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Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 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! Let's get started with your work-related comments and questions.

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Alexandria, Va.: Have you ever heard from young and mid-career professionals who have returned from the Peace Corps and adjusting to the job market? I have not felt fulfilled with the jobs I have had and feel the Peace Corps would be a very rewarding experience for me, but I worry about getting back into the D.C. workforce and losing contacts. Their Web site talks about ways they help volunteers to readjust, but wanted to know what you may have heard as well.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The Peace Corp is an asset on your resume in this town. There's a period of adjustment, of course, but if anything, you'll find that your network is a great deal richer than before you left.

Peace Corp alums wind up doing all sorts of interesting things. Just before I logged onto this chat, I was editing a story by our architecture columnist Roger Lewis, a former Peace Corp volunteer.

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Thank you for bonus?: What is the protocol for responding to a bonus? Does one thank the "giver"? Or is that like thanking someone for thanking you? This presentation was a bit unusual. The CEO has a pool of money which he distributes over and above regular performance bonuses. Very large company, very, very few people (less than 0.003 percent) get the extra bonus. Form letter from the CEO (signed digitally but mail-merged to include my name), no specific mention of what work is being recognized. Letter goes from CEO to VP to my boss to me (as my boss informs me of how few people get this extra award, boss tells me that boss was one of them last year ... typical behavior of this person). The strange manners involved in the presentation notwithstanding, I am not sure whether I should thank the CEO for the recognition or not ... I don't want to be a suckup, but also don't want to seem ungrateful or ill-mannered. There is no growth for me here, and I have other plans ... but I was taught to send thank you notes in a timely way and otherwise comport myself to polite standards regardless of the circumstances with other people. And I am not sure what applies here. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thank the CEO. There's no need to worry about appearing like a suck-up.

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Anonymous: Last week, a hiring manager called me to schedule a 30-minute phone interview. We planned to talk a few days later and he sent me a confirmation email that aslo asked me to fill out an employment application online prior to talking.

Well, the phone interview time came and went, with no phone call. I assumed that he was busy dealing with a more urgent situation, so an hour after the scheduled interview I sent him an email essentially saying since we weren't able to talk as planned, if and when he would like to reschedule the interview.

Well, I've haven't heard back from him. I want to know if it is appropriate to contact the hiring manager again?

Specifically, I want to know if something came up in any background check that is causing this sudden lack of interest, since the only thing I've done between scheduling the interview and the interview time is fill out this employment application. In this day and age of identity theft where SSN numbers have been stolen from the places we shopped at or the schools we attended, I guess I'm little parinoid that there may be something there that shouldn't be there, and would like to address so that it won't hurt my chances of find employment elsewhere.

See, when I type it out it sounds like such a silly request, but knowing that my background check didn't have anything to do with me not getting a job would really put my mind at ease. Please let me know what you think ...

Mary Ellen Slayter: When was the last time you checked your credit report? Instead of worrying about what might be in there, get the facts.

You can check your reports for free here.

Regardless of whether anything suspicious turned up in your application, that hiring manager was wrong to just stand you up for the phone interview. Consider yourself lucky not to work there.

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Baltimore, Md.: Why is it so hard for people to learn to knock?

Last week, I had several deadlines looming and was trying very hard to concentrate. Two of my coworkers kept walking into my cube to ask me questions. They'd just walk in and start talking. It was pretty obvious I was busy -- hunched over close to the screen, papers all over the desk, etc. I don't have a door, so there was nothing physically keeping them from interrupting me.

The first couple of times, I said, "I'm sorry, but I'm busy right now," or "Just a second -- let me finish this sentence."

But, they kept barging into my cube over and over through the course of the day. Finally, I snapped: "What?! What do you WANT?! I'm busy right now! I don't have time for this!" And then I felt bad and apologized.

The constant interruptions (were they hoping I suddenly became NOT busy?) threw off my concentration, and I ended up making several mistakes in the documents that I was working on that I never would have normally made.

How would you have handled this?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Can you hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign outside your cube? Perhaps one that be flipped to indicate when you do welcome visitors. As long as you're not barring your co-workers the entire time you're at work, this should work.

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Washington, D.C.: Later this week, I will be meeting with the director of another department in my company to discuss a transfer. The position in that department wouldn't exactly be a promotion, but offers a good deal more advancement opportunity than my current position. I was wondering whether I should treat this as a formal interview (as in, wear a suit and come with copies of my resume) or not? Most people here dress on the casual end of business casual, so a suit would look pretty out of place. I was thinking of wearing something a bit dressier than my normal office attire -- jacket, blouse and dressy pants instead of khakis and a sweater -- rather than wearing a skirt suit with heels. What do you think?

Mary Ellen Slayter: It sounds like you're on the right track. Dress up just a bit more than usual. You should still bring copies of your resume.

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Medical condition at work: I've just been diagnosed with a medical condition that will drastically change my eating habits; I'll have to eat throughout the day and will have to forgo plenty of foods at social gatherings at work. This coupled with my drastic weight loss will probably have people talking soon. My question is how much do I share? And should I file a doctor's note with HR to allow for my eating all day? How do I ward off comments from co-workers?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Will your new eating habits interfere your work at all? If not, I wouldn't file anything with HR.

I think I'd just let my boss know what's going on. As far as other people, that depends on how comfortable you are with sharing such information. I'd probably limit it to my boss and my close friends at work.

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St. Pete, Fla.: Is it true that you don't have to put a job you were in for less than six months on your resume and/or application? What if I'm applying for a federal job? (I was let go from a job -- rather unjustly -- after only six weeks and I am not sure if I'm going to have to answer questions about it, should I score an interview/background check).

Mary Ellen Slayter: For fed applications, you should definitely include it.

If you leave it off, you'll still have a gap to explain. Prospective employers are going to want to know the story there.

If this job was more than 10 years ago, and you've had steady employment since then, I'd say sure, go ahead and leave it off of most private-sector resumes.

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Another phone interview question: I have recently had the flakiest experience with a potential employer. The HR rep left me a message asking to schedule an interview. I called back, got voicemail, and left a few dates that would work for me. She called back to say none of those would work (once again playing phone tag) and offered me a choice of two times, both of which I had already said would not work. After all this back and forth, she mentioned it was a PHONE interview, which she had not said from the start! Of course, that makes a difference with scheduling. So I told her I could do any time in the timeframe she had given me, and she then left me a message saying that wouldn't work after all. I give up! It would have been a great job, but I can't get past the idiocy of the HR rep. Vent over!

Mary Ellen Slayter: This is why communication skills are so important.

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Washington, D.C.: My company is currently looking for summer interns who will have an excellent chance of turning into employees come fall. I would just like to remind job hunters yet again that the more courteous and professional your interactions with potential employers are, the better your chances. I haven't even phone interviewed our candidates yet and one young woman is already way out in front because of how she is handling our e-mail correspondence. She is projecting the image we need to project to our clients.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Happy to pass this along.

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Washington, D.C.: When is the best time to call after a federal job interview. I know that it can take several weeks after an interview for a decision to be made. I don't want to harrass anyone, I also don't see a point in calling unless I can get a real answer.

Also, what is the best way of sending a thank you letter after a federal job interview? I typically FedEx my letters, but I am tired of spending the money (especially since it hasn't gotten me a job). Since the federal government still processes their mail off-site, it can take a LONG time to receive mail, is it OK to send a thank-you note by regular mail anyway?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Actually, I would just stick with e-mail. And that's free.

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Washington, D.C.: After being out of work for a while, I find that I don't have any reliable work references. Some former contacts/supervisors have moved on to other jobs in other cities or are simply too busy to follow up when requested. Where should I go from here?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Even the people who've moved are valid as references.

Another thought: Have you considered temping? Every job you perform well at is a potential reference.

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Washington, D.C.: My review is coming up and I would very much like to ask for a raise based on meeting and exceeding my benchmarks. However, I'm also three months pregnant and have not told my employer yet. I don't know whether to ask for a raise and then wait to tell my employer or should skip it knowing that I will be taking a four plus month maternity leave.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Ask for the raise.

The fact that you're pregnant doesn't have any relationship to what you deserve to be paid for your accomplishments at work.

Besides, you're going to need all the money you can get soon.

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Medical condition: To clarify, it won't interfere with work, but snacking is sort of frowned upon here. They haven't outright banned it, but it is not looked highly upon. That's why I was wondering if I should maybe file something with HR in case it's ever considered a "performance issue."

Mary Ellen Slayter: Just let your boss know. Other people can mind their own business.

What kind of job is this where people have time to "frown" on other people's snacking?

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Washington, D.C.: Is it common to but a "career objective" statement on a resume? I haven't been doing it because it always seemed to me like something that a person would put if they have little experience. But I would be interested to know your opinion for someone who has seven years.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Objectives are helpful for people who are just starting out, as well as those who are trying to change careers.

Otherwise, it should be pretty clear from the contents of your resume what type of job you are looking for.

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Washington, D.C.: I have been on alot of interviews but not getting hired. I am thinking it the way I am at the interviews. What are some dos and don'ts of an interview?

For many of these employers/temp. agencies, I keep getting "we are looking for someone with more experience" comment. How can I get any more experience if no one will give me a chance?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Have you checked back in with any of the interviewers for feedback? If you're lucky, you'll find at least one of them who is willing to be candid with you about why you didn't make the cut.

Another option is to spend a couple of sessions with an experience career coach.

The list of "don'ts" for an interview are practically endless.

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: What is the best way in a cover letter to address the fact that I will be moving next month? I'm leaving D.C. for New England and want to make it clear that I will soon be a "local" candidate.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Do you already have an address for where you will be moving?

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Fairfax, Va.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I am in a bit of a pickle. I was recently laid off from my job. I worked in sales for a builder. The entire industry is not doing well so job opportunities are rare. My issue is that I am five months pregnant with my first child. I have had several interviews for administrative types of positions, but no one makes an offer. I think partly because I am visibly pregnant. (Even though legally they cannot say this is the reason why). We have to have an additional income coming in to make ends meet monthly. I have had so many friends and family members tell me to find a job that I can do from home. Well the only jobs that I can find like that happen to seem like a scam. Do you have any suggestions on ways to find a legitimate work from home job? Also do you have any other ideas for one to bring in non-traditional income every month? Thanks so much for fielding this question.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, there are lots of scams out there that take advantage of people's desire to work at home. Any time an "employer" asks you to send them money to get started, run.

The best work-at-home jobs aren't advertised. They are often negotiated individually between employers and workers, based on a relationship that's already been established.

Since you have admin experience, have you looked into becoming a virtual assistant? (www.ivaa.org)

Or how about temp agencies? Are you at all interested in being a nanny? What other skills do you have? Any ideas for businesses floating around in your head?

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No snacking: That's hilarious. However, it might be an open-plan work area where even small noises carry far. And eating noises can be especially distracting.

I once worked in such an office, where people slurped, smacked, gobbled and chomped all day long, coupled with the sounds of cellophane crackling, spoons scraping against Tupperwares, and so on. It was pretty gross.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The newsroom here is completely open, and I have never once found myself distracted by another person's eating. I guess it depends on the acoustics.

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Tampa, Fla.: I am a graphic designer who has always wanted to work for the Smithsonian -- a federal position. I am wondering what it is like working for the federal government and if you think this is a good career move. Is it difficult to get a federal job? Do you recommend hiring a federal resume writer or could I successfully do it myself with the help of one of those federal resume writing books? Thank you so much. There isn't very much info out there on what it's like to work for the feds.

Mary Ellen Slayter: There are a ton of books out there, as well as services. If your budget allows, one company to consider calling is Kathy Troutman's. She also has a helpful book on writing fed resumes.(www.resume-place.com/index.html)

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: I have a temp address where I will be living as a landing pad for my job and apartment search up there. Should I just use that address while I send out resumes from D.C.?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yep. And you can mention the date of your move in the cover letter. The idea isn't to lie about where you live; it's just to make sure they don't toss your paperwork when they see the return address.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen. Because of AP credits and a few extra courses, I am going to be able to get my BA in three years instead of four. After I graduate next year, I was planning on going to law school. I have always wanted to be a lawyer, and currently work 23 hours a week as a legal assistant in addition to my classes, which has only reinforced my choice of career. However, I met with the pre-law adviser at my school, who said going to law school straight out of college would put me at a "significant disadvantage" because law schools like to see "life experience." Do you really think that even with a high GPA and LSAT score and work experience, the fact that I'm applying as a 21-year-old straight out of undergrad would seriously hurt my chances of getting into law school?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You're doing much better than most would-be law students. Apply and see what happens. If you change your mind, you can always defer a year and get a little more work experience, perhaps at another law firm.

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Is It Me Or The Job Market?: I was fired from a biotech job in October, the rest of my department shorty followed.

I have a bachelor's in biology and several years of experience.

I network, submit online applications, call companies (which never call back) etc., etc. and still can't seem to land a job.

I have had on average one interview a week since november.

I've been applying from everything as entry-level intern jobs to mid-level.

Is it me or the job market?

Mary Ellen Slayter: If you're making it to the interview stage that often, it's you. Have you asked for feedback from the interviewers?

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RE: Anonymous: I see nothing wrong with checking in and asking if there was something in the background check. It could be the interviewer was escorted to the door, and there's nothing wrong with your background at all, or instead the job has been dropped, changed or filled by someone in the company. I've seen this happen.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Good point.

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Washington, D.C.: I had an exceptional year at work last year ... with an award to recognize this fact. However, because of the economy, we have been informed of the "no raises this year" policy. Is there any room to negotiate?

Mary Ellen Slayter: There always is. But don't take it personal if the answer is still no.

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

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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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