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Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Monday, November 6, 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. I hope you had a chance to get out and vote. It's a big day.

I have a question for you about a topic I know is on a lot of people's minds: Health insurance. Has your cost gone up this year? Are you finding that your company is trying to make up for the rise in costs by offering something else? (Better dental? Domestic partner benefits? An extra day of vacation? Cash to quit smoking?) Please let me know ASAP at lifeatwork@washpost.com. I want to hear from you ...

Okay then, with that, let's get this conversation going.

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Voting & working: Since it is Election Day, I wanted to ask chatters a question -- how common is it to get paid time off of work to go vote? My office gives us one hour of paid leave to vote, which I think is important, especially since family or other commitments could easily make it hard for people to vote before or after work (not to mention folks who don't work normal 9-to-5 jobs or who work two jobs, go to night school, etc.). Since we don't have a holiday for election day, or hold elections on a weekend, how much do people think work commitments discourage people from getting to the polls?

Amy Joyce: Good question. People, pipe up. Let's hear it.

And just a reminder that if you work in the state of Maryland, you get up to two hours of paid leave to vote if you can't get there before or after regular work hours. D.C. and Maryland don't have the same provisions. Federal workers, however, get up to three hours.

I hope nothing keeps people from the polls. But also, I know there are thousands of workers who work hourly shifts or in jobs that are not flexible. It can be tough to vote. But then, that's why the polls open so early and stay open pretty late. Hopefully you can all find the time.

I'm bad with links, but here's one from Workplace Fairness that shows what states offer as far as time off to vote: http://www.workplacefairness.org/index.php?page=votingrights&state=CO#CO

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Arlington, Va.: Hi, Amy. Am I turning into the office snitch, and is that a bad thing? Recently, my complaints have led to one coworker being reprimanded and a paid intern being asked to leave. I felt that both pieces of information were appropriate to tell my supervisor. The first being the cube mate who chatted very loudly on her cell phone all day/everyday for three months about her upcoming breast implants and bra size (completely inappropriate!). I just couldn't take it anymore. I went to her directly and asked her to keep it down and tried headphones. The second was the intern next to me who fell asleep five to six times a day. I pointed out his unacceptable behavior to his supervisor. Should I start minding my own business, or am I doing the right thing by pointing out things to supervisors who don't see their employees on a daily basis (but I do and I'm affected by their behavior)?

Amy Joyce: Are these things impacting you directly? Did the intern's sleeping mean there was work that wasn't getting done? And that you were having to pick up? The truth is, it's probably a good thing this intern was shocked into reality. And perhaps now your cube mate isn't loudly chatting about her implants, which, yes, is pretty inappropriate for the office. But if you're worried you're turning into the office snitch, take it as a self-warning. Think about how you can try to figure these things out on your own first (sounds like you tried) and if you really are impacted directly by people's actions (or lack thereof). It's important that you spend most of your day focusing on your own work.

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Washington, D.C. : Similar question: Has anyone been granted leave to go and campaign? I know this is semi-standard practice in some Hill offices, but I wondered if there was an official policy, if any other types of offices allow it, whether the leave is paid, etc.

Amy Joyce: Good question that I'll throw out there to this political city ...

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washingtonpost.com: Curing the Common Evaluation (Post, Nov. 5)

Amy Joyce: This was Sunday's column, by the way. It is, after all, that sweat-inducing time of year.

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Holiday Question: Amy, Since we are fast approaching the holidays, I have a question concerning office gifts. I have five to six people that I work for in my office and last year I received a little something from each in the way of a gift. Problem is I really cannot afford to buy everyone I would like to a gift, but I would like to give something. Any ideas?

Amy Joyce: This question comes up every year. You work for them. They probably gave you the little something as an extra thank you. You don't have to reciprocate in the same way.

Bake cookies or some other treat and bring them in for your five or six to enjoy.

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Washington, D.C.: My company was recently bought out (I still have my same job) and we were all given new offer letters to sign with the new company. My boss said he wanted those letters signed by today, but I haven't had a chance to meet with the people at the new company as I had been told I could. I want to meet with them first but my boss doesn't seem to understand the situation. How do you suggest I deal with this? I want to sign the letter, but I still want things worked out first. Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Tell your boss. Be straight about it. "I want to sign this today, but I was told I could meet with them first and work things out. I hope you don't mind, but I'm hesitant to sign it before I know the details."

It's a smart business move, frankly. And your boss might be able to help this happen faster if he understands that you really feel strongly about this.

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Alexandria, Va.: I work for a branch of a mid-sized company whose "rumor mill" regarding the financial health of the company has been working overtime of late. The news doesn't seem good, with a high-level officer suddenly resigning, contracts in danger of not being renewed, and a number of young and mid-career employees leaving. The local leadership has been very optimistic, however, and hasn't really addressed these issues to my satisfaction. When would you suggest looking at my options, and how much warning to one's current employer should one give if a better job is offered?

Amy Joyce: Look now. Any time you feel uncertain about your situation, you should look for new opportunities. Finding a job takes time, even at this time of super low unemployment. So get that ball rolling, while keeping your eye on your current job. Just because you're looking doesn't mean you have to leave. But it's a smart thing to do if you're unsure about your current job. Wait until you have an offer in hand that you are ready and willing to take before you tell your boss. He or she might willingly tell you to git and you have to be prepared to go.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy, this might be more of a Mary Ellen question, but I was wondering, what kind of resources are out there for someone who is thinking of going to grad school while working? I'd like to see what my options would be in terms of working full time, going to school part time or vice-versa. Is this also something my career advisor at my undergrad would be able to help out with? Thank you!

Amy Joyce: Yes, your undergrad advisor should be able to help. As should your career center. They will have resources. They also will likely point you in the direction of the alumni center (if they don't, head there yourself) where you can talk to alums who are in or were in grad school and ask about their experiences.

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Washington, D.C.: My husband and I are hoping to change up things in the new year. We want to go after a long-talked-about wish to move just a bit south to Richmond. First things first -- the job hunt. We own a home here and have full-time jobs. We can't sell our home or buy a new home in Richmond until we find a job there first. In order to show how serious we are about moving to Richmond in our job search -- how do we get over that barrier of currently living in Washington, D.C.? We have friends who live in Richmond, should we use one of their addresses as an alternate address on our resumes? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Richmond and D.C. are not far. Don't even bother with the fake address thing. Just make sure in your cover letters and conversations that you tell the organizations that you've always wanted to move to Richmond and you are really trying to get there. They'll believe you. A lot of times, companies toss out resumes from people in far-flung cities for many reasons, but not the least of which is moving costs that they might have to take on. Your move to Richmond wouldn't be much more than a move to the other quadrant of the city here.

This is a situation where getting to know people or know people who know people in Richmond will be helpful. That's a great in.

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Washington, D.C.: Federal employees who do not have at least four hours to vote before or after their official working hours get administrative leave to give them four hours. For example, if you live in Va., polls are open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. If your hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. you get to leave at 3 p.m. so you have four hours to vote.

Amy Joyce: OPM told me that when polls are not open at least three hours before or after an employee's regular work hours, an agency may grant a limited amount of excused absence to permit employees three hours before or after polls open or close. They are given "enough reasonable time" so they can vote before or after their work hours.

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Re: Political Leave: I used to work at a big PR firm and many people in the D.C. office would take off a few months to campaign (with permission from the office brass, of course). There was no formal policy, but it was just done. We also lent people to help temporarily relieve some of the PR and political staff impacted by 9-11, but I believe those people continued to get paid.

Amy Joyce: Interesting. Did it matter for which party they were campaigning?

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Orlando, Fla.: Hi Amy -- I recently had a very frustrating call back for a job in the D.C. area. I've been interested in moving back to the area and I've been looking for jobs in my field. When I got a call back last week for an interview I was very excited, until she figured out that I'm in Florida and asked me why I would apply for this job. (It sounded more like, "why on earth?") Then she continued with how confused she was as to why I applied (she clearly had not read my resume) and she did not offer any suggestions as to how to go about compromising (i.e., phone interview perhaps?). I even offered to stop in early one morning coming up because I will be in town before continuing on to NYC. She ended the call by telling me I must not be interested and to let her know if I could come up some reasonable time to be in the area. I'm shocked! Is this normal? Is is that unheard of to apply for jobs out of town? Why didn't she have "local applicants only" on the job posting? I'm discouraged.

Amy Joyce: Don't be discouraged. It's clear that this would have been a horrendous place to work, anyway, if this is how they handle the hiring process. There are a ton of jobs up here. Keep at it. And try to find people who have contacts here. I assume you've emailed all your former colleagues, friends, family members to ask if they know anyone in the D.C. area you could chat with? Or who might have suggestions as to where you might apply? That will be your best way in.

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Somewhere: Amy, I'm hoping you or the chatters have some suggestions. I've been in the work world for almost a decade, but for the first time I have to share an office. What should I do or not do so that my office mate doesn't strangle me? How do I make sure I don't strangle her? I got headphones. I try not to eat smelly food in the office. I try not to snort or make other weird noises. Anything else?

Amy Joyce: Oh, people love to talk about their pet peeves. Some of my faves: Don't clip your nails at work. Gross. And loud. Make sure your voice is not too loud. If you're listening to music, make sure it's through headphones. Gum cracking and chomping: Bad.

Go ahead folks. Send us your pet peeves.

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Oakton, Va.: I am currently talking to a company about a job, and as part of the pre-interview process they asked me to take a personality test. I've heard of this being done before, and I didn't think it was out of line to be asked, but my one question would be if it would be out of line for me to ask to see the results? Whether I got the job or not, I think it could be interesting.

Amy Joyce: It's true that more companies are using personality tests as a way to measure whether someone is good for a job or not. It's becoming very controversial for many reasons, not the least of which people often don't answer truthfully. I don't think it's out of line to ask for the results. But I don't think the company will let you see 'em.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Amy. How do you perform the delicate balance of letting your supervisors know what you want without sounding like you're giving them an ultimatum? I told myself if I didn't get promoted at the year-end review, I would look for a new job. How do I relay that to my boss so she knows how much I want (and deserve) this promotion without looking like a brat? Do I owe it to her to tell her how much I want it? I'm afraid if I don't and then I'm not promoted and leave, she'll tell me she wished I had told her how important it was to me.

Amy Joyce: You owe it to both of you to say that you want this promotion. Don't let these things go unsaid. Many times, a manager just has no idea what employees want or how they want to grow. Find a time to meet with your boss and explain that you want this promotion, why you want it and why you think you have earned the chance to at least be in the running. See what she says and go from there. There is NO good reason not to talk to her about this.

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Re: Political Leave: The firm I worked for was bipartisan, and party affiliation was not a consideration.

Amy Joyce: Very interesting. Thanks.

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Roanoke, VA.: Amy -- Awhile back, I accepted a new job within the same department at my company. The job was a step up in terms of title, and it gave me the opportunity to expand my knowledge of the industry. When my boss's boss (who uses me for "special projects") found out about this move, I was asked to stay in my current role (with a title and pay increase) since I was doing such a good job and they liked the stability. They have continued to increase my pay, but not my responsibility. Although this sounds positive, I now fear that I will never be able to take on a new role within the company unless the "higher ups" feel like it is the right move for me. Also, I'm not seeing other other aspects of the industry that I hoped for. Do you have any advice?

Amy Joyce: Yes. Talk to them!

It sounds like they like the work you do and trust you (why else would they be paying so much to keep you there.) So take that as an opportunity to have a discussion and say that you're thrilled with this opportunity, and think you're doing well. So with that in mind, you'd like to take on these extra duties and here's why.

What boss wouldn't like to hear that?

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RE: Pet peeves: Coughing many times a day for days or weeks. If it's allergies or asthma, get medication! Drink tea! Don't just hack away -- handle it.

Amy Joyce: Peeve away.

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Re: personality test: My husband had one done when he was already employed, but was a trainee. He got to see his results, and actually brought it to me to look at it. He answered honestly, and the results were right on target. We were not married yet at the time, so it was nice to see the report and nice to know there were no surprises!

Amy Joyce: Ah, like a marriage prep class paid for by his employee. Interesting, thanks. A lot of the companies I spoke to for a story I did on this this summer said they felt it was proprietary info and they refused to let the test takers see the results.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I just started my first "real job" about two months ago. I love my office -- everyone is great and offers advice and help at every turn. However, I am the youngest person in the office by at least 10 years. I feel like such an outsider -- we can't talk about the same type of music, I certainly can't talk about my kids (because they aren't even a twinkle in my eye yet!), and I certainly can't talk about my relationships in general...it's hard. Happy hours seem so silly -- everyone, though they don't mean to, treats me like the baby. It's hard because I really wanted to make great work friends, but with everyone in such a different place in their life, it's not making this very easy. Any advice?

Amy Joyce: First, remember this is a job and not college. I'm sorry to sound like such an old fuddy duddy myself, but you have to start from that point and grow from there. Some of my closest friends at work are the same age as my parents. They provide different insight, a lot of great mentoring, conversation and friendship. Doesn't matter if they don't like the same music or enjoy happy hours. It takes time to create relationships at work. But you have to be open to them. And the more you do that, the less you're going to feel like you're being treated like a baby.

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Move to Richmond: Don't forget to use professional and alumni associations to your advantage. Some D.C. chapters extend to the Richmond area and for those that don't, consider attending or joining the Richmond chapters. Good for networking, great for getting the inside scoop on the best companies.

Amy Joyce: Absolutely. Thanks.

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Campaigning leave: My former boss in Pennsylvania gave all the employees one day of paid leave to campaign in the weeks before the election. He also gave office space (after hours) to campaigners for making phone calls. We were all of the same political affiliation. I wonder if he would have let people off if everyone didn't agree with him!

Amy Joyce: A good question. I did a story during the last presidential election about people who were fired for expressing a different political opinion than that of their boss.

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Pet Peeves for office sharing: Lovey dovey conversations make me nuts. A quick "I love you" is fine, but some of the other gooey stuff is inappropriate. I also don't care to hear a list of what you are eating for the week. Any fights should be taken outside (on a cell phone, not in person). And personal calls to your doctor should definitely be taken somewhere else.

Amy Joyce: A tri-peeve!

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Arlington, Va.: I'm leaving my job in the next couple of weeks (got a new job that I hope will be great), and am sort of vaguely worrying about my exit interview. It's not a verbal event, but a written one. My issue is that morale in my office is really low, and it is directly correlated to the fact that none of us respect our supervisor. One incident that keeps bothering me was that I overheard him disciplining a co-worker (he was sitting at his desk, she at hers, me at mine, and I really couldn't help but overhear it), and the net result of the discipline seems to have been that nothing has changed. It's not really my business -- I don't work on the same stuff as the co-worker, she doesn't really affect me work wise, but morale-wise it's very difficult to see her consistently get away with stuff, when the rest of us do our work, are on time, and don't spend 98 percent of our time doing non work-related activity. I feel like there's a real failure of management here. On the other hand, I don't want to burn my bridges or savage my boss unnecessarily. Additionally, if I don't indicate that he can read my exit interview, the company's policy is to not address the issues, which makes it even more complicated. Do you have any advice? Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Oh, how frustrating. How about you do a written exit interview about everything else. Then talk to HR about how to handle this other issue. Do you have an HR department? They should WANT to hear what you have to say. But it's understandable why you're hesitant to write it down. Explain that to them.

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Harrisburg, Penn.: Hi, Amy. Thanks for taking my question. I had an interview for a position I am extremely interested in on 10/13. At that time they said it would be at least three weeks until they made a decision because the background checks had to be submitted and that I would receive a letter if I were rejected for the position. I called about two weeks after that to say I was still interested and was informed that the background checks were still pending and it would be another week or so. This past Friday marked three weeks since the interview and I haven't heard anything else. Do you think I should call them again to reiterate my interest or wait awhile longer? Thanks for your help.

Amy Joyce: I'd at least give them til the end of the week. They said the checks would take another week "or so" ... give them a little breathing room. These things do, unfortunately, take time.

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Boston, Mass.: Dear Amy -- I love your column. I've been working at my organization for six years and was able to negotiate a reduced schedule for the last two years following the birth of my son. I've been successful at managing my time and projects. Recently, I have a new boss who isn't supportive of work-family balance in general, so I decided to keep any eye out for other opportunities. I sent a resume in for a great position that was full-time and have been now asked to come in for an interview. Would love to work for this organization, though I am really unsure of returning to full-time work. I am going to go and find out more about the opportunity, but I'm wondering when/if to inquire whether there would be an opportunity to have a flexible schedule. Obviously, not a good thing to bring up in an initial interview -- I imagine I should ask questions to gain a sense of office culture, etc. But, if it were to go further, how have people successfully negotiated something like this? In an ideal world, I would want to work four days a week and have one day with my toddler. However, they don't know my track record in getting projects done and I can imagine that that kind of request could be a deal breaker. Any advice? Or should I just relax about that at this point, learn more about the job, and then reassess. Thanks!

Amy Joyce: How about you sit back and enjoy this process a little (yeah, right). But really, take it in. Listen to what this job is about. Try to get a feel for the culture. Let yourself get excited about working there. Then, when it comes time for them to offer you the job, tell them that you work a reduced schedule right now, but it's worked out incredibly well, and ask if there is any possibility for that at this organization. You might want to suggest starting off full-time until you're up to speed, with the possibility of downshifting in, say, six months--if they are comfortable. That way, they have a say in whether you can go flex or not, and you can show them that it would work.

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A word of advice to Congressional staff: Today is Election Day, and there will be many Hill staffers who will lose their jobs at year end because their boss was not re-elected. A lot of people on the Hill are not well compensated and know that their hard work will be rewarded down the road. A word to the wise, there are always some who think that if they stay until the end, they will be rewarded. They won't. Please don't be complacent. Start looking tomorrow! Been there, done that.

Amy Joyce: You know, I think that's very good advice. Of course, it's good to look now (well, you're probably busy today. Start tomorrow.)

You can still stay to the bitter end, but with a job in hand.

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Re: Personality tests: We administer a "behavior test" (different than a personality test in several ways) and we always let employees see their results, as well as those for other employees. It is a small company and helps us to work better as a team. Each report will include things like, how to communicate with a person effectively, based on their behavior style, or what a person's strengths/weaknesses are to help us to better delegate. I have a much better understanding of how my peers work and what they are capable of because of these surveys being available to us.

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

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

Please email me at lifeatwork@washpost.com if you want to discuss your health care costs, how you are going to handle the changes and if your company is finding ways to offset those costs.

Don't forget to check out Life at Work the column in the Sunday Business section. Have a great week, and we'll chat again Tuesday.

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