Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, October 17, 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, join in with your own advice and stories to help your fellow readers. We're listening.

Here's a question for you for an upcoming column: It's annual review time. How, as a worker, does that make you feel? Are you curled in the fetal position at night, awaiting your grim reaper boss to tell you how much you stink? Or are you taking it as an opportunity to expand your job? Managers: How do you feel about this time of year? Have you figured out a way to make reviews really work? I want to hear from you all. Please e-mail me at

Alrighty, then. On that note, let's get started, shall we?

_______________________ So Much for 'Personal' Habits (TPost, Oct. 15)

Amy Joyce: This was Sunday's column about how many employers can hire/fire or even promote based on our lives outside of work.


Chantilly, Va.: I can't believe that there are companies that would fire someone because they or a member of their family smokes. I don't smoke and I wish other people didn't, but until smoking is illegal, I just can't see it being the basis for the decision to hire or fire someone, especially if it is done outside the work environment. I would much rather have my employer stop providing health insurance and just give the employees the money to find their own insurance.

Amy Joyce: I think there are probably a lot of people who share your view. But the owner of Weyco who came up with this idea stands strong. He believes it's a preventative measure, and he might as well just hire people who are non-smokers. But it does make one wonder: Does that mean he won't hire skydivers or white water kayakers in the future?


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Amy. Thanks for your great column! I am chomping at the bit for some advancement in my job, and have called a meeting with my two bosses later this week to discuss it. I plan on utilizing some of the advice I've seen you give before, like getting the terms in writing. My bosses are great and I have no problems with them at all, and I love the company/co-workers as  well ... I would ultimately rather stay here than leave. However, I view this meeting as a bellwether of my future here so I'm treating it very seriously. I've been doing the same, low-level job for almost four years and feel like any professional direction I had when I began has basically evaporated. This bums me out because everything else about this job is great. I'm not even looking to get a raise out of this...just a chance to move up. Is there any good, firm way to get this message across without being threatening or sounding like an unappreciative malcontent? I don't want to roll in saying "Promote me or else!", but knowing how my bosses work I need to be crystal clear with them that something needs to happen soon.

Amy Joyce: Here's the crazy thing: You sound completely logical. No need to worry that you sound demanding or like a thankless malcontent.

Just make sure that you prepare yourself before you go in (which it sounds like you have). Have all the facts straight. You came to this job hoping to move to X position within X years. During your four years, you have accomplished X, X and X -- enough to make you think it's time for a promotion. Make sure to add in there how much you like the company and let them know you hope to stay. But reiterate that you really think it's time you grow in the job, and ask what they think. Then listen. It will be important to hear what they have to say.


Anonymous: What are your favorite tips for averting an accidental snooze during a meeting or presentation when the room is dark? I have no medical problems or lack of sleep causing drowsiness, I just find myself falling asleep in these types of situations -- even when I am interested in the presentation! I don't drink coffee. Do I need to start? Other suggestions? Sounds silly, but it is serious!

Amy Joyce: If you're staring out at the weather I'm witnessing today, this would be a particularly great day for a nap, no?

How about water. Gum. Altoids. Anything to break up the quiet, dark monotony of a meeting that is lulling you to sleep. Change positions in your chair. Take notes. Blow your nose. Sip something other than coffee. Don't eat a big lunch before the meeting. Pop some M&Ms. Run around the office before you have to sit down.


Washington, D.C.: Is it acceptable to plan a week's vacation for New Year's when by then I expect to have a job? I'm worried about committing $700 to a plane ticket and hotel room, getting a new job, and then them telling me a I can't take a week off till I've worked there three months. My friends are pressuring me to go and saying this is totally normally. I'm not sure what to do.

Amy Joyce: First: Ask Carolyn Hax if you should go on a vacation only because your friends are pressuring you.

But aside from that, it's very normal for people who get a new job to have to tell a new employer that they have a pre-planned vacation and since they bought the tickets already, would like to keep it. Just expect that they will have you take unpaid leave since you're new. You have no idea if you'll have a new job by then, by the way. If you really want a vacation, schedule it. If you would rather wait until you know what's going on with your life, then wait.


Chicago, Ill.: Hi, Amy. I recently relocated to Chicago from Northern Va. and just started sending out resumes. I realized on one resume that I put 703 as my area code rather than Chicago's 773. The actual phone number is correct and my e-mail address is correct. Can this be rectified? If so, how do I fix it? The ad specifies no phone calls. Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Ugh. That's a pain, huh? You could just resend your resume with a note that your telephone number has changed. It happens.

(I guess I'll just sound like a nag if I take this opportunity to remind people to read over resumes very closely before they send them on? One thing we like to do here: Look at each fact. Put a checkmark on it when you are sure it's right. Sometimes that takes you away from just reading over things that you might miss because you've been staring at the document for so long.

Thanks for listening,


Washington, D.C.: Dear Amy, I have a relatively new co-worker that is not capable of retaining any information, which doesn't do much good for our office. Everything they do has to be redone by me or another colleague. We have tried re-explaining things, making lists, etc. However, my supervisor thinks that this person is doing a great job. He believes this person is "trying hard." My question is this: at what point does "trying really hard" become not good enough? Trying hard doesn't equal competency in my opinion. Your thoughts?

Amy Joyce: Not knowing how long this person has been at the office, my feeling is to tell you to give this person a break. New is tough. How long have you been there? You've had steps along the way to remember things. This person has to jam it all in right now and you're expecting him or her to keep it all in the brain immediately. Look to see what this person has done well. It might change your perspective a bit. Also, try to look at yourself to decide if you're making it difficult for this person to ask questions. If he/she isn't comfortable asking for help or a reminder of how to do things, of course this person's work will have to be redone to some extent.

That's all saying this person is relatively new. Give it another couple of weeks with a more open mind and see if things improve.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Amy. My mother and I were discussing the article in the business section on Sunday regarding the "smokers" and how they can either be terminated or made to pay higher medical premiums. Also, what we found disturbing that everything about you is "fair game". A person can be denied employed based on what is said about them on the Internet without even getting to know them. It is bad enough that companies are performing drug tests, credit checks, and all other checks they can do to weed out employees without know the person's situation. Is everything one does or their family and friends do inside and outside the workplace subject to investigation. Is anything private anymore?

Amy Joyce: That's the question I was hoping people would ask when they read the column. Is anything private anymore?

For one thing, it's just incredibly easy to find out things about our friends, co-workers and neighbors thanks to the Internet. We're all Google-able for jobs, dates and meetings. The best protection is to make yourself aware of what's being said about you out there. And also remember that 30 states plus D.C. have statutes in place intended to protect you against "lifestyle discrimination" essentially. So if you feel like you are being slammed for something you did outside of work that isn't relevant to your work, you may have some standing.


Quitter's Inc.: Your recent article made me think of that Stephen King short story, was it called "Quitter's Inc?" Once you signed up with them to quit smoking they would spy on you, and chop off your wife's pinky if you had a relapse! I'd prefer to see employers offer smoking cessation classes or the patch or whatever might help the person, rather than just not hire smokers. What about people who really are trying to quit but have a slip up? Should they be fired? It's pretty harsh. It seems like the threat of being fired would be so stressful that it would be even harder to quit.

Amy Joyce: I forgot about that story!

But in fact, Weyco offers cessation classes. The employees who have been fired are mostly those who refused to be tested because they felt it was too personal. And the rule is if you test positive for nicotine once, you are sent home for a month without pay, but the company will offer a cessation class. If you're found a second time, you're fired. It does seem harsh indeed. But like I said, the owner of the company is unapologetic, and other companies have followed suit.


For the snoozer: Stand at the back of the room. Always helped me, very hard to fall asleep standing up! And chances are, standing up in the middle of a presentation won't be a problem since it is unusual that others in the room won't have noticed you snoozing. Also, try to stay active during the meeting by taking notes, pretending there will be a test afterward, or you have the give the same presentation to another group later.

Amy Joyce: Thanks. Standing is good.


Alexandria, Va.: Sunday's article was very disturbing! I can't believe that an employer has the right to fire you based on things you do outside the office, smoking or based on what they find on Internet searches. At what point did this become acceptable? If an employer can fire you because you smoke or are overweight or for things that are personable but they find unacceptable, can we as employees force employers to provide health club fees or only allow employees to work normal hours and schedule projects/work so that you don't feel the need to work long hours? How much control or say do employees have in this type of situation?

Amy Joyce: Interesting thoughts, Alexandria. I feel like any company should be willing to listen to ideas like yours. It helps to propose them in a group and really make it sound like it makes sense. Lots of companies now have in-house gyms, but few employees feel the freedom to go workout when they maybe should just be putting in more hours at work. Others offer a break in health club fees or even on health insurance if there's a way to prove that they are working out or trying to remain healthy. With healthcare costs going the way they are, it seems only logical that companies and employees find a way together to bring those costs down.


Vienna, Va.: Amy, thanks for taking my question. I have about eight years of work experience in publishing and communications, and I'm now pursuing an MA in graphic design and looking for a design position that demands a higher level of academic and professional experience than many of the positions I've come across thus far. I'd welcome comments from you and from other chatters on good networking groups, companies, or organizations that are hiring, and tips on narrowing my search so I don't waste my time applying for positions that appear promising but then turn out to be entry-level.

Amy Joyce: I think we had a few answers on this one before. Any graphic designers out there with good networking groups/tips? Shout it out. Thanks.


Sterling, Va.: I am an administrative assistant in a small office, and my responsibilities include maintaining portions of our online store. Another member of the office, who is new but more senior than me, is also involved with our online store and frequently asks me for my log-in, claiming his doesn't work. I have no reason not to trust this person, but I am still uncomfortable with the idea that I would ultimately be held accountable for whatever he does online, since those actions will be logged under my name. How can I diplomatically handle this situation?

Amy Joyce: How about you ask if you can come to his desk and show him how to do it? Seems like you could show him and once he sees it works, he won't have to ask anymore.


Portland, Ore.: Hi, Amy. In searching for a job in my career, I've ended up working at a staffing agency. It's very interesting being on the other side of the coin as I'm more used to being the job candidate, not the person selecting candidates. I know you frequently get tips/advice from other HR/staffing folks, but here are a few suggestions for job seekers:

- If you have a cell phone where music plays in lieu of a phone ring on the caller's end, please TURN IT OFF if you're looking for a job. There have been many occasions where I have simply hung up the phone if an inappropriate song plays. Not everyone likes having rap, country or that god-awful "My Humps" blasted in their ear.

- Keep track of where you're submitting your resume. I really don't want to hear, "I've submitted my resume all over the place, so I don't remember..."

- If you've taken time off from work to start a family, that's fine, but be sure to add something to your resume noting related work experience. If it's 2006 and the last date on your resume is 2001, explain that time lapse.

Amy Joyce: Thanks, Portland. We're always open to more advice here.


Bethesda, Md.: Hi, Amy. I suffer from depression and am going through a rough patch right now. My psychiatrist wants to see me every two weeks which means leaving work early or coming in late twice a month. I've been telling my boss I have doctors appointments but I'm getting more uncomfortable every time I ask him for time off. I'm sure he's starting to wonder what's going on. Should I tell him the truth? In the past I've always been able to hide my illness from my bosses and co-workers. Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Well, Bethesda, it's completely up to you. You don't have to tell your boss a thing, and he should know he can't ask or hold it against you. If it's just every two weeks, I don't think it can be that disturbing, particularly if you're able to get your work done on time or stay late on days you have to come in late. If you think it would help things, go ahead and tell him what's going on. He has to be accommodating here, as he would with any illness. But if you don't want to tell him, you certainly don't have to. If it's a doctor's appointment, there's really no need to tell him the truth unless you think it will help you in some way. You may also ask your psychiatrist what he/she would suggest in this case.


Smoking and employers: Instead of "punishing" smokers and others who lead unhealthy lifestyles, why don't companies "reward" those who do try to stay healthy with lower health insurance premiums, free gym memberships, etc.? If I can show proof that I visit the dentist two times a year, have a clean annual checkup, etc., why should I have to pay the same amt of health insurance as someone who smokes, is overweight, etc.? They should give incentives to stay healthy, rather than punish those who aren't.

Amy Joyce: Again, a good idea. And some companies are doing that. Many companies are looking at alternatives like this because they, like you, are struggling to find ways to keep healthcare costs down.


Washington, D.C.: I am being laid off and have verbal terms from my company, plus what's written in the personnel manual and meeting notes. Yet I would feel more comfortable with written confirmation of the terms. When I asked why I had been given all the paperwork for my departure but had not been given a severance agreement, HR said, "Oh, we don't do that." This seems highly unorthodox to me. Do I have any leverage for a request for written terms? I hate to be mistrustful, but I guess I've always believed that a verbal agreement is worth the paper it's written on...

Amy Joyce: Tell them that you want it in writing. And say that you're not comfortable signing anything else until you have the agreement in hand.


Somewhere: Interview this afternoon for a place I would -love- to work. Snag: the HR person mentioned the salary (without my having asked or even hinted!) when we were setting up the interview, and it's way less than I can live on, to say nothing of what I'm worth. Of course I don't know if they'll make the offer or not, but supposing they do, how much wiggle room do I have to try to get a few K's out of them for my experience and education (=considerable, with the loans to show for it)? Is that something I can ask about today, or is it better to wait for them to make an offer before starting to try to negotiate? And, if they're offering X, what value should I give Y so that we can end up at Z (somewhere in between) -- that is, how high above what I'm prepared to accept should I ask for in order not to shortchange myself but simultaneously not to price myself out of a place at the negotiating table at all?

Amy Joyce: Try the interview first. You might find a way around it, or they may want you so much they will offer you more. Wait to negotiate until negotiation time. If you find a way to bring it up before then (like if they ask in your third interview if you have any concerns) then bring it up. "Well, frankly, I'm incredibly interested in this job but a little wary about the salary. So I'd be interested to know if there's any wiggle room there."

Don't ask for a sky high salary or they'll just think you're out of touch and may write you off. But do ask for more than they are offering. Just be prepared with a number by thinking about what you make now and what people with similar experience in your field make.

Good luck.


Rockville, Md.: Hi Amy. I need your expertise here. I started a job with a new company about a month ago. The people are nice, the pay is good, etc., but I know it's not even close to what I want to be doing, career-wise. I got a call from a friend who works at a company I do some part-time work for, and he says they have a permanent job opening and my name has come up by the people doing the hiring. It would be my dream job, basically, but I'd feel bad trying to leave so soon, especially since I was referred to this new job by a friend.

Amy Joyce: It sounds like an opportunity you should and have to check out. Don't let it pass you by. Just check it out. If you decide you want it, then you can make your decision about whether to stay or go. If you read this chat often, however, you'll know where I stand: Go for the job that fits you better and that will make you want to get out of bed in the morning. You only have one life, might as well live it well. Just make the transition out of the not-long job as easy for that company as possible by giving them decent notice.


Not in the real world: At 26 years-old, I am finishing my many years of schooling and preparing to enter "life at work." I have had a number of interviews and the process is going well. However, I am extremely nervous. After every interview I come out more nervous than when I went in. I just think "That job was awesome, but they require me to be an expert in so much, they kicked my butt in the interview, how could I possibly make it in a work day?" My friend has taken to calling it a natural fear of the unknown, and that is probably what it is. Do you have any advice or comments from inside life at work?

Amy Joyce: A good job is a job that requires us to think, work hard and feel like our butt has been kicked (in a good way, of course). If it were any less, you'd be like the many many people who moan about life at work because it's boring. A challenge is a good thing. And once you get started at a challenging job, some things become easier. But those things that cause you to stretch should always be there. So look at it that way after your next interview. I'd take the butt kicking as a good sign.


Verbal Agreements: Get it in writing! Get it in writing! My friend was let go and was verbally told she'd get two months severance. A week later they gave her a check for 12 days of work (including the week she just worked) and told her to get out. She thinks the verbal agreement was done to keep her there until they figured out how long they really wanted her to stay to get her contacts and stuff out of her.

Amy Joyce: A warning ... thanks.


Re: Promoting health: My company offers free Weight Watchers memberships with on-site meetings. It's been a huge success - over 20% of the employees have signed up. I've lost over 50 pounds since it started.

Amy Joyce: Interesting. Thanks! Can you e-mail me at and tell me who you work for?


Glen Burnie, Md.: Hello, Amy - I was just reading the post about the person who is depressed, and uncertain if they should tell their boss - since they need to leave early often. You are right that they do not need to tell their boss about their depression. What they CAN say is that they have a "chronic medical condition" and need ongoing medical care that is being handled by a physician. I hope this helps!

Amy Joyce: That would do it! Thanks...


Bored: Hi Amy, I left a job I'd been at for eight years for what I thought would be a new opportunity to learn something new. Nothing was terrible at my old job but I was comfortable and thought I'd be there indefinitely if I didn't try to shake things up. Apparently, change isn't always good. I've been at my new job two months and am bored out of my mind. I've talked to my boss about what I should be doing while I'm still learning the ropes, have made some suggestions, and have been doing things on my own to stay busy. I'm not fresh out of school so it's not critical for me to prove I can stay in a job for a year before moving eight. I have eight solid years at another job. So after two months if I bail out of this one, it shouldn't look too bad should it? It is a government job, however, so it's entirely possible it'll take another year to land something else. Other than admitting I made a mistake to leave my old comfortable job and trying to get out of this one, any other suggestions on how to make this place bearable or even rewarding?

Amy Joyce: Start looking for a new gig now. That might help you get through these days, too -- not that you're going to be looking while you're at work. Just knowing that you're taking charge of the situation should help you move through each day. In the meantime, keep trying to find new things to do around your own office. Suggest new projects and ideas. Keep your eye out for anyone in the office who seems to be enthusiastic about the work. Maybe they have a little secret they can share. And get out and network. Not sure what field you're in, but the more you get out and try to discover what others are doing, the easier it will be to find a new job. Also, the more involved you are outside of work, the easier the boring day at work might seem.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Amy. A lot of universities in this area hire adjunct faculty. These positions are usually posted on an on-going basis. What's an appropriate way to follow-up once I have applied for these positions, since there is no real closing date? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Just as you would any other job. If there is a contact, call or email them. Ask if there's anything else you can do, send or offer. If you have an interview, send thank you notes and follow up. Treat it no differently than you would any other job search.


Takoma Park, Md.: I worked for over one year with a law firm as a law clerk, got paid by the hour. They offered me an attorney job following graduation and passing the bar. I got both of them down, still no mention of a salary, and still collecting my law clerk hourly wages. Is this an unreasonably long time w/o a mention of salary? What should I do?

Amy Joyce: Wait. You were hired as a lawyer, but have collecting hourly law clerk wages? Time for you to pin them down. That shouldn't be happening. Do it now.


Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. Time for us all to get back to work.

Don't forget to email me at with your personal experiences of annual review time. What works, what doesn't? We want to hear from you.

Join me again next week, same time, same place to discuss your life at work. Check out the Sunday Business section to read Life at Work, the column. And don't forget to listen to Washington Post radio every Monday at 12:50 to catch me on air.

Have a great week, all.


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