Q: When Should You Work for Free? A: Almost Never

Originally published on EmploymentCrossroads on 8/20/09.

For a nation supposedly built on the backbone of Capitalism, we sure have a lot of companies who want you to work for free.

If you are (1) a recent college graduate, (2) a creative professional (artist, writer, web designer), or (3) trying to break into a heavily-impacted industry (entertainment, fashion, advertising, music), then someone is going to ask you to work for free. They may call it an “internship” or an “apprenticeship” or “on spec” or a “contest.” But the practical upshot is that you work, the company makes money off you, and you get nothing.

You’ll be told that you will gain experience, and will expand your reel or portfolio. This is true. But people who get paid also gain experience and a thicker portfolio. So when should you give away your work?

Don’t participate in “contests.” This scam is especially prevalent among web sites and online t-shirt sellers. You’re asked to design web graphics or a t-shirt, and then submit your work as a “contest entry.” If you win, you get a “prize” — like one t-shirt, or $50. Meanwhile, your design goes on to make the company a ton of money. You have just gotten screwed. Never fall for this scam.

Don’t do free work just to get an interview. Lots of job ads out there now require applicants to actually do work on their behalf just to get an interview. Your existing portfolio is not enough — the ad describes a specific assignment the company wants you to complete and submit before they even look at your resume. This is unethical, and blatantly exploitative in the current job environment. You do not want to work for these people — they will never value your time, energy or talent.

Some internships can launch your career. If you’re trying to get into fashion or publishing, you may have to just bite the bullet and spend six months or so working for free. Make sure the internship is with a reputable firm, and find out what happened to previous interns. Were they offered jobs? Did the firm give them a solid recommendation? Only work for free if there’s good reason to believe the donation of your time and talent will turn into a real job, either with this company or another one.

If you’re trying to get into the entertainment industry, be very careful. Once you establish that you write scripts on spec, or work crew in exchange for lunch, you’ll get nothing but offers for free work until you get sick of it and go back to Nebraska. Don’t work for free for the same person twice. Donating your labor is a favor — and eventually, you need to expect the favor returned. Remind producers and filmmakers that you helped them out, and now you need a paying gig.

What about giving my own work away for free online? Absolutely do this. Work on your own projects and make sure people see them. It’s your own work, and you’re giving it away of your own free will. No one else will make a profit off of it without sharing a cut with you. Look into Creative Commons licensing. But if someone steals your work and uses it for profit, make a lot of very loud noise. Even if you can’t afford a lawyer, the Internet community may very well rally behind you.

Got any more advice for readers contemplating internships and spec work? Let us know in the comments!

Unemployment Benefits — Keeping People Out of Cardboard Boxes Since 1932

Posted on April 20, 2009 on EmploymentCrossroads.com.

Unemployment check.It’s funny how some people decry higher taxes, paycheck withholding, and government “entitlements,” until they’re out of work.

Then it’s “hey, where’s my check?”

Some things to keep in mind when living on the dole:

Apply for unemployment benefits the moment you get laid off or fired. You may consider waiting until your savings begin to run out. But if there’s going to be a problem with your benefits, such as your ex-employer refusing to pay, you need to know right away.

Provide the UI office with complete, accurate information. Don’t do anything that will slow down processing. This is no time to be careless. And, some government bureaucracies look for ways to deny you service — don’t give them the ammunition.

If there’s an in-person meeting or a phone interview, be on time and make it a priority. Rescheduling these things can be difficult or impossible, so don’t risk it.

Fulfill any job search requirements. Some states require you to apply to a certain number of jobs each week. Don’t cheat, just do it. If they call you, go to the interview. If they offer the job, take it. If you’re offered a job you really don’t want to take (let’s say, it’s a half-time internship, and you’re a former C-level exec), talk to the benefits office. Sometimes they’ll let it slide, and you won’t have to take an unsuitable job.

Again, don’t cheat. Follow all UI regulations. If the benefits office thinks you’re doing something skechy, they’ll launch an investigation — and refuse to pay benefits until it’s settled.

Check to see what other benefits, besides checks, are available. The state may offer job search resources. They may have programs to help you survive financially. And they may offer free training — not just typing classes at the local community college, but real, career-enhancing high-tech classes at major learning institutions.

If you’re turned down for benefits, appeal, appeal, appeal. Don’t freak out — find out what you have to do to fix this mess. Make a list. Then do it, methodically and calmly. Chances are, whatever problems exist, they can be solved. Always deal with everyone — the UI office, your ex-employer — politely and professionally, no matter how awful they are being or how angry you get. You will get nowhere by being furious, or snippy, or aggressive. It’s impossible for a bureaucracy to say no to someone who is diligently following procedure.

What’s Your Email Address?

Posted on March 12, 2009 on EmploymentCrossroads.com.

Woman with computer.Here in the first decade of the 21st Century, we may lack flying cars, personal teleportation and household robots. But what we do have is the Internet, which is taking over every aspect of our lives.

That’s why today, if you’re going to hear from a recruiter, you’ll most likely have your first contact by email, rather than by phone. Your email address needs to be on your resume and cover letter; it must be associated with any info you have posted on job search sites or company career pages; and it should be on your personal web site.

You don’t have a personal web site? What are you, Amish?

But it’s important what email address you provide to possible employers. Create an email account specifically for your job search, separate from any other accounts you use in personal life or your work.

Absolutely DO NOT use your current work email. Not only may your company be monitoring your email, they actually own any information you share via that account. Also, if prospective employers see you using your current company’s email for job searches, they’ll assume you would do the same thing to them.

Who hosts your email is important. If you have your own web site, let’s say jennywilson.com, then having the email address jennyw@jennywilson.com is pretty impressive.

If you can’t host your own email, the only real option for a free account is through gmail.com. Nobody will think less of you for using Gmail.

But on the other hand, DO NOT use any aol.com address. People who still use aol.com email come across as unprofessional. Maybe your grandma still uses AOL, but professional people do not. If you are still, for some unfathomable reason, using AOL as your service provider, then use AOL to sign up for a Gmail account.

Make sure you choose a professional-sounding email address. You’re not going to get an interview if the recruiter has to type in “ilovesex69@gmail.com” in order to contact you. Likewise, no one wants to hire spongebobfan@ or tonylovessylvia@.

Stick to your real name: johnsmith@, john_smith@, johns@, jsmith@. Lots of people like to add their birthdate (johnsmith1963@), but are you sure you want to advertise your age up front?

Don’t get cute. The address johnsmithworksrealhard@gmail.com might get a laugh – and then your resume hits the round file. Keep your email address short, easy to spell, and directly relevant to you as a professional.

Good luck with your search!

How to Use Bullet Points in Your Resume

Posted on Mar 10, 2009 on EmploymentCrossroads.com.

ResumeFor my entire career, I’ve broken down the job descriptions on my resumes into bullet points. I had no idea I was starting a trend.

Today, job search consultants are really pushing the bullet-point resume. The main advantage is that it makes your resume easier to read, and it’s much easier to get across the most important points across to the reader. No one facing a stack of resumes to read wants to have to dig for the pertinent information.

So if your resume looks like this:

President of the United States
Washington, DC
1/2001 – 1/2009

Served as chief executive for world’s most powerful country. Presided over two foreign wars, and was Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Served two terms. Spearheaded use of executive signing orders; ordered the curtailing of civil liberties. Misplaced a city in Louisiana. Imprisoned thousands in foreign jails without trials or due process. Supported financial deregulation that led to worst financial disaster since the Great Depression. Enjoys clearing brush, reading to children.

.. then it’s time to change it up. Don’t list everything you did on the job — just list the most important and impressive accomplishments, starting with the best:

President of the United States
Washington, DC
1/2001 – 1/2009

  • • Elected twice to highest office in land
  • • Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces in two wars
  • • Appointed two Supreme Court justices
  • • 90% approval rating after 9/11 attacks

As you can see, no negatives are listed. And there are only four bullet points — include too many, and it’s just as hard to read as if it didn’t use bullet points.

If a potential employer wants to know everything you did at a previous job, they will call you or bring you in. The resume is your opportunity to just get across the most important points. Besides, if someone is looking at your resume for a job you’ve previously held, then they already know what that job entails.

The resume is your first and best chance to impress. Use it!

Interviewing? Don’t Worry About What You Can’t Control

Posted on February 12, 2009 on EmploymentCrossroads.com.

Worried woman.So you’ve got that big interview for a great job.

You know exactly what to do — research the firm, dress appropriately, bring with you everything you need (including a pen and extra resumes), show up on time.

The interview goes great. You’re confident and have answers prepared for the toughest questions. You’re able to show off your knowledge, your skills and your personality. You get a great vibe from the interviewer(s). The meeting is actually fun.

It’s your best interview ever!

You go home, send a thank you note, and then wait. You worry — did you come across as confidently as you felt? Did you say anything foolish? Did they really like you?

Then the bad news comes — they gave someone else the job.

The worries turn into self-incrimination. Obviously, you did screw up, right? Or you would have gotten the job!

Wrong. You gave a great interview. You couldn’t have done any better. The fact is, when it comes to getting a job, there are far too many factors outside of your control.

Maybe it was a so-called “courtesy interview,” and they never had any plans to hire you. Or they might have already chosen someone internally, but company rules require a certain number of outside interviews.

The position might be canceled, or delayed. And of course there’s office politics. Mr. Smith wanted to hire someone last year, but got shot down — so now he’s sabotaging Ms. Jones’ attempt to hire you.

The truth is, you have no way of knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. All you can do is give a great interview and hope for the best.

It’s hackneyed but it’s true: accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Don’t Let Illness Derail Your Job Search

Posted on February 16, 2009 on EmploymentCrossroads.com.

Depressed?It’s just an unavoidable fact — the stress of a prolonged job search can cause physical illness that makes it even harder to find new work.

If you have ever been unemployed for more than a few weeks, you know what I’m talking about — cold and flu, depression, headaches, chronic tiredness. All these symptoms are triggered by the stress and worry of your job search, and the economic problems that come with being unemployed.

But there are ways to fight back.

Take care of your physical health. Concentrate on eating right and exercising. Take a walk every day — this will help with both stress and keeping your immune system strong. If you already exercise regularly, then keep it up! And eat right — this is not the time to be vegging on your couch eating Doritos all day. Stick to three healthy meals, and you’re likely to improve your health and save money in a difficult financial time.

Take care of your mental health. Stress reactions that worked so well for our evolutionary forbears on the Serengeti — panic, anxiety, fear — don’t help us so much with modern problems. It’s one thing to be concerned about your career and financial prospects, and quite another to paralyze yourself with negative emotions. Don’t pretend you can deal with this on your own. Talk to friends, family members, clergy or professional advisers about your fears. If it’s really bad, see a psychiatrist — you don’t have to be crazy to seek medical help. If your emotions are getting in the way of your job search, then please see a doctor. If you have no insurance or benefits, then look online for free help in your area.

Don’t exaggerate your problems. Yes, this is a very difficult time to be looking for work, and it’s not helpful to pretend that it isn’t. But if you convince yourself this is the end of the world, it may become a self-fulfillng prophecy. Commit yourself to your job search — work on it every day. Open yourself up to the prospect of relocating, or changing careers, or taking on work outside your field that you may see as beneath you, even if just temporarily. America will get through this economic downturn. Your family will get through it. You will get through it.

How to Tell You’re Going to Lose Your Job

Originally posted on Feb 17, 2009 on EmploymentCrossroads.

Getting the axe!In this economy, everyone is in a precarious position career-wise. But there are ways to tell if a firing or lay off looms on your horizon.

You don’t have enough work.

Symptoms: Your boss isn’t assigning you enough work to keep you busy all day. This could be because he or she doesn’t want to give you an assignment you won’t be around the finish. Or, maybe he or she no longer trusts you. Or the reasons could be innocent — maybe the whole company doesn’t have enough work. Perhaps your boss simply isn’t aware you have free time.

The cure: Don’t be afraid to go to your boss and ask for more work. Even if you really are on the short-list for a layoff, asking for more responsibility may change management’s mind. And if they won’t give you more work, it’s time to start updating that resume.

You’re out of the loop.

Symptoms: You used to get invited to all the good meetings. Your boss would stop by to chat. People asked for your opinion, and not just about whether last night’s Lost made any sense. Now, you’re not in the loop anymore. If you hear about important office issues, it’s through the rumor mill and not through official channels. You’re feeling isolated.

The cure: Again, go to your boss. Or if he or she won’t help, then your boss’ boss. Maybe there’s a good reason you’re out of the loop — to help give you more time to get your work done, for example. But simply asking to get back in the action may be enough to deal you back in.

Your boss gets fired, or quits.

Symptoms: One day you get to work, and your boss is gone. You’re assigned to a different supervisor (or if you’re very unlucky, multiple supervisors). But you’re still associated with your old boss, and to some people, this makes you expendable. And if they replace your superior with a new hire, he or she may wish to fill your position with someone of their choosing.

The cure: Communicate directly with your new supervisor. Don’t try to be “loyal” to your old boss — who does that help? Not your old boss, he or she is gone! Make sure your new boss knows you are on their team.

Your firm is recruiting to fill your position.

Symptoms: The company keeps bringing in people to fill a position suspiciously similar to yours. They may even ask you to interview the candidates! And if you’re skimming through craigslist and see your job up for grabs — well, how much evidence do you need?

The cure: Get out. Now.

Save Your Health — Eliminate Stress at Work

Originally posted on Feb 9, 2009 on EmploymentCrossroads.com.

Auuuugh!US News & World Report published today a story called “Why Your Job Could Be Making You Old.” The story cites the claim that stress contributes to health problems and rapid aging.

Physicians have long observed that people with stressful careers and lifestyles tend to develop health problems–especially when their jobs carry extreme consequences for mistakes. According to a theory advanced by Michael Roizen, chair of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic and co-founder of RealAge.com, many American presidents have aged approximately two years for each calendar year in office.

The author, Emily Brandon, then discusses ways to to cut back on stress, and advises exercise and healthy living to to build up an immunity to stressors. She only briefly touches on employment stressors, so here are a few more valuable tips for avoiding stress at work.

Build a Firewall Between Your Work and Home Lives

Allowing your work problems to follow you home can have a devastating impact on your home life, your family and relationships. It’s not the easiest thing in the world just set aside your work issues, especially if your job requires a huge time investment, or if your career is central to who you are as a person. But it is possible.

Likewise, stress at home can adversely affect your work. They key here is to remain mindful of your emotions. If you’re stressed at work, ask yourself if what you’re really upset about isn’t an issue from your personal life.

Maintain Good Communications with Your Superiors and Co-Workers

Work stress often comes from being in a position of ignorance. Does my boss like my work? Will there be layoffs? Will I ever get that promotion? Yet workers often don’t try to find their own answers to these questions, out of fear — fear of their boss, or fear that they will get an answer they don’t like.

Instead of wallowing in stress, just talk to your boss and your co-workers about your issues. Be professional, of course, and don’t ask inappropriate questions or spread gossip. But if you’re worried about how your boss perceives you, then ask. You may be worrying about nothing. But if you do get negative feedback, that’s good too — you need to know these things if you want to keep your job. Don’t wait for a performance review to find out how you’re doing.

Be reliable.

If you’re late for work a lot, or miss too many work days, then you’re creating your own stress. It’s not as hard as it seems to change your life and health habits so that personal issues don’t get in the way of your career.

However, there are issues — serious illness, family problems, etc. — that will affect your work, and you can’t do anything about. Or at least, solving the issues will take time. This is a common source of work stress, but it’s easily fixed. Talk to your HR manager. Your firm may have policies directly related to your situation, and might be willing to help you out with paid time off or extra money.

Even if your company won’t help you out, at least they’ll know your work is being affected by serious issues, and that you’re not merely irresponsible.

Got some advice of your own? Comment below!

Is Using Business Jargon a Good Idea?

Originally published 2/11/09 on EmploymentCrossroads.

Too much jargon!Businesspeople sure love to make up new words.

There is nothing wrong with new words, as long as they (1) fulfill a need, (2) don’t replace a perfectly good existing word, and (3) are clever and well conceived.

For instance, “emoticon” is a necessary new word, as it gives a name to something that did not have a name before. It’s easy to remember (emotion + icon) and describes what it’s describing.

But “irregardless” is a terrible word, as it means the exact same thing as “regardless.” This is a word coined out of ignorance, and it should be abolished from usage.

New words coined for use in business are added to dictionaries every year. But these words should be examined before we adopt them into standard usage, even at work.

For example, “actionable,” meaning “capable of being acted upon,” is a useful new word. There isn’t a preexisting word — one would have to say “this item can be acted upon,” rather than the shorter and easier “this item is actionable.” “Actionable” is also a legal term meaning “subject to or affording ground for an action or suit at law,” but it’s easy to differentiate the two uses in context.

As of 2009, if you use “actionable” outside of a work or legal environment, you’ll just sound like an ass. But in 20 years, who knows? “I want to you to go to the store.” “Well, I’m busy, but that’s actionable.”

On the other hand, there are absurd, unnecessary business words that just cause confusion. Like “buy-in,” as in “if you want to do this, you’ll have to get the boss to buy-in.” It just means the same thing as “agree” or “consent.” It’s unnecessary jargon, used in an attempt to sound smart. It fails.

Some business words make no sense at all. “Componentize?” As in “to make something a component?” Who uses this? What does it even mean?

Business people love to turn nouns into verbs. “Let’s dialogue with Joe about the projects he’s been tasked with managing.” What, business people don’t know how to “talk” or “assign?” Let’s just let nouns remain nouns.

Other goofy, unnecessary new words from the world of work include disintermediate, disambiguate, facetime, instantiate, mindshare, operationalize (gack!), productize (double gack!), and the entirely meaningless buzzword “value chain.”

Also, don’t misuse real words: paradigm, offline, proactive, synergy, granular, interface. If you want to meet with someone, then meet. Don’t “interface.”

In business communications, it’s a good idea to, as the saying goes, eschew obfuscation. If there’s simpler way to say what you mean, say it that way. Heavy use of jargon takes more effort, and will confuse anyone outside of your own profession.

That said, you can’t be ignorant of the jargon used by others in your work. If you don’t know what a commonly used business term means, even if you never use it, you’ll come across as if you don’t know what you’re doing. But the next time someone says “I’ll ping you with a value proposition that will drive our critical path to establishing core competancies,” just reply “yeah, you can email me with your idea how to figure out what the hell our company does.”

Pedantry: A Simple Way to Impress Current or Future Employers

Originally posted on EmploymentCrossroads.com on 2/6/09.

DictionaryI’m a pedant when it comes to the English language. That’s a word that usually has a negative connotation, but I wear the label proudly.

From Wikipedia: “A pedant is a person who is overly concerned with formalism and precision, or who makes a show of learning… The term in English is typically used with a negative connotation, indicating someone overly concerned with minutiae and whose tone is perceived as condescending.”

Condescending? Is it condescending to point out when an adult professional is violating rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling that they should have mastered in the third grade?

A lot of people seem to think proper English usage is unnecessary, especially online. They are wrong. There are a number of reasons to speak and write properly — clarity, for instance.

But in the workplace, proper language usage is vital. Especially in this new, disastrous economy, you need to do anything you can to put yourself ahead of other employees and applicants.

Even people who themselves are incapable of forming a correct sentence can recognize when someone else is writing or speaking properly. It’s impressive. It says “I am a well-educated professional person, and I take my job seriously.” You don’t have to be pedantic like me, and point out everyone’s mistakes, unless that’s part of your job (it’s part of mine). But by employing proper usage, you’re making a statement about yourself. It’s as important as business-appropriate clothing and personal hygiene, or showing up to work on time.

If you’re not a writer and editor like me, you may have fallen out of practice, or you may be making mistakes you don’t know are mistakes. You don’t have to take classes or read grammar guides to improve your business English, although that would help. You just need to start consciously paying attention to your speaking and writing. By eliminating carelessness, I assure you your English will improve quickly.

Here are some tips to get you started, based on common mistakes I see in my job.

1.) Use your computer’s spell check function, but never rely on it. If the spell check in your word processing software or on your web browser identifies a word as misspelled, don’t just let the program fix it. Check it yourself — sometimes the spell checker makes mistakes. Also, read through and edit your text even if you’ve used the spell check. When I originally typed this very paragraph, I wrote “word precessing.” Since “precessing” is a real word, the spell check didn’t catch it.

2.) Pluralize properly. The plural of “mouse” is “mice,” but the plural of “computer mouse” is “computer mouses.” Yes, really. Words that end in “s” just get an apostrophe, so it’s “my boss’ car,” not “my boss’s car,” unless you’re in England. There is no such word as “mediums.” The plural of “medium” is “media.” So say “I am an artist in several different media.” “Data” is always plural; the singular form is “datum” (isn’t Latin fun?). And proper pluralization brings us to:

3.) Subject verb agreement. What’s wrong with this sentence? “The group of high school seniors and sophomores were late for the big game.” The problem is that “group” is the subject of the sentence, not “seniors” and “sophomores.” And group is singular — “the group WAS late for the big game.” Always make sure your verb matches your subject. Likewise, “the mainstream media are castigating Obama,” not “is castigating.”

4.) Only use quotation marks for quotes. That’s it. Don’t use them for emphasis. Some people will put quotes around a word when they’re using the word sarcastically — “Jane went to see her so-called ‘boyfriend.'” This is okay on occasion, but don’t do it all the time. And as that last sentence showed, a quote within a quote gets ‘these marks,’ whatever they’re called (I didn’t claim to know everything). The final quotation mark goes after the punctuation. “Understand me?”

5.) Here’s a pet peeve of mine. “Literally” does not mean “a whole lot.” It means “take what I say as literal, not figurative.” So “his head literally exploded” is wrong, if you mean he got angry. It’s only correct if his head literally exploded — like in the movie Scanners. Say “he jumped the gun” if someone started something too early, and “he literally jumped the gun” if the person was in a footrace, and started running before the starter pistol fired.

6.) I’ll leave you with this quote, apocryphally attributed to Winston Churchill:”Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put!”

I could go on for days, but this is a good start. This stuff is really easy, and following these “minutiae” will make you, your writing, and any work you do seem more professional.

Oh, and please don’t confuse “its” and “it’s.” It’s really annoying, and English has its rules for a reason!