A workplace wake-up call

I’m an avid reader of Laurie Ruettimann’s blog Punk Rock HR. She talks about the workplace from both sides of the fence (the HR/management world and the employee’s cubisphere) and does so in a really refreshing, BS-free way.  (She also has great taste in music and blogs about cats and bacon, but I digress.)

A few months ago, when the West Virginia mining disaster happened, she talked about it in her blog, and I made a comment or two on that post. I mentioned that I’d had at least one relative who worked in the coal mines of western Pennsylvania. I knew several more had worked in the steel mills – not just generations ago, but in my father’s generation and also in mine.

In the time since Laurie made that post, I’ve immersed myself in researching my family tree. And wow, did I ever underestimate the head count on family members of mine working in the mines and mills.

Of course, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, mining and mill work was a huge sector of our economy, so it completely makes sense that so many of my ancestors would have been in this line of work.

I found this information in my research, though, and it blows my mind. It also has forever changed my perspective on what constitutes a “bad day at work” or a “bad job.”  It’s an obituary for an ancestor of mine and was published in the Daily Courier, a newspaper in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, on March 4, 1913.

Lewis Daniel Cobaugh, youngest son of the late Charles P. Cobaugh, the veteran Baltimore & Ohio engineer, and Rebella Parks Cobaugh, was almost instantly killed about noon yesterday at the Western Maryland railroad coaling station at Rockwood. The cable on the hoist used in lifting the coal to the chutes parted, and a bucket containing a ton or more of coal descended, and pinned the unfortunate man between the timbers and the bucket, crushing him in a horrible manner. The remains were taken to a local undertaking establishment and prepared for burial, and later were taken to the home of his mother.

The deceased is survived by his aged mother, who for the past year or more has been rendered almost helpless by reason of a stroke of apoplexy. His widow, who was Miss Ella Williams, and two children, Grace and Annabel, age six and three years respectively, survive. He is also survived by one brother and three sisters.

About 22 years ago the father of the deceased, the old engineer, “Dad” Cobaugh, as he was so familiarly known, was blown up in a locomotive explosion, and the injuries received resulted in his death. Prior to death of the father, the oldest son, William, while making a coupling in the Rockwood yards, had his head crushed by projecting rails on two loaded hot cars, dying in a few weeks after that accident. Next, Charles, a younger son, while working in the B. & O. shops at Connellsville, was stricken with malignant typhoid fever, expiring in a few weeks. A few years ago, another son, a flagman on the B & O, was pinioned by a sideswipe wreck in his caboose, directly alongside of a demolished engine, and was scalded to death.

I’m not sure what to be sad or shocked about more. The way Lewis died? The fact that he left two little girls behind? Or the fact that nearly everyone in his immediate family tried to do honorable work and paid for it with their lives?

I’d been planning a post here to talk about my ambivalence towards labor unions – at least, some of the unions in existence today. I’ve had bad experiences with some of them in my own career, and in Chicago, unions get in the way of employees and their well-being more often than they help.

But we’re living during a time when we turn on the TV and see the horrifying BP mess every night. And that drives home a message that corporations don’t, as a default setting, put people first. I’m reminded why unions came to be in the first place, and why safety and security have to be part of any workplace.

And the next time I’m having a bad Monday morning, with an inbox full of mail and a dull nagging headache, I’m going to think of these guys, and be damn glad I’ve got a job – and a safe one.

Turbo job search

job_searchAfter nine months of searching, I have some encouraging news in my job search. I don’t want to jinx it by talking about details before the ink is dry, so to speak, but let’s just say that it appears there is light at the end of the unemployment tunnel!

It was a long, hard, emotionally draining search over those months. I thought I was an expert; after all, I’d just spent a few months in early 2008 learning best practices when I was searching for a job that would bring me to Chicago.

And then I was hired for my dream job – where I actually wrote about careers and job searching. I was devastated to lose that job, but I’d figured I had just had a master course in how to look for work. I’d only be out of work for a month or two, tops. Right? Well, not quite.

2009 was an entirely different ballgame. What I can tell other people is this: Your search today must be unlike any other search you’ve ever conducted. You have to be in a lot of places, all at the same time. You can’t just use one or two tools to land a job – you have to use the whole damn toolbox.

You can’t glide through a standard-issue job search. You have to kick it up to TURBO.


Grading your own performance

report-cardGini Dietrich, the CEO and leader at Arment Dietrich, creates content for a blog called Spin Sucks: The Fight Against Destructive Spin (F.A.D.S.).

Like most of my favorite blogs, it’s engaging, completely no-nonsense, and when I read it, I either learn something new or look at something from a new point of view. Good stuff.

Today, the post was a challenge: what are the three things that hold you back from success? I thought it was a great question (and replied on the F.A.D.S. site).

It’s hard to be your own critic – or at least, to be objective about it. It’s counterintuitive, especially when we’re all conditioned to package ourselves and present our best face and best foot forward. But pointing that light at yourself, and acknowledging your weaknesses, can be very freeing and very empowering; after all, you’ve mapped out where you are and where you need to go.

A few months ago, in the midst of my job search, I took a hard look at the reasons why I was laid off and wrote them down. Here’s that list. (Note: some of this content was originally featured, in an alternate version, on


Lose your job? Tell your story

Michaela Watkins

Michaela Watkins

Last week, casting news at Saturday Night Live made a big splash on Twitter and the Web. The show fired two of its female performers (Casey Wilson and Michaela Watkins) and hired two others (Nasim Pedrad and Jenny Slate).

There was a lot of debate about the changes: who was funny, who wasn’t, and why SNL only has four female performers in a cast of 15. I’ll admit that I don’t watch SNL frequently enough to be able to offer an opinion.

What really got my attention was how quickly the former cast members, particularly Watkins, got THEIR story out there. News of the cast changes hit the wires early Friday morning (September 4th), and by the end of the day, Watkins had talked to Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times, as well as other outlets.

Both performers talked to the press, but Watkins in particular seemed to understand that she needed to take this news, this change of course, and reframe it in a way that was a win for her. I don’t know if it was her or her PR team, but she was quite successful in putting the focus on her and her talents.

That’s a journey for anyone who’s lost their job: How do you get YOUR story out there?