Transcript: Wednesday, August 22 at 11 a.m. ET

How to Deal Live

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Lily Garcia
How to Deal columnist, washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, August 22, 2007; 11:00 AM

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for 10 years. She takes reader questions and answers a selection weekly in her weekly How to Deal column for washingtonpost.com.

She comes online twice a month to answer your questions about human resources issues, workplace laws or just everyday workplace survival.

If you've got a workplace question and would like it to be featured in an upcoming How to Deal column, e-mail Lily at lilymgarcia@gmail.com.

Find more career-related news and advice in our Jobs section.

The transcript follows below.

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Lily Garcia: Thank you for joining today's chat. I look forward to answering your questions regarding workplace issues. In the event that I do not get to your question today, please feel free to email me at lilymgarcia@gmail.com.

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Washington, D.C.: I am almost five months into a job I like, for the most part. Recently though, the warnings of my colleagues have manifested and my boss has revealed her bi-polar, personal attack mode in response to what is, admittedly, the largest mistake I've made during my short tenure.

We work in an extremely small office and my entire team (all who have been with the office for 10+ years) was on vacation when the mistake was made, not to mention, a perfect storm of personal issues augmented the work stress of being sole in charge of my section. I personally absolve myself for the mistake, and have learned from it. However, my mecurial boss has threatened to fire me over the matter. She is currently on vacation again, so I am safe for the time being, however, being within six months of hiring, she is technically within her rights to fire me on the spot.

This is a very stressful situation, to say the least. The office manager has assured me that I am needed and my job is safe as far as she can see down the pipeline. I'm at a loss regarding my options at this point.

Advice welcomed.

Lily Garcia: You need to decide whether the stress of reporting to someone like that is sufficiently counterbalanced by the rewards of your job. If your supervisor has a bona fide personality disorder, the situation is unlikely to get any better for you unless and until she seeks professional help. In the meantime, you can learn coping skills by reading about her disorder and/or seeking professional help of your own. Is it all worth it? That is the question.

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Too young?: I have an interview next week for a managerial position in my field. While I am only 29 (and look 20), I am quite accomplished in my work. I know that I am ready for this next step. But I'm afraid that I will be discounted the moment I walk into the interview room. I've considered just addressing this outright. Something along the lines of, "I am worried that you might be concerned that I am too young for this position, however..." and then enumerating all the reasons why my youth is an asset and my experience and talents are just right for the job.

I'm afraid that if I do this, it will come off as being too defensive and maybe ruin my chances of getting the position, or alternatively, if I don't address it, I might lose out because I didn't step up.

Is there a better way of dealing with this? I'm tired of my age being the elephant in the corner.

Lily Garcia: As long as you convey self-assurance and maturity, no good interviewer will be biased by your apparent age. If you do look younger than you are, it is also important for you to dress the part of a manager by wearing conservative and tidy business attire. Don't doubt yourself for a moment, or that will come through in the interview.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it inappropriate to ask an intern out? She works close in proximity, but in another department. I am a mid-level staffer, two years older.

Lily Garcia: Yes. The power imbalance between you is just too great. Nevermind the effect that such a relationship would have on workplace morale. Why not wait until the internship is over?

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Silver Spring, Md.: How does one explain to a potential employer why you left a job when you were fired?

Lily Garcia: These decisions are usually mutual, and that is how you should present it. Explain what you got from the job and what else you are seeking that that position was unable to provide. Put a positive spin on the experience by underscoring what you learned about yourself professionally and how much better equipped you now are to identify a good fit. If you can find someone from your previous employer to provide a good reference, all the better.

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San Francisco, Calif.: I've been in my current job for about five months and it's already time for a new one. It's not the first time I've joined a small organization (5-20 people) and discovered an ugly reality -- the boss doesn't know how to run a business. I don't think it's a flaw that I take a person at his word when he describes the health and maturity of a company I'm about to join, but perhaps I'm naive. Anyhow, this place is nearly out of money, and I'm not the only one polishing up her resume. I could ask you MANY questions, but I'll limit myself to this one for now -- how much of my "situation" do I need to include in my cover letter to explain why I'm looking for a new position already? I don't want to speak harshly of my current boss or unload a sob story, but I want to make it clear that I'm not flighty or flaky. That could take 10 pages, however. Should I let my strong resume & cover letter speak for themselves and wait until someone contacts me for an interview before I get into the back story? Or should I simply say my current employer has an uncertain financial future?

Lily Garcia: You should always strive not to disparage your current employer. If you can address the organization's financial troubles without betraying confidentiality, then that may be a fine explanation for your transition. You can state in a matter of fact way that, although you have appreciated the experience that you have gained working for X, the organization has unfortunately encountered some financial difficulties that have left the staff with little choice but to job search. This is not a subject for your cover letter. It is something you should explain in an interview. I also encourage you to think twice before taking another job at a small organzation. It sounds like this is simply not a good cultural fit for you.

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D.C.: Is there a "low season" for job-hunting? I have applied to about 10-15 jobs over the last six weeks and heard nada. Nothing. Not a word. Is it because everyone is at the beach? Also, is it true that employers do not send "thanks, but no thanks" letters anymore? So I could apply for a job, and never hear a word either way?

Lily Garcia: I hate to make a blanket statement, but it is safe to say that the summer is a low season for everything. Even when an employer is urgently looking to fill a position, the process may be delayed, for example, because not all decisionmakers are available to move forward.

Some employers send out rejection letters and some don't. Not doing so is impolite and inconsiderate, but the reality is that you will not always hear back.

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Bethesda, Md.: My company (a management consulting firm) has several contracts with countries in the Middle East. They are refusing to use any women to manage or staff the contracts, supposedly in deference to male Muslims' cultural preference not to work with women. This is clearly limiting growth opportunities for a number of women, and talking with managers has been to no avail. Filing a discrimination claim also seems to be career-limiting. How would you suggest handling this situation?

Lily Garcia: You could ask for the opportunity to pioneer the use of women for these assignments. Explain that you will educate yourself on the cultural conventions of Middle Eastern men and that you have confidence in your diplomatic ability to navigate the situation. Or you can make a similar appeal on behalf of all women consultants. In fairness, your company should be doing what it can to facilitate the introduction of women into these positions. If they flatly refuse, you really may have no choice but to file a charge of discrimination.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I am over 50 and in the computer field. However I have been out of work for a while and have not even gotten an interview. Recently I did a retraining in the computer field at a local college, which implied the possibility of an internship. However after spending my savings the retraining took place but we were told we were on our own for jobs. I now find the retraining is useless without 2 years of experience in the field.

I am not sure what to do. I know many people my age out of work with a lot of experience in the computer field but companies go to congress and to get H1-B visa claiming we don't exist.

Other than trying to find a nice vent at union station before the winter sets in do you have any suggestions?

Lily Garcia: You should try contracting to get the experience you need to secure a job. It is far easier to secure contract work than employee work. Post an ISO on sites like craigslist and look for shorter term assignments for smaller shops that are more willing to take a chance on someone who does not have the perfect credentials. Network in the IT community (online communities abound) to see if you can become part of smaller contract teams.

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Fairfax, Va.: I'm a government employee that is about to lose her security clearance for reasons other than misconduct ... a really long complex story. The problem is that this allows my organization to separate me 'for cause.' Although its not for theft, funds misappropriation, violating policies, abuse of power, or etc., it's still a major red flag. What is the appropriate way to address this with potential future employers? There's no way to delve into the detials of my situation without getting into very personal issues. Can future employers, all of whom will be non-government and non security-related, even ask about it? A job search is hard enough without having to worry about these problems. Thank you for taking my question.

Lily Garcia: Yes, employers can ask why you left each job that you have held. But, unless you committed a crime, it is unlikely that they will find out about what happened except from you. You have two choices: (1) come up with an innocuous way to explain your departure or (2) explain what happened, that you have learned from your mistakes, and that you are looking for a second chance. Meanwhile, don't dwell. Rather, emphasize the strength of your skills and experience and how you can contribute in a unique way to the organization.

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Laurel, Md.: When you are interviewing for a new position, how do you let the interviewer know that you were not happy at your current position with out stating your unhappiness.

Lily Garcia: As I explained earlier in the chat, you should never disparage your current employer. Rather than focusing on the deficiencies of your job, go positive: describe your ambitions and the ways in which you are seeking to grow as a professional. Then explain how the position for which you are applying will aid you in reaching those goals. The inetrviewer will get the idea that your current job does not measure up, but s/he will not be left with a bad taste.

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RE: Low season for hiring: I've often wondered the same thing, though oddly enough, I've always managed to score more job interviews when I WASN'T employed. Thus, I often wonder if a person is more marketable when they're not working, because then a prospective interviewer/employeer sees that this person has an immediate need for employment -- thus, more interviews.

Lily Garcia: I would not agree with that. Unfortunately, job hunting is tougher when you are unemployed. Best of luck.

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Arlington, Va.: Is there any law that restricts the number of days in a row

that your employer can require you to work? My boss says

"he owns me 24-7" and can assign a schedule that has me

working many more days than the standard five-day-week.

Lily Garcia: What a horrible thing to say! Nevertheless, unless you are a minor child or under a collective bargaining agreement or other employment contract, your employer can demand as much work from you as it wants. They just have to compensate you appropriately (overtime, for example, if you are a non-exempt employee under the wage and hour laws).

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Middle East discrimination post: She may not have to file a discrimination charge -- surely

she should first point out to her company that what they are

doing flies in the face of federal law. Please, people, talk

things through before resorting to a law suit. Surely she

could say something like, "I understand your reasoning for

this, but American companies are legally obligated not to

make these sorts of decisions based on gender." It might be

that the company just hasn't thought it through.

Lily Garcia: Thank you for your comment.

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D.C.: I just accepted a job offer from a company that is entering Merger talks with one of its competitors. Is this a good situation to be walking in to?

Thanks for doing this chat!

Lily Garcia: I know that you will hate to hear this, but it all depends. It depends on whether the merger is a sound one that will lead to greater organizational prosperity. Usually a merger spells out some sort of reorganization and job cuts. If you are in part of the company that will require streamlining upon completion of the merger, then your position may be at some risk. This is a great question for your hiring manager. What do THEY envision as the the potential staffing outcome?

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Dating...: From an earlier answer:

"The power imbalance between you is just too great. Nevermind the effect that such a relationship would have on workplace morale."

What effect would that be? And does the power imbalance apply to all people who work at different levels (without one supervising the other)?

Lily Garcia: I caution readers to avoid contributing to a perception that there is favor to be gained in their organzations from having romantic relationships with more senior employees. What benfits do interns compete for during their tenure? Interesting assignments? Access to senior staff? Perhaps a permanent job offer? If the intern does become involved with this reader, the perception will that her accomplishments were not entirely legitimate. That is where the morale problems begin. For this reason, all supervisors should avoid romantic relationships with more junior employees. However, most organizations will only prohibit such relationships when a direct reporting relationship is involved.

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Detroit, Mich.: My current job is making me miserable. I'm trying to look for something else, but my job leaves me so exhausted that I don't have the energy or motivation to job hunt in the evenings and on weekends. I'm seriously considering quitting so I can look for a new job full time. Am I crazy to do this?

Lily Garcia: Yes! You need to find a way somehow to complete this job search while you are still employed. I promise you that it will be harder for you if you quit first. However, if you really are finding it impossible to make any progress on leaving, then you may have little choice.

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Lost respect for collegue: I'm in the situation where, because I sit next to a collegue, I am forced to listen to her complain to and argue with her children and husband on a daily basis. When she complains to co-workers about having to ask people for data, because she does not know the tools for her job on top of that, I find that I no longer have respect for her, and border on contempt.

I tried to explain to our mutual boss that her conversations are loud enough that people can hear them, and he talked to her - she now takes some of her calls outside.

However, I'm at the position where I just don't respect her anymore. Do you have any suggestions? I can wear earplugs to drone her out, but it's hard to treat her like a peer when she gets paid more and knows less than I do.

Lily Garcia: You don't have to respect her or even like her. But you do need to find a way of dealing productively with her. As part of the fulfillment of your own job responsibilities, you simply must find a way to put your personal animus aside. Try asking yourself why her behavior irritates and angers you so much. Have you had negative personal experiences with people like her in the past? Why do you feel so much contempt for people who are indiscreet about their personal issues? A bit of sould-searching about the root causes of these feelings could really help to take the edge off.

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Richmond, Va.: re: 1st letter. Accept responsibility for your errors, and learn from them, yes. But it was a mistake of the manager to let everyone on the team take vacation at the same time, all the institutional knowledge and learn the new kid there to fend for himself? So it wasn't all your fault. If there's any discussion, mention something you'd do differnt, your lesson learned, but also say, "I think we need a vacation schedule so we always have adequate coverage next time."

Lily Garcia: Thank you for your comment.

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Washington, D.C.: I had sent in a question earlier and I am resubmitting with the hopes of an answer... my supervisor may be called next week about a potential new job. He dislikes me and I'm concerned that it will prevent me from getting the new job. How do you handle having a boss that dislikes you when they are called for a reference? I have three other excellent references within the office and a great resume. I'm worried that I will never be able to leave this position because of him.

Lily Garcia: You need to approach him, let him know that he will be getting a call, and ask him for his support. If you feel it is appropriate, frankly acknowledge that you have had differences and tell him that you are hoping he can put those aside. If he dislikes you as much as you believe he does, then it is actually in his best interests to faclitate the process of your departure. I hope that he will get that. Good luck.

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Anywhere: Do you tell your boss when you have been diagnosed with major depression and making it to the office in the morning is a major hurdle for yourself, let alone the hundreds of tasks you are working and have been trying to complete while you've been sinking into the depression?

Lily Garcia: You don't have to get into the details of your condition with your boss if you don't want to. However, if you are requesting an accommodation of a disability (under the Americans with Disabilities Act) so that you can continue to perform your job duties, you will need to engage in an interactive dialogue on the subject with the officer of your organization designated to handle these matters (usually HR). Maybe you need an adjusted or flexible schedule, or even some time off. Think about what might help you to fulfill your job duties and ask for it before you become known as a performance issue.

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Lily Garcia: Thank you very much for your participation. I regret that I was unable to answer all of your questions. If you did not receive a response today, please feel free to email me at lilymgarcia@gmail.com.

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