Ask the Professor V

Just when I was ready to retire Ask the Professor, I received a package that, like all good mail, both intrigued and disturbed me. It was an unmarked brown padded envelope that contained a small voodoo doll, complete with pins and an instruction booklet.

Also enclosed was a typewritten letter with the following request for Professor Plum (Note: I had to edit the letter because it rambled on for two pages, named names, and was clearly the product of a slightly unstable individual):

Dear Professor Plum:

I left a very unpleasant work environment earlier this year, and although I have come to terms with my anger through meditation and aromatherapy, several of my co-workers who also left have not been able to overcome their feelings of hatred toward our former employer. I want to help them out, but I’m not sure of the best way to do that.

I came across this voodoo kit and am wondering if you think it would be a healthy way for them to deal with the anger they feel. I would hate to inadvertently contribute to the rage they already harbor. I have enclosed a sample kit so that you can get a real feel for what they would be using. I look forward to your response.

- Wanting to Help, Cambridge, MA

Dear Wanting to Help

Although mildly disturbed by the fact that you somehow discovered my home address, I am glad that you decided to write in. But before I get to the question of your former coworkers, I want to back up a bit. Although you say that you have come to terms with your anger, the fact that you’re sending voodoo dolls to strangers tells me that you might have a little self-exploration to do.

As you know, I have a PhD in jobology, not to mention over 48 years of management experience. So with that sort of résumé, you didn’t really think I would fall for the, “my friend has a problem” routine, did you? Let’s just call a spade a spade: by “friend,” you mean you; by “meditation,” you mean vodka-induced blackouts; and by “aromatherapy,” you mean recreational drugs. Am I right?

Look, I’m here to help, but don’t yank my chain. Professor Plum has been around the block a few times in her day.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, you definitely came to the right person with this problem. So you want to relieve some of your pent up rage by stabbing sharp pins into an effigy of your old boss. But you’re also afraid that if you allow yourself to actually focus some of these violent emotions outward into the universe, they may consume your life, and you might end up on the ten o’clock news wearing fatigues and camped out in a clock tower somewhere near Lubbock, TX. Sound pretty close?

Well let me calm those fears once and for all. There is no better way to deal with rage – particularly corporate rage – than to release it out onto others. Keeping anger deep inside you is highly counterproductive and can be very damaging to the stomach lining. Once you let it out, a sense of peace and resolve will immediately pass over you. Trust me on this one.

So in short, releasing your anger is good, but I’m not sure you’ve got the right tools for the task at hand. In the immortal words of former president Ben Franklin, “A job worth doing is worth doing right.” Anyone smart enough to discover electrolysis is smart enough to dish out job advice, I always say. So if you are going to open up your hate valves, which, incidentally, are located slightly below your pituitary glands, you need to have the right tools. And trust me, no mass-produced voodoo kit made by Hasbro is going to do the job.

I’m not saying that I have any first-hand experience in this area, but I guess if I wanted to make my former boss feel some of the pain he/she inflicted upon me for so many years, I might first book a ticket to New Orleans under an assumed name. Then I might go to a taxidermist at 167 Bourbon Street. Once I found the shop, I might want to wander over to the back entrance, knock on the door four times quickly, and say “I’m here to have my gator stuffed” to the woman who answered the door. Her name might be Madame LeChevre. If you happen to have a lock of your former boss’ hair, I’d suggest bringing it along. For a small fee, my guess is that Madame LeChevre might be inclined to stitch you up a real special voodoo doll that could actually do some damage.

That’s just something I might try if I were you. Hope all works out well for “your friends” – I’ll be waiting on pins and needles to hear the outcome. Pins and needles! Get it? And to think I almost retired!

Ask the Professor IV

Dear Professor Plum:

One of my employees has been severely underperforming, so next week I am going to have to fire him. Although I’ve been a manager for several years, I have never actually had to fire anyone, and I’m a little nervous about it. Is there any advice you can give me?
- Sheila E., Los Alamos, NM

Dear Sheila:

It’s a natural reaction to be nervous about firing an employee for the first time. It just means you’re concerned about your employee’s feelings, which can occasionally be a good thing for managers to be focused on.

Throughout my many years of managing others, I’ve certainly had to fire my share of employees. Quite frankly, you could staff a small company with the people I’ve had to get rid of. It wouldn’t be a very successful company, but a company all the same.

Whenever I had to fire an employee, I remembered one key rule of thumb: terminating an employee is no different than breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, so the same strategies should be utilized for both. It really just comes down to finding the technique that suits your personal style, and/or the particular employee you are firing.

Here are the core strategies you can use, and how they relate to both personal and professional situations:

1. Reverse psychology
In the dating world, this strategy can be summed up by the following phrase: “You’re too good for me.” It’s a great technique to use when you’re dating someone with a big ego, who will clearly believe that he/she is, in fact, too good for you.

So, when applying this strategy to firing an employee, it should go something like this:
“Andy, I really wanted to talk to you about your role here at XYZ. You’ve been with the company for three years, and during this time, I’ve really been able to identify what you’re good at. And the truth I’ve had to face is that we don’t do any of the things you’re good at here at XYZ. I just really feel like there’s a company out there that is so much better for you, and will be able to really appreciate and reward your talents. In fact, with your strong Internet surfing skills, I’ll bet there’s a dot com out there that is dying for an employee just like you. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t give you the opportunity to find that company. So, as hard as it is, I have to let you leave XYZ and follow your true dreams. It’s just not fair for me to keep you here. Please pack up your desk and turn in your badge immediately. Thanks, Andy. Keep in touch!”

2. Laundry list
This is the technique people typically use when they have just absolutely reached their emotional limits with the antics of their significant other. So, the strategy here is to overwhelm the person with an extremely long list of things they have done wrong. By the time you’ve finished your list, the person you’re breaking up with is so angry at you that they have absolutely no desire to stay in a relationship anymore.

From a work perspective, this is a really good approach to use if your employee has been underperforming for a really, really long time, but you’ve never gotten around to addressing any of the issues. It allows you to vent all your frustrations at once, and fire the employee, thereby killing two birds with one stone.

A typical example:
“Sharon, we really need to have a serious discussion about your performance. I’ve put together a list of some of the things you do that are either direct violations of company policy or simply really annoy me.

For the past two years you have been coming in at least 20 to 30 minutes late every day. I have noted at least 15 occasions where you were not wearing nylons with a skirt, a clear violation of our corporate dress code. You eat smelly food at your desk which irritates your neighbors. You have been late with the sales report six times in the past two months. You park in the visitor’s parking lot. You still don’t know the difference between gross and net profit. You never take notes in meetings and then ask your colleagues what the action items were. You have never once remembered Boss’ Day. You take a sick day every time you have your ‘woman problem.’ You were clearly drunk at the holiday party when you knocked over three people while doing the Electric Slide.

Based on this, I’m sure you’ll agree that I have no other option but to fire you. No, you’re right, I didn’t ever mention these issues before, but you’re a smart woman, and clearly should have known that this type of behavior could not go on. Please pack up your desk and turn in your badge immediately.”

3. Avoidance
In the dating realm, this technique is usually executed through a series of unreturned phone calls and unanswered emails. It also often involves keeping the curtains drawn and lights off whenever he/she stops by to “try to work things out.” Eventually, the person you’re trying to break up with will take the hints and just give up.

The main difference when dealing with a professional setting is the first and most critical step: deactivating the employee’s ID badge and/or alerting security that this person should no longer be allowed into the building. Some employees only need to experience this first humiliating stage before assuming they have been fired. Some more persistent ones may try to call or email you, or they may try to contact HR. Just stick to your guns, delete all their emails before reading them, and make sure you have caller ID. Again, even the most tenacious employees get the message after a few months of no paychecks.

4. Replacement
I find this to be one of the most practical techniques to use in both the personal and professional worlds. In the romance arena, the replacement strategy can be summarized like this: since you don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings, you just start dating someone else on the side. You intentionally let your current boy/girlfriend find out so that they will end up breaking up with you. Then you don’t have to be the bad guy, and you have a backup already prepared.

In the job market, it plays out quite similarly. Let’s say the position you want to terminate is a Sales Manager. What you need to do is hire another person and give her the exact same title as the person you want to get rid of. Ideally this new person should be a slightly more attractive and younger version of the person you’re firing. Have the new person train under the bad employee so she can learn all the trade secrets. Be very vocal about praising the new person in public, saying things like, “I can’t believe how quickly you’ve caught on! It took Sarah two years to figure out how to read a P&L!” or “Gee, Kelly, if you keep up this great work, I don’t know how I’m going to keep the both of you busy!”

After a few months of this, the bad employee will typically quit. If she refuses to take the high road and resign, however, then you just need to say something like, “Sarah, I had no intention of firing you, but now that I have Kelly here and I know what it’s like to have a good employee, I just don’t see how you and I can continue this relationship. Please pack up your desk and turn in your badge immediately.”

Well, Sheila, I hope you found this helpful. All you need to do is determine which category your employee falls into, and then use the appropriate technique. And trust me, it only gets easier. Eventually, you may even come to enjoy firing employees. Until then, you may want to submit your request for caller ID as soon as possible.

Ask the Professor III

Dear Professor Plum:

I have recently been promoted to a management position, so I’m still new to having people reporting in to me. Some of my employees have been coming to me to discuss issues that I consider to be personal, not work related. I want to be a caring manager, but where do I draw that line?

- Kenny G., Boston, MA

Dear Kenny:

Congratulations on the promotion! The fact that you’re coming to me for advice already tells me that you’re going to make an outstanding manager.

It is inevitable that when you begin managing people, eventually you will run into a few employees who want to share too many personal details about their lives. I admit that this can sometimes be a challenging problem to deal with. Fortunately, you have come to the right person, Kenny.

Early in my management career, I, too, had a hard time dealing with one particular employee. This employee – we’ll call her Tina – had a tendency to share stories with her co-workers that were highly personal. Whether it was a disturbing anecdote about the homeless man who used to expose himself to her when she worked at a hardware store, or a graphic description of the oozing lump on her back, she always found a way to interject the most inappropriate details into a seemingly normal day.

On one particularly stressful afternoon, Tina came into my office to discuss some issues she was having with a customer. We had what seemed to be a productive discussion about the client, and then Tina started to walk out. But just as she reached my doorway, she turned back on her heels and started to tell me a story about her son. She told me that she was really frustrated with her son and had to ground him because she caught him urinating all over their bathroom walls. What made this so exceedingly disturbing was the fact that her son was 17 years old.

It was at that moment that I perfected my best approach for dealing with similar situations, so this is where you’ll want to start taking notes. I put my head down a little, hugged my arms around my body, and started rocking slowly. Then, I just stared at the floor and let myself go to my happy place. For me, that place was a forest on a clear, autumn day. I could almost smell the pine, feel the leaves crunching beneath my feet, and hear the chickadees chirping.

Kenny, your happy place may be somewhere entirely different – it may be a sunny beach or a ski slope – but that’s why you have to approach managing people from an individual perspective.

You’ll find that when you consistently utilize this technique, eventually the offending employees finish their stories and walk away. But remember that consistency is the key. In order to successfully manage a team of people, you must acquire these simple survival skills and coping mechanisms. Only then will you be a true leader.


Dear Professor Plum:

What are your thoughts on office romance? I have started to develop feelings for a co-worker, and I think he might be interested in me as well, but I’m a little worried about dating someone I work with. It’s a big company – over 800 employees – if that makes a difference.

– Hope D., Omaha, NE

Dear Hope:

Oh, what a can of worms you have just opened up, my dear. And believe me, I’d love to be able to tell you that this is the one topic with which I have no personal experience, but I’d be flat-out lying to you. This is a very tricky topic, so I’ll try to break it down into the key components.

I will begin by saying that I understand the temptation to date your co-workers. Most people spend far more time at work than they do with family or friends, so it’s just logical that you might start to be attracted to someone you’re spending that much time with.

As with any tough decision, you need to calculate the risk versus the reward. Office romances are not always a bad thing, but you have to make smart choices. One critical choice to make is what department you should target for your dating pool.

Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the pros and cons of each department that I have personally had dating experience with:

: They can get you a bigger monitor.
Cons: If you break up, they can easily hack into your computer and send a defamatory blast email to the entire company from your user ID.
Risk Level: High

Pros: They like to read.
Cons: If you work in a department that is responsible for meeting budget goals, accounting can make your life miserable.
Risk Level: Low to Moderate

Finance is really just Accounting with attitude and bigger salaries, so please refer back to the Accounting guidelines.

Pros: They tend to be very stylish.
Cons: They are typically egomaniacal and think they run the company, so you’ll constantly have to listen to them drone on about how no one in the company understands the brand platform, blah, blah, blah.
Risk Level: Moderate

Pros: They are on the road a lot, and they can make a lot of money.
Cons: Sales people typically lack discretion, so expect your breakup to be broadcast at the company picnic.
Risk Level: Moderate

Human Resources
Pros: You won’t have much competition.
Cons: They will never call you back.
Risk Level: Insignificant

Customer Service
Pros: They will always try to work things out with you.
Cons: They will always try to work things out with you.
Risk Level: Low

If you are looking to date someone within your own department, my personal recommendation is that you only date your direct supervisor or his boss, because then it really benefits you not only from a personal level, but also from a professional level. Sure, dating an employee can be very empowering, but ultimately you may have to fire that person, and then they may be hesitant to continue dating.

If you follow these simple guidelines, you’ll see that interoffice romance is really as simple, as fun, and often as messy as shooting fish in a barrel. Best of luck to you, Hope!

Ask the Professor II

Let me begin by thanking all of you for your overwhelming support of Professor Plum’s newest feature, Ask the Professor. The flood of questions she’s received has really made her feel that, although she’s unemployed… I mean retired, her opinions are still valued and her advice is still sought after. So please accept my thanks on behalf of the Professor.

Now, speaking of that flood of questions, on to your latest inquiries:

Dear Professor Plum:
I recently started a new job, and I’m having some trouble bonding with my boss. I feel like he doesn’t listen to me, and isn’t really concerned about whether or not I succeed in the position. Do you have any advice on what I can do to break through these barriers?

- Suzie O., Topeka, KS

Dear Suzie:

Your question struck a real chord in me, because many years ago, I faced a very similar situation with my direct supervisor. We just weren’t able to see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and I felt he wasn’t really listening to my concerns. It seemed as though he gave no thought to the impact his decisions would make on the people around him.

Like you, I wanted to make the situation better, so I started to do some research. After watching a Dateline NBC special on Russian orphans and how they’re often not able to form true emotional bonds with people as a result of being neglected as infants, I felt certain that this was exactly the sort of traumatic childhood experience that must have made my boss the emotional cripple that he was. Armed with this new knowledge, I decided that I would try one of the controversial techniques highlighted in the program to attempt to rebuild those bonds.

So one evening, I asked my boss to meet me in my office to discuss sales goals, but in fact, I was preparing for a re-birthing ceremony similar to the one I had seen on TV. As he walked into my office, I leapt out from behind the door, threw a giant burlap sack over his head, and wrestled him to the ground. I then held him down for about 20 minutes until he stopped struggling, all the while saying, “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Once he had calmed down, I let him out of the sack and cradled him in my arms as he wept, thereby sealing our emotional bond and enabling him to finally treat people with respect and consideration. I can tell you that our relationship took a dramatic turn after that evening.

Now, as a condition of my parole, I am required by law to tell you that this was a very, very bad idea, and if I had to do it all over again, I would resolve my concerns through constructive one-on-one dialogue.

But Suzie, I think you’re smart enough to read between the lines here. I’ll give you this one final tip: if you think your boss is a fighter, you may want to solicit backup from a co-worker.

Dear Professor Plum:

Normally I’m pretty articulate on interviews, but last week an interviewer really caught me off guard when he picked up his pen and said, “Sell me this pen.” I wasn’t even interviewing for a sales position, so I guess it really threw me. I know I didn’t get that job, but for future reference, how would you recommend I answer that type of question?

- David A., Sacramento, CA

Dear David:

Ahh yes, the infamous “Sell me this pen” question. It’s an oldie, but a goodie. Personally, I hate this question, particularly if you’re not applying for a sales position. It’s just an opportunity for the interviewer to see you sweat a bit and determine how you think on your feet. The question is not intended to gauge your sales ability, but rather your ability to operate under pressure.

If you are hit with that question again, here’s the type of response I would suggest:
“Sell me this pen.”

“Well, it seems to me that you already have one just like it, so I’d say you’re probably set in the pen department. Now what I would like to do is talk to you a little bit about mechanical pencils. When was the last time you used one, and what was your experience like?”

Trust me – this will completely throw the interviewer, and you will have successfully regained control of the interview. You’re hired!

Ask the Professor I

My friend Natasha is always coming up with get-rich-quick schemes, and last week she came up with a really good one for me. She said that since I now have so much job-hunting and interviewing experience, I should try to share that knowledge with others. To that end, I’ve decided to start what I hope will become a recurring feature in this blog: my new job advice column called Ask the Professor.

I have created a new alter-ego named Professor Plum, who has a PhD in Jobology. Professor Plum is a welcome addition to my other alter-ego, Colonel Catmeister, who has his Masters in Felinguistics.

Professor Plum will be using her vast expertise to help provide sound advice to individuals who, like me, are on the never-ending hunt for new and better employment opportunities. Professor Plum also has extensive managerial experience, so she may occasionally provide advice on how to coach and motivate employees.

I have provided Professor Plum with several job-related questions that people have asked me over the years, so she’ll begin by responding to a few of these. I can make no guarantees that the Professor will actually respond to your questions, or that they will even make it past my spam filter, but please don’t let that stop you from trying.

So please join me in welcoming Professor Plum to the blogosphere:

Dear Professor Plum:

With the business casual dress attire becoming so commonplace nowadays, it almost seems silly to wear a suit to an interview. Is it necessary for me to wear my black interview suit, or should I dress a little more casually in nice slacks and a sweater set?

- Aggie M., Brooklyn, NY

Dear Aggie:

I’m very glad you raised this issue, because I hear it quite often these days. Whenever I struggle for an answer to this type of dilemma, I think back to the sage advice my father gave me when I was just a young pup, fresh out of college. My father told me that when going into an interview, you should always dress for the job you aspire to have.

So on my first interview, I walked in wearing a sequined unitard, ruby colored rhinestone tap shoes, and an elaborate feathered headdress. I didn’t get the marketing research internship, and quickly realized why my father was self-employed.

But to answer your question, yes, you should still wear a suit to an interview, even if the company has a casual dress code. That way, when your interviewers walk in wearing khakis and polo shirts, they will subconsciously feel inferior to you, making for a less intimidating interview.

Dear Professor Plum:

If I interview with a large group of people all at once, is it acceptable to email a group thank you?

- Penny J., Haydare, WI

Dear Penny:

Only if you are interviewing with the Hare Krishnas.

Look, no one likes to be lumped together into a big impersonal cluster, and potential employers are no different. Write individual letters (if it’s an old-school company) or emails (if it’s a more modern, hi-tech company) to each person thanking him/her for all the valuable insight that was shared. But also be aware that they will all gather together upon receipt of your thank you’s and ridicule you for writing the exact same thing seven times.

Well, it looks like that’s all the time we’ll have for Ask the Professor this week. But keep those questions coming in, and hopefully the Professor will find the time with her hectic schedule to impart some of her wisdom to all of us.