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Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, January 16, 2007; 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. It's Tuesday, which means it's time to talk about your life at work. First, I have a question for you all for an upcoming column: Have you ever made a big mistake at work (I know... who hasn't)? How did you handle it? Did you try to fix it before your boss found out? Or 'fess up right away? Please e-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com with your tales. Okay, then. On that note, let's get chatting, shall we?

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Chicago, Ill.: I just got a letter of reprimand at work for how I dress -- and I really disagree with it! There are specific points in the letter that I have issue with (such as the categorization of some things I've worn and that I'm not allowed to wear any V-neck tops -- ever). What can I do? I can't afford to go buy a whole new wardrobe to satisfy my boss's Puritan streak!

Amy Joyce: Get over yourself and pay attention to what your boss is saying. If s/he isn't happy with what you're wearing, that likely means there's a problem. Throw a t-shirt under that v-neck. Wear opaque tights with the short skirt. Put a jacket over your sleeveless tops. Go to Target if you can't afford things and get a couple conservative tops. This is serious business, believe it or not. It takes a lot (usually) for a boss to reprimand a worker for the way they dress. And even if you feel put off about it, your boss is telling you there is an issue. You need to look at your wardrobe and figure out how to look more professional. This is an easy fix, Chicago. You can still be you, but if you care about your job, take note of your boss' request and work with it. (Bet you thought I was going to side with you, didn't ya?)

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Washington, D.C.: I've been submitting my resume to some targeted job ads and am having a decent response. I've been on several (four or six) interviews, but am not landing the job. I am overweight (working on it, down 20 lbs. so far) and am wondering if that's keeping me from an offer. Or, is there something I should do or say to show that my looks (weight) shouldn't be an issue?

Amy Joyce: Hard to say what's going on there. There is such a thing as appearance discrimination, but I don't think you have enough to go on to bring it up in an interview. Remember that it could just be that there is a lot of competition for the jobs. (Which there is right now--everyone seems to be looking for new work!) Make sure to send your thank you notes, follow up, be persistent after the interviews. And if you so desire, call back and ask for some feedback post-interview. Lots of companies won't give it, but I know many other employers that do. If you're concerned it's your appearance that is turning your potential companies off, make sure you're looking professional in these interviews (see above). Wear suits that flatter and that aren't too tight. Good luck and congrats on the 20 lbs.!

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washingtonpost.com: Managing the Needy Employee -- and Your Time, (Post, Jan. 13)

Amy Joyce: This, by the by, was Sunday's column about employees who suck up employers' time.

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Arlington, Va.: During my annual review, my boss informed me that I will receive a market-value raise because I am "clearly performing at a higher level than I'm being paid." He says he doesn't know yet how much the raise will be and that his boss will contact me shortly to discuss further. How are market-value raises determined and are they negotiable? If so, any tips on how I can negotiate a fair increase?

Amy Joyce: That's great news. Congrats. There are lots of places to go to find out what others in your industry are making. Check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics for wage data (www.bls.gov). Make sure to look up what folks in your field are making in the D.C. region. And if your boss offers you less than desired, get to negotiating. But think about why you have "earned" more than what they offer first. If you do your research, you'll have a lot to go on. "Thanks for the increase, but after checking around, I feel like this position and the kind of work I bring to it is worth more like $X. Is there anyway we can get it up to that point?" Good luck.

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washingtonpost.com: Want to know how much you're worth? Click on this link to find out.

Amy Joyce: Here's another helpful link.

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Washington, D.C.: Wow, I can't believe how you knee-jerk sided with the boss on Chicago's wardrobe-reprimand question. How do you know she's not being singled out (whether as a female employee or just as an individual)? How do you know what the boss is saying is reasonable? Not even mentioning that those are possible issues. Wow!

Amy Joyce: This is one of those situations where -- oddly enough -- it doesn't really matter if the boss is "right." If s/he thinks this person is dressing inappropriately to the point where the employee got a letter of reprimand, it's simply worth it to tone down the dress a bit. You can still be yourself and go by workplace guidelines. I don't see how dressing more conservative at work -- after a boss reprimands someone for doing the opposite -- is such a hard thing to do. I love my v-necks, high heels and trendy clothes. But if I got a reprimand from my boss, I'd be taking a hard look at what it means. Sounds like a wake up call. And this poster gave us no reason to believe she was being singled out.

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Potomac, Md.: Amy,

I have been encouraged to apply for a job in another department within my organization. I am very interested in the job and typically I would have no issue applying. That being said, I am two months pregnant and my due date is during this department's busiest time. I'm torn.

If I do apply, I will certainly tell them that I am pregnant because I feel it is the right thing to do, however, am I better off not applying at all and waiting for another opportunity to come up in the future?

Thank you!

Amy Joyce: If you wait, it may never come. If you're that interested, go ahead and apply. Even though I'd usually suggest you not tell your workplace that you're pregnant until you are safely out of the first trimester, you are right to go ahead and tell them that your birth will coincide with their busy time in your interview process. You know them already, and since you know this coincides with the busy time, they will appreciate your candid approach. It shows you care about the company, too, and it may pay off for you later. But it also means they may be able to figure something out so they can give you the job and make sure you're covered well while you're out. You should also, if you want to apply, think of a few alternatives with how to deal with the busy season while you're away.

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Anonymous: Liked the article. But how do you know if you are high maintenance and no one wants to tell you?

Amy Joyce: Now that's a good question. One approach is you could always ask your boss. But in a good way: "Does it seem like I need more hand-holding than others in these situations?" This could start a good conversation about how to be more independent at work -- without being too independent. It's always good to ask questions and brainstorm with your boss and co-workers. The thing is, if you are too high maintenance, you probably have some clues already. Has your boss expressed anything?

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About overweight applicants: There are so many things that go into choosing an applicant for a job. I've interviewed lots of people, and being overweight was never an issue. But I will say that having confidence is an issue, and so is a neat and clean appearance. I interviewed one overweight woman who wore an incredibly short skirt to the interview and kept fidgeting with it the whole time. It was quite distracting, and we actually saw her undies a few times.

I don't think I'd like to hear from an applicant that THEY think their weight is an issue. It's a non-issue for me. I want to see someone with poise, self-confidence, and a good attitude -- no matter what their size.

Amy Joyce: Thanks. Confidence does wonders for anyone. (Now ... if we could just figure out how to look confident in these often-torturous job interviews, life would be good!)

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Washington, D.C.: Great article on Sunday. On the "needy employee" front, it reminded me how lucky I am now that my neediest got promoted laterally and is now someone else's problem. I was dreading annual review time with this employee, since it's always been a hassle with this person. Guess what, I just found out that the person is still up to their old tricks with the new position. Oh, well...

Amy Joyce: So did you ever tell this person that they were too needy? How did you do it? If you didn't, do you think they could ever "fix" their issues?

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Prince William County: I'll try and keep this as brief as I can. Due to family considerations, I'm trying to transition out of D.C. political/governmental work into private sector stuff closer to home.

Unfortunately, I have no network to speak of outside of D.C. political work. (That network is excellent, I could probably land a job on any number of '08 presidential campaigns/committees if I tried hard enough.)

Any suggestions on trying to infiltrate a job market which is foreign to me? I feel like I have to resort to "resume carpet bombing." (And unfortunately, I don't have much leave to take from my current job to go on interviews and networking events.)

Amy Joyce: Resume carpet bombing never works. Your experience is incredibly transferable to the private sector. Think about how. Then focus on where you want to apply. Your resume will stand on its own. Private sector employees don't just throw resumes out that have years of political/government work on it. Also, talk to those government employees with whom you have good relationships. They may have been private sector previously, or know good people who are. There's your network. Finally, informational interviews. Sure, they may sound like an archaic idea, but at least one HR manager I spoke with recently at a large private sector company in our area said he's flummoxed by the lack of people who call him for info interviews. He wants to hear from people who might be interested in moving into another field. Cold call companies and their HR departments, tell them that you're trying to transition into a different field, and ask if they do informational interviews. It could be a really good way in.

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Olney, Md.: I can't emphasize enough the importance of good cover letters -- ones that cover the unique aspects of each open position. Just as an applicant doesn't want to feel that they're only an anonymous number in a stack of resumes, the hiring personnel can't help but feel that some resumes and cover letters are mere scattershot.

I'd read the chat for the last few years out of general interest, keeping potentially useful information in the back of my head, and then last fall my position was eliminated. I took all your advice -- networking, resume customization, unique cover letters, dressing well for the interview -- and now have a wonderful job with even more wonderful people ten minutes from home. I was the first person interviewed, and they said it was my cover letter that clinched the deal.

Thank you and all your readers for the help you've given us job-seekers.

Amy Joyce: Thanks, Olney. Congrats, and so glad to help. People typically *hate* to write cover letters but you're right: They are the first thing employers see and they are taken very seriously. So it's important to write a cover letter that matters to that one, specific job, not a generic one that can be sent anywhere. Employers recognize those and usually toss 'em.

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Atlanta, Ga.: I'm a relatively new manager who still reads and benefits from your column. The one on Sunday really hit a nerve! I had a relatively small team (nine people) and try to make a point of talking to each of them weekly outside the context of assigning and reviewing work. But two are just amazing in things they bring to my attention! Fortunately, I have a wonderful mentor who reminded me that, if a person thinks this is important enough to discuss with his or her supervisor, it's important to listen and try to figure out what's really going on. But enough is enough!

A partial solution that works for me is to have "office hours" 9-10 a.m. on M-W-F when people can come in and talk about anything and everything, or simply let me know that they need a private conversation. Asking "can it wait until M-W-F?" seems to work wonders. Not that people still don't complain because we don't have purple pencils or they are allergic to the plastic plants, but it's a start.

Amy Joyce: That's a good tip, Atlanta. As long as they know if they really need you they can access you. But I think what you do helps them figure out if what they want to talk to you about is really important. Glad you have that mentor, particularly when you're a relatively new manager: Use him/her a lot!

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16th and M, N.W.: In my experience, employers are absolutely loath to discuss employee's office attire so I would take the concerns of Chicago's boss seriously indeed. Someone may be complaining to her boss. Did Chicago say her office had a dress code? If yes and she is in violation of it, then that's the problem right there. If there is no code, I bet there is still an office-wide standard which one ignores at one's peril. One final note -- I notice that women on TV shows dress in ways that would never fly in most offices. One of my favorite shows, HOUSE, comes to mind. What real female hospital director would ever dress like Dr. Cuddy? Love her character, hate her clothes, at least as office attire.

Amy Joyce: I agree -- In all my year's of doing this, managers typically tell me they have issues with people's dress, but don't know how to bring up the subject. So when a boss actually sends a letter, that sends up flags in my opinion. Chicago didn't say if there's a dress code, or much else. So that makes it a little hard to say just what to do. (But, of course, that never stops me). Remember Ally McBeal? I wonder if that started a wave of super-minis in the courtroom.

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Beautiful Downtown D.C.: I know you've covered this topic before but am hoping you can address it once again! I am 10 weeks pregnant and interviewing for a position with a new company. By the time the interview process, etc., is over I'll be about 12 weeks. From what I understand, I am not obligated to tell the new company that I'm pregnant should they make me an offer. However, part of me would definitely like to be up front with them, because I do need to know what their maternity leave policy is. I obviously will not be meeting the FMLA requirement of working at the new company for at least 12 months before going out on leave. While I don't want to jeopardize a potential job offer, I also don't want to end up in a position where my maternity leave is completely compromised. Any advice would be much appreciated!

Amy Joyce: You are not obligated to tell them at all. But they really can't rescind the offer after you tell them you're pregnant! (Pregnancy discrimination cases are on the rise, after all.) Most HR managers and women I've spoken with in your situation say bringing it up once the job is offered or close to offered is not only fair, but smart. You're right that you need to know what your leave will be like. You also might want to consider how you'll handle being out and offer up a solution then and there, or tell them that you'd work with them to find a solution for your replacement while you're out. Also, if the company does not handle the news well, or tells you there is no leave, then you'd want to know that before you accept the job anyway, right? It sounds to me like you know what you should do. Good luck. And congrats!

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Germantown, Md.: Hi Amy: I've asked this question to friends of mine and have gotten various answers, so I'd really appreciate your input. I'm about to receive my masters degree this spring and am beginning my job search. I live in Germantown and am looking for positions in D.C. do you think employers might be deterred from hiring me b/c of my location? I attend school in D.C. and am capable of commuting into the city, but I'm just concerned that they might be thrown off by my location. I realize G-town is part of the D.C. metro area, but maybe employers would be concerned about my ability to get work with the crazy traffic on 270 or just not even bother to consider me b/c I don't live within the city limits. is this a silly concern? Please assuage my worries!

Amy Joyce: If employers were concerned about people in Germantown working in D.C., there would BE no traffic on 270! (i.e.: Don't worry, Germantown is obviously considered a suburb of D.C. I doubt it would ever register as a problem in interviews.)

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Washington, D.C.: I'm interviewing for a job that is exactly comparable to my current position, but double in pay. How do I answer the "why are you looking to leave" question? Honestly, I wouldn't leave except it's SO much more money, but that's not exactly the image I want to project. But "exploring new opportunities" doesn't seem right either since it's the same job, just a different company.

Amy Joyce: Tell them you're looking for some growth. (No need to mention you mean in your bank account.) But seriously, that can work, along with you saying you were looking for a new challenge. Then go in to what you like to do, and what your goals are. Any time people move to different jobs, it's a new, different situation, right? So think about how it would be different, and think about what you would like to do in a new position that you haven't before. Good luck.

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Arlington, Va.: Good morning,

I took a job about two months ago after nine months of unemployment. I did some temping during this time. I had resigned my previous position. I'm not a serial job jumper or job quitter. However, I think, in retrospect, this might not be the right job or situation for me. What can I do? Money and health insurance is an issue.

Amy Joyce: Start looking now, and at the same time, consider how and if this job could be better. Looking might take a while, so by the time you start getting interviews, you might have been in this two month job a bit longer than you are now. It never hurts to look for new gigs, and in fact, we should always be open to moving. Get out, network, talk to friends, former colleagues and think about what you'd want to do next. But use this job as a lesson and make sure you don't just jump into something you aren't sure about because you think you're ready to move on. Take this time to really find something that excites you.

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Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. Interesting discussion today, as always. Don't forget to e-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com if you want to share a time you made a mistake at work, and how you handled it. Join me again next week, same time, same place to discuss your life at work. And check out the Life at Work column in the Sunday Business section. Thanks, and have a great week!

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