person with the director of the department) will be in the last week of this month. The HR manager and I have been in contact for about 1 month and it has been quite smooth with quick replies. However, in my last email I asked some questions about the company’s corporate structure in order to better understand how my position will play out and I didn’t receive any answer. Today, 2 weeks after sending that e-mail, I opened the message with the objective to send her a reminder of my questions and I realized that in this specific email I made a mistake when typing the HR manager’s name. Basically, I added one extra vowel in the middle of her short name (like from Victoria, I wrote Vicatoria). I checked all the other messages and I didn’t see the same happening, it was only on 1 email. Do you think that it will kill my chances to be hired? Do you think that this is the reason why she is not answering my emails? What should I do now, send a reminder for my questions or simply leave it? The interview though still scheduled!

No, I don’t think that’s why she’s not answering. I think she didn’t answer because you sent her an email with a bunch of questions that would take a while to write out answers to and which are better saved for an interview. (And also possibly because it sounds like you’ve been sending her multiple emails before this too.) So actually, it’s good that you made the typo because spotting it saved you from sending her a “reminder” to answer your questions, which would have been a mistake.

Save substantive questions for actual conversations. Email questions only when it’s imperative to ask — like confirming a interview time or checking on a hiring timeline.

7. Do I have a job offer or don’t I?

I am in the late stages of a job search in a different city than where I currently live. I had a few phone interviews with members of the Human Capital Team, plus a phone interview with the executive director. I was out in the new city on April 1st to meet with the ED and she offered me the position on the spot. When I returned home a few days later I received an email letting me know that they would like to check my references (which seems standard ) but also that they need me to speak to someone at their national office.

Scheduling with this person has been a little tricky and is leaving me in a lurch: the interview was supposed to be this week but is now moved to next week (which means we are approaching three and a half weeks since my conversation with the ED). I want to be understanding that things happen but it is making me question the position and my standing with the organization–was I really offered a position? Where do I stand with them? The ED made it clear that they want someone who can start soon, but understands that I want to give my current position as much notice as possible and also need to move across the country for the position. My question is, is there anyway to check in and see where they are with me, either with someone in Human Capital or the ED herself? Is there anything else I can do to be an advocate for myself in this process?

At this point, assume you do not have an official job offer. It would totally fine, though, to email the ED and say something like, “My conversation with Jane has been pushed back to next week. Meanwhile, I hoped you could clarify for me where we stand — I’m not entirely clear on whether things still stand as they did when you and I spoke.” Alternately, you can email HR to ask, but since the ED herself offered you the job, she might be more inclined to push things through when she hears that they’ve been delayed.

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