How To Deal

Lily Garcia: Thank you for joining today's live chat. I look forward to answering your career- and workplace-related questions. Let's get started.

-Lily

Washington, D.C.: Dear Lily, I am an executive assistant to the director of a non-profit. For the past three years, I have participated in the weekly senior staff meetings so that I know what the director has on her plate, which helps me prioritize her work and work with the other senior staff members. With the current financial times, senior staff meetings have taken a more serious and confidential turn and my director asked me not to participate so that if other staff members ask what is going on, I'm not put in an awkward position. I haven't participated in the last month. I feel slighted by this, as she specifically asked about my confidentiality when she hired me and I have never given her reason to think I would gossip. While I am friends with the other assistants in the office, I know what to share and what not to share. What is especially grating is the fact that I am younger by a good ten years than the other senior staff members, several of whom have reminded me in the past when something is confidential. I don't know what this stems from, other than my age and I'm unsure if I should speak to my supervisor about being in the meetings or not. I feel slighted in front of my colleagues when I've had to work so hard for their respect, but my job performance hasn't been affected by it. Thank you in advance.

Lily Garcia: I understand how you could feel slighted by your boss' decision to suddenly exclude you from senior staff meetings. However, I encourage you to try to take it in stride. The meeting agenda could include a discussion of proposed changes in the employment status of your colleagues, in which case it is not surprising that your boss would want to limit attendance to those with a business need to know. If your exclusion from these meetings is hampering your ability to stay on top of your boss' priorities, just ask if you could schedule a separate weekly meeting to allow you to gather the information you need to do your job. Your boss might ultimately decide that she was being overly cautious in excluding you from the senior staff meeting. In the meantime, know that her decision probably has nothing to do with your performance or your value to the organization.

San Bruno, Calif: Can you explain the legal reason companies offer severance? In such a severe downturn, I am wondering why severance at all is offered? Also, can companies offer different packages to different employees(could they offer two similar employees in terms of age and service longevity vastly different packages?)

Lily Garcia: Companies offer severance in order to secure a release of potential legal claims (and thus save money down the line) and also to bolster their reputation for fairness with remaining employees and in the community. Companies legitimately offer different packages to different employees based upon such factors as years of service, seniority, contributions to the organization, and circumstances of departure.

Boston, Mass.: Perhaps it is just pride, but also feel many others will need unemployment benefits. More than I. Spouse has good job/healthcare and we are cutting back to "necessary only" expenses. Still, it has been three months and nothing has clicked for new job. If I did not miss a deadline, do I sign up now? Should I re-focus search and consider positions 1-2 levels down the ladder?

Lily Garcia: Unemployment exists to help people in the transition from one job to the next. If you feel like you could use the help, you should apply. Whether you expand your job search to more junior positions depends on how badly you need a job. If you do not have the luxury of waiting for the right fit to come along, then you might have no choice but to lower the bar a bit. Be forewarned, however, that it will not necessarily be easier for you to secure jobs requiring less experience because many employers hesitate to consider "overqualified" candidates. They worry that, when the economy rebounds, people like you will soon flee to more senior jobs.

Springfield, Va.: After 3 months of unemployment, it appears I may have 2 to 4 offers in the next 1 to 3 weeks. I am uncertain as to how to handle that. Ideally, I'd like to see all the offers before making the final choice. Can I hedge this by putting my availability out far enough to receive all offers? If I do that, how do I explain why I'm not available sooner since the prospective employers know I am currently unemployed? It seems I have 3 options: I could take the first job offer and leave if necessary (feels unethical). I could be upfront about the other offers I am expecting (seems risky). I could ask for the later start date and hope they don't question it (also risky, especially if they ask why and then sense that I am being evasive or untruthful in my answer). What should I do?

Lily Garcia: You should be honest in saying that you are weighing other offers and ask how long the organization would be willing to give you to make your choice. If they are smart, they will give you at least a week or two to decide so that they know your ultimate "yes" is a firm one. If you do not get the extra time that you need, pick the best offer out of the ones that you have in hand and, should another better opportunity come along, decide whether it is alluring enough to risk damaging your relationship with the employer you have already chosen.

Lily Garcia: I especially welcome your questions and comments this week regarding layoffs and separation agreements.

Anonymous: Any thoughts on how to better manage/deal with a boss that has a different management style than his subordinate -- reactive (boss) vs proactive, focus on appearance vs results, agreeable vs challenging? Thanks.

Lily Garcia: You and your boss should strive for a clear understanding of one another's work styles, how they differ, and how they each contribute to the mission of your organization in different ways. The result will be mutual respect, which will allow you to speak candidly and openly about problems in your working relationship without fear.

Alexandria, Va.: I was laid off about a dozen years ago after my company merged with a rival and I was judged redundant. Facing my school age daughter with the news that Dad doesn't have a job anymore was pretty tough. I tried a number of things including volunteering at a non profit and retraining for a different career, but I had a good deal of trouble (48 year old males not being in great demand) and eventually resorted to counseling and drug therapy for depression. Really the only thing that made a difference was getting a paying job again. I have a clear memory of the low point of that time. I was stopped by a cop for speeding. He asked me why I was rushing and I told him I was late for an appointment. When pressed about what was so important, I told him the appointment was with my therapist and that he was treating me for depression and showed him my prescription for Zoloft, really unloaded about being unemployed and financially strapped. He gave me a ticket anyway. The company that laid me off went out of business within three years, and I am much better off today than if I had stayed, but it was rough nonetheless.
Lily Garcia: Losing a job can be devastating to one's sense of security and self-esteem. Counseling can help in the transition, but there is nothing like the feeling of regaining one's financial footing after a frightening time. Thank you for sharing your story.

San Francisco, Calif.: Can an employee be fired one day before they qualify for retiree health benefits? What about 1 year before, if they have already worked for the company 19 years? Or can the company fire an at-will employee at any time, regardless of the consequences and fairness to the individual employee?

Lily Garcia: The fundamental legal doctrine governing the status of employees in our country is employment-at-will, which means that you can be fired at any time, with or without notice, for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. What your employer cannot do is fire you in violation of a contract, law, or public policy. I am not at liberty to offer legal advice in this forum. However, I can tell you that, generally speaking, it is not illegal to fire an employee just before they qualify for retirement benefits as long as the employee was not fired for the purpose of preventing access to retirement benefits. If you need more specific guidance, please contact an employment lawyer.

Springfield, Va.: What are the best ways to ask for feedback from the hiring manager when you were not selected for a position? Can you suggest specific questions to ask that may elicit more candid responses? (In my case, I was one of two finalists for a senior administrative position at a small college and the president told me that he would like to see me working for the college in the future even if I was not selected for this position. I am following up on the selection process with the school's HR dept., but it's been several weeks since my interviews and I have heard nothing. I am not hopeful that this position will come through. I emailed the hiring manager with a polite, low-key inquiry about the process last week but she did not respond. Thanks! Lily Garcia: In eliciting feedback regarding why you were not selected for a job, you must be sensitive to the fact that the hiring manager might not be at liberty to provide details regarding the selection process. If you sense hesitancy on the part of the person you have approached, it is best to let it go. That said, you should ask questions specifically targeted to to information that you want. You might be wondering, for example, whether your candidacy suffered from lack of experience, or whether you were unconvincing in the live interview. Think about what, exactly, you want to know and formulate your questions accordingly. If you ask very general questions about why you were not chosen, you are unlikely to get helpful answers.

Leesburg, Va.: How can I get my foot in the door to get experience in a new technology? I have been in one technology for 20+ years and now it is dead. So, I am a junior in another technology and can't find a company to hire me without 2+ years of experience.

Lily Garcia: You can try freelancing on projects with people who are experts in this technology. You could also volunteer with nonprofit organizations who need those skills.

Washington, D.C.: I want to apply for a job that is asking for salary history. How do I put this together because the job is not considering any applications without it. Thank you in advance.

Lily Garcia: When you are asked for salary history on an application, you should provide it. Some would counsel you to skip the question and address it later in the process when you negotiate salary. However, I think the best approach is to give a direct answer to a direct question.

Raleigh, N.C.: I have a masters degree with no experience in the IT field. I am getting responses to jobs (from online databases) that I am overqualified. I believe I am not getting considered for entry level positions because I have the masters degree listed. Should I leave off the MS degree on my resume when applying to entry level positions? Thank you.

Lily Garcia: It is inadvisable to lie on your resume, which in my opinion includes omitting information about your education. If you believe that you are getting automatically rejected based upon criteria programmed into a search engine, however, then I think it would be interesting to try submitting applications without listing your degree. I cannot imagine that an employer would intend to automatically exclude from consideration anyone with an advanced degree and, should you get the interview, you can later supplement your application with a complete educational history.

Germantown, Md.: Can you help me find a credible recruiter who knows all paper work needed for a job application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration? Thank you.

Lily Garcia: I do not know of any recruiters who specialize in this area, but other readers might. Does anyone know of a recruiter who could help someone looking for a job with the FDA?

Washington, D.C.: I work for an embassy in town, and so my employer is technically a foreign government. I am here serving a one-year contract, filling in for someone who is out on maternity leave. She returns on April 10th. When I asked the HR person if I qualify for unemployment, she said no. Do you think she knows what she's talking about?

Lily Garcia: Without knowing all of the nuances of your situation, I cannot tell you whether you are likely to qualify for unemployment. This is a question for your state unemployment agency. You should call them and ask whether you would qualify under your unique circumstances.

Washington, D.C.: I've written you in the past about being offered bedtime with colleagues and suicide by my supervisor, but what about name calling? Are they allowed to call me "unprofessional" when I'm not? Confused.

L ily Garcia: The laws against discrimination do not protect employees from mean-spirited or abusive conduct that is not based upon a legally protected status. So, generally speaking, your supervisor can call you "unprofessional" as long as he or she is not doing so because of your race, ethnicity, sex, religion, disability, etc., or in retaliation for your exercise of a legally protected right. You should consult an employment attorney, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or your state's fair employment practices agency if you believe you have been the victim of discrimination.

Severance: I am not too worried about getting laid off. However, we are expected to sign a confidentiality agreement if we are laid off, and you don't get your severance unless you sign it. I am aware that many people refuse to sign and then play the waiting game. HR then usually offers to double the severance to get you to sign. The reason is that the old-timers here have seen lots of illegal activity and they don't want us blabbing. I know some BIG secrets about the top people here (Embezzlement) and it would be in their best interest to get me to sign that document. However, I'm reluctant to play that game even though I want them to double the severance offer should I get laid off. Are there any hidden reasons not to make it clear that I know some potentially damaging things about our top staff if I end up getting laid off?

Lily Garcia: I know it is tempting, but what you are proposing to do has the potential to backfire and leave you without any severance pay. If the time comes for you to consider a severance package, seek the advice of a good employment lawyer before making any false moves.

San Bruno, CA: Can companies offer retiree incentives to one group of employees but not others?

Lily Garcia: As long as they have a rational business reason that is non-discriminatory, yes.

Alexandria, VA: Hi Lily, I've seen a job announcement from the company that laid me off (official wording: Position Eliminated Due to Restructuring). It's my old job, which I'd really like to go back to. When I was laid off I was assured it was a numbers issue, not a performance issue, and my reviews would bear that out. However, my old manager hasn't gotten in touch with me to let me know about the opening. We had a very good relationship, so I'm a pretty surprised. Should I take that as a sign? I'm thinking of calling him but I'm very nervous about it. What do you think?

Lily Garcia: You should call your old manager and ask whether you are eligible for rehire. That would be the best place to start.

Boston: I was asked if I wanted to go to a 2 day meeting in CA and I said sure. My group is sending two people and I know that I'm not the first choice to be the 2nd person. The first choice is more senior, but doesn't like to travel. I'm not sure whether to be uncomfortable that I'm not the best choice, or pleased that I was asked to go. Lily Garcia: If I were you, I would take it as a positive sign that I was first runner-up!

Chantilly, Va.: A friend of mine was laid off recently and was asked to sign a statement confirming that she'd been involuntarily terminated as part of a staff reduction, etc. She got three months' severance, which isn't too bad, but the form seems to say that by accepting the severance, she will not be able to apply for unemployment benefits. Is this legal? She's already signed the form, but is concerned about what happens if she doesn't find a job by the time her severance runs out.

Lily Garcia: An employment attorney needs to review your friend's separation agreement to ascertain what, exactly, it is that she has agreed to. Generally speaking, you are entitled to unemployment as long as you lost your job through no fault of your own, with layoffs being a perfect example.

re WDC: You state that you are working on a one year contract. Are you being paid without the embassy paying their share of taxes then you most likely will not be available for unemployment against them but you may be able to get unemployment from a prior employee.

Lily Garcia: Thank you for your insights.

New York, NY: I am a 42-year-old woman who was laid off a couple of weeks ago from my job of 10 years. As I consider what to do next and begin preparing for a job search, I am very self-conscious that my age my be a negative factor in my search. Is there any advice you can provide in terms of job search strategy for someone my age?

Lily Garcia: In a moment, I will send you a link to an article I wrote that might be helpful.

Washingtonpost.com: Finding Work for Older Workers

Lily Garcia: Here is a link to an article about seeking employment as an older worker. It was written before the economic downturn, but the advice remains applicable.

Lily Garcia: Thank you very much for your participation. Unfortunately, we are out of time. If I did not get to your question, you are welcome to email me at HRAdvice@washingtonpost.com and I will respond to your question within one week. Be sure to indicate in the subject line of your email that you are following up to today's live chat. Have a great afternoon. Lily

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