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Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, March 27, 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. As always, please pop in with your own advice and stories to help your fellow readers along.

As you may have seen in the Sunday column, I'm due to have a baby in June. So that will mean a little shifting and shaking of the Life at Work schedule, but we're figuring something out and I'll let you know what the plan is. So yes, readers, you were right. This might be the most fertile chat at washingtonpost.com.

On that note, let's get started, shall we?

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washingtonpost.com: Employers' Little Dividend, (Post, March 25)

Amy Joyce: This is the Sunday column about how companies try to handle maternity leaves ... and the work left behind.

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Washington, D.C.: I am in a career slump - miserable (for two years) at a job I used to LOVE. I was "promoted," but that "promotion" led to a position I loathe, people I don't care for, and actually LESS money! I've done everything from offering to take on new assignments ("That's great!" and then assigned to someone else) to asking to shadow someone ("We'd love you to do that!," and then told explicitly it won't work) to speaking with the higher ups about other positions within the company ("You're absolutely on my radar!" and then overlooked AGAIN) There are also personality issues that I think cross the line and have been encouraged to go to HR by family and friends, but that would only hurt me if it was found out that I did that. So I'm sending out resumes in a different but related field and trying to bite my tongue every work day so I won't just quit then and there. Everyone says I HAVE to just hold on to this job, but it's killing me and my mood outside of work is in the gutter. Any advice to make something happen?

Amy Joyce: Wow, a promotion that equals a pay cut? That does sound like bad news.

Do you have a decent relationship with your boss? Actually, even if you don't, run to schedule a meeting right now, perhaps over lunch, and ask what the deal is. Explain how you're feeling, give concrete examples of problems you've had trying to get to do the work you want to do, and ask what -- if anything -- can be done about it. By doing this, you're getting yourself on the record that you aren't happy. You're also explicitly telling your boss what you want. And your boss will then know that something needs to happen, or you might leave.

Then listen to what s/he says and go from there.

In the meantime, go with your other gut and start sending out resumes, networking and figuring out what could be next for you. Make a list for yourself every day and take those little steps to get to a place where you want to be.

Oh, and don't listen to everyone. Although their insight might be helpful, take it for what it is, and make sure you're doing what you do because it's what you feel is right. You're the only one who is actually living and squirming in this situation.

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Palm Coast, Fla.: I was fired for "personal use of the computer" nearly six months ago and I am having a hard time finding a new job and figuring out a good way to respond to "why did you leave" on applications and in interviews. The true reason of the personal use of the computer was occasional school work and backing up school work on the computer ... Any suggestions?

Amy Joyce: Um, it conflicted with my schoolwork?

Is there any sort of supervisor at your old company that you can contact and ask? I know it might seem weird, but someone in HR or a boss might be willing to tell you what they will say/are saying.

You have to remember that many companies no longer give bad references, but rather, just start and end dates for former employees.

You are going to have to fudge it a little bit. You can honestly say that you were having a hard time balancing work and school and you let school get in the way of work too much, but here's how it won't happen again. Or somesuch.

Now, try to stop focusing on that and start focusing hard, hard, hard on the job search. Contact recruiters, network, talk to your school's alumni center/career center for help and references. Dig in and this unfortunate event might just be a little blip in the end.

Oh, and don't do it again.

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Potomac, Md.: Hi, Amy. Many jobs that I am interested in require grant writing experience, which I don't have. I know there are classes available, but would these help in applying for jobs that are looking for people with practical experience? Should a person who needs grant writing experience look to get it doing volunteer work?

Thanks for you help!

Amy Joyce: Volunteering would probably help. But any writing you did in the past might work to get you in the door. If you can show that you can make a clear, concise argument in writing, that might be enough to get in.

Any grant writers ready to weigh in? I know we're full of 'em around here...

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When NOT to network: Hi,Amy.

I'm temping at an organization hosting a seminar tomorrow that will be attended by people who work at organizations where I WANT to work. Can you advise on whether or not it would be appropriate to introduce myself during the coffee/snack food session before the seminar starts? If previous seminars are indicative, there's lots of re-acquainting/networking going on among colleagues, but I'm a bit shy about approaching some of these folks about a topic totally unrelated to the seminar. Can you give me some advice? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: You can do it. No need to be blatant, but get it out there that you might be looking at some point because this is a short term assignment. ("Oh, so what do you do here?" You: "Well, I've been temping and it's great. I do X, X and X and have gotten great experience in Y. But it is temporary, so I will likely be looking for new work in a few weeks.")

All you're doing is finding out what other opportunities might await you after your assignment ends, and letting people know who you are. You're not begging them for a job here.

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Washington, D.C.: My company requires a two-week notice before quitting. A big project is in the works, so I gave two to four weeks notice and offered to stay to see the project through to the end. After a few days, I was told to leave a the end of the week, but I was working hard and not causing/creating any problems.

Now I am not getting paid for my second week. Since I work in D.C., I think the "right to work" law protects the employer, but thought I would ask here. Is it too much to hope that karma gets them in the end?

Amy Joyce: I think your organization is probably safe, and you're out of a week's pay. But I'm not entirely sure. Any employment lawyers out there willing to weigh in?

Either way, trying to get that week of pay back might take a lot of fight. You have to decide if it's worth it, or if you can just count yourself lucky that you're moving on and into what will presumably be a better situation...

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New York, N.Y.: I recently passed my last part of a rigorous professional certification exam (CPA), which requires obtaining professional work experience in order to become licensed. My current job is not qualifying experience, so the natural thought is that I need a new job. The question is that I am getting married in November, and I'm reluctant to leave this job because of time off I will need around that time. Is this something that I can discuss with employers once I have a job offer? Would it be unprofessional to arrange for the time off at that time? Thank you.

Amy Joyce: Not unprofessional at all. Many, many people go into job negotiations and tell their future employer that they have a trip planned that will last two weeks. Ask for unpaid leave, or to use your leave in advance. Or the company might offer you leave at the start. Really not a big deal. Start looking for the new job you want.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi, Amy. I was hoping that you or someone else out there had advice for me. I am the HR manager of a mid-size company and as most HR departments go, I am also the complaint department. How does one deal with the down side of a job? The negativity, the consent bickering among employees, etc. It's starting to affect my well being ... any HR people out there have any advice? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Oh my. I always wonder how people in your position do it. (I know, I guess I'm sort of doing that right here. But it's only for an hour a week!)

Have you talked to the HR people in your own department? Ask how they deal with it. And yes, HR folks in the audience, please pipe up.

In the meantime, Beth, try to remember this is a job. It's really hard to separate yourself and your emotions from what can be a really draining day, but you are there to fix or listen to these issues. Even if that means you're just saying "this isn't for us to handle. You can ask your own co-worker to stop putting her jacket on your chair."

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Washington, D.C.: My closest friend in the office is trying to get pregnant. We all work in a cube farm, and my friend is constantly talking at the top of her lungs to her office buddies (not on the phone) about all sorts of non-work things, extremely unprofessional. At the same time, she complains that everyone around her is inept, that they're too loud when they talk, and it all impedes her ability to do her work (with no apparent appreciation for the hypocrisy of her comments). She has gotten extremely nasty, condescending, and short with many people in the office. I'm worried that confronting her directly will lead to nasty feelings throughout the office. Other than ratcheting down my friendship with this woman (I generally don't choose to be friends with people who treat others badly), is there anything else I can or should do? Do we all just suffer through until she actually gets pregnant? It's sad because she was actually quite a nice, fun, approachable person before she started trying to get pregnant.

Amy Joyce: First off, it might have nothing to do with pregnancy. (And really, does it matter anyway? She's obnoxious no matter what...)

I think as her friend, you are standing on the perfect platform to call her on things as they happen. "Um, Sally, I don't think you realize it, but your voice really carries. So everyone knows that you and your husband had a fight last night over the burnt chicken."

Or be even more direct and tell her that her voice is distracting.

If she gets nasty to you, call her on it. Not sure how much standing up for other people you can do.

Anyone else want to weigh in? Feel free...

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RE: "Computer for personal use": Do people actually get fired for this? Although I'm sure most companies have the technology to monitor Internet use, do any of them actually have time to do so? If you're getting your work done, what's the big deal?

Amy Joyce: Almost all companies now monitor computer use. And many of them have easy ways to really check it out. There are myriad companies that sell software to make monitoring simple and efficient and organizations are checking out the results for red flags. But usually, it has to be a pretty big situation for a company to actually fire someone for it. The employee either have to be wasting a LOT of time or doing something that could compromise the security of the company. Or, the company can use this as a way to fire someone they wanted to boot for months.

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Hyattsville, Md.: In regards to the grant writer, definitely they should do volunteer grant writing. When our development department is hiring, the first thing we notice on the resume is a proven track record -- X amount of money raised. Someone who's actually brought an organization money goes much higher in the stack than someone who's just a decent writer.

Amy Joyce: Thanks. That's helpful...

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Washington, D.C.: I've got a question related to short term disability. I had six weeks off due to surgery and actually wanted to do some work from home, to ease the burden on my fellow employees, as well as give me something to do. I could have easily logged in from my laptop and worked for a few hours each day. My company said that if I worked part of the time while on short term disability, it would be a nightmare for them. Why wouldn't they want me to pitch in?

I'm wondering because I'm now with another company, and would like to propose that I work two hours per day while on maternity leave. But maybe there's a good reason not to do that?

Amy Joyce: I don't know what their reason might have been. I think your company might be happy to hear you are willing to pitch in while on leave. They also might not be because the paperwork (are you on paid leave or are you getting paid for work? Or are you doing work while on unpaid leave?) could get really complicated. But you might as well offer IF you are sure you want to and can work while you're on leave.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Amy. Since this is the most fertile chat on The Post, I'd like to ask a question to you and your fellow readers. I am at the end of my first trimester, definitely not showing yet. No one at work knows. My concern is that my job requires me to travel at times. The travel requirement changes based on different clients. There could be periods when I can work at my local office, and there will be times when I have to be at the client site, which includes driving or flying.

As my pregnancy progresses, I can foresee the hassle of travel, especially by plane, and possibly restrictions from airlines. My HR department says that if my management is able to find me assignments that I can do locally, then everything is fine. However, if that's not possible, and I am not able to travel, then I would have to start my short-term disability leave immediately.

Can anyone offer any insight into this situation? Thank you.

Amy Joyce: I think traveling restrictions don't kick in until pretty late in the pregnancy, if it's a normal pregnancy. Most recommend not to fly after week 36. Ask your doctor on that one, so you can arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible.

Then ask your department when you're ready to tell them the news, what options you have. Many companies will easily be able to find local work, or even switch you for that last month with someone who is willing to travel.

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Washington, D.C.: Grant writing experience: Check out the Foundation Center on K Street. They are a fabulous resource and offer free proposal writing courses.

Amy Joyce: Throwing this out there for our grant writer-to-be...

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Two-week notice: See this is what drives me nuts about HR people. They always demand the courtesy of at least two weeks notice and usually ask for more. I have always given at least three weeks notice when leaving a job and it has worked out fine, but I have also heard horror stories like Washington, D.C.'s where they give notice and then are told to leave earlier.

Let's make a deal between employers and employees: We give you proper notice and you respect that by not asking us to leave prematurely.

Amy Joyce: I'll let this go out there, but with my take: HR departments might have a reason for kicking you out early. Just as some employees might have a reason for leaving before the two weeks are up. It happens on both ends...

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RE: HR complaint dept.: I work in HR and in benefits, so I get all of the complaints about insurance, doctors, bills, etc. Just as Amy said, you can't let it get to you. This is your job, not who you are. Yes, as HR we should have compassion, empathy, etc., but please don't ever let your job affect your health and well-being. Even if the employee doesn't get the outcome that they want I at least know I did my best to help and that helps me feel good. Plus, if it's something trivial, direct the employee back to their manager if you can. It's tough being in HR but really we need people like you who have the whole "human in human resources" attitude. I hope things get better!

Amy Joyce: And from the HR side ...

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RE: Washington, D.C.: To the person who quit then was escorted out: When I gave two weeks' notice, several hours later, they walked me out the door and said they would pay me through what my resignation letter had said (so I wished I had given them a month!).

I thought that had to do with them not wanting to get sued, but I could be wrong. The reality was the VP was angry (since many others were leaving too) and didn't want me around anymore. I was going to a totally different industry, and others in my position who resigned were allowed to work out their weeks. So they lied to me when they said it was cause I had access to confidential information.

Amy Joyce: It could be anger. It could also be they are afraid of losing proprietary information. (Even if you are going into a different field.) Or your sticking around could be more of a morale drop with a "short-timer" hanging out.

Of course, it could also be sour grapes. And when that's the case, that's a shame.

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Lawrence, Kansas: RE: Working while on maternity leave. While it's generous of the writer to want to help out her employer while she's on leave, she has no way of knowing what her experience is going to be like once she has the baby. I had a C-section and a special needs baby, neither of which I was expecting. You can bet any promises I made went right out the window. You don't know what's going to happen on leave. Don't make any promises until you know.

Amy Joyce: Very true. I've been warned (many times) that even if everything goes well, I'm going to be exhausted like never before. Hard to imagine working on two hours' of sleep.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I work at a very small company. We all where a couple of hats in addition to our main job responsibilities.

Normally I love having different responsibilities because it gives me a chance to learn/hone other skills, but my boss has decided we need a technical overhaul (and we do). While I can fiddle with the web enough to update our pages, throw up some graphics, tweak a bit, I have NO IDEA about databases, long-term technical planning.

I started by calling sister orgs., gathering cost estimates, etc. But now I realize I don't even know what I'm comparing! How can I make my boss understand that just because she thinks I am tech-savvy doesn't make it so? I've tried talking to her but she is even less technical than me and says I'm smart enough to figure it out. But I'm not! Help!

Amy Joyce: You're smart enough to figure out you need help. Tell her you'd like to hire a consultant or ... something. I'm not techy enough to know what you need. Anyone?

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New mom looking for work: How does one look for a new job while being a mom? I need to be able to leave work at a certain time each day to pick up my child from daycare around 4 p.m. Thus, I need to be able to screen potential employers to make sure they are family friendly but I am concerned that I will scare them off.

Amy Joyce: Be honest in your search or you won't find a company that will be so flexible/understanding. That might mean your search will take longer, but accept that now and you'll hopefully get a good result in the end by finding an employer that fits with your life (and vice versa).

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D.C.: RE: Short term disability. If you can work, most insurance companies wouldn't deem you meeting the qualifications for disability. I look at it as if the company saved the employee a massive insurance headache.

Second: working on maternity leave? I thought I could do it, too. Then the baby arrived and had his own agenda. I was lucky if I could squeeze a shower in before my husband got home. I know, I know, her leave will be different because her child won't cry for hours for no reason, her baby will sleep well from the beginning, her life is different from mine. But things change. And babies grow fast. Enjoy that warm maternity leave cocoon for the short time it lasts. All too soon, work and reality will creep back in.

Amy Joyce: An opinion on working during maternity leave...

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D.C.: Grant writer here ... volunteering could definitely help. There are a lot of neighborhood groups and the like that are eligible for municipal grants. If you spend some time working with perhaps your neighborhood or civic association it could be useful experience. But don't discount taking a class either. Each organization has their own style of grant writing and presentation, but if you have the basics down they will invest in you and train you to meet their specifications.

Probably the most important factor however is being an extremely strong writer. Have a few writings samples ready, and be sure that your cover letter is impeccable (we definitely judge cover letter writing to weed people out, especially for more entry-level positions).

Amy Joyce: Great advice, thanks.

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Tysons: I've been temping at a organization while looking for a permanent position in my desired field. When I started about a month ago, I was in the final interview stages for a couple of positions. Both have since fallen through and nothing else looks promising. Some people (not my supervisor) have hinted that there are some openings at this organization. At first, I acted uninterested, but now think I may be. It's not in my desired profession, but I think I'd be capable. How do I approach the organization and the temp agency?

Amy Joyce: Schedule an appointment with both your supervisor/temp agency to talk about the positions. (Not at the same time.) However, please be sure you want to work there. You could end up like others who realize too late that they took a job just because it was a job and they are miserable. Then you have to deal with a job search all over again...

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Congrats to you on the coming bundle: Best wishes, Amy! Hope you have a good leave -- but please don't leave us without the weekly chats. Will someone fill in for you? Will you have guest hosts? And that leads to this request, could you get Weingarten out of whatever cave he went into and convince him to sit in for a week? Please, please! For those of us who have had to get used to not turning directly from your chat to his on Tuesdays, it could mean a brief return to some much missed bathroom conversation. He could do a theme on "the role of the bathroom in the workplace." How many trips are too many? How long is too long per visit? What about the employee who wants a portolet installed because the bathroom is too far away from her desk, etc. Either him or Dave Barry.

Amy Joyce: Let's not talk about how many bathroom visits are too many until after this kid is born, deal?

Aaaanyway, I wish I had those powers to bring Weingarten back today. (Although, have you noticed your boss is impressed with your productivity since he disappeared?)

I'll let you all know as soon as we do what the plan is. I'd love to keep doing the chats. You can't hear a crying baby from there, right?

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washingtonpost.com: Help Wanted on the Hill, (Post, Jan. 1)

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Washington, D.C.: I have a semi-stupid question. What would be the best way to get a Hill-related policy job? I'm an attorney with a passion for politics, and am at a point in my career where I really want to do something I enjoy. The problem is that I was never an intern, have never done more than basic campaign volunteering, etc. I'm willing to work my way up and pay dues, but have no idea where to start. Any advice?

Amy Joyce: No question is semi-stupid. It's either all stupid or not. (Kidding.)

Andrea just posted a story I did earlier this year on trying to find work on the Hill. Mainly, I'd tell you to get networking. That's how a lot of the positions happen on the Hill. For starters, definitely check in with your law school alumni center. Call anyone who is working on the Hill and ask for some advice/guidance/insight. Find Hill job web sites/listservs. There are many.

(You Hillites are great at the networking thing. What other quick advice do you have for D.C.?)

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I've been in my position for about 14 months now and realize that I jumped at the first job offered when I was laid off. How do I deal with the Monday dread of getting up and coming to work? The issues with work are starting to manifest themselves as terrible headaches when I leave the office. I mean they are at the point where I vomit on Sunday night with the dread of going to work on Monday morning. I'm already looking -- this time I'm trying to land in the right position not just another job.

Amy Joyce: Focus on the job search and try to get through the days step by step. Make lists/schedules for your days so your body knows you're in as much control as possible. Cross things off as you get them done so you know you're getting through. And let yourself realize that there is something much better out there. I hope that helps...

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St. Cloud, Minn.: I'm in my first job out of college. Six months into the job, I'm miserable. I did internships throughout college in this field but have always had second thoughts about it and thought I would try it out. Now, I know for sure that this isn't what I want to be doing as a career and have daydreams about other careers. Is it okay to leave a job before a year is up or will employers look down upon that?

Amy Joyce: Start looking for new work now that you actually want to do. By the time you find something, you may be closer to a year anyway. But most employers will understand, particularly with a first job, if you haven't been there for 12 months. It's really not such a big deal anymore. Might as well look and if you find something you like and they offer you a position, then this point is moot anyway, right?

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Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. I'm going to stop there. Thanks for all the good wishes, even though you're stuck with me for a while longer.

Check out the Sunday Business section to read Life at Work, the column. I'm also on Washington Post radio Mondays and Wednesdays. And I'll be here for you next week, same time, same place. You can email me at lifeatwork@washpost.com.

Have a great week, all.

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