Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, September 12, 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.


Amy Joyce: Good morning all. It's Tuesday, which means it's time to talk about your life at work. As always, jump in with your own advice and stories to share with your fellow workers and workers-to-be. Let's get started...

_______________________ Fired Via E-Mail, And Other Tales Of Poor Exits , (Post, Sept. 10)

Amy Joyce: This was Sunday's column ...


San Francisco, Calif.: Does one have to be fired to get unemployment? Or can you resign and still get it somehow?

Amy Joyce: Getting fired is your, um, best bet. But you can get unemployment if you quit for "good cause." That would be legal jargon for something like a serious problem that you tried to resolve but couldn't. Some states also allow you to quit for personal reasons and collect unemployment. I'm no legal expert, so I'm not sure of all the ins and outs. You need to check on your own state's laws related to this. California has some of the most worker-friendly laws out there, though.

Amy Joyce: This is a helpful link on the Department of Labor Web site:


Charlotte, N.C.: I hope you can steer me in the right direction. I'm having some health issues, and consequently, I'm having doctor appointments on a biweekly basis (physical therapy, etc). I'm also looking for a new job. How or when do I bring up the fact that I may or may not have an appointment that often? Especially since I most likely won't have any PTO or something like that. I'm desperate to leave my current position -- the stress and chaos is making my health worse -- but I'm worried about getting serious in my search due to the appointment frequency. Any advice?

Amy Joyce: Find the job you want first. When you get into negotiation stage, if you are comfortable, tell them that you'll need some accommodation. (If, in fact, you do.) You might be able to schedule your PT appointments around work, no?

You are under no legal obligation to tell them that you might or might not need to leave for appointments here and there. But if you feel like they will need to provide you with some extra accommodations, then you might want to bring it up. Your situation happens quite frequently, so in most cases, an employer will understand and be quite helpful. Don't be afraid to look for a new job.


Colorado: I have a government civilian job in a DoD agency in Colorado and my husband is a defense contractor. A co-worker of mine expressed interest in my husband's company, and it looks like they're about to make him "an offer he can't refuse". I'm worried about the aftermath... that our boss will be mad at me for helping him jump ship. Any advice?

Amy Joyce: First, my guess is your boss doesn't know you helped him. Even if he's going to your husband's company. Second, this co-worker is a grown person who can make his own decisions. He's the one who expressed interest, right? Your boss will hopefully understand that. If you want to be extra safe, ask that your co-worker not mention that you helped. (If you did...)


McLean, Va.: Hi, Amy. Interesting article about tacky firings. I actually don't think Radio Shack handled things so badly. They gave employees advance notice (although only a couple weeks) that there would be layoffs, they provided written notice of the actual layoffs (I don't see a big difference between an email and a letter these days), and there were discussions with managers. That's more than I've sometimes received in my transitions between projects with federal information technology contractors right here around Washington, D.C. Government funding can end abruptly for one reason or another. With the large system integrators, where each project is essentially a different job, the individual then needs to run around to interview for a new job within the same company or a different company. After doing both of those a few times, I've moved to a consulting organization that works with the federal government on a more flexible basis, though the transitions can still be abrupt. The government agency I'm currently working with may not know before the new fiscal year starts in a few weeks whether they will still need my services. But I can easily transition to another project if they don't. I do see unpredictability of funding (and location) as a possible brain drain for the federal government and something that they may want to consider more carefully.

Amy Joyce: You're right. Work unpredictability is huge here. With that in mind, folks, tell us: How do you cope with the uncertainty?


McLean, Va.: Hi, Amy! I REALLY need your help with this question ... I have a phone interview later this afternoon for a position in New York. Is there any kind of etiquette I should be aware of when I'm being interviewed over the phone? Reservations about moving to New York aside, this would be an exciting position, and I don't want to mess it up!

Also, I know you've talked about this before and say that a resume should be limited to one page, but it is getting more and more difficult for me to keep it to one page. I am 24 years old, but I have had several internships and positions in the past few years. Is it better to keep it to one page but have .2 margins and size 10 font or just go to two pages? Thanks!!!

Amy Joyce: Breathe, McLean. You'll be okay. Just have this conversation as if you were sitting in an office on an interview. That's what's happening here. This is just an initial screening out. So make sure you know enough about this position to be able to ask a question or two if you have the chance. And make sure you know what you want to say about why you think this is an exciting opportunity. Also, of course, think about what relevant work experience you have before you answer that phone. Don't rattle off everything. They'll know enough about that. Just really focus on what you think will be pertinent.

And speaking of ... most HR folks will say as a 24-year-old, you really shouldn't have a two-page resume. You need to cut down on the descriptions of some of those first jobs. That should save you enough space. A resume is there to give employers a very good idea about what pertinent experience you have. Then you talk in more detail about it in the interview.


Silver Spring, Md.: For more information about unemployment benefits (or any legal question related to the workplace), check out the Workplace Fairness Web site, at Workplace Fairness is a nonprofit which makes information about workplace rights available to workers free of charge, 24/7, and has an entire section devoted to unemployment issues, at

Amy Joyce: A plug here for Workplace Fairness, which is indeed an interesting and helpful site.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for a great column, Amy!

Here's my situation: I'm in the process of leaving my old job for a new one I start next week. My bosses want to have something akin to an exit interview, primarily focused on the position I'm leaving and what they should consider changing/refining about it and things like that.

I'm wondering if I should broach one particular topic here, and that's one of personal business. I'm going to miss my old bosses and co-workers, but I will not miss handling a ton of things like renewing their car registration, arranging their vacations (yes, their vacations), trying to coordinate furniture deliveries to their homes, etc. This was not just for my bosses, but for nearly everyone I work with. I'm afraid of opening a big can of worms, but I think it needs to be said because it did affect a lot of work that had to be done for the business. While not the only factor, it did play a role in me leaving.

Amy Joyce: I think you can do that very easily. Make sure to say how much you're going to miss everyone, but if they really want to know how to revamp your old position, you would suggest using your replacement for X rather than Y. Give them examples of how your position could be a better help to the organization and why.


Washington, D.C.: An employee who retired from our company this summer won't/can't let go, it seems. It appears that he spends his free time e-mailing our department with comments about quotes in articles/research reports, minor typos and style issues. Sometimes he sends multiple e-mails daily. Our department responds to him professionally and treats him the way we would any other person who brings such matters to our attention. It is, however, a time drain. And, well, creepy. I e-mailed him and asked if he was okay, that I found his behavior odd for someone who is retired. He said he follows the news because he cares, not just because it was his job.

The man is very young and has only worked for this company; he started working at the company while in college. The urge to tell him to go on a date, an adventure, let the company go and get a life is starting to become overwhelming. Suggestions?

Amy Joyce: I think it's wise how you've handled it so far. You do have to treat him like he's any other member of the public sending you emails. Hopefully, with time, he'll begin to let go. Particularly once he finds what else is out there for him.

Anyone else have some thoughts on this?


Washington, D.C.: I am being laid off and need to negotiate my severance package. I can go onto my spouse's health insurance, so that's less important to me than replacing my income for as long as possible. Any tips on negotiating? Any sources for how long the average job search is taking that I can use in negotiation?

Amy Joyce: Well, the average job search takes about five to six months. But that changes by industry and region. This area has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, so it might not take you that long.

Think about what you would hope for and need -- it helps that you don't have to worry about health benefits -- and ask for it. Are there others who have been laid off from your office? Can you ask them what you should expect?

Anyone else have severance negotiation tips?


Bethesda, Md.: I am a recent college graduate. Right out of college I got a job as a paralegal. When they hired me, they said I was an at will employee, but they would like me to stay for two years, which is the typical length of employment for a just-out-of-college paralegal. Anyway, I am thinking of law or grad school next fall, meaning I would only be at this job for one year. Is it wrong for me to leave after one year and also ask them to write me a grad school recommendation?

Amy Joyce: Do your research. Figure out if you want to go back to school and why. Once you are sure you're going to apply, then apply. You will know better at that point if you're comfortable asking them for recommendations. You may have a mentor at that point who you can ask to do so. In other words, don't worry about this yet. Instead, spend this time figuring out whether you want to go back to school. Then go from there ...


Ithaca, N.Y.: For McLean, I did a phone interview a few weeks ago and it went fabulous. Advice I received: do it in a quiet/isolated space, dress up as if you were doing it in person, stand during the interview, smile, and if you can, bring up the online employee directory photo of the person you will be talking to to put a face to the voice. All of these are meant to keep you focused and engaged, the most challenging difference between an in-person and phone interview. Good luck.

P.S. Amy, I love these chats, I'm psyched I'm actually getting a chance to help someone else on the chat!

Amy Joyce: Thanks, Ithaca. Good advice. In today's cell phone world, it would be easy to forget that it's probably best to be in a quiet place. And if you can do it via land line, that is probably even better. Cells still have a tendency to break up lots in conversations, or at least have a lot of extra noise.


Please help.: A co-worker has become more and more volatile over the last six months. At first I tried to keep things calm among our group and ignored her angry outbursts. That didn't work. Then I calmly spoke with her about being uncomfortable with some of the smart things she says. She apologized, and said she'd watch it. That didn't work. This week she's been "bragging" about getting a gun and learning to shoot at a range and making snide comments about pretending to "bust a cap in someone's butt." My boss heard it and confronted her and she said "geez, nobody can take a joke." She didn't directly make a threat to anyone, but her obvious hateful attitude towards others and intent to make everyone aware of her extracurricular activities scares everyone. I actually considered leaving this job today. It's a great job except for her. If she doesn't make a direct threat or bring a gun into the office, can we really do anything about it? My boss is somewhat afraid of doing something and I don't want to go over my boss unless I have to. Any advice on how to deal with this individual?

Amy Joyce: It sounds like you've done everything you can. Your boss is letting a potentially serious situation get more problematic. You may want to ask your boss if anything is being done. If not, this has to go to HR or someone higher up who will understand that perhaps this woman needs some counseling through the company employee assistance program.


Washington, D.C.: Washington is one of the rare places where it's kind of normal to move around a lot. I landed a new job in D.C. that pays a lot more about six months ago. I'm not sure I fit in here. I don't hate it, but I don't think I'm doing my best. When is the right time to admit you made a mistake, and part with the company professionally?

Amy Joyce: Start looking around now for a new opportunity. Once you find something that will be a better fit, go for it. There's no hard rule about how long you need to stay at an organization. Just don't make a habit of it. And be sure you made a mistake and you don't want to just try to revamp your job where you are, if that's a possibility.


For the cling-y retiree: Are you under an obligation to respond to each and every e-mail? If he is e-mailing multiple times a day, and every day, a polite response once a week or so should more than suffice. And if the issue he brings up is an insignificant typo or an opinion about style, personally I don't think that requires a response at all. If you do respond, however, do make sure you are, in fact, responding, as you said, the way you would respond to any other reader, which I assume to mean professionally but certainly not as you would to a friend or co-worker. I suspect that after a few "thank you for reading our publication" e-mails from you, he will lose that sense that his messages are more important as he is a former insider. That may be a lot of what is driving him.

Amy Joyce: I'm not sure I'd be that cold, but you bring up a good point that probably every little email doesn't need to be answered.


Arlington, Va.: I have received a job offer that is 25 percent above my current salary. I would like to approach my current employer to see if they would match or make a counter offer, but have no idea how to approach this. Any suggestions are much appreciated.

Amy Joyce: First, be aware that there will be a very good chance your company will say "Congrats, enjoy your new job." If you're ready for that, then go to your boss and say that you just received a job offer that you are inclined to take, but part of you wants to stay. Then try to discuss what you'd like to change if you were to stay. Be sure it doesn't sound like a threat. You need to make it clear that this new job sounds exciting to you, but you also would like to consider staying if you could make a few changes in your current position.


Downtown D.C.: One of my supervisors has the annoying habit of calling me into her office to give me a project, then either totally forgets why she called me in there, or, even worse, totally forgets that I'm there. She'll call me in, ask me to wait a moment, and then answer e-mails, work on projects, make phone calls, and so on. So I sit in her office for 30 minutes or more, time tick-tick-ticking away, waiting to be given a task that usually winds up only taking me five minutes. I've tried asking if she could call me later when she's ready for me. I've also tried gently pointing out that I have a full plate of things to do. Nothing works! Apparently she does this to everybody (she's pretty high-ranking).

What can I do? And, if there's nothing I can do, how do I keep from getting completely frustrated? I find it very rude to be called into her office and then ignored, and it's hard not to feel insulted and unappreciated.

Amy Joyce: How could someone not notice you standing in their office? Not that I don't believe you ...

I would just try to call her on it each time: Do you want me to come back later? (Make her give you an answer).



Washington, D.C.: My employer is reclassifying my job. It's not unexpected so I have been looking, and I'm not upset with the way it's been handled - -they're giving me three months to find something, and offering a severance package at the end of that. Mostly I'm looking at it as an opportunity. Am I selling myself short here? Are there specific things I'm missing out on that I can/should demand as part of the separation? Are there specific ducks I need to make sure are in a row?

Amy Joyce: Sounds like the best of a bad situation. Definitely look at it as an opportunity and do something about finding a new job that will excite you. Make a list of places you want to work. Places you could network. Contacts you could call for job leads and guidance. Then start to do those things so you can get to a point where you have a few ideas of where you can move on to in three months.


Don't want to live in Washington, D.C.: I'm the person thinking of leaving ... what if I'm worried I have made a habit of it? I was at a job 2.5 years, then got an exciting new public sector job, did that for about two and got offered a boatload of more money to come to my new place. I wasn't dissatisfied at any of the previous jobs. And I'm kind of high-ranking now and at least two decades past college. Are the "rules" any different, do you think?

Amy Joyce: Try not to focus on those things. People will be looking at you and at your experiences. Make sure you have better reasons for moving on than they offered you a boatload of new money. Because a potential new employer will ask why you left your previous jobs. In other words: Those "rules" really should not matter unless you let them matter. You have work experience. That's what people will be looking at. Just make sure that next job is something you want.


Washington D.C.: Hi, Amy. I am having an unusual problem. I am a graduate student that has found a lab at which to collect my dissertation data that is all the way across the country. I approached that lab in July and the advisor there is willing to take me and pay me a research assistant salary which is very little but also suggested that I wait until my fiance can move there as well due to a high cost of living in San Diego. My problem is that my fiance has been delayed in his move until January and I do not want to miss this opportunity. How can I tactfully approach the question of how much I will actually be getting paid and when I could expect to receive my first paycheck? I need to know so that I can gauge whether or not and how I would be able to move there on my own for a few months. I don't want to offend my new boss by coming across as if I just care about the money instead of the privilege of working with him. Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Just ask. Really. Tell him how excited you are about the opportunity, but you need to talk to him about the details so you can figure out how you might be able to afford the move, etc. I know labs are sort of notorious for not having their act together on this sort of thing, but that could work in your favor: Your potential new boss knows things are up in the air, so it won't be a surprise to him to be asked for details.


Amy Joyce: Okay, thanks all. Check out the Sunday section to read Life at Work the column. You can e-mail me at I'll be here again next week, same time, same place. Have a good week!


Editor's Note: 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. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company