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Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 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.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon! I hope all is going well in your workworld. But if it's not? Let us know about it.

I'm working on a column about the academic job market. Any academics (or frustrated wannabe ones) out there? Send me an e-mail at slayterme@washpost.com.

I am also interested in hearing about your career resolutions. If you're willing to share them for a column, e-mail me after the chat.

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Anonymous: I'm so glad you're having a discussion this week. I'm not sure if I should buy my boss a holiday gift. Are gifts for bosses a common occurrence? I've only been here six months. Some background: It's a bit of an "old school" corporation -- lots of money spent on traveling, lunches, parties and prizes for employees, etc. It's all very new to me. In my previous jobs, we never really did gifts -- maybe cards for people you socialized with outside of the office or something homemade for everyone to share (cookies in the lunchroom), but nothing too personal or expensive. Also, we're a two-person department, so there's no one to share the expense with.

Mary Ellen Slayter: No gift for the boss, unless they are also a mentor and somewhat of a friend to you. Even then, keep it simple. Maybe a nice card thanking them for the support they've given you and a gift certificate for the local coffee shop.

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Arlington, Va.: Hello Mary Ellen, thank you for taking my question. I just found out I'm pregnant (5 weeks) and am in the process of looking for a new job out of state. When is the appropriate time to tell potential new employers that I'm pregnant? I don't want to be dishonest but I'm not even telling most of friends and family until after the first trimester. And it seems like an awfully personal thing to share with someone I don't even know. I plan on taking a relatively short maternity leave, mostly for financial reasons, so I can reassure them on that account, but I am worried about knocking myself out of contention if I reveal this too soon. I really just want to do the right thing here. What expectations would a potential employer have for someone in my situation?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I wouldn't mention it at this point. It's perfectly reasonable to keep that to yourself. Of course, it's against the law to discriminate against women for being pregnant, but it's tough to prove.

When to say something? When they actually offer you a job. Then you can make maternity leave part of your negotiations.

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Triangle, Va.: I was laid off in November and told that in order to get my severance, I would need to be here on March 31, 2008. I want to leave sooner and receive my severance; is there anything I can do? And is this a common practice to lay someone off and then make them stay four months to collect the severance? To me it seems like acting in bad faith.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Nope. Severance is not required in a layoff, and if an employer wants to give it, they are free to set the terms. They're using it to keep you around for the time they need you.

Really, they're doing you a favor in some ways. Much better than dropping someone without warning.

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Washington, D.C.: I hate my job. I've been here five months, but I promised I would stay a full year. Partially, my boss is just a very difficult person to work with -- endless (and often pointless) e-mails take up way too much of my time, she seems utterly incapable of doing anything for herself (rather than dashing off a quick thank you e-mail to someone, she'll take the time to forward the e-mail to me with instructions to write the thank you, just as one example), she doesn't understand that I don't have ESP and can't predict when her computer is going to decide when not to work, zero lack of management/priority skills, etc. What was billed a program support has turned into office management and personal assistant type stuff. Would it be terribly wrong for me to start QUIETLY looking for a new job? I'm afraid of burning bridges, but I'm just miserable. I don't want to break promises, but I don't want to hate going to work every day for the next seven months, either.

Mary Ellen Slayter: There's no harm in looking. Just take your time and make sure the next job isn't a repeat of this one. You know, frying pans into fires.

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Anonymous: Re: Gifts for the boss, check with Human Resources to find out if it's even allowed. At my last job, subordinates were not allowed to give their superiors gifts. This was outlined in the policies and procedures manual -- a very good idea. I found it very helpful, and I did not feel any guilt or obligation when they gave us holiday presents.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I can see the wisdom of this, actually, especially at a place that also has rules about gifts to and from clients, suppliers, etc.

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Atlanta, Ga.: RE: Gift for the boss, my division (eight people) is doing a Secret Santa. We drew names. Everyone will reveal themselves on Friday. The budgest is limited to $15 regardless how you divide it. You can give 1 gift for $15 or 15 gifs for $1. A new hire drew my boss's name and has blown the budget. My other co-workers (an myself) are very put off by this. Should we be? How should we handle this?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Eh, ignore it. There's nothing you can do. The new hire is obviously feeling unsure of his or her place in the office and is overcompensating with the too-lavish present.

This is why I hate organized gift-giving in the office. It just amplifies whatever weirdness is already floating around. The chances that someone will be offended, insulted, or let down are just too great. Why bring that to work when you don't have to?

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Newark, N.J.: Mary Ellen, is it wrong/bad to quit a job a few weeks after receiving your bonus? I'm having a case of guilty conscience here, as my managers pushed to get me a promotion and max bonus. I had decided a while ago that I want to leave mid-January and just found out the news about the bonus and promotion. That said, can you offer any advice for me? Thanks so much.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The bonus was a reward for your past performance, not a down payment on your continued services. Leave. No guilt is necessary.

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Washington, D.C.: How does one deal with a boss who does something so egregious that it makes you ready to quit on the spot? Is it ever okay to do so? I feel that this particular boss would be the type to "fire" me once I gave him two weeks notice. But after the events of today, I am ready to quit and join a temp agency tomorrow. Simply not worth it.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Only you can make that call. Is it an ethics issue?

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Anonymous: Re: severance, I've been laid off twice with no notice either time and I would've loved to have had four months notice like Triangle. I did get severance each time, but it was only a few weeks pay. I would've much rather have had time to find a new job and not have to go on unemployment. Unless the severance is really awesome, like six months pay or something, you're much better off this way.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I tend to agree. Of course, there is also a risk that even the promised severance won't be enough to trump the bad morale from the layoff. That is obviously what's happening here. It could better for both parties that the worker just leaves now and forgo the severance.

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Virginia: I'm moving to another department mid-January, but had my performance evaluations by my two bosses last week. Boss A torched my work to a level not even believable to many of my colleagues; Boss B over-compensated -- even told me that's what he was doing -- to "even-out" my overall performance evaluations because he knows Boss A was not fair. Part of me wants to stand up for myself for the wrongful review, but the other part tells me not to make waves since I'm leaving and my overall review ends up being where it should be. What do you think? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Be glad you're getting far, far away from Boss A -- well, as far as you can when you still work for the same employer.

And don't make a habit of badmouthing Boss A to colleagues. Take comfort in the fact that unfair behavior like that tends to be self-limiting in the long run.

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Re: Washington, D.C.: Yes, it is an ethics issue. But I wanted to ask if quitting on the spot was an unforgivable sin or at least very far outside the professional norm. If not, then I am finished today.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You can quit on the spot over a major ethics issue. You'll need to clearly explain the situation in interviews.

But before you quit, are you sure there aren't other options? Anyone you can report the unethical behavior to?

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Anonymous: RE: Gifts for bosses, when deciding to get a gift for your boss, I think it is more about the type of relationship that you have than about the fact that you are a subordinate. I have always been particularly close to my supervisors, rather than a formal boss-worker relationship, and find that a card and a small gift are much appreciated. Emphasis on small, though... not supposed to buy favor, just supposed to demonstrate thanks and gratitude if they are doing a good job by you.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The key word is "small." You really want to avoid any appearance that you are trying to buy favor with the person who, after all, writes your performance reviews and weighs in on your raises.

If you feel like being generous in the office, it's much safer to buy a consumable gift for the group.

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Maryland: While someone cannot 'not hire' you because you are pregnant, you will not legally be entitled to the FMLA protections until you have been somewhere over a year. They might accommodate you, but it won't be required. And if not, they do not have to hold your job or a similar one open for you if you take ANY leave at all beyond what qualifies as sick leave.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, of course. But we can't always start jobs at convenient times, can we? The trick, I think, is to get them to indicate that they want you. Then you can move on to the terms, including how much leave you can take, regardless of the minimum the law requires.

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Anonymous: As someone who did quit a job over several, cumulating ethical issues, I have a follow-up question: All of the interview advice says never to badmouth a former employer. How then do you explain why you left such a position? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Diplomatically. You can talk generally about certain aspects of the job being a bad fit without slamming the employer. Chalk it up to culture, personality, whatever fits. You can also be frank about it, and use their reaction to probe the likelihood of the same situation cropping up at the new company.

You need to work out your answer to this question before you walk into the interview.

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Anonymous: Re: Atlanta, this is exactly the reason why I think offices should ban all public gift giving in any form. From office birthdays to baby/bridal showers to the holidays, it seems as though no matter what someone is left out or feels weird about it or someone feels obligated to overspend. It's hard enough to think of gift ideas for our loved ones; it's even harder to think of gift ideas for people who were thrown together by chance. I resent the implication that my coworkers and I have some sort of friendly and initimate relationship. I can assure you, we do not. If you're my coworker and I know you well enough I will be giving you a present outside of work. I don't need an office-wide e-mail to remind me nor do I need to draw your name out of a hat.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I hear ya.

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Washington, D.C.: I just accepted a job that I don't really want -- and never actually applied for (they contacted me and asked me to come in) -- I accepted, basically, because I've been working on a contract for the last year and a half (happily, though, without even looking for another job) and my more conventional inner voice told me that it was better to have a "permanent" job as opposed to a "temporary" one. How long do I have to stick around before I can try to leave? Is it really a year, minimum?

Mary Ellen Slayter: There is no minimum to stay at a job that you haven't actually started yet ...

Or am I misreading you. Really, if you don't want to work there, call them back and tell them no.

And don't kid yourself about the temporary vs. permanent distinction. In the modern economy, we're ALL temporary.

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Anonymous: Oh boy -- for the person who hates her job and feels more like a personal assistant -- the situation she describes sounds EXACTLY like my last job. I started looking for a new job after a month, but didn't find a new job for seven months. Start looking now -- you don't know how long it will take. I learned my former boss and her habits were 100 percent ingrained, and no matter how many times I tried to talk to her about working styles, it did not help. I actually started getting hives at work from the stress. It's not worth it... look for something new where not only your skills are being used, but where you will actually learn something and have more pleasant working conditions.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Hives? No job should ever give you HIVES!

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Washington, D.C.: I am pregnant and will be telling my boss in a few weeks. My being out next year for any length of time will be a hardship for her. What can I do to make this conversation stay positive? I'm trying to come up with a list of things to address.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Just the fact that you're thinking about this now should help. Be proactive in how your workload will be covered while you're gone. Do you have a general sense of how long you plan to stay out? Do you know your employer's policies? Will a temp be needed? Can you break your job into pieces and share it with several co-workers?

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Re: Washington, D.C.: Thanks for answering. There is no recourse. He is the CEO of our small company (14 people) and has the final say on all hiring/firing. Basically, he hid several employees' laptops from us. Thinking they were stolen, we contacted the authorities, insurance companies, etc. as he watched us freak out. He just revealed to us he had the laptops the whole time and hid them to teach us a "lesson." I am concerned about fraud accusations.

Mary Ellen Slayter: What a nutjob. Run.

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New York, N.Y.: Is it bad to quit first and then start job hunting? I would like to make the transition seamless from one job to the next, but working full-time gives me no time to really do a thorough job search, and, assuming I did have the time for that, I don't know when I would have time during the day to interview. Thanks, Mary Ellen.

Mary Ellen Slayter: It's generally considered safer to job hunt while you still have a job, if only because the current job gives you some leverage in negotiating. It also gives you less time to develop an anxiety disorder from wondering if anyone is actually reading your resume.

But if your bank account can stand the gap in employment, and you don't think you could carve out time for a serious job search otherwise, go for it.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Mary Ellen. I got a job offer that is more aligned with what I want to do and I am going to take it. They want me to start in two weeks which is reasonable. Problem is, my current workplace requires a 30-day notice. Any tips on negotiating a shorter departure?

Mary Ellen Slayter: What happens if you just give them two weeks notice?

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Anonymous: RE: I'm not sure if I should buy my boss a holiday gift: If you feel uncomfortable NOT giving a gift, what about some homemade cookies? It's thoughtful, doesn't break the bank, and doesn't fall into the category of useless item boss doesn't need. Unless they're watching their weight, of course.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Another boss idea. But again, why not just bring in a plate of cookies to share, instead of singling out your boss?

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Anonymous: RE: I hate my job. I've been here five months, but I promised I would stay a full year: You should definitely be looking, but also keep in mind that we can learn useful skills even at jobs we hate. Try to take something positive from the experience. Even if it's just that you learned how to avoid being the annoying boss when it's your turn to supervise someone.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Good point.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi. I just started a new job and I forgot to file for unemployment the last few weeks. I logged back onto the system to let them know I have a job, and it stated that I need to re-register for unemployment since I haven't logged on for a few weeks. What do I do?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Call the unemployment office. You'll need to work this one out with a human being, not the Internet.

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Richmond, Va.: Bosses give their staff gifts, but employees are NOT supposed to give their bosses gifts, thanks for posting that fact. However, if you're new, you'd be well served to discretely ask someone what the tradition there is. And lastly, I finally convinced my office to switch from guilt gifts to pooling our money for a gift to a charity.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I like the charity idea better, but it could still be problematic.

I know that I consider my charitable donations a personal matter; not sure how much I want to negotiate with my co-workers on where to spend them.

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Anonymous: I gave short notice once and started temping. When I need to answer in interviews why I left a permanent job to temp, I always say that I wanted to explore some other career options and temping allowed me to do that. It has never been an issue.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yep. I think sometimes we overthink this.

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Anonymous: Re: Laptop boss: If you aren't securing your laptop properly (locking it to your desk when you aren't there, locking the keyboard when you aren't using it), I don't think he was out of line taking them and hiding them from you. He was a little stupid to let it get as far as filing of police reports and insurance reports. All must ensure these reports are rescinded (laptops were found), but there are any number of companies that do exactly what this boss did to teach people lessons in security.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I disagree. I think this is very childish, and I would not want to work for someone who managed through stunts.

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Arlington, Va.: Mary Ellen: I have an hour commute that will soon be an hour and a half because the company is moving. I am generally happy with my job but this commute is already too long. I would like to telecommute but I am pretty sure this is not an option and I feel backed into a corner to quit. I want to discuss this with my manager but am also afraid of throwing up the flag that I will be leaving before I even have any offer. Any thoughts on the conversation I should have with my manager?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You can float the topic without tipping your hand that you will actually leave. How you bring this up depends on the culture of your office. Perhaps one morning over coffee, you can ask how he or she feels about telecommuting? You may be pleasantly surprised at the accommodations they'd make to keep you.

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Anonymous: Re: Two weeks notice: Supposedly I can be taken to court for any lost profits because they didn't have someone to fill my spot. It was in the company handbook/disclosure I had to sign when I got hired. Oh, I have heard that I would also probably be let go on the spot.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Can you e-mail me after the chat, please?

Firing people on the spot when they resign is not that uncommon, but I've never heard of suing someone for lost profits because they quit.

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Anonymous: Re: Quitting to start job hunting: What if it takes so long you end up having to take something you don't really want? You'll be back in the same boat. I don't understand not having time to job search while working. People do it all the time. Call some headhunters, look at the job Websites, join an association in your field to network, shape up your resume at night. It's a long process. Getting a new job, the RIGHT new job, doesn't happen overnight. You can do it a bit at a time in your off work hours.

Mary Ellen Slayter: And one last word for the impatient job hunter ...

Thanks for all your comments and questions. See you next year!

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


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