Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, April 11, 2006 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.

An archive of Amy's Life at Work columns is available online.

Find more career-related news and advice in our Jobs section.

The transcript follows below.


Amy Joyce: Good lovely Spring morning, folks. It's Tuesday, which means it's time to talk about your life at work. As always, please join in with your own advice to share with fellow readers, especially if you've been there. We all have stories to share, right? Shed some light.

Lots of questions await, so let's get started ...


Virginia: Amy, I'll be a college senior in the fall and I currently work part-time while I go to school. A full-time summer opportunity has come up that seems perfect for my major, and I might just take it. However, I'd still like to have my current job in the fall after the summer gig is up. Do you have any advice on how to ask my boss to hold my position until then (it's not really a critical position)? Thanks.

Amy Joyce: I think what you have to do is tell your boss this opportunity has come up that you feel like you really have to take so you can grow and gain new opportunities. Then explain that since it's only a summer gig, you'd love it if you could return to the current position come fall. Ask if that is possible and see what your boss says, then go from there. There's always a chance your summer gig will turn full-time or lead to another opportunity elsewhere that might be a better fit for your career path. So try to leave everything as open as possible. (i.e., Don't promise your current boss you'll return in the fall, unless you think that job is truly up your alley and something that will help you get to where you want to be. If you know what that is right now. And it's fine if you don't.)


Washington, D.C.: Do you have any tips for reaching out to recruiters and developing relationships with them? I have the names of several in my field that have been given to me by colleagues but would love any tips on the best and most effective ways to initiate contact. Plus, how do I manage following up with them when I sit in a cube and it's so difficult to have any private conversations? Thanks for your advice!

Amy Joyce: A great place to start is with Mary Ellen Slayter's March 26 column about recruiting, along with her chat from yesterday. I also wrote a column about how to do the recruiter thing from work. A quick rundown: Recruiters will completely understand that you're at work and might need to schedule a different time to talk. From your cube, you could say you're in the middle of something. Could you chat at X:00 instead? Then if you can cut away, grab your cell and go outside. Or schedule a time before or after work.

_______________________ A Recruiter Tells What Won't Impress, (Post, March 26)

Amy Joyce: Here's Mary Ellen's helpful column.


Boston, Mass: Hi Amy -- I recently started a new job in Boston, relocated from D.C., and it is not what I thought it was going to be. I have been here for a month and might have another opportunity locally that would allow me to leave. There is no question in my mind that I want to leave, but how do I do it? Do I owe them two weeks? Should I just talk to HR and tell them I am unhappy? This seems like a good time to mention Amy's Sunday column, which begins:

"Have you ever ordered a pair of shoes online that looked and sounded so perfect, only to put them on at home and realize they were all wrong?

"Sometimes the same thing happens when choosing a job. You get to the new office, this place of new and exciting opportunity, but it's just not what you were told it would be. And unfortunately, it's not so easy to just pack it up and get your money back."

Here's the link: Hardly the Proper Fit , (Post, April 9)

Amy Joyce: I'm sorry for you. It happens ... a lot. Find out if that opportunity is for real. Go ahead and get yourself an offer. When it's set in stone and you're sure you want it, talk to your current boss. Give at least two weeks' notice, and apologize, but explain that it just wasn't what you expected and simply isn't the right fit. If you have a better opportunity waiting for you, take it.

No need to talk to HR. Unless you have something specific you want to try to change in your job, and you think it can be changed, and IF it's changed, you're sure you won't leave. Phew.

In short: If you're unhappy, and you know it, and you're sure you can be happier somewhere else, move on. No need to suffer.


Any City, U.S.A.: I'm the assistant pastry chef at a restaurant. Recently a new cook started, and he stares at me in a brazenly lewd, lecherous, and sexually predatory way. Every time I come into his line of sight or walk past him in the kitchen, which is often, I have to endure this. We work in the bar kitchen, separate from the restaurant kitchen, where everyone else usually works. I'm wondering if it would be appropriate to talk to the chef about this, or if I would just come off as prissy and overly sensitive -- after all, the new guy has not said or done anything inappropriate, just the flagrant staring. I've been thinking about it when I'm not at work, and when I am, I've been dreading the arrival of the cooks at midday. I can feel a knot of tension start to form in my stomach. Is this something I can complain about, or do I just have to put up with it as a woman in a traditionally male, sexist industry? If it would be reasonable for me to say something (to our chef), should I do so now, shortly after he's started, or should I wait and see if/how it continues? If I shouldn't say anything at this point, do you have any advice on how to deal with this and/or put it out of my mind when I'm not working?I have not had a problem of this nature with anyone else in the year I've had this job. And to clarify, I do know the difference between the looks men give women; there are the fun flirty smiles, the appreciative but respectful glances, and then there's downright invasive and predatory -- that's where this guy is.

Amy Joyce: You have a few options. One would be to confront this guy outright: Is there something you need to say to me? Can I help you with something? Or please stop staring at me or we'll have to have this conversation with management.

You catch my drift.

If you're not comfortable doing this (and frankly, I'm not sure I would be) don't hesitate to talk to your boss. You should never be made to feel uncomfortable in this way at work. And the chef, as your boss, will need to take care of it. Explain things just as you did here, and say that you really are having a hard time concentrating in this situation. Treat it as a business problem that he needs to take care of. Most managers would want to know about this right away, and would never want their employees to be stuck in such an uncomfortable situation.

Good luck. And don't wait any longer.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy, thanks for doing these chats! Submitting early so I don't forget. I've recently started applying around, and many of the positions I'm interested in require writing samples. However, essentially everything I've written in the past two years is privileged and wouldn't work. What's the rule of thumb with this? Should I just throw together a few paragraphs on nothing in particular, or write it as though to mimic something I might have done in the past? I'm trying to avoid handing in something that makes it look like I'm pulling something out from my college days, but that's harder to do than I expected. Here's one take on this question from Kenneth Bredemeier, our On the Job columnist: Writing Samples: Providing the Write Stuff, (, Jan. 9)

Amy Joyce: Here you go. I hope this good stuff from Ken Bredemeier helps.


Confrontation & pantyhose in Kentucky: My supervisor prefers to interact via e-mail rather than face-to-face. This morning we exchanged e-mails several times and finally I just decided to walk over to her cubicle (she is but 20 feet away from me) and discuss what we had been emailing each other about. Her face got red and she got up and started walking around the office, like she had things to do, and ended the conversation. Am I wrong to want to speak to her in person? Should I just e-mail her every time I have a question?

On a completely different subject, is there any sort of consensus as to whether or not women should be required to wear pantyhose during the stifling hot summer months? My office dress code requires that all skin be covered (with the exception of the obvious and forearms). If you have short pants on you must wear trouser socks. WHY? Are bare ankles now considered inappropriate? Have you heard of dress codes such as this one?

Amy Joyce: Sounds like your supervisor is more comfortable hiding behind her email than chatting in person. I'm not a fan of that myself and would rather talk to people in person if it would be taken care of that way just as easily. But if she's simply that uncomfortable, I'd keep playing along with the email communication. Hard to force her into something she's not comfortable with. But that's not to say don't ever go into her office and chat face to face.

As for the pantyhose, man, does that get me fired up. I think hose were created by the devil (except when I want to wear a skirt in the wintertime and have a funky pair of tights to wear.)

I have heard of dress codes like this one, and I'm sorry for you. My feeling is as long as you look professional, it shouldn't matter. But if not wearing trouser socks (in the summer, in Kentucky? For shame!) is going to cost you some sort of respect or something, I guess you have to stick with the weird rules.


Washington, D.C.: That's the big question: "If you're sure you can be happier somewhere else ..." How can you be sure before making the leap -- so that you don't have to leap again in a few months?

Amy Joyce: Again, read the column. Some good hints: Try to talk to people within the company before you sign up. Any organization that is pretty confident in the way it is run will be more than happy to set you up with people who you might be working with. Another hint is to watch the body language of your potential boss in an interview with eyes wide open. Is this person paying attention to you, what do they say about their employees when you ask, etc.

And if you're being interviewed by a recruiter, ask what your potential boss' management style is. That can give you a few good clues.

Unfortunately, you can never be 100 percent sure. But you can be well educated before you decide to take the leap. If you're miserable, there's a very good chance finding a better situation is possible. Or actually, likely.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: Just wanted to say thanks. I wrote a couple of sessions ago about needing to get moving. You gave me a very gentle kick, suggesting that I do small things. So that is how I approached it. Day one, I finished the resume. Days two and three, I placed it on several sites (some of those take forever!). Today, I started calling people that I know about another position. I have applied for an open position at an international group, in keeping with my MBA in global business, and I am sending out another resume today to a networking friend. Again, many thanks. I knew what I needed to do, I just needed someone to tell me to go and do it!

Amy Joyce: Trust me, I know that feeling. We all need a kick every now and then. I'm so glad you got moving. Congrats.


Washington, D.C.: I was laid off last week. I felt things were not going well with my position and was due for a three month review. Instead of the review, I was let go. They gave me a benign reason, saying that I hadn't lived up to expectations. My manager never ever gave me one ounce of feedback. I think my manager got rid of me for personal reasons. I pressed them on details and asked for them in writing, but I got nothing. So, I am searching for a job and getting calls back on my resume. What do I say about being let go? I've never been in this situation before. I think this position was not a good fit for either one of us. Do I say that? I know not to say anything negative about the firm or my manager, I'm just not sure how to couch it. I also don't want to give them as a reference. Does that seem suspicious? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: I think a potential employer will call your former organization no matter what. But most likely, they will only provide a start and end date, along with what job you filled. So assume they will be called. But when you give your references, give people you know would praise you. Former colleagues, clients or bosses who you worked well with.

As for the reason for leaving: It wasn't a good fit for either of us, and I really wanted to move on to a position like this one for XX reason.

That moves the conversation on to you, what skills you have, what you want to do, and why you think you can do it so well.

I'm so sorry about your last tough situation. Not that this makes it feel much better (because it does hurt) but remember that it happens to lots of people. You're not alone. And consider that most of the people you're interviewing with have been fired at one time or another.

Good luck.


Anonymous: Hi, Amy. I am eight years married, have a one-year-old child, and have done very well for myself financially despite having no college degree. For the past two years I have been working in a job that I enjoy. However, I have a co-worker who feels compelled to flaunt his Ivy League degree and belittle me whenever our boss is not around. To further complicate the matter my current career path leads me in the direction of his position, and he is reluctant to share his knowledge, even though training a potential replacement would increase his own ability to be promoted. I am at a loss as to how to handle this situation. I really do not want to involve my boss. Please help!

Amy Joyce: You need to ignore someone who flaunts anything. That's a sure sign of insecurity. Don't worry about involving your boss just yet. Continue to do your good work, focus on making sure you're doing good work, and when and if you start to move toward the flaunter's position, you can speak to the boss in a pretty benign way that will make you look good. Start a conversation about how you're looking forward to this new position, and you'd love to figure out how to do it well. Ask the boss if there are any suggestions as to how to get to that point. And let the boss deal with how you'll be trained and informed. (That will likely result in this flaunter being told he has to train you).

I hope this helps.


Modesto, Calif.: Amy, I am a returning student who will have a BA in Organizational Leadership in June. I already have a "career" as an Employment Analyst in local government. My question is simple. How do I break away! I want to leave my CUSHY government job for a more lucrative private sector situation but am uneasy about the change. Any pointers?

Amy Joyce: How's this for a pointer: When you want a change, start doing things to make that change. Even if it's a little scary.

One way to make it less scary is get out and find out what else is out there. Network, talk to people in your field. Join a professional organization for your field. Talk to co-workers about their experiences outside cushiness. Then once you feel a little more confident about what you want to do, start doing something about it. Like the person earlier said: Baby steps. Do one or two things each day to move yourself in the direction you want to go. And remember that the more you get out, the more you'll understand what's out there and what you might be able to do.


Arlington, Va.: I think it's great to give advice to the recent grads. Within days of graduation I jumped into a job that I ended up hating because it was a good company with good pay. I paid no attention to the job itself. It wasn't a good fit for me (frankly it was an AWFUL fit). If, even with great advice, recent grads find themselves in a similar position they should take heart. That "bad" decision put me on a meandering path towards doing something that I really enjoy now. Six years after graduation I have a career and goals that I never considered at the time.

Amy Joyce: And six years is early! Congrats to you and thanks for sharing.


Washington, D.C.: RE: Making the leap -- Thanks. I'd read your article and think what I needed to hear was the obvious: that there's no 100 percent fool-proof interview approach. You just have to take the chance! After all, to act on your own behalf must be better than just to sit stuck with the devil you know. Thanks again.

Amy Joyce: Exactly. The best you can do is educate yourself as much as possible and take a chance. Welcome to life, right?

_______________________ 2006 Grad Guide

Amy Joyce: Here's our guide, in case you haven't seen it.


Washington, D.C.: In defense of the boss who prefers to communicate via e-mail, perhaps she just doesn't like being interrupted. I like to communicate mainly via email because I can choose when I have the time to respond to a given question. It bugs the bejeezus out of me when someone stops by at random (or shouts a question over the cube) when I am in the middle of something totally different and expects me to be able to answer their question immediately (sometimes I need time to think or shift gears and can't answer immediately). Clearly this person and her supervisor were already on the topic and she was not catching her unprepared, but it still may have been a bad time for her. It was weird that she got up and walked away, but perhaps her red face was due to a different issue she was dealing with at the time - you just don't know. Why not email and say, "Can we chat in person about this? What's a good time for you?" I bet she'd take the meeting.

Amy Joyce: Or better yet, knock on her door and ask if you can chat about this in person, and if this is a good time or you should come back. I completely agree.


Washington, D.C.: I'm sitting here debating about going to the GradFest that The Post's been advertising. I'm not a grad-to-be, but I'm only a year out of college. Is it going to be worth my while?

Amy Joyce: Well, it's today, right? So you've got to think fast. Mary Ellen Slayter and I will be giving seminars at 1:00 and 2:00 about how to find a job and navigate it once you're there.


Hiding behind e-mail: My office is that way -- though it's a small space and we're crammed in tight, everyone communicates by instant message. It's kind of weird to hear people actually talking. But there are times when that's the best way to approach something -- so what we do is IM (or e-mail, for the other poster) someone with an initial question, then say, "Can I come over to discuss?" Seems to work better and eliminate the element of surprise.

Amy Joyce: Some offices work well this way. Now that we have such open offices, I think it's important to be careful of each other's time and space.


Bethesda, Md.: Curious about your thoughts on "career coaches." I have interviewed one recently and it sounds very appealing to have someone engaging me weekly so that I will stop procrastinating addressing my unhappiness with my current job situation. It is pricey but I have to think that I will get out of it what I put into it. Also, I am a women working the technology field so available mentors (I would prefer a woman as I am also considering a baby in the somewhat near future) are few and far between. Thoughts?

Amy Joyce: It sounds like you already know the answer here. Career coaches work well for some people, and are just too pricey and not as helpful to others.

As for the women in technology, aren't there a bunch of women in technology associations? Try to find some mentors/groups/associations. I know they are out there.

Anyone have advice on that end?


Amy Joyce: I just remembered one: Women in Technology ( The group has all sorts of networking events that you might want to check out.


Alexandria, Va.: For Bethesda looking for a female mentor in IT, how about starting with DC Web Women?

Amy Joyce: Good one, thanks.


Northern Va.: "My feeling is as long as you look professional, it shouldn't matter."

That's the point: not wearing pantyhose does not look professional. I'm no old coot (30s female) but I hate coming to work and seeing women in a knee-length skirt and no pantyhose. It's unprofessional and it looks bad. I give some leeway if it's a long flowy skirt (if they have decent shoes on).

I can't stand wearing pantyhose either, but wearing a skirt suit without pantyhose is just not professional. It's kind of akin to a man coming to work in a suit and tube socks.

And while we're on the subject, summer's rolling around and I'm sure we'll again have to be subjected to women coming to work with strappy blouses and ugly sandals with no pedicure. Please don't wear your beach sandals with you work clothes!

And for everyone who is going to say that it's just tooooo hot to wear pantyhose -- how many of you work in a building without air conditioning? You're probably in the heat for about five minutes each day.

Amy Joyce: I agree on the beach sandals and strappy shirts. And otherwise beachwear worn at work. I just can't agree with pantyhose. Maybe Robin Givhan will have a chat soon and you can bring it up with her.

The summer's a weird one for us because of the freezing AC, that's true. So maybe this is all moot because most women wear pants now. Of course, that takes us back to an argument a few weeks ago where people were saying women should have to wear skirts.


Gaithersburg, Md.: My kids are out of school for a week over spring break. I have preapproved leave for the entire week, and promised my kids I'd stay home with them. I rarely take time off during the school year.

Of course, a big project came up. I completed it this week. It caught the CEO's attention. Good, but he requested follow-up and wanted to know how soon I could complete the next phase.

What to do? Am I going to look bad for factoring in the week of leave to spend with my family? (By the way, I have more leave on the books than I can use this year.) Or, am I worrying over nothing?

Amy Joyce: I would say this: I'm due to be off next week and would love to complete it when I return.

Fact is, he'll probably say that's fine.

You won't look bad. I'm sure your good work overrides you taking a much earned break. (Though is Spring Break with kids considered a break?!)


Hosiery Gal in D.C.: The chatter from Kentucky doesn't say what line of work she is in, but some of the more conservative types (banking, etc.) probably do have a stricter dress code that would include mentioning hosiery. Since she says there's a stipulation of covering skin except for forearms and obvious, she may very well be in one of those places. I wear stockings mainly because my legs are scarred and marked up from an active life and if I wear a suit with no hose, I look like I have a six year-old's legs, so the stockings do give me a bit more polish. Also, the a/c temp in my office is freezing in the summer, so they actually help keep my legs a bit from the draft. Perhaps trouser socks can also mean hosiery knee-highs, which, while not the greatest, are atleast a bit lighter than the trouser socks. Regardless, it sounds like that chatter is beginning to not like her job, so I would suggest that she begin looking around for something else.

Amy Joyce: You sound very logical. We like logical. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: My best advice to soon to be grads: Take a break or a vacation if you can. I went straight to work four days after graduation and ended up stressed out, burnt out and over it in about three weeks. The pomp and circumstance, parties and leaving all your friends is sad and hard. Don't panic if you don't have a job right after college and I recommended taking a break for a few weeks if you can. I ended up leaving that job and taking two months off to regroup.

Amy Joyce: That's good advice. I started work just a couple days after graduation. And although I am still here and love it, I really could have used even just a week or two to regroup, get over the sadness and big changes, and deal with loose ends, like moving, finding a cheap car, roommates, etc.

I still clearly remember my first Metro ride into work as my roommates were still in bed or packing up their books. There I was with a college backpack among suits, trying to figure out what in the world I was doing...


Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. On that note, I've got to run. Thanks for the chat and join me again next week, same time, same place. Don't forget to check out the Sunday Business section this weekend. Sunday's column is about your workplace pet peeves and what they *really* mean.

Enjoy your week.


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