Four tips for your next informational interview request…

First, let me set the scene: Perhaps you are someone looking for your first job or you are someone looking to switch jobs and want to learn more about what is out there. In this process, you are doing unpaid research to see what exists, where you could go, and how to market yourself in the labor market. Let’s say you encounter someone online whose job you think is especially interesting and you could imagine yourself doing, so you decide to approach them for an informational interview.

I study labor and serve as an organizer because I believe it’s the best way I can contribute. I am especially interested in the role of social networks and employment and finding ways to reduce “friction” that people encounter when looking for the right jobs for them. Like many of my peers, I get a LOT of informational interview requests and I try to take as many as I can but it adds up over time. Let’s say 20 people ask me in a week (which does happen sometimes). Each of those 30 minute phone calls adds up, so even if I try to make time for 4 of them in a week, that’s 2 hours of additional unpaid labor a week to my workload. I do it because I believe in reducing the employment “friction” issue, but these are some things I wish people who reached out to me would keep in mind.

1. Do your research and ask me interesting questions. If our conversation is interesting, I will remember you. If you ask me generic questions, I will be frustrated and not impressed. Do not ask me how I got to this job when you can look at my LinkedIn profile and see my history. Do not ask me what I did before or what I studied, again, listed on my LinkedIn profile and my blog. If you did a little research and looked me up you could answer that for yourself. Make this time an interview about things you could not see online and show me you came to the conversation prepared.

2. 30 minutes is not a lot of time for me to get to know you and I will not be able to tell you what you should do. It’s easier if you come to the conversation having a sense of yourself. What do you need in an environment to thrive? What kind of work can you imagine doing day after day without losing your mind?

3. A lot of people show up and tell me about how great my job would be for them, which isn’t a good “sales” strategy. It’s hard to tell from the outside, but you’re much more convincing and appealing if you can tell me how you would play with or build something I do. I’m a researcher, if you want to do research tell me about an experiment you’d run or questions that keep you up at night. I scream internally every time someone generically tells me, “I’m good at research.” Like public speaking, it’s a skill people often take for granted. Show me some concrete evidence, the way a researcher would.

4. After the call, say thank you. Extra points for writing back to me after the call to say thank you for taking time to talk to me. And if you ask for a favor and/or someone follows up with feedback on something, say thank you again. They don’t have to do this… be polite and say thank you.

There are times you need to have a very open and exploratory conversation. I encourage you to have those with peers and mentors, sometimes even your family. I explored jobs by reading websites like the Muse and then following researchers whose work I found especially interesting, see how they got to where they were. I explored skills I had and tried to see how I could market them. I also spent time thinking about what I enjoyed doing day to day, acknowledging things I “thought I should want to do” that I didn’t and leaving those behind. I think it’s a slow discovery process for everyone and it’s ok to ask for help. I share these ideas to help you make the most of your time reaching out to people and to respect the time of those who offer to help you. Good luck!

Photo credit: Nicolas Nova / Flickr

A case for helping your coworkers negotiate their contracts

I believe that one of the best ways to close to wage gap is for each of us to commit to mentoring and supporting our teammates as they negotiate their contracts. I have been really lucky to have great mentors who helped me think through my projects and contracts, so I try to pay it forward with my coworkers friends too.

I advocate for other workers, because I think being honest and supportive upfront reduces turnover and builds a better team.

There are a few ways that I do this to support my communities. I hope by sharing my process, we can all do a better job supporting each other.

1. Help them navigate market wage rates and your own company’s salary scale as best you can.

I was an economics student who was obsessed with pricing and how prices are determined by the market. This made it very easy for me to know where to go to learn about competitive market rates for different skill sets, but many of the workers I’m coached through the years feel like they’re left in the dark about what they can ask for when they negotiate their salaries. Companies have a lot of incentives to keep these numbers quiet. You can help improve transparency here and provide immediate relief for your teammates by helping them gather information through your own experiences and network.

There are plenty of reasons why the secrecy around wages can hurt workers and trust within teams. For now, the best way you can help a coworker may be improving transparency in your own corner or sharing resources you’ve found to describe salaries in your field. Sometimes Glassdoor has some useful information here too.

I realize this can be complicated when you are hiring someone for your team. I think there are roles we can each play in this process, and I encourage you to find one that is comfortable for you.

2. Help them think through what they could ask for (both financially and in terms of other responsibilities and benefits in their jobs)

Once you have some background research together on salary and a benefits package, you can design a “wish list” contract together. I always assume there will be some price negotiation, so I encourage people to ask for a little more than they their ideal salary. Then we talk through the benefits they would like, which could be things like a learning stipend for classes, flexible vacation days or working from home sometimes, getting to shadow someone in the company whose job you’d like to learn more about, etc..

Then, we write up their dream document carefully and talk through which items are absolute priorities that would cause them to keep or reject the opportunity, things that they would be very excited to have at their new job, and things that would be nice to include.

3. Help them practice asking clearly and confidently for what they want.

Negotiating contracts is a terrifying experience for most people, especially for people who have been socialized to be agreeable as a priority. This is an important time to learn to advocate for yourself and your projects down the road. Role playing this conversation out a few times and imagining different scenes playing out can be a really helpful way to build confidence.

I usually start by helping my friend make very clear statements about what they want and what they are willing to negotiate on. Then we work on making them confident and calm while they ask for those things. We talk about when to ask for more time to think about something or ask for a counter offer, when to accept different terms, and how to create space in your head to weigh your options clearly within losing focus to pressure.

4. Talk them through the worst case scenarios.

There is a possibility that this negotiation will not work out as you planned. Sometimes it’s helpful to work through a pre-mortem of the worse case scenarios, such as the company wont negotiate, they tell you you’re asking for too much, they pressure you for an immediate answer. Sometimes going through these scenarios in advance makes it less painful if the negotiation doesn’t go well.

I always finish this part by reminding my friend that this experience, negotiating and being confident asking for what you need and want, is important for every corner of life. It never hurts to have a little more practice. And learning to manage failure is an enormous strength to develop.

5. Celebrate with them if it goes well. Be a warm figure in the office they can turn to when they get nervous or bad news.

I always check in after a negotiation to see how it went. If it went well, we celebrate together! Some victories come from unexpected places, and you may end up with something completely different from where you started, but if the friend is happy with their results, you should be too.

If it’s hard and didn’t go well, I will take the person for a walk and remind them why I believe in them. I remind them that their salary and job description does not define them, but their growth in this moment and similarly challenging ones does. I tell them I am proud of them for asking because this is the only way that it gets better (f*ck the wage gap). AND I remind them that it will be even easier to ask in the future.

Special thanks to my mentors and peer-mentors who helped me gain my confidence in negotiating for myself.

Originally posted on Code Like A Girl.

Header Photo Credit: Melanie

Why it’s hard to record beautiful, hidden moments in labor organizing

Recording history as it happens is much more complicated than it seems. Victories are often celebrated privately and hope grows from these shared experiences with other organizers. I wonder now, how and why are these stories about successful labor organizer harder to find?

The voices of workers provide important feedback on the type of community we want to live in and the type of economy we can sustain together. When it is omitted or skimmed over, we lose a crucial piece of how economies are negotiated and built together. Most importantly,  there is a lot of creativity that goes into successful campaigns for change. Especially when the side arguing to “stay the same” can play to the same “fears of loss” factors that are so powerful.

I appreciate the creativity that goes into successful labor negotiations and the complexity, what it takes to get to the negotiation table and win important victories for workers. But the power dynamics of the work place and the economy makes recording stories from our workers and our organizers challenging. Sometimes part of the negotiation is keeping information, and how things play out, a secret.

While I was researching leads for a story, I ran into a case where the story was so important and inspiring… but the organizer needed to remain in the shadows to organize successfully. I was caught in a tension of wanting to celebrate this story that made me more optimistic about the future of labor… but it’s success depended on keeping private, between negotiating parties.

It made me stop to think about the role journalism plays in recording history, but also the complex partnerships and conditions that have to form to make long term change possible.

Labor is an important part of our community and efforts to silence workers and organizers limit our ability to have honest political discussions. If the only people with a voice are the CEOs and stakeholders, we have a very weird and unrealistic image of what it means to work in the company or the current workforce. And long term… creating a working experience that is only pleasant for the C-suite is not sustainable for the fabric of our communities.

Organizers like Saul Alinsky and Dolores Huerta have shaped how we think about organizing people, from political campaigns to voter turn out, workers strikes, negotiation in many different settings, research methods and so much more. Their creativity and strength lead them through some seemingly impossible battles to come out on top. It also gave me hope that “social structures” do change, we can negotiate. That violence and money as two currencies for dictating the rules are not the only options.

As a student, I learned so much from groups like Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA) in New Haven, which is an amazing organization that supports undocumented workers and protects them when their wages are withheld, they suffer sexual harassment in their work places, and they are not protected by the full extent of their rights as guaranteed by the labor laws of Connecticut regardless of their immigration status.

In the last few years, I am also so excited about the work happening through Palak Shah at National Domestic Workers’ Alliance who is thinking about different ways to protect and negotiate for workers rights. The Worker’s Lab is another group working to improve working conditions through negotiations between workers and their employers. Carmen Rojas, from the Worker’s Lab, gave a talk at Personal Democracy Forum last year about some of the work place conditions improved by direct negotiation.

I spent time talking to other students who later became Union Organizers themselves. Some publicly, and others in a system where organizers work covertly, organizing from within the workforce. Both of these methods are important and offer different methods for negotiating work place conditions.

I, naively, wanted to celebrate both methods for organizing, hoping we could use public discussions to support workers and organizers, and maybe inspire a new generation of organizers who see there are people fighting for better. But I also needed to acknowledge that the organizers who are not public in their efforts are private because the secrecy is a necessary condition for their work.

While I want to preserve their present efforts in history to other students can read about it now and later, to add this layer of complexity and creativity to our labor history, but I cannot do so without compromising their work.

The power dynamic of these work places (typically hotels and other service sector businesses where workers are expected to be invisible or close to it) is that the leadership is set on keeping workers disorganized and afraid. The organizer preserves an alternative and devotes time and energy to helping support internal efforts among workers to organize for their negotiation. The organizer is not meant to be a public leader, the silence is also about being part of the team and not calling more attention to themselves than to the negotiation.

As I can relate from my more recent jobs, negotiation is a sensitive and often quiet process. Victories are often private moments, and failure requires quiet moments of recovery.

I frequently wonder if this covert organizing if the future of labor organizing. In an era where Unions have lost some of the favor they once had, my interest in labor issues usually ends up with the typical derogatory “Socialist” comment (because we have a nasty history here of black listing “communists” and anyone who is sympathetic to workers with a label), and where inequality is seems to only be increasing… Is the best way to protect workers completely off-record, hidden, and perhaps forgotten with time?

I wonder, too, about the role of journalists here. If they play an important role in recording history as it happens, are there sections of history we are meant to celebrate more privately and then lose to time? Or does this story sit in a sort of escrow until enough time has passed to record it, before it’s lost?

I am left with my questions to explore and waiting for ways to support organizers, as they need it.