Finding the Human Workplace

Guest Author: Susanne Skinner

“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.”  — Peter Drucker

It’s normal to seek meaning and purpose in the work we do. People want be part of a company that sees a human as well as a headcount. In today’s job market, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to find this place–a human workplace. As a job seeker I asked myself if a truly human workplace was possible. It’s a lofty goal. It takes a lot of work on the front end and criteria that define what this means to you. Not to mention a job that can actually meet those criteria in a company that wants to hire you.

They're not headcount, they're peopleI wanted to work in a company that had heart. Having seen the heartless, I did not want to see it again. I wanted to work for real people, without sharp edges. I sought a company that would value me, pay me the salary I deserved, and make it enjoyable. I wanted to go where everybody knew my name. I kissed a number of frogs in the process and knew the prince was a long shot.

I am part of the boomer generation which means I will live longer and remain employed longer than my parent’s generation. It also means the financial assumptions and retirement plans I had when I started working have changed. The growing uncertainty of Social Security, volatile investment markets and higher costs of living mean an increasing number of us are opting to remain in the workforce longer. It also means we are at a much higher risk for job loss and longer-term unemployment.

employment, interviewingThe Harsh Truth

I began by reverse engineering my criteria. I made a list of what I didn’t want. It was a long list, based on experience and my commitment to making my last job a good one. I wanted to be interviewed by a hiring manager who needed my skill set. I was looking for a company that considered people their greatest asset. This is where the frogs come in. The employment profile I created for myself was idealistic. I wanted to believe the environment I sought was possible, but there were some harsh truths in my search, and a lot of frogs.

Harsh Truth #1: Limited Options in High Tech

You are not a person. You are headcount and a budget number. When your headcount becomes a liability you are eliminated.

Harsh Truth #2: Decreased salaries and benefits

The high percentage of unemployed workers with experience, education and high salaries means they can pay you less or overlook you completely in favor of a younger, less experienced, lower-cost hire.

Harsh Truth #3: Management and financial instability

The industry is in constant churn. Management changes and financial challenges ripple all the way down. When a company needs to reduce expenses or ‘right size’ itself it reduces people and programs.

Harsh Truth #4: Employers want younger employees

Younger employees cost less and are perceived as more energetic.

Knowing these truths, it pays to invest in some research about companies you are considering. One of the best things about the Internet is how easy it makes researching companies and their personalities online. Two prominent sites are Vault and Glassdoor. While both have in-depth information on company pros and cons, salaries and lots of personal commentary, it’s important to remember that an objective viewpoint is nearly impossible. Glassdoor provides CEO ratings – something I found useful. If the person at the top has a low rating, it needs to be taken seriously. Opinions run hot and cold, but sites like these will give you enough information to decide if it is the right place for you. Don’t overlook your LinkedIn network for a more balanced perspective.

Work Re-Imagined

I knew it would not be easy. I re-evaluated my interview and salary negotiation skills. I wanted to understand how the landscape had changed in the six years since I had been in the job market. I was stunned to see how bleak and impersonal it had become. I was out of practice and did not know how to sell myself in this millennial market. In addition, I had to find my own bottom line in terms of salary, management style and corporate environment.

During my search I discovered a blog that is the brain child of a woman named Liz Ryan. Her company – The Human Workplace – is all about putting a human voice back into the workplace and its HR practices. Her blog, illustrated with her own art work, caught my attention because she was writing about things I needed to know and affirming things I already knew.

Liz tells it like it is, and like it should be. She writes about the need for adaptability rather than inflexible policies. She convinced me I could find the work environment I sought and her tutorials encouraged me to stay the course.

Relevant topics like salary negotiation, working with recruiters and agencies, and answering difficult questions with honesty (and just a touch of humor) are discussed in detail. There are also candid discussions about the over fifty job search and silly interview questions. Expounding on why a manhole cover is round is a silly question.

All of this helped immeasurably as I prepared for what became a lengthy search. Each time I interviewed I polished my skills and my confidence. I have to thank the frogs; when the real deal came along it felt like a comfortable pair of shoes.

A New Beginning

The real deal turned out to be a small company that had already gone through reorganization/transformation/management changes and headquarters relocation. That was a good thing. You do not want to join a company in chaos. When a company is ‘transforming’ the only way to do that is to change the people. Wait until they are finished – that’s what creates new opportunities

I had a phone screen with the Vice President of Marketing (not a “talent acquisition specialist”), who later became my manager, followed by an in-person interview and job offer. The HR interaction was twofold: reference checks and forms.

The interviewer was the hiring manager. She came into the room with my resume, a notebook and a pen. No cell phone, blackberry or tablet. I had her undivided attention for over an hour. She asked good questions. She was honest about the work, the company and the deliverables. She put a human face on my first meeting with the company and I knew I wanted to work there.

Was it easy? No, it wasn’t. Honesty compels me to acknowledge juspeople at workt how hard, and sometimes painful this process was. I knew what I was looking for and was discouraged and disheartened when I did not find it. I wanted and needed a company with heart.

It is first and foremost a collaborative company. I notice most is what is not there: ego, fear, hostility and hubris. We are a team, with agreed upon goals. Everyone works hard here but its good work with good people. I am empowered to do my job and my skills are valued.

I made some compromises but none that affected my goal of a human work environment. I have a difficult commute. The building I work in does not have a cafeteria. I had to change doctors.

I adjusted to these things. I go to work and feel good when I am there and good when I leave. I know everybody’s name and they know mine.

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