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Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, January 23, 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 discuss (or battle over) issues related to your life at work. As always, hop in with your own advice and stories to share with us.

A preview of the Sunday column: I'm writing about mental illness in the workplace. Should you come forward and tell your boss about your depression/anxiety/bipolar disorder? If you have, when and how did you do it? (And why?) Share your tales with me at lifeatwork@washpost.com.

Okay, folks, let's do this.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Amy. I applied for a job a little more than two weeks ago and haven't heard anything yet. I'd like to call and verify they received my e-mail and let them know I'm still interested in the job, but a phone number isn't readily available. I know I could find it if I really looked, but I wonder if I should e-mail instead. It's at a newspaper and I wonder if it doesn't list the phone number on its Web site if it might be better not to call. What do you think? Any other advice for applying for a job in journalism?

Amy Joyce: If you haven't been called in for an interview and simply applied, then yes, e-mail is probably best. I wrote a column about the resume wait a few weeks ago. Let me see if we can get a link to it up here.

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Maryland: Amy, what's the proper way to "acknowledge" a co-workers miscarriage? We're all pretty close and she told us what had happened. Her and her husband was really happy about the pregnancy and the baby was due really soon. Would flowers or a gift card appropriate? A card would not suffice. Please give any advise that you can.

Amy Joyce: How horrible for your co-worker. I'm so sorry to hear it. Since you know her, you probably have a decent idea what she might need right now. Flowers are nice. So might some meals. Cooking for them right now is probably not something they feel like doing and any help they can get is probably a relief. Acknowledgement is a good thing. You don't want to just ignore it because you think it might upset her. Good luck. (And folks, anyone who has some insight, please share.)

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washingtonpost.com: Persistence Can Help Rescue a Resume That's Lost in the Ether, (Post, Jan. 7)

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Chicago, Ill.: Hi and thanks for answering my query from last week.

My company does have a dress code, and I'm actually not in violation of it, as far as I know. And I've checked around -- I'm the only one being given these new, restrictive rules. My frustrations also stem from the fact that I'm very overweight. The only one in the office to be so, which makes it difficult to find even remotely attractive non-V-neck tops to begin with.

In addition, I've asked some very savvy friends, outside of the workplace, what their reaction was to my being written up, and they were shocked. They all think that I dress appropriately and professionally. I can't help but feel that I've been singled out. Nonetheless, I did follow your advice and spent money I didn't have to buy a whole new set of tops (after constant criticism of any skirt I wore, I finally gave up and now wear only pants, so that's not an issue).

I know it must not have been easy for my boss to bring this up, but this was a huge, demoralizing blow to me. As far as I'm concerned, if I'm not exposing myself (the "worst" I ever wore was a tank top underneath a long-sleeved sweater) or dressing in rags, and if nobody's complained or commented on the way I dress (which is the truth to the best of my knowledge), why do this?

Amy Joyce: Thanks for writing back.

For those just tuning in, Chicago wrote in last week to say she got a written reprimand from a boss, telling her to stop dressing in v-necks, etc.

Chicago, I'm sorry this was such a blow to your morale, and I can understand why it would be. We all have to think about what we wear to work and what image we send out there. It's important to look professional and not draw attention to things that will draw attention away from our good work. (This message brought to you by the old school marm in Amy.)

I hope you actually feel good about the clothes you bought. There are a few stores out there for plus-sized women, and I know they have at least the good basics to get you started on a more professional look.

This may have hurt, but at least you know what your boss was thinking, right? Better that than him/her letting it fester and silently hold it against you.

It's great that you have supportive friends, but the thing you need to pay attention to right now is what your boss is saying. I don't always agree with what managers say/do (as most of you who read this chat know), but this is one of those times when we need to listen to what is being said. If s/he thinks you're showing a less than professional look, you have to do something about it. If you disagree and think s/he's being a pig-headed moron, you can continue to do what you do, and consider looking for new work.

Good luck, and try to remember that this one reprimand doesn't say anything about you. It just says something about a company dress code. Try not to let it get you too down.

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Vienna, Va.: Amy, I'm so happy it's Tuesday. Thanks for taking my question. I began my current job last March, and the company's leave policy was that you got five days leave for the first five months you were with the company and then got 15 more after the five-month probationary period was up (we get a lot of leave because we don't close for a lot of holidays -- it's a "take the holiday when you want to" model). Leave wasn't earned. Everyone got 20 days per year. Yesterday, my boss told me we were going to an accrued leave policy. We could still earn 20 days per year at the rate of 3.1 hours per week. That's fine. The problem is, they are applying the new policy retroactively to last year's leave. I used almost all of my 20 days due to a chronic illness, even though I would have accrued less than that under the new system. Can my company apply leave policies retroactively? I find myself still battling the same illness, but now I am in the hole for leave and worried about never getting out of it. Also, I am considering leaving my job. If I leave before earning the leave I owe back, do I have to pay them?

Amy Joyce: Seems unfair, but probably legal.

One thought: Since this is illness-related, Vienna, can you use FMLA? (Your company has to have at least 50 employees.) That might be an option before you dig in to this new leave policy. The best advice I have for you is to go talk directly with your manager about your own situation and ask what, if anything can be done. I believe (and any labor lawyers out there, feel free to jump in) that your company can essentially do whatever it wants with its leave policy, unless you're under a union contract.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Amy, please remind chatters that thank you notes following interviews should also be carefully crafted. I'm involved in high-level hiring at a major tech institute, and it continually amazes me how people with great skills who give a good interview blow it in the follow-up thank you letter. I could give you a whole column of examples! In addition to the usual check for spelling, grammar, and the like, DON'T assume you're hired until you actually receive an offer ("It's going to be awesome working with you people"), don't use inappropriate humor (don't use any humor, actually), don't be overly cute or clever or overly effusive. Unless you're applying to work for the DAR, don't send the note on paper with your family crest. And don't cite the fact that you're looking forward to playing on the company's admittedly great golf course as the main reason you're interested in the job.

Amy Joyce: You heard it here first, folks. Thanks, Raleigh. (But I'd also argue you not shed the e-mail or letter of all personality. You need to subtly remind them who you are and why they should hire you.)

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Washington, D.C.: My office recently had a "reorganization" which boosted the titles and responsibilities of all most everyone -- except me. No doubt, there were salary increases, of which I was not privy to sharing in beyond the normal cost of living hike. Should I count my blessings or be really concerned?

Amy Joyce: Well, if you think you should have won a raise or salary increase because you've been working hard doing well, then you should go talk to your boss. I might take this as a sign that you're doing... fine (or worse). That shouldn't be our goal, right?

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Silver Spring, Md.: Amy,

I have been in the work force about 30 years now. Too young to retire, too experienced for entry level positions. Some of my peers recommend switching to a functional resume that emphasizes my skills and accomplishments rather than employers and dates. They also recommend leaving out such information as graduation dates, to avoid age discrimination. Does this really help, or is it just another gimmick?

Amy Joyce: I think it's just another gimmick. Most HR managers would look at it and wonder when and where you were working, and toss it aside. Some might go for it, but I would think it's fewer than most. And remember: You have 30 years of work experience. This is an asset! Use it.

Sure, age discrimination exists. But it's not everywhere. It's just like dating. Some folks might not want to date people will brown hair, but others are looking for just that.

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Washington, D.C: Hi Amy,

I'm from L.A. and my family still lives out there. I'm looking to relocate back to Southern California but am concerned about a few things. If I use my D.C. address, I'm worried I'll be taken out of the running for jobs since I'm not local. But if I use my parent's L.A. address, how do I explain my current employment here in D.C.?

Amy Joyce: Probably best to be honest here, but make sure you mention in the cover letter that you are hoping to move closer to family in LA. That way, they know you're serious about it. Use this time, too, to find companies that you might want to work for in California. Check with your parents and your parent's friends for contacts. They might have a good way for you to network yourself in.

Others?

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Arlington, Va.: Amy,

Any chance we could get a regular column and/or chat targeted at lower management/first line supervisors? So much of what the Post covers seems to apply to employees without management responsibilities or middle to upper managers with different skills and responsibilities. First-line supervisors usually have to straddle the line between employee and manager, making both more difficult. Thanks!

Amy Joyce: I try to do it all, Arlington. But I know how that goes...

Please e-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com with your suggestions. Or feel free to throw some ideas out here in the chat. What are you dealing with? What am I not covering? I want to know!

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Washington, D.C.: What about some advice on how co-workers can deal with the needy employee? We've got one where I work.

This needy employee is someone who has no self esteem and wastes lots of work time trying to get reassurance from others -- not about work stuff, but about personal stuff. She spends so much time discussing her personal issues and hurt feelings that she often makes mistakes and drops the ball on projects. To cover these mistakes she does some underhanded stuff to make it seem like someone else's fault. The weird thing is, these mistakes are things she could easily come clean about and nobody would care. Everyone else in our department would rather just get the work done, and we're all very understanding of mistakes.

I really feel sorry for this person, but I'm tired of it. How long should I deal with it on my own before going to the boss? I hate to go to the boss just to complain about another co-worker. What do you think is reason to go to the boss, and when do I just stay quiet?

Amy Joyce: I'm all for telling people things directly (I don't really have time to talk, Sue. Can you fix this error you made? etc.) But if this person is sucking time away from you and other coworkers, and nothing's changing, the boss will want to know. It might be time to talk to that supervisor.

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NYC: RE: Raleigh. What a great note regarding thank you letters. I am very impressed by the comments here and the advice. It's about time someone told these 20-somethings cute only works with your mom and dad who give a care about you. We business owners care about employees who offer to make our business better.

The follow-up with the woman from Chicago was excellent as well.

Amy Joyce: Thanks, but I don't think it's right to morph people together in a group. Not all 20-somethings write improper thank you notes or are "cute." I think many of these 20-somethings are like you were when you were a 20-something: They're trying to figure it out and might not get it right the first (or second) time around. And others, in fact, might be doing things much better than you or I did when we were in our 20s. People are people. They come into the workforce with different backgrounds, skills and education, and they should be treated as individuals.

Phew. But thanks, really.

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Washington, D.C.: A month ago I was offered a new position and at about the same time I found out I was pregnant. I am starting the job next week, but I am concerned about how/when to tell my new boss. I feel awkward telling a person I barely know a week into my new job that I will be taking eight weeks of maternity leave in August. What do you suggest?

Amy Joyce: It sounds like you're still early in your pregnancy. If you're uncomfortable talking to your new boss about this now, I think it's fair to wait until you're in the "safe zone" (i.e.: 12 weeks) pregnancy-wise.

In the meantime, make sure you can get that maternity leave in August. If you're new and in a small company, you might have to fight for some leave.

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RE: L.A. bound: Mention in your cover letter that you are moving to the L.A. area for personal reasons and are looking for a job. Also say that you would be happy to arrange to be in town at their convenience for an interview. These two comments let them know that you are not looking for relocation expenses or a trip to L.A. on their nickel.

Some people recommend finding a L.A.-based address or cell phone number. Don't do this. It raises questions about your honesty when your current job is in D.C., but you have a L.A. address and area code.

Amy Joyce: I agree all around. Thanks.

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D.C. to L.A.: COVER LETTER! This is what the cover letter is for.

Even if we don't hang on every crafted word of a cover letter, we will notice little things in your resume, and then we'll go to the letter for clarification. If clarification is not there... well, it doesn't speak well of the candidate.

Examples: you're applying for a job that requires a master's degree, and you put "M.A. expected Spring 2008." Explain that.

You're vastly overqualified for this job. Tell me in the letter why I should shoehorn you in for an interview when your resume gives me the impression you'd just turn down the job anyway.

And yes, geographic anomalies. The job is in D.C., you're in Phoenix. Tell me if you are desperately hoping to telecommute, or better yet, when your relocation date is.

Thanks!

Amy Joyce: More good tips. Thanks.

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Annapolis, Md.: I have not had a raise in three to four years. I recently asked for a raise and was turned down. I do not agree with the reasons why I was denied a raise and have started looking for a new job. I've always heard that you shouldn't say in interviews that the reason you're leaving is for more more money. So, how do I answer the inevitable question of why I'm leaving my current employer when the main reason is money? Any advise is appreciated. Thank you.

Amy Joyce: They aren't giving you a raise because they don't think you deserve one. So you can honestly tell your potential employers that you are ready for new experiences and think you can really thrive in a place where your skills are a better fit. True, and exciting (perhaps) to someone who wants to hire a go-getter.

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Washington, D.C.: SEE?!?!? The person written up for dress code issues DID feel like she was being singled out! And people she asked thought she dressed professionally! And still, in your response, you don't address this issue. You have such unwavering faith in how right the manager must be. What if she's being singled out because she's overweight? Too bad for her? All that's important is doing whatever the boss says, even if it's unfair or discriminatory?

Amy Joyce: Of course she felt like she was being singled out. Wouldn't you? I never said she wasn't being singled out. If this is a discriminatory issue, it's a discriminatory issue. But I'm looking at this as a clothing issue. If she does what her boss suggests and dresses more professionally, and then she is still reprimanded, then of course there is a problem. I'm not saying the boss is right. What I'm saying is if you are directly reprimanded for the way you dress and there is a way to fix it (no more v-necks, no more skirts), then that is one solution.

If it's unfair and someone wants to battle it, battle away. But you're going to be taken much more seriously in this battle if you make the changes requested by the boss.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Amy,

I'm looking for a new job after just about a year at one (my first straight out of college). My boss is a lunatic who cannot handle pressure at all. He often goes nuts over something that he perceives as having been done wrong, then calms down when I explain it to him, but never apologizes. Last week he went off and yelled in the hallway, in front of lawyers in a firm that we lease space from, about how I was stupid. He has also made comments about my being Italian and Catholic. To cut to the chase, I can't stand this guy and my question is whether or not I should contact HR after I leave (they are not in D.C., but where our company is headquartered.) The only reason I hesitate is because I need my current boss for future references, if only to confirm that I worked there. I don't want him to destroy my career, and I don't consider myself PC at all, but I really cannot stand this person and it is a shame that he has gotten so far (VP of lobbying arm) and he is so unstable.

Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Find your new job first. When you're ready to leave, your company might ask for an exit interview. Ask if what you tell them will get back to him. Then from there, decide what you want to tell them, if anything. You can do it in a way where you don't completely trash him or the job. "While this has been a great learning experience, I thought you might want to know about Joe." Then bring up three specific experiences. Give them something real to go on. Then move on. It likely won't keep you from getting references in the future.

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Resume input: I have worked in my field almost 25 years and found that listing my employment with short job descriptions pushed the resume to two pages. Anything more than that pushed it to three pages. (Not that I change jobs a lot, but within my field the same position can encompass different skills and accomplishments, which I want to highlight.)

I decided to compromise by leading with a short summary of skills and accomplishments ("more than 20 years experience in ..."), then list just the last 10 years of employment with short descriptions. I keep a second resume with all the details for when potential employers ask for more information. Seems to work like a charm.

Amy Joyce: That sounds like a charm. Good advice. (Light break: Did anyone see last week's episode of the office? Dwight had three bound copies of different "resumes" ... hilarious. And a great lesson in not what to do.)

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Recognizing longevity: Hi Amy! Love your chat! Wanted to know if you or your audience had any great suggestions for employee rewards/gifts for years of service with their company? (Think 5, 10, 15 years, etc.) We have a mix of blue and white collar folks, but want to make the gifts the same. Any thoughts? We do a banquet currently and the gifts have been less than stellar (and sometimes cheesy). It's a medium sized company, so extravagant gifts are out of the question. Thoughts?

Amy Joyce: How about something useful? Gift cards? Small bonus? Gift certificate to dinner out? Much better than a cheesy key chain.

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Woodbridge, Va.: When I switch jobs after my baby is born, I'd like to work part-time and mostly as a telecommuter designing online learning. I have experience doing this in a corporate setting, but that agency did not believe in telecommuting. How do I go about searching for either contract jobs so I can work from home or put on my application that I want to work as a telecommuter? I do not have a problem going into the office every once in awhile, but I do not want to do it every day.

Amy Joyce: There are a lot of resources out there (or it seems like a growing number). I wish I had seen this question early in the chat because I am sure some folks out there have some suggestions. Check out the DC Urban Moms list serve, which has a separate list for job shares/telecommuting jobs, etc.

Anyone have some quick suggestions? Or remember to send them in (or e-mail me with them at lifeatwork@washpost.com) for next week and I'll post them.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Hi, Amy. I own a small business with one partner. We have two employees, whom we regard highly. One of them is our go-to person. She's bright, loyal and a hard worker. But, she can't stop talking. She tells us every minute detail about what she has done during her day. Sometimes, it would be quicker if we did her job ourselves because her re-cap is so long. We have tried everything from telling her to be more "economical" in her communications to simply turning away from her while she talks and moving onto other tasks. Nothing works. Is it time to simply tell her to stop talking? If so, how? We are a very small office, and she is somewhat sensitive. We value her tremendously and don't want to hurt her feelings. Thoughts? Thanks.

Amy Joyce: If you have a valuable employee, you need to hang on to her. When she starts getting too long winded, hold up your hand and say "Stop for a sec. We get the picture, and have to get back to work. Can you e-mail us the rest?"

Or ask her to e-mail you at the end of the day with her list.

Just be direct and explain why so she doesn't just feel like she isn't part of the team.

Don't let something like this allow you to lose a good worker.

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Amy Joyce: Okay, that's that. I'll be back next week, same time, same place. Don't forget to check out Life at Work, the column, in the Sunday Business section. You can e-mail me at lifeatwork@washpost.com.

Have a great week. Chat with you Tuesday.

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