Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, November 14, 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, folks. 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 share and help readers along today. Lots of questions are lined up, including a bunch about the holidays, so let's get started.

_______________________ No Holiday for Job Hunters (Post, Nov. 12)

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


Arlington, Va.: Hi Amy, I'm a kind of sticky situation at work and not sure what to do. I've taken a temporary consulting job for a political firm while I wait for a security clearance for my absolute dream job. Per usual, the clearance process is taking longer than expected, and my current supervisors and co-workers keep hinting/blatantly asking me if I'd like to stay on. How do I tactfully say that I'm still waiting on another job without burning my bridges in case the clearance takes extra long or never comes through? I don't really like the work at this temporary place, but it is a great interim placement. Of course, I know I can't say that, and I don't want to insult my wonderful co-workers! As a contractor I thought I would avoid this sort of situation, but I suppose not.

Amy Joyce: Be direct. It won't be insulting. You can say that as much as you like this job, you are actually waiting on a security clearance for your dream job. They should understand, particularly because you came here as a temp. You're doing nothing wrong and in telling them the truth, you're saying nothing wrong. They would do the same thing in your place, yes?


Washington, D.C.: As a communications executive who has spent much of the past 10 years working overseas, who is over 50 and out of work, can you tell me if there is an agency or search firm that can help me find a job based in Washington? I've tried all I know: friends, contacts, ads, internet, but to no avail. Many thanks for your guidance.

Amy Joyce: Have you tried looking up the executive search firms in the area? There are many that have offices here. A simple Google search or check in the yellow pages (yes, really) will list them.

You might also want to go back to those friends and contacts and ask if they have suggestions for search firms they used in the past.

Don't forget to keep looking even during the holidays. As my column stated, you'll have less competition and companies are often still hiring.

You might also want to check out some networking groups in the area that might pertain to your expertise.

Anyone have some suggestions?


New York, N.Y.: My office has a holiday tradition of gift wrapping office doors -- the entire office door is covered in red, gold or green wrapping paper unless one is identified as Jewish (no one even asks) and then they wrap the door in blue or silver paper. While I understand that my colleagues are trying to be inclusive, I find the outcome downright creepy. We have a new supervisor this year who has agreed that we should find an alternative solution but no one has come up with one so far that is inclusive without feeling like a grinch. Only about one quarter of the staff have office doors, so we have already nixed the idea of a door decorating contest. Any ideas or suggestions?

Amy Joyce: How about if people want to put something on their door, they can. Period. Having an office-wide decorating scheme is kind of creepy. It doesn't seem to me like the kind of thing you need a committee to decide.


New York, N.Y.: I am about to end my 90-day "probation" at my new job. Basically, I become an official employee now. They always made it sound as if at anytime during my probation they were free to let me go (my boss had made a joke a few times about "watch how you answer, you're still on probation"). This seems like a strange way to start off an employee-employer relationship, holding this threat over new employees heads. And furthermore, New York, like most states, is an at-will state, so they could fire me the day after my probation ends just as easily as during it. What do you think of these "probation" periods?

Amy Joyce: Lots of companies have probation periods. It can be a good thing: Not only do they get to check you out, but you can check them out and move on if it's not right.

In some organizations, probation period is truly different than once you're hired. Some companies have unions and it's more difficult to can someone who has union representation post-probation. But in your situation, it sounds a bit arbitrary.

I say if you enjoy the job, just let it go. They may have their reasons for it... Did you get health benefits while you were on probation? Training? Extra benefits? My guess is no. So this is the company's way of being cautious and saving itself from spending more on someone who just isn't going to work out.


Crofton, Md.: Amy, good article on holiday hiring. Now, I'm hoping I can use that as a segue to remind folks who celebrate Christmas not to go overboard with the holiday cheer. In addition to non-Christians (adding a menorah doesn't do much to appease my Jewish friends), in my case Christmas is just too painful as I lost 2 children in an accident on Christmas Eve 8 years ago. I'm a private person and none of my co-workers know this, though most accept my explanation that I'm simply not a party person. I do exchange small gifts with colleagues, participate in the office giving tree and the like, but anything more is simply beyond me. I know that Christmas is a difficult time for many people for similar reasons; the first Christmas after you lose a loved one is difficult regardless of the circumstances. So have your fun but don't try to push people where they don't want to go. Thanks.

Amy Joyce: I'm so sorry.

Yes, you bring up a great point that I hope folks can stitch into their brains: There are few things worse than forced holiday cheer. For *whatever* reason. So just because you think someone is Scrooge who just needs a little eye-opening, that is most likely not the case. Do whatever it is you do during the holidays, but don't force it upon anyone else. (Which is a good philosophy to live by year round.)


Washington, D.C.: Do you think it's more important to have good working relationships with your colleagues and direct reports or with those whom you report to?

Amy Joyce: This is an easy one: Both. Really. If you don't have a good relationship with one of these groups, chaos ensues. You need to have a good working relationship with all co-workers. That includes those above you, those who work directly with you, and those "below" you.


Washington, D.C.: I went on a job interview recently but didn't get the job. I thought the interview went very well and that the company and I would make a great match. I would like to get some feedback from the recruiter so I can learn something to improve my interview skills. Is it okay to ask for feedback, and if so, how do I craft the question?

Amy Joyce: You can definitely ask. Some companies will give you feedback. Know, however, that many won't. Lots of hiring managers are told not to say a thing about why they didn't hire a candidate because they could get sued. They will likely tell you they found another candidate who was more qualified. But sometimes you can get some valuable feedback, so go ahead and try.


Relocation Uh-oh: Amy, My husband and I relocated (about 500 miles) since he found a new job. We love the new city. But, he is not happy at work for a variety of reasons. He has been there for 3 months. I keep trying to give him positive advice such as "it will all work out" and "it has only been 3 months". He is required to stay for one year or we have to pay the relocation costs back (reasonable and fair). He thinks he "has" to stay for at least 1 1/2 to 2 years or his resume will look lousy. What say you? Is three months enough time to know if a company/job is not right for you? What does he tell the next potential employer?

Amy Joyce: Sometimes, you just know. But I really think three months is probably not a great length of time to get a feel for the ins and outs of the company. If he can keep at it, it will probably be worth it in the long run. But in the meantime, he should start looking at other possible opportunities in your new city, just so he knows what else is out there.

The next potential employer: "I'm more interested in doing X, like this job might offer. My skills are much more geared to that because X." Just give forward-looking reasons about why this new job would be a better fit.


Vienna, Va.: I have a question about contacts. I did an internship with this radio station about two years ago. I haven't really kept in touch with them too much but they still remember me and liked me overall when I did the internship. Is it too late to reconnect with them and see what job opportunities they have? Is there any radio groups (like what Women In Film and Video is) in the DC area? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Do it now before it's too late. They remember you and liked you. Contact whomever you will feel most comfy with and ask if s/he would be interested in a quick cup of coffee to chat and catch up. It happens all the time. Do it.

Not sure about radio networking groups. Anyone?


Arlington, Va.: Not looking for a new job, but trying to better my situation...I have done the research and I'm paid $10,000 below industry standard for nonprofits. I work in sales and do not receive commission or bonuses. Our CEO has just announced that we will no longer receive merit increases on a yearly basis, but instead get an annual performance bonus at the end the year. Even with that bonus I will not be paid like my counterpart. I'd like to approach my boss for a pay increase or to move my job to base salary plus commission so I can get the pay I really deserve. I really like my boss and coworkers. What are your thoughts as to how best to approach correcting my pay? I'm the only sales person in a company that's very top-heavy in senior management with inflated salaries.

Amy Joyce: The best you can do is ask. Schedule a meeting with your boss and explain what you explain here. You've done the research, and considering your efforts during the amount of time you've spent on the job, you think you need a boost in pay by at least $X. If you go in armed with a plan and specifics, you'll be more likely to get something out of it. It's not easy and hardly ever comfortable, but if you're feeling this way, it sounds like you have to at least try. Good luck.


Hyattsville, Md.: Hi Amy, I was informed yesterday that because I was out sick on Thursday, Nov. 9, I would not be eligible to receive holiday pay for Veterans Day on Nov. 10 and would have to take another sick day instead. I have since learned that our company's little known policy is that, if an employee wants to receive holiday pay, he/she cannot call in sick the day before or the day after a holiday. Although I can understand the reasoning behind this (a lot of people playing hooky in order to lengthen their holidays) I resent this policy (because I really was sick) and feel that it breeds an atmosphere of distrust. Is it common for employers to have such a policy? How do you feel about it? Thanks.

Amy Joyce: If it's a policy, it's a policy. Like you, I can understand why a company would think this is necessary, but I also just think an organization needs to try to trust its employees, or at least show an air of trust. Putting these little policies in place make people feel like they're back in 2nd grade. Dunce hat, anyone?


Washington, D.C.: The over 50 poster who thinks he has tried everything may want to consider joining 40 Plus of Greater Washington. He said he has been working abroad for 10 years. He may need some peer advice about his resume, presentation, etc. 40 Plus is not free but it is inexpensive because it is not for profit and staffed by volunteers.

Amy Joyce: Yes, this could be a good option. It's a good way to meet potential contacts, too. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy, I'm in my first real job out of college, and have been working here for a little over 3 months. I was told when I was hired that I'd have a 3 month review, but my boss hasn't mentioned it, probably because she's forgotten. I haven't either, mostly because I've never had a review and don't really know what to expect, so I'm a little nervous. I guess I just need a little encouragement that I might as well get it over with! Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Do you want to know what they think of you and how you're doing? It can really help you focus and improve. I'd ask the boss about it. Sure, you're nervous. We all are, and frankly, even when we know the review is probably going to be good, we usually hate the process. Think about how you'll benefit. Check out the column I did a couple weeks ago on evaluations. Good luck.

_______________________ Curing the Common Evaluation (Post, Nov. 5)

Amy Joyce: The evaluation column...


Washington, D.C.: My entire office eats lunch together almost every day. I (and a few others) choose not to. Is this bad for my working relationship with the rest of the office? I feel like lunch time is my own time and that I shouldn't feel obligated to eat lunch every day with the office.

Amy Joyce: You shouldn't feel obligated to eat lunch every day with the office. There. Feel better?

It probably wouldn't hurt every now and then, however. It's a good way to catch up with people, build relationships, blah blah blah. That doesn't mean you have to do it every day. Trust me, I get wanting a little quiet time.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy -- I have a problem with the boss of my boss. While she has never reprimanded me or talked down to me, I get the feeling she doesn't like me very much. I get this feeling reading through her nonverbal cues, voice tone and body language when she relates to me as compared to how she relates to other employees in our team. I know part of growing into a new job (I've been here six months) is to intuit what the boss wants and adapt yourself to their personality. But for the life of me, I can't figure out what it is I am doing wrong. I am afraid not being liked by a vice-president who heads the division I work in can have adverse consequences for my career in this organization. Any tips on negotiating the unspoken rules of office life?

Amy Joyce: Do you have any reason to believe she doesn't like you beyond a feeling? If not, ignore those worries and keep working hard. It's the best thing you can do for everyone, especially yourself. I assume since you don't say you have a problem with your boss, your boss must be okay with you. Focus on that. This is the person you have to work with day to day and who is watching how you work. The more you worry about the boss' boss (she looked at me weird today!), the more you're going to dig yourself into a hole. Don't let that happen.

Her nonverbal cues, voice tone and body language might just be her way. Maybe she's less outgoing than you like. Maybe she's not a warm and cuddly person. Maybe she's busy. Could be anything, really.

So if you do good work, she'll really not have a reason to dislike you. Right? Right.


Washington, D.C.: What is the rule about giving out holiday gifts/cards? I work in a really small office, and last year I gave out cards (almost gave out gifts, but at the last minute didn't) and I was the only one who did so. Should I avoid giving out cards again? I thought it would be a nice thing to do, but the fact that no one else did it kind of makes me hesitate...

Amy Joyce: Take it as a hint. Don't do it.


Washington, D.C.: I submitted my letter of resignation to my employer while out on sick leave for surgery. I had already accepted a job with another company and knew I would not be going back. My employer did not accept the letter of resignation and a month later, they sent me a letter stating I was being terminated. How do I address this with future employers? Did I resign or was I fired?

Amy Joyce: Well that's an odd one. (No! I broke up with you first!)

If you already have a new job, don't worry about it yet. Next time you move on, you just say that that last job started on X date and ended on X date. You probably won't have to go further than that. And even if they call your company for a reference, your previous employer will likely just state your start and end date because companies are afraid of being sued these days if they give away too much/wrong info in the recommendation process.

Do you still have a copy of your resignation letter? Hang on to it in case you need proof.


Prego-ville: Amy, I'm 7 months pregnant and will go out on maternity leave in January. I'd like to return after leave with a reduced (80%) schedule. Should I negotiate for that before I go on leave (so I can start right away when I come back) or later? Thanks for your advice, the great column and chats!

Amy Joyce: It depends. If you negotiate it now, could it change your maternity leave? And if you negotiate it now but want to come back full-time after all, what happens then? You might want to settle in post-baby a little bit and think about how you want to change your schedule then talk to your boss while you're away about that possibility. If you're sure you want to do it now and are not concerned about how it might change your leave, then go ahead and negotiate now.


Washington, D.C.: Amy, I hope you can take this question. I work for a nonprofit association with fewer than 20 employees. After not really having an employee policy manual for years and years, management has prepared one, without staff input and review. Now, we have a brief window of opportunity for review, and there is subtle and distinct pressure not to comment on the document prior to its adoption. I'm concerned about advancement opportunities as I have some significant concerns about the document. Any recommendations? Thanks so much.

Amy Joyce: If there are things that concern you, you should bring it up to your manager or someone who asked you to air any concerns. If nothing else, they might ease your fears.


Washington, D.C.: I'm in the midst of interviewing for a job with a smallish company we'll likely start negotiating at the next interview. At this point I think we're going to be close on compensation, but I'd like the flexibility to work a 4 day week, or at least have some flexibility with my time. Any ideas on where or how to begin gathering information and tips? Thanks, Amy!

Amy Joyce: Have you any idea if they offer any sort of flexible schedule to anyone else there? Was it something they touted in the interviews? I would start by asking what kind of flexibility, if any, they offer, then go from there. If they haven't offered you the job yet, asking to work a 4 day week might turn them off. They might feel like you're not willing to work already. And if you ask for a 4 day week, your compensation would likely be different. But you could suggest a flexible schedule that you could phase in after you spend a few months getting used to the place, its culture and your job.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Amy, Thanks for your column on holiday job hunting. It's just what's been on my mind. I've recently been asked to interview for a job in a different city but have not nailed down the time and date because it involves coordinating schedules for a search committee of five. When I asked initially what the hiring schedule looked like, the employer said she's looking to have someone in place by the New Year. This would mean interviews this month and an offer in December for a January start date. My problem with all of this is that with the Thanksgiving holiday, I need to be in the office to take care of another colleague's responsibilities while she takes an extended vacation. That takes out most of the month for me in terms of interview availability. I have clearly indicated a couple of days that will work for me this month but still haven't heard back after a week. Will the employer be understanding about my obligations at my current job or do you think my lack of availability for an interview puts me at a disadvantage?

Amy Joyce: As with any other time of the year, traveling to a job interview isn't always easy. They should be used to trying to work around job candidates' schedules, and this time of year, though crazy busy, shouldn't be much different. If you give them a range of dates you can do it, they should be willing to work with you.


Re: Door Wrapping: I can't believe no one can come up with other ideas...Instead of segregating by colors, why don't they just wrap the doors in a holiday wrap -- something with snow flakes that doesn't have any color or any sort of connection to any holiday or religion? Or they can have someone hang up paper snowflake door decorations, etc...Maybe everyone gets a snowflake with their name on it on the door (I know, it sounds like a college dorm hallway) --- tons of unique ideas.

Amy Joyce: Right. I don't understand why this is a problem. Best solution: Don't force decorating on anyone.


Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. Time to get back to work. Don't forget to check out the Sunday Business section for Life at Work, the column. You can e-mail me at Have a good week and join us again next week, same time, same place, to discuss your life at work.


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