wee answer Wednesday — 7 short answers to 7 short questions

by Ask a Manager on April 17, 2013

It’s wee answer Wednesday — seven short answers to seven short questions. Here we go…

1. Reaching out to a long-ago boss about a job he might be interested in

About 20 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I had a part-time job on my college campus. For the sake of anonymity, let’s say I was a chocolate teapot maker. My boss was truly an incredible boss: he knew the work we did inside and out, was supportive as long as you were doing your job (he always, always had our backs when we were doing what we were supposed to), and addressed it when people weren’t doing their work.

Anyway, I didn’t really keep in touch with Old Boss after leaving school, although I did randomly run into him when I was on the campus for other reasons some years ago, and he remembered me and we talked briefly. Where I work now, I’m not a chocolate teapot maker. But I’ve just seen a brand-new position open up that is a Director of Chocolate Teapot Making here, which made me think of Old Boss. I think he’d be incredible in this position, or he might know someone who would be interested if he’s not wanting to make a move himself.

I googled Old Boss and found an email address for him (yes, I’m sure it’s him). Would it be weird to email him out of the blue, remind him of who I am, and mention this position? Normally I wouldn’t hesitate, but it’s been quite a long time since I’ve been in touch with him, and I wondered if you thought that would make a difference.

Not weird at all. First of all, previous bosses nearly always appreciate hearing from past employees, as long as you say nice things, and second, nearly everyone appreciates being referred to jobs they might be interested in (unless the position is far below what he’s qualified for, in which case it can of course be insulting, but then you could ask if he knows anyone who’d be interested). Write to him right now.

2. What to do when peers constantly miss scheduled meetings

I work at a college in a service function (I direct our grant activity, but my question could apply to a number of service functions). I’ve written you before because management here is weak, indecisive, wasteful, uncommunicative, and focused more on touchy-feely crap than actual results. I’ve had five managers six years. In the last year, my department budget has been cut; my grantwriter quit in frustration, and I’ve not been allowed to fill his position. Yet administration insists that my work is a priority and that I MUST increase funding, or face further cuts. There are many, many cues that it’s really not a priority, but let’s start with a simple, concrete example.

How do I manage the immediate issues of peers missing meetings, when it’s an uphill battle to schedule them in the first place? I just came back a colleague’s office, where he did not show up for a scheduled meeting. Others in his division have missed meetings with me or showed up 20 or more minutes late, often with little or no advanced notice. I understand that things crop up, but this sort of cavalier behavior is chronic. Is there an effective way to manage other people’s behavior, or at least my own reaction, while still doing my best to do my job? I am looking for other jobs.

Given your first paragraph, this is sort of like asking, “A volcano is erupting all over me; how do I make sure the lava doesn’t stain my shoes?” But in any case, you can only control the pieces of this that you can control. If people aren’t showing up at meetings, you can (a) talk to them and ask them to start, (b) talk to their managers or yours about the issue, or (c) find some other way to get the information you need. In your case, I might try to do (c) if at all possible. Can you get what you need from someone/somewhere else? Can you call or email for it rather than trying for a meeting? Find some way to go around your lame coworkers, rather than relying on them.

3. How to get feedback from a terminally hands-off manager

I’m a post-doc in a research lab at a university, and have been working there for a little over a year. Professors are notorious for being extremely hands-off managers, and my boss is no exception. He never, ever addresses problematic work performance (even in the case of a graduate student who essentially did no work at all for months), and he’s very open about the fact that his management strategy is to let his students and post-docs go about their business, and watch the ones who succeed thrive and find professor positions, and let the ones who don’t fizzle out and eventually leave academia.

For the past few months, I’ve noticed that my boss has been more cold and stand-offish with me than with other members of the lab, which makes me worry that he has found my performance wanting in some way. I want to ask him to give me feedback on how I’ve been doing and if there are areas where he thinks I can improve, but, frankly, I have no idea how to go about doing it, especially given his clear distaste for this part of his job. Should I send him an email asking to set up a time to discuss this? Ask him about it when we’re meeting about something else? Just walk into his office and ask him if it’s a good time to talk? We don’t have regular meetings–I only set up a time to meet with him when I need his input/advice on a project, and those meetings rarely last more than 15 minutes. I know that if there is something he’s unhappy with, it will make him very uncomfortable to discuss it, and I’m concerned that he’ll resent being asked to do it and it will make our relationship even worse. Any advice on how to handle this situation?

If it would damage your relationship to ask for feedback, then yeah, I guess you have to give up on getting any from him. But are you sure it really will? Because that’s pretty insane. It’s not like you’re going to go to him and demand to know his deepest thoughts or scream “why do you hate me.” You’re going to ask your boss how you’re doing and what you could do better. While he might be inept enough not to be able to answer that, if it would really harm your relationship, that’s a whole new level of dysfunction that we rarely see, and it makes me want to put my head down and take a stress nap.

4. Staffing agency is getting too much for my work

I’m told that if a organization controls when, where, and how someone works, then that someone is not a contractor but an employee.

I work for an organization that takes 50 percent of what I’m paid hourly and I feel that this is too much. I understand that, for example, a staffing firm will make a certain percentage off their employees’ hourly wage, but the 50 percent I believe is questionable. I do not work for a staffing firm but a organization that provides services to other organizations and pays me (taking taxes out of my check). And according to the law, I’m not a contract worker and don’t see why my employer should be getting 50 percent of what I’m paid hourly.

Since taxes are being taken out of your check, you’re not being treated as an independent contractor. You’re a regular W2 employee; you’re just an employee of the staffing agency, rather than the firm where you’ve been placed.

The staffing agency negotiated a wage directly with you, which you agreed to. It also negotiated a fee with the company you were placed at in exchange for its services to them (finding, screening, and placing employees and handling the administrative oversight of those employees). That’s a completely separate issue that the pay they negotiated with you. But if you don’t like it, you’re free to try to either negotiate for more or leave and strike out on your own.

5. Asking for a different title

An academic requirement of my Master’s program is a second-year field practicum to help students link theory and practice. I’ve secured my placement for next year and it’s a great fit with my academic and professional interests.

My practicum host organization is working on the terms of reference right now and have suggested “Intern” or “Program Assistant” as my official title. Before going back to school, I worked as a project manager with an international consultancy. Beyond ensuring that I’m actually doing substantive work and putting my degree to use, how should I broach a discussion about something as seemingly petty as a title? I want to show on my resume that that I’ve taken on more responsibility over the years rather than taking a step backward.

Well, I’m not sure that it will be more responsibility than what you had as a project manager, so I wouldn’t necessarily frame the discussion as a desire for that — because that might be unrealistic (unless I’m misunderstanding what the practicum involves). But you can certainly be straightforward about your desire for a different title: “Would it be possible to call the position X? It would helpful to me in the future to be able to convey to prospective employees that the position involved A, B, and C.” Just make sure that whatever title you do suggest is realistic and reflects the work you’ll be doing.

6. Did my typo make this HR manager stop responding to me?

I’m going through a hiring process with a great company and for a position that I dream about. The first interview with the HR manager happened 3 weeks ago, and the next interview (in-person with the director of the department) will be in the last week of this month. The HR manager and I have been in contact for about 1 month and it has been quite smooth with quick replies. However, in my last email I asked some questions about the company’s corporate structure in order to better understand how my position will play out and I didn’t receive any answer. Today, 2 weeks after sending that e-mail, I opened the message with the objective to send her a reminder of my questions and I realized that in this specific email I made a mistake when typing the HR manager’s name. Basically, I added one extra vowel in the middle of her short name (like from Victoria, I wrote Vicatoria). I checked all the other messages and I didn’t see the same happening, it was only on 1 email. Do you think that it will kill my chances to be hired? Do you think that this is the reason why she is not answering my emails? What should I do now, send a reminder for my questions or simply leave it? The interview though still scheduled!

No, I don’t think that’s why she’s not answering. I think she didn’t answer because you sent her an email with a bunch of questions that would take a while to write out answers to and which are better saved for an interview. (And also possibly because it sounds like you’ve been sending her multiple emails before this too.) So actually, it’s good that you made the typo because spotting it saved you from sending her a “reminder” to answer your questions, which would have been a mistake.

Save substantive questions for actual conversations. Email questions only when it’s imperative to ask — like confirming a interview time or checking on a hiring timeline.

7. Do I have a job offer or don’t I?

I am in the late stages of a job search in a different city than where I currently live. I had a few phone interviews with members of the Human Capital Team, plus a phone interview with the executive director. I was out in the new city on April 1st to meet with the ED and she offered me the position on the spot. When I returned home a few days later I received an email letting me know that they would like to check my references (which seems standard ) but also that they need me to speak to someone at their national office.

Scheduling with this person has been a little tricky and is leaving me in a lurch: the interview was supposed to be this week but is now moved to next week (which means we are approaching three and a half weeks since my conversation with the ED). I want to be understanding that things happen but it is making me question the position and my standing with the organization–was I really offered a position? Where do I stand with them? The ED made it clear that they want someone who can start soon, but understands that I want to give my current position as much notice as possible and also need to move across the country for the position. My question is, is there anyway to check in and see where they are with me, either with someone in Human Capital or the ED herself? Is there anything else I can do to be an advocate for myself in this process?

At this point, assume you do not have an official job offer. It would totally fine, though, to email the ED and say something like, “My conversation with Jane has been pushed back to next week. Meanwhile, I hoped you could clarify for me where we stand — I’m not entirely clear on whether things still stand as they did when you and I spoke.” Alternately, you can email HR to ask, but since the ED herself offered you the job, she might be more inclined to push things through when she hears that they’ve been delayed.

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{ 98 comments… read them below or add one }

The typo one April 17, 2013 at 3:31 am

Thanks Alison, the thing is that in the last 2 e-mails she was encouraging me and insisting to write her in case I needed any extra information “while preparing for the interview”; and I though she meant it for any question… I think that I took it a little to far… :)

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Chloe April 17, 2013 at 5:53 am

If she is anything like me, and flat out at work, she has flagged it in her mind or shifted it to a folder with the intention of responding to later, but just hasn’t ever quite got around to it. My inbox is full of stuff like that. If its not super urgent it just won’t get responded to.

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Elise April 17, 2013 at 3:31 am

#4 – staffing agency’s cut
It’s very normal that the staffing agency charges their clients double (or even more) than what they pay the workers. I’ve seen a few people post about it and don’t quite understand the surprise.

They aren’t taking 50% of the worker’s money. The client hired the agency and the agency provides the workers. If the agency did not charge the client more than they paid the worker, they would not be able to afford to stay in business and provide their services.

I’m not implying anything against the person who wrote in with the question. Just wanted to let them know that that was standard practice. I’ve heard of agencies charging client’s 3 times what they pay the worker–so charging double isn’t even so extreme.

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VicatoriaHR April 17, 2013 at 9:15 am

I used to work for a staffing agency. 50% is reasonable for hard-to-fill positions and even some that are not so hard to fill. Our standard markup was higher than that.

Remember that the staffing agency has to pay for unemployment insurance – if you are laid off or fired, the agency pays your unemployment claim, not the client company. Also, they have to pay for workers’ compensation insurance in the god-forbid event that you are injured at work and they have to pay for medical bills or surgery. There’s also the recruiter’s time for recruiting you for the position, which can take weeks in some cases, and the cost of putting up job postings at Monster, CareerBuilder, etc.

The agency is not making money hand over fist off of you, I promise.

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Ask a Manager April 17, 2013 at 10:03 am

And even if they were making money hand over fist — they are providing a service that they charge a market rate for, and you are providing a service that you charge a market rate for. They’re two different things.

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Jamie April 17, 2013 at 10:13 am

Absolutely – I agree totally with Victoria and Elise. It’s not your money – it’s their rate. Your money is what you agreed they would pay you.

And it’s so important to keep in mind that we all cost our employers far more than our salaries. There is overhead per employee, taxes, benefits, etc. Those of you who have benefits through your employers most likely have a slightly greater than 50% mark-up.

And 50% is typical for temping and I’ve definitely seen higher. Heck – 40% is typical even for unskilled labor temping which are easily filled. If you use a high volume you can get it into the 30% range – but if there is no mark-up there is no profit…so there would be no reason for the temp agency to stay in business.

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Michael April 17, 2013 at 2:19 pm

It still doesn’t sit well with people like the person asking and myself. If my role at a place is worth a total of x and the placement firm’s cut of y is greater than or equal to my z it just feels shady. I would rather get x as that’s what apparently that role is worth and I’m not getting paid that amount. It’s why I don’t work for those places anymore.

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Ask a Manager April 17, 2013 at 2:21 pm

But you understand that the company you’re placed with is paying for more than just the value of your work, right? They’re paying for all the other things people have mentioned.

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Michael April 17, 2013 at 2:37 pm

I see that as nothing exceeding what they would pay simply by virtue of me being an employee. Things such as taxes are the responsibility of my employer and not the company I’m placed at. I can understand them getting an additional cut on top of my salary as they did the leg work to find me but when that reaches percentages that exceed 30, 40% I can’t help but call b.s. They’re already being paid for me to be there which provides for little risk for the placement firm. A little bit to cover their part of taxes plus some to actually make a profit is understandable. However, I work in an IT heavy town where salaries more often than not hover around or crest 100k. No firm needs an additional ~40k/year PER PLACEMENT to turn a profit.

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Ask a Manager April 17, 2013 at 2:40 pm

They’re paying for the ability to dismiss you quickly without severance or putting you on a PIP if they need to, too; it’s not just taxes, placement, and benefits.

But you know, if you’re sure that you’re worth the X they’re paying the firm rather than the Y they’re paying you, why not try to find a job that will pay you X directly? You’ll know pretty quickly whether that’s the market rate for your work or not. (I suspect you will find it’s not, because that’s not how this works.)

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Michael April 17, 2013 at 3:02 pm

When I got out of consulting my very next position I was able to secure an almost 30% increase. Where I am now compared to when I left consulting just over a year ago the difference is closer to 50%. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Like I said, I work in IT so those same numbers quite likely don’t apply to all positions in all industries. Of course I only speak from my own experience. I say what I do because the firms locally that do this often employ several hundred people that are placed at various clients. At rates like I mentioned multiplied by these numbers their profits are more than covered and probably done so multiple times over. It kind of feels like paying over 1,000% markup for popcorn at a movie theater even though my ticket price quite likely pays for the building and movies themselves.

Jamie April 17, 2013 at 2:33 pm

But X isn’t what the role is worth.

If the role is worth $20 per hour and they are paying the staffing agency $35 to fill it the role is still only worth $20. But they are providing the other $15 worth of value by absorbing the overheard, payroll, all the other stuff mentioned. So they are getting $35 worth of value per hour – but you’re only contributing $20…the people at the agency are giving them their other $15 of value.

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Rana April 17, 2013 at 6:17 pm

Exactly. The client is paying for the service provided by the staffing agency, which includes the wages paid to the temp provided.

I think a lot of people don’t really understand how much it costs to employ someone, even at a regular job. One of the things you find out when you become self-employed, and responsible for the whole shebang, is that all of those payroll taxes and whatnot taken out of your paycheck? are only a small part of what is actually owed on your behalf. Employers eat – and hide – those costs, because there are other ways for them to deal with them (they have different rules regarding deductions and whatnot, for example, than individual filers), but those costs are still there, regardless.

Temp agencies just happen to reveal a bit more of those hidden costs. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s how that sort of employment works.

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Lee April 17, 2013 at 5:19 am

#6- I agree that it sounds like the questions would have been ones that took a long time to answer, but not answering at all is one of my pet peeves. If she thought those questions were better off covered in an interview, it would have been nice if she’d just written a single sentence reply saying that someone could answer her questions when she met with the company representative in person. Not replying at all is annoying.

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Ask a Manager April 17, 2013 at 10:05 am

Sure. But people are busy, and sending an email full of questions that would take a long time to answer is a good way to make this happen.

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ConstructionHR April 17, 2013 at 5:26 am

#4 They may be paying you 50% of what they are receiving for your services, but:
Are you aware that your company matches your FICA contribution to the federal government?

Are you aware that the company matches your Medicare contribution to the federal government?

Are you aware that the company pay 100% of your state unemployment insurance premium (and, because they are a staffing agency, I’m sure they have a pretty high rate)

Are you aware that the company pays 100% of your federal unemployment insurance premium?

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Runon April 17, 2013 at 9:05 am

This is a very good point. All the taxes that are being covered by the staffing agency. I will also add that some staffing agencies actually have benefits (insurance etc) that you can get if you continue to work with that agency and that cost is also being covered by that extra amount. (Not to mention the salaries of the people who are employed by the agency to place people/advertise services/hire/etc.)

The company pays for the convince of not having to deal with hiring and firing (and the hit to UI that comes with that), not having to deal with payroll, not having to go thru their normal channels. It is pretty much unheard of for someone to get hired on at the rate that a staffing agency was being paid because of all these factors.

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Jamie April 17, 2013 at 10:17 am

Yep – the agency I was with back in the day gave me 2 weeks vacation (after working so many hours) and offered health insurance (which I didn’t need, but knew temps to were enrolled.)

It’s really important to differentiate between temp and freelancer. If you are freelancing all the money is yours …but so are the taxes, the accounting headaches, and the problem of how to drum up business.

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PEBCAK April 17, 2013 at 1:45 pm

I was hired as a contractor at a company, and they offered me the option of going through their staffing firm and getting 80% of what I’d get if they paid me directly. It is worth it to a lot of their contractors to not deal with quarterly taxes, liability insurance, E&O insurance, a business license, separate bank accounts, etc., not to even mention paying both sides of the employment tax, and so on.

So, that’s 20% overhead on a contract where the staffing firm didn’t even find/recruit me, and the contract was for a set period of time (I think that means no unemployment insurance, but I could be wrong).

I let them pay me directly, because I have other contracts, and thus would have to do all those things anyway, but I would estimate that it only would cost me about 3% to go through the staffing firm on a W2. That would be worth it to me.

In any case, it all sounded very fair and on the up-and-up.

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Michael April 17, 2013 at 2:22 pm

And? This is paid out of the normal rate regardless simply by virtue of being their employee. It’s their cost of doing business. They shouldn’t feel entitled nor should I feel “okay” with them getting what you’re essentially equating to a bonus for doing what every other employer has to do. You may not have intended to word it like this but its how I’m taking it.

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Ask a Manager April 17, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Then don’t work for a staffing agency. No one requires it.

And you know recruiters also get paid by the employer for placing a candidate, right? Sometimes 30% of the first year’s salary. Do you think you should hold out for getting that too? (It won’t happen.)

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Jamie April 17, 2013 at 2:35 pm

They are running a business though, where they are matching people up with temp positions.

If someone places me and the client company pays X and they pay me exactly X…then they are out money because they still have to pay their staff to run payroll, taxes, etc.

By your rules they would be operating at a loss.

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Rana April 17, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Yep. As I noted above, one of the great shocks when you become self-employed and thus responsible for it all is how much in taxes you are actually expected to pay. It’s not unheard of for the amount to be as high as 40% of your income, before deductions.

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Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog April 17, 2013 at 5:50 am

#3 – Theoretically, it should not damage a relationship to just ask for feedback. I once asked for feedback after 3 months on a job because I noticed tension and wanted to address it. My boss told me I was being presumptuous, so I backpedaled. Not surprisingly, that work relationship continued to deteriorate.

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Chloe April 17, 2013 at 5:54 am

Presumptuous? Thats really weird. People can be so odd.

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T April 17, 2013 at 10:45 am

Sounds like an awful boss

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Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog April 17, 2013 at 3:31 pm

It was pretty bad situation. This boss was eventually relieved of all supervisory responsibilities.

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Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog April 17, 2013 at 6:05 am

#5 – Intern isn’t a bad title. Lots of MBAs have significant professional experience when they start B school, and then take positions with titles like “intern” or “summer associate” when they do their summer internship. I’m not an MBA, but it’s also expected that people in my field do a summer internship in grad school. Hiring managers specifically ask about it in interviews, because it’s a standard part of the career trajectory. Obfuscating titles just confuses the narrative.

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Anonymous April 17, 2013 at 8:16 am

+1 – I finished my MBA last year and most people in my program had “Intern” in their title during their MBA internships (for example, “brand management intern,” “MBA intern: corporate strategy,” etc.). Rather than focusing on the level of the title (especially if they’re not willing to change it) maybe push to have the title include more specificity about the type of work you’re actually doing. Also, when I was searching for my internship I found that job postings for a lot of internships intended for graduate students include “Graduate” in the title, which tends to indicate a higher level of responsibility than internships intended for undergrads/recent graduates, so you may consider asking about that as another alternative if they’re unwilling to make more substantial changes to the title. FWIW, for my internship my title was “Marketing Intern” which didn’t seem to hurt my job prospects post-degree – at least, I didn’t get any questions about why I’d gone from a manager position where I’d been running a department pre-grad school to an internship the following summer.

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KayDay April 17, 2013 at 9:33 am

Agreed. I actually think “intern,” “graduate intern,” or “Teapot development intern” (or “fellow” if that’s used in your field) sounds more appropriate than a regular job title, because it indicates that you are probably a student and the job is probably temporary. Personally, it would seem more weird to me to see a “manager” position for only eight months.

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Academic Anon April 17, 2013 at 6:52 am

For OP #3:

Have a solution (in a sense) before approaching your boss for feedback. Since you are a post-doc, it should be assumed that you will be looking for another position at some point. Perhaps you can ask for feedback in the context of working on your application portfolio/materials. Don’t come from a “What is wrong with my work” point of view: you want feedback so that you can do an even better job :)

Also, have you reflected on your performance and where it can be improved? Asking for specific help is better than a general “What can I do to improve?”

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fposte April 17, 2013 at 9:35 am

Yes, agreed. I find that even academics who hate managing are often susceptible to the joy of giving advice.

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Andre April 17, 2013 at 8:09 am

#5. When I joined the company which I current work my job title was Marketing and Sales Manager. However, I don’t do much sales, but instead develop communication strategies for marketing programs that can or not result in sale. So, I explained the situation to my director and asked to change my job title to Marketing and Communications Manager. He easily agreed!

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The IT Manager April 17, 2013 at 9:04 am

#4. I know that the organization you really work for – the one where you work and gives you your day-to-day instructions – calls you a contractor because they have a contract with the organization that pays you. You are not an employee of the first so they call you a “contractor” or “contract employee” to distinguish you from their own direct employees. This is a very common usage usage of the term contractor so it is not incorrect, but is is confusing …

… Because you are not a contractor in the sense that “if a organization controls when, where, and how someone works, then that someone is not a contractor but an employee” applies to you. That provision refers to the legal, IRS definition of a contrator where the business makes no withholdings and no one but you pays federal and state employment taxes and fees. Your true employer (the one that pays you) takes care of all of that for you so you are not a contractor in the IRS use of the term.

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Josh S April 17, 2013 at 11:40 am

Good clarification! I was circling around just this issue when I read the OP’s question, but couldn’t put my finger on why there was the disconnect. You nailed it.

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Colette April 17, 2013 at 9:11 am

#6 However, in my last email I asked some questions about the company’s corporate structure in order to better understand how my position will play out

Just a reminder that it’s not actually your position yet. You haven’t even met with anyone from the department. I think you’re probably getting ahead of yourself because you’re so interested – but the HR manager probably isn’t the right person to give you the complete view of the position, and she’s also probably dealing with multiple candidates. Relax, prepare for the second interview, and be ready with your questions then.

(I also agree with Chloe above – questions that are not urgent but also require some time to answer may end up sitting in my inbox for a while before I get time to answer them.)

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Jamie April 17, 2013 at 10:28 am

Yep – and also keep in mind that answers to questions about corporate structure (once you get beyond a copy of the org chart) can be difficult and sometimes ill-advised to put in writing, even in a great environment.

You have your solid line reporting, you have your dotted line reporting…both of which can be found on the org chart. But you also have your invisible line reporting, which can sometimes be more crucial information than either of the above. Who really has whose ear, who is behind the curtain…what things would Director X love to shift to a new hire. Reassurance that the CIO may come off somewhat aloof and stoic, but she isn’t comfy with new people and she hates being dragged into last minute interviews that Director Y forgot to put on the calendar…but she’s really a delight once you get to know her. Just don’t eat in her office and profess a love of inventory control and she’ll champion your cause.

None of which would be a good idea to put in writing.

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AA April 17, 2013 at 9:22 am

#7 – Just sympathizing. . .
I once went from “they really liked you and you should have an offer next week” to “you will need to meet with someone else” (with impossible scheduling that took a month to have the meeting) back to “you’ll hear in a week” after that meeting, and then checked in to hear that the manager was out of the country for two weeks and I’d hear after that. Two months passed from when I first heard I would have an offer.

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Sascha April 17, 2013 at 9:55 am

I hear ya. I had a similar situation that started as “we’re creating a position for you because we love you so much,” to the hiring manager dropping off the face of the earth and that job never materialized. Oh well.

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anongirl April 17, 2013 at 9:30 am

#4-they aren’t taking 50 percent of your check, they are charging their client that amount on top of what you make

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Hous April 17, 2013 at 9:45 am

#4 – Hey OP, I have to ask–were you happy with your wages before you knew what the staffing agency got? If so, I think you should try to forget about what they’re getting. I know it can feel like money they’re getting is money you’re not getting, but that’s really not how these kinds of positions usually work. Also, if there are other people you’re close to in similar positions who are actually employed by the firm, you could talk to them. You’re probably making somewhat less than they are, but I doubt they’re actually making twice as much as what you are. So that might help put your take-home pay in perspective.

If you weren’t happy with your wages before and this is just making it worse, I’d still try to forget about it. If you want to renegotiate, it should be based on what you’re worth, not what the firm is paying the staffing agency.

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Michael April 17, 2013 at 2:25 pm

For me, it has to do with what the role is worth. If they’re willing to shell out a certain amount I would rather get something closer to that than sometimes getting half.

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fposte April 17, 2013 at 8:06 pm

But the role on its own isn’t worth that money to them–they’re spending above the value of the role to avoid handling recruiting, processing, and hiring, to make payroll not their problem, to be able to be rid of you the exact moment they’re fed up with you, to limit their legal responsibility to you, and a host of other reasons. It’s not like they’re forced to use temps, after all–they choose to use temps because it’s a system that’s advantageous to them.

And, as Alison notes, you’re not required to temp if you don’t like it, either, so there’s nobody forced into it on other side. Just don’t assume that if they’re looking for a temp in a position that they’d be happy to convert that to hiring you directly for the same amount.

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Joey April 17, 2013 at 10:05 am

#4 you’re forgetting those fees have to cover:

Payroll services
Recruiting fees such as job ads, résumé mining fees, etc.
Payroll taxes
Unemployment insurance
Workers comp insurance (this can be big dep. on the job)
Background checks
Salaries for the time it took to find you

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Seal April 17, 2013 at 10:18 am

#2: Here’s an additional option for addressing your colleagues’ rudeness in not showing up for scheduled meetings. After they’ve failed to show up, send them an email to the effect of “sorry I missed you this morning. Here’s what I plan to do with this project. My deadline is the end of the week; if I don’t hear from you by noon tomorrow I’ll have to move forward with my plan so I don’t miss my deadline.” That puts the burden on them to get back in touch with you. If they complain they don’t like the results, you can come back with “you skipped our scheduled meeting and ignored my follow-up email; I had a deadline to meet.” Make sure you always follow through on the moving forward part, though – otherwise they’ll keep blowing you off.

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Anonymous April 17, 2013 at 6:57 pm

+1

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Eric April 17, 2013 at 10:34 am

#7 Do I have a job offer or don’t I?
If you have to ask the question, the answer is no.

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Jamie April 17, 2013 at 10:39 am

Not necessarily. A hundred years ago when I was young and single a guy I had been dating was waiting for an answer to his proposal.

I, however, had no idea he had asked me to marry him. I thought we were just talking and goofing around. Who knew?

Miscommunication can happen, so I can see wanting a reality check for something as important as a job.

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danr April 17, 2013 at 10:38 am

#2… In line with Alison’s choice (c)… stop trying to schedule meetings. Why make yourself nuts? Get the information you need in any way you can, including dropping in on the folks to “confirm” the information you’ve gathered. If they ask why you didn’t schedule a meeting for this, you have the obvious answer ready, but I don’t think they’ll mention it.

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Lava Toes (OP#2) April 17, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Thanks for your response–it makes perfect sense, but unfortunately, meetings are often a last resort to get information in the first place. They are specialists in their areas, and I can’t go forward without them. A sane person would just not go forward, but I need to in order to keep my job :-).

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Ask a Manager April 17, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Then in that case, you need to go to your manager and say, “I have been chronically unable to get the info I need for X from Jane. I have emailed, called, stopped by in person, and scheduled meetings which she doesn’t show up for. I’m unable to complete X without her help. How would you like me to proceed?”

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Lava Toes (OP#2) April 17, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Thank you. That’s a very sane and reasonable tactic. But there’s another wrinkle. My manager has been with the organization for four months. I’m trying not to make every conversation about a problem while providing her with a clear picture of my work and the challenges I face.

I did give her a heads-up about the missed meeting and told her it’s part of a larger pattern. I gave her concrete examples. And I told her I’m very concerned that there’s a disconnect between the organization’s insistence that my work is a priority and this pattern, which starts with leadership and trickles down. And I told her that I’ve made a case to leadership (back when there were fewer layers) that I can be more effective if they communicate their priorities to me and to the staff who I’m supposed to be helping so that everyone involved knows how much time to spend, and how to re-prioritize the dozen other top priorities. Under a previous VP, this happened; I met with leadership frequently. Now they don’t have time, and of course their staff know.

Like you said, volcano. I’m just trying to stay cool–without compromising my professionalism–until I can get the hell out.

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Anonymous April 17, 2013 at 10:45 am

Oh why do people refer to employment opportunities as their “dream job, dream position, dream company……?” A “dream” can turn into a “nightmare” once you are on the other side of the door. Finding work isn’t about dreams, it’s about a good fit on both sides.

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Jamie April 17, 2013 at 10:54 am

When I read that I was thinking the only time I dream about work is when I’m under too much pressure and I’ll dream I’m in my office and all of a sudden all my stuff from home is here and I have to find boxes and pack it up…but the more I pack the more crap is everywhere and I’m trying to get the embarrassing stuff put away first.

Or I’m conducting an audit and look down and realize I’m not wearing pants.

Or worst of all – I’ve had dreams which feel like they last all night where I’m working. Just working, nothing uneventful. I wake up feeling like I’ve already put in a full day…stupid subconscious. Of all the awesome things I could be doing while dreaming I’m compiling data and pouring through error logs. Fabulous.

I did dream the answer to a code issue I was having once, though – that was awesome. So my dreams are 1:1000 in a good:bad ratio.

No such thing as a dream job for me.

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Elizabeth West April 17, 2013 at 12:11 pm

I HATE dreaming about work. I had a job twenty years ago in a restaurant that I still dream about! Stop already!

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-X- April 17, 2013 at 12:24 pm

I’ve known people who have dream jobs – jobs they love as much as other good aspects of life. They tend to be both very talented and very lucky – success in a major rock band, running a design consultancy with so much business so they can only work with clients they want to and turn down uninteresting or obnxious work, some wealthy philanthropists who enjoy helping other people and the mental stimulation of the work. Sure, it’s not all perfect, but it’s very very good for these people. Those are dream jobs.

It’s surely bad advice for most people to follow their passion in looking for work. But just because Jamie or Anonymous April 17, 2013 at 10:45 am or I don’t have dream jobs doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

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Jamie April 17, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Actually – I really do love what I do (not always the specifics – but overall I wouldn’t trade it) – I think it’s semantics.

I was thinking of dream jobs as some idealized thing where work is pure joy and as you say – even for the luckiest it isn’t all perfect all the time. So in the way I was using it dream jobs don’t exist in the way the perfect SO doesn’t exist. Doesn’t mean you won’t find someone or something perfect for you – just that it won’t be perfect in the sense of never pissing you off.

With your usage where dream job is a really awesome gig where you’re fulfilled and it’s what you’re meant to be doing…I totally agree with you that those exist. Absolutely.

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Anonymous April 17, 2013 at 3:09 pm

+1

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ThursdaysGeek April 18, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Yay, new kitty. I missed your pictures.

I should probably get rid of mine, since it may be creeping people out. :(

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RJ April 17, 2013 at 12:54 pm

I have those mundane work dreams too, Jamie. Particularly when I’m learning a new, yet repetitive, task. I end up doing the task over and over while I sleep. Ugh.

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Windchime April 17, 2013 at 11:47 pm

My work dream last night was about Public Speaking. I could either sing 3 songs (!??) or talk for 15 minutes. I decided to not plan out my talk and just wing it, but it was a terribly stressfull dream.

And I had a coding solution come to me in a dream once, too! I dreamed that someone else explained it to me….and when I woke up, I knew the solution. Sweet!

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Lynn April 17, 2013 at 10:48 am

#2: Maybe your colleagues are just lame and lazy and sucky. It’s impossible to tell from here. But there are two other contexts that commonly cause meeting flakiness:

1) Urgent business that legitimately overrides what your meeting is about. Especially in a poorly-run company, it is common for things to be constantly catching fire, and then people have to drop everything to put out the fire. If you or they have the clout or authority to put fire-prevention strategies in place, that might help. Otherwise, you are kind of stuck with it.

2) The meetings are not a good use of some of the participants’ time, but for office politics reasons, they can’t simply decline. It sounds like you’re meeting people one-on-one, and this is a more common problem with larger meetings, but still not impossible. It’s still kind of crappy of them, but you can clean up your side of the street by making sure the meetings are useful to them.

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Lava Toes (OP#2) April 17, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Thanks for your thoughts — and you’re right. 1) I’m stuck with them. 2) This place is very relationship-based, so most people are comfortable in person, while they can ignore email or phone. But I will be more thoughtful about asking specific questions to help them focus and see the importance of meetings.

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Anonymous April 17, 2013 at 10:55 am

#3
Research and academia are weird. In research your manager is more your project manager than a personnel manager, and at the professor level there is no incentive to change this. People are focusing on how to get this person to do actual management, and this is unlikely to occur, because there is no incentive to do this, and depending on their other responsibilities to their university they might just not have time either (you have to do what’s termed “service” in addition to teaching, writing grants, and maybe running the lab). Also by the time you get to be a post-doc it’s expected that your should know enough to be basically be your own project manager of your own small project (like knowing how to make Hazelnut Mini-Chocolate Purple-Flowered Teapots, while the PI is the Chocolate Teapot Company Owner), which might be in an area something the PI knows very little about, so they don’t have feedback to offer. This may be the conflict here, the PI is expected the OP to run their own project with very little input from anyone else, and the OP is (understandably) trying to get input to do their job better. The OP might just have to accept they are never going to get any good feedback from their manager, and look to other people and other areas (training, classes, literature) to help improve their research rather than keep asking for something they are not going to get.

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Jamie April 17, 2013 at 11:00 am

What does PI stand for? I was thinking Project Instigator – but that can’t be right. (kind of an awesome title though.)

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TL April 17, 2013 at 11:01 am

Principal Investigator

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Jamie April 17, 2013 at 11:03 am

Thank you.

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Josh S April 17, 2013 at 11:43 am

Which is a pretty common title/abbreviation in the academic and (scientific) research world, apparently. (I’ve only learned this since a friend started working a gig with that title, and I thought at first he had become a Private Investigator…?) They’re the folks who are actually *doing* the experiments and leg-work for research. They typically get their names on the published paper, though not as the first name (which typically goes to the tenured professor who is overseeing the research and came up with the experimental design/theory/research topic in the first place).

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Chemist April 17, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Actually, the PI is the professor and doesn’t normally do any experiments. Depending on the field the grad student/postdoc who actually did the work will be listed as the first author and the PI will be listed at the end as the ‘corresponding author’ because they get to represent the research.

WRT the OP, it’s frustrating but I’d start taking more ownership of your work and know that you’re going to have to rely on yourself if you’re working for a hands-off PI. If the lab environment is collaborative you could start speaking more with your labmates but the lack of structure is a major reason I’ll be looking for industrial positions after I graduate.

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fposte April 17, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Right, PI is the term driven by grant funding, not by internal org tables. You’re listed as the Principal Investigator in docs, but it’s not a job title at your institution; around here, it doesn’t even always correlate with rank.

It’s basically who’s on the hook for the money.

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TL April 17, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Actually, P.I. refers to the (probably) tenured professor leading the lab. Whose name is published last on any paper, not first.
First author is the person who did most of the actual legwork.
At least that’s how it works in the sciences.

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Josh S April 17, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Well, I have discovered one of the many areas in which I am ignorant, but think I know more than I do. Thanks all for correcting and educating me! :)

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Anonymous April 17, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Sorry! I had the explanation for PI then I took it out, as I thought the comment was too long.

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Anonymous April 17, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Going on – it’s also acceptable to ask other people with experience with what you are doing for advice or even some training. Or to ask for training to be paid, or to ask to go to a conference about your area.

Examples of outside help – there might not be a Hazelnut Chocolate Mini-Teapot Purple-flower decorated expert anywhere else, but there might be a company that sells the equipment to make mini-teapots you can get training for, there might be a conference for Chocolate fucntional design that includes teapot design, there might be a margarita glass expert in the department who also does flower decorating of those glasses.

Also I think AAM posted about this before, but asking specific questions about how to improve or what needs to be done can get more specific feedback. Instead of “should” or “how” to do something you can ask if Technique X works better than Technique Y. If something just is not working than saying I think this project will not work as expected, because I spent Z hours on it, and issues A, B, and C have not been resolved.

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Jessica April 17, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Agree with everything Anonymous said.

OP, I also suggest you consider doing stuff like taking other people in your lab (especially staff or other people who have been there longer than you) aside and simply mentioning that you think your PI isn’t happy with you and you’re trying to figure out why.

Also think about your productivity. That’s what PIs usually care about. How many papers have you contributed towards in your 1 year as a postdoc? Are you on your way towards your first substantial 1st author paper as a postdoc? If not, why?

Other touchier ideas:
If the PI is an asshole, they might be very anti-non-academic jobs. Do you know what you want to do next? If you are heading down a non-academic track and that has been apparent to your PI, could that be the reason? (not saying this is correct behavior but it’s not uncommon in academia).

Final thought is that, as you probably know, professors are NOT hired to be managers, that’s sorta an accidental byproduct of the current academic system so asking for your PI to step up and be a good manager is pretty hopeless if they aren’t a good one already.

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CathVWXYNot? April 17, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I was about to say the same thing – if it really will be a major problem to talk to the PI, the next best thing is a senior postdoc / tech / lab manager, or even the project manager / grant writer / grant administrator for your PI’s grants, if he or she has one. You might not be able to get feedback on all parts of your performance from one person as you should be able to from your PI, but perhaps the lab manager has some feedback about your organisation / time management in the lab, the grant writer about your writing skills, a senior postdoc or other lab member who’s been there a while about how the PI interacts with people.

The great thing in academia is that there are things you can do to help yourself, even if your PI doesn’t want to invest a whole bunch of time in your career advancement. Your publication and fellowship funding record will speak for itself, and there are tons of online resources out there that can help with some of the other stuff – lots of blogs written by postdocs and new tenure-track faculty members, for instance. Feel free to email me (address can be found through my profile link) if you need help finding any of these resources.

Good luck!

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CathVWXYNot? April 17, 2013 at 5:08 pm

or, at least, my address could be found through my profile link if I hadn’t mistyped my own URL in the Website box. Fixed now :)

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Anonymous April 17, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Yeah, the PI could just be an asshole and hasn’t told you it isn’t working and why (X amount of papers, projects, or whatever not done) and is instead freezing you out to make you leave, rather than dealing with the situation (I’ve seen this happen.)

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OP #3 April 17, 2013 at 10:59 pm

Thanks so much to all of you for your replies re: my situation! Part of my problem is that it’s not obvious to me at all why I’m getting The Chill. I agree that it might be a sign that he’s trying to get me to quit, but I have no idea why. I recently submitted a paper (as first-author) to one of the top journals in my field, a grant I wrote to fund my research was successful, I’m comparably productive with the other post-doc in the lab (at least, I think I am), and I have no intentions of leaving academia. I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out what could be the problem, and I’ve come up w. plenty of reasonable (and unreasonable) theories, but I don’t know which is right. And, yes, I know that a strong publication record will get me far, but having my adviser’s support sure wouldn’t hurt. But, honestly, it’s mostly a quality-of-life issue: it sucks to go into work every day feeling like my boss doesn’t like me and not knowing what I can do to fix it. That’s why I really want to ask him what I could be doing better, but I don’t know how to do it w.o. making the problems worse. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lab manager or someone like that in a more senior position I could ask. It sounds like the consensus here is that I just have to suck it up & keep on wondering?

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Anonymous April 18, 2013 at 2:04 am

It might just be that you no longer NEED to have a mentor. It’s not a “chill” it’s that you actually gotten it right, and you don’t need much guidance anymore. How does your PI treat other post-docs or new professors in your field that they know? Is it similar?

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Also in academia... April 19, 2013 at 12:45 am

I think the points being made about faculty/PIs not being managers is a really important one. Even though you are technically working for this person and reporting to them (a) his/her training and background is NOT as a manager and (b) what is going to be motivating to him/her is not your typical “key performance indicators” that you see in the business world.

The professor you are working for, especially if not tenured, is living in a world where his/her obligation is to generate publications, conference presentations, grants/research projects, etc. Typically having a postdoc is essentially a by-product of these goals. They have some sort of project or grant that they need help with and get funding for a post-doc to do the work that they need done. The benefit for the post-doc is advanced training in the research methods, area of speciality, additional publications, etc., but the faculty member isn’t doing this out of the kindness of his/her heart.

This isn’t to say that some faculty members aren’t GREAT mentor who are honestly in the game to develop the next generation of professionals. But even they also need the help to generate their professional objectives of publications, presentations, grants, etc.

So, it may really help you to think about how your work is going to maximally useful to your mentor. What new research have you read that he/she may be interested in, how might your research tie into what they are doing, etc.? The more reciprocity there is in the relationship then typically the more dynamic and supportive the relationship becomes.

Finally, there may be a certain amount of “hands off” at this level because they are trying to get developing professionals ready for the next stage of their career. The tenure-track faculty system is DEFINITELY NOT set up in such a way that faculty have “managers.” While new faculty may have a mentor, they are typically expected to have the skills to get a lab up and running independently. And while not all post-docs move into an academic career, many faculty working with post-docs have difficulty conceptualizing how to prepare early career professionals for any career besides academia simply because that is primarily what they know.

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TL April 17, 2013 at 11:01 am

Just wanted to point out that it’s fairly common for professors to feel that managing the people in their labs is not part of their jobs and therefore resent any time “wasted” managing people.

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Anonymous April 17, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Also the university isn’t hiring them for their management skills, they’re hiring them for other reasons, like research, or teaching, or just to have that big name in the field work there.

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Ramona April 17, 2013 at 11:57 am

#6. It wasn’t the Trump organization was it? Because the Donald will fire you for spelling a name wrong! Or by default, not hire you.

Spellos happen every day. Fix ‘em when you can, and move on.

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Anon April 17, 2013 at 11:59 am

Is it just me, or does the OP’s use of “Human Capital” sound like some sort of human trafficking department? I’m not sure why you’d want to work for a company that does that anyway, but whatever floats your boat I suppose. Maybe this is the OP’s vernacular for HR? In either case, please don’t buy and sell people. It’s not cool.

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Gale April 17, 2013 at 1:03 pm

It always sounds like that to me as well. I think it marks a subtle shift in the corporate mindset towards their employees; rather than a “resource” that the company needs, they are now capital, a commodity that the company controls, and can be disposed of when it’s profitable to do so.

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-X- April 17, 2013 at 1:54 pm

I don’t think that’s why the term became popular.

If anything, it’s the opposite of what you suggest – more related to increasing the capacity of staff. In business, resources are typically used up (except “renewable” resources). Capital is part of investing. We try to increase our organization’s financial capital, its intellectual capital, and its human capital.

Looking in Wikipedia I see some of that, with the term coming into use with an economist saying “There is such a thing as investment in human capital as well as investment in material capital.”

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Oh April 17, 2013 at 4:20 pm

You were making me a believer until you referenced Wikipedia. Sad day.

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Ask a Manager April 17, 2013 at 4:21 pm

But it doesn’t make the point less valid, and it’s actually the same point that I was coming here to make, minus Wikipedia.

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fposte April 17, 2013 at 8:10 pm

You should look at the famous Nature article that compared Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica and found them on a par for accuracy. The thing about Wikipedia is that people *know* to be critical readers; print encyclopedias have been full of misinformed crap for years and still go largely unquestioned.

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-X- April 18, 2013 at 7:18 pm

If you don’t trust info Wikipedia, you can follow the citations and see for yourself if they seem valid.

It’s right more than it’s wrong. Far more.

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Elizabeth West April 17, 2013 at 12:14 pm

#7
Human Capital? Is this new? I have not heard this.

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-X- April 17, 2013 at 12:25 pm

It’s been around at least 10 years and probably more.

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Jamie April 17, 2013 at 12:33 pm

No different to me than Human Resources. Capital, resources…potato/potahto.

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anon April 19, 2013 at 10:45 pm

HumanCapital is a concept that’s been around for at least 30 (and most likely many more) years.

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Anonymous April 17, 2013 at 1:54 pm

#3 – I had an academic internship and was reprimanded when I asked for feedback. I received a scathing e-mail about how that type of question is unacceptable in academia (I had 15 years corproate experience) and that the only reason I was hired was because everyone else was so busy. If they had to take the time to review my work and give me feedback then they may as well do the work themselves and that defeats the purpose of the internship.

I quit. Perhaps that’s what the professor is hoping OP#3 does.

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Marina April 17, 2013 at 2:07 pm

#5 – I was a Project Liaison at one internship. Vague enough that it could describe anything, but still sounded more official than Intern.

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Anonymous April 18, 2013 at 1:54 am

#3 – I had two bosses like that in grad school. I was also once that grad student who did nothing for a month, just to see if I could (no one noticed, or at least no one ever said or did anything about it).

You’re a post doc, so take some solace that this is a temporary job and you’ve learned that you don’t want to work under your boss at the end of it. Start looking for a new post-doc position immediately, or after you’ve been employed for ~10-12 months. If possible, try to have some compassion for his undoubtedly floundering grad students, and see if you can give them some direction and feedback when he won’t. They might make valuable future contacts.

To commiserate – one of my bosses in grad school absolutely hated to even be referred to as a boss. He refused to do any part of the job that required management, and generally sounds very much like your boss. I vividly remember the one time he fled in terror from me when I tried to get some serious feedback on an important presentation I had just given. Going back and forth with him on my thesis was a Shakespearean-level tragedy.

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