The Workplace Classroom: Creative Moments Allow Lifelong Learning

workplace classroomMost of the children in my area are starting back to school this week or next – which got me thinking about my own school days.

I remember lying awake the night before school started filled with excitement about wearing my new school clothes, meeting my teachers and finding out who I’d sit by in class or play with at recess.

The start of each school year was filled with eager anticipation for the new things I’d experience and discover.

When I graduated from college and entered the working world, I really missed the ever-changing class schedule that promised challenging ideas and unfamiliar faces. But, after my first year in the professional world, I got in the groove of my new lifestyle and missed my scholastic days less.
In my current job, I still have the opportunity to take new classes (projects), meet new students (vendors, clients, co-workers) and learn from interesting teachers (supervisors, colleagues, books). While my recess (lunch break) doesn’t involve swinging on the monkey bars or playing tetherball, it probably could if I wanted to head to a local park in my work clothes.

One of the things that made elementary school great was the opportunity to cut loose and experiment with new ideas – whether that was increasing our understanding of politics by sculpting world leaders out of Play-Doh or learning about teamwork by running a three-legged race.

Those moments stimulated our minds and helped us kids refresh from a sometimes draining day of reading, writing and arithmetic. I think those same moments are invaluable in the “workplace classroom.” Employees need to be able to try out new ideas and shake off the hum-drums when their enthusiasm wanes.

Infusing creativity and fun into the workday helps employees stay sharp and engaged.
Of course no classroom or workplace is all fun and games, but my favorite classes were always the ones where I learned without realizing I was learning. The same can be true at work. If we have enough moments that stimulate our minds and shake up the status quo, we don’t feel like we’re working, but rather exploring and making contributions to our world.

What were some of the best learning moments from your school days? How could some of those creative learning times be brought to your workplace?

Call in Well – Take a Vacation Day

day offI played hooky from work yesterday. It was a planned event, weeks in the making.

Coming up with the excuse to call in with was a challenge. My favorite was “I am stuck in the blood pressure machine down at Wal-Mart and the paramedics are on the way.”

I didn’t use an excuse. After writing yesterday’s post, I opted to tell the truth. I needed a mental recovery day.

Well that, and it’s best not to lie to your boss, your coworkers or your clients because they’ll probably be the ones you’ll run into on the golf course or while you’re walking down the street in shorts and flip flops when you’re supposed to be in bed with the flu.

I told my team at work exactly what I was doing – taking a family health day. Every year before school starts my oldest (and only school-aged) daughter and I have a full day of play – Just like Ferris Bueller and his friends.

My work was covered, and the department and the company operated just fine without me for one day. This is important because taking a vacation day should not cause undue hardship on your co-workers.

Father and daughter went to breakfast, then to an amusement park, lunch and then the movies. We enjoyed every moment. I didn’t think about to-do lists, deadlines or meetings. Instead I reconnected with my childhood, when being a kid meant just having fun, hanging out and playing together. My daughter felt important (she planned the day) and by bedtime I felt rejuvenated and ready to face work on Friday.

Have you taken a vacation or personal wellness day recently? Or are you more prone to calling in sick or coming up with an elaborate excuse? Either way, I’d like to hear your story.

Wasting Time at Work or Taking a Mental Break?

Have you checked out YouTube today? Did you do it at work? If so, you’re part of 63% of the workforce who’ll admit to wasting time at work.

Employees waste 20% of their work day (1.7 hours) according to a survey conducted by Salary.com. Look at it a different way. In a five day work week the average employee wastes an entire day, and that doesn’t even count lunch.

Let’s assume that I just spent 15 minutes looking at the weather forecast, paying my bills online and talking with my cubemates about the newest Jason Bourne movie. Then I would be just like most workers. The leading time-wasting activities at work include:

• Personal Internet use
• Socializing with co-workers
• Conducting personal business
• Making personal phone calls
• Taking extended breaks to run errands

Men and women waste time equally, but younger workers are inclined to waste more time than older workers. Employees age 20-29 reported the highest total – 2.1 hours a day. The average for 30-39 year olds falls to 1.9 hours and 1.4 hours for 40-49 year olds.

I’m a little depressed. I turn 40 in five months, which means I’m going to have to convert 30 minutes a day from water cooler talk to work production.

There are some things to consider if you find yourself at work doing Sudoku puzzles, downloading music and checking out eBay listings instead of compiling weekly production reports.

You’re not being challenged. If you have time to waste, maybe you don’t have enough to do. It could be time for a new challenge. Maybe you’ve mastered your current job duties, and you’d like to take on additional responsibilities. Ask your supervisor for more challenging work.

You’re burned out. Take a vacation to recharge your batteries. That’s what your paid time off (PTO) leave is for. Hopefully, you’ll come back rested and ready to work. But then again you might not. So…

Quit. You may beyond repair, so to find challenging work you might need to get another job. Seriously, how many hours of Tetris can you play before you need to pack up your box and hand in your keys?

Most bosses don’t expect their employees to work non-stop eight hours a day. Bosses (OK – good bosses) know what employees are producers and which ones are slackers. Breaks are to be expected and can benefit your company’s culture by strengthening the bond between co-workers.

There’s a difference between taking a nap and having a casual conversation with your peers. Internet research that helps you increase your overall productivity impacts your company’s bottom line more than spending an hour updating your MySpace profile.

That reminds me. I need to look up a recipe for dinner tonight. Where will I find the time?

Employee Fraud: Investigate Before You Hire

fraud in your companyOn Monday night, I watched the Dateline episode, “Tangled Web,” about a woman named Sandra Bridewell who was recently arrested on fraud charges.

In 1985, Sandra was also the prime suspect in her husband’s death. The Dateline story details how after his death she traveled the country for 20 years using a number of different names.

At one point, she worked as a caregiver for an elderly woman. The woman’s family claims Sandra embezzled their mother’s social security checks and nearly had the mother’s home put into foreclosure for failure to pay the mortgage. Throughout the story, several individuals from Sandra’s past are interviewed, claiming they were conned for thousands of dollars.

What surprised me was how easy it seemed Sandra was able to gain access to personal information and large amounts of money, even though she had a questionable history and most likely very few solid personal or professional references.

Like the individuals in the Dateline story, businesses are often too quick to give an untested employee control of highly sensitive information. According to a 2002 study, published by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, occupational fraud costs organizations $600 billion a year.

How often could these devastating fraud cases have been avoided by performing background checks and asking more in-depth interview questions?

An applicant may sound great on paper and may even be charming in person, but what do their references have to say about them? Has a background check been performed? What about a simple Google search?

I’m not saying people should hire a private investigator to snoop out every new acquaintance, but it just makes good sense to perform due diligence before giving a perfect stranger access to things like social security numbers, company checks, banking information or other sensitive information.

What steps does your company go through before hiring new employees? Do you feel these are sufficient? Have you or your organization ever been a victim of fraud?

7 Questions to Ask an Interviewer

Asking questions is a vital step for any job-seeker in an interview. You may think that asking questions makes you look unprepared, but the opposite is usually true (unless you are unprepared!) Having several specific questions in mind before you go to your interview can ensure that you end the interview giving a good impression. If things brought up during the interview intrigue you, ask about them. If you feel like you have a good grasp on things, ask questions anyway. Even if you land the job – and even once you’ve been on assignment – you won’t know all there is to know about it.

With that in mind, here are seven basic questions to pick from for your next interview. Asking two or three questions like these can set you apart from the pack and get you one step closer to getting the job.

1. What does a normal workday for this position look like? This question can reveal a lot about the job that’s not listed in the job description. It can also demonstrate to you the level of knowledge the interviewer has about the job itself. And, asking it shows that you’re interested in more than a paycheck and benefits.

2. What does your typical day at work consist of? People love talking about themselves. Asking this question not only gives the interviewer a chance to share about themselves, their answer can show you how much someone in the position you’re interviewing for would interact with you on a daily basis.

3. What is the biggest challenge someone in this position typically faces? This is one of the tougher, more insightful questions you can ask. It may put the interviewer on the spot, but it also shows that you are thinking critically about the job. The fact is, there are challenges in any job, and showing that you know that and are willing to face them is a great trait for any job seeker to demonstrate.

4. What are the opportunities for career growth in this organization? You probably don’t want to tell the interviewer that you want their job in the next two years. Believe me. I’ve sat in interviews where job candidates said that, flat out. (They didn’t get the job.) But demonstrating that you’re interested in career growth shows you’re committed to your field and the organization. And, the interviewer’s answer can also tell you a lot about whether this is an organization you really want to join.

5. What is the growth plan for this company in the next five years? Asking this question shows that you can think beyond yourself and your job. Managers are held accountable for their department’s contribution to the company’s goals and bottom line, so asking the interviewer about the company’s plan for growth not only shows your business acumen, it can tell you a lot about the stability of the organization you’re considering tying yourself to.
 

6. Why is there a vacancy for this position? This can be a tough question, but it’s often worth asking. If there are personality conflicts or management issues in a department, and someone left for those reasons, this is a great time to find out. Sometimes, a position has been created because you’re joining a growing team or a person left because they were promoted. Both are answers you deserve to know.

7. When can I expect to hear back from you? If you don’t ask this, you might never know. You can end up spending a lot of time waiting by the phone if you don’t know the interviewer’s schedule for filling the position you’re seeking. It can also help you know when to follow up or send a thank you note. For example, if they’re planning to make the hiring decision that day, you’ll want to send an e-mail or leave a note at the front desk as opposed to mailing it.

Remember, the interview is also your chance to find out about your potential employer. If you land the job, you’ll spend a lot of time and energy working for the company. That’s why you need to make sure you want the job, fit with the organization’s culture, believe in its mission and understand its goals. So, on your next interview, take the opportunity to ask meaningful questions.

What questions have you asked in past job interviews? Were they a hit or a flop?

Ace the Interview by Asking Great Questions

So you’re at the point in the interview where you’ve given your background and qualifications. You’ve demonstrated your people, problem-solving and follow-through skills. The interviewer has asked their questions, and hopefully, you’ve answered their unasked ones. But now, they toss things your way and ask if you have any questions.

If you’re like many job seekers, you will say simply, “No,” or “I  don’t think so,” or “Not at this time,” take this as your cue the interview is over and exit, leaving opportunities – and often a chance at the job – behind.

What you may not know is the question-asking time can be one that sets you apart from other candidates. Interviewers are paying careful attention to what you say during this part of the interview. They want to know that you have thought about the job beyond the description you read when you applied. You can use this as an opportunity to show your thoughtfulness, enthusiasm and self-confidence. Asking well-thought-out questions can demonstrate:

  • Your knowledge of the company.
  • Your passion for the job.
  • Your curiosity about the industry.
  • Your ability to take charge.
  • Your desire to stand apart.

Check back tomorrow to learn what questions you should ask when you’re on a job interview. 

Don’t Let a Roadblock Derail Your Raise Negotiation

roadblock your raiseYou’ve done your homework, booked the meeting with your boss and prepared yourself mentally. You’ve made the pitch that you are well deserving of a raise based on your performance, progress toward your goals and value to the organization.

Then your boss throws you a curve ball, “So, Peter, what’s happening? Ah, now, are you going to go ahead and have those TPS reports for us this afternoon?”

You are unsure where the conversation is headed when you boss adds, “Oh, and next Friday is Hawaiian shirt day. So, you know, if you want to you can go ahead and wear a Hawaiian shirt and jeans.”

If handled correctly, this blatant attempt to change the subject can work to your advantage. This tactic is used frequently by managers because it gives them the opportunity to regroup and hopefully discuss something else. You need to remember that this is your meeting, and you’re on a mission. Here are a few suggestions to help you reach your goal.

What do I have to do? Ask your boss to explain the career path that will allow you to increase your responsibilities as well as your bank account. Set time tables and measurements so you (and more importantly your manager) will know what’s expected.

Take responsibility. Offer to take on additional responsibilities and have your raise be reassessed in 90 days if your manager is pleased with your performance. Point out that you will be doing more work for the same pay. If your boss is open to this, consider suggesting that the raise be retroactive to the day of your meeting. There’s no sense leaving three months of extra money on the table.

Offer alternatives. There are other ways to get the raise without increasing your salary. A 5% raise for someone making $35,000 a year equates to an additional $1,750. If you know this going into your meeting why not suggest a one-time performance bonus equal to your raise. If that’s too much for your manager to digest, offer quarterly installment based on performance.

Get another job offer. I’m hesitant to offer this as a suggestion because it can backfire. You might mention that you have another job offer, and your boss will give you an empty box and show you to the door along with your last pay check. If you are going to attempt to use a job offer as leverage to get a raise, be prepared to leave.

Good employees are even more valuable in today’s tight labor market. It will cost the company more money to replace you and retrain a replacement than it would cost to give you that well-deserved 4-6% pay increase. Sometimes you have to rattle the cage to get your manager’s attention.

Best of luck to you, and let me know how it goes.