Sunday, May 30, 2010

What qualifications are important in a technical writer?

Recently, my department has been interviewing to replace one of our technical writers. The company for which I work has a policy to hire from within wherever possible and so far the job has only been posted internally. However, there are only three other technical writers at our site, not including those who work in our department, and none of those experienced writers applied for our open position.

Historically, my company has pulled technical writers from either engineering or drafting. Technical writing as a career path is still relatively new, and the perception remains that technical knowledge is more important than writing skills. This isn't a criticism of my company, simply the way it's always been.

The problem is, with technology advancing at lightening speed, technical writers are being challenged to develop software skills to enable them to create interactive and Web-based documentation. Universities are now offering degrees in technical documentation and the old "anyone with technical knowledge can do this job" philosophy is falling by the wayside.

So what is important when it comes to hiring a technical writer? Certainly, an applicant needs basic word processing and formatting skills, and experience creating some sort of documentation. Ideally, he or she should have working knowledge of some kind of publishing software. A technical writer must also have demonstrated excellent research and organizational skills.

My contention is that it's' easier to teach product to an experienced technical writer than to try and train a technical person to be a writer. There are so many factors that weigh into creating technical documentation that is both accurate and user friendly, product knowledge is only one part of the process. The question should be can the technical person "translate" this information into something that is user friendly, well written, and correctly formatted?

Consider the reverse of this argument. I am currently working with engineering drawings for an interactive parts list and use the drafting database to access these drawings. I pull the drawings from the database, open them in Illustrator and strip out everything but callouts and lines. I then consolidate these drawings on one page, renumber and format the page for ease of use.

I would consider myself an expert at what I do, but does that qualify me to be a draftsperson? No way! I have no training in the software used to create the drawings and no engineering experience. I don't really have a lot of technical knowledge either! So, although I have eleven years experience as a technical writer and have been working with the same product for two years, I can say without question that I'm not qualified to be a draftsperson!

It's time technical writing be recognized as a legitimate career path. To do anything else devalues what we, as tech writers do, and in the long run, diminishes the quality of our documentation.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Video: There Oughta Be a Law

Here's one woman's story of workplace abuse, the consequences for her and her family, and a daughter's resolution to help pass a law to help others from experiencing this situation.

Episode 1 ( ©2009) HD from Beverly Peterson on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Workplace bullying: One woman's story

In 2005, I accepted a position as a technical writer for a well-respected Central New York company. I brought years of experience to the position and was excited about the opportunity. A number of my former co-workers had joined this company and they had nothing but good things to say about their new employer.

The problems didn't start immediately. Initially, I was assigned to work with the department's new supervisor on a proposal project. Neither of us had much experience in proposal management, but together, we were able to successfully complete the task and get the proposal out on time. We worked well together and I enjoyed the experience. She seemed pleased by my work and we talked about my being the department's proposal coordinator. I was glad I'd made the move.

Once the proposal was complete, however, things began to change. She was named the proposal coordinator and began using other people in the department to help her. When I reminded her of our discussion, she brushed me aside. Instead, I was given minimal assignments; usually editing boilerplate copy or inputting engineering changes into technical manuals. Where she had once solicited my opinion and advice, she began to shut me out or worse, discount or even mock my suggestions.

The real shift began just before Christmas. I stopped into her office to wish her a happy holiday and noticed she had a new company Excellence Award plaque up on her wall. She proudly told me she had been given this as a result of all the hard work she had done on the proposal and showed me the impressive diamond earrings she had bought with the money that accompanied the award. Clearly, my face reflected not only shock, but crushing disappointment. I had received no such recognition for my contributions to the project, not even the lower level company award. Realizing the implications, she immediately stopped talking and  dismissed me. I drove home in tears.

At the same time, another co-worker went out on maternity leave. I was assigned to work on the new manual with which she had been tasked. I took my direction from the project manager, logistics, and the design team, and together, we created a new and improved manual for the customer. The team appreciated my efforts and I finally felt as though I were on level ground again. But the rug was soon to be pulled out from under me.

Occasionally, the co-worker who was on leave called to check in and talk about the project. I respected her experience and bounced ideas off of her. During these conversations, she told me she was not looking forward to coming back to work and complained about our supervisor. Apparently, she had asked if she could come back part time at first but this request was denied even though our supervisor worked a 32-hour (or shorter) work week. I agreed this was unfair and we both complained about the way our supervisor was running the department. Little did I know that this conversation would later be used against me.

Sometime between this conversation and my co-worker's return from her leave, my supervisor "got" to this person and extracted information from her. I'll never really know how this happened, but when the woman returned, she had also turned against me. She deemed the manual that I had created to be completely unacceptable and insisted on starting the entire project over. I was taken off the project and another writer assigned to help her. I was blamed for the project being late and put on probation. Remember, I had worked with all the principles on this project, and they had approved the manual and recommended it be published.

From then on my life became a living hell. My supervisor yelled and swore at me, often in front of others. She challenged everything I said or did and found fault with all my work. I was criticized in staff meetings and given tasks that were an insult to my years of experience. She told me she didn't like the facial expressions I made when she talked to me and didn't like that I always looked mad.

My co-workers were told not to talk to me unless absolutely necessary because I was spreading negativity. Thus, I was essentially shunned. And, as paranoid as this may sound, I suspect my office was "bugged." My supervisor and the department manager were able to quote things I had said in the privacy of my office to people whom I trusted implicitly and who swore they did not repeat our conversation.

For example, I was warned not to tell anyone I was on probation. I was told that revealing this would be grounds for my termination. I was very careful not to say anything to anyone about this, but one night after a particularly grueling dressing down by my supervisor, I slipped and said something to my office mate. I gestured to him to come with me outside the building and explained the gaffe I had just made. While he was stunned that I was on probation, he assured me he wouldn't say a word and he did not. He was equally disgusted, and in fact, his job was "phased out" shortly thereafter.  However, the fact that I had shared this information with him when I was specifically told not to was one of the points mentioned in my termination letter. How did they know?

I was a wreck. I took my concerns to Human Resources, but the only way the situation could be addressed was for the HR manager to notify my supervisor that a complaint had been lodged against her. Of course that made matters worse. I was mandated to talk to the company psychologist who I suspect also betrayed my confidence. All though this, my boss and the department manager kept assuring me that they wanted me to succeed and were trying to help me. This is, they told me, a caring place and we want you to be happy.

It's not that I didn't try to conform. I did. I tried to control my facial expressions and follow department protocol and procedure even when these rules made no sense. I made a conscious effort not to complain or talk about the boss, and worked at being more positive. I triple-checked all my work and consulted the department style guide to make sure I followed it to the letter. I trained myself not to react when I was scolded and never to talk back. I attempted to smile all the time and even volunteered to organize a baby shower for another co-worker.  But even then, they kept finding fault with me. I was accused of being false and sarcastic. I simply could not win and wondered if I were in fact going crazy!

Never in my adult life had I faced such a situation. I couldn't transfer out of the department because I was on probation. I couldn't quit because I was self-supporting and had to have unemployment. I couldn't find another job because I was in no shape to do an interview. I consulted an attorney and was told that despite the psychological and physical damage, I had no grounds for a disability case.

The abuse escalated and I began having full-fledged panic attacks. My hair was falling out and I couldn't sleep. I dreaded getting up and going to work and as a result, used up all my sick, personal, and vacation time. I finally went to see my doctor who was horrified at my condition. My blood pressure, which had always been low, was elevated and he was concerned about my depressed state. I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication and advised to quit this job immediately.

The medication stopped the anxiety, but also dulled my responses. All my fight was gone and I stopped reacting to the situation. I was then accused of being "on drugs" or drinking on the job. Again, I had to see the company psychologist. I showed him the prescription and figured he would be able to at least defend this ridiculous charge. Whether he did or not, I'll never know because shortly thereafter I was terminated.

Four years later, this woman is still employed by the company and has since been promoted to manager.

There is a happy ending to this story, for me at least. I was able to find another job with a great company that does not condone this type of behavior. In my nearly four years with the company, I have never witnessed an incident of workplace bullying by a supervisor or manager, and difficult employees are dealt with swiftly. The work environment is friendly and relaxed, and I've been free to forge my own path. I am in line for a promotion and am well-liked. My supervisor is great! He listens to me, respects my opinion and experience, and I feel as though I am a valuable member of the team. I couldn't be happier.

It's taken a while to recover, however, and I still have moments of self-doubt and even fear. I think I will always be affected by this experience, but I am stronger for it. Writing this entry has been difficult, but I share my story because I want others who are in a similar position now to know they are not alone. Sadly, some people are unable to cope, and there are even instances of people having committed suicide rather than face another day of abuse. (Read Jodie's story here)

On May 12, the New York State Senate passed the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) S1823B / A5414B with a landslide victory of 45 to16. The intention of this bill is to protect workers who have been bullied or abused by their co-workers or supervisors. The next step toward passage is a vote by the New York State House of Representatives. I encourage everyone in New York to contact their representatives and encourage passage of this bill. It's in all of our best interest.

For more information, visit the New York Healthy Work Advocates Web site.

New York State legislature considering Healthy Workplace bill

On May 12, the New York State Senate passed the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) S1823B / A5414B with a landslide victory of 45 to16. The intention of this bill is to protect workers who have been bullied or abused by their co-workers or supervisors. The next step toward passage is a vote by the New York State House of Representatives.

Currently, an abused worker has no recourse in New York, a state where an employee can be terminated "at will" with no explanation necessary. He or she is completely at the mercy of his or her employer and cannot sue for wrongful termination. New York State workers have no protection against workplace abuse and this behavior is often tolerated by upper management.

Workplace bullying is not uncommon in today's highly stressed workplace. A 2007 WBI-Zogby survey indicates that 37 percent of American workers were currently being bullied or had been bullied in the past.In addition, the survey found the following:

* Most bullies are bosses (72%)
* More perpetrators are men (60%) than are women(40%)
* Most targets (57%) are women
* Women bullies target women (71%); men target men (54%)
* Bullying is 4 times more prevalent than illegal discriminatory harassment
* 62% of employers ignore the problem
* 45% of targets suffer stress-related health problems
* 40% of bullied individuals never tell their employers
* Only 3% of bullied people file lawsuits

Why is this bill important to me? For one year I was the target of workplace bullying at the hands of a former employer and the experience changed me forever. And while I am now employed by a great company that does not condone this type of abuse, I want to help protect employees in other companies who are enduring this abuse.You can read more about my experience here.

Workplace abuse costs companies millions in lost productivity, increases the company’s insurance premiums, and can affect the company’s reputation in the community. I am urging our state representatives to pass this bill and help make New York State the best state in the U.S. in which to work.

For more information, visit the New York Healthy Work Advocates Web site.