should you give job candidates the interview questions ahead of time?

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A reader writes:

I searched on your site and saw you have given examples of common questions interviewers ask. However, while a candidate can prepare for those types of questions, for situational interview questions it’s tough for them to come up with answers when I’m asking them to draw on their experience and give me examples of specific situations on the spot.

Are there any disadvantages to supplying situational interview questions to candidates ahead of time so they can prepare thoughtful answers? I’ve never had a potential employer offer them to me prior to an interview, but I see only advantages to doing so. For example, for people who get very nervous in interviews, it seems to me that it would help to level the playing field since they wouldn’t have the stress of having to answer on the spot. In addition, it also seems the interviewers would get better quality answers from all candidates who took the time to prepare. The only potential disadvantage I see is that people could used canned responses, but since situational interview questions draw on their experience, it seems like it would be difficult to do that.

The timing of this letter is uncanny, because I’ve just started experimenting with doing exactly this.

I’m interviewing for a junior-level admin position, and most of the candidates are fairly inexperienced — especially at interviewing. Candidates who are newer to the work world tend not to be great at interviewing, and they often struggle to come up with useful answers to questions like “tell me about a time that you improved an existing system” or “tell me about a time that you had to juggle lots of competing priorities” or any of the many other “tell me about a time when…” questions I like to use. (And in general, interviewers should use lots of those questions because they get you the best information about how candidates operate.)

I thought exactly what you’re thinking here: that giving them a heads-up in advance would help them prepare more thoughtful answers and give me better information about them. And they can’t really “cheat” by making up fantastic but false answers ahead of time, because I respond to their initial answer with tons of follow-up questions about what they’ve told me.

So now for this position, when I confirm a phone interview, I send along a note that says this:

“I’d love if you’d come prepared to talk about:
– a particularly significant professional achievement — what your role was, what the challenges were, and how you approached it
- a specific time in the past when you’ve had to stay on top of a large volume of work and juggle a lot of competing priorities, and how you approached it
- a time when you went above and beyond to get results — what the situation was and what you did”

The result has been great. I’m getting better-thought-out answers that make it easier for me to assess each person’s fit for the role, since they’re not scrambling to think of an example on the spot. Plus, I’m able to see how well they did or didn’t use the chance to think through the questions ahead of time. (Specifically, I’m still encountering candidates who struggle with these answers, which is particularly telling now that they’ve had an advance heads-up.)

To be clear, I’m not prepping these candidates for every question I’ll be asking, or even for most of them — just for a few specific situations that I really want to probe into and where having some time to come up with strong examples will help (and won’t hurt).

I’m also only doing this with candidates for junior-level roles. For more senior roles, I expect candidates to be more equipped to talk about their experience — although frankly, I could see an argument for doing a bit of it there too.

And I can’t stress this part enough: If you do this as an interviewer, the key is to probe into whatever answers you receive. You need to ask a bunch of follow-up questions (what was the biggest challenge with that? why did you approach it that way? did you worry about X? how did you handle Y? what would you do differently if you could do it again?) or you do risk a canned answer.

But I’m really liking it, it’s strengthened my ability to assess this particular group of candidates, and they seem to like it too.

how can I help my boss manage his time better?

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A reader asks:

How do you put order and structure to a boss’s calendar that is out of control with constant meetings and no time to get any work done? Due to downsizing, my manager oversees three departments now instead of just one. My boss has meetings on top of meetings on top of meetings, many of which he requests. I manage his schedule and I block off “Office Time” on his calendar, but those times only get bumped for more meetings. I simply must help him take control of his work days, but can’t figure out where to start. Help!

You can read my answer to this question over at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today.

employer pulled the job offer after I tried to negotiate

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A reader writes:

My job offer was rescinded after I sent an email attempting to negotiate the base salary to $3,000 plus what was originally offered. I was horrified after receiving the employer’s initial response withdrawing the offer. Such a situation is rarely talked about in internet job articles (I read yours on this matter but like I said — not too many others) and I was not expecting it. I have been job searching for almost a year now and I just cannot seem to get past the interview stage. I have had many interviews and no offers — until now.

In an attempt to be professional, I emailed the employer back asking the reason for his decision and thanking him for his time and consideration. He just replied with this: “Simply, I’ve never had a negotiation process with any new applicant in hiring. My experience is that if a new employee is not content that he or she didn’t get enough in the beginning, it results in lack of commitment.”

I’m very desperate right now. I know I should not have attempted to negotiate if I wasn’t ready to walk away. Now that I have realized my mistake, I would really like to rectify it. So my question is, should I frame a response that essentially begs asks for the first offer since I am content with it? Or should I just let this (as painful as it is) go?

Well, the first thing to know is that this guy is completely out of line. Assuming that you were professional and polite when you tried to negotiate, no reasonable employer would yank an offer just because you asked for a few thousand dollars more. They certainly might say no, but telling you that people shouldn’t even try to negotiate?  Negotiating in that range is a normal, common, totally accepted part of the hiring process. Unless he told you earlier that he doesn’t negotiate and that his offer was his best and only offer, it’s irrational and wildly out of touch to penalize people for engaging in normal behavior.

That means that you really might be better off not working for this guy. People who have rigid and weird and wrong ideas like this are often terrible to work with. You’d almost certainly see similar rigidity and weirdness and wrongness from him about other issues too — like vacation time or speaking up when your workload is high or expressing a dissenting opinion.

Basically, what he just showed you is that you dodged a bullet.

That said, if you’re desperate for work, even a bullet can be appealing.

If that’s your situation — if you just need work and don’t care if it’s for a horrible employer — then you can certainly try responding and seeing if it can be salvaged. It may or may not be salvageable, but you have nothing to lose by trying.

If you do want to try, I’d say this: “I’m actually very committed to this job and was incredibly excited to receive your offer. I’ve always worked with employers where negotiation was an expected part of the offer process, and most of what I’ve read encourages candidates to negotiate. But I’d be glad to accept your original offer, and could do so very happily if you’re still willing to extend it. I’d love to do this job.”

But again, I’d think long and hard about this before doing it, because if he says yes, you’ll be signing up to work with a horrid and unreasonable person.

asking to work 20% fewer hours, company won’t pay interest on business credit card charges, and more

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It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Asking to work 20% fewer hours

I have been at my new job for about 5 weeks now. I noticed that some of my coworkers work “80 percent” or 32 hours per week. I would love to pare my schedule down to 32 hours per week, but I have no idea how to ask my boss how to do that. Because I started work in wintry February, I already had to leave early once to pick my kids up from school when it closed early, and I had to use one sick day due to a stomach virus that went through our family. I’m afraid I’ve already rubbed her the wrong way and asking her about 80% will make things worse. For what it’s worth, my former boss loved me and didn’t even blink if I had to leave work early or work from home because I always met my deadlines and did great work.

Asking to work 20% less is a big deal — it’s not like asking to flex your hours one day a week or telecommute on occasion. It’s a significant cut to the work you’d be doing.

I’d wait at least six months before asking about this. Asking when you’re so new risk really alarming your manager, who hired you to do a full-time job and likely won’t be thrilled to hear you’d like to chop off 20% of that. Meanwhile, you could discreetly ask some of your 80% coworkers how they negotiated the arrangement, to get some sense of whether it would be a reasonable thing for you to ask for — and how long you’d need to wait.

2. Company won’t pay interest on credit card charges for business expenses

When interest is incurred on a personal credit card for company travel expenses, who is responsible for paying the interest?

I recently had to spend $2,000 on my personal credit card for company business, and the company took 3 weeks to reimburse me. During that time the interest accrued on the credit card stacked up to about $60– showing them my credit card statement, I asked the company to reimburse me for that and they wouldn’t. Then they sent out a company-wide email telling everyone no credit card interest would be reimbursed on company expenses. This seems unethical to me, what is your take on it?

Hell, yes, it’s unethical. And unreasonable and unfair and crappy and a good way to drive away good employees. They’re asking you not only to float them the money for business expenses, but to incur penalties for doing so. They absolutely should pay those interest charges. They suck.

3. Not having references from your current job

I’ve recently started up my job search after a few years at a great job – nothing is wrong, but it’s a small nonprofit (5 employees) and there’s really not any more upward mobility available, so it’s time to move on. I am directly under the executive director, and the other employees are below me in terms of hierarchy/seniority, although I don’t manage them. I have a great relationship with my boss, and in the future, there are several people I feel that I could use as references from this job (the ED and a few board members), but for obvious reasons I don’t want them to know that I’m job-hunting right now.

In the past, I’ve used colleagues and project managers who were a little above me seniority-wise as references when I didn’t want to alert my supervisor to my job search, but I’ve never been in the position before where there’s nobody else above me except for my boss. Is it a huge problem to not have references for your current job? I do work closely with several outside contractors (mainly special events planners and consultants) – is it okay to use them as references? If not, any thoughts on others I might be able to use?

It’s pretty normal, actually. Most people don’t use references from their current job, because they don’t want to jeopardize their employment, and other employers understand that. Just use managers from previous jobs.

4. My manager is prohibiting me from hanging out with his ex-wife

Can my boss prohibit me from hanging out with his ex-wife?

Legally? Yes. And you know, while the idea of a manager telling someone who they can and can’t hang out with in their private life is certainly disagreeable to most of us (including me), it also doesn’t take a ton of emotional intelligence or knowledge of human dynamics to realize that growing close to your boss’s ex could be something that impacts your working relationship, fairly or unfairly.

5. Juno email accounts will email ads along with your resume

I just got an application sent from a Juno email address (apparently they’re still around), and the way they cover costs for their free accounts is by including ads.  That your recipient will see.  And judging by the one I got, they’re on a par with the “Ellen has tricked the world!” ads.  *Seriously* offputting.

Mine is from a student, so I’m not going to hold it too much against her, but if we do hire her, I’m going to tell her to not to use that email in any professional correspondence in her life ever, ever again.

Agreed. Y’all, sending advertisements to your interviewer is a very bad idea. Free email accounts without ads abound; get and use one of those.

my new coworker is the contractor who I fired last year

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A reader writes:

I am a government employee with a few supporting contractors. About a year and a half ago, I had a contractor removed for poor performance. She was in a role that required her to do analysis and prepare written reports on the results, but she did not have the skills to do either. I gave her some examples and step-by-step guidance on analyses, but saw no improvement – in one case she even cut and pasted straight from the example without changing the name of the product! I sent the contract manager an explanation of why I needed her removed and provided examples of what she had submitted. Bizarrely, the contract manager replied with an email attacking me in response and blamed the situation on a personal problem between myself and the contractor. Fortunately, I had kept my boss in the loop the whole time, so when she cc’d him on her attack, I had plenty of top cover and the contractor was removed. The contract manager has also moved on since then.

Fast forward to this month, when the contractor in question showed up in my division as a new employee. The division is only about 100 people, all in the same physical location, and all with the same office keys except for supervisors. I informed my boss, who immediately remembered her from the earlier incident. He has no idea why the other manager didn’t ask around about her, given that she even listed her work with me on her resume, but did talk to the other supervisor so that any performance issues can be caught quickly.

I am concerned about having this former contractor working here. The performance problems are her new manager’s issue to handle, and I am currently staying out of that – my boss has discussed that with her new boss. However, I don’t know if it was her or the contractor manager who started the personal attack, and I’m nervous about this person having keys to access my office. Does that sound paranoid? Is there anything else I should be doing or not doing? Is it fair to her new coworkers to not warn them and let her have a chance at a good first impression if she has improved in the past 18 months?

The right thing to do here is what your boss has already done — talk to the person’s manager and explain the context from the last time she worked with you. That’s important to do so that that manager can keep an eye out for issues like the last time, and having an early heads-up can often help catch problems more quickly.

But your boss has done that, so that’s taken care of. From there, it’s really up to the new hire’s manager to handle. All you can really do is to behave as professionally as possible toward her.

As for being nervous about her being able to access your office, unless she’s given you some specific reason to fear that, I think that’s probably unwarranted. Most people who do bad work aren’t the sorts of people who will break into your office and try to sabotage you. That’s especially true when someone has been hired back after being fired; she presumably wants to keep a low profile where you’re concerned.

At most, you could explain to her manager why you’re concerned and more about the context from her contractor period, but since your manager has already talked to her, I think that’s probably overkill.

Of course, if you do see anything that makes you concerned about this person’s ability to behave professionally and appropriately — toward you, or in general — you should raise that immediately with her boss.

But until or unless that happens, someone hired her and you pretty much need to treat her like you would any other new hire.

(I do wonder how this person got hired in the first place, and wonder if she deliberately didn’t mention that she used to do contract work for your company. Either that, or someone was startlingly negligent in the normal due diligence you’d do on someone who used to work with your company, contractor or not.)

should you tell your boss about a slacker coworker?

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A reader writes:

How do you express concerns about a slacking coworker to your boss without coming out sounding like a jerk? I have a coworker who spends quite a bit of time visiting with other employees. This same person expects others on the team to “offer” to help with work not finished. We’ve tried to gently point out that if he spent less time visiting and more time working, then maybe he wouldn’t need help from us in finishing his work, but he just gives us the silent treatment and creates an uncomfortable work environment. He is also extremely critical of what he perceives as others’ mistakes, even when almost always guilty of the same thing.

Now he wants to rearrange some of the work assignments so that his workload will be lightened, but I have a problem with that since if he just spent more time working and less time visiting, there wouldn’t be a need to rearrange anything. Is this something worth talking to my manager about?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

my boss called me repeatedly while I was out sick and even phoned my dad

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A reader writes:

‎A while back, I called into work sick for the first time in my 6 months there because I had a stomach bug and was throwing up. I followed standard procedure and left a voicemail for my manager at 6:30 a.m. saying that I had a stomach bug, wouldn’t be in, and I had no outstanding work or anything due that day.

I then turned off my ringer so I could get back to bed. I woke up at 10:30 a.m. to see that my manager had called me 4 times and I had received a text from my dad (who is listed as my emergency contact), who said that my manager had called him asking if I was around so that she could speak to me. I freaked out and called her. She said she got my message and just asked me if I was sick and if I had any outstanding work. I said no. I mean, I had already told her that in my message.

Since then, I have learned from other employees and from Glass door reviews that it’s usual for my company to call people’s emergency contacts when they call in sick for minor illnesses like colds, etc. This is the first time I had ever called in sick. I’m a high performer and I always show up to work prepared and on time. This just sounds creepily controlling. Do other companies have similar policies?

Noooooo.

There are some companies that require that you speak to a live person when you call in sick — that it’s not enough to simply leave a message. That’s a bad policy and most companies don’t have it, although some do. I suppose it’s possible that your company has such a policy — although even among companies that do, managers wouldn’t typically call someone repeatedly, let alone call their emergency contact (!) looking for them.

And as for your emergency contact, what the hell? There was no emergency. Your boss knew where you where: at home sick. She knew why she couldn’t reach you: you were sick and probably resting and not answering work calls.

I’d say this to your boss: “I was confused and concerned when you called me four times the morning I was out sick, and especially when I learned you had called my emergency contact. I assumed you must not have received the voicemail I left you that morning explaining that I’d be taking a sick day, but you said that you did so … what you were looking for from me that day? Is there a different sick day procedure you’d like me to follow, instead of leaving you a voicemail?”

If she says something like, “No, the voicemail was fine, but I wanted to talk with you personally,” then I’d say this: “I’d like to be able to leave a voicemail explaining the situation and then return to sleep if I’m sick and need rest. It’s tough to be expected to answer work calls when you’re very ill. Can you help me understand more about what you’re looking for in that situation and why you called my emergency contact when there was no emergency and you knew that I was home sick?”

But this is pretty much just a band-aid for the immediate issue. The real problem is much bigger: You don’t typically see behavior like this from an otherwise reasonable and highly-functioning manager. This is the kind of behavior you see from a manager who will cross loads of other boundaries and subject you to other ridiculous expectations, and I’d start taking a look at whether that’s the case here.

resigning when your boss is abusive, former coworker insists on lunch, and more

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It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Resigning when my boss is abusive

I work for a small consulting firm. The CEO is verbally abusive not only to employees, but also to customers. I am in sales and a very high performer, consistently meeting and exceeding my goals. My biggest concern I have with staying on board is the damage my CEO will do to my reputation as he screams and insults the customers I sign. I have been in Business Development for 10 years and have a solid reputation in my industry. I am convinced, along with the majority of staff, that our CEO suffers from a serious mood disorder with anger and rage being the common emotion/behavior displayed.

After much consideration, I have decided to resign from my position without another job lined up. I have strong employment leads and do not anticipate it taking long for new employment. I read constantly that one should not leave a job without another one lined up, but this is a risk I am willing to take, considering the abusive environment at the company. I have been under an enormous amount of stress and it has taken a toll on my health.

How do I resign professionally from this organization? There is no requirement to give two weeks notice. The employee manual states nothing about notice period, but rather in bold letters on the first page of the manual it states that they are an at-will employer and that employment can be terminated at any time by either party with or without cause.

I have watched 8 people in the 7 months I have been there be hired and fired for no reason. Our company only has 23 people, so the turnover is extremely high. They do not pay severance to any employee they terminate. Would it be appropriate for me to resign by email, exercising my at-will rights without any notice? I am not inclined to do so in person due to the abusive behavior of my CEO as it will result in verbal abuse and likely public humiliation at the company. HR cowers to the CEO, so they have been no help addressing any issues brought before them. This goes against how I have resigned from other positions, but I have never worked in this kind of environment before.

I’d resign in person because it’s the professional thing to do — and because you’re not required to stay and be subjected to abuse if that’s what it triggers; you can simply walk out if that happens. I’d offer two weeks notice because that’s also the professional thing to do, but I’d be prepared to leave on the spot if you’re yelled at or otherwise mistreated. If that happens, you should calmly say something like this: “I wanted to offer two weeks to help transition my work, but I’m not willing to be yelled at or treated this way, so today will be my last day.” (And make sure that you have your stuff all packed up and personal things removed from your office and computer before having this conversation, in case you do need to leave immediately.)

2. My former coworker is insisting I have lunch with him

A former colleague of mine is stalking me to get me to go to lunch with him. He took the rest of my team out for lunch individually before his departure, but he and I didn’t manage to make that work. He visited our office unannounced last month to have me schedule my lunch with him using an online calendar management system—like he’s so busy—which I later cancelled due to a busy week following a business trip. Not two days after our cancelled lunch was to have happened, he was back in the office to find me (I was out, thank goodness) and accused me of avoiding him to my HR Manager. My boss has urged me to cancel the lunch (it’s a poor use of my time, and at this point it’s weird), but I’m not sure how to just say NO! Any ideas?

How weirdly persistent! Tracking you down in-person and then complaining to HR about your lack of interest in lunch, and when he doesn’t even work there anymore?

I’d just say this: “I’m sorry, my schedule is tight right now and don’t foresee that letting up soon. I’ll need to pass on lunch, but I wish you all the best in whatever you do next.”

3. Responding to public thanks

I play a key but mostly behind-the-scenes project management role in many of my company’s major yearly projects. When senior leadership staff announce to the company that a project has been completed, they usually thank me and a few others in my role in the email. Often, a few of the firm’s executives will respond to the announcement, adding their thanks as well.

What’s the appropriate way to respond to this? I’m on good terms with many of the people sending the thanks, and don’t want to ignore them; on the other hand, I worry that responding will seem awkward or weird somehow. I would never respond via reply-all, but should I send a note of appreciation to the individuals sending the public kudos? What kind of wording would you suggest? (I work in a remote location, so I can’t just swing by their offices and duck my head in.)

Well, thanks for a thank-you aren’t really required, so first, you shouldn’t feel like a response is even necessary. But it’s certainly graceful to send a private email back saying something like, “Thanks so much for recognizing this work” or “I really appreciate the kudos — it was great to see this work pay off” or something short and simple like that.

4. Leaving a job you like for one with better benefits and a shorter commute

Is it ever okay to leave a job doing what you like for a job that you might like all right that’s in a different field (but same company) that has better people, better benefits, and a much shorter commute?

Sure. Coworkers, benefits, and commute length matter quite a bit. Only you can decide if they outweigh the things you like about the first job, but it certainly wouldn’t be outlandish to decide that they do.

5. Boss insists on knowing when people will be out of town on their days off

My husband’s boss has asked him that he inform him when he is going out of town on vacations. I can understand his inquisition of my husband if he is requesting time off, but his most recent vacation fell during his scheduled days off. He is hourly, not salary. Is this acceptable/legal? I understand that salaried employees need to be on call pretty much 24/7 because that is what they are paid for, but he is hourly and he had 4 scheduled days off in a row that he did not request and he did not advise his boss that he was leaving town, because it wasn’t a vacation that was requested, it was just one we chose to take on his days off from work.

Sure, a manager can ask to be kept informed of that. It’s possible that there’s a legitimate reason, such as knowing who’s available to be asked to come in on short notice if it’s that kind of job. Or it’s possible that he’s just overstepping. Why doesn’t your husband just ask his manager for some insight into why he wants to be told?

when a job candidate asks, “so, what did you think of me?”

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A reader writes:

I had a weird situation today when interviewing a candidate and I was hoping to get your read on the situation.

At the end of the interview, he asked us for an on-the-spot evaluation. I forget exactly how he worded it, but something like “What do you think of me so far?”

I nearly did a spit-take because it caught me off guard and quite frankly really rubbed me the wrong way. Fortunately, my boss came up with something about how he had strong analytical skills, which is important to our company.

Does this tactic come off weird to you or am I’m totally overreacting? Why on earth would someone ask that? There’s no way we’re going to say, “Well, you seem really accomplished but we think you might be full of hot air, and you also don’t seem like a team player” to a candidate’s face!

And any advice on how I could respond in a noncommittal manner in the future if a candidate asks this?

Oh yes, I sometimes have candidates do this, and I don’t like it either.

I do think it’s fine for a candidate for say something like, “Do you have any reservations about my candidacy that I could address for you?” That’s different than saying “tell me your assessment of me, right now, on the spot.” It’s saying, “Do you have any concerns that you’re comfortable discussing right now?” That can lead to useful conversations, like “Well, we do ideally want someone with more experience in X, so I need to think about how that would play out” — and it also allows the interviewer to honestly say, “No, I think we have everything we need right now.”

But asking “what’s your take on me?” puts the interviewer on the spot. It’s overly aggressive, and it makes most — not all, but most — interviewers feel uncomfortable. Most people don’t want to announce on the spot if they don’t think someone is a strong candidate, and often the reasons you have reservations aren’t ones you’re going to be up for discussing (like you think the candidate might not be smart enough, or they creeped you out, or they seemed difficult to get along with). Plus, some people actually like to have time to process their thoughts about a candidate, talk with other people who may have also met with the person, and generally pull their thoughts together before coming to any sharable assessment.

So it’s a bad idea.

As for how to respond if this question comes up, I usually say something like this: “I usually like to spend some time reflecting on an interview before making any decisions, but I certainly enjoyed our conversation.” (Although if the candidate is strong, I don’t have any problem saying that; it’s when the person is weaker that I’m annoyed to be put on the spot.)

how to get buy-in from your staff on tough decisions

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It would be nice if your staff wholeheartedly supported every decision that you made. In reality, there may be times when managers need to make an unpopular decision – for budget reasons or strategic ones. At Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I talk about how to increase the chances of getting buy-in from your team when that happens. You can read it here.