The last week of December is the busiest time for customer service reps who are fielding calls from customer's whose gifts don't work. For most other office workers, this week is dead. And if you are in the office this week, you are probably looking for something to do.

1. Plan
Here's the first thing to do: Devise a plan for how to get out of working this week next year. Movers and shakers do not get swindled into working during this notoriously slow time of year. People who run out of vacation days work this week. People who have unreasonable bosses work this week. People in control of their jobs are at home licking their chops. You need more control over your job.

2. Date
Have you had your eye on the customer service rep on the floor below yours? Now's the time to make your move because you know your target is at work this week. Saunter down to his desk around lunchtime and invite him to the cafeteria. No one will be there because service reps are eating at their desk and everyone else is eating in their grandma's living room. So you will have an intimate date at the cafeteria, and if the person goes ballistic that you hit on him at the office you can say, “How can you think I was hitting on you? We were in the cafeteria for god's sake.” (Warning: It is not illegal to hit on someone at work. But I definitely do not recommend that you a. bug someone relentlessly or b. hit on someone who you have authority over.)

3. Eat
You know all the cookies and candy that vendors sent to the office last week? Well, it's still there, getting a little more rotten every day. So do everyone a favor and take some home. Think of it as a perk for showing up to work during what is, essentially, a holiday.

4, Surf
I like the Borowitz report. My husband thinks it's stupid and would tell you to go to the Onion. You might think this has nothing to do with your career, but my brother interviewed for a job in London, and made an off-the-cuff reference to an Onion article and the interviewer said, “Oh, I read that one, too.” So it is important to surf so that you can establish rapport during your interviews. Do not go to porn sites. The people who monitor your surfing habits can get to you even if they are not at work this week. Besides, porn surfing is not a reliable way to establish interview rapport.

5. Sleep
Everyone wants to sleep at their desk, but few people do it. In fact, I would say that more people have sex at their desk than sleep at their desk. Sleep is the new forbidden frontier of office debauchery. So go ahead. After all, there's no one around right now. Have a lunch laden with carbohydrates and go back to your desk as your sugar crash sets in. Now put your head gingerly on your desk, maybe on top of a pile of scruffy papers, and close your eyes. You have earned this treat — you showed up to the office between Christmas and New Year's.

Feeling stuck? Uninspired? As though your New Year's resolutions have no spark? Maybe it's time to start your own business. It’s likely you intuitively know if you're actually an entrepreneur stuffed in a corporate cubicle. The entrepreneurship bug isn’t something that hits in middle age. It’s something that's inside you from day one — a part of who you are. So don't be stifled by your age or lack of experience. Just make sure you have the right personality for success and the right attitude toward failure.

Get a good idea
Starting a business is very high-risk. Most entrepreneurs fail. So minimize your risk by honestly evaluating if your concept is valid and marketable. Remember, just because you like your idea doesn't mean there’s a market full of buyers for it, so do your research. Tip: your mom’s opinion doesn’t count because she’s biased, so find a small business mentor and ask her.

Assess your personality
You also need the right personality to run your own business. You must like people and people must like you — so you can get them to do what you want. You need to be able to make fast, confident decisions, and you need to be organized so that you can give clear direction to others. If your product launch flops, you are the one who has to tell everyone why the company is still on the road to success. If you can’t rally the troops, you need a business partner.

You also need boundless energy. When you own the company, you set the pace and the standards. Remember the day at the office last month when you were upset and tired from worrying about your personal life the night before, so you surfed the Internet all day? Relaxing, wasn’t it? You can’t do this when you own the company. Most small business owners work 80-hour weeks and wish they needed less sleep.

I have these traits. And I started a business. I raised funds and hired employees, and, surprise, the company was successful and I eventually cashed out. But I paid a high price. I worked almost every waking minute. When cash flow was poor, I worried not only about my own paycheck, but about the paychecks of my employees. When cash flow was good, deal flow was heavy and my workload doubled even though I was already maxed out. While I was negotiating the sale of my shares, my hair started falling out. I didn't know this happened to women, but apparently it does, usually from intense stress.
Fortunately, most small business owners are optimistic. And I am, too. I bought some Nioxin to make my hair grow back. And once I regained my former full mane, I started another business.

It failed. And I lost a lot of the money I made from the first business. There were many reasons for the failure: Bad timing, bad economy, and maybe, in hindsight, bad idea. If you think you have the personality to succeed as a small business owner, make sure you have the right approach to failure as well.

Minimize risk to your checkbook and your career
I invested only the money I could afford to lose. I had no kids and no mortgage. I lost my loot from my first company, but I didn't lose my shirt: I kept enough to live on for a while longer.” Think of starting a business as gambling: When you go to Vegas, never bet your plane fare home. Once my company closed, I enlisted a resume-writing service to help me frame my business flop as a career hop to the next level of management.

Fail quickly and move on
Most business leaders fail once or twice before hitting it big. Think of failure as a necessary career step and move through it quickly and assuredly — recognize when things are going poorly, fail fast, learn, and get another idea.

To those of you with the right personality, I say bring it on! You will be pleased that you turned tough economic times into an opportunity for fulfillment. And even if you fail, remember that statistics indicate you are most likely to succeed when you are doing something you love.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate your salary. Once a hiring manager chooses you from what is probably the largest pool of candidates she’s ever seen, you know you’re a top candidate. The current economy won’t give you the edge to ask for first-class air travel, but you do have options that can improve your salary outcome.

1. Don’t disclose your pay requirements during the interview process. The first person to provide numbers establishes the range. If you give a number first, the interviewer will either tell you you’re in the same ballpark as him, or you’re too high.
If you ask for less than the interviewer was considering, you’ll probably get it — and never find out you might have earned more. So interviewers always want you to disclose your requirements first. (Do not try to remedy this situation by giving an unreasonably high number because then you will sound unreasonable.)

Your first line of defense is to say you’d like to talk about salary once you have an offer. Still, a good interviewer will persevere. So try asking the interviewer what HE would pay someone for this job. Whatever number he gives, you can say, “That will be a fine starting point.” (You will ask for more later.)

2. Do not negotiate until you have an offer in writing. Here’s why (and you should remember this for when the tables are turned): Let’s say the job pays a salary and a performance bonus, but you don’t know about the bonus part. If you do not get a written offer specifying the pay elements before you start negotiating, then you might negotiate a higher base salary but lose a portion of your bonus. That’s because the bonus gives your hiring manager some “wiggle room.” She can take it off the table before you know you’re supposed to receive it. (Then she can report back to her boss and say, “I saved us $5K.”) Get the full offer in writing so you know what you have to work with during your bargaining.

Once you have that written offer, ask for a night to think about it and come back with a counter offer. Admittedly, you may hate confrontation and feel you’re a poor negotiator, but you have nothing to lose and you’re likely to get more money. Plus you will get better at this each time you try. Remember, almost no one loses a written offer because he asks for more money.

3. Do your research and plan your attack.
To know what to ask for in negotiations, you MUST know the pay range for your position. Check out salary surveys online and in trade journals. Do not quote any numbers from surveys conducted earlier than 2001. They are inflated. Get more recent information. Talk with friends in similar jobs or recruiters who regularly fill this type of position in your geographic region. Find the top of the salary range and ask for that. Show the hiring manager your research and remind her why you are worth the top of the range.

If you are fortunate enough to find out that your offer already is in the high end of your salary range, then propose taking on more responsibilities so you can ask for slightly more pay. Suppose you are a marketing manager with a background in technical writing. You can say that while most marketing managers pass off technical writing in marketing documents to someone else, you will handle this yourself. This entitles you to ask for slightly more.

4. Know what you need.
Each person is compensated in different ways — and not always monetarily. For instance, if you love what you do, you may not mind earning less than your neighbor with the same degree. Likewise, if you have a shorter commute. Friends can advise you, but you are the one in the job, and you must decide if you want it, regardless of the size of your paycheck. No salary survey can tell you that. Decide what’s important to you and what trade-offs you’ll make pay wise, but be honest with yourself. Don’t give up being paid more because you hate negotiating. Self-knowledge, good negotiation skills — and a little chutzpah — will help ensure you earn what you deserve starting with your next job.

 

For all of you who are plotting to ditch your company's holiday party, forget it: You have to go. And for all of you who are really excited about the holiday party, you can also forget it: The open bar is off-limits to you.

Before I launch into a diatribe against people who ditch company parties, let me just say that I am not a fan of the company holiday party. For one thing, not everyone has a December holiday in his or her life, so the concept is culturally alienating. For another thing, in most cases, holiday party means Christmas party with a token menorah hanging from the rafters: More cultural alienation. But my biggest complaint is that company parties are almost never on company time; they are unpaid overtime for employees.

That said, when I have attended “holiday” parties at which the only holiday is Christmas, I have pretended to have a good time. And you will have to do this, too, because the people who are promoted in corporate America are the people who fit in. Console yourself with the idea that if you are successful in corporate life, you can run your own company and abolish all holiday shenanigans from your offices.

People who blow off company parties look like snobs. Everyone has something better to do that night. But the people who actually DO something better are dissing the people who show up. You will get more done at the office if people like you, and attending one or two office parties is a small price to pay for co-workers who do favors for you when your projects are behind schedule. Luckily, you do not need to be the first there and the last to leave. Show up, make sure people who know you see that you're there. And slip out as soon as you can without being rude.

Some times you have to attend client’s holiday parties. The number one thing to remember when participating in holiday parties — either at a client’s or your own office — is that it is a chance to enhance your image. So since you don't wear short skirts to client meetings, don't show up to a client's Christmas party as Santa's hottest elf. Leverage annoying conventions like grab bags to remind people that you are clever and thoughtful. Buy a good gift but follow the rules: Paying $15 for a $10 grab-bag gift is cheating and dishonest, and stupid gag gifts are just that – stupid.

And even though everyone knows not to get rip-roaring drunk at an office party, people do it all the time. Remember in junior high school when the drug awareness counselor told you to be ready to “just say no?” with a prepared speech when friends tried to push you wayward? You probably didn't use the speech then, but you can use it now. No matter how boring and intolerable the party is, the open bar is not your last opportunity in this lifetime for free mixed drinks. Surely you have a friend who is getting married or getting dumped. Save the ten Cosmopolitans for that event. The only way to manage your image effectively is to do it sober.

You should also buy your boss a gift. Not because she is starving or has a hankering for a fruit basket, but because a gift is an excuse to write a card. Take the time to thank your boss for what she's doing to help you. Be genuine and specific so you won’t seem like a brown nose. Maybe your boss has actually done very little for you, but I would bet money he thinks he's been very helpful. So you can thank him for trying, even if he has failed. After all, isn’t being generous and understanding what the holidays are for?