Author Archives: Nicole Davidson

Internal Motivation Is Key to Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle (And You Can’t Buy That)

Nicole Davidson

Nicole Davidson

This blog post was written in response to the June 2013 Coffee Shop HR World Café topic: “How can we maintain healthier lifestyles at work?”

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle for me has always been one of those ideals that I just can’t live up to. Even when I get the strong desire to exercise or eat healthy, it tends to pass fairly quickly; I can’t seem to translate that desire to execution. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit lately, since I’m planning for my wedding in November. All of the sudden trying to achieve toned arms or eliminating the dreaded “back fat” have become bigger priorities- not that I have managed to do anything about either.

It’s even more pressing because of my new job. In my past work I spent far more time up and walking around, and work often left me physically as well as mentally exhausted. That is not the case with my current office job. Aside from walking to grab coffee from the other side of the building, I’ve become largely inactive. Worse, the mental (and occasionally emotional) exhaustion I feel when I get home feels like an impossible hurdle when considering going out to exercise. Even going grocery shopping feels like excessive physical exertion. Exercising before work is a non-starter; I have a hard enough time getting up each morning at 6am, and I’m certainly not willing to get up even earlier to torture myself with exercise.

Instead of focusing on exercise, I’m trying to focus on my diet. I bring fruit for snacks and pack my own lunch at least 4 days per week. I take my coffee black, though I feel as bitter about that as my coffee tastes. I tried using an app to track my calorie intake, but I found it firstly too time consuming and secondly deeply depressing. I dislike how calorie counting seems to lend itself naturally to a caloric obsession- it perpetuates a certain circular thinking that I very much dislike.

Basically I am at a loss. As I work for a relatively small company, the wellness program consists of a financial incentive for smokers to quit and a bike storage room- and there is no real interest from either staff or management to implement much more than that. To be honest, I’m not a big believer in formal wellness programs. There is a significant element to wellness that is internally motivated (see above) and I’m not sure that employers can do much to influence that. Further, certain wellness incentives can go significantly awry.

A friend of mine recently told me about a wellness initiative put on by her company. It was set up as a weight loss contest with weekly prizes as well as a grand prize at the end of a 6 month period. Unfortunately it significantly devolved to a group of participants whispering about each other’s lunch choices and openly criticizing each other’s exercise habits. One participant thought it would be fun to present the person who lost the least amount of weight each week with a blue ribbon that said “prized hog”. The contest was abruptly ended shortly after.

I think that the best an employer can do is put support systems in place for employees who do get the self-motivation to maintain a better lifestyle. Offering healthy options in vending machines, organizing voluntary healthy activities (such as a Sun Run team or monthly lunch time baseball games), and providing support for those who do exercise, like showers and bike rooms, are the best ways for employers to support healthy lifestyles. That way, when someone like me gets a hint of that elusive motivation, it’s not quite as difficult to implement.

Effective Planning for Social Events: Make Your Effort Count!

Nicole Davidson

Nicole Davidson

I’ve always had a bit of a flair for event management. Going back to my high school days, some of my favourite memories are of the time I spent as the Social Affairs Minister of our (appropriately Canadian) Student Cabinet. My role centered on planning and executing our three school dances per year, as well as organizing other various “spirit” activities. Event management happens to be one of the few areas where I feel I can be successfully creative while at the same time feeding my need to give things structure.  In my new role, one of my initial tasks has been to resurrect a long-dead social committee. Sitting in our first meeting the other day, I was struck by how many things can derail a social committee that starts out with the best of intentions.

One of the hardest things to deal with can be differing levels of commitment from committee members. It can be hard to find people who really are passionate about planning and organizing events. Often people who are outgoing are automatically considered as being people who would be good at coordinating events, but this is not often the case. Being a good event planner also involves being someone who has a good head for organization, pays close attention to detail, and is willing to deal with the many little frustrations which come up when attempting to please a large amount of people. In other words, the people who are the most fun at the party are not always the best people to plan a party.

An effective strategy I have found for dealing with this is to not expect every person to participate in every event. The leader of the committee should be listening to hear which events a member gets most excited about, and then facilitating to have that person take a lead on events that interest them. It’s also important to make sure that the same person is not the lead on subsequent events; leading two or more events in a row is a quick way to get to event-planning burnout.

Another common problem is the tendency to over-complicate things. Everyone wants to throw an awesome event, and often it seems that adding multiple small elements can create that “awesome”. In my experience however, keeping things simple (especially in execution) is essential to planning a successful event. Unless you are throwing something very large-scale, many of the tiny elements you’re working so hard for are destined to be lost in the shuffle. I remember for one Saint Patrick’s Day dance spending hours twisting more than a hundred sparkly green pipe cleaners into the shape of clovers to hang from fishing line in the dance entrance. This is a prime example of too much effort for too little effect.

The best way to avoid the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach is to set limits in the planning stage about what is and isn’t possible. Ask other members questions about how much time an idea might take to execute, and how many people might enjoy the idea (and for how long). Encourage members of the committee to think pragmatically about ideas from a cost-benefit perspective. If all else fails, defer to a strict budget to keep ideas in line.

A final, important complication is building buy-in from other employees. This is often one of the most neglected areas. A funny email or poster to remind people of an event can go a long way to encouraging them to participate. As well, every event will need at least one “champion” to talk up the event at least one week prior.  There is nothing worse than painstakingly planning an event that doesn’t turn out well because of a lack of interest. The reason for these events is to build employee engagement- if the event doesn’t resonate with your employees, the effort is being wasted. Plan your events well and make sure that your time and effort accomplishes what it sets out to do.

The Magic Bullet

Nicole Davidson

Nicole Davidson

This blog post was written in response to the May 2013 Coffee Shop HR World Café topic: “What will it take to retain the best talent over the next 5 years?”

The problem of retention is not one that I have had much experience with; coming from a unionized hospitality background, we very rarely lost our long-term employees. In the hospitality industry the grass is rarely greener on the other side, as switching companies often means a switch back to night shifts (or short shifts) and a loss of valuable seniority. Retention is one of the areas where an organization can actually benefit from being a unionized environment, as loathe as an organization may be to admit it- but the complicated relationship between unions and employers is certainly a subject for another day.

My new role has certainly found me in an environment where managing retention is more crucial. The most obvious piece (and easiest piece to administer) is the performance of regular salary reviews. The money piece however, while the most obvious (and potentially the most boring to write about), is widely considered to be a little overrated. Employees are seeking more than just a good salary.

Generational shifts are part of the reason why money is not the sole focus any longer. The emergence of a new generation in the workforce is a source of concern for many, at least as far as the articles I’ve read are concerned; the supposed entitlement of my generation (most commonly referred to as Generation Y) is considered to be a major issue that organizations will have to overcome in the future. My generation is known for keeping our job tenure short (2 years, on average, according to this article) and expecting more in terms of feedback and promotional opportunities. Brought up to believe that we can have whatever we want as long as we try, entering a workplace that follows a rigid structure is a rude awakening.

I don’t know if I buy into the whole “entitlement problem” that is said to run so rampant in my generation. Part of my previous job involved supervising a workforce that was primarily the same generation as I was, and I found the majority of my employees to be hard-working and reasonable people. I will say though that when we did run into an employee with an entitlement complex, we really noticed; part of that behavior seems to be a need for attention that translates into a feeling of near-constant interaction with a demanding person, and that wears on management.

If I had to say what I would feel would be the key facets to a retention plan for my generation, I give these three major areas: opportunities for training and development, fair and transparent performance management, and low power distance between us and our bosses. The reasons for these are fairly simple. We want to know where we can potentially go and how we’re doing getting there; we want to be able to bring our concerns, ideas, and questions to our bosses and feel like we’re being heard. I don’t think that these wants are very different from what any other generation has wanted. As people we all want to feel valued, and that’s what we’re really seeking.

If an organization takes retention seriously, then they must see the value in their employees, since they’re trying to keep them. Communicating that value that they’re seeing is crucial to encouraging good employees to stay. Communicating must be done through the managers who deal with the day-to-day training, performance, and interactions in their departments. I guess communication is always that magic bullet.

Related Pages:

It Takes More Than Money to Retain You Best Talent by Jessica Lau

How to Keep the BEST Ones! by Carolyn Courage, CHRP

To Retain the Best Talent: Find the Right People, Gauge Engagement, and Consider Velvet Handcuffs by Geraldine Sangalang, CHRP

Agony and Elation: Additional Thoughts for Job Seekers

Nicole Davidson

Nicole Davidson

In my last post, I gave advice to new grads as a fellow job-seeker who had just left the job market. As my new position has a significant recruitment portion, I have spent much of the last two weeks sorting through resumes, many of which are for an entry-level position. My advice from my last post is still ringing in my head, so I wanted to add a little bit more to it, especially after looking through all the resumes which are being sent to me.

Have someone else proofread for you. I really had no idea that people still needed this advice, but given the 100+ resumes I scanned this week, it is evident that there is much work to be done. I understand how there is something painful about exposing yourself this way; resumes, despite their purpose, still feel deeply personal, and giving a resume over to a friend or relative to edit can ignite feelings of fear or vulnerability.  I certainly felt the same way giving mine over to be read- but I did it, and I benefitted from it. Spell-check can’t help you if you don’t know how to use a hyphen, comma, or semi-colon.

Pay attention to your formatting, and be aware of what other formats (plain text, for example) will do to your resume. I received several resumes where there was a definite lack of consistent spacing and consistent format. The writers came across to me as careless and not detail-orientated. I know with my resume, I noticed that some formatting I had done (changes to margins, certain fonts) would translate to an uneven, weird-looking resume. In one case, I noticed my name (in large, bold font) came out looking like comic book writing- not what I was going for. It’s important to be aware, and always check what you resume looks like if you importing it into resume software.

Don’t get too personal. I was shocked by the amount of cover letters I received which divulged significant personal details (the recent loss of a loved one, a bad breakup). I don’t know if perhaps there are other recruiters who might be unfazed by this, but I would definitely recommend erring on the side of caution when including personal details. A cover letter should convey enthusiasm and personality without making the recruiter feel like they are listening in on a private phone call.

On that note, now I’ll get personal (but this is different, you get that, right?).  I wanted to include a few more inspirational thoughts for my last post, which upon re-reading I was concerned came off a more negatively than I had hoped.

I was in a particularly desperate place towards what turned out to be the end of my job search. I believe that there is a certain part of your identity that comes from the work you do, and lacking that piece of identity, especially in the long term, can start to damage your own self-image. I was in a recruiter’s office, waiting to be interviewed, when I saw a quote on the wall which said “the silence is still a part of the music”. I found it to be a comforting thought when considering my own job search, and the larger issue of my own self-image, and I wanted to share it. It can be hard in that moment of silence to appreciate it for what it is, but when the music starts up again you understand its significance.

A mentor of mine tried to convey this idea to me as well when I went to him around the same time to talk about how miserable I was feeling. He seemed surprised that I could have imagined the job search any other way. “Of course you’re unhappy, and of course it’s hard and it’s taking forever,” he said, “how else will you know to appreciate it once it’s over?”.

Related Pages

Agony and Elation: Searching for Work in a Turbulent Job Market, by Nicole Davidson

Keeping a Resume Current: Don’t Just Wait Until You’re Job Searching by Michelle Yao

Branding is About More Than Having a LinkedIn Profile by Geraldine Sangalang, CHRP

Agony and Elation: Searching for Work in a Turbulent Job Market

Nicole Davidson

Nicole Davidson

When Geraldine announced this topic to the writers a few weeks ago, I was concerned. I had been in the job market since late October and it wasn’t going well. Specifically I was concerned that I would unable to keep a fault-line of bitterness and anxiety from permeating my entire piece; particularly difficult, given the way those feelings were permeating my entire life. Who was I, this unsuccessful job-seeker, to put together pieces of advice for this next crop of competition in the market? I struggled to come up with an article title that wasn’t “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”.

Yet, as I am writing this, I have (finally, incredibly) received a job offer. I have suddenly become worried about forgetting how difficult it was to get here, and how much I went through, since receiving what now feels like a long-awaited gift. I do not want to be blinded by my own elation; certainly it has not yet sunk in.

With that said, I do have some current, relevant advice for all the job seekers now entering this turbulent market.

Prepare yourself. In my second year at BCIT, I entered into a class where our teacher spent the entire first class giving us information on the job market we were about to enter. It was significantly doom-and-gloomy, and I remember thinking that surely this teacher was exaggerating to try to encourage us to get started on our job-searching and networking early. I specifically remember zoning out to stare out the window, feeling unassailably confident. I had excellent grades and I had relevant experience (though not specifically under an HR title, an issue that would plague my job search considerably). That memory has been a torturous one over the last six months.

The job market you are about to enter is extremely competitive. Particularly in entry-level HR, several jobs that I interviewed for informed me that they had received over a hundred submitted resumes that they whittled down to 5 for interviews. A recruiting agency I worked with told me that HR and marketing are currently the most difficult fields for grads to break into. The competition is huge, the jobs are few, and employers value experience far more highly than education. This was very consistent with my experience.

When I say that my advice is to prepare yourself, I don’t mean in the sense of resume-editing or networking (though those are important in their own right). I mean mentally. The most difficult part of this process has been dealing with the steady stream of implicit and explicit rejection. I wrote down every job I applied for- the company, the closing date, and the position- and watched the days tick by with often no contact at all. I never counted how many I had done, but I’ve counted for you: I applied to 86 jobs. That was in five months- during the month of December, I stopped applying because I couldn’t find any new postings. Out of 86 applications, I received 7 email rejections, 3 phone-screen interviews, and 5 in-person interviews. I made it to the second round of interviews twice. Basically, around 80% of the jobs I applied to I never heard back from in any way. Of the mix of interviews I did, about half got back to me about whether or not I had moved on at all; with one job,  I went through separate two hour-long interviews and an hour-long test, and in the end they emailed me a three-sentence letter that began “Dear Applicant” to tell me of my rejection.

Basically, you need to be ready for this to potentially happen to you. Build up your support systems, whether it is a group of friends you can commiserate with, or a partner or close family member that you can tell your frustrations to. Don’t internalize it; this is a reflection of the market, not of your worth.

Get professional help with your resume. I had always believed that as a strong writer I would easily be able to write a good resume. This turned out to be incorrect. As it happens, a good resume is specific only to the person reading it. With that said, I highly recommend getting in touch with a recruitment or temp firm and asking them to help you with your resume. If you know someone who is a recruiter or hiring manager, you’re set.

After I re-did my resume, the responses I got tripled. I had gone two months with nothing, and in one week I suddenly had three interviews. The changes I had made seemed minor to me, but made a big difference to the people who were reading my resume.  While my first resume had been technically (and grammatically) sound, there are tips that you can only get from someone who spends hours a day looking at resumes in your field- and those tips are specific to the field.

Watch this video. I was surfing the internet one day reading news articles and blog posts about the difficulty finding a job (including this poignant one– I repeated the idea of the “strange alchemy of being in the right place at the right time” to myself for weeks) when I stumbled upon this video. At 20 minutes, it’s a little long, but you need to watch it all the way to the end to get the impact.

I am not the kind of person who quickly or easily buys into things- I am most likely to be the sceptic, heavily grounded in logic and realism. I bought into this. I followed her suggestion for the three interviews I went to in the one week. I went into them feeling just as nervous as usual, but when I left, I felt more confident than I had in the past. I won’t spoil it for you, but I highly recommend it.

The last piece of advice I can offer is to do your best to stay positive and be patient. The right job is out there, but it may take awhile for you to find it. In the meantime, lean on your friends and family for support. Take time out to do things you enjoy. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Best of luck to all of you.

Related Pages:

1. Coffee Shop HR World Café: What Three Pieces of Advice Should Post-Secondary Grads Take to Heart?

2. It’s a Big World Out There, New Grad! by Christine Ramage, CHRP

3. What Three Pieces of Advice Should Post-Secondary Grads Take to Heart? by Bonnie Milne, PhD

Tips for Giving an Effective Performance Review

Nicole Davidson

Nicole Davidson

If we consider the goals of a performance review, I would say that in an ideal world, a performance review would provide an employee not only with an honest, practical review of their past work, but also with new motivation for the future. Often however, performance reviews are an annual source of uncertainty, stress, and frustration, with the most frequent complaint being that reviews present a biased or unfair view of their work. Inexperience on the part of the reviewer can play a big part in whether a review is successful or not.

As a reviewer, I must say that my style has changed fairly dramatically over the years. I provide annual reviews for approximately 40 front-line employees, and so over the past eight years in my position, I have conducted a few hundred reviews. I’ve also been lucky enough to have a manager who is extremely effective at giving me my own reviews, and I’ve adjusted some of his methods to use myself. I’ve definitely made some mistakes over the years, but I’ve come up with some tips to help others provide effective reviews.

Go in to the review knowing what you want to say. This first step may seem too simple or straightforward, but hear me out: it is definitely possible to go in either with too much or too little to say. A common error is to over-plan the review, and end up shutting out a fruitful discussion with the employee. It can be intimidating for an employee to see pages and pages of notes you wish to discuss with them. For myself, I find that the best strategy is to pull all the information together and then sort it and break it down into five broad topics I want to be sure to discuss. The topics should be a mix of both positive and negative, and should be supported by specific examples. When I go into the review, I keep only one page of notes, with key words and ideas rather than paragraphs. I try to bring up the areas as part of the natural flow of the review, rather than reading them all out at once.

Don’t focus on the small stuff. A good friend of mine who herself works in a Human Resources department recently told me about a review she received. In her review, her manager spent a large amount of time talking about a small data entry error that they had discussed earlier in the year. The manager reiterated the points she had brought up in the past, and finished the discussion by saying that “it was a surprise when you made that mistake, because normally you were so good at this”. Given that the mistake had not been repeated, my friend was very upset not only by the backhanded compliment, but also by the focus of her review. She felt that the review unfairly stressed small mistakes while glossing over general good performance. Rather than leaving the review feeling motivated to improve, she left thinking about looking for a new job.

It is natural for a manager to want to make sure that they bring up important points, particularly in areas they wish to see improvement in, or which have been issues in the past. However, it is also important to keep these discussions concise. A better way to approach this particular situation would have been for her manager to say something like “We did have an issue in November with data entry, and I’ve noticed since then we haven’t had a similar error. What strategies are you using that you think have helped?”. This way, rather than placing the focus on the error, the manager and employee can focus on the improvement and ways to sustain it.

Provide specific, truthful examples. As human beings, it is naturally difficult to see ourselves from an outside perspective. This is why an effective review can be so valuable to employee development. Recently I spoke with a member of our front-line staff who has frequent interactions with our customers. She had received a few customer complaints about a lack of friendliness, and I had noticed that during busy periods, she often stopped smiling, made less eye contact, and walked away before people finished speaking. When we had her review, I brought up a specific example, and explained how I thought that her focus on completing tasks was affecting her body language and facial expressions. I got a great response from her; she hadn’t noticed how much being busy or feeling stressed was affecting how others perceived her. Our discussion focussed on ways for her to manage her stress level, and being cognizant of her facial expression. We saw a great improvement in her customer service skills over the next few weeks, and when I spoke with her to follow up, she told me that she left the review feeling like she was understood and supported, and that successful change was achievable.

Being an effective reviewer means taking a specific example of a behaviour and then trying to find a root cause. Sometimes a reviewer might be able to see this on their own, and other times a discussion with the employee can help bring it to light. A reviewer can then help an employee to come up with a strategy to deal with the root cause, rather than focussing on the behaviour itself.

These are just a few tips that have helped me to improve my skills. I feel that there is so much potential in a good review to improve the employee relationship and performance, and too often we just miss out. What are your strategies for giving a good review?

The “Mutual Knowledge Problem” and Managing Virtual Teams

Managing a virtual team can be a difficult and stressful experience. Many of the things we expect from a team are hard to come by when played out in a virtual forum; collaboration immediately comes to mind as an example. It can be difficult to collaborate without face-to-face meetings, as email conversations have significantly less flow than a normal conversation, and online chats can leave out important communication cues such as facial expressions and body language. Another issue which can frequently arise is the gap between the actual work produced and the work which was expected. In a normal team environment, there are more opportunities to set expectations and communicate on an on-going basis. With a virtual team, often work is parceled out and given a deadline, but communication between the time when the work is given and received is limited.

In a study by Catherine Cramton of Organization Science, these issues are considered to be part of what she refers to as the “Mutual Knowledge Problem”. In the study, Cramton identifies factors (such as failure to retain contextual information and difficulty interpreting the meaning of silence) which define the communication issues in geographically distributed teams. The study suggests that issues in communication result in uneven mutual knowledge, which leads to poor collaboration and results from the team. As well, the dispersion of the team members naturally lends itself to different understandings of situations, contexts, and expectations.

Combating these issues is a two-fold process, as suggested by the Harvard Business Review blog. The key for managers is to stress two objectives: the creation of a solid, clearly defined structure, and the encouragement of social interaction of an informal nature throughout the time spent working. Setting clear guidelines, giving examples, and providing feedback at defined intervals can help to create the needed structure. Encouraging informal social behaviour is also important. Setting up informal, non-specific chat rooms, and encouraging employees to connect in other informal ways, can help to provide the social interaction that can increase a team’s cohesiveness and lead to better output.