Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, April 24, 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, please join in with your own expertise, stories to share, and advice.

Alrighty then, let's get started, shall we?


Burke, Va.: After searching for a few months, I finally got a job. The company is solid, good pay, good benefits. I can't say it was my first choice, but I needed to be employed.

The problem is that I'm now finding out that people stay late almost every night, week after week.

I'm not young and need to prove my mettle. Is it reasonable to back out? I do have another offer lingering.


Amy Joyce: Do you like the other offer? If you think that will be better, then feel free. People make mistakes when they choose jobs. It's not great to hop often, but if you are sure you can't stand working here and a better opportunity is available, go for it.

But the question(s) is (are): Is the other opportunity definitely better? Can you get your work done well here without staying late? Is it mandatory? Will your boss look down on you if you don't stay late? Figure all of these things out before you jump. But remember that it's okay to jump... just make sure it's an educated decision.


Frederick, Md.: Thanks for the chats. As a longtime non-profit worker, I frequently hear of people leaving corporate jobs to join the nonprofit sector. I am curious about resources for nonprofit managers and executives looking for corporate work. Don't get me wrong, working for something you believe in is wonderful, but it would be nice to see what else is out there. Any ideas? I'm wondering abut resources, books, headhunters?

Amy Joyce: Okay, readers. Get on this one. I know a ton of you have made the switch from non-profit to corporate and vice versa. How'd you do it?

Finding recruiters will be a help for you, Frederick. It's a way to get started, if nothing else. What fields are you interested in? Once you know that, see if there is a professional association you can join, then start going to their networking events. Talk to people in the for-profit world... friends, family, acquaintances... and ask what they like/dislike and if they'd be willing to chat with you about their company, then possibly pass your resume to the right person.


Boston, Mass.: I'm a contract worker and my current client works out of her home. She has a dog which bit me a few weeks ago, and bit another worker last week. My contract (that she drew up) states that I have to give three weeks notice, but I'd really like to terminate it sooner than that, as I am not comfortable working in this environment. I do not want to get into a big discussion with her about what the contract states, but worry that she'll insist I stick to it since I signed it. I haven't said anything to her about being uncomfortable working here. What should I do? Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Put your notice in now, and tell her you'd like to leave earlier if possible. Tell her why. A dog that bites is not something to be ignored.


Washington, D.C.: I recently switched to a new job that has an employee referral program. A former co-worker sent me his resume and wants me to refer him. However, I don't think this person would be a good hire so I don't want to refer him because that could reflect poorly on me. What should I say to this person?

Amy Joyce: This is one of those really difficult age-old questions. I think you just have to be honest: Bill, I'm sorry, but I just don't think there would be a good fit for you here.

Ouch. I know. But you do have to think about how this will reflect on you.

On the other hand, I'm sure many people pass resumes in and tell the HR department that they aren't sure how great this candidate would be, but they thought they should pass the resume along anyway. HR knows how to handle these things.

Anyone else have a good way to deal with this sticky situation?


Seattle, Wash.: Although my very large company has a policy that says employees must get approval from a supervisor if they're going to maintain a blog, one of my co-workers spends a good portion of the day working on his anonymous blog that the bosses don't know about. No big deal in and of itself, but the blog, which he has sent me the link to, is horribly offensive, sexist, and homophobic on a daily basis, and it makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to rat him out, but I've mentioned to him before that I find the blog offensive and he has blown me off. I don't really feel comfortable working around him knowing this is the stuff he writes, and neither do a couple of other coworkers. Anything we can do, or should we just get over it?

Amy Joyce: If it makes you uncomfortable, and he's still sending you links to read it, then you have every right to go tell your manager. In fact, if it makes you uncomfortable and he's NOT sending you links to it, you have every right to tell your supervisor. This is the whole "hostile work environment" that you should not have to be privy to. Your supervisor wouldn't want you to be uncomfortable working with a co-worker, I'm sure.

Also, if he's doing this on work time when he should be working with you, helping you, or doing something that affects your work or job, then again, you have every right to tell your manager.


Her dog bit you?: I can't imagine any judge enforcing whatever penalties she wrote for you giving less than three weeks notice so that you aren't bitten by a dog! Seriously, it's not my specialty, but I am a lawyer. Just get out. That's dangerous. I love dogs, but well trained ones with responsible owners don't bite like that. What is she going to do, sue you for not coming to work with a biting dog? She'll get laughed out of court.

Amy Joyce: Right-o. However, I guess you'd have to prove that you were bitten by the dog. But since someone else was as well, you probably wouldn't have much problem. (If it even got to the point where it landed in court. Three weeks is not much time for her to quibble over.)


RE: Burke, Va.: How late is late? 6 p.m. or 11 p.m.? Do folks start late (10 a.m.), too? Is this merely face time, or are there meeting with Asia Pacific counterparts? If there are a lot of extra hours, maybe you can talk to the boss about working some evenings or Saturday mornings at home.

Amy Joyce: Thanks. Good advice. (If, that is, Burke likes the work enough to do it.)


Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Amy. I've been a freelance magazine writer for over a year now. It's varied and interesting and I much prefer it to the series of office jobs I've had. The only problem is that it's very isolating working at home and I really miss the social aspect of working at an office. I don't have much in common any more with my old colleagues and most of my friends work and aren't available during the day. The publications I write for are all out of state and so there isn't the possibility of making connections there. Any thoughts?

Amy Joyce: There are freelance groups in D.C. that I know meet during the day for this very reason. I wonder if you could seek something out like that? Anyone know of such groups around Alexandria, or how to find the ones in D.C.?

That aside, do you have to interview people in this area for the pieces? Can you make sure to get out and meet them instead of doing phone interviews? How about volunteering when you're not working, and find your tribe that way? It's a great way to have a good group of people you can relate to.


Arlington, Va.: I loved your article about happy hours. My company seems to do them anytime there is a new hire/person leaves or for a "company bonding" type thing. I love to drink and have fun, but I rarely go out to a happy hour with my company.

Part of that is because I'm anti-social, to an extent (I have my set of friends that I feel comfortable around and share a lot in common with -- unlike how I feel around a lot of my co-workers in "happy hour" situations). I get some good-natured joking about my anti-social behavior, and I'm comfortable with that.

I like my job and while many know me as being a little anti-social at outside-work activities, it hasn't hindered me in the workplace. Missed that story? Read it here: When the Office Happy Hour Isn't, (Post, April 22)

Amy Joyce: I'm glad it hasn't hindered you, Arl. But do you ever wonder if you're missing out on something that might be *good* for you/your career?

I'm not saying anyone has to go get drunk with coworkers. I'm just saying you should keep your eyes open to opportunities with co-workers/supervisors where you can network and talk about things that don't come up in the workplace. It's a great way to find out about new job openings, available promotions, new projects you might want to work on.


Blogville: I don't know that the company is right to restrict blogging, but to take company time to do it is definitely a no-no! I hope they can find a reasonable way to have the issue addressed!

Amy Joyce: Right. And actually, there are a lot of companies that restrict blogging these days. People have been fired (legally) for blogging, even in off time if they refer to their workplace.


RE: Referral: I had that happen to me. It's easy enough to pass along the resume to the contact person and say, "I don't recommend this person for the job, but I promised I'd pass along his resume." That way, you keep your promise while saving face with your company. That's what I did, and my friend eventually dropped the matter.

I guess it would be more correct to be absolutely direct with the person who wants to be referred, but then you run the risk of working with this person again. A common reason for not wanting to recommend someone is their lack of people skills (was a huge factor in my case), and often, these kinds of workers are the types who will find a way to wreak vengeance if they can.

Amy Joyce: Thanks. I hope the referral person is still reading. HR really does understand. Just because you're passing a resume along does not mean you are recommending them. You can make that clear when you hand the resume over.


Chantilly, Va.: As a manager, I think it is important to better know how to retain top employees. In a time of lean budgets, what are the differentiators that cause a hard worker to choose to start looking for a job? I have little training budget; little bonus monies available and I anticipate raises will be small this year. But, I don't want to lose valuable people.

Would love to hear your thoughts and those of your readers.

Amy Joyce: I bet our readers have some thoughts on this!

A quick list from me: Autonomy. Trust from managers. Little micro-managing. Much listening. A chance to try new things, new opportunities. A "thanks" here and there and acknowledgement for work well done.



RE: Sticky situation: Just be honest with the person giving you the resume. When I was looking, I was looking behind every door, in every closet, etc. but found my job in an obvious place (online). I inquired about jobs at companies I probably would never want to work for, but was desperate. Good friends who knew that I would never want to work there would tell me that. Some would even tell me that there is only one job I could stand and they couldn't afford me.

If your friend is seriously looking or casually looking, he/she probably wouldn't like the job either way if they weren't a good fit. But, also be willing to take the resume to HR because they might have something (as was the case shortly after I got my job when I was the one on the inside) that you don't know about that would be good for your friend.

Amy Joyce: Thanks for the wise advice.


Intern hell: Amy: As we come upon yet another summer season, I feel that the interns I have had over the past year have given me enough material to write a book on what not to do. I'm not some old fuddy duddy. I'm in my mid-30s. I go to the 9:30 club. I like to drink. I listen to hip hop, but I know that my job is where work gets done and where I will be judged in ways that affect my future. Don't insult your supervisors. Don't wear clothes that let me know what kind of underwear you are or are not wearing. Do the tasks assigned, or tell me if you are confused. Keep your work area relatively neat so I can find your files if you are out of the office. Don't plagiarize. Don't whine. Show up on time or call. Do today's college kids just not know? Does no one tell them? Should I start a Myspace page about the issue?

Amy Joyce: Ah, IH, I wrote a book on this topic myself! But welcome to it. It's a ripe, ripe area. A Myspace page might be a good idea.

My feeling is interns have been doing stupid things forever. It's just we can see now how *not* to act. I think this is one thing lacking in college education. Why not teach a few things about how to act at work, on that first internship?


Salt Lake City, Utah: I'm not sure if this should go to Hax or you, but here goes, I have a friend who is suffering from depression while trying to conduct a job search. Since she is unemployed (read: no insurance) and living in a rural area there are only a few resources for her to draw on to manage her depression, further there really aren't that many job opportunities where she lives. Do you or the peanuts have tips on how she might be able to manage her depression while conducting a job search? And does anyone out there know of good resources for work-from-home type jobs?

Amy Joyce: There are definitely organizations that can provide your friend with help since she doesn't have insurance. That, however, is Hax's foray. I'm not sure what they are. But it sounds to me like your friend will probably need to get help quickly, and that will only help her find a job. Anyone?


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Is there a polite way to ask co-workers to not have loud conversations right next to my desk? I sit next to the printer for the entire department, and often people come in to pick up their papers and it leads to a "water cooler" effect. Also, there is not a barrier between my desk and the printer, and often people who are senior to me collate their papers on my desk. Because they are my superiors I'm not sure how to handle this. Thanks in advance.

Amy Joyce:"Sorry, folks, can you take it somewhere else? I'm having a hard time concentrating."

As for the managers who rudely staple on your desk, can you point them to a nearby table/area they could staple instead? People can be pretty clueless sometimes.


Denver, Colo.: Amy: After nearly eight years at my current job, I am bored, bored, bored. I've found a position at a nonprofit organization that is related to my current field and I think I might really enjoy. However, I'm almost certain the position won't pay anywhere close to what I'm making now, which, unfortunately, isn't really that much so a substantial pay cut is out of the question. Do I go ahead and apply, hoping to make enough of an impression that they may consider me if a higher-ranking position opens up in the near future? Or do I save us all the time and trouble and keep looking? Thanks, and I love the chats.

Amy Joyce: Do both. Apply and keep looking. You aren't sure what they can offer, but no matter what, you should give it a chance.


Washington, D.C.: Amy, I'm so depressed. I'm interning at a great organization to get my foot in the door. My supervisor started out happy to see me everyday and gave me little tasks to do. The past few weeks, she's given me almost nothing to do because she's been busy with a large, time-sensitive project. She's annoyed whenever I ask her details on the few tasks she does gives me (usually administrative tasks for the president of the company). I do everything I can to be of help - coming in an hour early, staying half an hour late (I don't get paid for that) and asking her at least once a day if there's anything I can help her with. She's the only person who can give me a recommendation for a full-time job here, but she's not giving me any opportunity to shine and she's leaving soon. What do I do to prevent wasting the past few months here? I sacrificed so much to get this position and I'm not getting anything out of it.

Amy Joyce: And from the other side of the internship saga...

How possible is it for you to find a mentor at your organization, D.C.? Go talk to a few people who work there. Ask if you can help them, while making sure you're getting your own work done.

Also, are you sure you're not getting anything out of this position, D.C.? Sure, you're doing grunt work. But you're meeting people (or should be), and learning what you *don't* want to do. You're figuring out how to deal with office situations. And you have a great internship on your resume now. It's not for naught. Just make sure you are doing everything you can to get something out of it.

Can you ask your boss if she would have time for coffee at a particular date and time? Schedule yourself in and ask her what she thinks of your performance, what you can do to improve, and how you should approach her when you have questions about various tasks.

Good luck.


Interns: My apologies for this, but I attended a very competitive college and had no problem finding internships each summer. I had a total of three. Though I can't speak for all interns and their managers, every single one of my internships (and all were at prestigious companies) were merely administrative positions that offer the illusion of actual involvement in day-to-day company affairs. Once I realized this, I practically did nothing at each of them. I just made it seem as though I was busy each day, and each manager would think I was working on someone else's work. Being an intern offers little in my opinion, except for space on the resume. I've been working for a year now and have interns under me. I don't deal with them, but I suspect their scenario is not too different from what mine was.

Amy Joyce: Boy am I glad you don't deal with them. Because of your bad attitude, there would be interns in our world today learning nothing, doing nothing and taking nothing away from what COULD be a great experience. Thanks.

There is absolutely value to internships. Sure, many are administrative in nature. Think you'd let a college student balance the company books? You have to start somewhere. If you do good work with the grunt work, someone may notice and give you more challenging work. (It happens all the time, except when an intern is working for someone like you, I suppose.) Internships also lead to great contacts, leads for future jobs, and mentors who can be a great sounding board for the rest of our careers.


Blogging: Companies certainly do fire people for blogging about their workplaces. My friend worked with someone who would daily berate his company and co-workers in his blog. Everything from comments about who was sleeping with who, who he hated, to posting sensitive corporate data. He thought he wouldn't get found out since he did the blog anonymously. The company did find out and he was gone soon after.

I'm not sure why he jeopardized his career like that. He used to get to travel the world, and was up for a big promotion. Now he's having a hard time finding employment. If he hated the company and his coworkers so much, he should have left on his own while he was still on good terms.

Amy Joyce: Yep, I'm afraid your friend is just one of a growing number of employees in similar situations.


RE: Chantilly: An e-mail or an in-person 'thank you' or acknowledgement of a job well-done on a project or ongoing assignment goes so very far. Praise does a lot for morale. And the trust, listening, etc. Amy mentioned are really helpful, too.

Amy Joyce: Thanks...


RE: Denver, Colo.: I was in the same boat last year, but bit the bullet and got an offer. They'd asked about my salary history and decided to offer a tad higher than the position I'd been in for seven years just to make sure I'd take the offer. You never know.

Amy Joyce: Thanks to you, too!


Baltimore, Md.: For the Alexandria freelancer: Join Washington Independent Writers. I was a member for years so I could access their job bank, but they also have social functions and networking events.

I would also submit clips/online samples to local magazines and publication, such as Washingtonian and City Paper in order to both boost business and improve the social quotient.

But I should also say that I did freelance writing out of my home for 10 years and never missed the social aspect of office work. Part of that was because I had clients with whom I came in contact. I was doing marketing writing. The fact is, however, I am just not that social. I had a good friend, an art director, who tried it for about six months and went stir crazy.

Amy Joyce: Thanks for the tips. And yes, it's true that freelancing/working from home isn't for everyone.


Arlington, Va.: I submitted an application for a job a while back. After not hearing anything for over a month, I assumed they had passed on me and made plans for a two week vacation this summer (late June). Of course, in hindsight I should not have assumed, because I just heard from the company that they want to interview me. Since the vacation is non-refundable I am somewhat stuck. I am still interested in this new job, albeit not enough to lose the money on the vacation. Everyone I've asked about this says to go ahead with the interview, feel out when the company would like me to start, and if it conflicts with the vacation, try to negotiate to a later date. Does that sound reasonable to you? At what point (if any) in the process should I disclose that it is a vacation that is holding up my availability? Some of my more bold friends have suggested that I should either imply or outright say that the delay would be due to notice or project completion requirements at my current job but that is not really how I want to start off with a new employer. Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Oh, Arlington, stress not. This happens all the time. You didn't know this would come up now, and they will understand that. When they offer you the job, tell them that you want it. Then tell them you have a non-refundable vacation planned that you'd like to keep. Give them options: You could start, then take your two weeks off by taking leave without pay. Or you could start after your vacation. Be apologetic, but not so much that they think you did something wrong. Because you didn't. Most HR managers I speak with tell me this happens constantly, and they just figure something out. It won't make them rescind the offer.


Internships: I had great internship experiences. Like you said, Amy, I made the most of the situation. Yes, I had mostly administrative functions, but I was also given more engaging tasks once I proved myself. I graduated in 2006 and I have been employed since then. If I did not have internships to learn from, I think it would have been difficult to get a job right out of college (what learning experiences did the poster describe in her interview for her first job out of college?) Thanks for the great advice!

Amy Joyce: Good for you. Thanks.

A friend of mine is the editor in chief of a major fashion mag. She said she judges interns on their understanding that they have to do grunt jobs to move up. The people who come in expecting to write and ignore the fact they have to do a mailing will get no good reference from her, and they will never be the ones she considers hiring. The interns who do the mailing, then turn around and say "what's next?" are the ones she wants working for her forever.


Washington, D.C.: Boy, are you excited for Gene's return? Talk about Life at Work, my Tuesday life at work has gotten so much better now!

Amy Joyce: I'm very happy for you all. Just a few more minutes, and you can spend your lunch hour with Gene. Life is good.


Amy Joyce: And on that note, I think it's time I get back to work myself. Thanks for joining me, all. Don't forget to check out Life at Work, the column, in the Sunday Business section. I'll be here again next week, same time, same place to discuss your work life. Have a great week.


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