GIFTE meeting with Old Dominion University students Feb 08

Business Etiquette In The Engineering Workplace – Ask Roberta

Roberta Banaszak Gleiter is currently the CEO of the Global Institute For Technology & Engineering. Questions can be submitted to her at ceo@gifte.org.

Q

As a new woman engineer, I sometimes don’t understand what my superiors are telling me – not only are their instructions ambiguous but the relationships themselves are confusing. How can I tell if they (male superiors) are actually telling me to do something or are just trying to be friendly? A.S.

A

It is sometimes difficult to discern if you are being asked to do specific tasks or just having friendly conversation. Since it is so easy to misinterpret the intent of some male superiors, the best rule to follow is: If you have any confusion… “ask.” Ask your boss directly: What task do you want me to do? Is there any particular sequence or order that you want me to do the tasks you referenced (task 1, task 2, and task 3…)? Or ask any other questions that would elicit a specific answer. You will be able to interpret his intent from the answer that you get to this type of question.

Q

I notice that my male colleagues often are slowly walking past my office and looking in at me. What should I do to discourage this? H.W.

A

There could be any number of reasons that your male colleagues are looking into your office. The first and most obvious is that they may be looking to strike up a casual conversation in contrast to conducting a business-related discussion. You could ‘brace’ the colleague by asking in a professional tone: ’Can I help you?’ The key is to control the situation. Occasional casual conversations may be acceptable in your workplace please observe your corporate culture on that. The usual guideline is to keep casual conversations to a minimum. Read on…

From another standpoint, your male colleagues just may be enjoying the view that you provide. Consider rearranging your office furniture: 1) Place your furniture facing away from the door (control your line of vision) so that you are not distracted by those who do walk by and also your office looks less welcoming. 2) Arrange your furniture so that your legs are not in full view. Proper positioning of your bookcases and file cabinets can be very effective.

Q

I just graduated from a Big Ten engineering school with top grades. I now find myself collating proposals, as well as reading through them for spelling errors, completeness and continuity. Why should I have to do this dog work? J.S.S.

A

If not you, who? As the new kid on the block, your assignment sounds like a good way to learn about the company and its products. Consider the following:

  1. Management assumes that you are a good speller, not too common in today’s engineering environment.

  2. Your assignment is indicative of management’s faith in you. You could hold the success of the company in your hands. A disjointed, incomplete and physically sloppy proposal signals the type of work the potential customer can expect from you and your company. A tight, well-organized, technically complete proposal is sure to impress the customer.

  3. Of course, pricing, timing, and terms and conditions are important to a proposal’s acceptance. Are you having an influence in these areas? If not, there’s an opportunity for growth and advancement, so get involved.

  4. Are you involved in marketing the proposal to your potential customers? If and when you are, then you have received a real vote of confidence.

If the dog work needs doing, do it well!

Q

All of my management are men and they don’t understand the woman engineer’s approach to engineering which tends to involve (include) more verbal communication, greater sensitivity to systems implications and more team involvement. How can I change their opinions? M.A.

A

You probably can’t, especially since the “woman engineer’s approach to engineering” is a subjective concept specific to each individual woman engineer. It also is a novel concept that now is starting to be valued by more enlightened employers.

The laws of physics are not gender-specific, so their application is not different for men or women. How we approach a task, how we manage it, and how we grow professionally does have some roots in our gender differences and in our cultures.

Take the opportunity to discuss your scenario with other women engineers in your company and get a bead on the company culture. If you still feel de-valued because of your approach, then take the time to stand back and evaluate yourself and see if you can make yourself more comfortable with management’s expectations. If that is not possible, you may want to consider opportunities in other parts of your company or outside your company. Start networking… big time.

Q

I share an office with a male colleague who spends a lot of time on the telephone talking sports talk with his friends. These discussions often include vulgarities more suitable to a locker room than to a business office. I’m annoyed and distracted from doing my job; what can I do? P.H.

A

You have a right to be annoyed. You can’t really control his phone conversations (personal phone calls in the workplace??), but you should courteously ask him to cut out the vulgarities. He probably won’t, since you’ve already defined him as someone lacking the social graces. The next step is to request a different office within your chain of command, being candid but diplomatic about the reason why you are making this request. Discuss the necessity for compatibility in sharing offices. Demonstrate consideration and courtesy toward your colleague, however difficult.

Q

My supervisor, a woman as am I, called me a “technical light weight.” This has hurt me deeply. I have only worked for her for five months, so how can she make such a hurtful comment? G.M.

A

Your question is a good one, but it is hard for me to respond. I do not know you or your work, but I do venture that your supervisor can evaluate your work after five months. Also, unfortunately, her perception is her reality!

You need to take the “hurt” out of the situation. Candidly discuss with your supervisor why she reached that conclusion. Emotions should not enter into the discussion. Ask your supervisor for recommendations on how to improve yourself and your situation. Selectively consider each of the suggestions and how each fits into your comfort zone, then select those that feel most comfortable for implementation. You may want to keep the other suggestions in your back pocket for later consideration. Most importantly is what you can do to change this impression, especially before the next performance review.

Do a little self-test. Think about your answers to the following questions; don’t delude yourself:

If you could be classified as a technical lightweight, you had better reverse the situation with a lot of concentrated effort to improve your technical communication skills, get a better understanding of your product, start making some technical contributions, and assure that your technical area is part of the mainstream. Consider whether you can implement any of your supervisor’s suggestions. If you after doing all of that, if you still are uncomfortable in your position, it’s time to make a change.

Q

I have been asked to transfer to our German subsidiary. It’s probably a promotion, but I don’t speak German, have never been anywhere internationally, and besides I still have parents living her in the USA. My parents encourage me to take the opportunity, but I don’t want to leave them in their old age. What do you think? A.K.

A

I think that you are scared!

Before we discuss your rationalizations, why are you uncertain that it is a promotion? Germany is not a hardship post and it costs your company more to have you there, so, on that basis, you might consider it a promotion. However, the terms of a transfer should be specific and unambiguous; have your company clarify this immediately.

What do you want to do? Would the new assignment appeal to you? Do you feel comfortable with the new reporting management? Do you care about the promotion? Where does this new assignment lead? More authority, more money, more influence in the company? If you have been asked to transfer and refuse, this is not going to get you any gold stars in your personnel folder and the word may get out that further opportunities will probably not be of interest to you.

Most Germans under the age of 60 speak English, but you can and should learn German if you want to be really comfortable in the European business environment. Your parents sound like they are ready to let you go: are you ready to go?

Q

As I work toward my MBA, my fellow students constantly ask me for conceptual and math help in courses such as production management, statistics and management science. Their logical thinking and mathematical preparation are abysmal, but I’m not Ms. Fix-it. Should I just say “no” the next time they ask? A.A.

A

A diplomatic “no” is always acceptable. Consider, however, that it takes a little courage on their part to ask you for help. Consider also that “B” school is the meeting grounds to make professional associations that can last your working life. Remember how the Bill Gates type folks turned to the people they knew in school to work at their new companies. So if you have the time, want to feel good, and pump up your ego a little bit, give them some help. Someday, one of them may be your boss (ugh) and that person will “owe you one!”

Q

In a client meeting, halfway through the morning, my boss asked me to “arrange” for lunch. Since we were discussing a project on which I was involved, I felt this was demeaning to my role and status. Am I wrong to think that this request was made because I am a woman? J.P.

A

It all depends. Since you are supposed to know what your boss means when he says to “arrange” a client lunch (takeout or restaurant… which restaurant…etc), he is putting it in your hands to make it happen and make it successful. Alternatively, could anyone else do it better than you or as well as you? If so, get that other person committed to “arrange” the lunch to your specifications. Then tell your boss that, since you believe it important to be part of your project discussions, you have asked Joe or John to make the arrangements. On the other hand, if you think your role and involvement are not respected, or if you think you were given the assignment because you’re a woman, it’s time for a heart to heart talk with your boss about how he perceives your value to the organization. Keep your eyes and ears open for more indications of your value to the organization.

Q

As I was growing up and even through my college years, my uniform was basically jeans, sweaters and tennis shoes. Now that I am in the technical workplace, I am dressing up. I feel, however, that people think that I buy my clothes from the Sears Catalog while my women engineering peers appear to be dressing from Anne Klein. How do I get over my insecurities in this matter? K.H.

A

Knowledge is power. Invest a little time to gain “dressing” knowledge. A good first step is to go to an established department store that provides a dressing service, such as Nordstroms, which will assist you in achieving a professional put-together look. Invest in one “put together” outfit that you know will fit into your workplace. This will make you feel better immediately.

However, there are other aspects to a professional look that are more than the Anne Klein look. The professional look includes good posture, minimal makeup and pleasant hairstyle. Don’t forget that above all… you need to project a professional attitude.