Daddy’s Guide to Workplace Survival

OK I can’t figure out why I can’t format this the way I want it so I’ll just leave it ugly.

Once you have a job, it is still possible to end up unhappy even with a paycheck. Either business turns down and you are threatened with layoffs, it just isn’t quite right for you, or you simply get overlooked for promotions and raises. Here are some things I’ve learned that will minimize the possibility of this sort of thing. Most are from direct experience. Some things may be unique to the aerospace business – I have no way of knowing. Anyway, here they are in no particular order.

When you interview, there are a couple of questions you commonly get. They probably have a really good psychological background and a trained psychologist could probably learn a lot from your answers but most people who will be interviewing you will ask them because they haven’t put enough thought into the interview to come up with anything else. As a result, they’re stupid questions but you still have to be prepared with an answer.
1) The first is “Tell me about yourself.” The logical answer to this would be “Didn’t you read my resume?” but of course, it’s a trick question. This is where you get to tell them what’s on your resume but make it sound conversational and maybe throw it something cool that wouldn’t be considered appropriate on the official application. Like: “I went to school and got good grades. And in my spare time I walk tightropes and feed starving children.” They’re probably looking for a little more detail on the resume items but it can be hard to tell exactly what they’re after.

2) “Where do you see yourself in five years?” This one is also stupid because five years is a very long time and the chances are that their business probably doesn’t even have a five year plan. But again, you have to answer. What they’re looking for is an indication that you aren’t after the interviewer’s job, that you don’t want to run the place (that job will never, ever be open), and that you are prepared with an answer. So spend some time being comptemplative beforehand and think about what your values are, what your goals are, etc. This is tough when you’re starting your first ‘permanent’ job right out of the university. What they’re trying to get at is whether you’ll have the patience to hang around that long (because it’s expensive to hire people), are you well matched for the job they’re hiring for, and whether you actually have goals and aspire to anything in particular. Avoid arrogance here. The best answer would probably be that “Five years is a long time and I’m not sure I have all the details worked out but I’d like to be right here; hopefully I’ve learned the business by then and become the guy who gets things done. I’d like people to come to me because they know it will be done right.” Any idiot can smell insincerity so you really do have to come up with something in your own words that you’ve thought about. You don’t have to limit your answer here; it can be a chance to squeeze in something that you may not have had a chance to point out yet. I think if you can express interest and articulate your thoughts, you’ll do well.

3) “Do you have any questions for us?” They’re just being nice but again, you can’t just say “No” and go home. It’s best to have something you can ask immediately – don’t sit and think about it. Lots of things are written on this topic so I won’t rehash all the standard answers but you should at least ask

a. Who will I be working with? (if they haven’t already told you)

b. What’s a typical day like? (Sometimes a sarcastic answer or joke will hint at something you’ll need to be aware of. Think: Peter Gibbons in Office Space.)

c. Why is this job open? (Did they fire somebody or are they expanding?)

d. Are you hiring for multiple positions? (This one can tell you a lot. If they’re only interviewing for this one job then you’ll be scrutinized pretty thoroughly. If they’re hiring a bunch of people then they’ll probably get sloppy. They might hire just about anybody. You still have to do your best but if you know that you were hired with a bunch of other people, you can usually count on a couple of them being worthless. Make sure you are never one of those.)

I personally would like to ask “So where do you see yourself in five years?” but that would be undiplomatic. But you could ask about their business development plan. What are their plans for bringing in new business? That’s a fair question and they’d better have an answer or they’ll be out of business in five years. “Running a business is like rowing upstream. Not to advance is to fall back”. You’d have to rephrase this of course for some gigantic business like Wal-Mart but the idea is valid: find out what they think the future holds.

I once asked: “Do you like working here?” (to a conference room full of people.) I got some awkward looks but I also got a lot of answers and some good insights. It didn’t seem to harm me in spite of the apparent irreverence.

You could also ask “Are there opportunities for learning?” That can give you a hint as to whether they will ever pay for you to go to a class or not. It can also hint at whether you’ll be able to advance or if you’ll be doing the same job forever.

In larger companies they often have people interview you who have no experience at all in interviewing people. They are not human resources people and don’t know what they’re doing. They probably have a sheet somewhere (maybe hidden) that human resources gave them to fill out and they’ll be basing some of their questions on that. These are the ones you can get the best information out of. These are the ones who can be tricked into revealing things like no training budget, lots of extra unpaid hours, and things like that. The older ones and/or best-dressed people (with social skills) are probably the ones who count and you should be careful to answer their questions well. They are the management and/or human resources people.

Remember: you’re interviewing them just like they’re interviewing you. You aren’t simply begging for a job. (Well, maybe you’re begging for that first one out of college.)

Always be sure that whatever you’re doing is vital to your employer’s core business. If most of the company’s revenue comes from producing X, make sure you’re directly involved with X. Otherwise you’re job security is measurably less than those who are directly involved with X. Closely related to this is the need for you to work in a group that has a good reputation. If you’re not, try to get transferred into it.

Erin: Sexual harassment has all but gone away according to my observations over the last 15 years. But according to a few women I’ve worked with recently, you may still have problems getting along with the other women in your workplace. Apparently older and/or less educated women (or those that feel they are less attractive then you) can feel extremely threatened by younger or smarter women. They will drag their feet when it comes to helping you, take note of when you arrive and leave and pass that along to your boss (looking for evidence of you not putting in a full 8 hour day), and gossip about you behind your back. And they will simply make bad things up out of thin air. My best source for all this has been Lindsay that you’ve heard me talk about before. She’s experienced all these things.

It is vital for you to be useful. You have to produce something that is  measureable and useful to the people you’re working for. It is also important for them to know that you’ve done so in order that everyone else will know that you’re productive. Make sure that everyone knows that you either produce high quality work or that you’re the one to go to for things.

If you want something, you generally have to ask for it. No supervisor will ever come to you and say that they’re giving you a better computer or desk chair just because they think you’re cool. Generally, you’ll be allowed to sit on a cardboard box until you ask for a chair. The workplace is full of whiners, complainers, slackers, and people who feel they are entitled to things; you have to make your needs known to the supervisors, otherwise they won’t even be aware of you or your issues because they’re dealing with the whiners. You do this best by asking politely. If you can make some sort of well thought out business case for it, so much the better. That will set you apart from the complainers and entitlement types.

Generally “supervisor” in a professional environment is not the same thing as it is when you’re a teenager working at the city pool. In engineering, they are usually somebody much like you but a little older or with more experience. They didn’t typically start out wanting to direct others and may not enjoy it; they do it because the opportunity for advancement is greater. They may feel awkward filling out your annual review and talking to you about your salary and/or raise. You’ll know they are this way if they seem to do that stuff at the last minute or put it off. You won’t generally get much guidance out of them either; they’ll tell you what your job is but won’t necessarily tell you what you need to do in a lot of detail. This will vary with the job though. Still, you may find yourself often with inadequate guidance as to what you need to be doing or what the priorities are. You can ask your coworkers initially but don’t get into the habit of it; it’s best to be thought of as being a self-starter. Besides, when you’re young, some of your coworkers will just give you the crap tasks that they don’t want to do. In short, in the absence of guidance, do what you think is the best thing to do. Producing something is worth a lot even if it should prove to be the wrong thing – which is unlikely.

When your supervisor or coworkers start picking your work apart, that means you’re on the right track. They have accepted the basic form of it and they are now extending it. If you’re totally off base, you’ll get some vague reaction about that not being what they wanted. And they still won’t provide any more details. If you find yourself in a job you don’t like too much or if you find yourself in a group that isn’t very highly thought of, start looking around to figure out how to transfer. This has to be done carefully. You can either look for another job at another company (which is easier to do once you have a job already) or you can move around in your own company if it’s large enough. It can be tricky to do this without making it look like you don’t like the person you’re working for so you have to approach it by coming up with a reason that centers around how your skills would be a better fit in another group.

Most people tend to get pretty specialized in what they do. It’s good to be an expert but it can limit your options. If you sense that your specialty is becoming less important, do not hesitate to start retraining yourself. When changing your specialty, this is usually something you’ll have to do (and pay for) yourself but don’t hesitate to do it. It’s always a bit of a chore to keep up with the changing technology in your field but you absolutely have to. Employers are pretty stingy with their training budgets but all you have to do is make a very clearly worded request for it and tie it directly to something you’re working on.

When writing emails to people, they don’t usually pay attention past your first statement. They may not scroll down either. So if you have more than one question, you’ll generally only get an answer to the first one since they won’t have read any further than whatever is on their screen. If you try to make several points, they will often only understand or remember the first. If they come back asking for more info that you already provided, it’s best to call them up or go to their desk and tell them. But the emails are considered legal documents in any workplace so it’s  mportant for them to be there as evidence of your work.

Workplace internet use is almost always monitored and recorded. I think most of this is done automatically and is not looked at much by anyone – it’s only there if the management gets a hint that something bad is going on and then they’ll pull up the records looking for bad stuff. Make sure there’s none coming from your PC and this means making sure your screen is locked when you leave your desk. While at Sabre, somebody got called into the office for porn only to find that while they were away from their desk, somebody else came and sat down and did the bad stuff from their PC. They went to the trouble and expense to install cameras pointed at the desk to get proof so it was a big deal. And at Aeromet, every time somebody accidently forgets to lock their screen when they go to the bathroom, the pranking begins. Bogus emails get sent. Also, if the management suspects anything is going on they can also pull the records from the badge readers on the doors. If they tell you they can’t or don’t monitor those, they are lying. They may not monitor them all the time but if they suspect fraud, they’ll monitor them.

Read “Dilbert” a few times and get familiar with Wally. Do not be Wally. Find out who the Wally is in your workplace and avoid him. Do not have anything to do with Wally other than what is required by common courtesy.

You have to be the sort of person who will do what he says. This is actually true for what you do outside of work too. If you talk about something with coworkers but don’t actually follow through – even though it is only a hobby, you’ll lose  credibility inside the workplace even though it doesn’t seem relevant.

Weekly status reports are not usually required but it’s a good idea to write them anyway – just for yourself. There are times when you’re called upon to tell your supervisor what you’ve been doing or what you’ve accomplished during the last year. Often this is a formalized process with forms you fill out yearly but this can be used sporadically. At any rate, if you keep a weekly  record of what you’ve done, it won’t ever be hard to come up with a detailed list of your  accomplishments. When listing accomplishments, phrase things as if your bosses’ boss were going to read them; that keeps you from getting too detailed or putting in too many abbreviations. These days, businesses occasionally have a website available for you to use for logging such things. Do not be overly modest. Nobody will sing your praises but you and nobody will even notice your accomplishments unless you make them known. If you are too modest, you will be overlooked and forgotten. I’m not suggesting arrogance or showing off; just avoid the opposite extreme.

Thou shalt not gripe about work online.

The easiest way to ratchet your salary up is to switch companies. I’ve been told by various people (usually managers) that such “job hoppers” are not highly regarded, they won’t hire people with hopping on their resumes, and that this practice doesn’t work. My observations tell me otherwise. It does work. If your employer is privately owned, you may get good raises and/or bonuses if business is good. If business falls off, you’ll be laid off quickly. If however it is a publicly traded company (on the stock exchange), then job security is better. Profits are skimmed off for the stockholders and executives and your raises will be about what the national inflation rate is. If you’re doing very well and they want you to know it, you’ll get a 5 to 8% raise. They will come up with all sorts of reasonable-sounding reasons for why the raises suck but it is all lies. It’s so the executives can buy another yacht or something.

Whenever someone says “do you have time to do this (whatever)”, you say “Yes”. This is all part ofmaking yourself useful. There are times when you’ll have to say you don’t know anything about what they’re asking and it’s best to be honest there but generally speaking, offer to help.

If you’re ever asked to help write a business proposal, you pretty much have to agree but that’s one of the most frustrating things you can do if your business is pretty large or if the proposal involves a lot of money or is for work over a period of several years. The more money is involved, the more managers get involved and they will sometimes bring in special consultants whose only job is to help write proposals. These things always take way longer than they should because so many people get involved. They invariably come down to the last minute and you end up having to work some long hours to get it done. Also, the world of proposal writing is full of people who pretend it’s more work than it is and who work lots of long hours and live in a culture of overtime-as-normal. You can do your part in five minutes but some people seem to think that you aren’t doing your part if you aren’t there exactly when they are. Proposals are something to be avoided but if you get cornered, you can’t really say no.

 The real trick to all this is to do it without seeming to be a manipulative social climber. But if you’re nice, sincere, and honorable, it will usually work. Remember: it’s no sin to be successful.

Conclusions:  If all this sounds like your work life is filled with nasty coworkers, always watching your back, and constant suspicion and politics, it’s not. These are only the issues that I chose to advise you on because there was never any guidance given on these things when I entered the workforce. The university only teaches you the facts of your field and the career placement office usually only teaches you resume and interviewing skills (if that). The rest was up to me and Mom to just figure out. Most of my jobs have been interesting and most of the time, I was doing interesting stuff and enjoying it 90 percent of the time. But for those other times, I wrote this.