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Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008; 3:00 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! Sorry about the delay. Holidays weeks can get rather crazy. Lots of good questions already in the queue, so let's get started ...

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New Around Here: Any tips on things to do (and not do) during the first few weeks on a new job? Just got a new job in the city after working at my last job for four years (and went to grad school prior to that). I'm always wondering if I'm making the right impression.

-The New Kid on the Block

Mary Ellen Slayter: Congrats on the new job! A couple of things off the top of my head:

1. Even if you're a natural extrovert, listen far more than you talk for at least the first few weeks. You'll pick up on the office dynamics a lot faster.

2. Make sure you get the training you need for computer and voicemail systems. Keep written notes and handouts close by. Don't make your new boss tell you how to do something twice.

Any other suggestions, chatters?

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Rockville, Md.: I just have to vent. I supervise a group of workers, who all fall into the Millenials category, and, I'm sorry to say, fulfill all the stereotypes. In the past week, I've had to deal with one of them taking a day off without permission, two of them being rude to co-workers outside of our department, both through e-mail and in-person, and another one asking me to do a task that is part of her job so that she can take a day off.

They've been pretty reasonable about following our office's guidelines up until now, but for some reason, this has all happened this week. We're having a meeting next week, and office etiquette will again be a topic of discussion. I have been pretty easy-going with the entire group up until now because they've followed the rules up until now, but I'm going to have to set stricter guidelines. But honestly, who ever thought that asking for permission to take leave and being polite to coworkers would have to be explained?

I am part of Generation X, and it would never have occurred to me to do any of those things at work. I have friends who supervise other millenials and they see the same behaviors. It's really unbelievable.

Mary Ellen Slayter: We happily take vents here. I understand your frustration, but I don't think this is generational. I'm old enough (just barely) to remember when people said the same things about Gen Xers. And no doubt people said the same thing about Boomers back in the day.

Yes, you need to set policies that are both strict and clear. Most of your "kids" should figure out what's expected pretty quickly.

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Richmond, Va.: I'm curious as to when is too soon to start applying for jobs? I'm graduating in May and I want to beat my peers to the market. I've seen too many colleagues stuck in their parent's basements because they didn't start early enough.

When should I start applying? If I apply a few months in advance, should I just make note on my resume that I won't be available until May or June?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Will it scare you if I point out that you're actually running a bit *late* in your post-graduation job search?

Yes, make a note about your expected grad date in your resume. You should also include this information in your cover letter. None of this will surprise employers who hire entry-level workers.

How have your internships been? Have you been hitting any of the college job fairs?

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Washington, D.C.: When is it too early to leave a position? I've learned of new openings at a government agency, and want to know if I can jump ship from my current nonprofit job. How could/should I explain to my current/potential employer about the move?

Mary Ellen Slayter: About a year is standard, but obviously people leave sooner.

It may take you a while to actually get a new job, so you might as well start applying. The application process for government jobs can be especially drawn out.

If you take another job, there's nothing really to "explain" about why you left. Just give proper notice and thank them for the opportunity to work there.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the etiquette for calling employers after an interview about the status of my application? I interviewed for my dream job and was told that they were going to give me feedback in a few weeks. During that time, I have received another great job offer that requires that I start asap. That puts me in a bind -- either I say no to the second in case I might get the first, (risking that I might have neither) or saying yes to the second, and getting the first (risking that I lose my dream job). My decision could be helped by knowing how strong a candidate I am for the first job. Advice?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Call the people at Job #1 and tell them you have an offer. Ask them how soon they could give you a thumbs up or thumbs down. Hold off the people at Job #2 as long as you respectfully can.

This is a happy problem, I think!

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I was employed as a part-time telecommuter by a company based in Maryland. I live in Philly. About two weeks ago, I was laid off as a part of a company-wide "reduction in forces." I filed for unemployment, but just yesterday, my former manager called and offered me my same job back, except that it is a full-time job. He also shared with me that the reason he was offering me this job back is because someone else on my former team quit.

I have two small children, and working full-time for me is not an option, and it never has been (I expressed this directly to my former employer). I am exceptionally suspicious about this offer, and I am wondering if it is actually some tactic to keep from having to pay my unemployment. In this situation, from Maryland unemployment's perspective, am I really being offered my old job back since the position I am being offered is full-time? I am very confused and have yet to reach a live person at Maryland's Division of Unemployment Insurance. Any help or insight you could offer here would be greatly appreciated.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Of course they would rather pay you to work for them than pay you unemployment to NOT work for them, especially if you were a good worker. Is there no chance that he's trying to give you a real job, since one opened up. Perhaps he forgot that you weren't interested in full-time work. Maybe he thought you needed a job.

Do you have other reasons to suspect this offer isn't legit? Are they generally a shady company?

Any Maryland employment lawyers out there want to weigh in? It would seem unfair to me if turning down this not-quite-the-same job caused you to lose your unemployment benefits.

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RE: Rockville: Actually, while I agree that it can be stressful to manage people who you don't feel meet your work ethics, one request wasn't really so bad: for you to perform a task so that the worker could take a day off.

That's a great opportunity to explain how he/she needs to manage priorities so that they can take time off without it negatively impacting their job performance.

I agree, some of that behavior is really bad. But on the other hand, it sounds like at least one is teachable.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for your comment.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm about to start maternity leave, but wondered how to answer questions about coming back when I'm not sure I will? Because I know women can and do change their minds every day. I haven't really tried to be positive about what my plans are. But is this the best approach? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Does your boss know about your ambivalence? That's the only person whose opinion I would be concerned about. I'd be polite but vague with everyone else.

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Washington, D.C.: Have you ever considered doing a column on interviewers who don't contact applicants at all after the interview process?

I've been interviewing for roughly a year now and am always surprised when I encounter this. This last one I was on lasted 1 hour and 45 minutes. I felt it was a really good interview. All my follow-up e-mails and calls were, however, ignored. The way I found out I didn't get it was when I saw the position being advertised again ten days later.

I have got plenty more stories similar to that.

Maybe this happens so frequently because interviewers don't know any better. You should address this in an upcoming column.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I hate, hate, hate this. I understand that hiring managers are busy, but any time you speak directly with someone about a job, they deserve to hear from you personally that they didn't get it. Brushing people off like this doesn't really save you any time or energy (repeatedly deleting their e-mails and voicemails is more work than just calling them ONCE and letting them know!)

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For the "Newbie": Please, whatever you do, don't go around saying, "I don't know, I'm new." That's the best way to have any knowledge or authority undermined. If you don't know, say you don't know but you're happy to find out. Take notes on everything and keep a binder or notebook for them. I think Mary Ellen's advice about listening more than you talk is excellent.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes!

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Landover, Md.: Why do employers ask, before they even ask you for an interview, how long it would take you to move and start the job? (I am looking for a job out of state). I got an e-mail last week from a job I applied for, asking not for an interview but why I was applying for the job if I live in another state, and how long would it take for me to start. Isn't that to be discussed AFTER or DURING an interview?

Mary Ellen Slayter: That seems a fair question to me if they have a hard start-date. Why waste time going through interviews if you can't make it over in time for their needs.

I'm impressed that they contacted you at all. Many employers just toss all the out-of-state applications.

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Catch-22: I want to change careers, but I keep running into the catch-22 of not being able to get a job because I have no experience in the new field, and not being able to get experience in the new field without a job. Recruiters don't seem to care about how many classes you've taken -- they just want experience. How do you find an entry-level job if you're not a recent college graduate?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You've got to stop thinking of yourself as having "no experience." You DO have experience. Now your job is to show how the experience you do have can translate to this new position. Are internships a possibility?

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Underpaid, USA: Last year, I accepted a promotion and am now the director of my division. Among all the directors I am the youngest, the only woman and the only one without a doctoral degree. However, I oversee the largest and fastest growing budget and am recognized as a very high performer.

I received an increase when I was promoted, but it has since come to my attention that my colleagues are paid roughly 50 percent more that I am. I would like to request an additional increase given that my division is doing so well. However, in the past HR has made it clear that seniority and advanced degrees are major criteria for determining salary at our organization. Any advice on how to proceed? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You can certainly ask. The worse they can do is say no.

If they say no, at least you already know what to do next: get older and get a doctorate.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a phone interview this week with a company I'd previously applied to. The first go around -- I'll admit it -- the position was a bit of a reach and I didn't get the job. I stayed in periodic contact with the hiring manager and applied again to a position that fits me to a tee.

The hiring manager responded within a day of having submitted my resume. I spoke briefly with this person on the phone last week, and she remembered who I was and seemed enthusiastic to be speaking with me again in regards to this new position.

I don't want to get too excited too soon, but is this a good sign? What should I say when I speak with her this week to "knock her socks off"?

I should also mention that this job is out of state, and I would have to relocate if I were to receive an offer (and I definitely want to move).

Thoughts? Advice?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You're in a good spot. When you speak to her again, focus on the experience and qualifications you have for this specific job.

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Washington, D.C.: My personal evaluation/appraisal is due today at work. I wrote it yesterday afternoon, but it's very long, nearly four pages single spaced. I'm an entry-level assistant dying to get ahead and who has taken on loads of extra responsibilities. Should I make this shorter? How long should these typically be?

Mary Ellen Slayter: That is way too long for an entry-level assistant. Cut it in half. Don't catalog everything you do. Instead, pick out the highlights, concentrating on the stuff that you do above your current job title.

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Washington, D.C.: I just read your column on interviewing, and thought it had a lot of good tips on preparing for an interview. My question is a little different: How do you properly interview a company? I've had nie different jobs since I've lived in D.C., and none of them were exactly what I expected. That is probably normal, but some of them have been awful -- abusive bosses, sexual harassment, completely unrealistic ideas about what the position would entail, etc. I've noticed that I get a better fit when I interview with more people -- is that acceptable to ask for when offered a job? ("Hi, I'm worried this office will be crazy, can you let me meet several other people who work here?") What are good questions that might me help suss out whether or not a prospective boss is just plain mean? I don't have a problem asking questions at interviews, so if I just need to ask more specific questions and learn to listen to my gut, that would be fantastic. Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Missed that column? Read it here: For the Interview, Your Motto Is 'Be Prepared', (Post, Feb. 17)

Mary Ellen Slayter: Your gut is your friend. Listen to it.

It is absolutely fine to ask to meet with more people -- the people you will work with as well as the main person you will work for.

Don't ask if someone is "mean" or if a place is "crazy." Ask about the office culture. Ask your prospective supervisor to describe his management style. Then, ask the people who work for him to describle his style.

_______________________

Reston, Va.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I have currently been working in a high end retail clothing store for about 10 years ... I do a bachelor's degree in management from a good school. I am trying to transition from the retail world to the corporate world, but having trouble landing interviews. I am trying to transition into starting as an HR assistant, recruiter or event exec. assistant ... but I think my lack of office experience hurts me. Any suggestions on ways to land interviews? Monster and Careebuilder haven't been fruitful so far.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Is there no path upward in your current company? I would think HR for a retail company would be a great match for you ...

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Mclean, Va.: I started at my job about eight months ago. One third of my team is virtual, and at my interview my boss said that I could be virtual once I had proved myself. My boss just left the company and our team is being merged with another team. No one from the other team is virtual. What is the best way to approach this subject with my new boss?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Tell your new boss about the understanding you had with your old boss, but know that your clock for proving yourself may have to turn back a bit.

_______________________

Chicago, Ill.: I used to live in D.C., and would like to return. Some days, I consider packing it in and moving back without a job. Would my job hunt be easier, if I lived in the area again? I am an attorney.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think you could pull it off, as long as your bank account could handle a few months of unemployment.

_______________________

Anonymous: I was an accounting major and recently switched to mass media communications. I just hated accounting and couldn't see myself in a career in that field. It pushed my graduation back a semester but I feel it will be worth it.

So my question is how hard is it to get a job in the production field or radio/television. That is what I truly want to do and want to know where to start.

Mary Ellen Slayter: It's pretty hard. You can expect to work for very little pay for a few years. Since you're this close to graduation, I'd consider switching back to the accounting degree and take the appropriate mass comm classes and internships on the side. A degree in mass media communications won't matter nearly as much as the hands-on experience.

_______________________

Richmond, Va.: When workmates are rude to me, I hold a grudge. Example: The 80-year-old secretary next to me is really loud and I "turn a deaf ear" to it. Well, last week I raised my voice over her to ask happily if someone was going to the after-work party. She said in a demeaning way, "Don't ever yell over me. Thank you." Later, she apologized, but I still feel a little mad, since I felt put down. I'm much quieter now, too. Let me know how to deal with anger at co-workers. I'm wondering if I need a thicker skin, and need to keep some distance emotionally between myself and co-workers so that I won't be hurt.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yep, you need to get thicker skin. And you need to brush up on office etiquette yourself. It's bad form to talk over people like that.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: It's time to find a new career for me. I am at a standstill at my current job, don't have any work to do, and am not contributing anything. When I ask for more work, its usually something to do for an hour or two then its back to web surfing. The industry I work it has its ebbs and flows, but this has been going on for some time now. I know that its time for me to move on and want to translate my writing and editing skills into a position in PR or sales, but I can't find anything that even remotely looks interesting to me. I've been working for 8 years now, and don't want to manage people, but don't want to sit behind a desk either. Is it hard to break into PR from a writing background?

Mary Ellen Slayter: No, people make that shift all the time. But you do realize that PR people spend most of their time sitting at their desks, right?

_______________________

RE: Md. Unemployment: If I remember correctly from my Employment Relations days, if you've filed for unemployment you're required to let them know of any interviews and offers you receive. If you fail to do so then you run the risk of having your benefits terminated. They also expect that any reasonable offer of employment be taken into consideration. You may have a hard time explaining why you can't take this job.

Talk with the old boss. See if you can do a reduced FT schedule, say 25-30 hours a week. Are you sure you wouldnt' be able to accomodate a FT position working from home? I'm not saying working from home is a picnic, but think about it from all angles before you say no. Good luck!!!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks!

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Dumfries, Va.: I recently went for an interview and they asked me questions like: how do I spend my day, how did I handle problems with other employees, how do I handle a problem with my supervisor, the company has five virtues and which one do you feel is your strongest and weakest, how did I handle re-doing someone's job, and other similar questions. I answered best I could by relating to my 33 years of service with the federal government. The next day I was told that I was too long winded, didn't get to the point, and didn't get the job. How do you answer these questions in one or two sentences? The job was for a low-level position and I was interviewed by three people.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Those questions are standard, and you should definitely be able to answer them in a sentence or two. Briefly give them one example for each question, not 33 years' worth.

I know this sort of criticism stings, but these interviewers actually did you a huge favor. This is a fixable problem.

_______________________

Maternity Leave: I would just say I plan to be back by May 10 or whatever day your leave ends. You never know if you'll want to stay home until you do it. Many of my friends who wanted to stay at home when pregnant opted to go back to work and visa versa. You want the option of going back to work ...

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks.

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RE: Reston, Va.: I don't know if this is possible but you should quit your current retail job and start temping. That's an excellent way to get office experience. Plus, temp agencies want to place you in positions that you listed. Once they get to know you they can give you a leg up and you'd certainly fare better than you are now.

Of course, temp. work may not be steady so maybe you can ease out of your current job.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Good suggestion.

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Pennsylvania: On not being contacted after a good interview. I think this is a large part of what makes the job hunting process so painful. You do everything right -- good resume, work samples, take a day for the interview, do your research on the company, ask intelligent questions, send thank you notes after the interview, and then NOTHING. It's so frustrating. And rude. I wouldn't even mind hearing that I didn't get the job ... I just want to hear SOMETHING.

Mary Ellen Slayter: YES! This is why this is just such a pet peeve of mine.

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Quitting: So, I've given my notice (wow, I feel so good about it!). But I'm very concerned about my "exit interview." Our office is seven people. No HR office (but that's basically my job, along with about a thousand other tasks). I know there will be some sort of quasi exit interview, but I'm terrified of burning the bridges so badly that I get nothing but scathing remarks should future employees call. The problem is, there are MAJOR problems with the company and position, and I feel like they should know these things (or at least my take), if only to make the office function a little smoother, and the job a little better for whoever gets my position.

Although I don't have that much hope that my comments will be taken seriously. After all, 100 percent turnover the past two years apparently hasn't clued anyone in. Advice?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think you know your answer. If the turnover hasn't made a dent, I doubt your comments will. Be brief and polite, and be glad you're leaving.

_______________________

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions! See you in a few weeks.

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