Curious about cubicle etiquette? Wondering why you’re not racking up interview call-backs? Our advice: ask a manager. Alison Green, consultant and blogger behind online advice mecca Ask a Manager, makes herself available to answer questions and share insight on a range of topics from office dynamics to job hunting advice to knowing when to move on.
And with a tagline like hers—Ask a Manager—and if you don’t, I’ll tell you anyway— you know to expect the no-nonsense, give-it-to-me-straight kind of career and workplace advice that you need (and that you aren’t likely to get from your friends). In the following Q&A session, Alison shares a sneak peek into the guidance you can expect from the regular reader Q&As she shares on the blog.
Smarty Cents: What inspired you to create Ask a Manager?
Alison Green: It was actually an impulsive, spur-of-the-moment decision. It wasn’t well thought-out at all! I had a bunch of rants and opinions in my head, and I’d been reading other career blogs and felt there was a niche I could fill—no one was giving advice from the perspective of a manager, explaining what your boss might be thinking.
I also felt like a lot of the career advice online was fairly generic, and I wanted to do something more practical and more customized to real-life situations. So I decided what the heck, let’s see what happens if I try this. Of course, I wasn’t sure if anyone would send in questions at first. It’s now seven years later, and I’m still amazed and grateful that people are reading.
SC: What are your essential tips for job seekers?
AG: You have to demonstrate that you’d excel at the job—not just do it adequately, but excel. If you’re simply submitting a resume that runs down where you’ve worked and what your job duties were, it’s no wonder you’re not getting interviews. Hiring managers want to know what you’ve accomplished, not just what jobs you’ve held. Your resume needs to list specific accomplishments, and your cover letter needs to explicitly address how your track record shows that you’d excel if hired.
Speaking of cover letters, I’m continually amazed by how many people ask what they can do to stand out in their job search but don’t bother to write a really great, customized cover letter. So many people fall into the trap of using their cover letter to just summarize their resume. That’s a waste of a whole page of your application! You should be writing about why you want this particular job and why you’d excel at it. And you should show some personality so that employers can get a feel for who you are.
Also, job seekers tend to drive themselves crazy in two key ways:
First, they give in to the temptation to try to read into every word or action from their interviewer. This leads to frustrating and generally fruitless attempts to parse every word from an interviewer –Was she signaling I didn’t get the job when she said they had more candidates to interview? Is it a good sign that he shook my hand and said he’d be in touch?
This stuff typically doesn’t mean anything at all, and it’s a good way to just drive yourself crazy for no reason. And believe me, I get why people do this. Job searching is stressful and anxiety-producing, so of course people look for signs about what’s going on. But it doesn’t help, and it makes the whole experience so much worse.
Second, people tend to agonize after an interview, wondering how it went, second-guessing their answers and trying to predict when they’ll hear back from the employer. A better bet is to put it out of your mind and move on mentally. You can make a note on your calendar to follow up if you haven’t heard back in two weeks, but until then? You’re far better off not dwelling on it.
SC: Once you’ve landed the job (or if you’ve successfully held onto it for a while) what would you say is the key to a successful salary negotiation?
AG: You really need to understand your market value. Too often, people try to negotiate based on what “feels right” to them or based on what they want to earn, rather than looking at the market and getting a good sense of the going rate for their work.
SC: Do you see any trends or common misconceptions about office dynamics in your reader questions?
AG: People often expect things to be fair, and they assume that if they’re not fair, there must be recourse. But there often isn’t, and that’s just the way it is.
That said, you do have the ultimate recourse—if you’re unhappy enough with a situation, you can move on. Often when people look at it that way, they realize that the thing they were upset about isn’t big enough to leave over, and that realization can make them less frustrated with it.
SC: What’s the best and worst career advice you’ve seen floating around?
AG: Too often, job search advice encourages people to try to get the job offer no matter what, rather than encouraging them to make sure that this is even the right job for them to begin with. That’s how people end up in jobs that they aren’t that good at, working for bosses they can’t stand, in cultures where they’re unhappy. You need to be interviewing your interviewer right back, to really make sure this is a job you’re going to be happy in. If you’re just focused on getting an offer, you can lose sight of that.
As for good advice, one thing that’s really stuck with me is the idea of thinking about the things you can’t not do, because they’ll steer you to a career you’ll thrive in. To use my own career as an example, at the start of my working life, I couldn’t stop myself from rewriting my company’s form letters, publicity materials and internal documents. It wasn’t my job, but I literally couldn’t not do it, to the point that I once found myself rewriting the office phone manual late one night.
I eventually ended up writing professionally, and my quality of life skyrocketed, because just like when I was sneaking those activities in at that first job, it didn’t feel like work at all. Later, I found myself increasingly unable to stop myself from becoming a thorn in the side of my manager until all manner of problems were addressed, from inefficient procedures to morale issues. I was spending more and more time thinking about how I’d restructure things if I were in charge and finding ways to get my ideas in front of my bosses. Eventually that moved me out of writing and into managing, and then into what I do now. Looking back, it feels inevitable, because these were things I couldn’t not do.
My advice to everyone is to think about the things you can’t help but do no matter what—ways that your brain works, things that you will spend time on, even if it means working well into the night to fit it in.
SC: In your opinion, what is the most common workplace faux pas?
AG: Do I have to choose just one? There are so many! I’m going to pick one that people don’t often think about: not speaking up when you’re really annoyed by something. I get so many letters from people asking how they can make their coworker stop doing something—stop interrupting them, stop cranking up their music so loudly, stop commenting on their personal appearance, stop pushing donuts on them, or whatever. And so often, they’re incredibly frustrated they haven’t simply asked the person to stop doing it.
I know we all want there to be a magic button that will get a coworker to stop being annoying without us having to talk to them directly about it, but there is no magic button. You’ve got to speak up.
SC: Before you were a full time consultant and blogger, you were a boss lady. So—do you miss it?
AG: Rarely. Managing people is hard work. I loved it while I was doing it … but I’m so glad to be doing what I’m doing now.
For more advice from Alison Green—or to submit a question of your own—visit www.AskaManager.org.