Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, November 21, 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. (At least good morning to those of you left in this deserted city. It seems like lots of people are already heading out for Thanksgiving!)

Is everyone getting ready for the holidays? Is work slowing down or busy as ever for you? Let's chat.

Lots of questions await, so let's get started. As always, pop in here with your own advice and stories to help your fellow readers along. Onward...


McLean, Va.: Hi Amy,

The president of the company I work for noticed your article "It's All in a Day's Volunteer Effort" this past Sunday, and is now considering offering employees four paid hours per year for volunteer work. I think this is an opportunity that everyone in our office would take advantage of. Can you recommend a Web site with a good comprehensive list of volunteer opportunities in the Washington, D.C. (and northern Virginia) area?

Thanks for writing the article and motivating us! Read Sunday's column here.

Amy Joyce: That's fantastic. (Let me guess: You like your boss...)

The first place that pops to mind is Greater DC Cares: It's an organization that coordinates volunteerism. You can also call your local schools and places of worship. The need for volunteers in our area is endless. Truly.

And you can ask here. I'm sure we'll have a few responses. Anyone? Where do you find a good list of volunteer programs around the DC area?


Dupont Circle, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question.

I am currently looking for another job (second after college) and have set my sights on two different areas I'd like to go into (the Hill or health-care advocacy). Luckily, I have two friends in those areas and I'm meeting with them this week but I'm not sure what questions to ask beyond the "so what's a normal workday like?" or "what kinds of jobs are there?"

These are also friends of mine so I'm not trying to make it sound like an interview. Can you give me some tips of what other types of questions I should be asking? I'm looking to start in February. Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Don't worry about whether it sounds like an interview. Just think about what you want to know, and ask them. They are, as you said, friends. So what do you want to know? Start with asking what kinds of jobs are open, and if it seems like February is a good time to get a gig. (You may want to consider earlier since Congress is changing over: Lots of open jobs coming up soon.) Then ask about the jobs themselves: Pay. Hours. If you have to work many weekends. What the culture is like. If there is a chance to move up.

You're in a great position to really find things out since you're NOT on an interview. Kick back and enjoy it.


Phoenix, Ariz.: A very distant acquaintance offered to try and secure me an interview at his company, or if not his, another in my desired field. It's been three weeks since I have heard from him. How do I follow up? "Hi, I know you said you'd get me an interview ... how's that going?"

He's a busy guy, very powerful and well known so he has unbeatable connections. I just don't know where to go from here. Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Forget the fact that he's "powerful"... that's just going to make you too nervous to call him. He offered to help, and it's been three weeks. It's time to check back in. "Hi, Bob. It's Phoenix. Is this a good time? I was just checking in to see if you needed anything from me, since you mentioned you'd be trying to help me get an interview." Think of a few interesting/relevant things you've been up to lately, and tell him. Just do it.

In fact, maybe remembering he's (ahem) powerful is good here: Think about what HE would do in this situation. He's probably expecting the same from you. Anyone who is successful has made more than one of these calls in his or her lifetime. This is a great connection to have. Don't let it slip away.


Rockville, Md.: Hi Amy,

Love your chats.

There is an out-of-state colleague who has been helping me with work/school. I would like to send the mentor a box of cookies for Christmas. Would this be out of norm? I don't want to send the wrong signal by sending a box of cookies. Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Nothing weird about wanting to do that, Rockville. It's a nice gesture for someone who has been helping you beyond the norm. Seems very sweet (and smart) to me.


Herndon, Va.: I've been at my job for six months, and I really like it. I'd like to approach my boss about more flexibility, though -- specifically, I'd like to take a two hour lunch (and stay later) so I could go to the gym. I'd only want to do this about two days a week. The culture here isn't that structured (people come in late and work late all the time) but there are a lot of work-a-holics here who put in long hours (one guy in my group got up from his chair only twice yesterday) and I don't want to seem like a slacker, though I think I'd be more productive with a workout and a break in my day. Any tips on approaching my boss about this?

Amy Joyce: Wait. You're counting how many times people get out of their chair?

Okay. Just had to get that out there.

How about going to the gym before work? If not, how about going to the gym during your lunch hour and eating lunch at your desk? (I'm just sayin': If I were your boss, this is what I'd be thinking.) In other words, a two hour lunch in the middle of the day is a lot. Particularly if you work in teams or clients need you during the day. But if you see no other way, and you think it won't be a problem with your boss, then ask if this is doable. However, I think there are alternatives to actually having to ask your boss for a two hour lunch twice a week.


Alexandria, Va.: It seems like years ago, If an employer decided not to hire you that you were sent this wonderful letter saying "thank you for interviewing and although with your outstanding and fine record of experience after interviewing several candidates we are unable to offer you a position." What has happened to the rejection letter? Is it now assumed if you don't hear anything it is a no. That seems kind of insensitive just like a bad date. Not only do you not hear from employers after interviews but it seems that there is few notifications that they ever received your resume or letter of interest from you until months and months later...What is going on? Is there no more such thing as a rejection letter and also when should you call to check the status of your sent resume? (Sometime especially with law firms they indicate that no calls please!)

I am just returning to my career as a law librarian after being a stay-at-home mom for two years.

Amy Joyce: I'm hoping to answer that question in the next few weeks in an upcoming column.

But in the meantime, let's throw this one out there: Any HR folks care to chime in? Wherefore the rejection letter? We *want* to be rejected. Reject us, please.


Washington, D.C.:

Has lots of volunteer opportunities, searchable by location, type, etc. (Also good for entry and mid-level jobs and internships in the non-profit sector.)

Amy Joyce: Oh sure. That's a good one. Thanks.


Anonymous: How do you handle co-workers who just annoy you to death? I am tired of the over-the-top drama queen approach to everything, the cheery greetings, the sappiness, the fake caring or concern and the whiter than white smile. And on the flip side, I also have the complainer who moans and groans so loud we all here the sighs and remorse constantly. The woe-is-me-I-need-pity attitude is just as bad. Both use their roles to have everyone else do their work and I don't understand how I can see through their schemes but others can't. I feel like Oliver Douglass in "Green Acres" as I am the only one who has a brain around here. I am caught between Miss Barbie Doll and Mr. Yuck. Help! It's a small office no HR and the money is too good to leave. I have tried being brunt, rude and downright hateful but I am at my wits end. Help!

Amy Joyce: Oh good, so you annoy your co-workers to death right back. That'll fix it. Smart one, Anonymous.

Look for a new job, or get a new attitude. We're tossed into the workplace with people we don't choose and we spend more time with them than we do with our own loved ones/family. So you have to learn to cope with the idiosyncrasies, or get out and try to cope with a whole new raft of idiosyncrasies.

If an issue is a real problem that might be handled if someone told the offender they are doing something that is a problem, then say something---calmly--about how, say, their loud voice on the phone is probably louder than they think, and it's hard to concentrate.

But if someone just smiles too much or is too cheerful, you need to do your own reality check. No one's hurting you. If you don't like the job, then start looking for a new one.


RE: Volunteer Web site: I use and really like You can do an advanced search through their opportunities and look for ones that interest you based on skills you would like to use or improve on.

Amy Joyce: Thanks.


McLean, Va.: This is a follow-up question to one I asked earlier, regarding the Volunteer Effort article. My boss is wondering if anyone out there can list some interesting pros/cons to paying employees for volunteer time. I think the pros are quite clear, and someone in a previous live discussion mentioned that one 'con' would be decreased productivity due to time away from work. Any others?

Thanks Amy!

Amy Joyce: Right. The decreased productivity can be an issue, but most companies I talk to say one day out of the office isn't going to kill the business. And not everyone will take that day off if it seems like they have work to complete. Also, more people will simply work extra hours that week to make up for lost work time (not mandated, but on their own).

So. Cons: Jump in here folks. We're listening.


Maryland: I have eight solid years experience and will update my resume soon. I'm very involved in volunteer activities (business and animal rescue) and wondering if it's appropriate to have a category for this (at the bottom). Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Absolutely. Volunteer activities count: You're gaining experience that can also be used in the work world, it's just you're not getting paid for it. Which can also count as a plus. It shows you're willing to put in lots of time to things you care about and are driven.


Another volunteer idea:: Hi Amy,

For single people, Single Volunteers of D.C. ( Works a lot like Greater D.C. Cares -- you sign up for an individual three or four hour volunteer project (no need for a weekly commitment). It's also a good way to meet fellow singles in a casual, non-stressful atmosphere, while doing good work.

Amy Joyce: I knew you all would be full of 'em. Thanks.


RE: Two-hour lunch: One thing I've learned in my short career is that sometimes it's better not to ask. We're all adults and if you're a dependable employee, there's no reason why you have to "ask for permission" like you're a kid trying to go out and play. Try just going into your boss's office and saying, "Hey, I'm going to take a long lunch today and go to the gym, I'll stay late to make up the extra time." I've found that if I don't phrase it like a question I usually just get a nod of acceptance. It makes you feel more self-confident, too, and not nervous about "asking for permission." Of course, it always depends on the boss, but your boss sounds like he/she wouldn't mind this approach.

Amy Joyce: In a perfect world, yes, you're right. But not all workplaces or jobs are like that. Individuals need to figure out if that would work in their world. (Even posing it as a question might work okay: "Hey, do you mind if I take a long lunch today so I can go to the gym? I'll stay late and make up the extra time.")


RE: Annoyed with Ms. Barbie/Mr. Yuck: I disagree with you totally. We need to all learn to cooperate with each other at work but we live in a seventh grade mentality most of the time with co-workers who would rather sabotage you than help you. I say give back to those like they give to you. If Ms. Barbie is perky, then give it to her so thick she will wonder what hit her and you. Do the same for Mr. Yuck. When he complains, you complain further. It's your job. Fight for it. Don't let others make you leave -- make them.

Amy Joyce: Oh golly. You're *absolutely* right: Things will be MUCH better if we become toxic and pass all the things that annoy us on to our coworkers. What a smart, smart way to figure out how to work well with people and create a world where we're happy and content.

[Forehead banging on messy cubicle ... ouch. ]

Please, for my sanity, tell me you're kidding.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Rejection letters? Definitely a thing of the past. In the past year, I have interviewed at least 14 times, and I feel fortunate when I get a mass e-mail telling me someone else was chosen. Once I even got an e-mail that was automatically generated which told you "please do not respond to this e-mail." I think I got a handwritten note once, and 1 typed letter. Some I never heard back from at all. HR people can't even seem to be bothered anymore to pick up a phone and say thanks for applying.

Amy Joyce: Granted, HR people are often inundated with hundreds (thousands!) of resumes, thanks to the process of online applications. But it's a shame some sort of serious acknowledgement doesn't happen in a lot of cases.


Detroit, Mich.: Re: the rejection letter. What about a phone call? Are we that afraid of person-to-person contact now that we only send letters (if at all)? Maybe I'm a little out of touch, but I would much prefer a simple call to an impersonal letter.

Amy Joyce: I'm guessing time restraints would keep a lot of companies from calling. But if you've gone through the interview process, a call seems necessary.


Vienna, Va.: This is in response to the rejection letter question.

I currently work in an HR department and I can tell you that we get thousands of resumes every week. We get so many that we are swamped with just trying to stay in touch with our applicants. Trying to send a rejection letter to these masses -- thank you to the technology that allows us to receive all of these -- we would have to designate someone to do these rejection letters as their sole job. That's a lot to ask for just a courtesy letter.

Think of it this way: You trade out the speed of getting your resume to multiple companies, but you lose the personal touch of the rejection letter instead.

Amy Joyce: Thanks, Vienna. That's helpful.

But what about rejection letters for those who have gotten a little closer than just sending in a resume via the Internet?


Washington, D.C.:

My company is hiring a relatively senior person, requiring some rather specific experience. Nothing the wonderful D.C. area can't supply -- we have some very exciting applicants. But it means I have been reading lots of resumes this last month, and have some observations for job-seekers.

1. READ the announcement, ad, whatever. Don't just do a search for "environment" and apply to every ad that pops up a match. Even though one word in my ad matches one word in your qualifications, there are those other dozen key words that you've totally ignored. Because you haven't shown any consideration for my time and resume-reading effort (I tend to over-read the unqualified ones, thinking that I may be missing something crucial. "WHY did this person apply??") I won't show you any consideration either. Don't expect a politely-worded reply.

2. Get yourself a proper e-mail account for this purpose. I don't relish composing an email to

3. If you're overqualified for this job and you know it, tell me in your cover letter why you want it anyway. I know, this is tricky, to address the obvious gap without coming off as arrogant. But each time I see someone who has 20 years experience, when I only need five to seven, I worry that as soon as they understand what I really want, they'll head for the hills. It's a big setback in the hiring process.

4. If you're applying from a Web site (like that gives you the option of attaching a resume rather than pasting it, do the attachment. Or do both. But definitely give me a word formatted version if possible. These Web sites will mess up the formatting if you do copy/paste, and most of us hiring types are smart enough to figure out your attachment.

5. This is the biggie: don't try to trick me! I had someone call me a couple weeks ago requesting an "informational interview" with someone from my department. Not uncommon in this field, so I asked what he wanted to talk about. He wanted to talk about "career opportunities" -- ok, still within the bounds. I asked what sort of position in my field he'd be interested in, and eventually learned that he had applied for our open position! If I hadn't asked a handful of questions, I never would have known that I was talking to a candidate. This seems sleazy, and tells me a lot about what kind of employee this person would be.

Thanks, Amy. It's interesting to be on this side of the desk, and I hope someone can use my new experience!

Amy Joyce: Great tips, D.C.. Thanks for sharing.

Here you go, people. We're here to serve.


Washington, D.C.: My employer actually offers eight hours/one day paid volunteer leave. I thought it was the coolest idea ever when I found out three months ago, but apparently the program has been around a while.

The head of my department has asked me to try to coordinate an "event" day to try to encourage everyone to participate without having to do a lot of searching. He thinks it could be a good team-building exercise.

I'm considering park/community clean up, local school clean-up/beautification or the like. Personally, I salute my boss for having this approach to making the company program more of a team effort!

Amy Joyce: Good to hear. Your boss is joining many, many companies that do or are planning to do the same.


RE: Annoyed co-worker: Wow, that person would be difficult to work with. I recently left my old career because I was unhappy. I took a large pay cut and started working where I thought I would be happy. Know something, I am very happy. So, I might be one of those Barbie-doll people, but I would much rather look forward to coming to work than to loathe it because I am making good money. By the way, most of my co-workers smile and wave when they see me. They sit next to me in meetings. Even the director comes in to my office to talk because I truly am happy and it shows.

Find a career/job where you will be happy. We spend way too much time at work, so we might as well be happy to be there.

Amy Joyce: And I will leave it at that. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Amy. Love your writing! I wanted to see if you knew how to go about working with a recruiter to find a job. I'm moving in the next couple of months to another major city and have no idea where to begin a job search. Many have used recruiters, but I haven't. I'm interested in nonprofit work. Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Congrats on the move. You can get started on the search now. See what recruiters you might be able to find in this new city (a quickie Internet search or talking to family/friends who might be familiar with hiring or that city might be a good way to start). Once you have a list, go ahead and contact them. It's fine to get started before you go, and remember, it's fine to work with more than one at a time. One thing recruiters always tell me is they get frustrated with people who show up at their office and just expect to just be placed in a job. You actually have to do some of the work yourself. So go in with a list of nonprofits you'd love to work with, make some suggestions of the kind of work you'd like to do, and even though they're looking for you, you should get out and network and keep looking yourself.

I hope this helps. Good luck!


New York, N.Y.: Any good ideas for someone who has dialed back their career aspirations? My resume still shows a long record of professional/executive level success, but that is not the kind of role that I'm currently seeking. How can reassure prospective supervisors that I am not going to try to overshadow them?

Amy Joyce: I think our recruiter who just posted those great points had some good advice: Use that cover letter. You can go ahead and explain that although you have all this experience, you are interested in this position because X, X and X. Then you just have to hope these other supervisors believe you. Another great way to deal with this: Network and try to find your dialed back job through a friend, former colleague or someone you meet and hit it off with at a party/event/volunteer outing. It's a great way to get in with trust already built in.


RE: Rejection letters: Some recent experiences:

1. For a CEO position, I went on three interviews -- two with the board, one with staff. Was told a decision would be made within days. After two weeks, I contacted the headhunter asking for information. Never heard back. Despicable. And yes, another candidate was chosen.

2. Another CEO position. Had a phone interview with the outgoing CEO, then a meeting with the board. Got a call from the incoming chair. He was so gracious telling me that I was not chosen and gave advice for future interviews (apparently, I was "too prepared" for the interview). Odd advice, but still appreciated.

Amy Joyce: That example #1 is amazing. Not only did you interview, but it was for a very high level position. ugh. Door #2 sounds like a much better solution. (Although I'm sorry you didn't get the job).


To Vienna who works in HR: But what about people who interview at a place three or four times and then never hear a thing? I think that is ridiculous. I deal with scheduling interviews for my dept., and I always send out a letter to people who have come in for an interview and don't get hired. It's just common courtesy. But I agree on resumes -- there's just too many to handle.

Amy Joyce: Yes, we've really created a resume spam situation for ourselves, haven't we?


An option for Mr. Yuck: I've found people like that (chronic whiners) just want someone to listen. To halt a Mr. Yuck of my own, I would constantly ask him what he was going to do about his current whine -- and it bugged him. They don't actually want to do anything to change the situation, they just wanna whine. So, once they know that every time they whine (or whine to you), you're just going to call them on it, they tend to stop. Or, at least not whine within your earshot, which is what I call a victory.

Amy Joyce: A victory indeed. Great solution. Thanks.


McLean, Va.: Good morning Amy,

I have been working with a team on a project for the past few months with a quick turn around time and a high level of visibility in our company. I'm from a different department than my fellow team members, and merit bonuses recently came out. I was given an exemplary review by my supervisor and received a small increase, but it turns out my team mates received an additional bonus for work completed on this project. I am not eligible for a bonus from that department obviously, but do you think its in poor taste to mention it to my supervisor and see if I will be receiving something other than a good recommendation for this?

Amy Joyce: You might as well ask. But do it carefully. Tell your boss how much you appreciated the raise and nice review. Then mention that others on the team received bonuses because of the work, and ask if that's a possibility for you at all, even though you're not in that department. You probably already know the answer, but at least you're cluing your boss in on the fact you missed out on other compensation. Not a fun conversation, per se, but if you feel like you deserved a bit more, you might as well try. Good luck.


RE: Anonymous: I bet your co-workers have written Amy in the past, trying to figure out how they can deal with YOU, the person who is unhappy no matter what and can't get along with anyone. Nobody likes dealing with drama or complainers, but you're not really even asking how you can deal with a specific situation.

Stay calm around the drama queen, positive around the complainer, and try to enjoy the cheery greetings. If you've really got a legitimate problem with someone, talk to them about it in a non-judgmental way. Being brunt, rude and downright hateful certainly won't get you anywhere. And you did want to make progress with these people, rather than just complain and feel superior, right?

Amy Joyce: More to anonymous. (Sorry if you thought you were going to be coddled here today!)


Arlington, Va.: Amy

One of my co-workers worked out a deal with my boss that she would work four days a week for 10 hours each day so she could have Fridays off to finish off school. She graduated in May. She still has Fridays off. I find it really unfair because not only does she save money on gas and the time of her commute, she also gets a LOT more vacation time as a result. For example, she is taking an 11 day vacation (from Dec. 22 to Jan.1) and only having to take three days off from work. I have less vacation days available since I'm newer than she is, but without Fridays off, I'd exhaust my entire vacation (five whole days) a lot faster. What can I do about it? I don't want to ruin her deal, but I'd prefer if my boss offered it to everyone. I also don't want her secretly hating me if my boss decides instead that she needs to work five days/week.

Amy Joyce: Have you asked your boss for Fridays off or more vacation? If not, then it's up to you to ask. That's what she did and look where it got her...


Amy Joyce: Okay, gang, time to get back to work. As always, thanks for the lively chat. You can read Life at Work, the column, in the Sunday Business section. Join me again here next week, same time, same place to discuss your life at work. My email is Have a great week and Thanksgiving.


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