Shikha Bhatnagar

Global Social Impact Consultant

Over seventeen years of programming, policy analysis, advocacy, and business development experience across sectors with stakeholders on critical global issues such as economic & political development, education, health, security, diversity & inclusion, and civil society (including women's rights). 

Taking it Personally

Last week, this happened:  Michael Strahan, the popular co-host of Live! With Kelly & Michael on ABC, had announced a week earlier that he was leaving the show to join Good Morning America (GMA) full time. Kelly Ripa, his co-host, was not pleased for two reasons - one, there were apparently rumors that GMA was adding a third hour that would essentially kill her show since it immediately follows GMA AND more importantly, Ripa was not informed of this very significant change until the last minute. She took a very public break from the show for several days, and when she came back on Tuesday, she received a standing ovation from the audience and delivered a pretty powerful speech about respect in the workplace.  You can see it here. 

There was one part of the speech that struck me as especially poignant- when she said, “And since we’re being honest, I don’t consider this just a workplace. This is my second home. This is a place that I’ve devoted myself to...” 

How many times have you been told not to take work personally? I certainly have, even with organizations I helped build. How can you NOT take what happens at work personally - you spend 40, often many more, hours in that environment.  You depend on the income for your livelihood in the present and in the future. And, if you’re in the social impact space, your work affects real people. Heck, even in corporate America, your work can affect real people. 

I really liked this article published on HBR.com by Duncan Coombe, titled “Don’t Take It Personally” Is Terrible Work Advice.” As Coombe argues, we SHOULD take work personally. He also makes an ethics argument to support this assertion:  

Not taking it personally” lies at the heart of many corporate ethics scandals, from embezzling and accounting fraud to issues of worker safety and environmental protection. It’s when executives and teams adopt the mindless notion of “it’s not personal, it’s business” that they absolve themselves of their responsibilities as social actors, custodians of the planet, and guardians of the well-being of their employees, customers, and communities.

As we continue to re-evaluate the modern workplace and restructure it to make it more inclusive and dynamic - I hope that we also get rid of these old masculine ideologies of separating work from one’s emotions.  We’ll all be healthier, happier and likely more productive (!) for it. 

Warning! Dysfunction Ahead

My track record of picking good employers to work for is almost as dismal as my track record of finding a good man to spend my life with.  It seems appropriate, therefore, for me to use a quote from Maya Angelou about personal relationships and apply it to my hunt for that elusive right job.  Dr. Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” What she meant was that people give implicit or explicit signals about their personalities, their shortcomings, their potential failures to commit – it’s up to you to see those signs, not dismiss them, believe them, and if necessary, run as far away as you can. The same goes for potential employers. While the stakes may not be as high as finding a life partner, the potential ramifications of ending up in a dysfunctional work environment can be devastating to your emotional and physical health.  Trust me, I know.

I’ve learned a lot over the past decade about warning signs one should look out for during the job search. Sadly, I’ve ignored or dismissed many of these signs, sometimes out of desperation of needing a job, my insecurities, or just naivety.  I’ve also spent a lot of time taking bad advice from others instead of trusting my own gut. No more.

As I move forward on my professional journey, here are a few of the red flags I will be watching out for: 

·       Position vacant for too long:  homebuyers are often taught to be careful about properties that have been on the market for a long time.  There’s usually a reason behind this – lots of repairs that need to be done, priced too high, or… termites? Similarly, if I meet a seemingly normal 40-something year old man who has never been a serious relationship, I start wondering what his deal is. Commitment issues? Peter Pan syndrome? Both of these scenarios require an extra bit of due diligence, as do job vacancies that have been unfilled for an extended period of time, especially in today’s still-recovering job market. Are there internal dynamics preventing a suitable candidate from being hired? Are expectations too high? Even seemingly minor reasons, such as not having had enough time to properly vet candidates potentially points to deeper issues of organizational capacity and disorganization…in other words, dysfunction. Be careful.

·       [Very] Low turnover: I was taught somewhere along the way that low staff turnover was a sign that employees were happy and that the organization treated them well.  And, that’s probably generally true.  But, there’s also a flip side to this that I think a lot of those, especially those of us who thrive in dynamic environments, need to pay attention to.  Staff that have spent the majority or sometimes all of their career at one organization likely have not been challenged in different types of environments, can be entrenched in group think, and may actually be risk-averse.  Also, sometimes the reason employees stay in a job for an extended period of time isn’t because they’re happy, it’s because they either lack the willpower or the ability to leave their current circumstance for another position.

·       Interview etiquette: In my experience, how you’re treated during an interview process is the most telling warning sign of organizational or leadership dysfunction.  This can manifest itself in many ways, but it usually involves basic respect, or rather, lack thereof. Here are a couple of examples from my own experiences:

o   Repeated postponement or cancellation of interviews. Shit happens – meeting go over – unexpected things come up, but a responsible and respectful employer will contact the candidate immediately, apologize for the inconvenience and reschedule the interview for a later date, if necessary.

o   Pressure to take job: Years ago, an organization, after offering me a job, pressured me about giving my current employer notice even though we hadn’t finalized the terms of my employment yet, nor had I signed the offer letter. I remember feeling so sick after this conversation and panicked about what to do. I was so afraid of losing the opportunity that I did give notice despite not having signed the letter, which was really stupid in hindsight. A potential employer will respect you as a professional, understand that there is a process in hiring, and will not expect you to endanger your standing in your current position.

o   Changing terms of agreement: If you find that verbal arrangements that you made with your potential employer change significantly when written on paper, be careful - it may just be harmless miscommunication that can be quickly cleared up, but it may also be a signal that this company/organization thinks they can take advantage of you and expect you to sign without reading the fine print.  

·       Low-balling salary: I can write paragraphs about this, but I’ll sum it up by saying – if an organization is seriously low-balling you on salary, walk away unless you’re desperate for money, especially if you’re a woman. There are always salary negotiations, but a sizeable difference from what you should be earning in that market/industry based on your experience and what they are offering you only indicates how little the organization values its human capital.  (If you’re unsure about what salary you should expect to make in that type of job/industry, ask around and also check out online resources such as Salary.com.)  

If there’s one thing I have learned, dysfunctional men will say anything to get in your pants. The same applies to dysfunctional organizations – they will lie to you, exaggerate, hide the truth if necessary to get you on board. It’s up to you to protect yourself and perform proper due diligence and look for warning signs. The more we learn to recognize these hints of dysfunction, the more likely we are to end up in the right place – where you’re challenged, respected, paid fairly, and where you can focus on making an impact through your work rather than spending your precious hours dealing with bullshit. 

Here are a few articles that offer additional advice and tips:

“10 Warning Signs of a Toxic Boss at the Interview” | Monster.com

“10 Tips to Avoid Joining a Toxic Workplace” by Bill Pieroni | LinkedIn

“10 Signs that a Company Has a Serious Culture Problem” by Shane Atchison | Forbes

What are the red flags that you look for in a potential employer? Comment below or shoot me a tweet.

 

Resources for the SWE (Single Woman Entrepreneur)

Cross-posted from LinkedIn

It is now a well-established fact that women have a much more difficult time accessing financing for new ventures than men. (Even Shark Tank is guilty of this: http://mashable.com/2016/01/15/shark-tank-women-entrepreneurs/#AfnMVztxCkqK.) If women in general are facing barriers, how much harder is it for single women who may not have the same day to day financial and emotional support as their married, dual-income household counterparts? This isn't meant to be an "us" (single) vs. "them" (married) discussion - it just seems that the overwhelming majority of the successful female entrepreneurs I have met or read about are married and I suspect that there is probably a reason behind this. 

Where are the stories about single women who have created successful ventures? How do their entrepreneurial journeys differ from those of married women?  What resources did they utilize to achieve their goals? Does an unmarried woman have to be independently wealthy or come out of the financial and legal sectors to have built enough of a nest egg to mitigate risk? Are there books, organizations, mentorship programs out there to support single women entrepreneurs? 

I'm asking for my own curiosity, but more importantly, to share with others and bring this conversation out into the open, especially as an increasingly greater number of women start their own businesses. The startup ecosystem already penalizes aspiring entrepreneurs simply because they're women, plus single people in general are penalized by our government, society, and employers for not conforming, voluntarily or not, to the institution of marriage, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the additional barriers that women of color face. Is this double or potentially triple burden creating a prohibitive environment for unmarried women to achieve their aspirations of starting their own businesses? If so, what needs to change in order to level this grossly uneven playing field? 

Welcome your thoughts!

A New Blueprint

It’s no joke.  I’ve had a tough decade professionally and as a result, personally.  The self-flogging has seemingly been endless as I try to figure out what happened, where I went wrong, and of course, what was wrong with me. The words that come immediately to mind as I think about this period of my life are “shame,” followed by “embarrassment,” followed by “sadness” for the time that I lost.  After lots of coaching, reading, support from those I trust, and most of all, tons of time in self-reflection, I can say that I am finally on the road to healing from toxic work environment trauma, learning to not be afraid of my voice, reminding myself that I was not to blame, valuing my integrity, and looking forward to raising the bar significantly for the next decade of my life.

While working in dysfunctional work environments is difficult for everyone, I do personally believe that it is especially taxing on single women.  As it is, there is no blueprint for our lives – the one that existed when I was 25 has long been thrown out.  I don’t have a partner to come home to or the demands of children that preoccupy my time.  Nor do I have the financial safety net of a dual-income household to catch me. My life and those of many single women around me has tilted, intentionally or not, towards my career, and when that falters, you feel as if you have nothing to hold on to.  To make matters worse, relationships with potential partners sometimes hang in the balance, are imbued with insecurity and uncertainty, and take a back seat as one tries to figure out where the next paycheck will come from. I also have quickly realized that the search for the right partner and the right job share an eerily similar courtship. 

I have a lot to offer the world. In addition to the many skill sets and knowledge that I possess, I am deeply passionate, curious about the universe, and committed to improving the lives of others. As I shed the narrative that no longer serves me, I’m excited to take the first steps in finally building a career and contributing to the world through my own vision and not through someone else’s.  But, that will take some time and much patience.  So, what can I offer right now, at this moment?  

What I can offer right now are my experiences, good and bad – and the wisdom I have gained and continue to gain from them, in hopes that other women will find valuable insights, share their own stories, and support each other as we build an entirely new blueprint for our careers and our lives.

Stay tuned. 

In Memory of Sabeen Mahmud

I live a fairly sheltered life, so it's not often (or ever) that I hear of someone I have met being killed. I also have a high standard for humanity - and there are few people who meet that standard - people who I truly admire in this world. So, perhaps this is why I am so personally devastated by the news of Sabeen Mahmud's murder today. I did not know her at all, really, but she was the very first person I met on my very first trip to Pakistan, as we were about to launch the Emerging Leaders of Pakistan program in 2012. She hosted us at T2F, gave us a tour, and offered her insight. She was welcoming, warm, and down to earth. (And, she helped me get a sim card for my phone!) I was invited back to T2F later that night for a program on violence against women, and was able to experience the vitality of the space in motion. That space, her voice, her power to convene - all things many of us take for granted, but an act of sheer courage and resilience in a place like Karachi. She put her life at risk every single day in the name of peace, justice, and truth. I often wonder if people like her know somewhere deep inside that they have a limited time on earth, so they better shake things up while they're here. And remind the rest of us how we should live.

My souvenir from T2F is a t-shirt that says, "I think, therefore I'm dangerous."

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/sabeen-mahmud-shot-dead-karachi/

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