Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, April 3, 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, jump in with your own advice, thoughts, insight and stories to share with fellow readers.

Andrea will post Sunday's column in a sec, which has received a bit of attention from you all already. We can chat about that or anything else on your mind.

Lots of questions await, so let's get going, shall we?


Reston, Va.: I think there might not be a solution to my problem, but I appreciate you and the readers taking a crack at it. A woman in my office smokes. She follows the building rules and does it outside, but I am pretty sure she gets her cigarettes from 1954 Russia because she smells terribly smoky all the time. It's awful to have her walk by your desk and there's always a scramble to avoid sitting next to her in meetings. Is there anything that can be done? Is there some product that can get rid of the smell? Any recommendations on how to approach her about this?

Amy Joyce: Unless your company bans smoking even on the outside, there will be little you can do but protect yourself. Make sure your boss knows you can't sit near her for health reasons (or whatever) and get yourself a fan.

Companies are really starting to ban smoking on all company property, including outside. Maybe yours will start to do the same. Maybe not. But you can look into that option and propose it if the smoking issue really is such a drag. (ouch).

Other companies are creating smoking cessation programs--some that actually reward employees who quit with lower health care costs. Again, if you care to, mention this to your boss/HR or benefits folks. I don't know if that will change anything at your office, but you can start to look at the options.


Alexandria, Va.: Some new rules have been instituted in our office that I don't agree with at all. It's had a major impact on my productivity. I've discussed it with my immediate boss but some of the rules are still in place. What is the best course of action to fight these rules? We're a small firm so we don't have an HR person.

Amy Joyce: Well, without knowing what the rules are, I can't really tell you much. Do you know the reason for the rules? Can you understand why management put them in place? If not, ask first. Then see if you can discuss further what changes can be made. But you'll have to make a real case for changing their rules....


Washington, D.C.: I am planning to leave my job to attend graduate school full-time starting in September. I am 99 percent sure of this; I have already secured new housing arrangements and paid a tuition deposit. I was going to give my boss about two months' notice and volunteer to help hire a replacement. The problem is, a more senior person in my department is leaving in May, and my boss would like to promote me. I am thinking that I should let me boss know now that I am leaving ... but I definitely need my income at least through July. Any advice on timing?

Amy Joyce: I usually say to hold off on telling the boss. But in this case, since you'll likely be leaving in September, it might be best to talk to your boss now. Come up with a solution or two for your boss when you do, however. You might ask if there is any way for you to take the promotion until Sept. In that position, you can help train your replacement, get new experience and your boss will know to keep an eye out for a replacement for you. Make sure you show him/convince him how dedicated you are to the job even though you likely will be leaving.


Worried and depressed: My wife worked for a very small nonprofit and was terminated last week without notice. Her supervisors did not provide any substantial explanation other than that they're looking for a different set of skills. She has worked for them for eight months and she went through an evaluation earlier this year and things were good. Is there anything we can do? As it is a very small nonprofit, the company does not have an HR person. Does it violate any employment laws?

Amy Joyce: Most likely, laws have not been broken. Unless you're a member of a union, most companies can fire you for any reason. (Except those protected by law: Race, religion, sex, etc.)

I'm very sorry for your wife, but it seems like it would be best if she picked up quickly and tried to find a new gig. It would be completely understandable/fair for her to go and ask her manager or supervisor for real reasons as to why she was fired (what different set of skills?). And ask what they would say if she asked them for a reference. Also make sure she has a copy of that good evaluation. Lastly, if it helps, remind her that considering the situation, she probably shouldn't/wouldn't want to work for this organization anyway.


River City: A headhunter e-mailed after seeing my resume on Monster. I replied that I'd be interested in certain specific opportunities (narrowing down the field she described) and stressing I was NOT interested in relocating, so I was only interested in opportunities in the Richmond area. She responded: "OK, is Falls Church near Richmond? I'm in Florida, I have no idea!"

How do I snarkily respond that if she can't bother to mapquest Falls Church to see it's two hours from Richmond, I don't want to work with her. I DO think it's important that I inform her for the record that she does NOT have my authority to show my resume to people (I heard they do that, unauthorized) since her causal attitude could affect my professional reputation.

Amy Joyce: Seems to me like she was trying to figure it out. No need to be snarky. Just tell her where you're located, decide whether you want to work with her and move on. Really now, angry people.


The Great Flyover: Hi, Amy. I left D.C. last fall to move back near my family, and am having a terrible time finding a job. This state's economy is bad, and opportunities in my field are almost non-existent. I find it hard to convey in a resume and cover letter that the skill set I acquired working in my old field is transferable to other jobs and work settings. I also worry that my employment (good government jobs) and salary history might scare hiring managers off, since I'll be taking a big cut from what I was making in DC; however, with the cost of living a lot lower where I am now, I don't worry about any pay cut. Those are some of the things I feel I'm up against, but my questions are these: is an "Objective" on a resume coming back into vogue? A couple resume books that I got from the library, published within the last five or so years, include an objective on their samples. I mean, my objective is a job, that's why I'm sending the resume. My state's online job bank requires that you include an objective on your resume when you post it online. Also, I wonder how effective online resume banks are, really; seems that unless you're some sort of techie guru you're not going to get many employers going that route, especially when most jobs, at least around here, get plenty of candidates just by hanging out the 'help wanted' sign. Your thoughts? Thanks.

Amy Joyce: If you have a good objective, by all means, throw it on there. Particularly if you think it'll help. But if you can't think of anything compelling, skip it. You can write a good cover letter to make up for it.

Online resume sites are fine, but don't lean on that only. You have to get out and network. Talk to people your family knows. Volunteer. See what other opportunities might be lurking in the shadows. Call your alumni center and see if there is anyone in this area you moved to. Contact them and ask them for guidance.

This should be your full-time job now. Make a goal everyday of trying several different things. Get out, make it known that you're looking.


New York, N.Y.: What bothers me about smokers is the extra time they seem to think they are entitled to for their habit. The man in the office next to me goes outside at least twice an hour for a cigarette (you can tell from the smell). Imagine I tell my boss I am going outside every 20 minutes or so for fresh air. Non-smokers should demand equal time off!

Amy Joyce: Yep, that's an age-old argument. But riddle me this: If you wanted to go out for fresh air, couldn't you? Are these smokers asking their bosses before they take a smoke break? (In some workplaces, it's true, they have to get permission. But in many cases, we're a little more free to get up and move around when we need.)


Washington, D.C.: Employers, want to know how to increase productivity and keep good employers? Show some appreciation. I had a particularly trying time at work last month, incredibly busy with a surprise project that took the majority of my time. It was a part of my job, so I did it without complaining. But when work surprised me with a gift to show their appreciation for what I did, it sure made feel good about it.

I would have been just as satisfied with a verbal thank you. Either way, they took time to let me know I'm valued. I've never had that in a job before.

Amy Joyce: It's amazing how far a little verbal thank you can take us, let alone the recognition you received.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Amy. Great column on Sunday. There were two thoughts I had immediately concerning the guy who thinks his family leave has impacted how he is being treated by his boss. First, has he talked with his boss about this perceived difference? There's a lot to be said for clearing the air and it just wasn't clear that he had done this. It seemed like a lot of coincidence and speculation on the part of the employee. Second, I thought immediately that this can be a wake-up call to all of us. Of course this is speculation on my part, but one thing that could be at the root of the boss' changed attitude could be that while the employee was away, some faults may have become evident on the part of the employee. I'm thinking along the lines that often too many of us keep things pulled together at work with "band-aids" and if we're suddenly out or gone, others can't fill in very well, because the ad-hoc systems and individual memory is missing. So as far as the wake up call to all of us is keep your work in good shape, so there's not a lot of reason for people to resent your not being there some time. Two-Way Empathy Thaws an Icy Response to Time Off, (Post, April 1)

Amy Joyce: Thanks D.C. That's some interesting insight you have. I think that would be a good practice for us all to keep, no matter what. But it would really come in handy if and when we need to jump away for a while.


RE: EAP: If I go to my EAP, is my manager automatically notified? This may be an absurd fear, but I always assumed EAP was totally confidential. I recently read somewhere that it was not, and now I'm hesitating. Does it vary from company to company?

Amy Joyce: That's not an absurd fear at all. Employee Assistance Programs are supposed to be completely confidential. Not only should employers provide privacy on an ethical level, but they are legally obligated to it.

When a company brings in an EAP, the company also signs an agreement promising that any employee visits will be confidential. Companies and managers have the right to track if an employee is going to appointments they were asked to go to by a manager, but companies do not have the right to tell the public that an employee is being treated.

I believe, for the most part, managers are not told, but if they asked you to go, like I said, they have an obligation to check that you are.

Call your company's EAP and ask. Whatever you do, however, don't keep yourself from help.


Richmond: I wasn't angry, just don't have time for someone who isn't going to do their job right. She e-mailed me and should have done a quick, 30-second search before suggesting Falls Church was within commuting distance of Richmond. This is her area of expertise, I shouldn't have to spend my valuable time doing her job for her. In my industry (which she claimed to specialize in), this sort of lax attitude would not be tolerated.

You presented me to the readers as angry, but I'm just too busy to deal with someone who can't be bothered to do the minimal homework required of their job.

When I'm seeking a job, I do my homework, checking out the company on the web, so a headhunter wanted to expand her territory in Virginia should have done the same. I'm surprised you're support such sloppy work since you teach us to be well-prepared. Why am I "angry" if I expect my headhunter to be well-prepared too, especially since she's a emissary of my professional reputation when she talks to companies. If she comes off lax, uninformed, lazy, she isn't representing me properly to companies and they're not going to take me seriously.

Amy Joyce: Seems to me like you're angry. Why else ask what snarky comment you can make? You will get much further with her by telling her that you expect that she would know where you are and what areas you would want to work in. Like I said, you don't have to work with her. Find a different headhunter, or several. If you don't like the food and service at a local restaurant, do you keep going back?


Bereavement vs. FMLA: The employee in Sunday's column was potentially eligible (if working for a company employing over 50 people) for FMLA leave while his mother died. I previously supervised an employee in this situation and her doctor certified that the employee was needed to help care for her mother as the mother approached death. I imagine it was emotional care for both, more than physical care for the mother, but the doctor didn't specify, and so she qualified for FMLA leave. And no, I didn't question her commitment to her job. I certainly hope that her commitment to her family (considering family is permanent) was greater than her commitment to her job (from which she could be laid off, or choose to leave at any time).

If the employee in your column did use FMLA leave, he should know that it is against the law to hold that leave against an employee. It sounds like things are settling down and getting back to normal for him, but if I was granted any type of leave for a dying family member, and felt that I was being penalized for it, I would eventually look for another job.

Amy Joyce: Thanks. FMLA is definitely an option, but only if you have worked with the company for a year and if you have 50 or more employees. Also, it's entirely unpaid. And you would (as you mention) have to prove that you were a caregiver or sick yourself.

It can be illegal to deny someone FMLA they need, but if a boss is just being a little cold to an employee upon return, there's nothing much to be done, legally. (Sort of a schoolyard spat at that point.)


Anonymous: Hey, Amy. Thanks for taking my question. I just found out today our company health insurance has been cancelled due to nonpayment for a few months. Our contribution was still taken out, but the bill apparently was never paid. They weren't going to let anyone know until they knew how to fix it. Meanwhile, people have gone to the doctor thinking they were covered. We also have several pregnant employees who obviously need constant coverage. Any advice from you or the nuts on what to do about this situation? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Yikes! Anyone have a suggestion about what to do here?


RE: New rules person: Sorry to be so cryptic, but our company has banned headphones in the office. One of the things that drives me nuts is that now I sit in the office and I can hear EVERYTHING that is going on. my neighbor talking on the phone with his doctor, the girl across the office talking on the phone all day, the delivery people coming and going in the reception area. It's driving my nuts and it's now hard to concentrate on my work. The powers that be think that by not listening to music, we'll communicate more and be more aware of other people's work. But I think it does that opposite, it lowers productivity by encouraging everyone to socialize about non-work related stuff. What should I do?

Amy Joyce: Interesting. Your company isn't the only one doing this. I assume earplugs are out of the question...

If that's the rule, you may have to abide. And unfortunately, you may have to just get used to office noise. It drives me crazy sometimes, too. But that's when I get the headphones out.

I'd suggest you speak with your manager about this further. Explain how you can't concentrate (Does your manager sit out near the noise??) and ask what options you have...

In the meantime, can you email me at I'd love to talk to you further about this.


New job woes: Second day on the job and I'm already worried about not liking it. One of my prime responsibilities was taken over by another new hire, and now I'm worried I'll just be doing paperwork.

I have a great degree, this is an hourly position with no benefits!

Should I treat it like a temp job and keep looking? I don't want to sell myself short, but I don't want to look like a job hopper. At the same time, I don't know if this is worth my while.

Amy Joyce: Two days? Have you even found the bathroom yet?

Sure, keep looking. But I say that because I think we should always have our eyes open for a new opportunity. Let yourself at least sit there, though, and give it a chance for a week or so. How can you be sure what this job is about?

As for the worry about job jumping: Have you hopped much in the past? If so, you might want to stick this one out for a while. If not, and you're sure this job isn't for you, then consider it a lesson learned and look a bit harder for a different job that will be a better fit.


RE: Flyover: My husband and I are in this situation -- moved back to the Midwest for family. It took time, but he found a very "D.C." job here that really values his government experience. He ended up at a huge R&D nonprofit that supports federal government agencies across the country, so he knew of them when we were in D.C. He was exactly what they needed -- people with his skills are few and far between in this area, so look at your specific government experience and skills as an advantage, not a disadvantage. Also, after a year at a job that is just OK, I'm now interviewing for my dream job, also very "D.C." It can happen, just give it some time and take what you can get in the meantime.

Amy Joyce: Thanks. I hope Flyover is still reading...


Pay cut: I am looking for a job in an area I moved to with my husband about six months ago. I am not finding much (small town). I have applied to a job I am overqualified and overeducated for and that surely pays about $25,000 less than I was making prior to moving.

I am thinking of taking a lower paying job since I want to get out of the house and I do think you learn things in all jobs.

What will future potential employers think if my salary history steadily went up and then I had a huge drop in pay. Will they try to "get me" for my new, smaller salary?

Amy Joyce: Recruiters tell me they always look at geography. Most likely, they'll recognize that you moved to an area that pays less. So they will factor that in...


RE: The smoker: I love this chat when you address things like career changes/job navigations, HR difficulties, volunteer opportunities, etc. But when we spend the whole hour on questions like annoying smokers, nosey questions about pregnancies, close-talkers with bad breath and the like, it becomes a Hax chat! (I adore Hax's chat; I just think this one serves a different and very useful purpose.)

Amy Joyce: Maybe Hax and I should do a chat together: Tell Me About Life at Work.


D.C.: I absolutely love my job, but I am so in need of a vacation. Problem is I can't stomach the thought of taking time off work to go somewhere because of the pileup when I come back. Suggestions?

Amy Joyce: You'll come back refreshed with more energy. That pile of work will not seem so bad after you've been able to be out from under the office lights for a while. Take it. Really.


Washington, D.C.: For the writer last week who gave two weeks' notice and was told to leave at the end of the first week, have you checked with unemployment? It wouldn't make up for the entire week of lost pay, but it would be something, and that's better than nothing.

Amy Joyce: Throwing this out there...


Washington, D.C.: I work in a fairly relaxed office (social service nonprofit world), but while things are laid back, they are not so laid back that one can wear flip-flops to work. Yet this is what I did today. It was a mistake. I go to the pool in the morning and was running late and forgot to switch my shoes and didn't even realize it until I was on the metro almost all the way to work. So ... do I even say anything about it? No one has said anything to me.

Amy Joyce: You made a mistake. If you feel weird about it, tell your boss. If you think you can get through the next six hours or so without ruining your career, chalk it up to an oops and bring in an extra just-in-case pair of shoes to store at your desk for next time.


Washington, D.C.: A job opportunity has opened up in another department of the very small organization where I work. It's one I'm potentially interested in, and at least one of the people in the department is very interested in me filling the position. They have yet to write the job description, though. I've informally given my coworker my resume, just to give him an idea of what my qualifications are. The problem is, I'm very close to the staff members in the department I work in now. They've been so fabulous to me, it's just that this new job may be great experience and more substantive work. When should I tell my boss now that I'm considering applying for the job in the other department?

Amy Joyce: After the department has posted it and before you interview, tell your boss. But only your boss. If you get it, explain to coworkers how great it was to work with them, but this offered you opportunities you have been hoping for. Usually when we apply to jobs within in the same company, we should clue in our boss. Other than that, treat it like any other job search and interview process.


Just another opinion: This discussion is called Life At Work and unfortunately that often involves annoying smokers, nosey questions about pregnancies and close-talkers with bad breath. I'm glad Amy covers all the bases.

Amy Joyce: Thanks. Maybe I shouldn't have been so short on that last question.

It's true that work is life and vice versa. I think a lot of the issues that make it tough to come to work every day include things like smelly coworkers, a ban on headphones and a messy desks. I try to cover it all, from legal issues (as much as I know) to what seem like softer issues. Because that is life at work, no?


Rockville, Md.: Hi, Amy. I have a question about office romance, from the perspective of a supervisor who is witnessing it and wondering if I should be discreetly stepping in and telling the new office couple to tone it down. We're a relatively small office, the relationship is new - sprung up a couple of weeks ago and the love birds have practically made a public declaration of their undying love. They're taking lunch together every day, openly arriving at and leaving work together every day, and there's been some public displays of affection in front of other colleagues (ick). In general, my philosophy on this is that office romances are no one else's business as long as there's no power dynamic involved (and there isn't in this case). But to be frank, they're sort of making it everyone's business by being so over the top public about it. As a manager, I'm worried about (a) the inappropriate displays of affection, and (b) possible (but not definite) drains on their productivity (as well as how well they're going to handle this if it goes south, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it). I don't feel like it's my prerogative to tell them they need to be more discreet ... but I also think they're veering toward being unprofessional. We've had plenty of previous office romances but the people involved were discreet and professional while at work so it was never an issue. Should I be doing/saying anything here, and if so, what?

Amy Joyce: If you have an employee veering toward unprofessional for any other reason at work, don't you talk to them? Do the same here. You are the supervisor, and you're not asking them to break up. You're just asking them not to treat work like a romantic dinner out.


Amy Joyce: On that note, gang, it's time to get back to work. Join me again next week, same time, same place. Don't forget to check out the Sunday Life at Work column (hint: it's something you asked for) in the Business section. You can e-mail me at

Have a great week, all...


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