52 jobs in 52 weeks unveil good, bad HR (Guest commentary)

Poor role definition and communication lead to uncertainty

After graduating from college, I struggled to answer the question “What should I do with my life?” I scoured various job boards and flipped through newspaper classified ads — all the different industries and ambiguous job titles sounded cool enough, but I had no clue what the jobs would actually be like.

I thought back to the advice my dad gave me in my senior year of college. “Sean, it doesn’t matter what you do, just make sure it’s something you’re passionate about. I’ve been alive for nearly 60 years and have yet to find something I’m passionate about besides your mother.”

Sage advice we often hear but what we don’t often hear is how we can find our passion. My idea was to start “The One-Week Job Project.” My goal was to work 52 jobs in 52 weeks to find my passion.

In one year, I trekked more than 74,000 kilometres, slept on 55 couches, raised more than $20,000 for charity and tried every job I could: baker, teacher, real estate agent, advertising executive, Hollywood producer, radio DJ and more. Wherever I could find work, I’d go there, find a couch to crash on and immerse myself in whatever profession was at hand. And then I’d move on.

As I worked for 52 different employers during the year, you can imagine I ran into both good and bad HR practices — I’d like to share one of each with you.

The good: Great corporate culture

Cam Heaps and Greg Cromwell, the two co-founders of Steam Whistle Brewery, a microbrewery in downtown Toronto, have laid the foundation for an excellent corporate culture.

All the way from the brewery floor to the office upstairs, where everyone including Heaps and Cromwell share one large space, it is obvious people like to work for this company.

The beer industry is very competitive. Because Steam Whistle is a small microbrewery competing against massive international companies with huge resources, the founders realized the company must focus on its strengths. What Steam Whistle has that these big companies lack is a close-knit, family-like work environment. Heaps and Cromwell respect all their employees, listen to their needs and create a fun work environment. In return, the employees give the company loyalty and hard work.

I experienced it firsthand in my interactions with the employees. One guy, Brian, had worked in the sales department for about four years. When I asked what his role in the company was, he refused to give me a definitive answer. He kept saying things like “I am Steam Whistle. This is my family.”

I spoke with another employee, Chloe, about the work dynamic and this sense of company loyalty. She went on about how much pride she takes in her job. On bottling days, she told me, a crew of about 12 would start at 8 a.m. and work a full day on the production line.

“When I’m in the beer store and I see a case of Steam Whistle packaged on the day I worked, I’m like, ‘That was me. I helped put that together,’” she said.

Most of the people on the line have been with the company for five years or more. There’s great camaraderie among the bottling crew; occasionally, a few part-time employees will even take days off from their jobs to come and work on the line.

The bad: Poor role definition, communication

Another job I took was to cover a prestigious event for a company that involved interacting with celebrities and attending a large music festival. But what looked like one of my best weeks on paper turned out to be one of my worst.

In effect, I had three bosses, all with different expectations of me. One boss, the communications manager, knew about my One-Week Job Project, loved the idea and asked me to take pictures and write a blog on the company website during the event. The second boss, the owner of the company, clearly thought I was a third-party professional hired to cover the event. And the third boss, the company’s PR guy and my main point of contact during the week, didn’t seem to have a clue about what to do with me but, through his dismissive attitude, never failed to make it apparent he wasn’t satisfied.

These uncertain expectations of my role made it extremely challenging, not to mention awkward. For one person, I was doing a great job and, for another, I was completely off track.

It wasn’t the uncertainty I had difficulty dealing with. By that point, I’d become accustomed to not knowing where I was going, where I was working or where I’d be sleeping a few days later — I was simply never sure of my role. This led to a constant tension and anxiety underlying the experience because I wasn’t sure what was expected of me and, worse, I felt scrutinized as a result. The issue was communication — I never knew whether I was doing a good job or not because I didn’t know what I was being evaluated on.

Sean Aiken is the Vancouver-based author of The One-Week Job Project: 1 Man, 1 Year, 52 Jobs. He also filmed a documentary during his year-long workplace odyssey. For more information, visit www.OneWeekJob.com.

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