| Special to USA TODAY
Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society.
The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.
Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.
Question: I’ll be graduating from college this year and want to work in the advertising industry. What is the best way to ask people for informational interviews? I am worried I will come off sounding awkward. – Anonymous
Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: Congratulations on your upcoming graduation! First, I want to applaud you for thinking ahead. Informational interviews can be a great way to learn about an organization’s culture and values from someone who knows it best.
Your concerns are valid. Reaching out to someone you’ve never met before can feel a bit awkward. But my best tip for feeling confident is being prepared.
Before you do anything, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the company you’re interested in. Start by checking out their website and social media platforms to explore the content they share. Is there an initiative or project you personally connect with? What questions might you have about the work and culture? Read articles that feature the company or include quotes from the members of their team. Those stories can provide you with insight into their priorities and the way they work.
Because that first step is often the hardest, I’ll ask this: Do you have a mutual connection with anyone working at the company? Maybe it is a friend or someone who went to the same school as you. If so, you could respectfully reach out and see if they can make a virtual introduction, if appropriate.
Once you make plans to meet for an informational interview, map out and rehearse your questions ahead of time. Identify a couple of areas you want to learn more about, such as what a typical day in the office looks like or the kinds of services the business offers. This can provide guideposts for your discussion and keep you on track.
Also, you should be prepared to share a little bit of your personal background, such as what you’re studying, why you’re interested in working in the advertising industry, and any relevant experience you have that you could apply to the field.
If you’re respectful and prepared, the people you interview with will likely be impressed by your initiative. Just remember to do the following: Take a deep, relaxing breath, ask your questions, and be yourself. And last but not least, don’t forget to follow up with a thank you email or handwritten note. I hope you found this helpful. Best of luck!
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Q: The pandemic has been very tough on my company and team (I manage a small team in retail). As a result, management is very tense, emotions are high, and everything seems magnified. How can we make sure that we’re still leading with empathy and fostering a positive work culture? – Anonymous
Taylor: Thanks for your timely question. If I have learned anything in 2020, it’s that the pressures of the past year have impacted employers and employees in a million little ways. To put it simply, balancing work and personal responsibilities in the middle of a pandemic and economic downturn is hard.
During a time when many of us are not physically in the office, practicing empathy with in-person and remote employees – who may feel isolated and overwhelmed – is especially important.
I would go a step further and say empathy isn’t a soft skill, but a business skill – it’s what helps people work with others who have different stories, styles, and perspectives. It’s a trait that is truly needed in today’s workplaces.
I’ve seen first hand how employers and HR professionals are working hard to build more empathetic workplaces. As a manager, you’re in a unique position to help people on your team who may be facing work and personal stressors. If you aren’t already, I suggest having regular check-ins – keeping a close eye on workload, body language, and nonverbal cues – and having an open-door (or “open-Zoom”) policy where your team can touch base with you regularly or as needed. The importance of honest communication and frequent engagement cannot be overstated.
I also want to stress this: Empathy is a two-way street. Employers are navigating some of the toughest challenges they’ve ever faced. Managers and HR are working furiously to meet both employee and business needs. Listening, showing compassion and instilling empathy in company culture can’t be done by employers alone. It takes employee buy-in, too.
The ability to have and display empathy is, and will remain, a critical part of leadership – before, during, and after this pandemic. When you practice empathy, you are setting a strong tone for the organization’s culture and a roadmap for success. Thanks for reaching out – we’re all in this together!