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Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008; 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! Hope the new year is treating you well so far.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hello Mary Ellen -- I am looking for some basic information I can pass on to some new hires on "How to be a professional." Over the past year, I have been amazed at the basic instructions I've had to give new grads/new hires. I have had to start with "You are actually expected to come to work every day and be on time, unless you have a previously approved day off or there is an emergency -- in which case you are expected to contact someone at the company" to "please leave your shoes on in meetings" to "no text messaging your friends in front of the client who is paying our bills." I have been AMAZED at the lack of basic professional skills in the past two cycles of hiring recent grads. Can you point me to some information I can share? My company handbook doesn't detail out these specifics, but unfortunatly we are changing that. I just can't beleive these hires need to actually be told this stuff. Please help.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I really like "They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World" by Alexandra Levit. Perhaps you could make it a formal part of the welcome packet for new grads, or just dispense copies as necessary.

Other than that, this is where personal mentoring comes in. Learning to do a job is about so much more than just completing a set of assigned tasks. The also have to learn the various social norms that go along with a new environment. Be patient. These kids just came out of an place where flip-flops, tank tops, constant text-messaging and make-up tests were the norm.

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Washington, D.C.: I think salaries are stagnant in D.C. if not going backwards. What do you and other people think? I just cannot believe that they still are offering salaries from 10 years ago in a lot of places... just wondering if anyone else noticed that.

Mary Ellen Slayter: In general, I don't think this is true, except for a small subset of very competitive entry-level jobs in politics, high-profile nonprofits and media outlets.

What field(s) are you noticing this in?

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Mary Ellen, happy new year. I was wondering if you think it's bad to be quitting a job without another one to jump into. Is it ridiculous to quit, go on a two week vacation and then job search again? Will it take forever?

Mary Ellen Slayter: That mostly depends on your savings account and the field you're in.

How long have you been at this job? And how miserable are you at it?

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Washington, D.C.: Mary Ellen, thanks for taking my question. Prior to leaving my job with an elected official I was given a stack of recommendation letters to use for future jobs, grad school, etc. How do I handle these now that I'm ready to look for a new job? Can I use this as one of my professional references? For what its worth, my potential boss at the job I'm considering applying for knows the elected official personally. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Those letters are nice, especially for grad school. But prospective employers are still going to want to talk to your old boss directly, so make sure he or she knows to expect it.

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Alexandria, Va: Mary Ellen -- Two years ago I started to take exams for career related certifications (think CPA, CFA, etc.) I now have three certifications and am well on my way to four. I think it shows initiative and confirms skills. Other people tell me it is a waste of time. My question is: Is it possible to have too many certifications? Thanks in advance for your comments.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Who are the people who say it's a waste of time? Clients? Mentors? Supervisors? If so, I'd listen. If it's friends or family members in an unrelated field, I'd ignore them.

In general, certifications should be about quality, not quantity.

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Anonymous: Re: except for a small subset of very competitive entry-level jobs in politics, high-profile nonprofits and media outlets: Well, these jobs are why most -- not all, but I'd say the majority -- people come to live in D.C. And yes, offering an entry level salary at 20-25K, which is the same it was 10-15 years ago, is absurd and certaintly stagnant. I think when people complain about the quality of workers in politics, this could be a reason. 60K entry level job in business in Chicago or NYC, or 28K on the hill... most go for the $.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Sure, but that low pay is obviously not much of a deterrent for a certain type of recent grad. Those smart, ambitious young people are attracted to Hill jobs for reasons other than short-term salary. In fact, you could argue that the business jobs in those other cities have to offer those higher salaries to compete with the intangibles those Washington jobs offer.

*Do* people complain about the quality of workers on the Hill?

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Washington, D.C.: My firm represents a lot of financial services companies, and has a very strict "insider trading" policy. I cannot buy or sell stock without getting written approval. I am allowed to purchase shares in mutual funds without approval, but that is it. All this I can understand, except that they say the policy applies to my husband as well. The stock market is something he's always had quite an interest in, and he's thinking about studying to pass the stockbroker series exams. They should have told me about this policy before I started working here! The nature of my job doesn't even give me any inside information, anyway. Can my employer really tell my husband what he can and cannot do? If he gets his dream job, I'll have to quit.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think it's obvious why this applies to spouses as well. Otherwise, why wouldn't you just pass along info to your husband to benefit from it? The company is doing this to protect you (and themselves) from even the appearance of wrongdoing.

Are you sure they didn't tell you about this policy before you started working there? I'd be very shocked if it wasn't in the employee handbook you had to sign off on.

(I work under similar contraints, by the way, like all journalists in the business section of the Post. Even if my employer didn't require it, I would still limit my investing. It's just sound ethics.)

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Anonymous: Hi Mary Ellen. I am 2+ months pregnant and job hunting. Can you remind me when I am supposed to raise the issue and how? The issue of negotiating paid or unpaid time off for maternity leave is always challenging, but especially if you are starting a new gig. I assume that I will not get to that part of an interview process until I am three months in and relatively certain of the future.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Hold off until they make you an offer. Then make maternity leave part of your negotiations.

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Anonymous: Re: Certifications: Personally, I consider some certifications to be a waste of time, if the individual does not complete them in a timely manner, and if they are not directly applicable to the job at hand. I'd rather see someone who went to college part-time apply for an IT position than someone with no college degree and a certification apply for the same job. A CPA certification is extremely valuable, IF it's applicable to your job. I work in a company where it is not relevant in my department. Having a CPA doesn't bring benefit to my area, but if you are an accountant, that is extremely valuable. I guess I'm trying to say don't bring cookies to a taffy-pull. If the certification isn't applicable, don't bring it up.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, a resume can quickly get very crowded.

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Anonymous:>Do people complain about the quality of workers on the Hill? Yes. I have been searching for a job on the Hill for awhile now. I recently discovered that my congressman, who wouldn't consider me, hired a press secretary who doesn't appear to be competent. The word "scholarship" was misspelled in the headline of a press release about, you guessed it, education. I tried not to take that personally.

Mary Ellen Slayter: As well you shouldn't.

Welcome to Washington.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Mary Ellen: I wrote in a few weeks ago about how unprofessional my manager had been to me during my review: saying things to me like I have looks on my face like I think she is making the wrong decision, etc. Well, I took my concern to the company's HR person in charge of these matters and they agreed this was unprofessional. They have now obviously spoken to her and I'm wondering what I can do to lessen the blowback I am receiving from her such as not speaking to me, looking at me, etc.?

Mary Ellen Slayter: If things don't improve in a few weeks, head back to HR ...

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Washington, D.C.: RE: multiple certifications (CFA/CPA, etc): Seriously considering why you are getting these certifications -- I mentor people who want to jump on the certification track and really don't know why. Unless your job is requiring them -- think about why you are doing it and is it worth it. The fact of the matter is if you spend a ton of time and money getting these certifications and not using them (gaining experience in the field) -- they aren't going to help you get a job (people with multiple certifications often apply for our financial analyst jobs and have had no more success getting past the initial interview -- which asks about work you have DONE -- than people without certifications). You rarely need multiple ones -- unless you are being paid to testify as an expert.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Another take on certifications.

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Anonymous: RE: lower salaries: I have definitely been noticing a drop in what orgs are willing to pay editors and writers, even with master's degrees. I'm looking for jobs in the Pacific Northwest because of it.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Are you find that they are higher there?

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Philadelphia, Pa. Those smart, ambitious young people who have the luxury of taking a job that doesn't pay well, or taking an unpaid internship to get a foot in the door. And those things are luxuries that just aren't available, or at least not available without an exceptionally high level of sacrifice, for many, many, many graduates. You shouldn't have to choose between your career and your sanity or your minimal degree of comfort/security in order to get a job. Is it possible to live on $28k in D.C. with roommates? Yes, of course. But add in the debt that many less privileged grads are saddled with and that may not be as plausible a scenario. That's who really gets hurt -- smart, ambitious kids whose parents can't chip in for rent as they rise through the ranks. If organizations can't pay a living wage that reflects the cost of living and the cost of attaining the education/experience required for a position, maybe they need to reflect on their finances -- not force workers into harsh situations or out of fields their chosen fields.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I see your point, for sure. But the fact is, they aren't going to pay a penny more than the minimum to fill these jobs.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Are you sure they didn't tell you about this policy before you started working there? I'd be very shocked if it wasn't in the employee handbook you had to sign off on: I am positive they did not tell me. I found out on my first day when I had to sign the agreement. My boss should have mentioned it during the interview, but she didn't. She told me recently she was going to start doing so.

Mary Ellen Slayter: That is a mistake on their part, then.

But it still leaves you with a choice to make if your husband gets this other job. The two of you will have to make a decision about this; either way, it's a tradeoff.

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Maryland: Yes an employer can apply the financial restrictions to spouses. I was bank examiner at one time in my life, and that was the rule there as well. The thinking is that there is nothing your spouse purchases that doesn't benefit you as well, so the restriction applies to both. The poster named the only other alternative -- accept the restriction or walk. Not sure about where she is employed, but at some jobs there are legal penalities associated with not complying, up to and including possible criminal action.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: I am completing an application for employment. There is a question, reason for leaving. How do you recommend answering that question? I sent a resume, completed a telephone interview, and am invited for a personal interview. Please note: This is not an entry-level position. Any suggestions?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Well, *why* are you leaving?

Most people say they want a new opportunity, or something else equally bland. Is the truth more interesting in your case?

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Washington, D.C.: I'm interested in hearing from any Hill workers out there. I've been looking for a job only on Capitol Hill -- my dream job. A year has passed, and all the deadlines I've given myself have come and gone with no offers. I've got a half a dozen interviews, which I feel have gone really well. Some of the feedback I've gotten is that there was just a more qualified candidate. I've gone on countless informational interviews. These have been helpful as well but everyone seems to be saying the same thing: have patience and keep at it. I really, really want to find a job by the end of next month, and I don't want to look elsewhere. The Hill is what I've always wanted. I feel like I'm spinning my wheels what with all the networking and job applications.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Keep at it, especially the networking.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi, I'm in my early 20's and just completed my master's. I'm getting ready to head back into the job market, but am having trouble answering an often posted requirement from employers: salary requirement. How do I handle this? In my previous job I made low 30's. Do I ask for a range of 30-40K? Also, HOW do I supply this information? Do I put it in the cover letter (which would seem like an odd placement), or as a separate attachment? Any help you can give me on this would be appreciated, I for one would rather not answer this question until an interview, it is annoying, but a constant, tactic that employers seem to use when advertising positions. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'd include it as a line in the cover letter.

Salary requirement doesn't bug me.

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Anonymous: Hello Mary Ellen, I am a property manager in Rockville, Md.. I have managed the same property for five years which is almost unheard of in my business. Recently my property was sold to a company out of Texas. I am now out of work and have been on three interviews without getting any offers. What am I doing wrong on my interview?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Can you ask the people who interviewed you? You might be surprised at how candid they will be.

If you don't get anywhere there, try working with a recruiter.

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Re: Washington, D.C.: Please don't be so naive to think that you work and exist in your own individual world. Your husband makes a profit and so do you, even if you didn't directly have anything to do with it. Do you both share a bank account? Yes? That should say all it needs to right there.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I assume she probably gets this now, but it's got to be frustrating to find out about the policy after interviewing for the job.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Salaries: I know you talk about the mistakes that interviewees make during the job search process -- bad cover letter, resume typos, drunk pictures on MySpace, etc. But when I was searching for a job two years ago, I found an advertisement from a big D.C. nonprofit that was outrageous. They were asking for three to seven years of experience and offering a salary of $30,000. In the spirit of Ms. Hax, WOW.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I wonder how many applicants they had.

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Capitol Hill: There's a certain member of Congress from the Garden State who pays entry-level staff assistants $19,000 a year. Thats tough. For those looking for a job on the Hill, a lot of times you have to start out as a staff assistant, unless you have some great experience, a law degree, or have some serious connections. I made that mistake when I first started looking for a job on the Hill. Thought with all my knowledge as a fresh college graduate I should be a legislative assistant. That fantasy quickly ended and I got a job as a staff assistant in a great office and moved up to LA/press secretary. Adjust your expectations. And yes, I can spell "scholarship" correctly.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You almost have to think of the job as a paid internship. Hey, at least you're not paying another year of tuition.

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Anonymous: I have noticed a publishing job trend that the big East Coast houses have stopped competitive salaries and the nonprofit associations this area is known for is trying to hire some Web/editorial/reporter hybrid at lower salaries, while the Northwest is moving toward better salaries with sound companies such as Microsoft and Amazon.

Mary Ellen Slayter: On one hand ...

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Anonymous: Re: Pacific NW job hunter: The housing bubble hasn't burst in Seattle or Portland -- or Boise for that matter. Be realistic about your housing needs and take that into account with "higher" salaries. I lived in Seattle 1996-2005 and in Boise during most of 2005. Seattle especially does pay well -- employers compete with Microsoft, Safeco, etc. and that keeps things high. Beware the killer housing costs, terrible traffic and gloomy weather 8-9 months a year. Good news -- no state tax.

Mary Ellen Slayter: And then the other ...

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Anonymous: RE: quitting a job without another one to jump into: Call a temp agency now and set up an appointment. You can put the temp agency on your resume and indicate that you are temping for them. At least you won't have a blank for what you're currently doing.

Mary Ellen Slayter: This is why temp companies exist, at least from a workers perspective ...

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Re: why are you leaving: Department head is verbally abusive, disregards policies, expects 100 hour work week, wants misleading reports prepared and distributed in my name, etc.

Mary Ellen Slayter: "New opportunity, new opportunity, new opportunity"

Chant with me now.

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Washington, D.C.: Have ever considered doing a column on the egregious mistakes that interviewers make? Could be a good idea. Boy do I have some whoppers.

Mary Ellen Slayter: E-mail 'em my way!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Mary Ellen! I have a job on my resume that I left for ethical reasons, yet the responsibilities that I performed there help me get interviews in my dream-job world. Of course, every prospective employer wants to know why I left said job, and I'm wondering if it makes sense to use my departure to showcase that I'm an ethical applicant. Any suggestions?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You need that chant, too. See above.

Keep those warm and fuzzy ethical feelings to yourself during the interview process. It'll just sound weird when you try to explain it in that compressed format.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: But, just because organizations can get away with it, doesn't mean they should or even that it is in their own best interest. The Wal-Mart vs. Costco debate is ongoing, but it seems like organizations that take a page from Costco and offer a liveable entry-level wage in order to attract a more diverse group of applicants may end up ahead of the game in the long run, even if it required a larger initial monetary investment. Not applying for an awesome, but low-paying, job out of principle may just be shooting yourself in the foot. But not recognizing and reflecting on the growing disparity between students who can take those jobs and those unpaid internships and students who cannot is also a problem. It's a tactic approval of a system that continually makes it (often prohibitively) difficult for people to work their way up.

Mary Ellen Slayter: So what do you propose?

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions! I'll see you back here in a couple of weeks.

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