Tag Archives: work

Sick days and substitute teachers 

Substitute teacher sitting in front of classroom with books on desks

My nerdy half-sister, Clara, often fills in as a substitute teacher. It’s one of the few occupations where you can end up with a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of your shirt. That doesn’t happen in most office jobs.

Substitute-teacher days were always weird.

You knew something was off as soon as you walked into class. You could feel it churning in your gut – along with the undercooked corndog you’d eaten for lunch.

Some random adult would be standing at the head of the classroom, looking lost and out of place, as if they had wandered onto campus for their 20-year reunion and taken a wrong turn into the science lab.

Some of the students would stare, their eyes wide and startled, as if a spaceship had landed in their yard. The smart alecks would sneak discrete glimpses at each other, already plotting mischievous deeds, while some goody-two-shoes girl would exclaim, “Oh, no! Is Mrs. Ryan sick?”

And of course, the substitute didn’t know, so he’d shrug and mumble, “I have no idea. They just called me here this morning.”

I always pictured substitutes as impoverished vagabonds whose entire livelihood depended on a full-time teacher calling in with a hangover. They’d be awake and dressed at 4 a.m., standing by the phone and waiting for the call – a call, perhaps, from the principal himself, that most venerated of educational leaders.

A call that — on most days, no matter how long they waited — just wouldn’t come.

In defeated anguish, with no moneymaking gig, they’d wander the isolated streets — alone — scrounging for loose change to buy a loaf of day-old bread. If there was enough left over, they might get a secondhand picture frame to display their second-rate teaching certificate.

But if they did get the call, they’d show up in their corduroy pants and stand slump-shouldered at the head of the class – a flaccid, uncertain sergeant commanding a troop of baggy-pants know-it-alls. They’d kick things off by taking attendance, fumbling over names and biting their lip as they withstood the snickers.

After that, we students expected a free period to kick back and relax. In our minds, you see, there was a tacit understanding between the school and its students that the substitutes would make no effort to actually teach.

Instead, they’d distribute word-search puzzles, or assign busywork, or maybe put on a movie. They were supposed to be glorified babysitters, not aspiring educators striving for full-time status.

If the substitute did open a textbook and start to lecture, we’d have to set him straight. A kid would pull the book from his hand and say, “Sorry, but no — this isn’t how it’s going to work. You see that VCR attached to the TV stand — the one that’s flashing 12:00? Well, you’re going to pop in a National Geographic special from 1979 and play it for us.”

“Oh.” The substitute would place a fingertip to his lips. “Will I be giving you a quiz at the end of the film to ensure you’ve internalized the information?”

The student would shake his head — slowly — his eyes wide and threatening. “No.”

On another note, it seems like teaching is the only profession that gets substitutes. How come it’s a perk that never caught on in other workplaces?

I mean, when I can’t make it to work, I’m not allowed a stand-in. I can’t call up some random guy to do my job for a day. If I don’t show up,  my co-workers have to pitch in.

And when my boss is out, there’s no auxiliary superior to distribute word searches to me and my co-workers. No one plays a National Geographic special for us in the breakroom. We’re still expected to do our jobs, even without the watchful eye of a surrogate overseer. It doesn’t seem fair.

But maybe it’s just as well. Knowing me, if I had a substitute supervisor, I’d be one of the smart alecks sneaking discrete glimpses at my co-workers, plotting mischievous deeds.

What can I say? Even though I’m no longer in school, some things never change.

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Seasoned employees don’t use exclamation points

Two men at work writing an e-mailWhen I compare my work e-mails today to the ones I wrote as a new hire, there’s a noticeable difference.

My e-mails today — though friendly — are often brief and to the point. The sentences are simple, and the punctuation is basic.

“Hi John. Please send me a copy of the check. Thank you.”

Of course, when writing to upper management, I’ll usually throw in a semicolon – just to show off that I know how to use one. (You never know when good grammar might score you points.)

“Hi Boss. The project is nearly finished; however, there’s been a delay in receiving a copy of the check. I reached out to John in Accounting, but because he’s not as committed to the company as I am, he’s been remiss in providing a timely response. Thank you.”

However, when I look at the e-mails I wrote as a new-hire, the obsequiousness is downright obnoxious. To compensate for my lack of confidence, I used a nauseating number of exclamation points and smiley-face emoticons.

“Hi John! You might not remember me, but I’m the new guy down the hall!!! I sit next to Emily! Isn’t she a hoot? 🙂 She’s been super, super helpful in getting me acclimated. Anyways, can you please send me a copy of the check? Only when you have a chance! I know you’re like, super busy and stuff, and I’m still learning, so just when you can! OK? Cool, and thank you!!!!!!! 🙂 🙂 :-)”

OK – that was a slight exaggeration. I wasn’t quite the shrill Valley Girl as portrayed above, but as a new employee, I did want to be perceived as friendly and eager to help.

I’m not sure where that enthusiasm went. I used to be the passionate newbie, but now I’m just the crotchety killjoy. These days, when a co-worker knocks on my cubicle for help, I just narrow my eyes and give them a Clint Eastwood snarl. That’s how bad it is.

It’s as if job longevity transforms us from fawning, ambitious sycophants to cantankerous, grumpy curmudgeons.

Over time, as we establish our roots in the position, the exclamation points and smiley faces start to dwindle, then disappear entirely. Blunt curtness replaces the once-cheerful tone of our interoffice correspondence.

Where once our writing exuded wholehearted passion, now it just drips with Dilbert-like cynicism.

I can always tell a new employee based on their e-mails: the deferential tenor; the overeager intensity. It reeks like the leftover salmon someone microwaved in the breakroom.

Come to think of it, microwaving fish in the breakroom might be the one instance these days where I’d use an exclamation point in a work-related e-mail.

“Note to employees: Someone this afternoon microwaved fish in the office breakroom, creating a rancid stench that’s offensive to our environment. And not to place blame, but I have a strong suspicion that it was John from Accounting! If you see him in the hall, please let him know how appalled you are by his thoughtless behavior! Not only is he a detriment to the team, but that incompetent jerk still hasn’t given me my check!!!!!”

Welcome to the Period of Post-Quality, where the details don’t matter

Two men sitting in conference room

Remember when attention to detail used to matter?

A lot has changed since the 2008 financial crisis.

Some of the aftershocks are more obvious. There are fewer jobs. Fewer opportunities.

Wealth and abundance flow into Wall Street, while capital and resources are siphoned from Main Street.

Yet some of the effects are more abstract — harder to define. People sense there’s something off, but they’re not sure how to put it in words.

It’s vague, and harder to pin down, but there’s a definite difference in the way we do business.

I thought about it for a while, and out of nowhere, it hit me:

There’s less of a commitment to quality these days, and more of a focus on volume.

You see it everywhere, from the way we communicate to the products we buy to the superficial summaries we hear on the news.

Instead of forging a few meaningful relationships, we’re firing off friend requests to everyone online.

Rather than reading an article in-depth, we’re glancing at our phone and skimming the headlines.

Instead of fine-tuning the tiniest of details, we’re glossing over the aggregated data.

Like I said, it’s abstract and murky, but it’s a general sense that we’re not doing things as well as we could.

And I’ll be the first to admit: Maybe it’s just my perception. Maybe I’m turning into a crusty, old curmudgeon who grouses about social media and laments the good-old days when every phone had a cord.

But I don’t think so. I’m an older Millennial — just on the verge of being in Generation X — and I remember when things were different.

It’s not a dramatic change — like Marty McFly traveling to an alternate 1985 — but it’s there. It’s noticeable.

Details used to matter. Meticulousness used to count.

Go-getters would seek methods to add value to their jobs, and their motivation would be recognized and rewarded.

I’ve had some unpleasant experiences in the past. I was a receptionist for a small office, so I endeavored to create value for my employer. I was tasked only with answering the phone, but I offered to write ad copy, shoot video, start a blog, design intricate flyers.

I wasn’t looking only to advance. I wanted to develop a reputation as a valuable go-to and a knowledgable resource. I wanted people to regard me as an indispensable member of the team.

Yet that didn’t happen. The effort went nowhere. The details didn’t matter.

Despite my asking, the position didn’t expand to encompass all my skills.

Now granted, that’s only one bad experience. And it encouraged me to seek employment with my current company, where grit and heavy-lifting are appreciated.

But there’s a general malaise these days — and not just among Millennials like me. People in generations before mine feel the same way.

How do I know? I talk to them.

I’ve always felt more comfortable with people older than myself — which is a huge benefit in the workplace. Experienced professionals have stood in your shoes, and they can advise you on how to avoid the mistakes that they had to learn on their own.

I’d rather someone instruct me on the wisdom of tying my shoes, rather than falling flat on my face and finding out for myself.

I’ve heard many Baby Boomers talk about how things aren’t as good as they used to be. People cared more, they say. A job well-done was a badge of honor.

People aren’t as invested now, they tell me. Employees show up, but they shovel work onto others, or they make pompous declarations without considering all the facts.

These aren’t burned-out cubicle-dwellers on the verge of retirement. These are people I admire and trust. They’re not begrudging change, or holding their era in higher esteem.

When they tell me that things used to be better, I believe them. And I agree.

We’re living in a high-gloss, low-wattage society. There’s no substance beneath the surface. The perception of competency is paramount, but actual experience is scarce.

We pad our LinkedIn profiles with buzz-terms and jargon, but there’s no actual wizard behind the curtain. We build dense, keyword-specific resumes, but there’s no character beneath the clutter.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether it’s technology making us complacent, or the aftershocks of an all-embracing recession, we can choose to be the indispensable go-to who’d do anything to help out a colleague.

We can decide to be the master of details who’s known for accuracy and efficiency.

We can elect to be the resourceful collaborator who’s always seeking new ways to add value.

This doesn’t have to be the Period of Post-Quality. But it’s up to us.

If we can shake off all the malaise and complacency and rediscover our entrepreneurial roots, we could be living in a golden age where character counts, hard work is appreciated, and demonstrated proficiency is valued higher than smooth-talking swagger.

Details should matter. Competency should count. Hard work and resourcefulness should be rewarded.

That’s the way things used to be. And I’m hopeful that one day — once again, with any luck — that will be the way things are.

This time, we’ll get it right

Bob Seger Roll Me Away quotePretty much every Bob Seger song is him reminiscing about his youth.

That’s not to knock Bob Seger. I’m a huge fan. But if you listen to his lyrics, you start to notice a pattern.

“Night Moves.” “Like a Rock.” “Main Street.” “Against the Wind.” Each song is about an older man looking back on his youthful self.

Seger’s all about nostalgia. That’s his thing.

And I suppose I’m a fan because nostalgia is my thing, too.

I think all of us reminisce about the past to some degree. We think back to bygone days – to roads not taken, missed opportunities, relationships never pursued.

It’s only natural to daydream about what could have been – to ponder what never was.

In a lifetime composed of divergent paths, we can’t help but muse about routes not traveled.

But at what point does nostalgia transform to living in the past? When does innocent remembrance turn into wistful reminiscence?

If I’m honest with myself, my glory days weren’t that glorious. That’s not to say they were unpleasant, but I don’t look back on them with sepia-colored lenses and bask in my youthful exuberance.

They were a time in my life that’s passed. They helped forge me into who I am, but I can’t go back to relive them.

Nor would I want to. I don’t want to be like Napoleon Dynamite’s uncle, buying a mail-order time machine to get back to 1982. (Quick aside: If you ever do buy a time machine, make sure it has at least a two-year warranty. And make sure you don’t travel more than two years into the future, because that will void the warranty. Trust me; I’ve thought this one through.)

Yet I have a definite penchant for the past. I love looking at photos and home movies. I often think back to 10 years before, wishing I could relive certain moments and do-over others.

But reminiscence can quickly take over your life. And every moment you spend reflecting on the past is a moment you’re missing in the present.

Now more than ever, I’m dedicated to embracing the present.

Instead of lamenting missed opportunities, I’m looking forward to new ones.

Rather than pondering what could have been, I’m dreaming more about what could be.

Instead of gazing backward, I’ll set my focus on the horizon.

It’s easier to grieve for the past than it is to live for the moment. Grieving for what never was gives you an excuse not to change what is.

Embracing the here and now means taking responsibility for your life – and that’s scary. There are so many options and innumerable ways to fail.

But the past isn’t coming back. And that’s OK. We don’t need to go back in time to turn it all around. Second chances aren’t exclusive to 1982.

We have this moment, today, to make our lives what we want. We can choose our own destinies. We can blaze our own trails.

Interestingly, my favorite Bob Seger song is “Roll Me Away.”

And unlike his other tunes, it has nothing to do with reminiscing about the past.

Instead, it’s all about embracing the now.

It’s about a guy who climbs on his motorcycle one day and takes off for adventures unknown.

He cherishes the moment. He savors life.

I can’t think of a better anthem to embody my newfound penchant for the present.

And like Seger says in the song: “This time, we’ll get it right.”

I still don’t have a clearly defined dream

Gravel pathwayEver since childhood, I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer.

I carried the idea with me through college. And although I was always writing short stories and even novels, I never gave much thought to how to develop my dream.

I think I just assumed that I’d become a novelist, or a newspaper columnist, or maybe an advertising copywriter. Some opportunity would magically manifest right when I needed it, and I’d end up with a high-paying and personally rewarding career.

Not surprisingly, that didn’t happen.

My lack of focus was frustrating in college. It seemed like everyone else was preparing for a dream career, while I was just writing funny stories and hoping for the best.

I always worked hard and performed well academically, but I never had a clear vision of the future – of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be.

I think I hoped that when I got older, all the cards would simply fall into place. One day, I’d wake up with a clear idea of what to do with my life.

Not surprisingly, that hasn’t happened, either.

I’m in my thirties, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. My vision of the future is as fuzzy now as it was when I was a kid.

My goals are unfocused. My ambitions are murky. Looking toward the future is like peering through the bottom of a Coke bottle.

I know a couple of things, though. I know that I like to write, and I know that I like to make people laugh.

And … well, that’s sort of it.

That’s not a clearly defined objective; that’s a muddy quagmire.

What do I do with that?

Going through life, we all watch people succeed. Some get promotions. Others get book deals. Some figure out exactly what they want to do, and then they go out and do it.

I’ve always admired those people. They have determination, drive – focus. They got it together. They know exactly what they want.

And I’ve always lamented that I’m not like them. I don’t have that pristine vision – that clarity of thought.

I have no idea what I want or how to achieve it.

At least that’s what I’ve always thought. But now I’m not so sure.

Maybe you don’t need a clearly defined goal to be happy, or to succeed. Maybe the desire to succeed is enough.

That and the determination to actually try.

If you want something in life, you have to start somewhere. You have to choose a road, even if you don’t know where it leads.

That’s the beauty of life. There are so many options. It’s not just a linear path. It’s a labyrinth of corridors that branch off in all sorts of directions.

And oftentimes, where you end up is better than what you ever could have imagined.

So yes, my objectives are still vague. I like to write, and I like to make people laugh.

And for now, maybe that’s enough. You have to start somewhere. You have to take the first step.

If I pursue that goal — as obscure and vague as it is — I don’t have to have a clearly formed vision of the outcome. I just have to have a desire to succeed.

So I’m going to keep writing. It’s a step. It’s a start.

And brick by brick, it’s going to help pave my path to a successful future.

That much, at least, is clear.

Being curt doesn’t make you businesslike

two businessmen in officeI’m noticing a trend lately where people respond to e-mails with an abrupt, terse tone.

No greeting. No “please” and “thank you.” Just a curt, one-sentence response, with a sprinkling of condescension.

I imagine they’re trying to sound confident and authoritative. After all, real professionals don’t waste time with pleasantries or kindness. Real professionals are tough and domineering, and they command respect with their aloof detachment and emotionless demeanor.

But if goal is to sound cool and confident, I’d like to remind these people that they’re failing spectacularly.

Instead, they’re just proving themselves to be clueless jerks with no skills to back up the swagger.

In fact, there’s a direct correlation between a person’s curtness and their incompetence.

The more curt the e-mail, the more incompetent the worker. It’s a rule.

I’d also like to remind these people that real competence stems from patience and understanding and putting yourself in another person’s shoes.

True professionalism comes from listening to the needs of others and responding to the best of your ability.

Genuine respect is earned by appreciating others and recognizing their contributions.

Humor and warmth go a long way in cultivating relationships and building trust. A person who can laugh projects much more poise and confidence than a sleaze-ball who tries to control others through fear and intimidation.

Most people want to be perceived as competent and able. It’s understandable. And our professional correspondence speaks volumes about our personality and the image we’re trying to project — even more so than the way we dress.

But please don’t mistake aloofness for ability. Don’t confuse curtness for competence.

No matter how stiff your upper lip, being a prick will never make you a professional.

So let’s cut it out with the abrupt, terse e-mails, OK? Si “hi” in your greeting. Tell someone you “hope they’re doing well.” Respond with a “thank-you” when they fulfill your request.

After all, isn’t common human decency worth a slightly cluttered inbox? If someone doesn’t appreciate a “thank-you” e-mail, then they always can delete it.

I’ll never subscribe to the notion that civility and decorum have to be sacrificed for the sake of doing business.

Skill and proficiency may define a professional, but it’s kindness and compassion that constitute the soul.

Those days when you just can’t deal

two men sitting in an office conference roomSo I woke up the other morning to my alarm clock. Its relentless, piercing squawking pulled me out of a deep, restful sleep.

Groaning, I reached out and fumbled around my nightstand, grasping for the snooze button.

Instead of hitting it, I ended up knocking my wristwatch to the floor.

“Uh,” I groaned. “I’m too tired to pick it up. I can’t deal.”

So I yanked the alarm clock’s plug from the wall and left the watch lying on the floor.

Only the clock kept squawking, because I’d put backup batteries in it in case the power went out.

So I reached out and swiped the alarm clock off the nightstand. It hit the floor, the back hatch falling open and the batteries tumbling out.

The clock lay there next to the watch, its relentless squawking silenced.

Hours later, my phone rang. I reached out to pick up the receiver. “Hello?”

It was my boss. “Are you coming in to work today?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I can’t deal.”

“What do you mean you can’t deal?” he asked.

“Just what I said. It’s one of those days where I can’t deal. I don’t even have the energy to pick up my wristwatch.”

“Where’s your wristwatch?”

“It’s on the floor next to my alarm clock.”

“Why is your alarm clock on the floor?”

“Because it wouldn’t stop squawking.”

“Are you sick?” my boss asked. “Do you have a cold, or something?”

“No. I’m healthy. I just can’t deal.”

“What exactly can’t you deal with?”

“Today. I just can’t deal.”

“But that’s no excuse. You can’t stay home because you can’t deal. You have to deal.”

“I don’t want to deal.”

“But that’s not part of the deal. The deal is that to keep your job, you have to show up.”

“I’ll show up tomorrow,” I said.

“No — you’ll show up today. If you’re not sick, then you need to come in.”

“But I’m sleeping in,” I said.

“Colane, do you have any idea what time it is?”

“I don’t,” I said. “My wristwatch is on the floor.”

“Then look at your clock.”

“My clock is on the floor, too.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” my boss said. “Get dressed and get down to the office immediately! Either you show up in an hour or you’re fired. Deal?”

I sighed. “This sucks. I don’t want to get up.”

“That’s life,” my boss said. “Deal with it.”

Every online Office Assistant job posting

An honest interviewer

Well, at least I know what I’m getting into….

Our company has an exciting opportunity for an enthusiastic and dynamic Office Assistant. The Office Assistant will be responsible for supporting 47 senior-level executives, as well as completing degrading, rudimentary tasks — such as making coffee and sorting the mail.

Qualifications:

• Four-year degree required, preferably with an emphasis on structural engineering or quantum physics. Candidates with a Master’s degree preferred.

• Must have your own vehicle for picking up Starbucks, giving rides to senior-level personnel and shuttling intoxicated executives to highbrow societal functions. Candidates with a Class-A commercial driver’s license preferred.

• Excellent written and verbal communication skills. Must be an expert writer and grammarian, with proficiency in Associated Press Style and the Chicago Manual of Style.

• Must have proficiency in technology, including hardware, software and network infrastructure. Must have expert knowledge of printers and printer drivers. Candidates with working knowledge of HTML, Pearl, Javascript, and CSS preferred.

• Must be an expert in graphic design, with working knowledge of Quark, Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe InDesign. Must be an expert photographer with access to your own professional-level equipment.

• Must have advanced video-editing skills, with the ability to produce custom corporate videos in a variety of digital formats. Working knowledge of Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere required.

• Must be proficient in web design and marketing, with the ability to craft unique weekly content for our company blog and social-media accounts. The candidate also will write and edit our 5,000-word daily newsletter, as well as execute weekly e-mail campaigns.

• Must have the ability to type 90 words per minute on a Royal typewriter.

• Must have working knowledge of General Accounting Principles, with the ability to oversee annual budgets, complete weekly payroll and respond timely to unexpected IRS inquiries.

• Must have expert carpentry skills, with the ability to complete office remodels as required. Knowledge of HVAC, plumbing and electrical wiring required. Candidates with a general contracting license strongly preferred. 

• In addition to meeting day-to-day expectations, the successful candidate must complete 500 hours of career-focused training within the first 90 days of employment.

Applying:

To be considered for this amazing opportunity, please send your resume and a link to your LinkedIn profile. Also, please submit a 5-minute video in .m4v formant detailing your skills and accomplishments. Candidates also must take an online personality assessment, as well as commit to 60 hours monthly of community service.

Salary:

Compensation starts at $10 hourly.

Financial experts: No matter what the market, you should always buy stocks

roulette wheel

According to financial experts, U.S. stocks have nowhere to go but up. (Of course, that’s what they were saying about home prices in 2007, but best not to dwell on that.)

I walked into a local money manager’s office the other day to open an account.

“Do you have an appointment, sir?” the receptionist asked, as I walked past her desk.

I walked into the money manager’s office and sat down at his desk. “Here’s the thing,” I said. “I know you’re a money manager, so you’re probably used to working with clients who, you know, actually have money. And I don’t really have anything to my name except for a worn-out rubber vomit and a pack of gum that shocks you when you try to touch it. But I want to retire someday from this grueling, thankless career of writing comedy, so I need to start investing for the future. Does that make sense?”

The money manager clasped his hands and leaned back in his seat. “You should buy stocks,” he said.

“I’ve never been very good at earning money,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong: I’m a hard worker. I’ve spent my entire life busting butt, trying to get ahead. The problem, I’ve found out, is that hard work has nothing to do with making money. Employers used to covet a strong work ethic and a willingness to learn, but now all they seem to want are self-promoting braggarts who mask their incompetence with smooth-sounding babble. And because I was taught to be humble, I tend to labor diligently in the background while the smooth-talking braggarts take all the credit. And then they get all the promotions while I stay at the bottom, working myself to an early grave.”

“You should buy stocks,” the money manager said.

“And I don’t want to end up in an early grave,” I said. “I mean, sure — dying young has its benefits. I wouldn’t have to save so much for the future, because there wouldn’t be much of a future to save toward. And I wouldn’t have move to Florida and start eating dinner at 3 p.m., because who wants to eat dinner that early, anyway? I certainly don’t. I’d end up rummaging through the fridge at 7 p.m. and making a tuna fish sandwich with sardines and mayonnaise. And then I’d wake up at one in the morning with raging heartburn that feels like someone is running a blowtorch up and down your chest. I don’t want that to be my future.”

“You should buy stocks,” the money manager said.

“But if I do grow old, I need a retirement fund so I can actually buy food,” I said. “I don’t want to be a destitute geriatric with no teeth who gnaws on Alpo while watching Murder, She Wrote reruns. If it gets to that point, a tuna fish sandwich with sardines might be the financial equivalent of eating caviar. Not that I’ve ever eaten caviar. Why would anyone pay so much to eat something so disgusting? I feel the same way about frog legs. Although some people say frog legs taste like chicken. I guess it depends on what kind of chicken. If it tasted like KFC, then I might try it. I like chicken when it’s deep fried, but not so much when it’s baked. Baked chicken might be healthy, but it tends to be chewy and dry, and then it’s about as appetizing as my worn-out rubber vomit.”

I paused for a breath. “As you can tell, I’m not exactly a health nut, which is a personal defect I should address if I’m going to start planning for the future.”

“You should buy stocks,” the money manager said. Keep reading…