Life at Work Live

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Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, September 5, 2006; 11:00 AM

Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce writes Life at Work on Sundays in the Business section and appears online every Tuesday. In her weekly chat she gives advice on how to handle social and professional situations.

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.

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Amy Joyce: Good morning, all. Happy end of summer, huh? What a stark difference: Rainy, chilly. Lots of traffic. Everyone's back from vacation.

We have a lot of things to discuss about our life at work this week. But first, a question for you for an upcoming column: What's the worst way you were ever told you were being "let go?" E-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com to nominate yourself for worst firing. I'm sure you've heard, but last month Radio Shack laid several hundred workers off by e-mail. So top that one, would ya?

Alrighty, then. Let's get started, folks. Time to discuss your life at work...

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New York, N.Y.: Please help! I started a new job two weeks ago and last Friday I got a job offer for a job that is better suited to my career goals, better salary and benefits, higher level, etc. How do I approach my boss and tell him that after just two weeks I am leaving? He's not going to be happy to say the least.

Amy Joyce: No, he's not going to be happy. If you're sure this is what you want to do, and you have the new offer in writing, get it over with ASAP. Ask to meet with your new manager, and just get it out: I made a big mistake and I'm incredibly sorry, but a different job offer has come through that I've decided I have to take. There's really going to be no easy way to do it. Good luck.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy, Love the chats. I work for the federal government as a statistician and was thinking about going back to get a law degree. I've already requested information from several area schools. After looking at the tuition amounts for some of the schools, I was blown away. I was wondering about how to ask on my job about help in paying for the tuition, or at least part of it. Since a law degree doesn't necessarily apply to my present job, I'm a little nervous about asking. Any advice?

Amy Joyce: Is there precedent for this sort of thing? Are there others who have earned a degree while working at your department? If so, find out how they did it. Meanwhile, think long and hard about why you want to go to law school... and more important, WHY your office should help pay for tuition. Can you promise them a few years of good work in return? Do you want this degree to lead to a new job within your organization? If there is no good reason for them to supplement your tuition, there is no good reason, and you have to accept that. But another possibility would be to ask for a flexible schedule so you can take time off to study or go to class.

Just make sure if you're asking for tuition reimbursement that you have a good plan in place and a promise that makes it worth it to the organization.

Anyone succeed at asking for a tuition reimbursement and want to share tips?

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Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. I got a few angry responses to my response to last week's question that asked this:

Richmond, Va.: My boss has started walking around the office with a hunter's knife attached to his belt. It's a small company and he is the top dog (with the exception of the owner). His behavior is getting more strange by the day. Can managers "arm" themselves in the workplace?

I said he can not "arm" himself and they should call the police. State laws in some cases allow people to be armed, no doubt. But I most companies ban weapons on the premises. I suggested that this person call the police because the boss's behavior is "getting more strange by the day." We can't take the possibility of workplace violence lightly. It happens. If you are uncomfortable with your workplace and an individual who is showing a weapon or a major change in personality, speak up immediately. Talk to human resources, if you have such a department. If you can't do that, call the police and ask their advice.

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Frederick, Md.: I have recently been offered a job which in the long term looks to be very promising and in the short term still looks to be an improvement on my current job. The problem is that I think I am being low-balled on the salary. The offer is for $48,000. My current salary is $43,000. While it is greater than a 10 percent raise, my transportation cost will double, I will be working in Reston vs. a somewhat remote Maryland city, I will be expected to work an additional five hours per week, and will be supervising three or more people. I was expecting $55,000 ... does that seem unreasonable?

Amy Joyce: Check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics for comparable salaries in your line of work (www.bls.gov). And remember that if you're not happy with it, negotiate. That's what this time is for. Just make sure you have a reason for wanting $55, and don't just throw that out there arbitrarily. You give some good reasons here, like you'll be working longer hours and will have more responsibility. Ask for a better starting salary or you'll never know what you might have been able to get. And if you start low, catching up will always be a problem.

Good luck.

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Falls Church, Va.: Hi Amy,

My small (30-person) office is plagued by a troublemaking co-worker. She gives the silent treatment to everyone in the office except a chosen handful of five or so people. If you are not in the chosen few, and greet her with a "good morning!" she turns her head, pretends she does not hear you, and refuses to even acknowledge your existence. This is distasteful, distracting, and frustrating, but she has another terrible habit. At the slightest provocation from any of the people she has chosen not to speak to -- a misspelled word in a draft of a memo, etc., she takes the offending document straight to the company CEO, without speaking first to the document preparer. Although she has been with the organization a long time, her role is as a support person for another executive, so her "straight to the top" approach to problems is a huge time waster, as well as inappropriate and unprofessional. However, for some reason (fear of her evil powers, perhaps) none of the higher-ups will discipline her for her wacko ways.

A new project has come up, and I have found out that I will temporarily be working to some degree with this person. I, of course, am one of the people she refuses to speak to. Could you give me some advice on how to maintain my professionalism in the face of such inappropriate (but apparently officially sanctioned) behavior? My current strategy is to limit my interactions with her and to maintain an unfailingly polite facade when I must interact with her. I plan to keep my supervisor (who is aware of the tension this person creates) in the loop as much as possible, without being a whiner. I just want to have my supervisor aware of my efforts and of her (troublemaker's) attempts to thwart them. Is this something lots of people deal with? Her presence really makes an otherwise nice workplace into an unpleasant, vicious environment. How do I protect myself from losing my temper and getting overly involved in her pathologies?

Amy Joyce: Yes, keep your supervisor in the loop. Do great work. Pay attention to details. Be nice. Ignore her nastiness. Has anyone ever been scolded or fired by this CEO after she points out a spelling error? I'm guessing not. Remember that and know that those higher ups know that she's petty. She probably serves another purpose they need, and so they don't bother to put her fires out elsewhere. The more you play in to her nastiness, the more she's getting away with it. You're there to do a good job. Do it and try to ignore her as much as possible. You'll be better off for it.

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RE: Law school: For the statistician who wants to go to law school and wants the federal government to pay for it, please, oh, please don't waste taxpayer money on that! Unless you will be working for the same division, you shouldn't even ask them to pay for your school. It's rude and it's an improper use of taxpayer money.

Amy Joyce: True that, even if it's not a government job, it just doesn't seem right to ask your employer to pay for a degree they will never need from you...

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dear Amy,

No question, just a compliment. Great series of articles you and your colleagues did on people who have odd/interesting jobs in the area. The paper shredder, the NIH scientist, etc. Would you consider making this a regular series? I thought it was very interesting.

Amy Joyce: Thanks. I'll pass that along to our editors. It was fun to go out and meet these folks who keep our region humming. Glad you enjoyed it.

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washingtonpost.com: The Employees' 2006 Bill of Slights , (Post, Sept. 3)

Amy Joyce: This was Sunday's depressing Labor Day column.

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Potomac, Md.: I just had a chance to read the article in the Business section of the 8/27 Washington Post and was surprised to see no mention of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 either by you or some of the women to whom you spoke, some of whom were attorneys.

Title VII, which became effective in July 1965, 28 years before the Family and Medical Leave Act, is administered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and prohibits, among other things, sex discrimination in employment. I was the first woman attorney in the General Counsel's Office at the EEOC and wrote the Commission's first guidelines on pregnancy.

The EEOC has interpreted Title VII to mean that when a woman needs medical leave or non-medical leave in connection with pregnancy and childbirth, she is entitled to the same benefits with regard to sick and general leaves that the employer provides to other employees with similar lengths of service. If, for example, an employee who has worked two years for a particular employer is entitled to two weeks of paid sick leave, a pregnant woman who is ill during her pregnancy, or during childbirth, who has worked two years would be entitled to two weeks of paid sick leave. If she just wants time off to prepare for the birth or be with her child after birth, she is entitled to whatever leave her employer gives other employees who want time off for personal reasons. The length of the leave and whether or not it is paid for is determined by the employer's policy for other employees similarly situated.

It is disheartening to me that neither you nor the women you spoke to were aware of this. It would indicate that women in general are not aware of it, and perhaps employers, too, and maybe this needs to be publicized.

Amy Joyce: I wanted to post this for you folks worried and thinking about how to make ends meet when you try to take maternity leave. This was from Sonia Pressman Fuentes. It's a good reminder that you are entitled to the same benefits that the employer provides to all employees...

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NYC: Dear Amy and chatters,

Two weeks ago, my boss e-mailed me that he would like a meeting at the end of the week. When I went, my new supervisor who got there a month ago was also there. I was told I should start looking for a new job because I was too slow and deficient, and the job was too complicated for me. I asked if I was being let go, and my boss said "Not today."

I had a good review two months ago, where I was put in the top 90 percent of doing my job. I reported this to HR, because I thought it was weird that if I was worthy of being fired, then why wait on it?

HR advised me to write an e-mail cc'ing them and the meeting participants, on the points I disagreed with (I had asked via e-mail to be trained when I first started, due to my being too slow. I got trained eight months into the job -- just about a month ago.) I also sent the original e-mails with the training requests.

Since then, the new supervisor and my boss impose rules on me that are not imposed on others (I have to work 9-to-5, may not come in early and leave early when others can, even when I ask permission.) Then they continually reassure me that they don't hate me, even though I don't ask "So why do you hate me?"

I am doing my job while I am here, and I am looking for a new job as well. HR said my boss would have to prove grounds for firing me since he just reviewed me highly, and it is a paperwork headache for him to do so. He would also have to give me a month's severance upon firing me.

Any tips on how to cope while I AM here? I have kept what has happened relatively quiet (only my coworkers who are in my immediate office know) and I keep working like I plan to be here forever -- which my boss really hates!

Amy Joyce: What a tough situation. But good for you showing them where YOU are coming from. That's very important, and will be important as you look for new work. You might want to ask HR what your boss/HR will say about you to a potential new employer. Get it in writing, if you can.

Now, to get through those days: You're doing the right thing in that you're working hard and like you're not leaving. Remember that there's a light at the end of the tunnel called a new, better job. Spend as much time as you can (lunch hours and after hours) looking for new work. Talk to friends, family and colleagues about other opportunities. You don't have to tell them why, just say that you're looking for a new, exciting gig. See if they have contacts for you and can pass your resume along. And when you're feeling incredibly down and frustrated, get out and take walks on nice days. Remember that this job isn't your life.

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washingtonpost.com: Odd Jobs That Keep The Area Humming , (Post, Sept. 4)

Amy Joyce: This is the package of stories about workers in our region: a brain slicer, paper shredder and the guy who keeps our traffic lights running orderly in Northern Virginia. Enjoy.

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Washington, D.C.: How do you deal with inviting coworkers to your wedding? There are about 70 people in my office, so I obviously won't invite all of them, but there are a few people who seem to expect invitations (i.e. one told me so). I assume if I invite one person from my small department I have to invite all, and if I'm going to invite one coworker I should invite a few others so they have someone to talk to, but I really don't want this to get out of hand. I'm getting married in DC, so its not like I have an out of town excuse.

Amy Joyce: You don't need an excuse. This is your wedding. Invite those co-workers who you want to be there. If you don't want any of them to be there, a simple: Oh, it's going to be small .. or Oh, it's mostly a family affair... would do.

Don't forget that most people who aren't all that close to you will probably be happy if they *aren't* invited. That means one less present they have to buy, one less Saturday night they have to give up. And if people are angry because you don't invite them to your wedding, then you didn't want them there in the first place.

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Washington, D.C.: Good morning Amy. I have a question regarding life before work, really. I am about to start a new job and I have been asked to calculate my moving expenses (it is across the country). I don't want to appear overly greedy, but neither do I want to be under-reimbursed for my very expensive move. Do you have any recommendations regarding how I can make these calculations? Is there some standard formula or site that offers typical numbers? Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Do you need a formula? Just look at the bills for the packers, movers, plane fare (or whatever you're using to move yourself) and anything else you're doing to move cross country. If it's too much, I'm sure your new company will tell you.

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Sticks and stones: Amy, I have a rant. Is it so hard for people to be nice?? I work in a client services field and bend over backwards to meet insane deadlines without errors and to produce high-quality output. I hardly ever get thanked and the requests certainly aren't phrased nicely. Plus there are a few notoriously mean people that I work with and I'm in constant fear that I'm going to set them off.

I'm an internal service provider for a large company so it's not like we can fire any of them for being problem clients. It's not just my office either, other service teams I interact with are seeing the same thing.

Please be nice to the people that work for you, whether they are your employees or you have to interact with them. A little kindness will take you a long way (I will gladly do anything for those that are nice to me). Thanks.

Amy Joyce: You speak the truth, Sticks. Just a little "thanks for doing that" goes an incredibly long way.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy:

Question for you ... when does dialogue cross the line between professional and personal? It seems in the workplace that language and topics can sometimes seem rather inappropriate. I have even heard executives engage in dialogue of an inappropriate nature. I am only 25 and fresh out of college and I don't want to not seem like a team player. I also do not wish to engage in such discussions, but I don't know how to decipher what dialogue constitutes what. Confused, yet? I hope you can help.

Nick

Amy Joyce: If you're uncomfortable, that means a line was crossed. The question is what you want to do about it. Most ignore it. But if it gets too personal/problematic, then you either have to say something to the person in question ("Please don't say those things. It make me uncomfortable." ) or move on to the HR department.

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Washington, D.C.: I want to thank you in advance for taking my question, Amy.

How do you boost self-esteem on the job? I have what many may consider a good job but like those in the survey you discussed in your column have to pay high healthcare costs.

I have a good boss who has been understanding about my health issues. I have an easy commute but I don't earn as much as I could working somewhere else. The benefits are not good compared to other employers in the area. Also, I have noticed that I have become comfortable in my position and that even though I am bored and unchallenged I am afraid of making a change for fear of falling on my face.

What if I have a bad boss, what if I have more money but more stress and my health gets worse? How do know when you need to make a change and how do you deal with paralyzing self-doubt?

Sorry for the long question and I hope you can answer it during your chat.

P.S., Another minus is I hate my co-workers.

Thanks.

Amy Joyce: You're never going to know what's out there for you if you don't look. And looking does not mean you have to buy. You may have high healthcare costs elsewhere (okay, probably). Your paycheck might not rise incredibly if you go somewhere else. But there is the possibility of finding a line of work in which you're not bored mindless. Doesn't that inspire you to at least try? It's very difficult, I know, to step out of a very comfortable job and environment. You have a decent boss. A short commute. But this is your ONE life. Are you wasting it?

And say the worst happens: You find a job where you're bored, not paid much and hate your co-workers. Oh! Wait! That already describes your current situation. Might as well just take a baby steps and start looking for a new opportunity, right?

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Low-balled salary: www.salary.com is also a good place to look for comparisons.

washingtonpost.com: Check out our News & Advice page in our Jobs section to compare salary information.

Amy Joyce: We're info galore.

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Houston, Tex.: How do I tell my manager that I don't feel like I'm growing as an employee and that I'm not challenged by the work that I do? Should I say anything at all? I'm looking for a new job, but it's taking longer than I expected. In the meantime, I've been looking for new ways in which to enrich my job, but I seem to be met with resistance by my manager.

Thanks!

Amy Joyce: You ask your manager to meet and chat. Explain things just as you did here. And listen. Ask what you can do to improve your job and the work you do. You may be surprised by some of your manager's answers.

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Boston, Mass.: I am curious about your "get it in writing" comment to New York. Is there some law that states once an offer is in writing they have to hire you? Since most states are "at will" employment states, it doesn't seem to matter if an offer is in writing or verbal, if an employer changes their mind, so be it. Am I wrong here?

Amy Joyce: It's much easier to confidently go forward with quitting one job when you have another offer in hand. It may not be legally binding, but it would make rescinding the offer more difficult. More than anything, I say that because I think it's important to be sure this other offer is waiting before quitting the current job.

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D.C. Academia: Hi Amy,

I am applying for positions within the same university, but am doing the job search while very visibly pregnant. They may not be able to bring it up (at least legally), but it will be on their minds. I'd like to make sure they know that I plan on returning after being out a couple of months, so that I don't get overlooked based on an unstated "what if." How would you suggest handling this in an interview?

Amy Joyce: If it's very obvious, then bring it up toward the end of the interview, or when it seems appropriate. Explain that you plan to come back and that once you have an offer you can discuss what kind of leave you'll need when you give birth. Good luck.

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D.C.: As an older woman, I never thought this would happen to me, seeing as how I remember vividly the fight for equal pay for equal work. Today, I was informed that my upcoming bonus would be less than my two co-workers (one male, one female) because I don't have children to support. Funny, when I was fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment, I fought as a woman, not a person without children, since having a family to support was one of the traditional defenses to paying a man more for the same job. I'm sickened to think women are now using it, too.

Amy Joyce: Hey D.C., how about you focus your anger toward your employer, not the woman who got the higher bonus? Seems to me like you have more than enough reason to go to the decision makers here and ask for a better explanation because you *know* that can't be the reason. Go to them with the reason you should be getting an equal bonus. Explain what sort of work have you done to earn this bonus, why and how much do you expect as a bonus. Tell them you really think they need to figure a bonus out on the work done, not on outside circumstances. Don't take it out on your co-workers. I'm guessing they didn't go to the boss and say since they have kids, they deserve more than you.

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Help, Please! I'm looking for some advice on how I can get back in my field. I am about to finish my masters and I have been working laid-back jobs so that I could concentrate on getting my masters, and now it's time for me to start looking for something in my field. I have been out of my field for 3 years and I don't think I can really put the job that was in my field because it's been so long ago. I have had two jobs since then and neither were in my field. Are there any good Web sites that anyone can recommend on what's good etiquette of representing a person trying to get back in their field?

Amy Joyce: Is your masters in the line of work you're trying to get in to? If so, make sure to highlight that on your resume. *Definitely* put the work that is in the same career on your resume. In fact, detail that much more than you would the other jobs. Just because it's been three years (my goodness, that's no time at all!) doesn't mean you don't have the skills or background. In fact, quite the opposite. You gained a lot being in that field and you have to show potential employers that you have the background and skills necessary to keep going. I'd argue, if you were getting your masters in that area, that you never actually left the field.

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Washington, D.C.: I've been in a slump lately at work. It is hard to keep on top of all the projects coming in which previously hadn't been a problem. I think it may have to do with the banality of the projects. Do you have any advice on how to stay motivated and organized in the midst of such boring chaos? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Lists! Lists work wonders. Have a key list of your major projects, make a list of what you have to accomplish every day to get to the end of that project. Work your way through. You may find a better way that suits you. But try taking it step by step. I think once we break down the things that seem so big and looming, it's much more doable.

Good luck, DC.

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And on that note, talk to you all next week, same time, same place. Don't forget to check out Life at Work, the column, in the Sunday Business section. E-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com if you have a layoff horror story for the upcoming piece. Enjoy your week!

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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. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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