Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, June 5, 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, folks. It's Tuesday, so you know what that means. Time to complain about, try to fix and compliment our workplaces and work situations. As always, please pop in with your own advice and stories to share with your fellow readers.

One little note: This coming Sunday's column will be my last for at least six months, as I wind things up before I go on maternity leave. But fear not, we'll continue the chat once I've settled in with my little boy. (I figure typing for an hour is good white noise for an infant, right?)

Alrighty then, let's discuss your life at work.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Amy. I'm new to the working world and have started going to meetings with clients, consultants, etc. I was wondering if there was a resource or book out there with information on the etiquette of meetings -- ex. where to sit at the table, and what to say when you introduce yourself.

This would be really helpful. Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Not sure about a specific book, but believe me, there are a ton out there. If you want a book about this, you can go browse the career/workplace aisles of your local bookstore until you find something that suits you.

In the meantime, I'd suggest you talk to someone you respect at your workplace who has done this before. Ask them for tips, how they handle the seating situation, etc. I'd say if you're hosting the consultants/clients, pop yourself in the middle, because you'll be the one running the meeting, right? You want to hear everything and be in the midst of it. Introduce yourself as you would in any semi-formal setting. Name, what you do there, and ask how they are. You'll soon become well-accomplished at the art of small talk that blends right in to a meeting.

A lot of it is watching what's going on in your surroundings. Another big part of it is gut. Trust your instinct about how to do it. And smile. That always helps.

Anyone want to pop in on this one?


Alexandria, Va.: A couple of months ago my boss told me that someone complained about some remarks that I made that she overheard and that she thought were offensive. My boss believes that this person misunderstood me, because he knows the broader context of my work and because no one I have ever worked closely with has ever complained about me. He warned me about the potential for such misunderstandings and encouraged me to be more circumspect in the future. And I agreed, and it has been no problem to change what I say.

The problem is that now I'm constantly paranoid about the complaint. The logical suspects all smile and say hello in the hallway, so now I'm convinced that a lot of people are in cahoots with the complainer. And every time something goes against me (someone else gets a better assignment, etc.), I suspect that the boss is still influenced by the complaint. How can I address this? Should I discuss it with my boss, or co-workers, or HR (it's not a big company)? Or should I try to shake it off? Or am I basically done at this company?

Amy Joyce: Sounds to me like you might be overreacting a bit. Hard to say, since I'm not there. But the best thing you can do is re-prove yourself. Continue to do great work, and take what your boss said to heart, not the voices in the back of your head that makes you suspect everyone.

You have a couple facts to go on: 1. Someone complained that you said something offensive. 2. Your boss said it was a misunderstanding and acknowledged no one has ever complained about you. 3. You still have a job. 4. Your boss told you to be more circumspect, and you said you have had no problem changing what you say.

So what you should be thinking about now is not how people are out to get you, but how you changed, why you had to change, and how you can move on.

Focus on the positive, and on what you know how to do well, and stop second guessing that everyone is smiling at you, but actually talking about you behind your back.

Issues like this happen at work and in life. The best you can do is, well, your best. Pay attention to the issues, but don't let them bring you down.

_______________________ A Law Partner Pulls His Firm Down the Green Path, (Post, June 3)

Amy Joyce: By the way, this was Sunday's column...


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi, Amy. I work for a federal agency and feel at a dead end. I've been at my present position for 12 years and would like to move on to something new. I'm in the IT field now. I know what I want to do, but can't seem to get there because I don't have the skills or experience to move into a different field. I can't leave the government because I'm the main bread winner in my family and can't afford to take a pay cut. I've been in the government for 18 years all together. Some people have suggested college. What would be your suggestion? I have been to government career counseling, but really didn't help. His suggestions are things that I had already tried.


Amy Joyce: You haven't given us much detail to work with here. But I'll try: You know what you want to do, but don't have the skills or experience. So how can you get them? What qualifications might you need for this new career?

To find out, try to join a professional organization in this field, or start to cold call organizations that would be targets of your job search. You can see if they would allow you to come in for an informational interview, where you can ask what qualifications are needed. Tell them about your background and if they would have suggestions as to how you could get to the point you want to be. Not all companies will be willing to do this, but many are. Just keep at it, and don't let a no-answer deprive you from continuing on.

Have you gone to college already? If so, call and ask for a list of alumni who are in the field of interest. Call and ask them for advice.

And volunteer. See if there is a way you can start to do pro bono work in the field that interests you. It's a great way to understand how things work better, and it's a great way to get to know people in the field, thereby getting a foot in the door.

Sure, you are the main breadwinner and get good benefits and pay where you are. Don't let that hold you back from figuring out what you want to do. You don't have to leave a good job for none. Spend this time doing the work you do and discovering how to get into the field you really want to be in. We just have this one life after all, right?


Loudoun County, Va.: I have been casually looking for a new opportunity for a while. One of my motivating factors has been the amount of time I spend commuting from Loudoun County to Arlington County on a daily basis. I am not looking to move, so I have decided to focus on positions in Loudoun County or western Fairfax County. I am getting discouraged because I seem to be finding more opportunities outside my target commuting area. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks.

Amy Joyce: I assume you're trying all the local angles? Go to the Chamber of Commerce meetings. Networking events. Talk to people at your neighborhood gatherings. Check out the web sites for Loudoun and Fairfax departments of economic development. Search the Post web site for stories on the counties/companies within the counties. Also, check out the Post Top 200 and look for companies in the counties where you want to work. We spent a lot of time doing research and writing profiles of the top 200 companies in our region. Use us!

Want to tell us what kind of work you want to do and see if anyone here has specific suggestions?


RE: Complaints of offensiveness: Sometimes people complain about an episode not a person. Probably, people are smiling at you in the hallways because they still like you and know you didn't mean to offend, even though they thought the situation needed to be addressed at the time. For that matter, that's probably why he or she went to the boss, instead of confronting you. Assume those smiles are real, and your work relationships are basically solid.

Amy Joyce: Sounds like a good option. Thanks.


Meeting consultants: Always bring your business cards, enough to go around. Best way to leave your contact information and that way they can say later, who was that? and see your title, correct spelling of your name, etc.

Amy Joyce: Of course. Thanks.

_______________________ Check out The Post's annual feature highlighting the area's top businesses: Post 200.

Amy Joyce: Here's the latest Post 200. Enjoy.


Midwest, USA: Thanks for all of your columns and chats! I'm wondering when it is appropriate to contact an HR department to ask about future positions. I'm a grad student working on a Ph.D. and plan to teach when I graduate, probably in 18 to 24 months. I'm thinking of contacting the HR department at one or two schools (two and four-year colleges) to ask about their hiring criteria and to see if they can connect me with a faculty member in my department who could answer specific questions about jobs in my field. Do you know if HR departments ever respond to questions like this? Is this even a good idea?


Amy Joyce: I think there is nothing wrong with this at all. Some may blow you off, others may really help you find what you need. Most will probably give you a simple answer and that will be that. But at least you'll be more educated about what's out there and what you have to do. Have you talked to your advisor about this?

The best you can do is call and ask if they would be willing to tell you what you can do and if you can do anything at this point.

And now we'll ask the HR folks out there. What would you think if someone contacted you with this, 18 to 24 months before they actually needed a job?


Just a quick comment ...: I work at a D.C. law firm, and when I went into the copier room today, your column from Sunday was being copied for posting. I can't wait to read it and see what changes we make around here! Good luck to you!

Amy Joyce: I hope they weren't wasting paper while copying it.


Laurel, Md.: Does Sunday's Outlook piece about how women's choices of college major and employers influence their salaries challenge any of the ideas you've held or put forth about gender pay gaps? Missed that story? Read it here: You're Not Earning as Much as the Guys? Here's Why., (Post, June 3).

Amy Joyce: Interesting question. I don't think it challenges anything I've already read/written. But it does make me wonder if this is smart. I am all for people earning as much money as they can. But more so, if you have read me for long, you know I'm more for people doing something they are passionate about. I think the money will follow. That's because the happier they are with their job, the more they will do great work and stand out.

Sure, someone with an engineering degree will likely make more than someone with an english degree, but I can tell you I'd be a miserable worker if I majored in engineering instead of English. (Um, okay, I would have been fired by now anyway.)


New York, N.Y.: Hi, Amy. You once wrote a column about me (I got my job through a date on I just wanted to say congrats on the baby (have you seen "Knocked Up" yet?), and hurry back, I enjoy your columns and chats! Thanks, Mike. Read Amy's story about Mike: Job Connections Start as Social Connections, (Post, May 21).

Amy Joyce: Aw, blasts from the past. Love it. Thanks, Mike. That was a fun column you were in. Hope all's well with you.


Percent enjoyment: Here's a philosophical question for you. How much should you enjoy your job, in a quantifiable sense. I know no job is 100 percent fun, and jobs often feel 100 percent un-fun. But what is reasonable? And we're talking ballpark here. 50 percent? 75 percent? 25 percent? I'm trying to deal with the parts of my job I truly don't like; realizing of course most jobs have those parts you don't like. Just trying to get a sense of how much is reasonable to expect to like your job. Wondering your thoughts on it?

Amy Joyce: Okay, maybe *you're* the engineer!

I can't say what percentage you should enjoy your job. I agree that 100 percent is probably not likely. But it's not just about fun. It's about fulfillment. Wanting to get up in the morning and get to work. Looking forward to Monday because you know your day will be full and not wasted. Coming home and wanting to tell a loved one about your day. Feeling challenged and accomplished.

You're right that most jobs have parts you won't like. But if you can honestly tell people when they ask that you really like your job, I think you're in a good spot.

Percentages, anyone?


Calgary, Canada: For the person new to meetings, talk to your manager about her expectations for the meeting beforehand. That way you can slot yourself into the strategy, and really stand out.

Also, personally, I hate it when the two parties to the meeting line up on either side of the boardroom table, like some sort of tribunal or adversary. I like a more informal meeting (which stays efficiently to the agenda, of course!), and when I am the chair tend to invite people to intersperse.

Amy Joyce: Thanks, Calgary. I like your idea of seating, too. Why aren't there more round tables in board rooms?


Anonymous: Hi, Amy. Maybe you can relate to this ... I'm very close to my maternity leave and being asked to work on projects that will be completely irrelevant to me in a month or so. So how do I stay focused so I don't burn bridges with co-workers?

Amy Joyce: Remember that you're still getting paid right now to do a job. And if it's still hard to get through, make lists. Figure out each day what you need to accomplish to get through that project. Write these things down, cross 'em off as you accomplish them. Then at the end of the day, remind yourself that yes, you are one day closer to leave. And your bosses and co-workers won't resent you when it's time for you to walk out that door.


Boston, Mass.: Amy, I'm having a rough time. I recently suffered a devastating loss and had to get surgery as a result. I'm back at work now, but can't shake the sadness or the emotional and physical pain. I don't want to be here, but I don't want my work to suffer; plus, I can't take any more time off of work. I don't know what to do.

Amy Joyce: I'm so sorry, Boston. I don't know if whatever you're going through gets better with time, but I do think getting back into the swing of things at work can help us move on sometimes. That "normalcy" can help us dig out of a very difficult situation. So figure out what you can do for yourself, while including your job. Try to make a list (obviously, I'm big on those)... it works as a sort of contract with yourself. And when you have been able to cross a few things off that list, it feels good to know you were able to accomplish something. Make sure to leave time in your day for you. Take a walk. Get away from your cubicle. Ask a coworker you like to coffee to talk about nothing in particular. Make a list for tomorrow. And remember that at the end of the workday, you still have your life to go back to. Do things there that will help refresh you and move you along. Please, also, find out if your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and see if maybe you can get some counseling if you think that's what you need. Good luck.


Charlottesville, Va.: I just want to put this out there -- I love my job. I say this not to brag or gloat, but just to encourage people to find "that" job. I had to go through several rough jobs -- and one downright horrific job - before I got here, and honestly I wouldn't have gotten this job without that others on my resume. But I'm here now, have been here for a few years, and I love my job -- the work, the people, the pay, the opportunities ... it's perfect.

Keep looking, people. The right fit is out there.

Amy Joyce: Thanks, Charlottesville. (Maybe you love your job because you're in such a pretty town ...)

How did you figure out what would be a great fit for you? You have 10 minutes to answer, no pressure.


Academic job search: An academic job search is different from other kinds of job searches. Start by talking to grad students currently looking for a job and students who graduated from your department in the last year or two. Then talk with the most recent hires in your department and related departments. You're basically looking for an informational interview. Ask all the faculty you know if they know anyone at any school you're interested in. Go to the local chapter of your professional organization and look for members at the schools your interested in. Go to seminars that these people might attend, also attend the coffee hour and network. Go to Web sites of two year schools and check online. Consider adjunct positions as a way to get your foot in the door. (If you're good, they'll hire someone they already know when a full time position becomes available.) Talk to administrative people in the department to find out who's approachable or what they're looking for. Trust me, the HR dept. is not the way to go here.

Amy Joyce: Excellent. I hope this is a help to the Ph.D. to be. Thanks.


RE: Alexandria: Maybe people are smiling at him because he stopped saying the offensive thing. It was offensive, even if he didn't mean it that way. someone used an informal route to ask him to stop (rather than a career-ending formal complaint to HR). They did that cuz they liked him and wanted him to continue with his good reputation at the company but stop the offensive comments. He did that, which is good, everyone is glad and life goes on. Lesson learned: stop saying borderline offensive comments, even if you don't think they're that bad, they offend someone and risk your career.

Amy Joyce: Another possibility. And, of course, your last statement couldn't be more right on.


RE: Percentages: I've always thought that it is time to look for a new job when you reach the point where the number of "bad" days exceed the number of "good" days.

Amy Joyce: One very good way of looking at it. Thanks.


Richmond, Va.: I don't know about percentages, but getting a stomach ache on the way to work every morning is not good! I know, I know, I need to fix that. Trying to get over long-term torn ligament physical therapy regimen before I start the energy-draining job search process. I just don't have any surplus right now, even though I know hating my job helps make me feel lethargic.

Amy Joyce: And looking for a new one, even if it's just to see what else is out there, can be very therapeutic! Think about it (and heal soon).


Columbus, Ohio: To the Ph.D. candidate who wants to teach: I don't know what field you are in, but in many fields, the decisions to hire are not made by "HR" departments, but by academic departments run by faculty. In our field, we welcome interest from a candidate two or three years in advance. We look for how they are developing in the field: are they attending conferences, giving papers at conferences, submitting to journals, etc. We also consider at how their research/teaching interests match our anticipated needs.

If this Ph.D. candidate is not actively involved in the field, I don't think contacting HR department of colleges or universities will be extremely productive.

Given that this student is planning far ahead, it should be no problem for him/her to start doing all the things that make for an impressive future faculty resume.

Amy Joyce: Thanks again. More good advice. I knew you all would come through, as always.


Annandale, Va.: I wrote last week asking what you thought about taking a work sabbatical. Your advice was solid, the company is fine with the idea, and I'll be spending the next six months broadening my horizons beyond what I can see from this office.

The only glitch is, the company has a "leave of absence request form" and it states that there's no guarantee of position upon completion. On the other hand, there's no requirement that I guarantee I'll return either, so I guess that's fair.

I'm not going to let the possibility of losing my job spoil anything. I think in today's corporate world employees have to live with that possibility every day anyway.

Amy Joyce: Very good, Annandale.

You know, it might be too late for this, but you could ask them if they could tweak that contract to say you are guaranteed a job if you promise to return for a year. But I'm not sure you want to do that, either!

Congrats on your move. Enjoy your sabbatical and let us know how it goes (if you're not off doing something wonderful, far from computers and talk about work ...)


The truth about cover letters: I have what I think is an amazing cover letter. I alter it for each position I apply to and I have to say that it is such a good letter. I am not just conceited. To be honest, I don't think the things I have done (on my resume) are that amazing.

But I am beginning to think that people don't read cover letters. Twice I have had recruiters ask things that are addressed in my cover letter. My husband, who has a more impressive resume, says that no one reads the cover letter since they just scan the resumes and look at keywords.

Should I even bother sending them? I work so hard to tailor it for the posting and think it is a great example of my written comm. skills. I think it shows that I "care" and am really interested. What say you, Amy? For more resume and cover letter help, check out our special feature Hard Copies.

Amy Joyce: Yes, absolutely send them. People do read them. Some will skim, some won't read, others will base their decision on the cover letter. So always send one, even if you get this gut feel that they're not reading. They do matter.


Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. I hate to cut this off because there are many more good questions to go, as always. But it's time to get back to work.

Don't forget to check out what will be my last column for at least six months in this Sunday's paper. It will be accompanied by a nice spread on this Web site, and will ask for your input/comments. I know how you love that!

I'll probably be chatting to you again Tuesday, same time, same place, unless this baby decides to join the world a little earlier than expected. In the meantime, thanks and have a great week.


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