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Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 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! I sure hope you're managing to get some work done today, not being distracted by all that pretty sunshine outside ...

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Manassas, Va.: I am 17. I'm a high school drop-out with no experience. It seems like nobody will even think of hiring me for anything. Is there anything I can do to make myself look better without years of experience?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Get your behind back in school. First, high school (or GED), then community college.

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Centreville, Va.:1. My cubemate talks incessantly which I've done several things to avoid: headphones, etc. I finally took my stuff and began working from an empty space down the hall. I just said my computer was giving me trouble and needed to move. Now she comes down the hall to talk, talk, talk. I don't even lift my eyes from the screen, yet she continues talking. How do I nicely tell her that I have a ton of work, unlike her I suppose?!?!

2. This job is a means to an ends (i.e., school, rent). Once I finish school I very much plan to move on. I get along with the big boss but I do a lot more work/ot than many others. In fact, a lot of their work spills onto me. My title is intern so I'm expected to do everything. Yet when bonuses and raises came around, I got screwed. (Not just my opinion.) Since I do plan to leave in 1.5-2 years, should I just keep my head down and take it? Or should I say something about fairness?

Mary Ellen Slayter:1. Have you directly told Ms. Chatty that you don't have time to talk? Or let her know directly that she's distracting you? The passive-aggressive approach clearly isn't working. You don't even have to be a jerk about it. Just say you're distracted easily and can't handle too much chatting at work. When she comes by to talk, just say sorry, not a good time. Eventually she'll get it. If she doesn't talk to your boss about it.

2. I can't say I have ever heard of anyone getting ahead based on what's "fair." If you like working there, make the case for a promotion and a raise. Otherwise, look for another job.

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Downtown NYC: In my small department of a large company, one colleague reports to our supervisor EVERY word he overhears or is told. Some things are big and personal -- he recently believed someone was seeking another job, another scheduling surgery. Some are minor grumbles about long meetings or extra work, and others are petty, like someone arrived five minutes late for work. Ironically, the current boss did the same thing for 15 years: one supervisor blew him off, the next one rewarded him with a bigger job. Everyone is fearful of saying anything, and even the perception of a differing opinion means being publicly reprimanded, thanks to the 'town crier' -- and his job is not to tell tales, this is just something he does. A woman who suggested to our supervisor that this behavior was counterproductive was forced out. Any ideas on handling this? Please don't suggest going to HR -- this IS HR.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Anyway you can just freeze him out? How is he getting all this information?

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Washington, D.C.: Put simply, is there any advice you can give to me in order to hold off on giving an answer to a job offer while waiting to complete other (second) interviews with other organizations? Do I tell the truth about the other interviews? Do I lie and just ask to think it over? I don't want to lose the offer but I definitely prefer other opportunities. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Tell Job #1 that you need time to consider their offer -- no more than a week. Then tell the other interviewers that you have an offer, and see if they'll move up their schedule to interview you. If they want you, they will.

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Raleigh, N.C.: I'm applying for positions outside of my local region (one area of the U.S. and one country outside the U.S.).

What's the answer to the question, "How soon would you be able to start?"

It seems cagey to answer, "Two weeks' notice is standard for leaving my current place of employment." And although I'm prepared to move, that's not the same as being able to leave my current job and move within two weeks. It's also not possible for me to move without having a job lined up (not to mention impossible, in the case of the overseas hunt).

Is there a better answer, without sounding weaselly or unprepared?

Mary Ellen Slayter: There's nothing weaselly about asking for enough time to move. How long do you think it will take? At minimum, it seems that you'll need at least the two weeks to wind things up at your old company and one to two weeks to move yourself, depending on your family circumstances. If they can't wait a month for you, the job wasn't meant to be.

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Washington, D.C.: How often should an individual offered a position by a federal agency contact the agency to check on the progress of his/her "paperwork"? Specifically, I have been offered a position, in writing, requiring a security clearance several weeks ago. It is now going into the fourth week and I have still not received any information on obtaining the clearance, fingerprinting, etc.

I have established a minimal dialogue with my point of contact at the agency, and am always told that things are forthcoming. When, if ever, is it alright to contact the person who I will be working for, or the official who made the formal offer, to question the progress of my paperwork? I do not want to appear overly anxious, and, at the same time, do not want to appear to be too lax on the matter. In short, is there a standard protocol for dealing with these matters? My current employer knows I am leaving, and also needs the information so they can post my current position.

Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You absolutely can contact the person you'll be working for.

You should also keep calling the agency contact once a week.

You knew this was going to take a while, right?

Any other thoughts, chatters?

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Arlington, Va.: I'm in search of a position within the news media. The only problem is that I have absolutely no experience within this industry. My experience lies in real estate, mainly in the demand analysis and market research areas. Moreover, my last few positions have been in Chicago, San Diego and then Alexandria, Va. I get the feeling that my job-hopping has hurt me.

I've tried everything: from submitting resumes to even driving to New York City to NewsCorp's office and waiting in the lobby for a human resources rep. to come down and interview me (I was never interviewed. The rep that came down even said that I was circumventing the process and it may have hurt me to show up at the door). What advice can you give to a talented individual with no experience, but has the persistence and ambition to succeed in the news media industry? How can I get the interview?

Mary Ellen Slayter: What kind of "news media industry" job are you looking for?

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Frederick, Md.: I am currently on hiatus from working and looking for next assignment, however, it seems that things have changed drastically. Do you really need to know someone in order to get your foot in the door?

Mary Ellen Slayter: It helps immensely. But that doesn't mean you have no control over your prospects. It just means you need to get those feet of yours out there and into more places. Attend professional conferences and job fairs.

I'm not sure what you mean by "changed drastically," though. This is pretty much how hiring has always worked.

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Rockville, Md.: I have been trying to get a new job for over eight years! Why no openings? Could it be the old job is blocking me from leaving? Could it be the economy is that bad?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I definitely don't think you can blame the economy for an 8-year gap! The economy here has been pretty strong for most of that time. Have you considered working with a career coach or counseler to see what you're doing wrong?

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Dulles: Are job fairs really a better way of finding a new job? Or should I rely on the flood of phone calls and e-mails I get whenever I activate my resume on Monster?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You should use both. At job fairs, you actually meet people, which gives you a chance to ask lots of questions of your own.

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Security clearance: Depending on what level of clearance you're talking about -- it may take months. Normally, you are given an idea of how long at the start of the process. I would ask for a basic timeline and then remember that these things can fall behind schedule.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, this step can really drag out the process ...

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Atlanta, Ga.: My job has become unstable in the last couple of months. I am pregnant and showing. How do I go about interviewing for a job when the potential employer knows I am going on maternity leave in a few months?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You make the maternity leave part of your negotiations. Know that it may not involve paid leave, but if they want you badly enough, they'll try to work something out.

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Washington, D.C.: Currently interviewing for a new job. I've been in my current job for six months, but I haven't listed it on my resume because I don't want it to seem like I'm "job hopping" (previous job before that was one year in place). What do I answer to the question "can we contact your current supervisor?"

Mary Ellen Slayter: You stop lying on your resume. I mean, what is your plan come interview time? To pretend that you're unemployed?

As for contacting your supervisor, say "no" or make that access contingent on them making an offer.

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Alexandria, Va.: At my current job, we get raises in March and all employees who score above a certain level on their annual review get a bonus (I've had excellent reviews for all four years I've been at the company). I was recently offered a job at a company that is currently my client. My current boss heard that the client company wanted to take some of his people, asked the client company who specifically, and was told that they had offered jobs to me and to two others.

My current boss then asked me if I was taking the new job, and at the time, I was so surprised that he even knew about the new job, I just told him, that yes, I probably was. Then my boss told me that because of that, I was not getting the raise or the bonus, to which I replied that I hadn't even officially resigned (I wasn't 100% sure I was going to accept). I told him as much, and he said that if I didn't resign, he might fire me for "being disloyal."

I'm not sure what to do in this situation -- I don't feel that my boss should have asked the client who they were taking, that the client should have told him who they were taking, that my boss should have point-blank asked me whether I was going when I hadn't mentioned the new job at all, or that I should be denied the bonus (which is for past good performance).

I wasn't even sure I was going to take this job and now it seems I'm stuck. Suggestions on what to do now? Also, if this happens again, how should I have answered my boss -- should I have lied and said I wasn't taking the new job? Or put the question off somehow? Thank you in advance for your answer.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Find a whole new company to work for. This client company sounds like a nightmate. Why on earth would they disclose that?!?

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Largo, Md.: How can I search for a part-time or telecommute job preferably in the evening in the D.C. metro area? My preference is administrative work of some sort.

Mary Ellen Slayter: There's plenty of part-time admin work out there. For that, you could just call a temp agency!

But the combination of those things is going to pretty hard to pull off. Most admin jobs are day hours, and they aren't compatible with telecommuting.

Any ideas, chatters?

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Am I really that old?: Over the past year, I've managed a number of people who are three to four years younger than I am (27). While a couple have been stellar, the rest make me feel like a grouchy old woman. One insisted on sitting at my desk while he was working on a project so he could ask me questions whenever he wanted -- approximately one every five minutes. When I asked him to go back to his desk for 45 minutes so I could finish something up he complained about me kicking him out. Despite having been with the company for two years, another seems to lack the ability to complete a task unless given detailed step-by-step instructions. And if I leave a step out, no matter how intuitive, there's hell to pay. (If I told you to get a glass of water, would I have to tell you to take the glass out of the cabinet first?) Then there's the one who shows no initiative in solving his own problems -- he'll just stop working until I'm available to help him, even if we miss a deadline.

I can't accomplish anything at work some days because I'm constantly juggling my own obligations with the hand-holding that's expected of me. If I refuse, things just don't get done. And because the work still gets done, my bosses are simply amused by these "quirks". Most people at or above my level are indepent, functioning professionals, so this can't possibly cut it in the long run. How do I save my sanity?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I don't think this is an age issue. These are just poor workers. That said, it's your job to whip them into shape. You need to work on being direct and clear about your expectations. How did this guy "insist" on sitting at your desk for so long?

And don't think of this as somehow separate from "your work." Supervising these people is your work, and will always consumer a good chunk of your days.

Welcome to the joys of middle management!

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Arlington, Va.: In response to your question regarding the type of media position: I'm looking for something in the marketing or business analyst end of the industry. I feel I'm qualified for most positions I've applied for (my skills from real estate translate well) but cant get an interview. Is it wrong to drop off a resume in person and not take no for an answer? I was always taught, if you want something bad enough go and get it. Persistence pays?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for following up. This helps immensely.

Each industry has its hiring norms. You need to develop contacts in the industry you're trying to break into to find out what those are. Professional conferences are a great source of information and contacts. Seek out informational interviews.

I can't speak much to the business side personally, but on the news side, you're expected to work your way up from smaller organizations to larger ones. In your case, that means working for a small local paper or TV station, perhaps even as an intern, to get started.

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For Largo Part-timer: Try looking at churches or community centers. I work at my church, the pay is excellent and the hours are flexible to my schedule. You may want to look into those.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thank you!

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RE: News media industry: How do you break into the news media industry with no experience? How about ... by getting some experience? Take some classes. Try to write some freelance articles for your community paper. I'm struggling to figure out why this person seems to think s/he is somehow entitled to a job in the media over other people with a track record in the industry. It's like if I'm an editor, and I suddenly want to become a dentist and think I should get a job just because I'm persistent and ambitious.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, I agree.

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Fairfax, Va.: What's the policy on attending job fairs while still employed? What if your company has a table there? I've heard lots of people say it's good to get out there, even to see market value, etc.

Mary Ellen Slayter: If your company has a table there, I wouldn't go.

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RE: Clearance: I have had numerous clearances and have always received the paperwork to fill out and a fingerprinting appt. the day I receive an offer. Someone obviously thinks this has taken place and you should call your hiring manager immediately.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Good point

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RE: Alexandria, Va.: The client is not the only nightmare. The current boss is no prize either. Unfortunately, you should find another company to work for immediately. Your boss will either fire you or make your miserable only a daily basis.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, I agree.

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Rockville, Md.: Can I ask for a raise based on my market value? I had a great year last year, and my employeer acknowledged this and gave me a five percent raise. I want a seven percent raise because that will be bring me up to market value (I work in the private sector, yet make slightly less than what I would make if I were in a government position). I can argue that I did great work, but employeer would just agree and say that's why I received five percent. I work for a huge corporation where you are basically told what your raise is and there's no true discussion about it, so I'd be curious about how to ask for more than I got.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Of course you can ask. But it sounds like you already asked -- and that you got your answer. If you really want more, consider going elsewhere.

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Old Woman Again...: These things happen because my bosses laugh them off. And when someone complains that I've asked him to work from his own cube, no one tells him that grown ups don't have to sit side by side to accomplish something. I'm the one who hears about it.

Thanks for the advice. There are excellent ones... just having a frustrating couple of weeks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Your bosses are not helping. I'm trying to imagine what would happen if I tried to camp out in my boss's office "so I could ask her questions" as I worked ...

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Leesburg, Va.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I thoroughly enjoyed your Career Tracks article in yesterday's paper. I have just survived-barely-through a contract job which was less than reputible in caliber. What would be the polite, professional way to explain at upcoming interviews my reasons for departure from this company? Thank you for your comments.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Just say it didn't turn out to be a good fit.

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Reston, Va.: In response to this weeks column: I took a job as a "technical account manager" as a way to change career tracks. After the first week I realized the job was just a glorified first-level help desk. I stuck with it for a couple of more months, letting my boss know i was unhappy in that position and trying to move to a better fit for my skills within the company. After that fell through, I found a new job in my old career track at another company and let my boss know that the reason i was leaving is that the job was "sold" to me as something it most definitely wasn't. I had been there for only 6 months but was very unhappy and didn't worry about the short stint. I've not had a prospective employer worry about that short stint as I'm always honest with the reason for leaving: "bad fit."

Mary Ellen Slayter: See, the truth really works.

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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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