Am I Better Off in a Free-Lance Job and How Do I Negotiate What I Need?

Dear Work Coach,

Here’s my predicament. I’d love to get your advice.

I worked for Microsoft as a contractor for about a year. During my last contract, my manager told me they had an opening for a permanent employee and she wanted me to fill it. At the time I was a bit ambivalent, because I was very content in my contracting role. My primary issue was having to share a cramped windowless office, which made concentrating difficult when an office-mate was talking, eating, or typing. (I have since learned I am part of the 20% of the population who have highly sensitive neurological systems. Elaine Aron, Ph.D. and others have written about this subject.)

When I was offered the permanent job, I was led to believe I would have my own office and even be able to work from home some of the time. So I went ahead an converted to become a permanent employee. Within days after my conversion, I discovered I would not have an office of my own after all. A couple of months later, after becoming increasingly depressed by the office situation but not wanting to give up, I asked to work from home one day a week. The request was denied by the Group Manager, who said it was company policy.

I tried my best to explain my predicament in detail, and attempted to negotiate a solution (”let me work in a cubicle somewhere, or an open lab type environment”). An HR Manager was brought in, but said it was up to the manager who said “no” because he wanted to be consistent in his policies. So my efforts failed and I resigned. I gave a month’s notice and did a great job of wrapping up my work and transferring my knowledge.

Now how do I articulate this in a job interview? How do I explain leaving a high paid secure job because I had started dropping into a deep depression being forced to work 40 hours a week in that shared cramped windowless office? Had the Group Manager (my polar opposite temperament-wise) been even a wee bit sensitive to my needs, and willing to provide some reasonable accommodation, I’d still be there doing work I loved.

Sigh. I’ve learned highly sensitive people like myself are frequently free-lancers or self-employed. Perhaps I just need to commit to that and push forward. But I see my biggest obstacle to being a free-lancer as being uncomfortable asking people for money. I’m a “happy helper” sort of person – I’d be far more comfortable in a village-like barter economy, than having to come up with fees for my services. Any suggestions or guidance around that are welcomed as well.

Regards,
Liz

***

Hi Liz!

Wow! So sorry you had to go through all this. I am a kindred spirit both in Information Technology work and in being noise-sensitive.  I soooo get where you’re coming from!

In fact, the day after I read your comment, the man who sits next to me (I currently share an office with THREE others) was playing his music really softly – he’s very considerate – but still there was a drumbeat I kept hearing loudly enough to draw my attention, even though most people would not have noticed it at all. But I sure did – and it was distracting me. I know you can relate.

Unfortunately, as a free-lancer, as in my current case, you never know where you might wind up. And this office is waaaay quieter than the one I had 2 months ago, which drove me up a wall!! More on that soon.

To get to your first question first…when you interview, I would not mention the phrase “highly-sensitive person”. It’s a big red flag against you. The trick when answering interview questions is to be as positive as possible and as honest as possible (without telling your life’s story) – and then get on to discussing your strengths as quickly as possible.  😉

If you choose to do contract work again or free-lance (a much easier transition, I think), your best bet is negotiating your needs up front. Free-lancers have less of a chance of getting their own office in most cases, but unlike your last experience, many places can at least find you privacy if you don’t mind some small cubbyhole off in the boonies. Plus, you can discuss working from home on occasion as part of the negotiation. It’s something I always try to get included if at all possible. (In fact, I have it now.)

And the good thing about returning to non-permanent work as your next move is it provides a wonderful explanation of why you left the last job…you can simply say you realized you are much happier as a contractor or free-lancer. Many people have that preference, and this makes total sense to most interviewers.

If you do decide to try for a full-time job, one approach is to tell them that you liked the work itself and hated leaving, but the conditions wound up being something other than you expected. Then add a little about why this job is an even better fit – and then stop.

If they ask you specifically what conditions didn’t work for you, you have nothing to lose by being honest. Again, no need to bring up a “condition” or go into too much detail, but since you won’t settle for less now, no harm explaining as sincerely and as matter-of-factly as possible that you need your own space when you work, even if it is a tiny space no one else wants! (Smile here.) Also tell them, as an alternative if that’s not possible, you could work from home one or two days a week. Then you just stop, look the person in the eyes, and politely ask “Is this at all possible? I really think I could do well here and hope it’s something you’d be open to.”

If they say no…you wouldn’t be happy there any way. You might as well find out now.

But I would definitely explore the urge to have your own free-lance business. From what you tell me, you may be well suited to it. You say ” I see my biggest obstacle as being comfortable asking people for money. I’m a ‘happy helper’ sort of person”. My question to you is…why don’t you see yourself happily helping yourself get what you need?

When you ask for what you deserve, you are merely offering yourself at a fair price to a company who is getting a superior worker. Do you know what some companies pay for consultants??? You can price yourself fairly and still make really good money. If you can, check around and find out what consulting firms charge employers for consultants that do similar work and set your fees somewhere below that, especially when you’re first starting out on your own. In some cases they pay consultants (or the firms) more than double what I make, and I still do REALLY well! (You can figure out a reasonable fee for yourself once you have some figures to compare it to. Remember to factor in enough for your own health insurance, self-employment tax, etc.)

Trust me Liz…after you do the fee negotiation a few times and establish a set price, it gets easier. My first time I was nervous too, but I asked for the advice of people I knew; and then when the time came, I took a deep breath (quietly to myself), looked the person straight in the eyes, and asked for more than I ever imagined…and she said YES! After that I actually chose to lower my rates a little, which turned out to be a smart move because I got lots more work in other areas at the same place by being affordable – even though what they considered affordable was still more than I ever earned before!

And back to the issue of sensitivity…I like that you are thinking about employing new coping strategies no matter what type of work you decide to pursue. Even though earphones annoy me, I’ve found certain music – especially gentle new age stuff I’d probably never consider in my personal time – helps me stay relatively sane when the noise is too much. It kind of provides what psychologists call “white noise”. And I also do deep breathing and meditation exercises.

But in the end, your best ally here is YOU…and learning to put yourself and your needs – whatever they are – into the negotiations. You deserve to work in conditions that work for you. Everyone does!

I wish you all the best, Liz. Please let us know what you decide and how it turns out. 🙂

Ronnie Ann

In case you’re curious, this originally comes from an 11/11/08 comment:

Job Interviews: Explaining Why You Left The Last Job So Soon

 

About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.

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