The changing workscape: Secrecy v privacy / Pretty time bomb

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I respectfully decline to answer that question. It is, if not illegal to ask, rather inappropriate.

Sitting in a job interview, growing more awkward and uncomfortable by the minute, I felt as though I was backed right into a corner.

Quite a long while ago, I applied for a job, was invited to an interview and circumstances in my life changed quite rapidly, and I needed to cancel the interview. I called to cancel well in advance of the scheduled interview time and offered no other explanations – because I don’t think you owe any explanation to a potential employer if you’re not planning to work there.

When circumstances changed dramatically again a few weeks later, I contacted the company again because I noticed that the job was still advertised and rescheduled the interview. I knew that it was probably a bit unorthodox of me – and if they did not want to give me a chance, they could have refused to reschedule the interview. No harm, no foul. But they seemed happy to give me a new opportunity, so I went to a series of interviews.

In the first interview, the hiring manager and the HR director were sitting across from me, and the HR person asked me why I had cancelled the first interview. Fair enough. I anticipated that they would ask me something like that. I replied only that my personal circumstances had changed, the issues that prevented me from attending the original interview were behind me and that the reasons behind all of it were private.

Somehow this was not a good enough explanation, and the HR guy grabbed onto this like a dog with a bone. Throughout the interview, even though I think I defused the question tactfully enough (in a way that should have shut the question down). The HR guy continued to poke and prod, even long after I thought the question had been answered and put to rest. It was as though it would suddenly pop back up again, and some nagging feeling in his gut would jump to his mouth, and he was physically unable to stop asking.

He started questioning my statement about “privacy”, claiming that it felt as though I was “keeping secrets”. But there is a big difference between privacy and secrecy. Which I stated at the time. The questioning escalated in offensiveness and discomfort, making me consider – in the moment – that I was not sure I wanted to work somewhere where an HR professional was so hell-bent on knowing personal information that had no bearing on my potential as an employee that he would veer into very uncomfortable territory to get it.

My workplace experience has mostly happened in the US where this kind of prodding would be dead wrong under any circumstances. Whole articles are written about illegal job interview questions. To be frank, I don’t know what is illegal versus just awkward in a Swedish workplace – but I would think that someone in a managerial role in human resources should have the tact and sensitivity to stop pushing when something is clearly not work-related.

The worst thing – when I was called in for follow-up interviews the next week, I assumed that the issue was settled. But no, the same HR person brought up the same pushy questions the next time, and then I felt really backed into a corner. I tried to remain tactful in conveying that I felt the question was answered as much as it was ever going to be. But his continued insistence felt like lighting the fuse on a time bomb.

Eventually I was hired and accepted the job despite these misgivings. This whole scene sort of plays into my feelings about HR in general – how is it that the one department that is meant to be the most in tune with people and the legalities of hiring could be the worst at dealing with people?

The Changing Workscape: Working the Flexible Way

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Study after study, survey after survey, all the research shows that professional workers are willing to forgo a lot, particularly in terms of pay/compensation, in exchange for a flexible work situation.

Many companies offer flexible work arrangements – however slowly (and it is slow, almost imperceptible, according to the Families and Work Institute’s (FWI) 2012 National Study of Employers Report, which states that less than three percent of salaried employees work mainly from home while 90 percent of job seekers state that “flexibility” is one of the most important factors in their search), the trend is moving in that direction. This is not true across the board, of course, and probably depends quite a lot on the company, the particular job and all kinds of internal factors. Many companies allow employees to negotiate flexible hours or work-at-home days, particularly once they have worked in a company for long enough to prove their worth and responsibility. I have seen this work in my favour in most of my professional situations, especially working in Scandinavia. FWI data may support the idea that the job market and its employers are not bending over backwards to offer flexible options to employees, but I’d argue that – so far – it is simply not something that has been accepted en masse or as de rigueur. Flexible arrangements are often negotiated today on an individual level – but eventually we will hopefully see companies begin to embrace the demand for flexibility – the talent out there is hungry for it.

A Today.com article cites a 2012 Mom Corps survey that explains that almost half of working adults would choose a lower salary/pay cut in order to gain more flexibility. Just over 50 percent went so far as to state that they would consider starting their own businesses to facilitate the kind of freedom and flexibility they value.

Over on the Officevibe website, there’s an article discussing the top ten reasons why a company’s employee engagement program will fail – high atop the list is the “lack of focus on intrinsic motivation”. This aligns with the idea that employees are motivated from within by factors that are often much more complex – and possibly easier to work with – than money. Virtually every study or article will highlight that monetary compensation is important – but it is not what gets most professional and creative people out of bed in the morning. (Needless to say this article has a lot of good points about what hinders employee engagement.)

The findings are further echoed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and its study in 2012, as reported, for example, in the Financial Times and The American Interest blog: flexible work arrangements were the number one employee priority.

And while it’s clear that employees are asking for flexwork and would benefit from it, there is also a very clear business case for it – employee happiness and satisfaction leading to employee retention, higher productivity and being able to choose and keep the cream of the crop in terms of employee talent. A 2012 Forbes article champions these same employee morale-building-and-boosting principles but points out that allowing for flexibility is not technically a benefit the company offers to employees because it actually costs no money and can end up saving the company money – directly and indirectly.

With surveys, data and studies that go back for years showing both the tangible benefits and the demand for flexwork, I struggle still to understand why adoption has been so slow in the real world.

The changing workscape: War on meetings & so-called solutions

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…a committee decides, which committee decides, which committee decides, which committee decides…

Well I’m getting paper cuts, my eyes are bloodshot, from watching the tape turn red…

The Pentagon has too much paperwork to start a real war, I wish they’d just send me instead…

Ed Haynes – “I Want to Kill Everybody”

Long gone are the days when idle, if extreme, hyperbolic statements like “I Want to Kill Everybody” go unnoticed. Ed Haynes’s tongue-in-cheek protest song from the late 80s brings me back to a time when this kind of exaggeration – a modest proposal – could be said or sung and accepted in the joking, if frustrated, tone in which it was intended*. No one would call HR and think you were plotting to go postal tomorrow. (And Ed, your theme is as timely as ever. Strangely, there is very little to be found about Ed Haynes online – not even a Wikipedia page. I even have an ex-boyfriend or two with Wiki pages; how can Ed Haynes have almost no online presence, apart from a few CD reviews and listings for live shows he played in Portland, Oregon?)

I thought of good old Ed Haynes’s song, the anthem of my junior high school years, today as I sat in a meeting in which we were introduced to a new timekeeping system. The system exists ostensibly to keep track of projects to find out how much time is really being spent on them in order to better allocate existing resources (or to know where to supplement with additional resources). The presenter expressed the time-saving wizardry made possible with this new tool, which we are to use in addition to the hundreds of other tools piled on other tools where we are supposed to “report” things in the name of increased efficiency. Of course if we are spending half our time filling in reports in various systems, I think our resource problem is that we are spending half our time filling in reports.

Old Ed and his committees deciding on committees deciding, which – fair enough – springs to mind more often than it should in the current workplace, came to mind when the presenter showed a slide that housed several boxes with text in them, explaining how the decision had been made to run with this new system over a year ago… and many workshops, workgroups, task forces and other importantly-named committees met to analyze and discuss and brainstorm. See a problem here?

The company knew (or believed with no sense of irony) that it was underresourced. So, they took a large chunk of said resources and occupied their time with committees and workshops and task forces for months… all to come to the brilliant conclusion that they needed to measure how much time was being used on different projects in order to assign resources better. But what if – just what if – we cut out the years of analysis and internal focus groups and just accepted upfront that we need to implement a system and measure people’s time? Why take a year or more to decide that and then start a whole new process to choose a system for implementation?

The kicker is that most of the groups that work on a project basis today already have some form of time reporting that supposedly addresses these exact kinds of needs. Perhaps this new miraculous tool (and this company falls prey to the snake oil salesman every time – some system or another is a panacea for all our disorganized ills) will give us all the answers! Yes, it might be streamlined compared to the other solutions being used today. But what if they use this tool to collect data but then don’t actually use or interpret the data?

Oh, Ed, please cut the red tape and go directly to war… on meetings and more meetings about potentially useless, time wasting supposed time savers and redundant “solutions” that just create more work for everyone involved.

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*Back in the old days, you could actually say things that would be considered violent threats now. When I was an adolescent and working in the school office, I was walking in the hallway one day, and a kid who had been kicked out of another classroom for misbehaving said something suitably rude: “What would you give me if I let you give me a blow job?” I kept walking, but said, “A serious gunshot wound.” He sulked but nothing happened. Now, of course, I would be expelled from school for making violent threats – even though it was clearly a joke and clearly the kind of sarcastic reply called for in that situation. I don’t necessarily long for the “good old days” but somehow think that the more prohibitive we are with verbal expression, the more bottled up people’s frustrations will be.

The changing workscape: Going it alone

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Whether picking up freelance projects here and there as a kind of sole proprietor or doing something a bit more formal, setting up a company and running it, the current job market coupled with the difficulty of being “seen” by recruiters (even if you’ve got the experience, talent and skills required) are making more and more people choose to go it alone. Obviously deciding to work for yourself requires a kind of independence, confidence and belief in your skills and ideas that will give you the strength to persevere through lean times. The challenges of launching and marketing a new business – and the need to basically do at least two jobs at all times (the job/specialty you are selling and then the actual selling/marketing of those services) can be daunting. Never mind the bureaucracy and accounting work you will have to consider…

But going into business for yourself isn’t all risk, no reward – or people would not do it, keep doing it and loving it.

Beginning to see the light
The job search has been long and tough – very few interviews, or a lot of interviews that lead nowhere, and you start to think that maybe you would be better off – and much more in control of your professional destiny – if you strike out on your own. This initial “seeing the light” can be deceptive, of course, because on the surface it sounds a lot easier to just take matters into your own hands and go from there. If you’ve never started or run a business, though, you could be in for a few surprises in terms of how difficult it can be. Do your homework. But don’t let the challenges stop you. You will actually be a stronger person and may either become a successful businessperson, recognizing that this is where you belong – or you may just bolster yourself and gain insight and independence enough to know that you do belong in a regular job. But the experience of starting your own business and creating your own job has prepared you in whole new ways you could not even have imagined for the job you eventually seek. You are broadening your horizons no matter what road you take.

But first things first.

How did the “light” first come on that made you consider becoming your own boss?

The hard search – not being seen
The aforementioned “not being seen” in the job hunt is becoming more common. A recent, popular thread on LinkedIn discussed the increasing difficulty of differentiating yourself as a job candidate, particularly when you are something of a jack-of-all-trades. This inspired me to write on the subject of recruitment and HR and the foibles therein. A friend and former professor sent me another article about how HR has begun to embrace “big data” – and this is starting to influence hiring and retention decisions to, as the article points out, an almost creepy degree.

A true jack-of-all-trades, as many people pointed out in the comments to this post on LinkedIn, may be better off channeling all of those myriad skills into his or her own enterprise. If someone else cannot take in and appreciate the generalist, DIY, can-do approach to business, who better to benefit from your work than you – and the stable of clients you eventually cultivate?

When you have done your due diligence – and that means, really taking the time to tailor each application you submit (which may mean cutting back on the jack-of-all-trades theme to market yourself as a specialist in a few key areas, targeted for the specific job) – and you still find yourself getting nowhere, it might be time to apply the same efforts you make in the job search to assessing what kind of business you could do on your own using the skills in your toolbox that others have not seemed to cotton to. Do some market analysis – what needs exist that you can address?

This may be the best way to be seen and to make a mark.

The risk of self-employment 
Most things really worth doing do not come without any risk.

The biggest risk – you might fail. Many small businesses fail. It’s par for the course. But is failure in this case really failure? It’s a mixed bag. You may lose your shirt, but you know that there is always another shirt where that one came from. You will never learn as much as fast as you do in starting and running your own business – succeed or fail. If you fail, you take away valuable lessons and experience. You can either apply these lessons to your next business venture (the entrepreneurial bug is strong once you start) or apply the lessons to your next job. You are richer for it. “..a recent survey of 1,000 small business owners (conducted by Deluxe Corp and reported in Business Insider) shows that the vast majority of them are confident in their endeavors and say they’d rather embrace potential failure than never try at all”. Once you make up your mind, you’re pretty sure that you can live with failure – and need to be optimistic about success, regardless of the statistics, or you would not be likely to give the business your all.

Some might argue that it is a risk to work for yourself because you are sort of taking yourself out of the workforce specifically in your field and thus might fall behind on new trends or technologies because you are not active in that field. I doubt this. If you’re leveraging your former experience, chances are, as a self-employed person in a similar field, you have to stay ahead of the curve on trends to be competitive. This is why companies will turn to you – as your own enterprise, you are expected to be on the cutting edge. You might ultimately end up ahead of the game.

Difficulties & hard times
Money, money, money
I think one of the major reasons that more people don’t go into business for themselves, which goes beyond the not knowing how or where to start is the cash flow situation. Not only do you not have start-up costs on hand, but you, like everyone else, have bills to pay. And many people are motivated in large part by the paycheck. A steady job, even one you hate, pays you and ensures that you keep a roof over your head and all the rest. But, while theory won’t keep the wolf from the door, the idea that you work just for a paycheck is the kind of mindset that you should work to change.

Learning curve
You have a lot of skills to apply to the work you eventually want to do in your business. But to get there, there’s a lot to learn about starting, operating and building a business. This kind of knowledge doesn’t come overnight, and you will have to work hard and be patient, embracing what may be a steep and possibly winding learning curve.

Overreaching & lack of planning
You might try to do too much, too fast and overreach. You can easily lose the plot by doing this – and burn yourself out. Be sure to have very specific goals – and don’t stray too far from these, even if you see opportunities to dabble in a bunch of different areas outside your core business. This can lead to trouble, especially in the early days when you struggle to find your footing. You need to have a good plan from the beginning and, while you can exhibit some flexibility, straying too far outside the guidelines can get you into trouble, mired in projects that you cannot fulfill your commitments to. The temptation to do this can be great, especially when money is tight in the beginning, but you’re better off in the long run if you stick to your guns and do not take on something you cannot handle. Does that mean you should not challenge yourself? No, but definitely evaluate whether a project is within the scope of what your business and your expertise can offer. You risk a big bundle of stress, financial losses and a potential hit to your reputation if you don’t manage yourself and your obligations carefully.

Legal trouble
Further on the previous point, if you are careless about making delivery promises or careless in taking care of all the required aspects of establishing a business legally (especially where it concerns intellectual property), you can quickly find yourself in legal trouble. This is somewhere you definitely do not want to go. Failing in a small business is one thing – getting tangled up in lawsuits is entirely another. Always put in the time to make sure everything is above board and legal.

The rewards of self-employment
Flexibility
One of the biggest bonuses of working for yourself is the flexibility you can build into your work life. Sure, you will probably be working most of the time – but it’s your business and your time. When you need to run out and do an errand, no one is looking over your shoulder and asking you to punch a time clock. Your time is your own, and you know that you get what you put into whatever efforts you are making. For me, the home office has been a boon – I have discovered that unknown levels of productivity are possible for me when I am working at home, so the readjustment to office life has just not worked well. Sure, I need to be flexible as well – but having your own business buys you this kind of freedom.

Nonstop learning
If you are anything like me, one of the battles of working in a regular job is that many of them have an initial learning curve (new company, new project) but then once you have mastered a few things, there is not a lot of brain stretching going on. This is not always true – there is always something to learn but you’ve got to be proactive about seeking it out. Sometimes the traditional work environment, even if you are like a sponge, picking up new knowledge and skills, just wants to pigeonhole you into whatever role you are doing, and the lack of growth that results from your gusto to learn leaves the learning less than satisfying. This is never a problem in your own enterprise. You have to learn to keep going, and you will apply everything you learn all the time. For those for whom endless curiosity is a constant nag, self-employment is one salve for the soul.

Building your network, building your reputation
Don’t give yourself a bad reputation! Building up your network of clients is the best way to get more clients. In my own experience, I have tried various types of advertising and marketing, and the single best way – that keeps paying off after literally years – is word of mouth. Former/current clients are asked by friends and peers for recommendations, and even if eight years have gone by, they will remember the work I did and pass my name along.

This leads to the next point – working for yourself, you are the show, so you have to put your best foot forward and manage your reputation. Clearly building a solid reputation with clients makes you memorable, keeps them coming back and will grow your business even without you exerting effort. The effort you make today can pay dividends later.

Satisfaction
You did it! Whether you stick with it forever and keep growing or just do the self-employed thing for a while, you did it. You stuck with it and now have this invaluable experience to show that you’ve got business experience, sense and acumen.

Seeing the signs Do it alone
The way things are going – both in the job market as a whole and in specific industries, and perhaps just in your own field – you should be able to read the writing on the wall to assess whether the time has come to strike out on your own and make a go of it.

It’s not that I am a vocal advocate of starting one’s own business – I have done it because I found myself unemployed and with few options living in a new country. And if it seems like a bureaucratic rat maze navigating the vagaries of legal, financial and other considerations in starting a business in your own city, imagine doing it in a foreign country in a new language. But the fact that I managed means that pretty much anyone can do it if you have a solid plan, a target clientele, a way to market yourself and a lot of patience – and networking skills don’t hurt one bit. It is hard work – perhaps even harder and much more time consuming than going to a regular 9 to 5 job, but it can be a salvation and even an addiction once you start to see positive results and the fruits of your labor.

The changing workscape: HR – no recourse, no resource

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I will be blunt – when it comes to recruitment and hiring, human resources (HR) is a crock. A lot of time, it is just dumb. Not dumb in the sense that there is no value to HR whatsoever – but dumb in the sense that it is incomplete and inadequate for the functions it tries to perform. It reminds me of the tech talk surrounding the challenges faced by network and cable operators and their becoming “dumb pipes“, e.g. delivering the technology while content providers – and everyone but them – make use of their pipe and profit from it. HR is a kind of dumb pipe sometimes, performing a lot of functions, delivering what they are supposed to – but somewhere the value and content is not what it should be.

I make this blanket statement knowing that it is not always true and that sometimes HR departments are very tightly integrated with the entire company and departmental aims – enough to understand what a company needs (at least to the level that they can screen out clearly unqualified candidates). However, I have experienced just as many HR departments that function as though they are an island, cut off from the rest of the company, completely out of touch both with the needs for which they are trying to find a match and with what the company actually does. (And HR has other responsibilities that are important and better focus areas for them than recruitment, in many cases. Employee relations and development once people are onboard, for example, particularly in environments that have a lot of legal stuff going on.)

Both the employer and potential employee(s) lose out in the HR-led, HR-centric recruitment scenario. Employers may not get to see the applications of candidates who may not have all the right buzzwords in their applications but who do possess the right skill set and broad experience that illustrates an aptitude for whatever kind of work for which they are applying. I think this HR-as-gatekeeper approach often means that the employer does not see the full range of what is available to them – the less integrated an HR department is, the less likely they can adequately screen applications and pass on the best of what is available.

Potential employees also lose out, of course, because in many cases, there are very few avenues by which they can bypass HR. I read an article today about how “jacks-of-all-trades” don’t get hired – often don’t even get interviews. Yes, arguably, there is an art to writing applications, resumes, cover letters, and any applicant in this market knows that you really need to tailor your application package for each job, so creating a three-page resume that delves into all the things you can do versus tailoring an application for the specific job for which you are applying and highlighting your skills and achievements within that field is not the best strategy. Being a jack-of-all-trades and trying to capture all that information and experience in one one-size-fits-all application doesn’t work and probably never will.

But what struck me is that many of the comments on this article focused on the inefficacy of HR. In a case where an applicant does have a very interesting, rich resume filled with his jack-of-all-trades background, an HR specialist might discard the application because it was a bit rough around the edges and because it did not explicitly address specific points in the job ad. This is their job and probably all that time and volume allow for. That said, if non-HR people (departmental staff/management) were actively involved in the hiring and resume-review process, chances of the jack-of-all-trade generalist resume being noticed are probably much higher. Someone working in the department/area for which the job opening is advertised would have much greater insight into the current and future needs of the team and might identify considerably more valuable traits and skills in the applicants’ materials that HR would not be looking for.

Perhaps there is some mutual responsibility here – not wanting to make HR the scapegoat because it has its place and time in the corporate landscape. But removing the HR-as-linebacker function (particularly in cases where HR is really out of touch) and involving departmental resources from the very beginning could open consideration a little wider. Meanwhile, applicants have to take the time, care and responsibility to tailor each application individually.

Likewise, most professional people are essentially jacks-of-all-trades; finding the two or three key strengths in one’s professional skills arsenal does pay off. Example – at my core, I am a writer. I have worked in technical writing, marketing, communications (internal and external), have worked in huge global companies and in tiny little companies as well as my own businesses. This work has crossed industries and sectors and required tremendous adaptation, adoption of new skills and learning whole new industries from the beginning (my most recent jump was from the IT/browser industry to medtech/healthcare with no life sciences or medical experience at all, but I jumped in and learned). This is likely the reality for most professionals – agility and readiness to keep learning and changing. Being able to tailor each application to elevate those key skills that pertain directly to the job to which you are applying, and then adding an “attractive garnish” by including useful and complementary aspects of the other, but less related, skills, will probably produce more results – or at least open a few more doors for interviews.

Maybe this is what HR screeners are not able to discern or appropriately value when reviewing more complicated resumes – this readiness to learn and change and the evidence of it.