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Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, April 17, 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.

A somber day in our area and throughout the nation. Sort of puts the loud cube mate issue in perspective, no?

The questions are rolling in, so let's get started.

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Chicago, Ill.: I'm a young professional, recently out of college, and I work for a fairly large nonprofit organization. There are very often large after work happy hours organized by members of my department. I'm not a big drinker, but there is often a lot of pressure to come with them, and people make comments if I duck out after only a couple of drinks. People also often make comments the next day if I don't go at all. Recently a coworker talked to me about how people who don't go out after work get "a reputation." She was talking about someone else, but I'm afraid she was trying to send me a message. How would you suggest I handle this?

Amy Joyce: Instead of thinking about people's comments, think about how you might be able to benefit from these happy hours, complete with a club soda and lime, thank you very much. Since you're recently out of college, these happy hours could be a good time for you to network, meet new people, talk about your goals. From that, you might get a mentor (or several) and your manager might remember how you mentioned at last week's happy hour that you wanted to work on Project X.

You don't have to go to every one, you don't have to stay til the wee hours, and you certainly don't have to drink. But your coworkers might be telling you to go because it could be good for your career.

What do you think?

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Washington, D.C.: I have a hard time working when I am affected by outside personal problems. I freeze up and can not do anything, it seems. The same is actually true away from work as well. I shut down when there is a personal problem. I recognize this is bad, but I don't know what to do. Do you have any suggestions? (Aside from therapy) Are there things I can do to focus my attention a bit better? Lists? Taking a walk? Eating chocolate? I really need suggestions ASAP! I have a looming deadline. Thank you.

Amy Joyce: Sounds like you have a good idea of what to do. I'm all for the list idea. Figure out what you have to do and by when. Break it down in to baby steps so it doesn't seem so daunting. Then promise yourself you'll get, say, five items done before lunch. Cross them off as you go. Oh, it feels so good. And seeing that you're making progress helps you continue to make progress. If you need a break, definitely take a walk, even in this bizarre windy April weather. It can help clear your brain and get you back to your list with a fresh head. Which is a good thing...

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Happy hours: Go occasionally, but not always. Just say you have other plans, no more info needed.

Amy Joyce: Right. You certainly don't have to go to all, and frankly, Chicago probably *does* have other plans at least some of the time.

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Re: Chicago, Ill.: Chicago, I work for a large consulting firm and often the first way I get to know other consultants is at the informal happy hours. I talk to people about what they are working on and get to know them so that way when I'm looking for information, have a position to staff or learn of something that might interest someone else, I know who to reach out to. I'm reluctant to staff people who never come to the events because it already demonstrates to me that they don't seem themselves as part of the team. Unless your organization is doing this every week, the time it takes to attend and meet people is well worth the trade off.

Amy Joyce: Interesting insight, Chicago 2. Thanks for that. (You really don't hire people who don't come to your happy hours?)

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Columbus, Ohio: Good morning. I work in a university. What do I say to my students later today about the horror at Virginia Tech? I sense that all of us, at universities and Colleges around the country, feel a profound sense of loss. This type of senseless violence could have taken place anywhere ... but it took place on a lovely, safe campus. Is there anything I should say that might make what we do today slightly more meaningful? Thanks.

Amy Joyce: I'm not sure what you do there, and I certainly don't have the expertise for this, but I can imagine it would be hard to concentrate in class today. If you're a professor, can you just have a day of discussion? Is that too much?

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Happy Hours: When I first moved here, I hated going to the happy hours after work. And man do I regret it now. It is one of the best ways to make and maintain friendships and expand your networking ability. I am incredibly shy, not a big drinker, and was broke, but I can't help but thing that if I had broken out of my shell every once in awhile, it would be easier to do so now. Making small talk with your co-workers is good practice for making small talk with strangers in the future. You don't have to go all the time, but once a week is a good goal. When I finally started going, I made some great friends, found out I had a lot in common with a manager (who remembered me and forward my resume around with out hesitation), and now its a lot easier to strike up conversations when set to conferences, etc.

Amy Joyce: More great insight about happy hours. Don't forget about the drinking thing: You don't have to. Just as long as you're there, making yourself known (um, in that not-drunk way), and learning a bit, that's all that matters. Obviously, it can really be a smart thing to do. Thanks.

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washingtonpost.com: Wisdom and a Helping Hand ( Post, April 15)

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Office Happy Hours: Go! An office happy hour tells your employer some key things about you:

1. Whether you're invested in company culture. If you duck out early, then they might think you aren't interested in your colleagues as people.

2. Whether you can conduct yourself professionally at a social event. Schmoozing like a champ opens more opportunities for you to deal with clients, the public, etc., later on.

3. Whether you can hold your liquor, or, better yet, stop after your second drink. This demonstrates trustworthiness.

When you go to these happy hours, set some goals for yourself, such as talking to three people you've never spoken to before.

Really, it's not so bad. And I know some might say it's unfair to judge employees based on whether they attend social events, but that's the world we live in. So even if it's uncomfortable at first, have a positive attitude and do your best! Who knows, it might even be fun.

Amy Joyce: Wow. Who knew how adamant people would be about their HHs. All good tips. And don't forget that even if you're shy and hate this stuff, remember that everyone else is there to do the same thing. So going to talk to a stranger from work will not be seen as odd. It's expected.

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Re: Happy Hour: I agree with what has been said about happy hours being good networking events. At the same time, I just want to remind Happy Hour regulars not to pressure this employee to drink. I'm a young professional and LOVE going to happy hours to spend time with and get to know my coworkers. However, I'm also a recovering alcoholic and don't drink at all. I drink soda at the happy hours, but I've had a few coworkers really get on my case about it. It's become so annoying that it's deterred me from attending happy hours I might have otherwise found really fun.

Amy Joyce: That is incredibly annoying. And dangerous, of course. Sorry to hear your coworkers put the pressure on.

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Washington, D.C.: Like Chicago, I work in a major nonprofit, and we go out together once a month or so. I hate to say it, but she might be actively damaging her career by skipping happy hour. In our organization, the talk invariably turns to work, and if four members of a five-person team are in the bar, we might come up with a whole new strategy and have it fleshed out with decisions made by the following morning. The fifth person will be left out, and have to spend time playing catch-up during work hours, or risk looking unprepared should a surprise meeting be called. And it won't really be anyone's fault. If that's the reality of your office, and it doesn't suit your lifestyle, this might not be the right job for you.

Amy Joyce: And one more opinion on the happy hour saga. (How do you feel about it now, Chicago?)

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Re: Unhappy Hours: Hi Amy. I normally like your advice, but I think you're a little off with the happy hour question. There's something inherently wrong with a work culture that "punishes" people who don't sacrifice enough of their social life for events that clearly aren't work-related. It's totally unreasonable for this person to be criticized for staying for a few drinks, then leaving. Are employees getting paid for hours spent at these happy hours? Seems like they should be, if not attending them could affect their work standing.

Obviously, these events can be good opportunities to network, but it just doesn't sound like this is the case here. The poster might want to examine whether this work-life culture is right for him/her. It all sounds very high school to me.

Amy Joyce: I'm not saying to go to each and every happy hour. In particular, I think Chicago needs to pay attention to this because s/he is newly graduated and in what sounds like a first professional job. It's important for this person to network, get out there, spend some time with coworkers/managers to figure out the culture and how to work.

Not everyone has the time or inclination, for sure. And many people have obligations at home or outside of work, so happy hours just aren't doable. But it doesn't hurt to go to them when you can, and I think there is absolutely value in going.

I don't think it was clear that this happy hour is totally not work related. I think any happy hour with coworkers will have some aspect of work to it, and possibly provide a new opportunity for an employee.

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Re: VT tragedy: I am on the faculty of a university and had class last night. Yes, it is too much for me at this point is the semester (nearing finals) to spend an entire class talking about this, although I think it's a good idea. I did, however, mention the day's events and told my students that I hope that everyone they know at Tech is safe. I also mentioned that whatever it was that this young man was suffering with, nothing is ever important enough to do something like this --whether it is a lost boyfriend/girlfriend or a bad grade or anything.

Amy Joyce: Thanks.

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Chicago again: Thanks for all of your advice. The happy hours are usually to celebrate someone's going away or arrival, or to get together and complain about work, and that's when there's usually a lot of pressure to drink (and drink and drink), which makes me uncomfortable. It isn't the kind of organization that uses happy hours to talk about strategic plans or anything like that. Nevertheless, you've given me some good reasons to think about showing up more often. Thank you again!

Amy Joyce: And thanks for writing back with a little more insight. You're right that even at these completely social events, there is still networking opportunity. But as with anything in these chats, you know more of the story, so read us, but make an educated decision based on what you know/feel as well. Good luck, Chicago. Sounds to me like you're doing just fine.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the article about interns. I used to work in a company that had lots of interns every semester. I think it helps to not only have ground rules between mentor and intern, but also some rules on how the interns should interact with other departments. Even though each intern was assigned to one particular person, all of them went through an orientation with presentations from each department, outlining what the department could or could not do for them. We also gave them a few handouts -- a FAQ about various procedures, and a glossary of terms used in our business that they might not have learned in class.

I think it's important to remember that they are working for free. We got a lot out of our interns, but we also allowed them to use our facilities to work on their own personal project. It had to be something related to our industry, but they chose the project. They ended up with something concrete to put on their resume, a 3-month long project rather than just a collection of routine tasks.

Amy Joyce: Sounds like an interesting way to go about the intern issue. Thanks.

On a related note, I'd like to point out that assigned mentors don't always work out. It's good to also let things happen as they happen. If you click with an intern (or if you, intern, click with a coworker), then listen to that and "ment" away.

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Washington, D.C.: I started my "dream job" last May -- or at least, I started with my dream company then. I love the company and find my job interesting, at the worst, and often fun. What's more, it is opening a lot of doors for me in the future, as moving around in the company is not only expected, but encouraged.

In December, a family death left me reeling, followed by a health crisis. My boss knows, at least slightly, about both. I am currently battling a case of the mean blues, and am starting to seek help (knowing it is no longer a case of natural distress but something I need to talk to someone about). As a result, I know my work has suffered. It bothers me both on a professional and a personal level -- I don't want to endanger this job and what's more, I hate doing anything less than my best.

My one year review is coming up in a few weeks. How do I prepare? Even talking about the last few months makes me a little teary, but I want to make it clear that I know I've been struggling but I'm willing to do my best to overcome that. Also, no one has said a word to me about my job performance suffering, so I don't even know if it's an issue. Should I bring it up if they don't? As I get motivation and happiness back I'm realizing more and more how lucky I am to be where I am, and how much I want to shine here.

Amy Joyce: Focus on the positive in that review, Wash. But be prepared to talk about your suffering performance. It may never come up, they may never have noticed it, or they may be blinded by the great work you typically do. But no matter what, be prepared for all. And think about it: Do you want to tell them about your problems this year that may have impacted your work? Do you think they will respond well? Once you think you have the answers to questions like that, you might know better what to tell them if you do need to tell them anything.

But also make sure not to just focus yourself on that right now. You love this job, there's a reason they hired you, you must be doing good work. Think about how you can talk about that, as well.

Good luck.

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Re: Columbus, Ohio: Re: talking to other college students about Va. Tech -- check out the chat later today about Bereavement. That's a good question for that chat.

washingtonpost.com: Live Online/Bereavement Discussion ( washingtonpost.com, 1 p.m. ET)

Amy Joyce: Thanks. Please do.

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Downtown, D.C.: I'm responsible for mentoring new hires at my publishing firm. We hire assistant editors to, well, assist us. As an entry level position the assistants do have some of the grunt tasks like opening and filing mail. I started in the job, and have been twice promoted, so I know what it's like and I try to give them more interesting assignments, such as calendar work and pieces of my assignments, and emphasize that there is promotion potential.

But I'm having a hard time keep the position filled. One resignation letter told me that the person felt she was "too good" for the job, and others have echoed the same thing. We hire new graduates, mostly liberal arts majors, and competitive starting salaries. It's like they expect day 1 is training, day two is promotion to vice president. Most leave in 6 months to a year. And it's burning me out on the job, which I can't really hand over to some one else.

I'm not sure what to do. The salary is good, and really publishing isn't a traditionally highly paid industry, and I'm out of ideas for more interesting work, and frankly, some one has to open the mail, that's why we hired an assistant. It's so bad that we're considering offshoring the job to a firm that will give us more people for considerably less money.

Amy Joyce: As someone who also started in a similar position here, I say keep interviewing. Make it clear this is an admin position. Consider hiring people still in college and splitting shifts since they may not be able to work full time. Go talk to the career counselors at the many colleges here (Howard, Trinity, AU, GW, GT, Catholic, Maryland) and see if they have students willing and interested in putting in the time. And make sure to tell the job candidates in the interviews that there is room for growth, but of course only if they do the work that they are assigned first.

A friend of mine is an editor of a major magazine in NYC. Like Devil Wears Prada fame, an entry level job there is a job anyone would die for. But so many people come in with the attitude that they are above the stapling, faxing, mail sorting, that they don't end up doing the things they were hired to do. They expect to come in an be a writer immediately. You can bet those employees will never end up with a job at a magazine that my friend edits again. Smart graduates understand that. But like many other jobs, it's going to take some time, trial and error to find the right hires.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm about to graduate with my master's degree and am thinking about contacting my mentor from ten years ago as a form of networking. The problem is that I'm stuck on line 1 of the e-mail. I don't even know what to say since it's been so long. I really enjoyed working for this person and would welcome the opportunity to speak with them again about my degree/career aspirations. Any advice on how to approach this? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Hey, look! You did it already:

Dear so-and-so,

It's been so long since we last spoke, but as I am about to graduate with my master's degree in X, I wanted to check in with you.

"I really enjoyed working for you [say where and when, in case it's been so long that they forgot] and would welcome the opportunity to speak with you again about my degree/career aspirations."

Here's what I'm up to and what I hope to do. If there's any way we could chat, I'd really appreciate it.

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Interns, again : How it worked at my company was each employee who wanted an intern, interviewed and picked who they wanted from a pool of intern applicants. So, the mentor was responsible for picking their own intern rather than being assigned one. Not that there still weren't personality conflicts, but it did help a lot.

Amy Joyce: Sounds good to me.

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Dark side of happy hours: I once had an alcoholic boss who used happy hours to prop up her drinking habit. Attendance (often into the wee hours) was pretty much mandatory and they were almost every week, every night if we were at a trade show. Skipping more than a couple would get you worse treatment, less interesting assignment, and general ostracism. This hard partying was not my cup of tea, and some people will always have to get home to their kids, to walk dogs, to run errands, etc. -- it's not fair for after-work fun to be counted against you at work. I quit that job.

I do go to most happy hours at my new job, but there is no pressure to attend or to stay and everyone has a good time. Sure, I like to socialize -- but please judge me on the quality of my work, not my willingness to dance on a bar at 2 a.m.

Amy Joyce: That is the dark side indeed. Glad you left.

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Arlington, Va.: My company is like many in the D.C. area whose profits (and basic existence) depend on winning proposals and contracts. Needless to say that the jobs of most of our company employees are also dependent on winning contracts. At this time we are in a down swing as far as winning new work is concerned. My boss and work colleagues are getting a bit nervous.

Actually, I feel I may be able to take advantage of this current situation by taking a period of time as Leave Without Pay (LWOP) or even a Leave of Absence. Financially, I am lucky enough to be in a situation where I can afford to take some time off to travel and explore some personal interests without breaking my bank or going into debt. I like the company I work for, especially my boss and the team I work with, and at this time I'm not interested in nor do I need to look for another job with another company.

I have hinted to my boss that I might be willing to take some LWOP or a Leave of Absence from the job as a way of helping him and the company through a financially challenging period of time. The more I think about this, the more excited I actually become at the prospect.

So, I guess my question is ... what precedent would or does this set? How would the company, in general, view my offer to take LWOP or a Leave of Absence (I'm thinking through the summer ... the next four months)? I'm thinking this could turn out to be a win-win situation for both of us. Any thoughts?

Amy Joyce: Any of you out there do something like this and have some insight?

To me, it sounds like a good opportunity for both you and the company. If you can do it and be promised a spot on your return, great. You're right that it sounds like a win-win. Make sure they hear the same thing. Two major pluses in my mind: They don't have to pay you while you're out, you're (presumably) out doing something new and interesting and can bring good experiences back to work with you.

Anyone?

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Jobville: Help! I work closely with someone who is not my supervisor but is senior to my position. The work she does in our company is similar to what I am going to grad school for (writing/communications/marketing). I help her out writing press releases, editing the company magazine, etc., when I have free time at work. I am leaving this job in August so that I can go to school full time for my final semester and finish up in December. I had planned on using this person as a reference when I started my job search seriously this fall, but she told me today that she is leaving in a few weeks to take another position in town. Do I go ahead and ask for a reference letter before she leaves (she knows I'm in school and will be looking for a new job when I graduate) or wait until I actually need the reference? She would be a valuable reference because my job is mainly administrative and someone in her position (Communications Director) vouching for my skills is crucial.

Amy Joyce: If you're sure she wouldn't tell your boss now, ask her now. You can say that you're thinking about graduate school. It might also be good to talk to her about it. However, if you're nervous asking her now, it's fine to wait, because you should keep in touch with her anyway so you have a good contact, right? (hint, hint).

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Rockville, Md.: Amy,

I love your chat -- read it every week. I know this has been discussed before, and I'm sure there are others out there looking for this information.

I need pointers on how to manage a job search while employed full-time. Mostly I need to know about scheduling interviews, disclosing information to current and prospective employers. I'm having trouble with scheduling as I don't want to take lots of days/time off but need time to go to interviews. Is it appropriate to tell interviewing company that I haven't told my current employer that I'm looking and need flexibility with scheduling interviews? How to manage?

I know, know, know I've read this in the chat before. Can you repost old responses?

Thanks,

Seeking in Rockville

Amy Joyce: You can try to schedule before your normal work hours, after work hours or during lunch. All things I assume you've tried. You can take vacation days to deal with it, which many people do. Or ask your boss if you can take a three hour break in the middle of the day as long as you make up for it that day or during the week. You don't have to say why you need the time off. Your boss, however, will probably catch on. Anyone else have any quick suggestions? (I'm going to stay on for about 10 minutes since I started later due to some technical difficulties...)

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Washington, D.C.: Is there any way the person in publishing looking for assistants can give you contact info or organization info? I'd like to get more information on the job she is looking to fill.

Amy Joyce: Um, don't usually do this, but why not. Publishing person looking for go-getters? Are you willing to send me your info? Both of you can email me at lifeatwork@washpost.com with your info and I can connect you if you'd like.

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Long Resume: Hi Amy, This is just an observation. I've been reviewing resumes from college students applying to jobs at my company. I am amazed at the number of 2-page resumes I have. In fact, out of about 100 resumes, only 5 or 6 have been on a single page. This is very annoying, but I wonder if they are being taught that 2-page (and even one 3 page) resumes are okay.

Amy Joyce: A shout out to college students to keep it to a page. Things that you can't fit into the resume that you'd like this potential employer to know can go in the cover letter.

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Re:Downtown D.C.: I had an entitlement complex when I was right out of school two years ago. I took an executive admin job with a large company who promised advancement with solid hard work. I wanted praises and power then. I quit when I didn't get tasks I wanted and was instead 'wasting my expensive education' filing mail, fetching coffee, and answering phones. I know now that I was wrong.

They teach us in school that with a good education, you can reach middle management, skipping over all the entry jobs for the lowly. It's idiotic and I try to tell friends graduating college now what to expect. They all have the same complex I did. We all learn our lessons. Maybe look for someone a year or two out of school. We know better now. Plus with a competitive salary and promise of advancement with hard work, a young professional like myself could not complain.

Amy Joyce: Very interesting. Thanks for this. Shameless plug here, but that's just what I wrote a book about several years ago. It's called "I Went to College for This?" because yes, many of us asked that question. But sometimes accepting that entry level position for what it is can get us to where we want to be.

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Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. Time to get back to work. Thanks for joining us today. You can check out Life at Work, the column, in the Sunday Business section. I'll be here again next week same time, same place to chat with you again. Have a great week.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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