The New York Times writer and columnist, Katy Lederer responds to her readers’ questions in a Q and A.
Go High, Not Low, on PTO

Q: I work at a small company that is quite strict about paid time off. Employees are often questioned about how they use their PTO, have permission withheld for weeks and are made to feel like they are personally scamming or hurting the company when they take time off. One employee, however, is a good friend of the chief executive and seems to get endless leeway. He missed several more days of work than allotted and has been able to make this time up by working on the weekend — something the rest of us aren’t allowed to do. Some employees have actually been denied PTO because this individual was one of the few people in the office that day and is “not reliable”. How do we bring up this blatant preferential treatment without sounding like finger-pointing rattle tales? — Illinois

A: I like this expression “rattle tales”. I believe that it’s a typo, and that you meant “tattle tales,” but “rattle tales” has a nice ring to it. Like the terrifying sound of a rattlesnake that’s telling a story with its tail! But you shouldn’t tell this story, with your tail or any other part of you. Because, look, if there is one thing I learned in my time in corporate America, it is that everyone already knows everything. That co-worker who acts as if she doesn’t know you’re stealing all the little bags of chips with only, like, three chips inside, so of course you have to steal a whole bunch of them to experience fullness: She knows. That other co-worker who acts as if he doesn’t notice your sniffling or coughing or whatever other sounds you make. He knows! Everyone knows your CEO’s pal is “not reliable”, and this almost certainly includes your boss, who has decided it’s okay. You don’t need to shake that tail of yours to spread the news. But you might want to think about finding a new boss. As in, get a new job, one where blatant preferential treatment combined with endemic PTO stinginess isn’t ruining morale. Maybe as a snake charmer.

No-Degree Techie

Q: I am a 40-year-old freelance software engineer. I have worked as a web developer for the past 20 years. I basically started at a low-paying, entry-level position during the dot-com boom and learned most of what I know on the job. I managed to move to a few better opportunities over the years, to the point where I’ve been able to freelance for the past nine years. I have learned many skills, and I can just about always get the job done.
However, I never went to college or took any computer science classes, so I sometimes feel inadequate with basic design principles. I also worry that I’ve spent too much time focusing on a few languages and technologies that may eventually become outdated. Where is a good place for me to start to improve my knowledge without going back to school full time? — E.B., Stratford, Conn.

A: This is an easy one, because tech recruiting was my specialty! Three simple steps:

  • Survey all the degree programmes available in your area – residential, low residency and online. Look at their computer science and related degree requirements, course offerings and standards for admission.
  • Check out all the community colleges and continuing education programmes in your area. Find one-off courses for credit that would benefit your CV. Maybe one in a new programming language, or another in basic design.
  • Start small with these classes, maybe one class per session. The key is to be 100% sure that, should you decide to level up to a degree programme, you can transfer these classes for credit. Get perfect grades. Don’t take the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) – unless they offer transferable credit. Words of wisdom from a former tech recruiter: Your anxieties are not unfounded. What seems steady and stable in the short term can erode surprisingly quickly. Clients come and go. Ageism (among other -isms) is rampant. Planned obsolescence is the norm, even for people. Let’s just think about that.

Career Blank Candor

Q: A while back, I had my job terminated by a company I had been recruited to work for. There were a number of factors, most of which were beyond my control. Fast forward to the present: I’m in an interview and get asked why I left my last position. How do I answer? It’s never good form to speak badly of a past employer, but the truth is that the organisation had a very nebulous view of what it wanted me to achieve and provided precious little support to help me in achieving it. Still, if I’m the interviewer hearing a response like that, it would likely send up a red flag. In a situation like this, how does one respond truthfully but tactfully? – Westchester County, N.Y.

A: If I ever had to write a book of workplace advice, it would be titled “How Interviewing Is Like Dating.” Because, well, interviewing is a lot like dating. You don’t want to be too honest about why your previous relationship broke up, but, hey, relationships break up, and that’s okay. The key is to frame it, like everything else in this coercively constructive self-help world, as “a learning experience.” What did you learn from this career setback? That clear job descriptions are much better for all involved, having utility in your work is essential, and communication is key. Everyone at your previous company was lovely, but they just didn’t know what they wanted and neither did you, and so you decided to part ways. There is nothing wrong with saying this out loud. It’s always okay to thoughtfully acknowledge your own mistakes as long as you do so constructively. And remember: “It’s not you. It’s not me either. It’s us.”

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