Category Archives: Wide World of Work

Taking Your Feelings to Work

(Originally published on June 29,  2011; reprints previous original material published in this section)

By Anne Kreamer

When I graduated from college in 1977, the world was still neatly divided into two spheres: work and everything else. Work was supposed to be a hyper rational realm of logic, filled with timetables, organizational charts and returns on investment. It was only outside of work that emotions—so dangerously ill defined and unpredictable—were

supposed to emerge.

But from the first day of my first real job, as an administrative assistant at the Park Avenue headquarters of a commercial bank that is now defunct, I realized that emotions were simmering everywhere in the workplace.

My desk, on the hushed, deep pile-carpeted executive floor, was a few feet opposite the restroom doors. (Clearly, I was lowest in the pecking order.) Every few days, one of the three executive women on my half of the floor would rush into the restroom and, after a little too long, re-emerge with the remnants of a good cry still visible on her splotchy face. I also watched men dash into the men’s room and leave a few minutes later, tight-lipped and ashen.

Even as a 21-year-old workplace neophyte, I realized that emotion is a force that underlies all of our behavior. For my book, “It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the

New Workplace,” I spent two years exploring Americans’ attitudes toward e my findings suggest this amended version of Descartes’s famous line: I think and feel, therefore I am.

In the old days—pre-Internet, pre-cellphones—it was a lot easier to believe “work equals rational” and “home equals emotional.” But now that work and home life constantly

bleed into each other, that distinction has become anachronistic and probably self-defeating. People text and e-mail their friends and family members throughout the workday, and they receive messages from colleagues and clients on nights and

weekends and during vacations.

The membranes between private life and work, especially office work, have always been porous, but today employers and employees expect accessibility and accountability pretty much round-the-clock. And whereas old-school office memos and business letters generally weren’t expected to be friendly or candid—that is, human—business e-mails

most definitely are.

Conversely, what used to be considered private behavior can instantly reverberate at work through social networking. People fire off e-mails late at night, only to regret

their tone and intent in the cold light of day. Facebook friends from work can stumble upon wild and crazy pictures from a bachelorette party. Tweets and anonymous mobile video uploads can instantly broadcast unflattering emotional displays by surly customer service employees or misbehaving C.E.O.’s.

The conventional wisdom used to be that we brought home the emotions we couldn’t express at work—snapping (or worse) at blameless partners and children. That is still true, but what’s new is that home life, with all its messy, complicated emotional currents, has become inextricably and undeniably woven into the workplace.

The rulebook for modern office etiquette has yet to be codified. How do we avoid hurting one another’s feelings if everything is supposed to be rational, yet also transparent

and accessible? How can others understand the emotion behind what we’re trying to say in an e-mail if no one takes the time to read beyond the subject line and the first sentence?

And the more we relegate communication to the electronic realm, the greater our longing for face-to-face contact. Our new “flat” organizational structures at work might seem to promote a more hang loose level of emotional expression. But, if anything, flatter organizations tend to require even higher levels of emotional competency and effort

in order to navigate amorphous command structures.

No one is sure where the lines are anymore. Should we high-five an underling? Is it cool to make jokes with the boss? What if we overhear the man in the next cubicle crying?

Clear rules for this new working world simply don’t exist. But one thing is certain. The Millennials, a generation raised with the 24/7 naked emotional transparency of texting and social networking, is now entering the work force by the millions each year. As they replace old-schoolers born in the 1940s and ’50s, there is no turning back to a compartmentalized world.

I like to imagine that if men and women were to express more emotion routinely and easily at work—jokes, warmth, sadness, anger, tears, joy, all of it—then as a people we might not feel so chronically anxious and overwhelmed. By denying the range

of emotional expressiveness intrinsic and appropriate to the workplace, we find ourselves at a loss for how to handle this brave new boundaryless world.

Overtly acknowledging how and in what measure anger, anxiety, fear and pleasure color and shape our working lives can help us manage those emotions and use them to our

benefit, both at work and at home.

 

E-mail: preoccupations@nytimes.com.

A version of this article appeared in print on June 12, 2011, on page BU8 of the New York edition with the headline: Taking Your Feelings to Work.

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Many with New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling

(Originally published on June 12,  2011; reprints previous original material published in this section)

 

By CATHERINE RAMPELL

The individual stories are familiar. The chemistry major tending bar. The clas­sics major  answering phones. The Italian studies major sweeping aisles at Wal-Mart.

Now evidence is emerging that the damage wrought by the sour economy is more widespread than just a few careers led astray or postponed. Even for college grad­uates—the people who were most protected from the slings and ar­rows of recession—the outlook is rather bleak.

Employment rates for new col­lege graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years, as have start­ing salaries for those who can find work. What’s more, only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree, reviv­ing debates about whether higher education is “worth it” after all.

“I have friends with the same degree as me, from a worse school, but because of who they knew or when they happened to graduate, they’re in much better jobs,” said Kyle Bishop, 23, a 2009 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh who has spent the last two years wait­ing tables, delivering beer, working at a bookstore and entering data. “It’s more about luck than anything else.”

The median starting salary for students graduating from four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who en­tered the work force in 2006 to 2008, according to a study released on Wednesday by theJohnJ.HeldrichCenterfor Workforce Development atRutgersUniversity. That is a decline of 10 percent, even before taking inflation into account.

Of course, these are the lucky ones—the graduates who found a job. Among the members of the class of 2010, just 56 percent had held at least one job by this spring, when the survey was conducted. That compares with 90 percent of gradu­ates from the classes of 2006 and 2007. (Some have gone for further education or opted out of the labor force, while many are still pounding the pavement.)

Even these figures understate the damage done to these workers’ careers. Many have taken jobs that do not make use of their skills; about only half of recent college graduates said that their first job required a college degree.

The choice of major is quite im­portant. Certain majors had better luck finding a job that required a col­lege degree, according to an analy­sis by Andrew M. Sum, an economist at Northeastern University, of 2009 Labor Department data for college graduates under 25.

Young graduates who majored in education and teaching or engi­neering were most likely to find a job requiring a college degree, while area studies majors—those who ma­jored in Latin American studies, for example—and humanities majors were least likely to do so. Among all recent education graduates, 71.1 percent were in jobs that required a college degree; of all area studies majors, the share was 44.7 percent.

An analysis by The New York Times of Labor Department data about college graduates aged 25 to 34 found that the number of these workers employed in food service, restaurants and bars had risen 17 percent in 2009 from 2008, though the sample size was small. There were similar or bigger employment increases at gas stations and fuel dealers, food and alcohol stores, and taxi and limousine services.

This may be a waste of a college degree, but it also displaces the less-educated workers who would normally take these jobs.

“The less schooling you had, the more likely you were to get thrown out of the labor market al­together,” said Mr. Sum, noting that unemployment rates for high school graduates and dropouts are always much higher than those for college graduates. “There is complete dis­placement all the way down.”

Meanwhile, college graduates are having trouble paying off student loan debt, which is at a median of $20,000 for graduates of classes 2006 to 2010.

Mr. Bishop, thePittsburghgrad­uate, said he is “terrified” of the ef­fects his starter jobs might have on his ultimate career, which he hopes to be in publishing or writing. “It looks bad to have all these short-term jobs on your résumé, but you do have to pay the bills,” he said, adding that right now his student loan debt was over $70,000.

Many graduates will probably take on more student debt. More than 60 percent of those who gradu­ated in the last five years say they will need more formal education to be successful.

“I knew there weren’t going to be many job prospects for me until I got my Ph.D.,” said Travis Patterson, 23, a 2010 graduate ofCaliforniaStateUniversity,Fullerton. He is working as an administrative assistant for a property management company and studying psychology in gradu­ate school. While it may not have anything to do with his degree, “it helps pay my rent and tuition, and that’s what matters.”

Going back to school does offer the possibility of joining the labor force when the economy is better. Un­employment rates are also generally lower for people with advanced schooling.

Those who do not go back to school may be on a lower-paying tra­jectory for years. They start at a lower salary, and they may begin their careers with em­ployers that pay less on average or have less room for growth.

“Their salary history follows them wherever they go,” said Carl Van Horn, a labor economist atRutgers. “It’s like a parrot on your shoulder, traveling with you everywhere, constantly telling you ‘No, you can’t make that much money.’ ”

And while young people who have weathered a tough job market may shy from risks during their careers, the best way to nullify an unlucky graduation date is to change jobs when you can, says Till von Wachter, an economist atColumbia.

“If you don’t move within five years of graduating, for some rea­son you get stuck where you are. That’s just an empirical finding,” Mr. von Wachter said. “By your late 20s, you’re often married, and have a family and have a house. You stop the active pattern of moving jobs.”—New York Times

A version of this article appeared in print on May 19, 2011, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Many With New Col­lege Degree Find the Job Market Humbling. 

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When Fear Stifles Employee Initiative

(Originally published on June 8,  2011; reprints previous original material published in this section)

By ROBERT W. GOLDFARB

Call it trickle-down anxiety.

Accustomed to hearing about budget cuts and layoffs from on high, employees at every level are becoming risk-averse. Dedicated, ambitious workers tell me they are so afraid of making a mistake that they feel it’s safer for their careers to avoid innovation and initiative. Managers need to realize that this paralysis threatens their companies’ health.

Of course, it’s completely understandable that company executives would want to keep their costs under control during uncertain economic times, and as they deal with issues like health care law, complicated tax regulations, patent issues and overseas competition.

Most employees I meet accept that these days, more work is expected of fewer people. They realize that performance that might have been good enough last year isn’t good enough today. Many consider themselves fortunate to be working at all. The factories and offices I visit are filled with realists who are convinced that job security ended when their parents retired.

But workers still want their leaders to spend less time voicing uncertainty and more time making things happen. They are disappointed in their immediate managers for making it more politic at staff meetings to recommend cuts than to suggest hiring a top-flight employee.

Factory supervisors have been driving productivity gains for decades, but I find that their zeal is now accompanied by caution. Some of the boldest managers are confiding this kind of worry to me: “If it isn’t a slam-dunk, I’m not proposing it. My signature on a failed project could cost me my job.” A line manager at a steel mill recently told me he was unhappy with himself for not having had the courage to challenge an order canceling a project he believed in.

Corporate mission statements may encourage innovation and entrepreneurial boldness. But these days, uneasy employees are far more attentive to small cues from their immediate supervisors. The manager of a furniture distribution center recently told me: “When my boss rolls her eyes when I propose leasing recently vacated space at a great price, I shut up. I can only irritate her by suggesting future expansion when she’s been ordered to make cuts today.”

This new environment is breeding suspicion, too. Several of the most collegial management teams I work with are beginning to fracture as close associates become rivals for the few senior positions that remain after outsourcing and downsizing. Colleagues who once attended one another’s weddings may find them­selves competing for the same job and are drifting apart.

A vice president at an insurance company told me that he had sud­denly realized that a young woman he was mentoring could become a competitor for such a prized opening and decided, “I learned things the hard way; now let her.”

Recently, I interviewed a group of African-American executives, most of whom said they felt they were becoming outsiders in management teams whose members resent any advantage a potential rival may have—racial-diversity targets among them.

“I can’t put my finger on it,” one of these executives said, “but people on the team make me feel I no longer fit in, and I’ve been in management here for 11 years.”

Employees have told me they hesitate to take vacations, fearing they won’t be missed, or a once-trusted co-worker will say things go more smoothly in their absence. In such tense environments, it’s hard to imagine employees working coopera­tively to achieve corporate goals.

Caution bred at the top is conta­gious, and it’s been drawing oxygen from the workplace. If the economy is to rebound, it will require a burst of confidence in employees who are now more cautious than creative, more tentative than decisive. That confidence needs to come from their managers, and the managers of those managers, all the way up to the chief executive.

Employees hunger for leader­ship that will make it safe again to act creatively and decisively. They don’t expect their senior manage­ment to ignore the realities of the marketplace or the flux of govern­ment policies. But they do want—and deserve— leaders who inspire them to commit the best of themselves to their work.—New York Times

 

Robert W. Goldfarb is a manage­ment consultant and author of “What’s Stopping Me From Getting Ahead?”

A version of this article appeared in print on May 15, 2011, on page BU8 of the New York edition with the headline: When Fear Stifles Initiative.

 

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Wide World of Work: Exhausted, but Still on Job

Fatigue rules negotiated

(Originally published on May 25, 2011; reprints previous original material published in this section.)

By Ll.M. Sixel

HOUSTON,TX-As companies try to do more with less, employees are working more hours. While that overtime might be great for the pocketbook, it can be dangerous for public safety.

It’s becoming common for some workers to put in 16 hours or more, then return the next day for the same grueling shift.

They drag themselves to work and are less able to do their jobs safely, according to a panel of labor and corporate representatives in the transportation and petrochemical industries, who recently met to discuss on-the-job fatigue issues at a luncheon sponsored by the Greater Houston Labor and Employment Relations Association.

One problem is that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t set fatigue standards, said Jim Lefton, assistant to the director of District 13 for the United Steelworkers Union. It represents 850,000 refinery, chemical, steel, paper and pharmaceutical workers, including 7,000 in theHoustonarea.

And the union hasn’t seen OSHA using the “general duty clause” in federal occupational safety law – requiring safe workplaces – to restrict long hours on the job, said Lefton, who said some of his members are working 19 consecutive hours a day.

The agency disagrees.

“OSHA is very concerned about workplace fatigue and the effect it can have on workplace safety,” it said in a statement. “We are prepared to cite employers when we discover situations in which the health and safety of workers are put at risk because of long work hours.”

After the BP refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 workers inTexas City, the union met with industry representatives to establish standards on work hours.

But the union broke off from the negotiations with the American Petroleum Institute, contending the discussions — which eventually resulted in a recommended practices standard — didn’t address fatigue.

Lefton pushed unsuccessfully for a requirement that employees get a 48-hour break after putting in four consecutive 12-hour days.

But it’s cheaper for the petrochemical industry to put an employee on required overtime at time-and-a-half pay than to hire replacements for employees who quit or retire, he said.

The American Petroleum Institute said in a prepared statement that the industry is implementing elements of the fatigue standard, but it didn’t have details.

Written into the Contract

Employees at Dow Chemical Co. inFreeportrecently negotiated a fatigue standard in their new labor contract, said Charles Singletary, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 564.

Under the new agreement, employees who work three consecutive 16-hour days must receive a 24-hour break. Employees on regular shifts must get a 48-hour break if they work 21 days in a row.

“The purpose of the policy is to provide reasonable assurance that the safety and health of employees, co-workers, facilities and the community are not adversely affected because of fatigue caused by excessive work hours,” Dow representative Tracie Copeland said. A similar policy for its facility inTexas Citywill be discussed during upcoming negotiations, Copeland added.

Airline Industry Standards

In the airline industry, rules on the number of hours that pilots and other airline employees can work haven’t changed much since 1985, said Capt. Mike Hynes, a pilot who serves on the safety committee with the Air Line Pilots Association inHouston. During that time, planes and flight times have gotten faster, and fewer pilots are in the cockpit.

Regulations haven’t kept up, Hynes said, so union contracts have evolved faster than federal rules on the issue of fatigue.

One of the hurdles is the industry’s good safety record — only one fatal airline crash in the United States in four years — and a resulting perception that existing rules are adequate.

Regulators have to do a cost-benefit analysis when proposing new regulations. It’s fairly easy to calculate the cost of reducing individual work hours, such as the need for more employees, but the benefits are harder to quantify.

“How do we justify the added expense?” Hynes said.

Continental pilots can call in and report they’re too fatigued to fly, said Jocelyn LaBove, director/counsel for labor relations for Continental Airlines, a subsidiary of United Continental Holdings. But she said that doesn’t happen often, which suggests to her that it’s not a big problem.

Some of the responsibility to stay rested, she said, lies with individual employees, whether fatigue results from a late night of partying or a long commute. NYT

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Wide World of Work: Office Danger: E-mail

(Originally published on Sunday, July 18, 2010)

By L.M. SIXEL

Being professional includes your email—and text messages. Beware; what you write may come back to haunt you professionally

Houston – If you’ve got an e-mail account at work, chances are you’ve watched the training videos, signed the pledges and heard the warnings about never sending anything you don’t want your mom to see.

But do we pay attention to the warnings? Apparently many of us do not and are stunned upon discovering—typically after a lawsuit has been filed or a complaint has been brought—that the e-mail we thought we deleted has a very long shelf life.

In the days before computers, people burned or ripped up the love notes they didn’t want anyone to see, said Steve Roppolo, an employment lawyer with Fisher & Phillips in Houston.

But with today’s technology, it’s memorialized forever on computer servers.

And like other employment lawyers, Roppolo is continuously amazed that intelligent folks like Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal are caught sending potentially embarrassing e-mails to their secretaries or others.

“People don’t always think straight when love is in the air,” Roppolo said.

On the other hand, he said, Rosenthal’s references to wanting to kiss his secretary behind her ear are relatively innocent compared to what Roppolo normally encounters. And with this being a family newspaper, I’m not going there.

So why is it that normally rational people say things in e-mail that they shouldn’t?

For many folks, it feels a lot like a call. A few breezy comments and then hang up—or hit the send button. Who thinks much about it?

“It’s how we communicate,” said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based firm that counsels job seekers.

But unlike the federal and state laws governing the taping and eavesdropping of calls, electronic messages don’t have that same kind of privacy protection, he said. But people forget about that.

Challenger said that he was guilty of having private conversations over e-mail with friends and relatives that he wouldn’t want to ever be broadcast. But a steady stream of headlines—especially when the news broke three years ago about the then-Boeing Co. CEO’s affair with an employee and the steamy e-mails between them—has made him much more cautious.

Now Challenger pretends that someone in IT is reading every e-mail. That way, he won’t be embarrassed.

It’s not just e-mail these days that’s causing problems. Roppolo said he’s seeing more cases involving text messages.

“People think of them as throwaways,” he said. “They’re just as retrievable as e-mail.”

One recent case involved two female employees who received sexually suggestive text messages from a male supervisor.

The case was settled pretty quickly, said Roppolo, who was representing the employer. The messages—which were easily retrieved for evidence—bolstered the women’s case.

Helen Carroll, a human resources director for the Achilles Group, said she regularly reminds her employees and clients that whatever they put in an e-mail, they have to be comfortable with the possibility it could show up on the evening news or the newspaper.

Or the CEO’s in-box, said Carroll, whose firm serves as the personnel department for small and midsize companies from restaurants to accounting firms.

She recalled one instance in which a manager had sent an e-mail to a co-worker making fun of a subordinate with a negative racial comment. Unfortunately, the manager also accidentally sent a copy to the employee.

“There was no way to explain away the e-mail,” said Carroll, who said the manager was put on notice that if anything bad happened again, she’d be terminated.

The manager was shocked and tried to brush it off, Carroll recalled. However, it became apparent that she was so used to making fun of employees that she didn’t even think twice about putting her thoughts down in an e-mail.

“With e-mail, you have no control over where it goes,” Carroll said. They’re just so easy to pass on.

In an office environment, that gets played out when two managers are feuding. One gets frustrated, snaps out a response and hits the send button. The other manager then forwards the nasty e-mail to their boss as an example of the co-worker’s bad behavior.

People don’t see the receiver, so they’re often nastier in e-mail than they’d ever be in person or on the phone, Carroll said.

“I tell them it’s not a phone call,” Carroll said, recommending that they step away from the computer, calm down, and walk down the hall and sort it out.

“Don’t just hit send. You can’t take back the e-mail.” (NYT)

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Wide World of Work – Hiring the overqualified: Special handling can pay

(Originally published on Sunday, April 25, 2010)

By L.M. SIXEL

A common complaint among job seekers is that they didn’t get hired because they were overqualified. Now it turns out that may be a good reason.

A graduate student at the University of Houston in industrial organizational psychology found that overqualified employees who aren’t given enough to do get bored and cynical.

They figure the job is a waste of their skills and education, doctoral student Aleksandra Luksyte said. That, in turn, leads to counterproductive behaviors, she said, including surfing the Internet, playing jokes on co-workers, taking company property and having long personal calls on company time.

Luksyte studied 215 psychology students who also work full time in a wide variety of jobs, including as legal assistants and in health care, fast food, retail and management.

She asked whether they believe they are overqualified and put the same question to their supervisors in an anonymous survey. There was strong agreement among managers, she said, that they saw signs of burnout.

Norman York, president of York Career Development in Houston, believes the problem stems more from a poor fit than anything else. Employers need to find the right people for the job, said York, whose firm coaches individual and corporate clients.

He finds the same burnout problem among employees who have worked the same job for a long time and essentially become overqualified for the position.

“People sort of outlive their value,” York said, and their usefulness may diminish.

The turnover issue

Employers are often reluctant to hire overqualified employees, said Luksyte, who with the help of her adviser, associate professor Christiane Spitzm?ller, is preparing the master’s thesis for a journal article. They worry employees will leave as soon as they find something better.

While that’s true — overqualified workers do tend to have higher turnover rates — they also often are efficient and effective.

The key is to give them extra duties that use their skills, such as mentoring new employees, or offering training opportunities for advancement, Luksyte said.

“Don’t avoid them,” she said. “You just have to maximize what they have.”

An exciting workplace

It’s also important to provide an exciting workplace, she said. If overqualified employees are satisfied with their work situation — they work with bright co-workers or the atmosphere is great — they’ll tend to stay.

Employers must have an upward mobility plan in mind when hiring someone who’s overqualified, said John W. Allen, president of G&A Partners, a Houston-based human resources outsourcing firm with 300 clients and 50,000 work-site employees.

They have to understand the reality that an overqualified employee will begin looking for something more challenging or a job that pays better, he said.

While it may be better to have the skills and talent from an outstanding employee for even a short period, it’s best to have a plan in place to move the employee into a better job or with greater responsibility.

Luksyte, who grew up in Lithuania, was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California Berkeley before she arrived at the University of Houston.

She got the idea of researching overqualified employees when her husband came home every night complaining about a boring project he was assigned. The software engineer was essentially cutting and pasting, and he was about to lose his mind. Luksyte also noticed that he was cruising the Internet, chatting on the phone and generally wasting time — activities that are not typical of him when he’s involved in an exciting project.

She looked up the subject in the scientific literature and found little. Now that she’s searching for a doctoral subject, Luksyte said, she’s back to quizzing her husband on what’s going on at work. (NYT-c. 2010 Houston Chronicle)

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