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February 14, 2013

The Helpfulness of Strangers

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I have recently been taking care of my wife after she had major surgery.  Her recovery has been slow, though steady, and the experience has caused me to reflect on helpfulness from strangers.  It is far too easy to forget the good that we can do when bombarded daily with images and stories about the bad, which annoyingly receives extensive coverage, regardless of where you look.

Helpfulness from strangers takes many forms and really happens often when you stop and think about it.  When I was a teenager, my father was driving my mother and I back home from a trip to San Francisco.  We were about half way across the Golden Gate bridge when a tire blew out in our car.  My father was able to keep control of the vehicle, but there was no place to pull over. Worse, as we slowed traffic started to go around us at unsafe speeds.  Just then, a highway patrol motorcycle officer noticed our plight and cut across several lanes of traffic to get to us.  He put his lights on and motioned for my father to continue to drive forward as best that he could, which was very slow because we were quickly down to driving on a rim in the blown out tire.  It was rush hour and even though the officer was behind us, cars were still flying past, and more than once they came incredibly close to hitting the officer.  It seemed like forever until we finally crossed the bridge and made it to the first exit.  We parked on the nearest wide shoulder and the officer radioed in for a tow truck.

Clearly, the officer was doing his job, but he did it with little regard for his own safety and he executed it quickly and instinctively.  My father was Deputy Director of the State Department of Corrections at that time and was so grateful that he wrote a letter to Head of the California Highway Patrol commending the officer on the actions he took to assist us that day.

Years later, another less dramatic example of helping happened when I was a soldier returning home from overseas on emergency leave.  My flight had been delayed by a layover in London, so when the plane landed at JFK airport in New York it was very late.  I was not able to get a connecting flight to the West Coast until the morning.  I also had no means to get a hotel at that time and so I was forced to wait at the airport.  It was cold and damp, and I was tired and sitting in a chair with my bags when security asked me to leave.  I had no place to go when an elderly lady next to me apparently figured that out and motioned for me to follow her.  From all appearances she lived on the streets, so I was understandably a little hesitant to follow, but out of desperation I did.  She led me to another distant terminal that had flights departing all night and did not close.  I smiled, thanked her, and found a chair to make myself comfortable in until morning.  Unlike the CHP officer, she did not have to help, but she did and it made a difference.

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Another time happened years later when my wife and our then very young children were driving home from a Thanksgiving trip we had just taken.  We were in the Sierra Nevada mountains and it had just gotten dark and it started to snow.  The snow quickly turned to near blizzard conditions and so I stopped to put chains on the tires.  I installed them quickly and we were back on our way.  A short while later, and many miles away from any town or service station, one of the chains slipped off with a loud clang.  I stopped and realized that a part was now missing rendering the chains useless.  We also discovered that there was no cell coverage in the area and the snow showed no signs of letting up.

As my wife and I discussed our options, an old van pulled up behind us with a Hispanic family inside.  A man around my age stepped out, who spoke better English than I did Spanish, and told me that he could help.  He immediately took his shoe laces off and used them to tie the chains back into place.  He then said that he would follow me and, before he walked away, I pulled out some money and offered it to him with my sincere thanks.  He smiled and politely refused my offer and went back to his vehicle.

The storm worsened, but the unconventional repair actually held long enough to get us to the safety of a warm lodge.  A short time later we pulled into the parking lot and waved at the van as they drove passed us and traveled on down the highway in spite of the storm.

I thought about these, and similar helpful acts, when I took my wife to her first post operative medical appointment.  She required the use of a wheel chair due to the amount of walking involved.  While wheeling her around, strangers held doors open for us and politely offered assistance.  We also received help, and multiple offers of same, from numerous colleagues and coworkers.  I found myself humbled and extremely appreciative of all the help being offered.  I also wondered if this is what Mother Teresa had in mind when she said; “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”?

Few would dispute that nearly everyone benefits from helpful acts, in whatever shape or frequency they take, throughout our lives.  We would do well to remember that because, among other reasons, none of us know when we might suddenly find ourselves in need of help from a stranger!

April 7, 2012

An afternoon at the Zoo

My parents took the family to many zoos when I was young, from San Diego to the one in Boise, Idaho.   After I was grown, I visited various zoos, including some in Europe and others in Asia, occasionally and usually only as part of the sightseeing that many of us do when visiting new places.  Since I became a parent, zoo visits have become more frequent as our children, like most kids, really enjoy them.  Recently, we visited Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo and found it to be a terrific place to spend an afternoon.

It is not a particularly large zoo, nor is it very showy, but it is well-organized, very kid friendly, and not overly expensive, when compared to other area attractions.  One thing that struck me about the place, and you will see it in these pictures, is that many of the animals have a lot of personality!

Also, you can get amazingly close to many of them, which really enhances the experience!

The petting zoo in particular includes many common animals, and some not as much so, that seem to thrive on the human attention or at least do a good job of pretending for their human visitors!

These African Penguins looked like they were at a pool party, with the one in the middle one appearing to strike poses for me.

You are actually able to walk into the Wallaby area and view them with no screen, gate, or fence in between, though there is a member of the staff who keeps a watchful eye nearby.

The Koi were very large but you cannot tell from this picture because there is nothing to compare it to.  I liked this one because the color was so bright!

The Giraffes were very sweet and really enjoyed looking at us!

The Siamang Gibbons were interesting to see, though they were not as close as the other animals.

The Manatees were difficult to see clearly, and more so to photograph well, due to the thick glass and multiple tiny pieces of lettuce (their lunch apparently) that were floating in the water at the time.  Still, they are fascinating to watch and were a special treat for us to see since we have yet to view any in the wild.

This Bald Eagle was unexpected and reminded me why this noble bird of prey was selected to be the national animal as well as appear on the Great Seal of the United States.

This zoo, probably not unlike one located near you, is a wonderful place to visit that is easily forgotten about when thinking of reasonably priced things to do.  To me Zoos, regardless of where you are in life, are terrific places to reconnect with the natural world and forget about your personal challenges, at least for a few hours!

June 30, 2011

Job Interviewing Tales

Unless you were born into lots of money, you have likely had to interview for a job at some time in your life.  Many of us can recall without too much effort how we felt about the experience with nervousness being a common theme along with nausea in some extreme cases.  Whatever your experience has been few of us would probably say that it was fun or enjoyable; even those who consider themselves good at it!

My father, having started his professional career in personnel, would help his friends and members of the family by setting up mock job interviews.  We would later hear afterwards how these really helped the person to overcome some of their anxiety about the process and do well on it.  Many people prepare in this way or study the organization and review questions that they believe may be asked with varying degrees of success.  Numerous articles and books have been written about it as most of us recognize the importance of doing well in what amounts to an oral examination to get offered a job.

Some people, however, do little preparation and essentially leave everything to chance.  These individuals either have lots of experience, great confidence, or both.  The outcomes in these situations depend very much upon having significant amounts of both present to be offered a job.

Interestingly, there are also those who probably do none of these things and actually, for whatever reason, show up for an interview and do crazy, or irrational, things.  The outcomes for this group are as varied as their approach and are the subject of this bit of writing.  The below tales are from personal experience, though the names and some of the details were changed to ensure they remain completely anonymous which is important for reasons that are probably apparent once you read them.

Inseparable?  – It was an overcast fall day when I received a call from Mrs. Jones.  She said that she was calling for her husband who was scheduled to be interviewed for a senior management position next week.  Spouses sometimes call in my experience, so I was not too concerned when she started asking questions about benefits.  When asked what she should wear to the interview is the precise instant I knew something was not right.  After recovering from my shock at her question, I explained that interviews were done with just the job candidate present and members of the interview team.  She would hear absolutely nothing of that and insisted that she be allowed to sit in on his interview.  I told her I would have to get back to her as to whether we could allow it, but that I was sure that she could not.

My second shock came when I consulted with the hiring manager, a very senior person in the organization, and he said he would allow it.  When I explained my many concerns about allowing a spouse sit in on any interview, he patiently listened and then said that the candidate could significantly help the organization (in English – he had an extensive industry specific Rolodex that the organization wanted) and for that reason he would allow it.  At this point you can probably guess the outcome and so yes he was eventually offered the job.  He helped the organization as predicted but he also caused, in my opinion, far more problems than he fixed!  His wife continued to be as involved as she could, much to the employee’s detriment, though I am sure he does not know that to this day!

Pass the mustard – It was late-morning when a professionally dressed candidate showed up a little early for his interview.  The position he was interviewing for was a mid-career professional job and over the last few days the organization had interviewed several good candidates for the position.  He was in his mid-30’s and well-mannered.

I invited him in to the room and we began the interview.  He detailed his background as it related to the job in effective manner as I listened intently thinking at this point that he may be a good fit for the organization. Everything was going well when he casually pulled out a sandwich from his briefcase, un-wrapped it, and took a bite before I could say anything!  While he was chewing I explained that we could have a better discussion if he would hold off eating until after the interview.  He offered no explanation and did not get the message and so we continued the interview and he continued to eat!

After we were done he went to the hiring manager and her staff to be interviewed by them.  Afterwards, I was told that they would like to bring him back for a final round of interviews until I explained the behavior he exhibited during interview.  Once they heard that, they decided that the lack of judgment could be a liability and so he was not brought back in for another interview and he did not get the job.  I must admit the sandwich looked good but probably not worth losing the opportunity that he did over it!

Party time! – I knew something was wrong with this one when I saw the candidate run for the restroom, covering her mouth the whole way.  She emerged a few minutes later looking slightly green.  I invited her in and when she shook my hand it felt clammy.  When I sat down I made a mental note to wash my hands after the interview as I thought she might be ill.  I asked her if she was feeling OK and added that if she was not we could always reschedule.  She said that she did not sleep well last night but that she would be fine for the interview.

Midway through the conversation, which was going well except that it was obvious that she was not feeling well, she asked if she could take a short break.  No sooner had I agreed when she got up and walked very quickly (almost ran) for the restroom.  When she was gone I was feeling bad for her as I thought she was ill and was thinking of another way to ask her if she would like to reschedule, when I caught a strong whiff of alcohol coming from the area where she was seated.  Shortly after she returned we completed the interview.  On her way out, I noticed that she tossed a bottle in the trash.

The bottle turned out to be exactly what you would think it was (Vodka actually).  In this case, the interview panel did not select the employee, without even hearing about the above details.

The Auctioneer – John (not his real name) was a well dress man in his late forties was interviewing for a job in sales.  He showed up on time and had a pleasant demeanor.  After I asked him a question, however, he responded with a detailed answer but the rate of his speech would have impressed the most seasoned of auctioneers.  After a couple of more such responses, I gently reminded him that we had plenty of time and to feel free to use it when answering the questions.  He did not get the message and, due to his rapid fire responses, the interview was finished in less than half the time they usually took!

He was otherwise a solid candidate and would have been a good fit for the organization.  Unfortunately, he continued with the same rapid fire responses with the other people who interviewed him and he did not initially get the job.  I say initially, because shortly after the position was filled it became vacant again.  After recruiting a second time, the pool of qualified candidates was such that the decision was made to bring him back for another interview.  He must have received some feedback in between because the second time around, I was told that he spoke at a more natural rate and was offered the job where he stayed for many years and did great work!

Less is more right? – Monique was a 30-something, stay-at-home mom who was seeking to reenter the workforce after a 10 year hiatus.  She had a bachelor’s degree in English and had 7 years of experience working in operations.  When she was brought in to the office she was very professional and had a terrific smile.  When asked questions, her responses, however, were brief and with precious little detail.  When asked if she had anything to add (to try and draw her out) she flashed her smile but declined saying that she felt comfortable with her response.

Regardless of the question asked her responses were always concise and devoid of much detail.  She did not display any nervousness and her answers actually addressed the question but did so in such a way as to leave the interviewer wondering.  An example of this is when she was asked to describe her experience in Managing people.  She replied that she managed 3 staff members in her last job, two manufacturing coordinators and one specialist.  She continued that she enjoyed the work and would not mind being a supervisor again.  On the surface it sounds like a reasonable response but she missed an opportunity to provide information about her challenges and accomplishments.

She did not get a job offer, however, I saw her 3 or 4 weeks later as she was entering the building.  She had signed up for a temporary employment agency and was hired to handle customer service for the organization.  Several months later she was hired into a regular position, though not in the field that she interviewed for.

The early bird catches the worm? – It was just after 9:00 am one morning and I had settled in to work on a project for a few minutes before attending an important meeting.  As soon as I started to work my phone rang and it was the receptionist informing me that Ms. Wong (not her real name) was here for her interview.  I checked my schedule and confirmed what I already knew, that Ms. Wong was not scheduled to be interviewed until 1:00 pm that afternoon!  Showing up a few minutes early was one thing, but showing up 4 hours early was something else.  I asked the receptionist to send her in and that I would talk with her and find out why she was so early.

Moments later Ms. Wong was in my office and we were shaking hands.  I asked her why she showed up so early when her interview was not until the afternoon.  I was honestly expecting her to say that she wrote down the wrong time, when what she said was simply that she always liked to be early for appointments.  I explained that being a few minutes early was always a good idea but that most organizations scheduled interviews as they had other responsibilities to take care of that often could not be changed with no notice.

I informed her that she could not be interviewed until her scheduled time and that she would have to come back then.  She told me that she had no place to go, so I explained that there was a coffee shop and a library nearby as well where she could go.  She left reluctantly and actually showed up a few minutes late that afternoon.  Her interview was unremarkable otherwise and she did not get the job, though not because of her early arrival, but rather due to the fact that there was another more qualified person who was offered the position.

Job interviews are stressful events that sometimes cause people to do crazy things.  If you are ever in a position to interview candidates for a job remember these tales and be prepared to encounter all manner of behavior.  Equally important to note is, if you have a job interview scheduled, relax, prepare as you see fit, and try to behave rationally!

April 16, 2011

Finding a job these days…

Countless articles, books, and blogs have been written about finding a job.  Most were typed with the best of intentions and all have their own perspective on how best to do it.  I know because I have read more than my share of them over the years and found much useful information in some, though others were definitely lacking.

The reason for the disparity is as varied as human nature.  Some are written clearly with the hope to make the writer famous, sell books, or build a consultancy.  A lot of them are based on the writer’s own experience gained in one particular industry, with only certain types of jobs, or in one region.  All of this is fine within a particular niche, but it may not work at all for different jobs, places, or circumstances.

These days many employers have down-sized significantly, competition is generally global, and uncertainty is rampant.  Traditional ways to find work probably will not help you to get a job.  This is made even more challenging by modern technology where the resulting hyper-connectivity to information and people is completely unprecedented in human history.  This fact alone has changed many things, including finding work.

I have been a job seeker several times in my life and most recently last year.  Having worked in Human Resources for the majority of my career, in jobs ranging from Personnel Specialist in the Army to Vice President of Human Resources for a global service sector corporation, I have a lot of experience in hiring people.  My master’s degree is in Human Resources and my PhD is in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, so you would think I would have all the answers when it comes to finding work.  Well, 15 very long months of seeking full-time employment taught me otherwise!

Why?  Two major reasons really.  The first is the economy.  Even now, when experts say it is improving, many employers are still understandably hesitant to add staff to their payroll.  In fact, a glance of the news shows that many state and local governments in the United States, for example, are still receiving less revenue and most if not all are working to cut their budgets.  This will translate into more employee lay-offs. In the private sector things are not much better as employers are still slow to hire new workers.  When employers do decide to hire they are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of applicants and that decreases the odds of getting hired for any job seeker.

Employers’ responses to being inundated with applicants causes the other major reason finding a job is so challenging these days.  In order to manage the process, all the applicants must be screened (filtered) to a number that the employer can reasonably assess and hire from. They do this many ways but the majority of processes amount to selecting only the most qualified candidates to seriously consider for a given job based on some criteria.  “Qualified candidates” in this instance often means only those with highly specific experience and training are given any consideration at all.  From the applicant perspective, it feels like you must have the perfect background to be hired for any job, when in reality for many positions you really do not.  The prospect of getting hired these days appears about as likely as buying the winning lottery ticket from the local convenience store.

Having said this, what advice would I give a job seeker now?  My best answer, admittedly based heavily on my own recent experience, is as follows:

  1. Do not give up, even though it may take a while.  Jobs exist and you will get one.
  2. Take care of yourself, eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep.
  3. Find time to relax.  If you appear to be stressed out, it will show!
  4. Decide what types of jobs you are “currently qualified” and “willing” to do.
  5. Research the employers that hire those types of jobs and learn everything you can about the industry, the work, and especially how they hire people (most public libraries have free Internet).
  6. Apply to jobs using methods that they favor based on your research, follow-up, and apply to others.
  7. However you decide to apply, make sure you present yourself honestly and in a fully professional manner (both on paper and in person).
  8. Network with professionals in the field and let them know you are looking.
  9. Be creative and dedicated in your search efforts.  Wishing or getting angry, or depressed, will not help get you a job.
  10. Believe in yourself!

Make no mistake not having a job is an extremely humbling experience for anyone!  You are not alone and you will find a job if you keep at it.  Good luck, though unlike buying lottery tickets, that probably has little to do with it these days!

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