Sunday, April 22, 2007

Retirement, Me, and the Future

Today, for our last assignment, I will answer the questions as directed. Initially, though, I have to admit that thinking about the specifics of retirement has been especially difficult for me this week as I am currently in the midst of a grueling and very stressful job hunt. It's as though I'm trying to think about the cart and the horse at the same time, or to create some bizarre chimaeric hybrid of cart and horse that would make Dr. Frankenstein proud. That said, I appreciate the opportunity to think about the far tomorrow even as I focus on the very near tomorrow right now.

"This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time." -Fight Club

How old will you be when you retire?

Though it'll depend on how many children Sarah and I end up having, and how much I end up making in my various positions, I'd like to begin my retirement process at about age 55 or 60. I don't intend to become 100 percent retired until much later than that; I imagine I'll probably work part-time for many years doing reference work or other kinds of work as such positions become available. Sort of a phased retirement, but it may require me moving positions to achieve what I want. Depending on the level of leadership I've achieved, I might stay longer depending on how the organization is working at the time, whether I feel I'm still fully engaged, and other factors. But I'd like to PLAN so that I can start the process at 55 or 60. Fortunately, and not to mince words, I stand to inherit a fair bit from my parents who have accumulated very well and only have one "heir," which should help my retirement plans.

Where do you want to live?

Near or in a pretty fun urban area with lots of opportunities for retirement learning, volunteerism, and cultural engagement. Sarah and I are both urbanites or at least civilizationites at heart, and I know we couldn't "retire to the country" the way some folks do.

Do you plan to work? To volunteer?

I plan to do both or either as the opportunities permit. Ideally I might do some adjunct work at a LIS program or stay involved with the organization that I have recently departed in some fashion. I definitely know that I will want to travel a pretty great deal, which will mean that I won't be able to have too darn many specific commitments...though getting vacation time as a volunteer has always been pretty easy!

What do you see as your sources of income?

There is of course the IRA and the varied investment portfolio my wife and I will have saved throughout our working lives. I don't know about Social Security's long-term solvency, but to have a comfortable retirement most people can't rely on that particular source of income. My inheritance, which will probably be phased, will make up a pretty significant portion of my retirement income as it does for many people now that parents are living longer. I don't want to "bank on" my inheritance either, of course; I want to make sure that Sarah and I can be secure without any help from outside our own nuclear family.

What else will be important to you?

Grandchildren. Seeing new things. Remaining vibrant and connected to reality. Having the ability to relax, just as I always have coveted and have done. Friendships with people of many different ages. Never becoming obsolete or obstinate. Learning something new every day; something significant. Finding a fifth love, after my wife, my children, librarianship, and the games that will probably make up most of my life to that point.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Involuntary Separations: Firing People

While I have never been accused of being heartless by anyone, and I don't relish the opportunity to be called heartless because I've terminated someone's employment in the future, I have to learn to be more neutral in my appraisal of basically everyone and everything in order to become more capable of dealing with these situations as they arise.

In any case, all of my future interactions that end with the termination of an employee will hopefully involve the following features.

1. Transparency

As a person who has been dismissed without even a conversation (from a food service job, nothing major) and just "left off the schedule," I know how strange it felt to be simply gone from my work. Obviously, even in the event that a person is underperforming without improvement, that person is still a human being and deserves to be treated with as much respect as the situation will allow. One of the best forms of respect that can be given in an unpleasant professional situation is an attempt to explain the complete justification for the decision and to explain what will follow and ensue. Leaving people things to wonder about, especially when they are fired, might invite legal action and is certainly likely to generally invite potentially disruptive situations later. Explaining the documented reasons why a person has been let go, in as much detail as possible without moving into "litany-of-badness" territory, is common courtesy and makes good sense.

2. Bravery

Whatever the case, firing people is hard, especially when they might be "good folks" who just happen to not be able to do the work, if time has passed them by or they have been promoted to the wrong position, etc. While I can be somewhat sensitive to the feelings of others, I must be able to face personal criticism, anger, resistance, and many other things that most people tend to avoid in their daily lives. A willingness to face these situations head-on is simply part of being a strong person, a strong colleague, and a good boss. Firing should come out of an assessment of the data, which will underpin the situation and afford us great confidence. Being potentially hated, while not a fortunate circumstance, is nonetheless something that I must accept as the boss.

3. Collegiality

Firing people can create some severe morale problems. In some cases, the person who is let go might be just a horrible person who everybody doesn't like, who hurts morale, etc. That makes things easier. But in many cases, organizations become factionated and cliquish, and removing a member of one of the groups instead of another can create really significant problems. Firing also creates work gaps, a need to redistribute workload, and a general sense that everyone might theoretically be on the chopping block at some point. In an effort to avoid this, I think transparency beyond just the individual being fired is necessary. Discussing what has happened and what will be done in the absence of the fired employee with everyone (as long as this doesn't create confidentiality issues) is a useful way to support the remaining members of the organization and avoid creating odd forms of confusion that seem to always accompany firings.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Unit Two Reflection: Work Philosophy

If there is a common thread through all of the pieces of Unit Two from new hire to the assorted problems discussed this week, it is that people are complicated to an extent that is in many ways unproductive or at least problematic from an organizational perspective. Life impinges upon work more than work impinges upon life; from a personal perspective, this is absolutely right. My wife is more important to me than any job will ever be. Yet, I cannot say that to some employers without seeming like I need to reprioritize my life. To many of us revolutionaries and people who came through college doing work-study jobs like minding desks and the like, our potential employers' objection to this philosophy seems gloriously unfair in many ways.

As a manager, though, what choice do we have? Work is not inherently motivating unless it is ridiculously interesting, and even then the amount of work required or expected of a person in America nowadays is so high that a person cannot possibly get it all done through internal motivation. So organizations must exploit a number of tools in order to get the most they can out of their employees. A narrow view of this need for getting the most leads to an extremely large number of rules, regulations, locked down workstations, very small rewards policies, and attempts at morale boosting that cannot interfere with productivity and therefore are in many cases doomed to failure because they cannot take root. This same narrow view treats restrictions on the organization, whether they are sick days in the employee's contract or affirmative action policies, as nuisances that should be avoided. In many cases, this is the same way that employees treat work.

I suppose I am an idealist in many ways, but I prefer to think of getting the most out of employees as a broader process and a broader thing in general. Truly happy employees feel as though they are judged and assessed on the body of their work; and they feel that this assessment is positive. They work because they have a desire to give back to the organization, and because they believe the organization is to some extent doing things for them. In my own experience, the best thing an organization can do for its employees is leave them some rope. In certain situations, like assembly-line work and call-center work, leeway is difficult to give and must almost be creatively invented. In a library setting, trusting employees to work in their own way seems to work better; the retention rate is high, and it is not just because the job market is bad.

In either the narrow or the broad view, though, some things are simply necessary for organizational success. Clear lines of sight and oversight on disciplinary matters, and clearly delineated policies of actions that are out-of-bounds and in-bounds as far as behavior, are essential to an organization almost regardless of its philosophy and general direction towards its employees. Organizations also need well-formulated evaluation processes, and especially those which allow even managers to be evaluated by those who are around them and affect them the most.

I am glad, for whatever it is worth, that I am entering librarianship as a profession. The professional literature seems almost obsessed in many ways with creating good organizations rather than extracting as much worth as possible. Perhaps this comes from the fact that the effectiveness of libraries is non-quantifiable. Perhaps libraries are more loyal to their employees than is regarded as efficient in the corporate sector. I do know that the organizations that are happiest also seem to provide the best community feeling to their employees, and that this extends to patrons and outward into the broader community; if a good that libraries provide is community, perhaps we can start by thinking about morale.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

What About Bob?: Discipline

Bob is a known problem employee who has been with the company for many years. Presumably, the reasons for this specific disciplinary confrontation are because other employees have complained about Bob's effect on morale and on the project. While it's important not to 0ver-identify these employees, I believe it is also important to focus more on Bob's effects on the PROJECT than people's complaints during the conversation and all interactions. Making Bob wonder "who's been talking about me" is going to affect morale even more negatively and decrease the focus on his own behavior.

Another initial principle worth mentioning is that the focus should never stray to the fact that "you've had other problems in other departments in the past." Those departments are not my responsibility nor is it technically my place to know that Bob has had problems before. I can only focus on Bob's problems in my department that I have hopefully documented when people have complained about him.

So, as for part one. What will I say to Bob?

I will construct notes beforehand based on the complaints I have heard, that make the issues sound more like a series of things to work on than a "litany of bad stuff." The conversation will hit the following points, though I won't read them like this.

1. The reason I've called this meeting today is because the Widget project is experiencing some difficulty.

2. We (Bob and myself) want you to be a valuable contributing member of this project, and the reason you were assigned to this project was because of your experience.

3. Even despite that, though, the project has had some issues. Specifically:

4. Some of the deadlines you have missed with your work have set the project back. Have you explained the reason for these missed deadlines to your colleagues? (This is intended to emphasize the possibility that there is a good reason, though this is unlikely given what we already know; we nonetheless have to assume the best). Do you think that there is a way you can make sure to meet deadlines more in the future, or at least to give notice if you are falling behind so that we can provide you with support? Is there any way we can help you now so that we can keep on schedule better? This project is heavily reliant upon your work, and we know you're capable of doing it; but if you need some additional support please do ask for it.

5. Another thing we need to talk about is that the morale of the project is pretty low right now. How do you feel like it's going? What problems do you see? (I want to suggest, not browbeat here; talking to someone about the fact they complain too much is not likely to yield too much in the way of results). I think it's very important that everyone stays upbeat as much as possible; we all know that this project is important and that we have the ability to complete it, and we need to make sure that everyone is on board with the basic ideas of the project. Are you unhappy with how the project is going? (Listen here, and justify the project and explain that it's a priority).

6. The timeliness of the project is very important, and I'd love it if we didn't get behind any more. We're relying on everyone pretty heavily right now, and falling behind is not really an option. It could result in some disciplinary action, but I'm confident that you'll be able to stay on top of things from here.

Of course, a memo will be written. Additionally, closer tabs will be kept on the project as far as deadlines etc. to make sure that no one falls behind; indeed, I will have to keep closer tabs on everyone involved so that my closer observations of Bob are fair. This is only fair; it is at least possible that other aspects of the project are lagging behind as well, and may need to be nipped in the bud as well.