Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007; 2:00 PM

The Washington area is a magnet for smart and ambitious workers. Post columnist Mary Ellen Slayter writes a regular column for these professionals who are either establishing their careers or are looking to advance. She also offers advice online.

Mary Ellen Slayter is author of Career Track, a biweekly column in The Washington Post's Jobs section. She focuses her chat on issues affecting working professionals.

Read Mary Ellen's latest Career Track column.

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

The transcript follows below.


Richmond, Va.: Your story about the engineer who fed bad ideas to his co-worker so he couldn't steal ideas was funny, but would NOT help build teams or cooperation. Better would be to honestly say "I haven't had a change to review the info yet," then review it and save your response for the meeting so everyone hears it and knows it's your. It's a POSTIVE action that focuses on your abilities rather than a ruse to trick a co-worker. Missed that story? Read it here: Setting the Pace Against Would-Be Rivals, (Post, Oct. 7).

Mary Ellen Slayter: Of course that's not positive. But as you admit, it was funny!


Arlington, Va.: How do employers perceive someone leaving their job for a new career, but taking a bunch of certification courses in various fields to insure that they have a job somewhere (e.g. CISSP, PMP, teaching credentials, real estate license or any other similar combination to insure food and rent are paid for)? I suspect they will interpret this as a lack of focus, but the job search is difficult and long.

Mary Ellen Slayter: It's even longer if you don't know what you're looking for. More certifications won't make the job search go any faster, just more confusing.


Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen. Do employers look at functional resumes the same way they look at chronological resumes? I ask because I have been out of school for three years, and am currently in my first job. However, I do a lot of volunteering that can be counted as experience, and I want to highlight some of my leadership positions in college as well. Currently, my chronological resume is two pages long, which I think is obnoxious for a 25 year-old without an advanced degree. However, cutting out some of my volunteer/college experience makes it look like I am less experienced in the field. In my current position, I have had to hire a couple of people and I have yet to come across a functional resume. What is your advice for highlighting volunteer/collegiate experience without going over the dreaded one-page limit? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Cut, cut, cut. No one reads that second page, so you're just wasting paper anyway. Lead with the paid job, follow with your college degree, and pick one or two of those volunteer gigs. That should easily fit on one page.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I am a 30 year-old female associate at a huge D.C. law firm. While the firm has the usual paucity of women partners and women do have to put up with a fair amount of grief, I seem to be holding my own.

The hours are such that there is little time for socializing. However, I have gone out a few times with a fellow associate, starting because we are both avid Redskin fans.

While the 'Skins won big yesterday (hurray!), two weeks ago they lost in a terribly demoralizing way. My friend had invited 10-12 of us to his parents house to watch the game. People were gloomy and a fair amount of alcohol was consumed. Nevertheless, I was stunned when his brother suddenly announced, "X is right. You may be fat and ugly, but you sure do know your football." There was an embarrassed silence and a lot of backtracking, but my former "friend" did not deny that he had made the comment.

Believe it or not, I am taking this better than you might believe. I know I'm neither fat nor ugly, I have any other quality attributes, and that's that. Needless to say, the friendship is over, but I still have to work with this idiot! Do you or the chatters have any thoughts on how to deal with this situation? I think it would look too "female" to try to opt out of joint assignments for personal reasons, Unfortunately there are few senior attorneys in whom I can confide; the few women partners seem to feel, we sent through heck to get here, so you should have to, as well. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I would NOT opt out of assignments with him. Your continued presence is the best "punishment" for this guy.


Washington, D.C.: I have an ethical question for you. I am a Caucasian male with a Hispanic surname. Would it be wrong of me to check off Hispanic when filling out a job application? No one in my immediate family speaks spanish, and I have taken a few years of spanish in college. Is this misleading? I can always leave the ethinicity portion of the application blank and let the employer make their own judgement call. What do you suggest?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Come on. You know the answer to this question. Though I find it interesting that you even think this would "help" you when studies consistently find that people with "white-sounding" names are still the ones with the advantage.


South Ga.: Mary Ellen, please help! I worked for a nonprofit in D.C. that has affiliates all across the country. There's a position open at one of them (the closest to me now) that is almost identical to the job I left when we moved. I'd like to apply for it, as I really loved the work and it's an organization whose mission I am deeply committed to. There are two things stopping me. First, I have an almost six week old daughter and am not ready to leave her so soon. Second, the commute looks like it will be a little more than an hour (81 miles). In my experience, the job is one that would be able to be done by telecommuting most of the time, so that could be an option. And I tell myself that people in D.C. face more than an hour commutes regularly. But, I'm wondering, as far as addressing telecommuting -- is that appropriate for an interview? And, more importantly, if asked when I could start, would it be unreasonable to say I'd like to be able to start full-time when my daughter is at least 12 weeks old? Please give me some advice! Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: More than an hour each way? No way. From one mama to another, I just wouldn't do it. That one hour can easily morph into two if the traffic and weather are bad. Even on a good day, you would be coming home basically right at bedtime. Is that really what you want?

Mention the telecommuting as the interview progresses, since it's the only way you'd actually take the job. You can also ask to postpone the start date. If they want you badly enough, they'll find a way to make it work.


Ranson, W.V.: I live in the D.C. metro area. I applied for a job near Union Station and the recruiter asked me by e-mail what are my plans to relocate from West Virginia. I replied that I will relocate when we sell our house; in the meantime I live five miles from the Maryland commuter train with frequent service to Union Station. I never heard from the recruiter again. What do you suggest I address that question if it arises again? Mention beforehand? My current employer is at Farragut West metro.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You work in D.C. now. Just tell them that. That recruiter might have interpreted your answer to mean that taking a job here was contingent on you selling your house there. In this real estate market, I can see why he or she didn't bother calling back ...


McLean, Va.: I graduated a year ago and started work for the government, but I've been thinking about changing careers and putting my English major to some use. I'd love to find a copy editing/proofreading position, however, I have not taken a grammar class in nearly four years. Do you know of any classes I could take in the area to brush up? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: At this point, I don't think you need a grammar class. You either know the basics or you don't. That said, there are some good resources at, as well as, a Web site run by Post copy editor Bill Walsh.


How to keep positive when job-hunting?: My husband was transferred across the country so I've been out of a permanent job since June. I've lost track of how many jobs I've applied for, each with its own, tailored cover letter and resume. I spend nearly every night sending out more job applications and I've only gotten one interview. How do I keep my morale up? I don't know anyone out here yet and don't really have much time to socialize (i.e., network) since I'm working a lot at my lower-paying temp jobs just to help make ends meet.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The temp job is the best place to network. Make sure the people you are working for know what kind of job you are looking for long term. Make sure your temp agency knows, too. If they can't put you in the job you want, they can at least put you at a company that does that sort of work. When done right, temping is like getting paid to network.


Richmond, Va.: Just gonna say this because you need a kick in the head reminder poster, re: "I think it would look too "female" to try to opt out of joint assignments for personal reasons." Excuse me?

Maybe part of your problem is associating "female" with "weak." Don't do that -- I resent that. It just feeds into that sort of guy's theories and gives him fuel for more insults. Maybe something about that attitude gave you a "kick me" sign at work and that's why he judged you that way. Act meek, be treated meek. Act successful, be treated successful.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yeah, I don't like the "female=meek" association either. But I also don't think it's fair to blame the poster for that either. Those associations are cultural, and the training starts early. She needs to stay right where she is, though.


RE: Certifications: Knowing what job/career you want, but not being able to obtain anything in that field is frustrating. How dangerous is taking what you can get when getting what you want seems so far away? I've been looking to change careers for a year now, and had very few interviews, but nothing pans out. I cannot stay where i presently work because its a hostile work environment/EEO case.

Mary Ellen Slayter: If it's hostile, then get out. But my advice still stands. Find something to do, but don't waste time trying to train yourself to do *everything.*

Being very, very good at one thing will actually give you more job security that being a little bit trained in doing a lot of things.


RE: Ranson, W.V.: It's illegal for an employer to ask where you live. All they can ask is if you foresee any trouble getting to work at the appropriate hour. A recruiter should also abide by the law. Your current job at Farragut clearly shows you can do that.

Mary Ellen Slayter: As far as I know, asking people where they live isn't illegal, unless recruiters are using it as a proxy to discriminate against people for race, gender, religion, etc.


"I am a Caucasian male with a Hispanic surname.": You are -- as you say -- Caucasian. Yes, it would be wrong of you to check "Hispanic" on an application. Also, employers tend to disfavor employees who lie on their applications. And if you truly think that a name and the ability to speak -- or not -- Spanish are all that it is to be Hispanic, and if you truly think that claiming to be a minority will help you get a job, perhaps you need a little bit more education before venturing out there into the "real" world.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thank you. What *are* people thinking?


Dupont: I work in a small office and I'm usually the person listed when we send out job/intern/fellowship announcements. I've never been in this position before, so maybe you can help me out. I feel that we typically lay out we went want to get from applicants (resume, writing sample, cover letter, etc.) and requirements (US work authorization, degree expectation, and on and on), as well as note that due to the volume, we will only contact those applicants we wish to interview. However, it seems that the people who send incomplete applications or do not meet requirements are the ones who pester me through e-mail, wondering about their status or when they can get an interview. What is the proper way to deal with this. Ignore them? Kindly explain that they were not selected for an interview? Tell them to buzz off and read the application guidelines closer next time?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You can kindly tell them to buzz off and read the application guidelines next time. "We regret that we could not fully consider your application, as it was incomplete." Or you could just ignore the unsolicited e-mails.


From one mama to another mama to another mama: And I say an hour is a totally doable commute. If that job really is the poster's passion, she should go for it. Yes, a lot of people (and parents) have long commutes here and everyone survives. It helps to have a two doing the drop-off/pick-up from day care, but it can be done by one person. Not everyone has the 'luxury' of picking where they want to live based on their job and visa versa, so yes, a little flexibility is needed.

Mary Ellen Slayter: But she does have the choice! It's not like she's committed to the job already.

I think people get used to these commutes, then we justify them to ourselves, saying other people have it worse. It just keeps getting worse. It really is a quality of life issue, and we do have control over it, more than we give ourselves credit for.

If this job really is her passion, and the employer won't go for telecommuting, she should consider moving.

I recently bought a house. We ran the numbers, comparing the costs of buying inside the beltway to buying a "cheaper" place further out. The costs of commuting made close-in the clear winner financially and in terms of quality of life. Driving 160 miles a day to and from work would cost an astronomical amount, in terms of gas and wear and tear on your car.


Northern Va.: I have an unusual situation. I have heard of employees telling their bosses off as they leave a job, but never from the perspective of the employee. Unfortunately, I was that employee. Here is my story: for a year and a half I worked in a job that was not intended to be a career (it was a retail store after college -- I have no intentions of going back into retail). Even so, I dedicated a lot of time and effort to that job and was promoted to a management position. Although I had to deal with some strange and stressful personnel issues, I always tried to handle situations to the best of my ability. I had an excellent working relationship with my boss, got along well with others, and was generally successful. My boss, while not perfect, was someone I very much admired and respected. She gave me a good reference and always told her boss about my hard work-basically all the things a good boss should do. Even so, just before I departed for a much better career-oriented job, something inside me snapped. I may have been reacting to frustrations that built up over time or perhaps I was feeling insignificant and left-out, as her new assistants were her best friends. Whatever the reason, I wrote a note listing all of her shortcomings and left it in a place where she would find it (she did-she was the only one that read it).

Needless to say, she was not happy. It has been a year now and I still feel terrible about my actions. I have spent plenty of time dwelling on this and wondering why I, a normally calm and happy person, lost my temper with my boss, whom I still think fondly of. Mostly I am saddened that I erased a year and a half of hard work and also lost someone that could have been a good friend. I realize now that this was entirely MY fault and I am ready to take responsibility for my actions. What is the best way to apologize for my poor judgment? I still like and respect her, and want her to know that I was frustrated, upset, and (obviously) not thinking clearly. Also, have you ever heard of this situation before -- where an otherwise good employee says hurtful things to a good boss as he/she is leaving a job? Is this a normal reaction to leaving a job in which one invests a great deal of effort, or am I just over emotional? I'm not sure if this is your area of expertise, but any advice (from anyone) would be appreciated. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I would apologize. Write her a letter. Then you have to move on. You can't keep dwelling on this.


What could they possibly ask me now?: Hi, Mary Ellen. Tomorrow, for the first time, I'm going into a third interview for a job at a nonprofit. My experience has always been two interviews, then you're either hired or not. Any thoughts on what might be asked of me? It's with the top and second persons there. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: One possibilty: They're trying to decide between a couple of people. Another: This is a formality, and they just want to meet you before signing off on the offer.

Either way, be prepared to ask lots of questions of your own, about the long-term goals of the organization. Big-picture stuff, since you have access to the people who make those decisions.


Wilmington, Del.: I recently failed out of medical school. Before going to school, I worked steadily in a non-medical field for a number of years. Now I need a job. It will probably be short-term as I plan on going back to school next year. There is therefore a three year gap between now and my last paid position. How do I explain this on my resume or cover letter? I am looking for an entry-level scientific research job. Thank you.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Say you've been in med school, but it wasn't for you. That's an asset for the type of job you're looking for, not a problem. Don't try to hide it.


Washington, D.C.: The Hispanic question got me thinking and wonder what other Hispanic people do or what HR people say to do:

When applying for some jobs I've had to fill out (voluntary) a box that asks if I am Spanish, Central, South American or Caribbean heritage. I check yes.

Then there is a question that asks for race. White (not of hispanic origin), African-American, Asian American or Native American (not of hispanic origin). What is a person like me to do? I usually leave that section blank, but wonder if there's something I should be doing.

Thanks for your help. This is something I've wondered for a while.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Those are badly worded questions. As you know, one can be Hispanic and be any "race."


Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for joining us! See you in a couple of weeks.


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

© 2007 The Washington Post Company