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ACS Industry

Don’t Be a Jerk

Posted by ACS Industry Jan 30, 2015

The title of this article is obnoxious, but that is the point.  In stressful situations, people tend to behave badly, and that will most certainly limit their professional progression.


Take for example the interview.  Interviews are stressful situations.  You are asked to go to a place that you have never been, and to meet with people you don’t know.  They are also very judgmental.  That’s kind of the point.  They want to see what it would be like to work with you, and a stressful situation like an interview gives them a great deal of insight into your worst behavior. The key is to keep your composure and to be likable.


While the interview should be about your technical competencies, interviewers are also about interacting with you on a personal level.  They may be asking you about NMR or HPLC techniques, but they are also sizing you up.  They are thinking about whether they would want to work with you for hours on end. What will it be like to depend on you for part of a group project that could determine the success or failure of their organization?  You will have to demonstrate your ability to work well with others, or at least these particular people.  That means you can’t clam up or become defensive.  A defensive posture can be misinterpreted by your interviewer as standoffish, abrasive, or worse.


Decisions are emotional at their root.  They may be informed by logic and facts, but human beings tend to revert back to primal instincts in making decisions.  The one at the core of the, “Do I like this person, or are they a jerk?” determination is, “Will they hurt me?”  The interviewer’s decision will be based on their level of trust in or fear of you. In the short amount of time of an interview, trust will likely be determined based on your openness and consistency.


But likeability is important in much more than interviews.  Over 70% of termination decisions are based on a person’s inability to get along with others, or to accommodate organizational culture.  The paperwork probably won’t say as much. But in reality, if someone messes up and we like them, we are likely to give them a second chance.  If they are a jerk, then disappointing performance may be just the excuse needed for termination.


If you are from Gen Y or a Millennial,  you may not have experienced many people showing good workplace behavior.  Since you were born, popular culture has been dominated by “reality television” where people act badly to dramatic effect.  The worse they act, the further ahead they seem to get.  Please note, that this is not how the real world works, and most of the behaviors exhibited on reality television were egged on by producers seeking salacious moments that could be used to promote viewership and ratings.  So don’t believe it.  Reality television is not real, and reality-show celebrities are not proper role models for social behavior.  If you display these behaviors at work, you are likely to be escorted to the nearest exit.


So how can you show the beautiful person that you really are, instead of coming across as a jerk? It will probably take practice. Go to receptions, meetings, any chance to interact with other professionals.  Observe the effects of your actions.  You may find some bad habits you have that stop the conversation short.  Those are bad.  Don’t do that again.  Other actions may cause people to flock to you.  Those are the ones you want.  There will also be actions that fall in between those extremes.  Make a mental note of the good, the bad and the better, and strive for consistent improvement.  Informal meetings centered on topics not related to your job are the best place to start, because it won’t matter if things go badly there.  You can always walk away, and start anew with another group the next day.  Start small before you go big, and set yourself up with some easy wins in the beginning.


The thing to remember is that most people, especially chemists, are good at heart, and they want you to succeed.   The people on the other side of the table are just as likely as you to be miserable during a bad interview.  To avoid the discomfort during a bad interaction, they are likely to throw you a help line.  If you feel yourself sinking, look to them for help.  You can even ask if help is not obvious – ask them to repeat or rephrase the question.  They may be sinking too.


In summary, your interactions with others matter just as much, if not more than, your technical competencies.  You don’t have to be a perfect human being, and you don’t have to be the most popular. You just need to be likable, communicative and trustworthy.



David Harwell is the Assistant Director for Industry Member Programs at the American Chemical Society. This article was first published in the ACS Careers Blog on 01/13/14.

ACS Industry

Herford Culture

Posted by ACS Industry Jan 23, 2015

During graduate school, I took on many different jobs to make ends meet, but none was as educational as working on a cattle ranch in North Texas. There I was introduced to Hereford culture, and I must conclude that cattle are stupid.

I am very thankful for the financial support I received through teaching and conducting research in graduate school, but there were some days when I needed more. Desperate times called for desperate measures. So when my budget got tight, I would take on an extra job. One such venture involved herding cattle into a stockyard so that they could be dehorned and vaccinated.


This may sound simple, or even romantic, but it wasn’t. Cattle lack the drive and focus necessary to adhere to a strategic plan. Their lives are genuinely centered on gastronomic fulfillment. Cows eat the grass at their feet until it is gone, and then they move on to the next clump of foliage they see. This is not a planned event, nor is thought given to long-term objectives, so it is difficult at times to convince cattle of the need for change.


On the other hand, I was very compelled and my mission was clear. Drive the cattle into the pen, give them their meds, trim their horns, and collect my cash. I dressed appropriately in a baseball cap, an old tee-shirt, jeans and my boots. I was also given the keys to an old pickup truck, so that I could “nudge” the cows along if necessary.


The round-up proceeded smoothly. Yelling, honking the truck horn, or waving my arms wildly was generally enough motivation to ensure buy-in from the herd; however, there were two hold-outs: a cow named Bessie and a bull named Frank. They had recently given birth to a love-child which was hidden in a clump of mesquite trees.


I was told by the lead man, Bubba, to grab the calf and stand in the back of the pickup while he drove slowly toward the pen. This plan was meant to incentivize the herding process for Bessie, who in turn would incentivize the process for Frank. However, Bessie was more concerned about the grass than she was about her calf, so I was told to “twist the calf’s ear a little bit, so that it’ll talk to its mama.” Bubba killed the truck to make the calf’s wail more audible to Bessie.


As instructed, I twisted the calf’s ear; it simultaneously squealed and became incontinent. Hearing her baby in distress, Bessie sprang to the rescue jumping half-way into the pick-up. The truck lurched and I slipped on the now wet bed of the pickup toward Bessie. Luckily, Bubba restarted the truck and drove it toward the mark. With calf in hand, Bessie in pursuit and Frank trailing along behind, we completed our mission according to plan. I got my money. Bessie was reunited with her calf, and surrounded by a herd of heifers, Frank was also content.


Don’t be like the cattle in this story. Set yourself apart from the herd by planning for your future. Consider where you want to go, what you want to accomplish, what will motivate you to change, and how you will encourage others to help you in your plan.



David Harwell is the Assistant Director for Industry Member Programs at the American Chemical Society. This article was originally published in the newsletter on July 2, 2007.



Views expressed on this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS. Comments on posts are encouraged; however, foul or derogatory language will be rejected.

ACS Industry

Patience Comes with Time

Posted by ACS Industry Jan 16, 2015

There is no quick and easy way to learn patience. Although the theory behind it can be illustrated and its benefits proven, people are not likely to adopt the concept until they are ready—until it is time.


“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”

Arnold H Glasgow


When I was a kid, I was always on my way to somewhere. I couldn’t tell you why that way, or the importance of getting there in an instant. However, I knew that I was missing something by not being on my way. It was important to me to find out all those things that others knew, and to see all of the new and exciting things in the world before they faded away.


I have to admit, I am still a little bit like the kid I once was. Now, I am bigger and taller, slower and more gray, but I still have an urge to rush to the front of the line. This propensity, however, seldom works in my favor. Early adopters of technology pay higher prices and suffer through more retrofits and patches than those coming behind.


In negotiations, the first person to lose their cool or to state a price will lose, because in doing so; they have furnished their opponent with a leverage point. In a salary negotiation, you should never state what you would take as your minimum salary, because that is the salary that you are most likely to receive.


In negotiations with vendors, many of you will have had at least one experience with customer service that is more laughable than affable. Where in every iteration of your request for service, you are baited calling your practices into question. Such cases require that you document their responses, perform a gap analysis, demonstrate why a complete fix is necessary, and stipulate why they are legally bound to complete the work. This process is tedious, but it generally results in a superior system.


My experiences with dealing with poor customer service have taught me many things about the people involved both on my side and on the other side. Those times where we were patient and persistent with well-conceived processes for change were the times that we won. The times when we lost our cool reacting to our opponents taunts were the times that we lost. For every feature missing from our system or project, I can trace back to an impulsive and impetuous response. In being reactive, we lost our position of authority and in most cases our legitimacy.


People who are reactive are dismissed as irrational. They are not seen as agents for change and are seldom judged as being capable of making a difference. In fact, they are usually seen as damaged in some way — ostracized from their own group and ignored by their opponents.


Patience is one of the most valuable assets that a person can have. This is as true in life as it is in work. Those who lack patience often pay a penance, and those that have it reap the benefits. I am still working on my patience, but admittedly, the process is taking forever. I just hope that the time I’ve got left is greater than or equal to the time required to complete my journey.


“It is strange that the years teach us patience; that the shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.”

Elizabeth Taylor


Got to go.



David Harwell is the Assistant Director for Industry Member Programs at the American Chemical Society. This article was originally published in the ACS Careers Blog 09/29/08.



Views expressed on this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS. Comments on posts are encouraged; however, foul or derogatory language will be rejected.

ACS Industry

Signal Before You Turn

Posted by ACS Industry Jan 9, 2015

Sudden changes without adequate forewarning can be jarring for people. Providing notification of what is to come can ensure a smoother transition for them and for you.


Sometimes I think that my fellow commuters are out to kill me. Other times I know that they are! This morning I was almost hit by a bus.


The bus driver’s scowl contrasted sharply with the large yellow happy face painted on the side of the door beneath his window. I am guessing that he was late in the delivery of the dozen or so adolescents being tossed about in the rear of the bus as he frantically maneuvered through traffic.


Luckily, I had noticed his approach in my rear view mirror. Alerted by car horns and foul language, I had glanced over to witness his path of carnage and I moved to the side of the road. Wildly gesticulating with a single-finger gesture, he zoomed past with a belch of black smoke.


If I had not been alerted by fellow commuters I would have been taken completely by surprise, because there were no other signals. I would not have seen the bus driver’s approach and would not have been able to anticipate his moves. The result could have been disastrous. As it turned out, my car and I came out of the altercation without a scratch, but I would not say that I have warm feelings for the bus driver.


When interacting with others, it is important to remember to signal any changes to come, so that they will have time to respond appropriately. This is especially true for time and/or resource-intensive projects, or when explaining difficult concepts.


People need time to contemplate their role in the plan and to prepare for time and resource demands. By signaling ahead, you are giving them the opportunity to align their priorities with yours, and you are allowing for opportunities of collaboration and synergy.


“Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging because things may get better. To the confident it is inspiring because the challenge exists to make things better. “


King Whitney Jr.


It is a fact of life in large metropolitan areas that traffic can be hairy at times. However, driving defensively and using your signals to announce your intentions will generally ensure a safe commute. Signaling your intentions in the workplace can have similar results.



David Harwell is the Assistant Director for Industry Member Programs at the American Chemical Society. This article was originally published in the ACS Careers Blog on 05/12/08.



Views expressed on this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS. Comments on posts are encouraged; however, foul or derogatory language will be rejected.