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Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, October 3, 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. It's Tuesday, which means it is time to talk about your life at work. As always, join in with your own stories and advice to help fellow readers here.

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

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy: I'm going through some tough personal stuff, and as a result, am finding it really hard not to cry all day at work, much less focus on work. Do you have any advice on how to keep it together? Thanks.

Amy Joyce: It's so tough to focus when we have other issues going on. But it happens to all of us. If you feel the crying coming on, take a break. Take a walk. Hide in the bathroom for a few minutes.

Make a list of things you should try to get done by the end of the day. Then baby steps: Do one thing. Cross it off. Move on to the next. Cross it off. Before you know it, you'll be through the day. It won't be easy, but sometimes the more structure we give ourselves in these situations, the better. It helps us focus.

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Any Town, USA: I just found out my boss' son died in a tragic accident. It's a very small office (less than 15 people). My boss is an incredible guy - nice, giving, and just a great person to work for and with on a daily basis. Yes, there are moments of frustration but based on what I read about others' bosses and experience in other jobs, I know how lucky I am. I think this just makes his loss all that much harder and knowing his son was in his early 20's. Question is what do I say? "I'm sorry for your loss" just seems so...hollow.

Amy Joyce: Your boss' actions as a boss don't even matter right now. Even if he was a horrible micro manager, this time should be no different. Say you're sorry and that you've been thinking of him. Then, depending on your relationship with him, maybe get your office together to do rotating dinners for him or some similar gesture that might just make this horrible time a little easier. It all is going to feel hollow right now because this is such a life-altering, horrible situation. Just don't ignore it, thinking that will be easier.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Amy--thanks for taking my question. Five months ago, I started a full-time corporate job after years in academia, where I got to set my own hours and projects. I could take off for the gym in the middle of the day, run errands, and use my time as I saw fit. I like my new job a lot, but I am having some trouble adjusting to the 9-5 schedule (my office is pretty inflexible). Do you or any of the chatters have coping strategies for dealing with this adjustment? I feel like a spoiled brat even asking this question, but after five months, I thought it would get easier.

Amy Joyce: That can be a really tough transition, Reston. So don't feel bad for asking. Other than a complete mind shift, there's not much you can do to change your schedule if your boss is inflexible as much as your company is. So work around it. Make time for yourself before work to go to the gym. Take a walk at lunchtime if you can. Run errands during your lunch break. Do whatever you can to add more flexibility *around* your work hours. And then once you prove yourself in this new job, maybe you can approach your boss about changing the lifestyle around the job.

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Flu Season: With flu season coming up, I'm reminded of last year's problems with sick coworkers who insist on coming to work. How does one influence a coworker to go home, other than saying "Wow, you sound awful. Maybe you should take a day off to get better?" (To which they reply "No, I'm not so bad.") I do not care to listen to liquid snuffling nor contract their germs and get sick. Is it being too much of a tattle to go over their heads and ask the boss, so-and-so is awfully sick and maybe you could order them to go home?

Amy Joyce: Ask the boss now if there's a way to make it clear to people they should stay home if they are sick. Of course, people don't want to use up sick days if they feel "not so bad"... but you're right that they will get others sick. It's really up to your boss to set the rules here: Maybe those who are getting sick can work from home when they are sick so they get their work done but also don't use a sick day. Otherwise, just make sure to wash your hands frequently and stay at home when you yourself feel a cold coming on.

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California: Amy - I am going back to my former job after a year away. What is the protocol for this type of situation? Can I ask for relocation expenses even though I am a returning employee? I am moving over 60 miles away. Do the same rules apply about waiting 6 months to take any leave? Any tips for dealing with coworkers at the old job? Thank you

Amy Joyce: Treat it as you would if you were going to any new company. Your vacation time won't kick in right away, as it wouldn't with any new employee. If you're curious about moving expenses, then ask. I don't know your situation, but your company may say it does not want to pay your expenses since you were the one who left and wanted to come back. So be prepared for that.

Tips for dealing with old coworkers? Same as you would any social situation: I'm back! I missed you guys. Let's get to work. etc. etc.

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New York, N.Y.: A woman in my office was complaining last week that she had to use a vacation day on Monday to celebrate Yom Kippur, yet Christmas is an automatic holiday for everyone. I guess I never really put much thought into it, but isn't giving a religious holiday like Christmas as a company-wide holiday a bit old-fashioned given the mix of cultural and religious beliefs in today's workplace?

Amy Joyce: It does seem a bit old fashioned, no? That's one of the reasons so many companies are switching over to the Paid Time Off scenario: You get a certain number of days off each year to use as you choose... sick days, Labor Day, Yom Kippur, etc. Though even those companies typically give Christmas day off. I think that's because it has become (or has been for a long time) a universal day off.

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The Working World: I'm new to this chat, so forgive me if this question has been raised before. How do you feel about the fundraising campaigns that the United Way runs at many workplaces? I work at a very large company that just finished the annual United Way campaign. Everyone is given a donation form by their manager (the same person that completes our performance reviews and gives us pay raises), and has to turn the form back in to the manager when it is filled out. Even if we choose not to donate, we still have to turn the form in with "$0" written in. Last year, one of my coworkers filled out the form and said she would donate $1 from each of her weekly paychecks. Her manager came back to her after she turned in the form and told her that she needed to take the campaign seriously and that it's not a joke. I'm a recent grad and have never heard of anything like this before. It makes me very uncomfortable and I feel like I can't make my decision based on how much I want to or am able to donate...I also have to consider that my manager (and who knows who else above him in the chain) will see how much I'm donating. Does this seem reasonable to anyone else?

Amy Joyce: It's a shame, but this company donation thing has gotten a bit out of hand. People feel pressured. Bosses feel like they have to pressure. Co-workers get upset at other co-workers who don't donate because that might mean their department doesn't "win"... Employers really need to think about how they handle these things. It can kill morale and make those good-hearted efforts bad. I'll post two stories I've written about this now...

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washingtonpost.com: Programs of Give vs. Take , (Post, Nov. 6, 2005)

Amy Joyce: Last year's story...

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washingtonpost.com: When Higher-Ups Love Shaking Down , (Post, Nov. 23, 2003)

Amy Joyce: And in 2003...

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Alexandria, Va.: I have a two part question: the first part I know you get all of the time, when to tell your boss when you're moving out of the area. It's definite, my husband is being transferred cross-country, but not until next spring. And his office is letting us wait to move until we can sell our home (so we wouldn't have a definite leave date). Should I just wait until the house is sold? The second part is that I'm miserable at my current job. I've been looking, but nothing so far. Is it still worth looking even though I might only be in a new job for less than six months? Thank you!

Amy Joyce: There's usually no strict rule about this. I usually encourage people to wait until they start packing boxes because I've heard too many times that the move didn't end up happening. But since you hate your job anyway and would want to move on, I'd say go ahead and tell them earlier, unless you don't want to risk losing this job before you move. Some employers will want employees to leave as soon as they know they will be going. If you can deal with that, go ahead and tell them. I can't imagine that you would be able to start a new job between now and when you leave. If you plan to work after you move, you might want to put your efforts now toward finding a job there.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy, It's annual review time for me, and a self-evaluation is in the works as we speak. There are 6 questions. Any insight as to how long this should be? I am actually not trying to be lazy, but rather trying not to go overboard/be excessively detailed, boring, etc. Most of my peers' evals seem to be around 2 pages, single spaced. Mine is shaping up to be MUCH longer. Is brevity the soul of wit in a self-eval? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: If most of your peers' evals seem to be about two pages, I'd strive for that. Remember that what you're trying to do is remind your boss of your accomplishments (and shortfalls). They have a lot of things to remember, so they aren't going to recall all of the work you did this year, how you did it, or what great praise you received. They also want to hear how you will try to improve next year. Keep it succinct or their eyes will glaze over and you won't accomplish what you want from the self eval.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding the sick co-workers, it helps if there is an official memo from HR that reminds folks to use sick leave when they are sick. Many people choose to be "heroic" and come in because they're fearful about their job status. Also encourage your office to promote flu shots, even if they don't offer them on-site. www.findaflushot.com can help folks find a convenient place to get the vaccine.

Amy Joyce: Thanks, D.C. I agree that a lot of folks are paranoid that if they miss a day or two, they will lose a job or miss an opportunity. Don't be a hero, folks.

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Re: sick days: I'm all out of sick days for the year already. I get what I think is a lot of sick days (8), but I had a bad cold earlier this year and then a medical problem that used up a lot of days for appointments and procedures and stuff, so I'm all out. Then last week I got a bad cold/flu/thing again (thanks to my adorable children). But I was out of sick days, so I came to work. I did my best not to breathe on anyone and hid out in my office, but I can't work from home and I'm not using up a week of my precious vacation days while I'm sick. Sorry. I'm glad none of my coworkers tried to force me to stay home, though.

Amy Joyce: And people will argue that you need to use those vacation days when you're sick, or you're putting others in danger of being in the same situation you are. Talk to your boss the next time this happens and ask if there's a way you can work from home.

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Re: Boss who lost his son: Speaking from experience, the best thing you can do for your boss is to -do your job-! You and your colleagues should do everything possible to make the office run seamlessly so that he doesn't have to worry about it. He has enough going on at home--if he doesn't have to worry about work, that will be a welcome gift that ONLY you can give. Also, I think that acknowledging his loss by attending his son's memorial service and/or funeral, as well as sending a card is absolutely essential. It's not what you say--simply your presence that's important.

Amy Joyce: Thanks. That's a great point that the workplace columnist should have brought up!

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Potomac, Md.: Dear Amy, Thank you for an interesting and frighteningly Orwellian article Sunday on the ways in which employers monitor the activities of their employees. Are these forms of monitoring all entirely legal? Can one be terminated legally for even the slightest "violation"? Short of never using one's work computer or phone for personal purposes (sure, as long as I'm never asked to work before 8 or after 5), how can employees protect themselves?

Amy Joyce: These things are legal indeed. Unfortunately for employees, anyone can really be fired at any time. Unless one is part of a protected class and there is a sense that he or she was fired because of race, age, gender, religion, etc., employees really don't have much protection.

Most employers understand that life and work have become much more melted together in recent years, and so unless they are overly strict, they won't fire an employee who might call home every now and then or receive an email from friends here and there.

Employees simply need to use common sense: Don't receive or send anything that you wouldn't also send to your parents or children.

And remember that the company owns your time when you are at work as well as your computer and phone. So it legally is allowed to check what's coming in and going out over the system.

Which brings me to the topic for Sunday: What about your personal life might impact your job/career/promotions/getting hired. If you have a personal story about it, email me at lifeatwork@washpost.com.

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washingtonpost.com: Every Move You Make , (Post, Oct. 1)

Amy Joyce: This was Sunday's column.

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San Francisco, Ca.: Hi Amy. Any tips for starting an international job search? My husband might take a transfer to the Zurich office of his company, so I have begun looking for jobs there. I have been emailing alumni from my college who live there for ideas and I have poked around a little on the Internet. Other thoughts?

Amy Joyce: Those are both great ideas. What about your own company? Any chance they need someone in Zurich? Or perhaps would be willing to let you work from there? (Don't laugh: It's a global workplace these days. It happens).

Anyone else have some thoughts?

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Vienna, Va.: Urgent question, Amy. I really hope you can help! I applied for a great job two weeks ago and indicated in my cover letter that I would call the next week. I did..and did...and did. I called at least three or four times a day trying to reach the HR person, but she NEVER answered. Finally, on Friday I left a nice voicemail and she responded via email asking me to come in this week for an interview. So, again, I call...and call..and call. But, again, she NEVER picks up the phone. I leave a voicemail..and an email (since so far that is the only way I have had contact from her). No response. I keep trying to reach her by phone, but she never answers. Finally, I email again kindly informing her that I need to schedule things if I am to come in this week and that I really look forward to hearing from her, blah, blah...I have still not heard from her and this is days after suggesting possibly coming on Wednesday (she asked me for a good time). It's Tuesday and I still don't know anything! I don't want to anger anyone over there, but what on earth do I do to get a response?!

P.S. I wasn't trying to be stalker-ish with all the calls. I just preferred to speak with her, instead of voicemails, but I still kept trying to call b/c (1) at work its not always a convenient time to talk, so its often better if I can choose a time and call..and (2) why would you ask someone to schedule a time for this week and let half the week get away without even responding to them???? HELP...I so want to interview for this job.

Amy Joyce: Okay, you were being stalkerish. Step back from that phone and put it in perspective: This person probably received several hundred applications. Her schedule does not center around your world. She will call you if she wants to bring you in for an interview, but I'm afraid you have probably burned some bridges here and it's too late. Stop. Now. If you're worried about talking at work, give potential employers your cell phone and step outside. Or when they call, tell them that you'd love to talk, but you can't right now, and THEN schedule a time to chat. They will understand.

FYI: I'm doing a column in the next few weeks about what it's like on HR's end of things. We get lots of questions here about why it takes so long to hear back from them. I hope to give you those answers. If you want to share your tale of waiting woe with me, e-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com with your name and a number where I can reach you. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm preparing for a job interview for a very exciting and large PR firm. However, I'd like to get information on what their corporate culture is like, benefits, etc. I've checked their website, only to receive a few clues. Are there any websites or resources I can go to? (Aside from asking my interviewer to describe the company's culture.)

Amy Joyce: You may want to check with your alumni association and see if you have former school-mates who worked there. Call them to chat. Do a larger web search by the company name to see what news stories have been written about the firm. There are other sites that will let you in on the nitty gritty, but they are usually fee-based.

And yes, make sure to ask your interviewer about the culture. Think of specific questions that you'd want to be answered (i.e.: How much autonomy is there. What is the make up as far as teams/projects, etc.)

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Alexandria, Va.: Had an interview on Friday. I think it went alright, but I completely spaced out and forgot to send a thank you note. I'll get it out tonight, but it won't get picked up until tomorrow, and probably not delivered till Thursday. Should I even make the effort, or should I consider myself out of the running?

Amy Joyce: Just do it now. Better late than never. And really, this isn't all THAT late. It's only Tuesday. (You could also hand deliver it if you are so inclined.)

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Washington, D.C. : Help! I just received a request from an organization for two writing samples. Most of the writing that I do at my job is confidential, so it's off limits. I graduated from business school in 2005, however, and have several "memo-type" papers. Should I submit them or take a few hours and come up with generic samples or would it be okay to submit the papers with the explanation that most of my writing is confidential?

Amy Joyce: Call them and explain. Then ask what they would like to see. Every company is different. Good luck!

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Washington, D.C.: Amy, I agree that the United Way and other donation requests can be mishandled at work. I've seen both examples of good and poor management of these in various workplaces in terms of how pressure is applied. Too often it's the new employees or those who feel vulnerable who end up paying the big price for someone upstairs glory at the charity dinner.

However, one purely Washington phenomenon which is truly sinister is the pressure to contribute to PACs. It's illegal to pressure employees to do this, but D.C. area employers still do. They run contests, send around lists with participation rates, and pit employees against each other. It's highly divisive and horribly counterproductive in my opinion. Have you heard similar things from around the area? I'm just waiting for PACs to go away.

Amy Joyce: Interesting. Can you e-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com? I'd love to talk with you about it.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello: I work for a law firm in downtown D.C. I have been here six months and I am SO BORED! I am a person who lives for a fast-paced environment and this is way too slow. The problem I am having is staying motivated until I find a new job. I am getting so lax that even when I have assignments to do they are penny anny and I find that I put them off because I am not motivated to even complete them. I am wondering what I can do to maintain a professional image or at least look like I want to be here until something else comes through.

Amy Joyce: And you DO have to maintain a professional image, or you'll be in a bad way when you try to find that new job. I'm all about lists: Get through it with a list every day. Even if something seems boring and dull, do it. Cross things off as you go. You're not doing yourself any favors at all right now. Nothing will come through if you're not motivated in even the lamest of jobs. Also, I'm not so sure legal work is always fast paced. Maybe you should consider whether you're in the right industry, D.C.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Amy. I currently work full-time for a job that is okay. My husband I expect to leave this area in about 2 years (and therefore my job), but my current boss doesn't know of these long-term plans, nor do I plan to tell him any time soon. My ultimate goal is to return to teaching, which I hope to do after the move. I found an opportunity to do some part-time teaching while I continue with my current job. I would like to use my current boss as a reference. Is this a bad idea? Will he think that I'm leaving if I tell him I'm using him as a reference? I really want to keep my current job, but would love to get more experience teaching for when I apply for jobs in two years. What's the best way to handle this situation? Thanks much!

Amy Joyce: Would the part-time hours conflict with your current job? If not, then yes, go for it. You just tell your boss that it's something you've always liked to do and you want to do it a little in your off hours. Shouldn't be a problem there, particularly if you don't give him reason to believe you're leaving any time soon.

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Amy Joyce: Okay, folks. Time to get back to work. I think we're having some technical difficulties trying to get your questions through, but we're working on it and hope it will be fixed soon.

Join me again next week, same time, same place to talk about your life at work. You can e-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com.

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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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