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Transcript: Tuesday, April 19, 11 a.m. ET

Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; 11:00 AM

Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce writes Life at Work on Sundays in the Business section and appears online every Tuesday to offer advice about managing interpersonal issues on the job.

The transcript follows below.

Amy Joyce


Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Amy Joyce: Hello folks. It's Tuesday, so that means it is time to discuss your life at work. As always, join in with your own insights, stories and advice for your fellow workers or workers-to-be.

As I often do, I have a question for you for a future column: You're asked to go to a conference. You go, but what happens to your work back at the ranch? Do you do work while you're at the conference? Do you sit on your BlackBerry the whole time taking care of e-mails? Let me know at lifeatwork@washpost.com.

Okay, lots of questions await, so let's get going.

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Life Imitates the Apprentice: Hey Amy and peanuts. Just looking for some support. I was offered a cake job on Friday within my company which I absolutely took, however an ad had to go out over the weekend (to be fair to everyone) and unfortunately somebody with loads more contacts than me and more skills, etc., landed an interview yesterday. She was offered the job immediately and said she'd call today with her answer. I'm just waiting. I understand their position to take her over me, but I'm just kinda bummed.

Amy Joyce: Wait. You were offered a job, you took it, then they offered it to someone else? What?? Totally weird. I don't know how I'd deal with that. Not cool.... To be fair to everyone, they would have put the ad out first, you would have interviewed, then they would have made a decision. Shame, shame on your company. (That's not helping, is it...)

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Rockville, Md.: Hello. Love the chats -- you always give good advice. I'm hoping you can help me now.

I'm switching jobs and will be working with a company that is a competitor to my current one. (The specific product I'll be working on doesn't compete, but other products in my new department do). I'm wondering how to handle my new coworkers if they pump me for information about my old job. I don't have any financial secrets to give, but there's certainly information I have that would be useful.

There is one employee in particular (whom I know from prior industry conferences) who I expect to be particularly curious. I don't know what's legal and/or right in this situation. I don't want to betray my former coworkers, but I also don't want to make waves or seem disloyal to the new place.

Thanks in advance.

Amy Joyce: You could be sued if you shared info about your soon-to-be former company. So you tell your new co-workers that you're sorry, but you can't tell them a thing. You probably signed a non-disclosure with your first company, where you promised you, well, wouldn't disclose anything. So don't. Most co-workers should understand that. If they don't, they need a bit of an education.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy,
I wonder if you or any of the chatters have recommendations for keeping myself focused at work. My desk is in a central point of the office, right by the communal printer, and I often find it difficult to shut out distractions and pay attention to whatever task is in front of me. Do you have any tips or tricks that might help me along? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: This sounds like a good communal question, so I'll throw it out there, with a few suggestions of my own.
If noise bothers you, get some earplugs. You could also see if headphones with some background music might help. Make a list of the things you must accomplish... that will help you focus on what you have to do. And don't say hi to everyone who comes by the printer.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Amy,

I'm looking for advice from you and the rest of the folks out there in cyberspace. I'm applying for my first job with the Federal Government. I'm looking for advice, the application process feels harder then applying for college. I don't have any contacts within the agency I'm applying (CDC), but I think I'm really good for the job, but I was wondering if it is even worth it if I don't know anyone there. In the past I have gotten all my jobs by networking.

Any advice would be great, thanks!

Amy Joyce: It's always worth it if you're interested. I know it's a laborious process, but it's a small price to pay to try to get a job you're actually interested in.
That's my lecture for the day. I'm sure some chatters will help you out. Anyone? Words of wisdom for applying to the Fed Government?

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Seattle, Wash.:
I am a 39 year old woman witha PhD in Classics from a prestigious university. After teaching at the college level for 3 years at non-tenure track jobs, I decided to make a career change and went back to school to study Economics. I have been working as a government analyst since then and orginally thought I might like to go back to get a PhD in Econ after I got to know and observe the field a little better. But after having worked in economics, I no longer feel this is the field is for me. (It's very distant from the people you are trying to help, and often deals in assumptions and simplifications that are unrealistic and not implementable on a policy level.) My original plan as a undergrad many years ago was to enter medicine, and I 'm now feeling drawn to that profession again. I have talked to many people in both professions about their experiences, frustrations, satisfaction and day-to-day work. I have no dependents and very little debt, so I can make this decision with virtually no strings attached. My grades and test scores are also very good. My only worry is that I will be starting a new career - one that will require significant time in grad school - at age 40. Is this a foolish endeavor? Any advice from those who have started new careers late in life?

Amy Joyce: Tough call for other people to make. All I can say is if you want to do it, do it. But make SURE you want to do it, or you'll find that you have three high level degrees for nothing.
I'll let this one go out to the masses as well. Does anyone have helpful advice for our career changer?

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Maryland Terp: Hi Amy. I'm just wondering what others think of using instant messenger at work. I think it's a good way to ask a quick question, but on the downside everyone can see what time you come in, when you leave, when you've been idle, etc. Does the boss really keep a close eye on your every move? It's kind of unnerving.

Amy Joyce: You may be a bit paranoid. But then again, maybe you have a boss who's watching you. However, either way, what does it matter if you're doing your job, getting to work on time and leaving at a decent hour?

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Washington, D.C.: Hello Amy! Love your column and love your book.

I started in this government job six months ago. When I came on board they were in a "reorganization" stage (not mentioned during the interview and offer process). During this reorganization stage I have been given minimum work because my role in the office was not clear plus the branch chief resigned. Tired of this situation (I came from the private sector and I was used to work hard) I applied for a reassignment in a more challenging office.

Yesterday, I knew that I got the new job but this morning my new branch chief came to give me this really important project. I cannot tell her that I was offered another position until HR calls her (tomorrow). My current boss has to approve my reassignment or I cannot leave. I am scare that with the new responsibilities she does not let me go. How should I react? What should I say? I really want to leave this office and I go to the other position.

Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Thanks.
I'm afraid you have to wait today out. It's going to be a loooong one for you. If, for some reason, your boss won't let you go, you need to figure out if staying is worth it. If your main complaint was that you had no work, and now it looks like you'll have good assignments, then maybe staying isn't such a bad prospect. But I would guess no boss wants to keep someone who wants to move on, and who another department has asked to have.
Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

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NY, NY:
Hi Amy! Love your chats. I have a situation at work I hope you can help me with. Part of my job is to proofread all the official materials for our company (press releases, brochures, etc). I work with a lot of ESL speakers who struggle with writing in English, so I take this responsibility very seriously. The problem is, I feel like my coworkers often take advantage of my conscientiousness - even the people I know can write well, submit extremely sloppy copy to me (not spell-checked, not even making SENSE) and then expect me to essentially re-write everything. Sometimes when we're using the same copy twice, they'll submit the old, unedited version back to me for the second document even though I've already worked on the copy before. I've spoken to them about this, and have even on occasion simply sent things back to them saying that they needed to work on it more before I proofread it, but the same things keep happening. Is this something I should take up with our supervisor (who unfortunately is a bullying jerk - I'd hate to get any of them in trouble with him)? Or should I just suck it up and continue to completely rewrite everything, even though they get the credit for writing these things?

Amy Joyce: Well thanks. (It's a little intimidating to know a proofreader is reading this... )
Don't babysit people if they don't need it. I would continue to send it back with a note saying they should at least spell-check before they send you something like that. As a proofreader, that is sort of your job. But I would suggest you send their copy back with a note that says you are a proofreader, not a rewriter. They will get the picture, particulary if you won't accept things until they are readable. I would wait to tell the boss.

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Re: Earplugs: I realize that you often suggest headphone/earplugs as a way to block out the noise. However in many settings this is not really a practical solution. It is pretty unprofessional and frowned upon in many of the places where I have worked.

Amy Joyce: How are earplugs frowned upon? I understand that some offices might not appreciate workers listening to music via headphones, but earplugs are only to drown out background noise. Not sure how little earplugs (ala rock concerts) can be frowned upon. It's hard to see them, and they show me that someone is simply trying to get their work done.

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Re: Maryland Terp: My company uses instant messenger for everything. Most IM software will let you disable the "Idle" function so your boss won't know your computer isn't in constant use. You can also login at home to show you are working. Just a thought.

Amy Joyce: Oh, there are so many ways to fool the boss....ugh.

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New job?: Is it true that anyone at all...boss, HR, whatever... would have to give "approval" for an employee to move on to another position in that agency? That sounds so archaic!

Amy Joyce: We are living in archaic world. (Particularly government offices.) Sad, but true.

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What about Cooking School?: Amy,
Have a college degree and out of college and working for almost 10 years. I am feeling very unfulfilled career wise. I love to cook and learn about cooking and am seriously thinking about going back to school for that. It would require some serious changes in my lifestyle and I am getting married but my fiance is very supportive and okay with his new wife as a full-time student. What kind of questions do I ask myself? How do you know that you are doing the right thing?

Amy Joyce: First, what would you want to do with that knowledge? Be a caterer? Chef? If you have a slight idea, go talk to a few people in the field. It's hard to ever say you know you are doing the right thing. But if you feel unfulfilled now, and there is something you really love to do, that's a mighty big hint that you're heading in the right direction by going toward that thing you want to do. I'd say you're already better off than many people because you know you're interested in something. Good for you. I would suggest you do as much research as possible: Talk to people in the field. Talk to people at the school. Talk to alumni from the school. Talk to your friends and family ... they know you well and might be able to shed some light. Also throw a question to Kim O'Donnell who went to cooking school and often gets this kind of question on her chat, which is right after mine.
Good luck to you. Let us know how it goes.

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Silver Spring Md.: Re: Applying for a Federal job

If the job is being advertised outside the government, there is a good possibility that they are actually looking for candidates with experience outside. So some advice.

First and most important: Be sure to address every point that is discussed in the duties and responsibilities section and in the evaluation factor's section. Address each separately with a description of how your experience or education qualifies you. Whether you meet these factors is the most important factor in determining if you are highly enough qualified to merit an interview by the selecting official.

Be sure to make sure that your application is completed correctly. Identify the job and the job announcement. Make sure that you have not inadvertantly skipped a question or block that needs an answer.

Other than that, good luck.

Amy Joyce: Thanks much!

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Greenbelt, Md.: For the 40ish Classics PhD, look into the Johns Hopkins SAIS program. It's right here in D.C. and you can get a masters in both economics and development, which seems to be what you're most interested. The program is highly competative, and the best part for you, is that instead of doing the full masters program. You can do the shorter masters program for people who have several years of working experience already. Something to think about.

Amy Joyce: Some advice for our career changer...

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Atlanta, Ga.: Applying for federal jobs at the CDC: I don't work for the CDC, but I've known a few people who have gotten permanent federal jobs there after first being a contractor for a year or two. That seems to be the easiest way in.

Amy Joyce: Contracting, if you're up for it, is a good idea if you're looking for another option.

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Arlington, Va.: Amy, in about 45 minutes, I'm supposed to have lunch with my supervisor. My supervisor . . . well he isn't super. For example, he requires that everything that is handed in to him be "perfect." We do not, however, have another first line person to run our work by before handing it in. He does not accept questions and actually documents all questions for consideration at review time. I've never had a personal converstation with him. He doesn't know where I'm from, where I live in the city, what I do in my spare time . . . Likewise, I don't know the same about him. There are only four other people on his team. I'm the third of his four supervisees to have to go on this lunch. So far the reports back have been scary. What am I supposed to talk to this man about? Am I supposed to be honest (example: Do you like working here? No. It sucks.)? Should I just lie and smile and talk about the Nationals or something? Help!!!!!

Amy Joyce: Would it help if I suggest you be yourself? Ha. Thanks, mom.
But seriously... remember that he asked you, so follow his lead. But (gag) be yourself. Ask what you want to ask. Talk to him. You don't have to be best buddies. You just have to get through lunch.

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Germantown, Md.: My boss is apparently concerned about the amount of time people are spending on the phone with personal calls. But, in typical fashion, instead of addressing this issue openly, he has ordered me - the office manager - to begin secretly logging incoming calls.

Well, me being me....I told my co-workers about what I was told to do. I figured that they deserved to know that the company is spying on them and that they should watch out.

Well..wouldn't ya know, the number of incoming personal calls has dwindled to a trickle. There does appear to be an increase in cell-phone use, however.

My boss asked me for the call log yesterday, and he eyed it suspiciously, I think he knows that something is up. He sent me an e-mail asking if I could meet with later today.

If asked, I think I need to tell him that I told people...and to point out that I accomplished the goal he was after - making sure that company phone lines aren't tied up with incoming calls.

Some of my friends say that I needlessly put my job on the line. I can't believe that a company would fire a good employee for something like this - though, I guess it shouldn't surprise me.

Any thoughts?

Amy Joyce: I think your boss put you in a very tough situation. I wouldn't lie. I think you have the right instinct by admitting that yes, you told your co-workers this was happening. But hey, didn't it accomplish the main goal? My goodness, he has too much time on his hands. He should simply tell workers they can't make personal calls. I'm sorry you have to deal with this. Good luck.

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RE: Tuning people out: I work in a cubicle area that is always noisy. You can hear everyone on the phone... the printer is right next to me.. and to top it off, I have a fabulous view from the top floor and lots of people like to come and just stare outside for a bit. I guess I have just learned over the past years to tune people out. I don't listen to phone conversations - regardless of how loud - and I don't engage in conversations very often. If someone talks to me, no problem but otherwise I stick to myself while working and have found it to be quite helpful.

Amy Joyce: It does take a little getting used to, but I think most people in open office environments are able to tune out all the activity after a while.

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Washington D.C.: Hi Amy,

I love my job but my company recently got
bought. The transition has been ok so far,
but rumors are raging as to what will
happen next month after our first big
corporate meeting with the new company.
The rumor mill has it that job security is
definitely in danger. How best to deal with
the uncertainty? Start sending out
resumes? Sit tight until things are
concrete? It's hard to stay positive when
my boss is a doomsayer.

Thanks!

Amy Joyce: The rumor mill often runs strong after a merger. Don't add to it, and don't listen to it too much. But as with any merger, jobs could be in jeopardy. Just to safety net yourself, I'd suggest you send out a few resumes. Good luck.

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Arlington, Va.: About the manager mentioned in Sunday's column -- the
one who works through lunch, but "encourages"
employees to get out, take a break." It should really
come as no surprise that his employees eat at their desks
-- this seems to be one of the activities where they'll
follow management's example of how to behave in the
corporate culture.

They may be hearing "get out for lunch" but the message
management is sending is "stay and work."

washingtonpost.com: Fast Food, if Any at All (Post, April 17, 2005)

Amy Joyce: I think it depends on the manager, frankly. I think most people can read if their manager means what he says. And I would hope most managers mean what they say... I know the good ones do.

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The Scary Supervisor Lunch:
For the person going out to a peculiar lunch with the supervisor:

I bet you a dollar your boss has been put up to this by his supervisor. He's probably been told he's too standoffish with the staff and needs to get his hands dirty. So get through the lunch by being amused at the situation.

Amy Joyce: Well, that's one option. And keep thinking things like: Ooooo, what a pretty day. Ahhh, a free lunch! Oh! It's almost over.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy,
Yet another security clearance question. What are some other areas in the US where a security clearance is desirable? Obviously, as the heart of our government, D.C. has the most demand. But if I want to move in a few years and use my SC to leverage better pay, what are some geographic areas where it might mean more?

Thanks

Amy Joyce: Anywhere near a military base, I would guess. Mostly, it's less about geographic area and more about the organization itself. There are a ton of contracting companies not based in the DC area.
Any suggestions from the lurkers?

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RE: Super-lunch: Also, don't think of this person as a supervisor. Just look at him as a person, someone who happens to be sharing the same table with you at lunch. Make small talk like you would with any stranger. Eat lunch. Know that he is just as -- if not more so -- uncomfortable making small talk with you.

Amy Joyce: Very true.

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Duluth, Georgia: To the woman who is considering studying medicine: have you considered nursing or other career paths in the medical field? The medical field is wide open and needs great staff and management in many settings.

Also, once about 12 years ago, I had a temporary job at an inner city health center in Baltimore. To my astonishment most of the staff were former professionals in law or business, who were re-careering in the health field. None were doctors, but two were nurse practitioners and one a physicians assistant.

These folks were in the middle forties and fifties at the time that I was there and seemed to be very satisfied with their jobs and were making a real difference in the lives of folks, who ordinarily would have little or no access to good health care. If there was a medical problem out of their realm, a regular MD and DO were available and referrals could be made.

Forty is not too old to make career changes, but it is too young to stay on a wrong career course. Just think if you have good health and a great career path, you will probably choose to work for at least another twenty to thirty-five more years. Choose to be happy!

Amy Joyce: What a great posting. Thanks very much. I hope our career changer is still reading.

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RE: Earplugs: You are right -- I meant headphones. I believe it has to do with maintaining the aura of approachability by your co-workers. After all most offices these days pride themselves on open door policy/team work regardless of the true nature of the organization.

Amy Joyce: That's very true. Earplugs might show that someone can't be interrupted, but that can be a good thing. Just don't wear them all day, or no one will feel free to ask you a question!

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Washington, D.C.: I want to reduce my work hours now that I am pregnant,
but I don't want to announce the pregnancy yet (it's early).
I'd want to make this shift regardless due to a long
commute and other issues, but the fatigue has made me
want to do it as soon as possible.

However, my office is perpetually understaffed. Any good
way to handle this without spilling the baby beans yet?

Amy Joyce: Check out workoptions.com, which has templates to use to propose flexible work arrangements. I've heard from several people that this was helpful when they went to talk to their boss. However, you can do this anyway. Just think about how this is doable, why you need to do this (no need to discuss baby yet) and how to get all your work done in fewer hours. Or what work might need to be passed to someone else. Just make sure when you propose it that you have thought of all the questions you might be asked. And have answers for them. If they like what you do, they will try to compromise.

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RE: Defense contractor locations: All the major defense contractors have offices in all states, even if it's just a small office.

California is a state where many of the companies tend to congregate. Huntsville, Alabama for companies doing missile-defense work. Colorado Springs/Aurora area. Norfolk, Florida, Mississippi for ship-building. New Mexico for missile-defense & other weapons testing.

If you find a location in a state you like, chances are a company requiring a security clearance is nearby.

Amy Joyce: Well thanks.

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Lexington Park, d.D: Most DoD security clearance jobs are not even around D.C.. They are in places like San Diego, the deserts of New Mexico, and other places where the need for space is dominant. So you won't usually be in the heart of a big city (unless it's L.A. -- the El Segunda area) but you can be nearby. Unless of course you want to do the really hush hush stuff, then the desert is where you'll end up.

Amy Joyce: And more. I knew you'd all be up on this.

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Personal calls: Although the supervisor handled the personal calls issue the wrong way, the poster didn't achieve what the supervisor was after. It is not the tying up of the phone lines that is in question, it is the productivity of the staff. Whether they are on a call on the business phone or on a cell phone on company time, that is the issue here. I'm a supervisor and I deal with this on a constant basis. I'm not fooled by people who step away from their desk to make a cell phone call vs. being on the phone at their desk. Some personal calls are ok, but they don't need to spend a big chunk of the day on the phone. That is not what they are getting to do.

Amy Joyce: Right you are. But this supervisor really put the assistant in a bad position. In fact, I think the person who wrote in should explain that to the boss. "I'm sorry if this caused you issues, but I was put in a very compromising position. Perhaps you can just tell people not to make personal calls."

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RE: AIM used frequently at work: AOL Instant Messenger is used frequently at my job. However, it isn't the greatest tool for keeping track of how much time employees devote to the job. I will often log off if I have an important phone call and restarting my computer negates the time I walked through the front door.

I'd say your office culture is much more important. The culture here values the quality of one's work more so than putting in sweatshop hours.

Amy Joyce: Very good points. You are part of a good workplace.

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Amy Joyce: So many questions, so little time. Sorry I didn't get to all of you. Join me again next week, same time, same place. You can e-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com with your thoughts on what you do at conferences. Check out Life at Work the column in the Sunday Business section and don't forget about our message boards, where you can ask questions about your job.
Have a good week!

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