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Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, November 28, 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, 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 with fellow readers to help them along. We're listening.

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

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washingtonpost.com: Shifting Risk, Responsibility (Post, Nov. 26)

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

An interesting thing that came out of it is the smoking issue. Black and Decker will be charging people higher premiums if they smoke.

Lockheed Martin, in its attempt to decrease health care costs, will start a smoking cessation program for its employees Jan. 1, and will have completely smoke-free facilities.

Feel free to jump in here: What are you, as a company, doing to cut costs? Or what are you, as an employee, seeing?

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Southern Ca.: I read your column about higher healthcare costs with interest because I'm going through the same thing. My company was bought by a larger company. Shocker, all of a sudden our healthcare costs, which weren't cheap to begin with, are now more expensive. Co-payments doubling, higher monthly premiums, few prescriptions covered at the lower co-pays. Thank God I'm healthy. At the time, I took on additional work due to the merger. Recently, I asked for a raise since -a] the higher healthcare costs are tantamount to a pay cut -b] I'm doing more work. I was denied. As a result, I've cut back my hours and removed myself from projects not part of my immediate job responsibilities. Talking with much of the staff, I'm not alone. Morale is terrible, and save for childcare responsibilities I would have left a while ago. So I'm cruising until a layoff basically. Corporations need to know there is no such thing as a free lunch. Healthcare is considered part of ones compensation, passing more of the cost to the employee is basically a pay cut. Fortunately my job can't immediately be outsourced or done by an illegal alien so I do have some leverage.

Amy Joyce: It's true that companies don't seem to realize health care costs are a big factor when it comes to employees considering where to work or whether to stay. A Watson Wyatt survey showed that 0, nada, no employers thought health care coverage was a key reason top performers left the job. But 22 percent of those top performers said it was.

Therefore, much of what you say is right: It matters.

However, do you really think you're approaching this the right way? Sure, your job may not be outsourcable. But that doesn't mean no one can be hired to replace you. You need to consider if you're just wasting your own time by sitting in this position, growing more bitter by the day. Maybe it's time you start looking for a new gig. And maybe when you do that, you'll realize that --sadly--those health care costs are rising everywhere.

No doubt it kills morale. I see it everywhere.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi Amy -- At what point does one recognize the unspoken and "read between the lines" and at what point is one just being paranoid at one's job? I have been very under-worked lately the past few months since I started my new job. I can finish in four hours what I need to do and the rest of the time is free time. I try to occupy myself and keep busy but I often find myself bored. I have approached my boss about giving me more work but so far that has been inconsistent. At what point do I recognize this a perhaps a subtle signal that I am not being given more work because management feels I don't deserve it -- and as a signal that I am unwanted? Or am I being too paranoid? Is it best to be direct and ask the boss what is going on in regards to my workload? I don't want to be seen as a complainer.

Amy Joyce: I think especially because you're relatively new, it makes complete sense to have a conversation with your boss. Just ask to schedule a meeting to talk about your performance thus far, your expectations, their expectations and the reality. Ask what's going on with the workload, if they think it might increase as time goes on, or if they are concerned you're not doing the work well. Checking in with your boss is simply a smart thing to do. You won't be seen as a complainer, particularly if you listen to what s/he has to say about you. Make sure to go in prepared with direct questions, as well.

The fact is, there might just not be enough work to do, and they might be trying to figure out how to use you in the best possible way. Sometimes that takes time.

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Washington, D.C.: I very much enjoy reading your columns. I was wondering if you have any recommendations about books and/or other resources regarding communicating with coworkers. I am trying to improve upon that at my current job.

Amy Joyce: I think the best way to do that is look around, and think back to previous jobs. Who would you consider to be good communicators? Previous mentors? Bosses? Coworkers? Then think about what they did to communicate well. Better yet, ask them to coffee and ask for good tips/hints.

This may sound cliche, but the other best way to learn how to communicate better is to listen better. The more open you are to your coworkers and their concerns, excitements, thoughts, the better a communicator you'll be.

Anyone have some input on learning how to communicate better?

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McLean, Va.: One of my co-workers often stands behind my computer, reads my screen, and comments on my work -- which has nothing to do with his work. I've asked him politely to stop, but he hasn't. Any other ideas, or do I just need to tell him he's annoying me in stronger terms?

Amy Joyce: Being strong doesn't mean you're being mean. So yes, be stronger about it. Best way to do it: "Joe, I really can't concentrate when someone is reading over my shoulder. Can you please stop that?"

Whatever it takes.

And remember that alt-tab is your friend. When he comes by, switch to another screen.

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Houston, Tx.: Hello Amy, thanks for doing the chats. What do you think about male bosses asking female employees to do not-work-related things outside the office? It seems hard to tell if anything inappropriate is going on in the invitation but it just feels strange. What is the best way to deal with a situation like this without hurting the working relationship?

Amy Joyce: Treat it as you would any other date request you don't want to fulfill. You can't. You're busy. You don't think so. Then when you go to work the next day, treat this man in the same way you did before he started to ask you out. As a boss.

If his asking you out makes you feel uncomfortable, or if you think it's inappropriate, that's all that matters. If the working relationship starts to suffer, ask him point-blank why that is. He will have to answer you or face the fact that he's being immature and will have to change his ways at work.

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Washington, D.C.: There was recently two positions posted in my office and I interviewed for a position with no luck. I have been doing the work for a year and a half in this office, but someone else was hired. I was interviewed by my supervisor and another supervisor in the office. I received nothing telling me that I didn't qualify, but found out someone else was hired when she came over to find where her new seat was. The person sits very close to me and asks me questions about the job. The vacancy stated that you should be familiar with the work that we do. I don't know what to do because I don't feel like I should train someone for a job that I could do. Others in the office feel as though this hiring method was unfair also. I need some suggestions on how to handle this without being rude to the person.

Amy Joyce: Sounds to me like you need to meet with your supervisor. It's a perfect opportunity to ask how s/he feels you are doing, why you didn't get the position and what you can do to get promoted. Focusing on yourself might help ease the strain between you and this new person. Remember it's not their fault nor is it a personal attack on you by them.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy -- I must disagree with your answer to Houston. If the boss is asking employees to volunteer for the Toys-for-Tots drive, or to join the Race for the Cure, it's much different than an invitation to an individual for dinner and a movie. Or did I miss something?

Amy Joyce: Well, you're absolutely right. But my take, since she said the male-boss-female-employee thing was that she was being asked on a date. However, if he's asking others as well, and it's for something like you mentioned, I'd have a different take. It sounded to me like it was an asking-out scenario, though. Houston? Come in Houston. Want to fill us in?

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Re: communicating: The most important tip I can think of is to keep the personal out of your daily communications. Don't take everything every co-worker says as a personal insult on your ability to do your work or your intelligence, even if they mean it that way. Keep communications and conversations professional where possible. It doesn't mean you need to be a robot, but so many people out there are looking for the hidden meanings and insults in everything their coworkers say to them. Like you said, listen carefully, and don't get so caught up in deciphering the person's "true" meaning that you don't hear what they're actually saying.

Amy Joyce: An interesting take that I'd agree with. Thanks.

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Burke, Va.: Hi, Amy. I love your articles and chats. Great information. I have a question about following up on a resume I submitted via an on-line application site about a month ago. I continue to see the ad for the position I applied for updated about once a week, so I tried to call the HR office at the organization to follow up. I was told rather bluntly that HR did not accept phone calls for open positions, even though I told the receptionist it was a follow up call. I am still very interested in the position, and I am unsure how to proceed. They do not appear to be interested in me, but I would still like to speak with someone. Any suggestions?

Amy Joyce: I'm sorry, Burke, but you might be out of luck here unless you meet someone who works for the company and can walk your resume right up to HR. If they said they don't want calls, you really can't call. This is the frustration with online postings. It's all really based on your resume/cover letter only. Your best bet is to try to get out and network, meet people and possibly meet people with this company. But in the meantime, start looking elsewhere. It sounds like they're not ready to make a decision any time soon.

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Ft. Lauderdale, Fl.: Good morning Amy, As you know, most companies now have an office cubicle environment. For some people, such as myself, concentrating on tedious work is extremely difficult when neighbors have loud personal phone conversations or shout across cubicle walls. What is the best way to make management aware of the productivity loss due to this problem? Is there anything I can do? I have raised the issue with coworkers but the response is always that I should "lighten up and have fun". Regards -- Frustrated engineer

Amy Joyce: You don't make management aware. They are likely aware. And unless things get so incredibly out of hand that it's like a scene from a bad movie, your getting management involved will only cause more problems.

You can tell management that you need to move to a quieter area if that's possible at all. But you really can't tell them to tell your neighbors to quiet down. It's really not an issue they need to get involved in, particularly if you're the only one who seems bothered.

You need to talk to your own coworkers. And if that doesn't work, then you get earplugs/headphones. I know it can be frustrating. But it's something most of us cube-dwellers need to learn to cope with and deal with. You might want to raise the issue in a very distinct way, and only when things are out of control. "Bob, can you walk over there to talk to Jennifer, rather than shout over the wall? I just can't concentrate. Thanks."

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Communicating at work: Two books I think are helpful for learning to communicate better at work:

How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less (Milo Frank)

Coping with Difficult People (Robert Bramson)

The first because it teaches you how to pare down what you're saying so that others will actually get what you need to tell them. The second, because sometimes communication problems at work are due to dealing with difficult personalities. That book helped me tremendously in learning to talk to a very difficult person at my last job.

Amy Joyce: Throwing this out there. Thanks...

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Annapolis, Md.: I am having sort of the exact opposite problem with health benefits. I am looking for a new job, but I am fully covered by my husband's medical insurance, so it is not a benefit I need. When I recently went to the negotiating table, I stated that I did not want the health benefit, but would like a different sort of compensation --extra time off, more pay, etc. The hiring company said it was appalling that I was turning down their great health benefits, and would not compensate me. I did not take the job for their lack of flexibility and many other issues that surfaced. Should I have handled this differently? My husband's benefits are excellent -- little to no out-of-pocket cost, no deductibles and the freedom to chose any doctor I want. So why would I change to another plan?

Amy Joyce: I would feel the same way you do. It's weird how the hiring company reacted. I would understand if they would say they couldn't compensate you otherwise, but to say they are appalled you aren't using their insurance is just an odd reaction. They may need a certain number of people on their plan to get a good rate, so that might have been the root of it. Either way, I don't think you did anything wrong.

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Northern Va.: Amy, I just had my review and this year they decided it would be a good idea to give us numeric ratings (1-5). When joking with my boss saying I expected all 5's she responded, 'We aren't allowed to give out any 5's'. Why is that? She says it gives us something to strive for. How can I strive for something I can never get? This isn't the first company I have worked for that refuses to give out the highest rating. Why grade us based on something we can never achieve? Thanks for the forum to rant!

Amy Joyce: I'm just going to let you rant, because I agree. It's a strange system, but I know many companies have the same "policy"... they can't/won't give top ratings except to a very select few. I think instead of empowering people, it kicks morale down a few notches and makes people start to doubt their own abilities.

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Alexandria, Va.: Amy, your column was perfectly timed for me. Thanks! I just found out that our health insurance company is being changed and it's for the worse, at least in my case. Anyway, because of this I am actively looking for a new job. It's nice to know that my decision to leave is not unheard of.

Amy Joyce: It's not unheard of at all. Just be aware that you might not find much better out there. Health insurance costs are rising everywhere and companies are really struggling with how to handle this. Good luck to you.

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Washington, D.C.: I currently work full time at a job I love. Still, I'm applying to law school right now to enter the fall of 2007. I don't know if this is something I should tell my employer, and if so when? When I am accepted? When I send in my deposit? Two weeks prior to quitting? I really like my boss and my company, so I want to give them a lot of room, but I don't want to jeopardize my position when I plan to be here for almost another year.

Amy Joyce: Wait until you've been accepted and you're *sure* you're going. Give them more than two weeks notice, but less than telling them you're applying and may or may not get in and may or may not go. A lot can change between now and then. Apply, focus on your job, make decisions. Then talk to your boss.

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Washington, D.C. : I was promoted to a new position (from manager to a director) three months ago but was told I had to wait for a new salary determination to be completed soon. It seems like endless meetings, delays, etc. have kept this from happening. I'm running out of patience -- is this normal, legal? Should I demand a resolution or just keep asking politely when my new salary will be finalized?

Amy Joyce: Probably legal, sure. Normal, well, if you read this chat, yes, it seems so. Obviously, asking politely is not working. Take your supervisor or other decision maker aside, explain that this is getting out of hand, and that you need a resolution. Ask them to set a date for when you will get the raise that was supposed to go with your promotion three months ago.

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Houston, Tx.: Thanks for the advice - actually very very helpful. The invitation was for me only for an after work music event. I would feel differently about it if others were invited along as well, or if it was for a charity or career-related event, as the previous poster mentioned. Because it was just me, it feels strange...

Amy Joyce: Aha. If it feels strange, don't do it. Good luck, Houston.

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Boston, MA.: This probably sounds like a nit-picky question, but it has become an issue. I started a new job a few months ago and finally have an office after years of the cubicle life. When I am on a deadline and need to write for a few hours, I close the office door. Several people have commented that no one closes office doors, that we are an "open and friendly" office. So why don't we just remove the doors? Why have offices at all?

Amy Joyce: Not nit-picky at all. Just life at work!

One option might be leaving a sign on your door: Trying to write, but please interrupt if you need me.

I know here when doors are closed on the VERY few offices, that means serious business is going on. If they were closed more often, it would signal a less approachable boss. So you might want to think about how it looks (ugh, I know), or how you're being perceived. But if you need the privacy and can create it, you might as well do it. Just not all the time...

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Re: Delayed Raise: Could the person who was promoted but hasn't yet seen a raise talk to supervisors about the raise being retroactive and getting back pay? This could perhaps at least make the waiting less painful.

Amy Joyce: Yes, another possibility.

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Rockville, Md.: A different review issue: My company also uses 1-5. The first time I was giving one of my employees a review, I was told that a 3 or lower in any category would get the person fired. So I was forced to give 4s for any weak areas that I wanted someone to work on, unless I wanted to lose them. An inflated review like this seems pointless. I was able to write more about the weaknesses in the comment area, but the 4 rating made it sound like a very minor problem.

Amy Joyce: That *is* pointless. If a company is lacking in talent, it should do something about it. However, what if that 3-person just needed to be told what s/he needed to focus on, do better to improve? Maybe this is your chance to help someone who could be a great employee learn to be a great employee.

Sometimes these ratings are so arbitrary. And sometimes it reminds us that we need to be talking and communicating to our employees/bosses throughout the year. That way, we know what's coming at us review time and can improve as the year goes on instead of learning once a year that we are on the verge.

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Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. On that note, it's time to go. Check out Life at Work the column in the Sunday Business section and feel free to email me at lifeatwork@washpost.com. I may post some of your questions/comments on this chat next week, so let me know if you'd rather I not. Enjoy your week and we'll chat again Tuesday.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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