Monday, March 5, 2012

Lulu's Mailbag: Can I leave a firm when my options seem limited?

From S, who wrote a while back, but I just haven't had a chance to compose a coherent response until now:

As of today I was told they are cutting back on my hours because as a intern I don't have the same skill set as the other designer and architect; they have 5 or more years of experience. And because I don't have a car to run and get things. I am so frustrated. I was tops in my school when it came to technology and cad. I never got to use it and I know Revit. Is there something wrong with me?

From Lulu: 
Wow, sounds like your firm might be kinda schmucky.  How are you supposed to get more experience if they cut your hours? [facepalm]  What are your options for going to a new firm?

From S.:

Well, they are pretty limited.  Because everyone knows everyone in [large city redacted].  I have only been there a month.  the first two weeks I was basically cleaning and organizing areas.  Now I know that everyone has a different way of doing things.  They are as of right now a 3 person firm and more and more work is coming available.  they told me they shouldn't have to babysit me for certain things to be done.  I was shown how to do a red line once and wanted to make sure it got done correctly, and they kept making changes and making me add stuff to it.   I was shown their way of doing a purchase order and I did 4 perfectly and he told me to leave the other one alone he was going to do it.  Well he emailed it and it was wrong, but I got blamed for it.

There is a new architect that they both worked with when they had tons of interns and architects she has her license and everything.  She is very sweet, but she didn't know how to change from classic cad to 2010, I had to do it for her.  And on top of that they put me as contract, even though I don't have a business of my own.  Why do I keep getting firms like this?  they were so nice in the beginning.  

I am trying to get into a much larger firm... I am trying to make a go out of the $55,000 I spent on 2 degrees with everyone trying to make me feel not worthy enough to be in this field.  Even though I have proven myself time and time again.  Its really harder than I thought.  And if they didn't want me to learn from them, they should not have hired me for just cleaning and running errands.  I am trying to [do] some volunteer work at habitat for humanity and building my skills up.  Any advice?

Well, S., it still sounds like your firm is acting a little schmucky and it's time for you to make tracks out of there.  There are likely a few things at work here, based on your emails.  First, politics at work can be hell in even the best of situations, but they can be downright poisonous in a smaller firm. For whatever reason, your skills, personality, whatever aren't meshing at this firm, and it sounds like no one's being straight with you on this.  I presume you've attempted to defend yourself in performance reviews when you've been treated unfairly, and you're getting the "we don't have time to babysit you" line, which is a superficial way of saying "you're not doing things the way we want you to do them, but we don't have the time/don't want to spend the time to teach you how we want it".  (This is also a line that I feel is frankly bullshit coming from a smaller firm--if you're so busy that you need skilled help that doesn't need "babysitting", then don't hire a fresh intern.  If you don't want to spend time doing training, especially in a smaller firm where everyone has to be involved in training, then don't hire someone with less than two years' experience, end of story.)

To be clear, all firms are nice in the beginning, and it's a genuine niceness.  Everyone's hopeful that this arrangement will work out: you'll be a great employee, and they'll be a great employer.  Once expectations aren't met, things start to go sour.  Unfortunately, most companies (not just architectural ones) aren't very good at having tough conversations like "we really need you to step up your game, and here's what we need from you" or even tougher conversations like "we realize we weren't very clear with you when we told you what this job would entail" or even the toughest conversations like "we realize that we shoulda hired someone with more experience than you because we really don't have the time or patience to train you the way we need to and the way you deserve to be trained."  This leaves employees, especially the newest employees, in situations where they feel like they're not wanted at best and being mistreated at worst, but all they have are a vague feeling and a handful of anecdotes to go on.

This evaluation, compounded by the fact that there are so few folks in the office to help fill in the gaps for you, make it hard for you to bounce back from a less-than-awesome review and to improve your skills (or to at least understand what the hell they want).  A larger firm may be just the ticket for you, as there might be more people around upon which you can rely to fill in the blanks and show you how things need to be done at the firm.  Smaller firms, especially those that are getting busier and busier, truly may not be able to train and fill in the gaps for newer professionals--they need all hands on deck to be savvy ones (which again makes me question a  3-person operation for hiring you fresh or nearly-fresh out of college without thinking they might have to do some "babysitting", as they so ineloquently put it).

That being said, I'm betting your town isn't any smaller than Denver, where I've been living and working for the past 11+ years.  I wouldn't count out trying to work at a new firm at this point, especially a larger one.  People make the rounds in Denver, especially among larger firms as big jobs come and go and as firms lay off and staff up.  Ask the architect in your office whom you described as "sweet" if she would be comfortable being your reference if you decided to look elsewhere for employment.  (If she does ask why you'd leave your present firm, I would suggest saying that you feel like you need to be in a place where they have more capacity for training, and that your present firm really needs someone more experienced than you--you and the firm just aren't a good fit, given your present skill set.)  Go ahead and polish up your resume, get an okay from the gal you're working with now to use her as a reference, and start looking.  It's time for you to find a firm where you can get better guidance and training.

Got a question you'd like to ask or a topic you'd like to see covered here?  Feel free to ask me in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  Thanks!


  1. Great advice as usual, Lulu.

    On a more serious note, I just want to point out something that S said that raised a little red flag for me... "She is very sweet, but she didn't know how to change from classic cad to 2010, I had to do it for her."
    I hope that S doesn't think that should be something to congratulate anyone over... I certainly wouldn't count that (or any of the other tasks S listed) as an indicator of initiative or knowledge. I'm sure that sounds a little harsh, but the tone of S's email sounds more like complaining to me.

    I know S says they are not getting the experience they would like, and I sympathize with that; but to say they have "proven [that they are 'worthy'] time and time again" isn't something quantifiable when they also mention they haven't been able to utilize any of their skills since they've gotten out of school. I'm sorry, but top marks in school do not necessarily make someone a good worker.

    If the job you are currently working is not as described in the job description when you applied, speak to someone in your office about getting more of that experience. As Lulu said, also begin to polish up your resume, since you seem genuinely unhappy where you are... that's just not worth it.

    Also, for S a car may be the best investment they make in terms of getting a better job in this economy (unless public transportation allows otherwise), so please consider getting yourself one, even if it's priced to only last a year or so. You will make the money spent on the car back sooner than you think.

  2. K: Good point. It's hard to quantify how someone has "proven themselves" if they also say that they haven't been able to use any of their skills. One of the hardest things about answering questions from Lulu's Mailbag is that I can only go on the information I'm given in the email--I'm unable to assess if the person has truly done a good job and is being treated unfairly (which happens), or if they just think they're being treated unfairly and the problem really is them (which also happens). I can only take the email at face value and provide limited guidance. My goal in my response was to address the topic of "can I leave if I have limited options", and my point was that S's options probably weren't as limited as they first seemed.

    You also make a good point about school vs. work. A great student doesn't necessarily make a great worker in a firm. Some of the skills from school help you make the leap, and some don't. And the point about a car is also well-taken. S's city is not one that springs to mind as having fantastic public transit, so a car may be S's next good investment, along with the polished-up resume.