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Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post columnist
Monday, August 21, 2006; 2:00 PM

Finesse and charm are the unsung tools of leaders. Cultivating convincing communication skills and the ability to act with ease in social and professional situations can be as important as your degree. Adopt the skills of the CEO set in Finishing School .

The Washington area is a magnet for smart, ambitious young workers. The Post columnist Mary Ellen Slayter writes a regular column for these professionals who are in the first phase of their careers.

Read Mary Ellen's latest Career Track column.

The transcript follows below.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon! This week is all about workplace etiquette. Let's hear your questions and thoughts about the ever-evolving rules of the office.

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Vienna, Va.: I'm a new worker, just hired out of college and I've only been on the job for a few weeks. What are some of the most common business faux-pas for new workers? Also, I understand that the college and professional environments are very different; what sort of demeanor should new workers cultivate to succeed in the business world?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Biggies that people tend to complain to me about:

1. Not dressing the part. You gotta trade the flip-flops and tanks in for grownup clothes.

2. Impatience. I.e. I've been here six whole months, and I'm a genius. Why haven't I been promoted yet?

3. Personal indiscretion. Some recent grads have a tendency to talk too much about partying and socializing. The appropriate answer to how was your weekend is NOT "I got sooooo drunk Saturday night."

Chatters? Any more than you can think of?

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Silver Spring, Md.: What is an acceptable outfit for a male working in DC. .on "Causal Friday" and on hot summer days.

washingtonpost.com: Business Casual? Seriously. The Post's Amy Joyce on dressing down. (Post, Aug. 13)

Mary Ellen Slayter: I thought Amy's column this week touched on this pretty well. I'd say in most cases, a nice button-down, pants and good shoes will do the trick. Keep a blazer and tie at your desk in case something comes up. No jeans or sandals in D.C. generally, though in other parts of the country you could probably get away with those items.

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Washington, D.C.: I often wonder if some of the problem with "business casual" dress, is that when we're young and hear casual we expect we could be saving some money on clothes. But, really, "nice" casual clothes aren't that much less expensive.

Mary Ellen Slayter: No, they really aren't. And most casual clothes aren't as repeatedly wearable as a good suit can be with just a change of accessories.

Looking polished while wearing "business casual" clothes is harder than just wearing a suit, in my experience.

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Vienna, Va.: When I am introduced to people in the professional environment, should I refer to them as Mr. or Ms., or just use their first names? Conversely, should I insist that they refer to me as Ms. in order to make sure I am held in respect.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'm a title/last-name kinda gal, but I think it's just from being Southern. Call people what they want to be called, which should be what they introduce themselves as. Your default should be their title and last name, unless they suggest otherwise. Likewise, introduce yourself as you want to be addressed. Depending on the formality of the setting and your comfort level, that could be a title and last name or it could be your first name. Be flexible.

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Fairfax, Va.: Question: Do HR Departments typically use screening software? In particular, if I interview for a position and do not receive an offer, am I entered into their system so if I apply for another position in the future, they will automatically flag/reject my application?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I doubt that all but the biggest companies use software to sort applicants that way. At smaller companies, they'll just remember you. Whether you will be considered for a different position in the future depends on why they rejected you for the previous job. If they just found someone who is a better fit, they may still call you for the new opening. If it was because you threw a chair at the interviewer, well ...

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Washington, D.C.: How can I maintain professionalism when dealing with someone who is a lot older than me, but not competent. I just have a hard time not getting upset for cleaning up big mistakes.

Mary Ellen Slayter: First, don't allow yourself to dwell on the other person's age. You've find incompetence among co-workers of all ages. Second, keep in mind that your chief duty at work is to fulfill the mission of your employer, whether it's for-profit, a nonprofit, or government. If you can do that, cleaning up other people's mistakes will seem less like something you're doing for that particular person than something you're doing for your employer. In other words, your job. Make sense?

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Rockville, Md.: I read your column on flip flops. Is it okay to wear flip flops (summer) and sneakers (winter) from the Metro station to the office? I walk a little less than a mile. I carry appropriate work shoes in my bag.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I personally hate this, but lots of people seem to do it to no ill effect.

I also walk a lot, but I place a high premium on finding shoes that are both comfortable and professional. It's not easy, but they are out there.

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To Silver Spring: Nevernevernever wear jeans or sandals unless you KNOW those are acceptable. Dockers and polos, although trite, are always acceptable business casual.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think even polos depend on the office. The collar helps, though.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm a lesbian working for a new job at a nonprofit in DC. My old office allowed me the benefit of dressing somewhere in between the gender norm. The dress code here is business casual, which ends up looking pretty dressy to me. Women in strappy/pointy shoes and lipstick. Is it ok for me to dress more on the men's side of the spectrum -- nicely pressed button down, a pair of slacks and a nice pair of shoes.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Actually, that sounds much more professional to me, anyway.

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Rockville, Md.: How do properly address coworkers / administrators that are members / former members of the military. Such as "Rear Admiral Joe Smith."

Mary Ellen Slayter: Title and last name, unless they tell you otherwise. And that applies even if they are retired.

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Falls Church, Va.: I work in a business-casual setting but I would like to wear suits, if not every day then many days. Whenever someone wears a suit here, they get peppered with questions about who they have a meeting with, what event are they going to, etc., the assumption being that if you're dressed up it must be for a special event.

Does wearing a suit strictly by choice in a casual setting reflect poorly on the employee?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Well, if you wear one every day, at least no one will be on to you when you really do have a job interview!

Whether you will be penalized depends on the office, I would think. Generally, I would say no. However, if the whole office, including upper management, is business casual and you're more of a suit, it might be a sign that this isn't the ideal workplace for you. Just something to consider.

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Re: "Casual Friday": Mary Ellen, I don't know where you work, but in my office casual Friday means jeans. What you described sounds more like business casual.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Casual Friday was intended to mean "business casual." As in, a notch down from the usual suit/tie/heels routine. Of course, in many U.S. workplaces now that has been diluted even further, and people wear business casual during the week and drop down another notch to casual on Fridays, which is where jeans come into the picture.

It's very important to pay attention to what those phrases mean in your particular workplace.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Mary Ellen (er... Ms. Slayter). I was just rejected -- over e-mail! -- for a job after making it through a third round of interviews. What's your etiquette take on that? Should I be offended (I already am, I admit), or is that pretty standard now and accepted? I'd prefer a phone call, or a snail-mail letter...

Mary Ellen Slayter: Just be glad they told you some way! The worst is when they just leave people hanging.

I'd have preferred a phone call, as well.

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Boston, Mass.: Why on earth do you care what people wear when walking to and from the office? I can't imagine! Do you care about their choice of coat or winter hat? What if men wear wool hats with the logo of a sports team in inclement weather? Why does it matter if they're gone by the time the work day starts?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Hence the use of the word "personally." As in, I don't do it.

I would hate the idea of having to lug a whole other pair of shoes and/or socks with me to work each day. But I also have an aversion to massive purses. I'd rather just spend the money on comfortable shoes.

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Falls Church, Va.: Is there a proper way to ask for a raise? If I have knowledge of co-workers salaries is there an appropriate way to bring that up?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Nope, it's not. You can use general stats based on your years of experience and base pay for your position, but walking into the office to say "but so and so makes more!" will rarely get you anywhere. The first thing they will want to know is why you know what your co-workers make.

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K Street, Washington, D.C.: "I also walk a lot, but I place a high premium on finding shoes that are both comfortable and professional. It's not easy, but they are out there."

Ah yes, but are they comfortable, professional AND attractive? 'Tis much better to wear a cute pair of ballet flats on the Metro than spend all day in ugly shoes. Plus, the "good" shoes last longer that way.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, they are attractive as well. I LOVE Clark's, for instance. None of my work shoes have more than a 2-inch heel. That's non-negotiable when I shop.

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Good etiquette advice...: Do whatever you can to learn people's names. I started my job in June, there was never any "tour and intro" session around the office, and now I'm getting embarrassed that I've been here over two months, and can exchange a 1/2 hour of pleasantries without knowing the name of the person I'm talking to. Don't be afraid to look foolish those first couple weeks, it will help in not looking foolish later!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Very good point!

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Washington D.C.: Dress Code for women --

Maybe I'm being a little sensitive here (and I may be, not enough caffeine today) but I detect a hint of anti-girly bias here. There is nothing unprofessional about wearing a feminine skirt or a slingback heel or something as long as we're not talking sexy club-wear or childish "dress-up" outfits. It is possible to look feminine and put together and professional all at the same time. Just saying... I love button-downs, loafers, and trousers, but pointy shoes are totally acceptable.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I do have an anti-girly bias, I confess. :-)

My point was that it's A-OK for the original question writer to not want to wear the skirts and the heels, and that it wouldn't make her look unprofessional.

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Reston, Va.: In response to your response to Falls Church:

"The first thing they will want to know is why you know what your co-workers make."

If it is a state or federal job, it is not difficult at all to find out. It is often plastered all over the Internet.

Mary Ellen Slayter: That's very true. In which case, you've got easy stats to get your hands on when making your case!

It's much trickier in the private sector, though.

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Rockville, Md.: I would like to get rid of my flip flops/sneakers. What type of shoes have you found?

Mary Ellen Slayter: At the risk of sounding like a paid endorser ... I really love Clark's. Check out their dress casual line. Even at six months pregnant, I still find them ridiculously comfortable.

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Arlington, Va.: I find the biggest mistake in business casual offices is that younger workers think it means "no suit" and then they have a job interview someplace else and wonder how not to stand out with the tie/skirt suit on interview day. If you are business casual, at least twice a week, wear a sport jacket with no tie and khakis/chinos/whatever, or even a nice relaxed pantsuit for the ladies, with comfy driving loafers, etc. The trick is that if you do this from the start, you need only add the tie from your desk drawer/pocket/car on interview day, and for the women, pantsuits are entirely appropriate interview wear, but you may want to change from casual loafers to a more polished pump. This is very easy. You can find clothing like this at Lands' End for a good value/quality balance, or even at some of the department stores. If you feel too stodgy, you can wear funky jewelry or a tie with an interesting color scheme/print on it.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Agreed!

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Laurel, Md.: Suggestion for new hires:

When you're doing something that you know is not work-related (like reading this chat or participating in the football pool) at least act you're trying to be quiet about it, even if it appears that everybody does it.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes! It's like nap time back in preschool ...

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Washington, D.C.: Taking on more work sounds like a great way to get ahead, but seriously, for what I get paid, there is no way I am working late.

Mary Ellen Slayter: But the financial rewards tend to come after the hard work, not in advance of them. The people who work harder tend to get the bonuses, raises and promotions. Whether it's worth the effort, of course, is up to you.

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Washington, D.C.: I need some advice. A coworker is about to be promoted and would become my boss. We hang out in social settings sometimes and have lunch together often. I'm worried about some things I might have complained about or how to get ready for her to be my boss. What do you think?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Roll with it. This happens all the time. And really, it's a good thing! It means someone in your professional/social network is moving up in the organization.

Continue to have lunch together, but bite your tongue if you feel compelled to bad-mouth co-workers.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Ms. Slayter:

I have been working for a government agency for three years now -- I got the job right out of college following an internship. I have made one job change (to a a very high office) that has been great. Currently, I am at a great GS level for my age and I am set for another grade raise in October with even more promotion potential possible in the future.

My problem is that I can't stand other people who work here in other offices, which is a problem since my office converses with so many people. I feel like everyone treats me badly because I am young, even though they don't know me or what I am capable of. I am always very friendly and professional. This is getting to me and making me sad, angry, confused, making me question what I want to do with my life..

My question is: is it like this everywhere? Do private sector employers treat people better? Is it worth it for me to try the private sector? I'd be giving up a lot of stability, and probably money, but happiness is worth it to me.

Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: It depends on the private-sector employer. Like government agencies, it can really vary. Evaluate each prospect on its own merits, not with a mindset that private will automatically be better.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Mary Ellen, thank you for chatting with us. I'm currently at my first post college job. I feel bored -- frequently. I've let my boss know when I'm not busy so that she's aware, but she's basically told me that this job has busy times and down times and I will be delegated more work in the future. Is this true of most jobs? I'm not sure because this is my first real job. Please help!

Mary Ellen Slayter: It IS true of many jobs. The trick is to find constructive ways to use your down time. You don't mention what field you're in, but are there professional journals you could be reading? Useful software you could be learning to use?

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Severna Park, Md.: I've recently interviewed several young professionals and employers as part of a book I'm writing. Here are a few of the common mistakes I heard frequently:

1. Being late. If it is unavoidable, you need to call and explain why.

2. Improper writing in emails and other correspondence -- use of slang.

3. Not paying attention to small details. Spelling a client's name wrong can affect the whole office.

4. Complaining about doing grunt work, such as copying.

Mary Ellen Slayter: More good tips ...

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K Street, Washington, D.C.: "I LOVE Clark's, for instance."

Thank you for proving my point about unattractive shoes.

Mary Ellen Slayter: To each her own!

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Chicago, Ill.: Mary Ellen,

I'm afraid I'm losing interest in your column. I think there are lots of people like myself who have been out of school a few years and have very interesting questions/ideas to ask and share. However, we already know about flip-flops and how to dress in an office. We're interested in more "meaningful" conversation about work and find ourselves not interested in short, cheesy, one-line questions and comments that provoke a more "MTV style" response from you. Should people like myself leave your audience and go somewhere else or is there still room for us?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Then send them in! I answer the questions I can in the time allotted.

This format isn't exactly conducive to long, thoughtful responses, however. I tend to save the meatier questions and those that require research for columns in the print edition.

That wraps things up for the day. See you all next month!

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