Life at Work Live

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Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, May 8, 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 hop in with your own advice and stories to share with your fellow readers here.

A bunch of questions await, so let's just get started, shall we?

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Atlanta, Ga.: I think your column on Sunday was excellent. I am glad that companies are becoming involved in this issue. However, what if it's the employee who is doing the abusing and the spouse who is home? One of the things an abuser does is try to make the abuse dependent on him/her -- so many people being abused do not have jobs (a reason they stay).

What do you think a company would do in that situation? If it didn't affect an employees work (which, I would suppose, it does) then do they not care? Do companies offer the same type of EAP for spouses?

If an employee indicates abusive behavior, what would a company do?

washingtonpost.com: Missed Amy's column on Sunday? Read it here: Office Awareness Can Head Off Abuse at Home, (Post, May 6).

Amy Joyce: A few of the companies I spoke with for this column mentioned they are on the lookout for in-house abusers, as well. It's not a big part of the programs yet (How can they find the abusers? Think they'll come forward and tell their managers?). But I know these companies provide EAP services to the abusers, too. I believe Liz Claiborne's education program includes things like how to tell if you are abusive, and they did a survey of employees recently that included those questions. Some people answered very honestly (but anonymously) that they are the abusers in their relationships.

I'm not sure if the benefits are open to those being abused if they don't work there.

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Washington, D.C.: Amy -- What's the best way to propose to your employer that you would like to request several months off (unpaid leave, of course). I want to travel and take a few programs and seminars that are of interest to me for my personal development. How do I sell this to my current employer?

Amy Joyce: Has anyone in your company done this before? If so, go talk to them (duh). If not, think about why the company would want to do this. Can it save them money? Will you be able to bring whatever skills you gain back to the company? Can you promise them that (do you want to)? Think about the benefits for the company. That will make this a little easier on you. But if you want to do it, and you can afford it, go for it. I think experiences like this are priceless. And yes, if your company doesn't want you back, you will still be very hirable elsewhere.

Anyone do this before and want to provide some advice/insight?

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Arlington, Va.: I am 26-years-old, but I've been known to be carded at Rated R movies. Yes, I've been told I'll love looking so young when I'm 50, but at this junction in my career, it's important to me to at least look my age. Can you give me any tips (hairstyles/make-up) to make me look older? I want to look 26, not 16 trying to look 26.

Amy Joyce: Dress professionally. Act professionally. That's all you can do, and that's the best you can do. Don't start trying to cake on the makeup or get a granny haircut or grow a beard if you're not in to that. (Talk about regrets later.) People will wonder what's up, when really all you should do is prove your worthiness at work. People can get over your youthful appearance if you show them you're a smart, innovative, creative employee/client.

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Alexandria, Va.: With the proliferation of online classes, I'm just wondering how effective and how helpful getting an online MBA degree would be? With everything else being equal, would companies be more inclined to hire a person who received a degree online over someone without a degree?

Amy Joyce: Companies? HR folks? What are your thoughts? I know people who who have done this at places like Univ. of Md.. and ended up with great jobs. So, can't be too prohibitive, right?

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Annandale, Va.: Hi, Amy! I am going to be starting a new job soon and I have already made plans to go on a vacation in November. How do I tell my new employer about that?

Amy Joyce: Thanks for the offer. I'd need to let you know, however, that I have already made plans for a vacation in November. Is there a way we can work this out?

Be prepared to take paid time off, or ask for an advance on your vacation time. And remember that this happens all of the time. Companies are used to it and can handle it. Congrats on the new job.

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Anonymous: Hi, Amy. My boss wants me to cc: him on all e-mails I send related to my projects. I'm not an entry-level person; fairly senior in fact. Is there a good way to tell him that I find this a demonstration of a lack of trust? My reviews from him have all been "excellent." My perspective is that I'm more than happy to (and do) cc: him on significant exchanges, but that I find cc:ing him on my day-to-day work shows that he lacks confidence in my work. Thanks for your advice!

Amy Joyce: How about asking him (in a not-defensive way) why he would like you to cc him on all e-mails. He may have a very logical reason that you actually agree with. If you don't, tell him that you'll do it, but he'll be inundated with pointless emails.

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Anonymous: Hey, can you do us a favor and not say "duh" when responding? I'm sure you don't mean it, but it comes across as trying to make someone feel foolish for asking a question. If they knew what to do, they wouldn't have written.

Amy Joyce: Sorry if it came across that way, but I was saying Duh to myself. I typed that advice and thought: Like this person wouldn't have thought of this him/herself.

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Anonymous: Morning, Amy. Sorry for posting early, but I hope that you and your readers can help. Long story short, I lost my GS-14 salary govt. job because I lost my security clearance for mental health issues. I always received really good evaluations throughout my career (which means nothing to adjudicators). How do I address the "reason for leaving question?" What explanation do I give for the employment lapse? How do I get past being "overqualified and overpaid" for more junior-level positions in new career fields? I just want to work again at any livable salary. I would love any help and advice you are willing to provide.

Amy Joyce: I'm sorry to hear that. Have you checked to see if this move was legal? Have you asked your now-former boss for more explanation and whether you'll get good references? If not, do so. You'll want as much support and backup right now as you can get.

Anyone ever deal with this before?

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RE: Annandale: I think he/she should be prepared to take UNPAID time off if he/she hasn't accrued enough time by November and if the company doesn't allow for advances on vacation days.

Amy Joyce: I guess I'm a little off today. I meant to say unpaid, thanks.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm pregnant, and every day right when I walk into the office a few women in particular have to comment on the size of my stomach. Every. Single. Day. It's getting really old. Any suggestions of a reply that will stop this so I don't have to endure three more months of it?

Amy Joyce: Options as I see 'em (being as my belly is so huge, I'm having a hard time reaching this keyboard):

1. They'll get as tired of it as you do and they'll stop with time.

2. "Yep, I had a huge breakfast this morning."

3. "Yep, things seem to be progressing," (as you progress back to your desk.)

Acknowledge, don't acknowledge, get to your desk as quickly as you can. They'll catch on. And remember that they don't mean any harm.

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Millsboro, Del.: Do you have any tips for a thank-you note I could give to the head-hunter who helped me land my wonderful new job?

RE: online degrees -- I only know one person who got an online degree (MS in management through Univ. of Md.), and he did indeed move on to a better job shortly after.

Amy Joyce: No tips necessary. Thank this person for a great job, the attention they provided to you, the way in to a job that you're really going to enjoy. Whatever you want/feel. Make it short, sweet and sign your name.

Thanks on the online degree.

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RE: 26 going on 16: I have this same problem (oh so tragic to look much younger than you are!) and aside from letting my gray hair show (which might not be possible for a 26-year-old) I would periodically mention my age - either directly saying my age or saying how long it's been since I graduated college or grad school, etc. It can be done to fit the conversation or just said casually at the water cooler. Many people responded with "Oh my, you look so young for your age, I never would have guessed. You're so lucky."

Amy Joyce: This seems like a safe answer.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi, Amy. Love your chats. I applied for a job. I got called by them to discuss my resume, but since I was on the subway, I missed the call. Called back and left a message. Haven't heard back. That was late on Thursday. Should I call again? Given the timing of the call, I feel like my voicemail could have gotten lost in the shuffle. I want to seem interested (which I am), but not pushy (which I certainly don't want to be!). Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Yep, please call again. They probably got sidetracked. You're not being a pain, you're following up on something *they* wanted.

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Baltimore, Md.: RE: Online MBA. I think it all depends on the school it's from. You can now get an online MBA from Stanford. That would be worth a lot. One from an obvious diploma mill -- something named Exeter International University with a P.O. Box address in Oxnard, California -- would not be an advantage.

Amy Joyce: Exactly.

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Dayton, Ohio: Ack! The sky is falling! I manage 35 people on a government contract, and it's turning out to be a lousy week: resignations, discipline meetings, HR snafus, and no good candidates for my open slots. Plus I have my own work to do and a monthly management review with the customer. How do I keep myself sane this week?

Amy Joyce: Remember that this happens. And then things most often get better. And remember that the weekend is just a few short days away.

Handle what you have control over right now. The things you have no control over? Put them on the bottom of your list. Speaking of lists, make one. Make it detailed and mark off what you've accomplished as you do it. It will make you feel like you're getting somewhere.

In between all the insanity, do something nice for yourself: A walk around the block in the sun. A coffee treat. Lunch with a co-worker you enjoy.

Good luck.

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D.C.: Warning to the person who just got an offer and need to go a vacation in November. I was in the same situation last year, and I lost the offer.

Amy Joyce: Just because of the vacation? Did they give that as a reason? If the company seems to bulk at the idea of you taking a vacation, then consider whether the vacation is worth it, or if it can be rescheduled. Also consider whether you want to work for a company that is SO excited about hiring you, they'd let you go over a pre-planned vacation. (i.e., it's a good sign that they probably would be not such a great company to work for.)

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RE: D.C.'s unpaid leave: Jinx -- a colleague and I were just talking about this yesterday: suggesting to HR a perk for employees who've been w/ the company XX years (ours prides itself on long tenure), to be able to "skip a month" (or however long) without pay. Like FMLA, but for personal growth reasons. Now I think I will make the submission! If I get any feedback from HR, I'll let you know.

Amy Joyce: Please do. There are a decent number of companies that do this, and the ones I've spoken to seem to enjoy the results. They get the usual: loyalty, good recruiting tool. But also they get interesting people who do interesting things with their time off, and bring that back into the office. Who wouldn't want to work with someone who takes a month off to take art classes or travel or ... whatever. It brings a whole new perspective into the workplace.

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Baltimore, Md.: You had a question last week from a person who wanted to change careers, but didn't know what to do. I changed careers at the age of 50, after I was laid off. I asked myself, what do I really enjoy doing? and the answer was "home remodeling." I got a job with a commercial construction company, taking a big pay cut (since I had no experience) but I've had several good raises since then, and I'm happy to go to work every day. So, people having mid-life crises really should ask themselves "What do I really enjoy doing?"

Amy Joyce: Thanks, Baltimore. I love to hear it. Congrats.

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Bethesda, Md.: Thank you for taking this question. I just found that my department posted another job, with the same title as mine, but higher pay. Even the qualification are very similar. It will be for another group in my department. So, should I bring the ad to my boss and ask her to match the pay?

Amy Joyce: You bring the ad to the attention of your manager and ask why this is for so much more than you earn. Then ask if you could get a raise, and give reasons why you have earned one. (How long have you been there, what new duties have you taken on, how have you done on your projects, etc.)

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RE: Unpaid Leave: Hi, Amy. In regards to the question about unpaid leave, I just returned on March 5 from three months unpaid leave-of-absence from my workplace in New Jersey. I spent the time traveling in New Zealand. I hit 40 in 2005 and had been thinking about getting away since then. I was completely burned out and wasn't able to do my best at work. I worked with the guy in charge of my whole department -- not my direct supervisor -- for almost six months to work it out. He was amenable to the proposition because I told him how much he would save on my salary for the time off. I also wrote a little "report" detailing what he would get when I returned -- that is, an employee who is refreshed and renewed and ready to dive right back in. It was no secret that my work had suffered slightly in 2006 and this was a way to get back in the game, so to speak. Also, I used three weeks of my 2007 vacation time at the end of my sabbatical, so that part of it was on me. The one thing that I did ask for my company to provide was to continue my healthcare coverage while I was away. They did that.

My last formal presentation to my big supervisor was at the end of May 2006, he took the entire summer to think about it and we met again the week of Labor Day 2006 for final tweaking of details. He then went to our corporate HR and they approved it the first week of October. My last day of work was Friday, Dec. 1 and I was in the air to New Zealand on Dec. 3.

And it was the best thing I could have done. I am a renewed and refreshed employee. I look at things differently now. My own supervisor, her supervisor and the big boss of my department (the guy who approved it) see a difference in my work. So it worked out for everyone. Hope that is helpful.

Amy Joyce: That's terrific. Congrats. I assume you feel like sticking with that company for a while now, huh? You also were very lucky they agreed to continue your health coverage. That was incredibly generous and not something I'd guess many companies would do.

I hope this helps the person wondering how to do the same.

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Mental health issues: I'm sorry to hear that the GS-14 lost the job because of mental health issues. I had the same problem five years ago -- but I was working for a very supportive non-profit whose CFO's wife worked for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.NAMI.org), so they understood what I needed, even when I didn't.

I would go to NAMI for resources, but some of the issues you'll be dealing with include: are you able to work? do you need accommodation, and for what (scheduling, for example, to see medical health professionals).

I was on disability for some time, so I dealt with the time away as an ADA issue -- I was on disability -- and as long as you're able to perform the job duties (with reasonable accommodation), then you're okay with gaps without them getting into the details. Also, please consider seeking out employment where gaps in the resume are not the main focus. When you're ready, you'll find former colleagues and friends who might be able to help you find a new position (which is probably the best way to find a job).

I also was keen on resuming gainful employment, but it took a lot of searching to realize that, even though I was qualified and intelligent to perform very high-level work, that it wasn't suited for my emotional make up -- too much stress. There are jobs that pay decently that don't expect you to work crazy hours, or to deal in areas that might not be a match any longer for you. My mental health problems were a wake-up call as to how I really wanted to live my life, perhaps your situation could be for you, too.

Amy Joyce: Thank you so much. I hope this helps our GS-14. Good advice to check with NAMI.

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Washington, D.C.: About taking vacation: I took a vacation about two weeks after starting my current job. I'd been planning it for months and didn't want to lose the money I'd spent on plane tickets. I let my employer know after they made the offer, but before I'd signed all the official paperwork (at your advice, actually). They didn't have any problem with it at all; I just had to take a week of unpaid leave. Who would want to work for a company that would retract an offer over something this trivial, anyway?

Amy Joyce: I wonder the same. That said, however, people in this situation do need to think about how the company will cover for you while you're out. This is probably not the best timing, particularly if you're new and in the midst of training. And if it's a smaller organization that has been depending on your position for a while, again, it might be difficult for them. Figure these things out before you tell them about the vacation. At least acknowledge them. That way, they'll know you really aren't just thinking of yourself.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Amy. Any advice on how to broach the subject of getting extra vacation time instead of a raise? I have the meeting with my boss coming up, and would like to know how to bring up the subject. Up to now I have had good reviews and believe I am in good standing with the company/boss. In the upcoming year I anticipate needing extra time off and so, would like whatever would be my raise, to translate into vacation time instead. Is this reasonable/do-able? Has anyone ever tried this before? Any help is greatly appreciated! Thanks!

Amy Joyce: People have definitely done this before, and your company may welcome it. It will be cheaper for them than a raise. You could approach the talk like this: I'm due for a raise and here's why. However, I'd like to know if, instead, we could increase my vacation time by X. It will be less expensive for you, and I could really use the extra X weeks off.

It's a proposal. See what happens.

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Anonymous: I have the same problem with being very young looking ... 27 going on 15. The most irritating things are (1) everyone automatically assumes I'm a summer intern (while an intern in college, a woman actually bawled out screaming when she found out I was in college, saying she thought I was in middle school), and (2) when a visitor or anyone new starts small-talking, the first question directed toward me is ALWAYS "so where did (do) you go to school?" as though I got out yesterday. I always feel weird explaining that I've been working for six years. Is this OK to say, or how else to better (or not) approach this with people who don't know you already?

Amy Joyce: As to the number two question: I went to X U, but that was years ago. I've been working here for almost seven years.

'Nuf said.

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Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. It's that time again. Check out Life at Work the column in the Sunday Business section and don't forget to join me again here next week, same time, same place. Have a great week.

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