Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, December 5, 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, jump in with your own advice and comments for your fellow readers.

I have a couple questions for you:

1. Have you been given a promotion in title, but not in raise or duties? Let's hear from you at

2. It may be time to start considering New Year's resolutions. How are you all doing with that? Do you make resolutions related to work? Again, email me at if you care to share for an upcoming column.

On that note, lots of questions await, so let's get started....

_______________________ Caught the Flu, but No Sick Leave (Post, Dec. 3)

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


Sick Leave: Amy, interesting article. My firm did away with sick leave earlier this year as a cost-cutting move. We now have all our leave in one bucket. I lost over 60 hours of sick leave in the process. If I'm sick, I'm going to work. I do not care if I infect everyone there, the company would much rather have a holiday party at the Air and Space Museum than give workers sick time. And I am not the only one that feels that way. This party is held at p.m., and no dates are allowed, so why bother. I will take my tissues to work and sneeze and sniffle all day, but my vacation time will remain intact.

Amy Joyce: This general bucket of leave, (or Paid Time Off, or PTO or Universal Leave--all fancy names, all mean the same thing) is getting very popular. Companies feel like they can save money and keep workers working.

But you point out one of the big downfalls to it. When people are given, say, three weeks of general leave that is to be used for holidays, vacation and sick leave, they will likely come to work on days when they should be at home, keeping their germs locked up.

And you pointed out another very important part of this: Obviously, folks are none to happy about it. Companies probably don't realize just how much this can crush morale.

But companies feel like this PTO means people will handle their leave better. They won't call in sick when they're not, for instance. Thoughts?


Silver Spring, Md.: A few weeks ago, I sent a question about companies forcing workers with available sick leave to take unpaid FMLA leave after a few days. Just wanted to follow up. At my exit interview with that company (I'm moving on), I mentioned my concerns with the practice. That company (a private corporation) does not offer short-term disability coverage and tells employees that they should use accrued sick leave in the event of an illness. The HR rep I spoke to acknowledged that the company does in fact force anyone who is sick for more than 2 days in a row to go on unpaid FMLA leave, regardless of accrued sick leave, and do not inform employees of this policy. You only find out if you're sick for more than 2 days in a row. Thus, they encourage people to build up a pool of sick leave for a medical emergency, knowing full well that the employee will not be able to use it. The HR rep further acknowledge that the practice is deceptive and that the company should clarify the policy to employees. A relative told me that the company he works for (a state agency) also has this policy, and that recently one of his lower-wage employees who was fighting cancer lost his home in spite of having more than 6 months of accrued sick leave when the company placed him on unpaid FMLA leave after a week. Again, the company does not routinely disclose this policy. I'd like to urge everyone who does not have short-term disability coverage to contact their HR reps and ask specifically if there are any limits to the accrued sick leave that they can use consecutively, or for one illness.

Amy Joyce: This could really be a nightmare for some workers. Good advice to please, check on all these policies before it's too late. Might be a good question to ask before accepting the job.


Annandale, Va.: Thank you for highlighting a dreadful trend on the job market -- the lack of leave. I work as a contractor at a government agency where there are plenty of flu prevention posters with cruel tips like, "Stay home when you're sick." How can I, when after six months on the job, I only have 6 hours of sick leave earned? If the government really wanted to get serious about preventing the next pandemic, they'd mandate sick leave and/or make flu shots free and easy to get for government employees and the contractors on site!

Amy Joyce: Happy to let you get that out, Annandale. Unfortunately, contractors often get the short end, particularly when it comes to leave and benefits.


Vienna, Va.: After having just discussed paid leave Saturday evening around the dinner table with family and friends, I was interested to see the related article in yesterday's (Sunday, Dec. 3) Business section and the mention of ballot measures and possible legislation to require paid sick leave. There was no mention, however, of how such measures or legislation would or would not affect workers with what is sometimes called "universal" leave, i.e., a single category of paid leave that can be used for either vacation or sickness. I assume that such workers would not be affected, but perhaps they should be if one of the objectives is to give workers a reasonable incentive to stay home from work when they are really sick. Employees with "universal" leave may be more likely to go to work sick than those who have paid sick leave separate from vacation or annual leave, because they don't want to use up what they regard as their vacation time, or because they have already used all the available annual days for vacation hoping they wouldn't get sick and then wound up getting sick.

Amy Joyce: Again, good point. I believe as far as the San Fran rule goes, it will be the hours of paid leave that matter, whether that's under universal leave or not. I'm trying to find out and if I get an answer before the end of the chat, I'll let you all know for sure.


Washington, D.C.: I know the general rule is to try to limit your resume to one page, but if you are including your resume in the body of an email, instead of as an attachment, is length an issue?

Amy Joyce: Length is always an issue. People don't want to read gobs of information on you. Keep it concise. You can fill in the blanks on your cover letter and in interviews. So general rule: Keep it to a page, even if it's an attachment.


Resume question: Hi, Amy -- I'm a little torn on what kind of extra information to include in my resume. It seems like it's frivolous to put in, say, my experience as a referee. But I also once got a good job offer largely due to that experience. What's your take on including extracurricular activities?

Amy Joyce: I'm all about extracurricular activities, if there is room. If not, you can mention it in the cover letter, particularly if you think the skills gained from your hobbies will matter for the new job. (My leadership skills as a referee also will translate well into a job as X at your company.)


Washington, D.C.: I am currently in my senior year of college, but won't graduate until my 5th year. When I got hired for my current internship at a well respected and widely known organization it was a unique circumstance and was completely informal. I still submitted a resume to this company but it was in filling out my hiring paperwork, not applying for the job. While almost all other internships are only a semester in length, there was no end date placed on my internship. There has been no talk of terminating the internship and as of tomorrow I will have been there a year to the day. I love my job and feel as if I am contributing greatly; it is not a typical Washington DC paper-pusher internship. First, would future employers look down on me spending more than a year in this internship? Or would they rather see me work in multiple workplaces and get different experiences? I don't want them to feel that I am stuck in a comfortable root with the exceeding length of the internship, but I don't think I could necessarily find a better internship in DC. If I wanted to approach my boss about moving to a paid position what would be the best way to go about this? I've waited to see if they would initiate something, but since they know I won't be graduating for another 12-18 months, I am not completely sure if they will, also considering there is no current stop date and I am after all willingly free labor. I really do enjoy my job. I would love to become a more permanent member of the team and feel I have earned it. I have worked 15 hours a week nearly every week, while working 40 hours a week this summer - all on only a $35 weekly food/transportation stipend. Any thoughts or recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

Amy Joyce: No one is going to look down on you for being loyal. Particularly because you are gaining great experience. Look at it as a job, not an internship because that's how most employers will as well.

I think it would be fine to ask your boss if s/he could meet and chat about your job there. Then explain what it is you hope to do, what your goals are and ask if there is a chance you can move into a paying position. It will show you're interested in the organization and it will clue your boss in to the fact you like this place and want to stick around. You don't have to be sure they will do this in order to ask. That's why we ask these things. Waiting around hoping they will recognize your hard work and give you a promotion rarely works out. You have to ask, and remember: They probably don't even know what it is you want to do. So clue them in. It may work out well for both of you. Good luck.


Washington, D.C.: I see that everyone's complaining about sick leave issues, but the reason companies are going to PTO arrangements is because of workers taking advantage of sick leave. Where I work, it is amazing how often people are getting sick (especially if there was a Monday night or Sunday night Redskins game the night before). How does a company balance this out -- it's not like they can reasonably audit whether an employee is really sick or "sick"? If employees used sick leave for when they really shouldn't come to work, this wouldn't be as big of an issue as it is now.

Amy Joyce: You're right that this is likely the base of it all. I think it comes down to workplace culture. It would be very hard to get back to the place where your company had sick leave. That's because the company has to show it trusts its workers, and the workers have to show they are worthy of the trust. How to accomplish that? Tough. But if you make people responsible for their actions (i.e.: That's fine if you need to take today off because you're sick, but your work will still need to be finished by the deadline) I believe fewer people would be skipping out.

But I also truly believe more people go to work sick than skip out on work after a big game. I think most people feel like the world will crumble if we stay home for a day.


McLean, Va: I wish my company had Universal Leave. I get sick leave and annual leave. The problem is as a young healthy man I never get sick. I end up with weeks of sick leave that I don't get to use. I think this encourages people to call in sick when they are really not sick just to use their leave. I think companies prefer Universal Leave because it discourages people from faking illness.

Amy Joyce: And there is the the other side. Thanks, McLean. I hear you: I have about 1,000 hours of unused sick leave myself. But remember that that sick leave is there for just that: sickness. You might have a problem where that would be very much needed. And that's why the leave exists. It's an insurance policy, pretty much.

What about allowing people who have that huge amount of unused sick leave to donate it to workers who really need it? Not too many organizations/companies allow that, but I've seen enough instances where it would be much welcomed and make sense in the end.


Washington, D.C.: I recently completed my PhD but have very limited work experience outside of academia. I feel stuck, because I feel under qualified for a job that requires 3-5 years experience and overqualified for an entry-level position. Will it look odd to future employers if my first job is entry-level, given my education? Any job search or interview advice? Thanks much.

Amy Joyce: Just because something says 3-5 years of experience are needed doesn't mean you shouldn't apply. If you're interested in work related to your PhD, talk to your advisor. Visit your career center. Talk to your professors. Plenty of PhD's start a job without work experience. Very few land in an entry level position. You are well suited for research positions, for instance. Your school should be plugged in to places you can look for work.


Rockville, Md.: The fact that some companies make their employees go on unpaid FMLA leave even if they have accrued sick leave is very troubling. Any lawyers out there who can weigh in on the legality of this practice?

Amy Joyce: Troubling for sure.

I should have mentioned this with the earlier question, but check out the Department of Labor's FMLA guidelines for a bit more detail:


Re: FMLA and accrued sick leave: Under the FMLA, an employee is entitled to use any accrued leave to cover absences from work due to a qualifying condition (employers are similarly entitled to require employees to use accrued leave). Therefore, an employer that places an employee on unpaid FMLA leave and does not permit him/her to use accrued leave, violates the law.

Amy Joyce: I believe you're correct.


Los Angeles, Ca.: One of the school districts here in Los Angeles County does allow teachers to donate sick days to other teachers. This policy has been a God-send to some who have come down with severe chronic illnesses.

Amy Joyce: That's a smart move. I know some (all?) government agencies do this, but private employers are a little slow to catch on.


Silver Spring, Md.: My brother just started a job at a small weekly newspaper. He says that the company does not offer any vacation time for the first year of employment, and it does not have a bereavement policy. This doesn't seem right to me. What do you think?

Amy Joyce: Doesn't seem right to me either, but it happens. A lot. If the place employs more than 50 people, he would fall under the FMLA and be allowed, by law, to take unpaid leave.


Washington, D.C.: For the referee, make sure you tailor your resume to the job you're applying to! Some extra curriculars are going to be more relevant for certain positions than others, and it's worth looking at the job announcement to figure out which ones would best apply to that job.

Amy Joyce: Definitely.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi Amy, I'm about 99% certain that I will be receiving a job offer today and I intend to accept. There's sort of an awkward glitch in letting my boss and upper management know. We're all headed to the home office half way across the country for the annual meeting/Christmas party. My boss leaves Thursday, and I am scheduled to leave Friday morning. This trip will be the only opportunity for me to talk with upper management face-to-face. I feel a little awkward traveling to the home office on their dime only to tell them that I won't be around much longer. I could wait until Monday -- which would be weird too. I could tell my boss on Wed. and then tell UM on Friday -- but my boss will tell them ahead of time. Any thoughts on when to tell them? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: If you're taking the job, you should tell your boss as soon as you accept it. Then tell your boss that it's up to them whether they still want to pay your way out there. My guess is the tickets are already purchased, so they're probably stuck with the bill, yes? Either way, I think you need to tell your boss as soon as you are absolutely sure you're taking this job and are sure you have the position. Apologize for the timing, but say it was out of your control. Then let your boss decide about when and how to tell upper management. Make this as smooth as possible. Put yourself in your boss' place. When would you want to know?


Brookland: Amy, How do you deal with taking leave for job interviews? I always have used sick leave and had "doctor" appointments. Is there another/better way to handle taking time off for an interview? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Really, you should be taking vacation time. I know that doesn't always happen, and if you have both leaves, in the end it doesn't really matter because your current company pays for it either way. But morally speaking, you are not sick, so you should take your own personal vacation leave to go and do your own personal biz.


Washington, D.C.: My company offers almost no benefits...I'd really like for them to pay my transportation costs, but I just got a raise. Is this asking too much?

Amy Joyce: You can ask. But think about WHY they should be paying for your transportation costs. You need to have a good reason other than "I want it" when you go to speak with them. And frankly, I don't have a good answer for you. Anyone have any luck with something like this?


Fairfax, Va.: Not to sound like Seinfeld, but what is the deal with loud talkers? A loud talker sits next to me at work and I can still hear her piercing voice if I put on headphones and turn the music all the way up. She has not said anything about having a hearing problem and I've asked her to turn the volume down on her voice and still no adjustment. Is it possible that these people do not realize they speak at levels much higher than everyone else? Why is it so hard to be considerate of those around you?

Amy Joyce: It's more than possible that people don't realize how loudly they speak. Think about your friends: Aren't some louder than others? Now shove them into an open office environment like you. Same thing happens. The problem is also that you're now totally focused on this person and her voice. No matter what you do, you will be able to pick her out of the din. You can tell her after she has an unusually loud conversation that you really are having a hard time concentrating, and you guess she probably doesn't know all of you can hear what she's saying. You can also try to focus on your work and realize this is part of today's office environment. That may help her voice fade into the background a bit. (By the way: How can turning music all the way up really help you concentrate more?)


Re: Sick leave: My company has the opposite problem: too much sick time. It's unlimited, which means some of my colleagues take off every time they have a sniffle or "just don't feel good today." There is obviously a lot of abuse. I rarely take sick time, and I recognize that sometimes more time needs to be taken in the case of a serious illness. But companies need limits, because abuse occurs if there are none.

Amy Joyce: You are in a very rare situation. I guess your company's feeling is that as long as the work gets done...


Transportation costs: If they offer free parking downtown, then see if they'll give you $$ for a Metrocheck instead, if you use public transit. Otherwise, why are you asking? You knew where the job was when you took it -- unless they've moved the office 60 miles away, it's your problem, not theirs.

Amy Joyce: Right, Metrocheck. You might want to check in to it.


Washington, D.C.: I accrue 20 days of leave a year, which does not roll over. I am rarely sick so it's never bothered me before. But now I am trying to have a baby, and we don't have paid maternity leave. I am the primary breadwinner, so this is a big problem. I have considered talking to my boss (this is a small company) but I'm not pregnant yet, and I'm nervous about broaching the subject. Thoughts?

Amy Joyce: Are there other mothers there you can speak with about the leave? I wouldn't mention it to the boss until you're actually pregnant. You don't know how long it will take, and you don't want your boss thinking you're a short-timer. (Sad, but true.)


To McLean: Five years ago, I was in my mid-20s and quite healthy. I, too, complained about having so much sick leave I couldn't use (I don't call in sick when I am not). Then, I got cancer and used over 300 hours of leave that year. At age 29! Be grateful you have it if/when you need it. If you don't, consider yourself very lucky. I did not have to get donated leave, but I know people who have had to ask for donated leave because they burned through too much "sick" leave when not sick.

Amy Joyce: And we'll leave on that note. Ouch.

Please join me again Tuesday to discuss your life at work. You can check out the Sunday column in the Business section. And don't forget to email me at if you've been promoted in title only, or have ideas about your workplace New Year's resolutions. Have a great week, all.


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