Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, September 19, 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 usual, jump in with your own thoughts, advice, stories to share with your fellow readers. Weird survey of the week: Drinkers earn more money than nondrinkers according to a recent study by economists Bethany Peters, Ph.D., and Edward Stringham, Ph.D. The study, published by the Journal of Labor Research and Reason Foundation, finds that men who drink earn 10 percent more than abstainers and women drinkers earn 14 percent more than nondrinkers. You know what that means? Network. My hunch is these economists could find the same results in coffee drinkers. (Hey, boss, let's grab a cup of coffee and chat at the corner Starbucks ...!) On that note, let's start discussing, shall we?


McLean, Va.: Hi, Amy. As a single person with creative interests outside of work, I was especially interested in Sunday's article. I work for a large nonprofit organization that is fairly generous with combined leave (vacation, illness, personal business) and allows an unpaid sabbatical of up to eight weeks every seven years (with insurance contributions continuing during that time). I learned from an in-house article that few people take advantage of a sabbatical, but it can be used for any purpose and can be very satisfying. Although without pay, this option can offer more balance to singles as well as families over the course of a career. I've been with the organization a couple years and plan to take a sabbatical when the time comes. Obviously, the sabbatical timing is not a good fit for every purpose, but any benefit that offers some flexibility is likely to be appreciated by those who use it.

Check out the latest column here: Kid-Friendly Policies Don't Help Singles (Post, Sept. 17)

Amy Joyce: That's so true. Sabbaticals are becoming very popular and I think are a great idea. Companies are finding they are a great way to retain people (Get tired of your job? Instead of looking for a new one, take eight weeks to refresh and do something else for a while). And of course employees are finding they are great: Some are using them for family care reasons. Others, to take that hike in the Tetons they've been wanting to do forever.


Washington, D.C.: I need your advice, Amy. My father never went to college. When I was little, he worked his way up through the ranks at a computer software company to become a high-ranking executive there. After many years there, he found a similar high-level job at another company and worked there for 10 years. About five years ago, he was fired from that job because of a disagreement with his boss. I don't know the details, but the boss has since been fired. Ever since my dad was let go, he has been languishing in low-paying positions and barely getting by. This is so sad, because he is an excellent manager and businessman, with superb leadership skills. It breaks my heart to see him wasting his time in jobs that are not suited to his skills and experience. However, he has it in his head that he will never be able to find a management position because (1) he doesn't have a degree, (2) he was fired from his last job, and (3) at 60, no one will hire him because of his age. What advice would you give to someone in his position? I know these are tough circumstances, but there must be some way to overcome them. Thank you.

Amy Joyce: It's not entirely uncommon for a 60-year-old to have not gone to college (at least compared to the younger generations today). So remember that and remind him of that yourself so it doesn't hinder his own thinking when it comes to trying to find a better job. One place he might want to check out is AARP. They have a handy list of best employers for people over age 50. They also have a relatively new thing called the National Employer Team. The companies listed here partner with AARP to place older workers in jobs. It may not be up his management alley, but it could be an in or a start. He also should probably contact a headhunter or two. They might be able to help him find a job for his experience level. Finally, lots of people get fired. Although it might be a hindrance if he was fired for good reason and that comes out in the interview process, it probably won't consist of more than a question or two in an interview. Suggest that he set up a list of folks who can verify his prior experience and good works and stand up for him as references. Anyone else have any thoughts?


Takoma Park: Amy -- I appreciated your column on family-friendly vs. employee friendly policies. I absolutely agree that we can't create a work environment that fails to provide all employees with a way to balance home and work. Flexible schedules and "balance days" go a long way toward that. I remain puzzled, however, when I hear people like the first person you quoted express resentment over maternity leave. To me, maternity leave is the equivalent of sick leave -- moms and dads of newborns are literally in a state of extreme sleep deprivation for the first month after birth, not to mention stress, etc. Asking why you can't have the equivalent time off so you can take a class, etc. is like resenting time a coworker has off to recover from major surgery ("Gee, he got a whole month off to recover from that car accident. Why can't I have a month off, too?"). I'm not saying folks with no children shouldn't have options or leave time to pursue things that make their life more meaningful or simply to be less squeezed by work. Everyone should have that. I just don't think the "she got maternity leave so why can't I have the same amount of personal time" argument works very well. There are better arguments that can be made. I'm a parent but I had my child late so spent most of my working life childless- I had flex time then-- made my life so much more sane!

Amy Joyce: I think more than anything, she was just trying to point out that she gets no chunk of time off because she is single with no kids. Like I said in the column, she would never want to deny anyone maternity leave. (Particularly in this country where getting that leave can be a real struggle...) It's a struggle, as you noted, for people without children to try to find a balance, too. Lots of companies, however, are taking note of the importance of that and trying to find ways (or allowing workers to show them ways) to help workers in general "balance" -- if there is such a thing!


Boston, Ma.: Amy, great article! I must say, as a 40-something single w/no kids, I never thought of asking for time off, paid or unpaid, comparable to parental leave. My concerns are much more mundane: In my office, at least, singles are expected to fill in when parents rush home because schools close early for snow or are closed for teachers days, and to come in on weekends so parents can go to their kids' ball games, etc. And I work for a government agency! I figure my private life is just as important as theirs, but very few non-singles (or perhaps I should say non-parents) acknowledge this. It's very frustrating.

Amy Joyce: How about saying: I'm sorry, I can't tonight. Period. No need to give a reason. Just tell them it's not possible. Because I know it's not always possible -- "even" if you are single with no kids -- to work. You have other things going on in your life that are important, too. Point that out.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi, Amy. I interviewed for my dream job this summer (in June), but did not get it. The form letter said they would keep my resume on file, but I was thinking about contacting the person who interviewed me. Would an e-mail be ok? What could I say? This is a field I am really passionate about and I want to know how best I can work in it (and any feedback on why the seemingly great interview turned out so poorly would be nice), but I'm not sure if it's too late to contact the person who interviewed me or the best way to approach it. Thank you for any tips.

Amy Joyce: E-mail would be fine, and I think that's a good idea to contact the person who interviewed you again. A lot of HR folks say they hear back from interviewees who asked for feedback about why they weren't hired. You can do that (any hiring managers out here who want to comment on how you feel about that?) or you could just say that you know your resume is still on file, but you wanted to contact this person because you feel so passionate about this field. If you've done anything new/interesting since that last interview, mention it. And say that you would love to be considered again if any new jobs open up.


Washington, D.C.: Amy, Adding to the debate over benefits aimed at parents ... I don't have children and don't plan to, but even to me it is plainly evident that the tiny perks some employers extend to parents in no way covers the extreme work load of parenting. For every hour a parent gets off from work to rush his/her sick child to the doctor's office, there are ten hours spent at home worrying, comforting, feeding, etc. To those of us not able to leverage the tolerance and understanding of employers regarding child rearing, I say be grateful for those ten hours of time you have to pursue your own interests, and not worry about that one hour you can't 'claim'.

Amy Joyce: This is a good reminder that the column -- and many single and/or no kids folks -- did not intend to be an either or thing. I think it's pretty apparent that things are tough for parents and the perks some companies provide in no way make life easy for parents. Maybe just easier. But in the meantime, other employees with no children could really benefit from a few benefits themselves.


Alexandria, Va.: Miracles do happen! I have a choice between four companies who want to hire me, and I need to make a decision by today. I have two of the written offers in-hand, but those are the two companies I don't really want to work for. I have verbal offers from the other two companies that I would rather work for, but "a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on." My question is this: Should I tell my boss today about the offers to give him a chance to get a counteroffer (which I won't take) or should I wait until I have written offers in-hand from the places I want to work before I tell him that I'm leaving? If it makes a difference, he knows I'm looking and we have been very above-board about it all.

Amy Joyce: If you're sure you won't take an offer from your boss, then don't put him through the stress of trying to counteroffer. That would be completely unfair. Wait until you have made your decision to tell your boss you're leaving and give that boss at least two weeks' notice. Again, no need to get him tangled into your daily ruminations about what decision you will make.


Bethesda, Md.: Philadelphia should not assume that the interview did not go well simply because no job offer was forthcoming. Definitely a good idea to reconnect. Hiring managers and/or HR people are often reluctant to give "feedback" on how the interview went for fear of a challenge from the applicant.

Amy Joyce: Yes, I know some HR folks are hesitant to give feedback for fear of being sued. But glad to hear you think it's a good idea to reconnect. All you'll do, Philly, is remind them that you're there and you're interested.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for these chats. I need a bit of advice. I am a year out of college, 23 years old and completely bored at my job that is making me unhappy and has zero room advancement. I feel like I'm 50. I've been submitting resumes and had a few interviews for PR/public affairs/research, but have not been offered anything. I am considering going to art and design school for a graphic design certificate, but I would like to would like to take three or four classes a semester (beginning in January) in order to try to finish within a year to a year in a half. In order to do this I would have to quit my job or maybe go part-time. I have some design experience from previous classes and have been told I should pursue it further. Any advice or thoughts on how I should go about this?

Amy Joyce: Can you afford to go part-time? How about doing something completely different just to bring in some bucks while you go to school (retail/waiting tables/etc.) You could work the hours around your school schedule and still have time to study. But first, I'd talk to some graphic designers about their lives, jobs, school, training and make sure going back to school for this is for you. Anyone know of an association/networking group in the area for graphic designers?


D.C.: I'm a hiring manager. I'm not allowed to give feedback on why people weren't hired. There's just too much potential for legal problems.

Amy Joyce: And there you have it. Thanks.


Arlington, Va.: Amy,

I'm originally from the South and I'm hoping to move to Atlanta in the near future (within the next six months). My annual performance review is coming up in the next few weeks, and our company has an Atlanta office. Should I mention that I hope to move soon? Our group has several people who work from home and live more than five hours from our office, so I may be able to stay with this group, but I am not sure. Do you think it would be a good idea to mention it? I've worked here for almost a year.

If you don't think that's a good idea, do you have any tips for looking for a job in a new city? I've tried looking for jobs in a city where I wasn't living before, and it was challenging. Any comments/advice would be greatly appreciated.


Amy Joyce: Yes it's a good idea. And review time is a perfect time to bring it up. Tell them that you'd like to move back to Atlanta at some point in the near future, and you think you could transfer your job there easily since other people in your same department are able to do it from home and far from the office. If they know you're invested in the job and would be willing to put in as much or more effort from Atlanta as here, they may really want to move you there. It's always better than trying to hire someone to replace you once you leave on your own.


Washington, D.C.: Since I was a little girl (I'll be 30 in a few weeks), I've known that there were two areas of work that were what I was meant to do: working on environmental causes and owning a hotel/inn. For the past six years, I've worked for an environmental consulting firm on social marketing programs, and while I enjoy it most days, I still dream all the time about running a bed and breakfast or just working in a hotel. Do you have any advice on how I can get experience at working in the industry? Do you think a hotel would take me on as an "intern?" I'd even be willing to just work at the front desk of a hotel a few hours a week for free to see how I liked the hotel industry. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Amy Joyce: Hotels often have part-time jobs. Do some pavement pounding: Go to a few hotels in your area and ask to see the general manager. (Try to go at a slow time--maybe a Weds. afternoon after a lunch rush.) Then explain that you're really interested just seeing if they'd be willing to take you on for a few hours a week. You might be surprised at what you find. You also might want to call a few of the many B&Bs in our area and see if the owners would be willing to chat with you or let you pick up a few hours here and there. Even just ask them where else you might be able to look or check if they can't help you directly. They had to get there at some point, right? Ask them how they did it, why and what their life is like now.


D.C.: Saying "I'm sorry, it's not possible," is often not respected. Seriously, I have had bosses (yes, more than one, in more than one place) not accept that someone without children might have a worthwhile life beyond work. And so rather than working with all their employees to ensure that the work is covered in a fair manner, they allowed people who had lives they considered important to take priority in granting leave, setting schedules, etc. And there's no requirement that they be fair - the concept of not discriminating based on family status appears to flow only one way. (At my prior federal employer I did not give reasons for leave requests. They were demanded and judged before leave was granted, and once I had scheduled leave cancelled to accommodate a co-worker who had failed to plan for childcare over spring break and suddenly asked for a week off.)

Thank you for covering the issue -- really, all I want is consistent, fair, unbiased treatment. We all have lives to live. We all need to work. Happy employees are more productive, so why not work to keep everybody happy?

Amy Joyce: "I'm sorry, it's not possible" is not often respected. True. But neither is "I'm sorry, but my son is sick and I have to leave early." The fact is, you have to fight for a life you want. Parents do it and have done it because their children are important to them. If your life outside of work is also important to you, then you need to figure out how to make both of them work. If your boss doesn't respect you for it, make a decision: Family reunion to see your cousins or random weekend shift? You decide. Just like parents do.


Graphic design group in D.C.: There is an Adobe InDesign users group in Washington, and it's chock full of graphic designers (duh!). They meet once a month for free pizza and talks from Adobe people. I don't have the link now but a good Internet search should pull it up on the Adobe site.

Amy Joyce: Thanks!


New York: Amy -- I have a wide range of experience such that I simultaneously interview for positions in really esoteric, technical fields, project management, as well as marketing. There's always a brief sense of "so exactly what niche are you?" when I first sit down opposite an interviewer. I try to highlight my 'relevance' in cover letters but it still seems like people aren't accustomed to candidates who they can't immediately typecast. What can I do differently? Thank you!

Amy Joyce: Say that with your background, you can't really be typecast! Then explain why that's a good thing. (You've had myriad experiences, know what you like and what you don't. Know that this job would be perfect for you because X, etc.)


Washington, D.C.: Amy -- I am expecting a job offer from a company within the next couple of days. I have a friend that works for the company who spoke to the manager and she told me the job is mine. I will definitely take the job, if offered. I am miserable at my current company and would even take a pay cut to leave. My fear is that the new company might give me a lowball offer. Keep in mind, I will accept their best offer, no matter how much of a pay cut. Is there a way to tactfully negotiate salary without potentially thwarting my chance at getting the job? Am I just being paranoid that if I ask for more money, they will even pull their initial offer?

Amy Joyce: It's called negotiation. They offer, you counter offer, they say yes or no or give you another offer. You say yes or no and either take the job or not. Sure, sounds simple. But that's pretty much it. They aren't going to say they want to hire you then decide not to because you wanted $10,000 more a year. If they can't give you that, they'll say they can't give you that. And you decide from there. So yes, maybe being a little paranoid. Focus first on the offer itself. Tell them you really want it, but you need to chat about the money. They won't pull the offer out from under you.


Washington, D.C.: If a person were to leave their current job for personal reasons (i.e., cross country move to be near family), when would be a good time to give notice? Anywhere between 3 months and two weeks. Keep in mind, the person likes this job, just needs to move for personal reasons and has been here just over one year.

Amy Joyce: I always say wait until your details are in place. So many things could change between now and then. Once you know for sure you're moving and that the moving truck is on its way, then tell your current employer. A lot can change, including just a leave date. So wait until you're sure. But give at least two weeks notice.


Washington D.C.: Hey Amy, I am a recent college graduate who has been working as a paralegal at a governmental law firm for the past few months, and while I enjoy my job, for long periods of time I literally have nothing to do. Is this normal, and if not, how can I ask for more work without coming off as whiny or perhaps unimportant?

Amy Joyce: It is normal. But it's not a good situation. Talk to your boss, explain that you seem to have a lot of downtime and you'd be interested in learning new things or doing more to help out. If you have ideas yourself, even better. Don't worry about being "unimportant." You are a recent college grad. You may have to do some envelope stuffing to get to the next point in your career. There's nothing wrong with it. (And it'll keep you busy).


Lake Ridge, Va.: B&B person -- The Ritz-Carlton offers a management training program that would be GREAT for someone wanting to break into this industry. I wanted to do the same thing-run my own inn, so I got involved in the RC's program. You do rotations in each aspect of the hotel, learning how everything runs and how each department interacts. It was a really great experience.

Of course, I learned from it that I wasn't as interested in owning my own inn as I had once thought, but it was better than learning it the hard way.

And it's basically like an internship. I was in the program about 7 years ago, and the pay was $9/hour!!!

Amy Joyce: Sounds intriguing. And like you really got a lot out of it! Owning a hotel always sounds so romantic, but it is a lot of work ... weekends/holidays/nights. It's good to experience it first.


Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. Time to get back to work. Join me again Tuesday, same time, same place. You can e-mail me at Check out Life at Work the column in the Sunday Business section. Have a great week!


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