Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, February 13, 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.


Amy Joyce: Good morning, all. It's Tuesday which means it's time to talk about your life at work. As always, hop in with your own advice to share with your fellow readers. And ask away. I'll get to as many as I can.

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


Washington, D.C.: I loved your article about "work spouses." My husband works with a woman who we jokingly refer to as his girlfriend. I think without her his very stressful job dealing with the public would be unbearable. I feel a little sad for myself, though, since I work in an office that provides very little interaction with others. It's very segregated here between the principals and the support staff. Plus I sit in an area without any other people nearby, and really don't have a peer group. What can someone like myself do to make more friends at work? I like the work, but I've been here six months and still hardly know anyone. I'm not really shy, but also not naturally very outgoing. Here's that story: Significant Others at the Office, (Post, Feb. 11)

Amy Joyce: That's a good question. A lot of it has to do with the natural flow of things. Some work cultures are more apt for allowing friendships to naturally blossom. Others are much more hierarchical and separated, making friendships hard to form. Throw in there a little shyness, and you end up relegated to cube-isolation.

Is there anyone you find yourself attracted to -- in a friendship sort of way? If so, make a move to grab coffee together during a break, or ask about work. A lot of times, when we work on projects together or work on similar things, that friendship grows, too. Why? Because it helps to talk about work and how we approach work. A bond forms. And all of a sudden, you may find yourself with an office spouse. But it does take time.


Washington, D.C.: Amy, I loved your article on work spouses this weekend! In my office, our entire team (six people) is in some sort of polygamous "work marriage." We all get along really well and get so much done because of our good relationships with one another. Here's a shout-out to all the work spouses out there!

Amy Joyce: Alrighty. Thanks. Wanna share with us how it happened? Have you ever worked elsewhere where this didn't exist? Do tell...


Salisbury, Md.: Wow, Amy, where do you find these people? There's no way on earth I would tolerate my husband's intense involvement with another woman, nor would I expect him to tolerate mine with another man. And some supervisors actually try to set these up? That just gives me the creeps.

Amy Joyce: Why wouldn't a supervisor want employees to be close enough where they could understand each other, communicate well, work so well together that there would be little chance of them misunderstanding one another? Not sure what's so creepy about that, Salisbury.


Lexington, Md.: When my son was injured in an automobile accident, my first inclination was to call my "work spouse" rather than my actual spouse. This was a wake-up call to me to cut back on our work relationship. I consciously worked to expand the circle of colleagues with whom I interact. I still sometimes feel a sense of loss that I am not as close to my "work spouse" as I once was, but I may have saved my married, which is far and away more important.

Amy Joyce: Okay, and I guess this might be a reason this kind of relationship would freak Salisbury out. Thanks, Lex.

The thing is, the good "office spouse" relationships are ones built on a good work (repeat: work) relationship. It's where people know how far to take it and where to draw the line. Of course some will cross over that line, but I'm guessing that would have probably happened no matter what. Or the chance for that to happen would have been there no matter what. Cube mate or not.


Washington, D.C.: I hope you can help me, Amy! I'm feeling very worried because I'm pregnant (hooray! my first) and I just discovered that I'm not eligible for the Family Medical Leave Act.

I've been at my job for over seven years, but for the past four months I've been on professional leave to do a fellowship. I have four more months of my fellowship and then just three months before my due date. So that's not enough time to work the 1250 hours that FMLA requires.

How do you recommend that I discuss my need for a leave with my employer? I was already concerned about asking them for a medical leave so soon after my professional leave, but now I'm even more worried since the law won't help me either.

Amy Joyce: Yep, unfortunately FMLA doesn't apply to everyone. I think in this case, you have to hope your employer will provide you with some sort of leave -- paid or unpaid. Do you have vacation time? Sick leave? Perhaps you can use that for maternity leave. Come up with a solution yourself before you go in to talk to your boss. You've been a loyal employee for seven years. You were just on a fellowship which will (I'm guessing) benefit them somehow. Now you need a little time off after giving birth. So you have all of that going for you.

What can you offer them? Prepare a temp replacement for the next few months? Get extra work done? Be on call when you're on leave (don't offer that unless you're SURE you want to be pulled away from baby and back into work)? The more prepared you are with a solution when you go in, the better off you'll be. Your boss will feel better about the situation, too. Good luck and congrats!


Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Amy. I'm in a bit of a quandary. I'm meeting with a headhunter soon about a promising job that would be a great step up with great pay, and a great company (as far as I can tell). But I'm hesitant to make a move right now. I'm bored with my job (so much so that I was aggressively looking before I got pregnant), but I have a new baby at home, and frankly, I'm just not motivated to put the energy into ramping up for a new position. The job also requires a bit more travel than I do now, and I don't really want to be away from baby. Sigh. I'm not really happy with my job now, but I don't have the energy to go elsewhere. Thoughts? Motivation? I'm going to meet the headhunter regardless, only because I know that it could lead to something else in the future, but man, I really want to cancel this appointment! Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Go to the headhunter appointment. This does not mean you need to take the job. In fact, please don't take the job. Listen to yourself. You don't want this position. You don't want to travel. But you obviously want something new. Tell the headhunter that. "You know, I don't think this is the right position for me, and here's why..."

Then explain what it is you DO like to do, how you don't want to travel, etc. Headhunters will keep an eye out for other openings, or may know of something right now that is a better fit. There's more than one job out there. The job associated with this appointment is not an either or thing.


Arlington, Va.: Can you work spouse be the same sex? I partnered at work with a woman and our work partnership was so interactive and close that I referred to her as my work spouse, even though we are both married to males in our real lives. But we were complete partners even "parenting" our individual staffs who had to work together by remaining consistent in our feedback and ways of handling situations by consulting behind closed doors, ironing our our differences and then and providing a united, consistent front to the staff as we led our interactive teams.

Amy Joyce: Absolutely. And you are the perfect example of why this is a good thing.


Centreville, Va.: Hi, Amy. My company is based in N.Y. and I work locally in sales. Before budget cuts took place this year, I had the freedom to travel to N.Y. often to build and maintain relationships with internal contacts which have been invaluable in helping me better serve my customers. Now that I can't do that anymore, any suggestions how that can be effectively done locally? Are phone calls and emails as effective? What are your thoughts?

Amy Joyce: Of course phone calls and emails are effective. Especially now that the folks you visited know you. Make sure to maintain these relationships, even if you aren't seeing these people in person. It's not always necessary and with today's technology, it makes maintaining these long distance relationships easy.


Baltimore, Md.: Regarding the comment about not having a peer group (let alone a spouse) at work. In the past five years I've worked at two organizations that actively discouraged any kind of personal interaction between me and other staff. In the first situation it was because I was acting as admin. asst. to the top two execs and it was decided that the position required such discretion in appearances as well as substance I was told not to fraternize with other staff. Very lonely. I left after six months (as did my predecessor, and two successors).

In the second position, the CEO was so paranoid that no executive was encouraged to form a friendly relationship with another. That organization too has a very high turnover. I'm currently happy as a clam in a new situation where forming personal relationships with co-workers and clients is encouraged as conducive to producing better work product. And the truth is the quality of work here is far superior with less resources than elsewhere I've worked.

Amy Joyce: Makes sense to me. Thanks.


Arlington, Va.: This is so basic, but how does one go about finding and using a headhunter? Are they specific to certain fields? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Some are, some are more general. Search the Internet, yellow pages (yes, they still exist) and ask friends/family/colleagues for good suggestions. Most recruiters will have web sites that will show you what kinds of jobs they place people in. Just do some research, then contact away. Remember to work with them. Although they get paid for placing people in jobs, it helps if you can do more than just say "place me." Tell them what you want, what companies you might want to work for, what you hope is different in your next job. And don't be afraid to have contact with more than one headhunter at a time.


Bethesda, Md.: Hi, Amy. Not to steer the conversation away from work spouses, but I do have a question regarding maternity leave. When my wife was on her leave, her company not only didn't pay for her time away -- she had to take vacation time -- but after four weeks they took away the health insurance and we had to go on cobra! To top it off this company also claims to be "family friendly." Is the practice of taking cobra during maternity leave common?

Amy Joyce: I wrote a column in August about the fact that "maternity leave" doesn't really exist. This country does not have maternity leave. Most companies don't actually have maternity leave. But they let women go on leave by taking disability/vacation/some sick time. As for ridding her of her health insurance, I know it happens, but it's not too widespread. Sad, huh?

Let me see if Andrea can post that column for you.

_______________________ Too Often, Family Leave Leaves Much To Be Desired, (Post, Aug. 27, 2006)


RE: Washington, D.C.: Another leave options is to propose coming back part-time for a set period of time. You might suggest six weeks completely off, then six weeks of three days per week. Also, PLEASE look into your company's short-term disability insurance. I hope you have it, because that will give you some income and time off for the birth of your child. And congrats!

Amy Joyce: Thanks, good points all.


Arlington, Va.: Amy -- Is it wrong to want there to be a big ice storm that leads to a federal government shutdown?

Amy Joyce: I hear you: I was just bummed to see the snow stopped. (And we don't get any time off for bad weather!)

My guess is there is more window staring than work getting done today.


Philadelphia, Pa.: How do you let your boss know that you are being overloaded with projects without it affecting your next review? I'm afraid it may be used against me as evidence that I'm not working up to my full potential or something similar ("not a team player",etc.).

Amy Joyce: Ask to meet with your boss. Explain that things have been piling up, and although you're happy to do the work, it is getting very difficult. Ask your boss to prioritize the work for you. Make it very obvious what is happening. Otherwise, your boss won't know. You might be getting much more work than your boss realizes. And telling him/her might only help. Don't whine and complain about this every day. But set aside a meeting to explain what's going on. That way, the boss will take this seriously. And by asking the boss to prioritize for you, it puts the onus on the boss.


Arlington, Va.: Regarding headhunters, you say to not be afraid to use more than one. This seems like something a headhunter wouldn't like you to do. Do you have to tell them that you have multiple people looking?

Amy Joyce: Do you tell potential employers that you're looking elsewhere, too? No. They assume it. Most headhunters I've spoken with know there is competition out there. They know a client is looking at other jobs or talking to other headhunters.


Maryland: I had an interview last week that I thought went very well. My potential start date was discussed. But they have not called me back. A friend who works at the potential job site said positive feedback was going around the office and thinks I got the job.

Do I call the manager I met with? I did not go through HR. I am getting nervous they haven't called even though the signs are pointing to yes.

Amy Joyce: Call. It's been a week. Start date was discussed. Following up in this sort of situation is expected. Good luck.


Lanham, Md.: I don't like my job and -- fingers crossed -- am on the verge of getting a new one, as is a colleague. I shouldn't care that we're both jumping ship from a small department that will be strapped once we leave. I don't feel much allegiance to the bosses, the company -- only to the clients. That's not enough to keep me here, but I still feel bad that essentially the department will be mighty screwed. How to deal?

Amy Joyce: The best you can do is leave on a good note. Close up as much business as you can. Don't leave your clients hanging. Give your office as much notice as possible. And know that there are probably many job seekers out there who will want your old job. People get hired, they get fired, they leave. The best you can do is go about it gently, smartly, treat your bosses (even if you don't care about them) the way you would want to be treated if you were running the place. Good luck.


Bethesda, Md.: Amy: Good column, because it provided much food for thought. I'm curious as to why the "work spouse" column was limited to man/woman couples. Is it because there's thought to be more potential for handy-panky? It all sounds fine but I am not sure I would want my husband to have that kind of relationship with a female colleague.

I do envy the chatter who's in a six member "work marriage." That sounds ideal. I'm wondering how long it took to build up that sort of camaraderie? But she should enjoy it while it lasts because, in my experience, such a good environment is pretty rare.

Amy Joyce: Well, I know it happens. But I would hope you have a strong enough marriage to trust that hanky panky won't happen. Just because co-workers are of the opposite sex doesn't mean they will disappear into the supply closet. (Time to talk to Carolyn Hax!)


RE: Friendships at work: I also work for an organization that discourages fraternization. Management is so worried about cliques forming that we are discouraged from going to lunch in groups larger than two. I find this absurd. Why fight human nature? Why bother being so invested in what employees do with their lunch hour? I was a nerd in high school, so I get that it's no fun to be excluded, but this is a little extreme.

Amy Joyce: And by forcing people to not "fraternize", what might the company miss out on? Brainstorming, camaraderie that would help increase productivity, relationships among colleagues that build trust and therefore make it easier to work.


Manassas, Va.: I didn't think too much job discrimination based on physical appearance existed. That was until my sister-in-law lost her job and began searching for a new one. She is a qualified and experienced Admin. Asst./AP-AR with good references, and great skills. However, she doesn't have flashy looks and in fact has some, at least facial, characteristics of dwarfism. Realizing that unfortunately discrimination happens -- what can she do to overcome their initial hesitation to give her the chance she deserves?

Amy Joyce: I'm sorry to hear that. How deflating. The best she can do is keep looking. For each company that discriminates based on appearance (and I'm sure many do), there will be the SMART companies that look at the skills, enthusiasm and good work your sister-in-law has. She needs to do just what every other worker needs to do: Network, keep searching, look for a job that fits and a culture that makes it pleasant to go to work in the morning.


Alexandria, Va.: I've been at my current company for almost ten years. I've enjoyed my time, but it seems like I've gotten as far as I can in the company. I'd like to move on, but my company has one major benefit that I don't think I can get anywhere else, a very flexible schedule and the ability to work from home especially now that I have a seven month old.

This has really prevented from really looking hard for a new position.

Amy Joyce: Keep looking if you want to get out of there. It doesn't mean you have to take anything. And since you know you have a good situation where you are, that can just open you up to talk about what you want from a potential job. Feel free to ask for a flexible schedule and ask what their policies are for working parents. Since you're employed well now, you don't have much to lose. If nothing pans out, you're where you currently are -- in a good job that fits your lifestyle right now.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy and fellow chatters! I'm working through a small dilemma and could use some feedback.

I have a good relationship with my colleagues; we share personal stories and get along very well on both professional and personal levels. I'm pregnant, and coming up on the traditional tell-the-world stage. While I'm excited to tell extended family and close friends, I find myself not wanting to tell my colleagues. I just want to be myself for a while longer.

Do you think the folks in my office will resent me if I keep the news to myself past the normal announcement time? They'll be thrilled -- I'm not worried about professional reprisals or anything. But I've already seen that my close friends and family who know about the pregnancy are putting the non-gestating parts of me on a back burner. They're always asking me how I'm feeling, making me sit when I don't WANT to sit, not letting me carry things. I don't want to be the pregnant lady at work. Not yet.

Thanks for your reactions!

Amy Joyce: If you don't want to tell them, don't. It's a personal choice when and how to tell. If they are upset you didn't tell them earlier, then (not to sound harsh) that's their problem. If they let you know they are upset, you tell them that you had your reasons for keeping quiet. Most people will or should understand that. Although it might be hard to realize it as people start patting your belly, making you sit and talking nonstop about all things baby, this is a very personal time for you. Let it be as special as you want to make it. Co-worker feelings need not be considered. (Think about how you would feel if a friend or co-worker asked you the question you just asked me!)


Amy Joyce: Okay, time to get back to work, gang. Join me again next week, same time, same place to discuss your life at work. Check out the column in Sunday's Business section. And feel free to e-mail me at I don't always have the time to answer your questions during the week, but may post them on the chat.

Have a great week. Drive safely home tonight.


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