Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, February 20, 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, folks. It's Tuesday, which means it's time for us to discuss your life at work. As always, jump in with your own insight, story, advice for your fellow readers.

Alrighty, then. Let's get started, yes?


Fairlington, Va: Amy -- Thank you for an article about what must be a vastly underreported phenomenon. I have grappled for over a decade with the issue of whether and when to disclose my anxiety and depression issues to bosses. Unfortunately I've so far had only negative results, regardless of whether or when I've told.

However, even if bosses seems initially sympathetic (one even confided that she too suffered from clinical depression!), they soon lose the willingness to be flexible with my hours (the only accommodation I've ever requested) -- even though my job was still getting done correctly and on time.

At this point I've been unemployed for several years, unable to figure out how to hold down a job while dealing with my issues. If I'm ever well enough to go back to work, I'll obviously have to start small, with volunteer and then part-time positions. But I don't see how I'll ever again be on any kind of recognizable career track.

If it weren't for my husband, I'd probably have been homeless since my late 20s, and my heart goes out to those who don't have even my meager safety net. Amy's latest column: Should You Tell? For People With a Mental Illness, There's No Easy Answer, (Post, Feb. 18).

Amy Joyce: I think the best thing you can do for yourself right now is what you're doing: Getting help. Once you're ready to start working a bit again, remember that it's also best to know your rights. Your former employers, by law, were supposed to allow you those flexible hours because you were allowed to have an accommodation.

In the meantime, you might want to talk to your therapist about finding a job coach. There are organizations in your area that might be able to provide one to help you get back into the working world when you're ready.

Good luck, and thanks.

Also, folks: We're trying to pin down a time, but it looks like we'll have a live discussion tomorrow on this topic. Keep that in mind.


Fairfax Station, Va.: Amy:

I suffer from depression and anxiety. I work for a top federal agency and was recently suspended for a month by my boss, who does not know about my mental illness, for leaving the premises two hours early and avoiding a random drug test. I did leave early but not to avoid the drug test, which does not test for the two prescriptions that I take -- Cymbalta and Clonopin. I left because I was an emotional wreck that day. What recourse do I have at my current agency? I am a top performer, but this suspension has severely tarnished my image. Should I leave and look for another job? I have been at the agency eight years and just turned 50. Your thoughts, please. Thank you.

Amy Joyce: Sorry to hear about your situation. However, as I stated in the article, if you don't disclose your illness, I'm afraid you don't really have any recourse. You have to tell first, then your organization can give you an accommodation. They aren't responsible for anything retroactively. But the decision whether to disclose to them is totally up to you. I hope you have spoken with your therapist/doctor about this. They should have resources for you to get help on the job front.


Waldorf, Md.: Any tips for surviving a marathon job interview? I have one on Friday that starts at 9:30 and the last appointment is at 2:15. I'll be meeting with about seven different people.

Amy Joyce: How about this (don't laugh): Be prepared. Ha. (I laughed.)

Bring a bunch of resumes, just in case any of the many need to see one again. Wear something uber professional, but comfortable, too. Bring little things you can use to perk yourself up -- water, handi-wipes. (Love that clammy feel at the end of the marathon interview sessions, don't you?)... And, of course, go in with confidence. The best way to do that is have questions in mind to ask them, be prepared to talk to them about you. Think about what each person might be asking you. And ask for their cards along the way. That way, you can send thank yous to each of them. Good luck!

And with that, I'll send it out to the masses: How have you survived marathon job interview day?


Kingstowne, Va.: A few years ago, I was in a job where I was put on probation after switching to a new department within the company. Immediately after going to probation, I searched for and fortunately found another job. A friend of mine who worked with me in the same department is now facing the same dilemma. After working there for a few years, they've started giving her trouble about her level of productivity.

She has already been searching for a new job for some time without much luck. How does she go about reconsidering her career path? Also, I was wondering if you have published any articles on probation that might be helpful to her. I know how horrible it is to go to a job every day that isn't working out, so I am looking to give my friend any help I can, since I've been in her shoes before.

Any advice you can give on this situation would be much appreciated.

Amy Joyce: As far as probation goes, it's important to understand exactly why one is on probation and what the company wants. So if she hasn't, she should ask her supervisor for specifics. How is she not performing up to par. What can she do to improve. What goals can they set together so she can work toward them. Then she should go for it. And in the meantime, the boss might appreciate that she made the effort to talk and figure this out. It shows initiative. In the meantime, you're right that it's important for her to keep looking. She should spend her off-hours researching job possibilities, talking to family and friends about their jobs, what suggestions they have for her, what help/guidance/contacts they can provide. It also is an important time to get out and network. She should find networking events in her area, even if they aren't directly related to her field of interest. It takes time, and it takes work. I hope this helps.

Others? Suggestions? Send 'em on.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, I just got engaged and I'm not sure how to announce it at work (if at all). I don't get the ring until Thursday, so I've been stalling until then. However, my boss knows because I asked for vacation days due to it. Should I just let word spread? Or let people notice my ring and ask? We have a cubicle culture, so I don't see everyone everyday. What would be the appropriate way to do this? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Not sure why you feel you have to "announce" it at work. Does it affect anyone? Your job? Their jobs? If not, then just tell them as you would anyone else. "What's up, Jen?" "Well, I got engaged this weekend!"


If you feel like telling someone, tell. If someone else notices your ring later, then say that yep, you're getting married. Just let it happen.

Oh, and congrats.


Mentoring/informational interviewing: This may be more of a Miss Manners question, but I thought I'd poll you/the crowd first. I'm still building my network of mentors, and often request to go to coffee or lunch. I've been taught that if you are the one asking to pick someone's brain that you should treat, and I always go in intending to do so, or at the very least to split the tab. However I often end up out with someone more senior (and therefore more financially solvent) than myself, who are generous enough to offer to cover the whole bill themselves. I know, this doesn't sound like a terrible problem to have, but I'm still wondering if it is appropriate to accept? Should I follow up in addition to my verbal thank you with an e-mail thank you (which might be a good way to keep the connection alive). Any networking/mentoring/informational interviewing tips are greatly appreciated.

Amy Joyce: Always offer or simply pick up the tab first if you invited them. That doesn't mean there won't be times that they take care of it before you have the chance. Be gracious and deal. Yes, follow up with an emailed thank you. And keep that communication going. Even if you don't "need" anything right now, check in with them every few months, tell them what you're up to.


Frederick, Md.: I work at a nonprofit. My supervisor had been romantically involved with a co-worker who reported to her for some years. In fact, they even lived together. Their relationship seems to have cooled, but isn't this a circumstance that could cause our employer problems?

Amy Joyce: It should have been a problem when they started getting together, if one was supervising the other. That's just wrong. Any supervisor who wants to have a relationship with an employee who reports to them should immediately remove him/herself from the situation. It's easy to ask to be moved away from supervising this one person.

Aaaaanyway. Today. Yes, it could cause problems, particularly if one or both of them are immature at work. If they can draw a line between work and the relationship--or lack thereof--then it might be fine. But it doesn't sound like they've handled this well to begin with.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you see any sense in going into the newspaper industry now as a reporter, when the future of media is so uncertain?

Amy Joyce: If you're passionate about it, go for it. But do it, as you would with any career/job, with eyes wide open.


Washington, D.C.: Amy, I hope you can help but I doubt it. I work for a small non-profit (eight employees) and really like the work, but the new executive director brings her large, shaggy dog to the office and my allergies are beyond belief. Not just watery eyes; my throat closes up and I can't breathe. I'm absolutely miserable and, of course, my work has suffered. There's no way I can work at home or off-site, or keep my shared office relatively dander-free. The dog has the run of the place.

Sadly, it seems as if my only option is to leave. Because we are so small, anti-discrimination laws don't apply. I've informally approached the board, who say they would hate to lose me, but the new E.D. is supposed to be a Superwoman who will at least triple our fundraising efforts, so if it comes down to me or her, guess who wins? And she is absolutely non-receptive to the idea of leaving her "precious baby" at home. I'm not sure I even qualify for worker's comp under these circumstances. Can you help?

Amy Joyce: Have you told her directly? Have you asked her to keep the dog enclosed in her own office? Seems to me like there could be a compromise here. A separate office on a different floor? An office to yourself where you can keep a filter/close the door/make an absolutely anti-dog premises?


Columbus, Ohio: To Waldorf, for the long job interview day. Have prepared a series of "go to" questions that you can ask each different person. Not only will this give you different perspectives on the organization, but it will allow you to have a break from all the talking. Some questions that get people talking might be: What are the most interesting things you do on a daily basis? What is the most challenging aspect of your job? How has the organization changed since you've been here? What makes you excited to come to work every day? What advice would you give a new comer, advice you wish you had when you joined the organization? You can ask these questions of almost anyone you meet, even if you don't know/understand their job. Best of luck!

Amy Joyce: Good. Thanks!


Suitville, USA: Question for you and/or any interviewers out there. I need to buy a suit for interviews, as I should be graduating with my PhD in the near future. I've received a variety of advice on how much to spend on it, and plenty of friends keep telling me to lowball it at the generic department store. My inclination was to think of a suit as an investment and get a medium to high priced suit (preferably on sale at a men's store who can tailor) as it should make a better impression with high paying jobs. What say the professional workforce?

Amy Joyce: A lot depends on what field you're going in to. But if you can afford a suit that is a real investment, go for it. If you can't, there are *great* looking suits at places like Nordstrom, where they also have good tailoring. It won't be your suit alone speaking for you in interviews. As long as you look put together and professional, the important part is still the person.


Marathon interview: I once interviewed for a job in Southern Virginia at a newspaper. I had to travel six hours by car, which was fine. I got there about 20 minutes early, thinking that surely they'll be able to meet with me - but no. They sent me out to have lunch and come back in TWO hours! So I did. The interview lasted another SEVEN hours, well into the evening. I had to take a test, sit through a staff meeting, and then hang out in the newsroom. And then they decided that they weren't going to hire anyone after all. Not that I would have taken the job after all this.

Amy Joyce: And here might be a reason not to go into media. (Kidding. Sort of.)


For the marathon person:: Stick a small and not messy snack in your bag. You'll likely have a mini break sometime that you can scarf it down. Nothing worse than a loud stomach growl in an interview if they aren't feeding you (been there).

Sometimes with these all day interviews they tend to send you on to the next person without thinking of your personal needs. It isn't on purpose, just happens.

Amy Joyce: Good point. Thanks. And mints. Mints are important.


Baltimore, Md.: A question for Fairfax Station who has been suspended: Did you know the drug test was taking place before you left, or did you find out the next day? If you knew, it is little wonder you have been suspended, as your office undoubtedly believes you had illegal substances in your system.

Amy Joyce: Yep, skipping a drug test in some industries is grounds for immediate firing. Even though Fairfax had a legit reason to leave, it's important to think about the employer side of things. Unfortunately, sometimes depression or other mental illness will cloud that line of thinking.


Bethesda, Md.: Call me cynical, but in my experience, "probation" is just a cover for employers looking for an official reason to dismiss an employee -- and more so, one that won't result in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit.

I say this because I was put on probation once by a company that gave me trouble right from the get-go. Their official rationale: job performance not up to expectations. During the month I was on probation, my performance did improve, but I was dismissed anyway. (And no, I didn't sue, because I was desperate to leave that company, and was just happy to be separated. It was a terrible work environment for all who worked there.)

Amy Joyce: I think that is the case in many places, but not always. So no matter what, I think it's important to do what you can and give the company the benefit of the doubt, while being aware of the other things that may be going on --it only helps you in the end.


Bay Area: Hi Amy,

I'm going back for a second interview today. The job was originally posted as a 30 hour/week part-time gig, but the company wants to bring me in full-time. With that in mind, I requested this second meeting to talk to more people and ask more questions. Any suggestions what I should cover? I've made a few bad job choices in a row and don't want to make another. I can't tell if my gut is raising a flag here or if I simply don't trust my own judgment anymore in assessing a new opportunity. What are good questions that will help me get a true sense of the company and its real ability to meet the vision/future plans outlined by the CEO?

Amy Joyce: First thing I'd ask is why they first thought it was a PT gig and now they think it can be full-time? What changed?

Ask to talk to other employees there, what growth potential you'd have in your job, what an average day might consist of, why the last person left your position, how they would describe the culture, how much autonomy you might have. And, since you're curious: What the vision/future plans are for the company.

All these things, though they might not lead you to the perfect information, will help you get a picture of what's going on.


Anonymous: What if you're engaged and your partner is the same sex as you ... and you're not yet out at work? I'd been planning on it, but hadn't yet got around to coming out because it's touchy and there hadn't been any need. People can be very odd and I didn't want to jeopardize my job. On the other hand, I don't want to hide my marriage, either -- particularly since we're planning on kids.

Amy Joyce: Do it the same way you would if you were of opposite sex. You get engaged, someone asks, you tell them you're engaged, you're thrilled and life is good. You don't have to tell them any more than that if you don't want. But you also don't have to hide it. You should feel free to put a picture of your partner on your desk, for instance. Some people may bristle, but as far as I'm concerned, that's their issue. Like the person who asked how to "announce" her engagement to her coworkers, I don't think you have to (or should) do it that way, no matter the partner situation. Legally, this should not jeopardize your job.


To Suitville: You may want to actually budget for two medium priced suits. It's awful to be asked to come back for a second interview and not have something else to wear. That happened to me once and I spent all night shopping for a suit. Quite stressful when I should have been home relaxing and preparing for the next round. Now, I have two pretty nice suits. I haven't worn them again as suits since my office is not super formal. but I can wear the skirts with nice blouses and sweaters. So, it was indeed a good investment.

Amy Joyce: True, thanks.


Silver Spring, Md.: My company uses those all day multiple interviews. One of the things we look for is how answers to similar questions evolve during the day. You get big points if you come up with a more thoughtful version of something later in the day, as long as it's consistent.

Another thing we look for is how vibrant the candidate still is for the last interview -- we're sympathetic, but it's big points if you are still thinking and reacting well at the end of the day.

Amy Joyce: That's a big help. Thanks.


RE: Wanting to go into media: I worked in journalism for four years until selling out to the man last year. I loved it, but, unfortunately couldn't find a good way to make a living working for a paper. I'm sure that is not how it is for everyone, but it was my experience. I was prepared to spend years in small towns, but since I got there realized that they just weren't for me. Before you head off to do a "small town, I need a job journalism," make sure you know if you are a "small town, can hack it there, type of person." Most of my friends from journalism school started in small towns and have since moved back to D.C. and are working in completely different industries. Also, please know that if you figure out journalism isn't for you, you can put your comm. degree to use in so many ways. Everyone needs good writers! Good luck! You can also freelance.

Amy Joyce: All true. Thanks.

But no matter what, that small town experience can help later on. So if you want to give it a try and the job sounds intriguing, I still say go for it.


RE: Mentoring/info. interviewing: I personally would find it weird if someone invited me for coffee to pick my brain and the "offered" to pick up the tab. It would strike me as incredibly obvious that the person who invited me should pay the tab. By offering, you are putting someone in an awkward spot. Far better to just grab the check and kindly and politely dismiss any offerings of your guest-mentors with a "Thanks, but I invited you and this has been so helpful for me that I simply couldn't let you pick up the tab."

Amy Joyce: True, true, true. I hate that check-fight at the end, though. If you continue to fight it, that can come off as rude, too. If the other person refuses to give in, accept it and just be incredibly grateful.


Washington, D.C.: I'm feeling guilty about looking for another opportunity. I am in a position that I am paid a decent salary and benefits but it's not in the field I want to be in. I have come across an opportunity to get a job in the field I went to school for but now I feel guilty because my boss and co-workers are so nice. I feel bad because I am in accounting and no matter when I would decide to leave it wouldn't be a good time. Is this normal?

Amy Joyce: If you're unhappy in the field, get out. Obviously, not during tax season. But now is the time to look. No boss, no matter how nice, would want you to stay if you hated it.


Too Soon to Leave?: Amy,

I truly hope you select my question. My husband really needs your good advice. He started at a new job about seven months ago. Prior to that he worked at one company for almost eleven years and had some promotions. He left because he wanted more money and, frankly, wanted another company on the resume. He hates his new job. The company has major troubles and the job is just not challenging enough for him. We moved two hours away (by car) for him to take this opportunity. He is very good at what he does and we don't think he will have trouble getting another job (but, of course, we may be wrong). What kind of ramifications are there if one leaves a job early? Should he just deal with it for a year and then leave? What is the best move in a situation like this? We have a significant amount of savings so he could just "quit" but that is not a good option. I know we all only get one life and should be happy but he doesn't want to leave a job too soon and then explain that to potential employers for years to come. Which is better -- stick it out or start looking?

Amy Joyce: There is no rule out there that one has to stay in a job for more than a certain amount of time. If he hates it as much as you say, it's time to start looking. He's been there for seven months, and if he starts looking now, he might be in this job for a year or so, making it look not-so-bad. People understand. There is no recruiter out there who hasn't seen a resume with at least one short-term job. Or one period of no work. The recruiters themselves probably have it on their own resumes. Start looking, see what good positions are out there and go on from there.

Good luck.


Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. Time to get back to work. Remember that we will likely have a chat tomorrow dedicated just to my Sunday story on mental illness in the workplace. Stay tuned.

Don't forget to check out Life at Work, the column, in the Sunday Business section. I'll be back here next week, same time, same place to chat with you about all things work-related. Have a great week.


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