Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 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.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon!

How is the job market looking out there right now? Are there fewer openings in your field these days? Are y'all finding it harder to land interviews?


Columbia, Md.: Should I take a contract job that lasts for four years and then they renew the bid?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Considering that most jobs have even less security than that, why not? It really depends on the job, and if it's the right fit for you.


Washington, D.C.: Hello, I have had SEVERAL jobs on a contractual basis in the past 6 months to a year. How can I show potential employers that I am not "jumping around" ?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Well, you are "jumping around." What you want to show them is that it's not necessarily a bad thing. You should be able to make it clear somewhere on your resume that these were contract gigs. Perhaps in the bullets under the jobs? I.e., worked on a $4.5 million contract for the DoD.

If they were all in succession -- and similar work -- you could put them under one heading.


Maryland: Mary Ellen,

Thanks in advance for responding to my question. I recently found out my husband and I are expecting our first child and am 9 weeks along. I have been with my current employer for several years, and we're in the middle of annual reviews. I am up for a promotion and a salary increase.

We've decided to wait until the end of the first trimester to tell anyone, and am wondering if there may be a negative reaction or backlash from my employer if I tell them after I get this promotion and raise. Can they take the promotion and/or salary increase back retroactively?

Mary Ellen Slayter: If they do, you can sue them for pregnancy discrimination.

It's completely reasonable not to tell people -- including your boss -- that you're pregnant until you've hit 12 weeks. Don't feel the least bit guilty about that.


Washington, D.C.: Mary Ellen:

Do you think that paying to have a third party write your resume for you is money well spent?

Mary Ellen Slayter: It can be. There is an art to writing a good resume, especially if you're trying to change fields or overcome a long gap in employment. Ask an honest co-worker or a friend to take a look at your resume first, to see if it may be an issue.


Washington, D.C.: I am trying to find a new job for the first time in over seven years. While I am sure this is a frequent question, I am still very confused about how to submit my resume electronically. When an ad asks for a resume to be emailed, is it supposed to be copy and pasted into the email as plain text, or is submitting it as a PDF attachment acceptable? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Opening PDFs can be tricky. I'd stick with Word in most cases, if it's an attachment. Plain text is also safe. If they don't specify in the job ad, call or e-mail and ask what they prefer.


Ashburn, Va.: How can you best give someone feedback on intangible things? I supervise an employee who is bright and does meet most expectations. However, her interpersonal skills are not the greatest - her demeanor and facial expressions are such that she appears sulky and confrontational. She also doesn't seem to have a good sense of when it is appropriate for her to be involved - for example, she argues over decisions that were made at higher levels, and expects to attend meetings where her attendance is not appropriate.

In general, her social skills are just pretty bad. How can I address this with her?

Mary Ellen Slayter: It sounds like she could really use a good mentor. Do you see enough potential in her to volunteer for the job?

If so, you could begin to address these issues with her as part of broad guidance on managing her career. Do you know what she wants to do long-term? Is it something you can help her along with?


Washington, D.C.: After a recent issue involving a co-worker, that blew out of proportion and disciplinary action was taken against me. I am wondeing whether to stay on my job, though I am unsure of "Job security" or whether to start looking elsewhere. Any advice as to the signs that it may be time to go or your job is thinking of giving you the boot?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Well, disciplinary action is pretty high up there on signs that a job might not be the best fit. I'd start looking -- and start carefully considering my explanation about why I want to leave.


Silver Spring, Md.: "The Washington area is a magnet for smart and ambitious workers." Which Washington are you speaking of? I have been looking for a job for the last two years. I have a Master's degree in Organizational Management. I have found hundreds of jobs, but no one will hire me. I've done some networking with folks I know, gone to job fairs (which I have concluded for me are completely worthless), changed my resume seven times, have agents on every job site I can think of (and I am beginning to feel that looking on the internet for a job is like looking in the classified section of the newspaper) you send emails, leave phone messages and no one returns calls or emails. So here is my question: Which Washington are you speaking of?

Mary Ellen Slayter: That would be here, as you have discovered. The job market here is healthy, but it is also very competitive precisely because it attracts so many smart and ambitious people. A far greater percentage of the workforce here has a PhD than in most of the country, for example.

Your situation proves my point; it doesn't disprove it.


Anonymous: Re: "Opening PDF's can be tricky." How so? Adobe Acrobat viewer is free. I've never had difficulty opening a standard PDF document.

A Word document can be changed--even inadvertently--but a PDF cannot. I wouldn't load it with special features, but for sending a standard resume, I think a PDF is best.

Mary Ellen Slayter: It may be free, but it isn't on every computer in the world -- and adding it can be a pain if your networking priviliges don't allow you to do it yourself.


Ashburn, Va.: Re: Sulky employee

I don't mind offering feedback and mentoring to any of my employees, but I find it hard to offer advice about things that are personality-driven and kinda warm-fuzzy things.

It's hard for me to say "Sometimes your facial expressions make you seem uninterested or dismissive of the person you are speaking to, and that might hinder you." I guess I'm looking for advice on how to phrase these types of conversations - I'm great at offering feedback about performance and deliverables.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Actually, the way you phrased it there is completely reasonable. It's all in the context, of course. The real issue, though, is with a personality like this, she may not listen to you anyway.


Re: Ashburn, Va.: "Her demeanor and facial expressions are such that she appears sulky and confrontational"

Why not call her on it? There's nothing wrong with a "you appear confrontational" when she's crossing her arms and trying to stare you down!

Mary Ellen Slayter: I agree, sort of. I might say, "Do you realize how confrontational you appear when you do x?" Because often, people don't.


Washington, D.C.: I am a mid-career professional who was recently downsized. I decided to target my job search to federal agencies. I was talking with an acquaintance who is a hiring manager in a federal agency (though not one I'm targeting) who said that her employee screeners automatically disqualify someone who is currently unemployed. I couldn't believe it, but she said that she's had to tell great candidates to find ANY job to make it past that screening step. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Is that even legal?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Short-sighted, yes. Illegal, no.


Alexandria, Va.: In response to your question about the job market, about six weeks ago, I sent four resumes out. I had requests for interviews from two of the companies within four hours. I interviewed with both and accepted a position two weeks ago.

The jobs are out there. I think the one piece of advice I can offer is to tailor your resume and cover letter to the job. I have a lot of skills and experience (just about 20 years). I spent an entire afternoon writing down everything I have done. Then in applying for jobs, I picked my skills and experiences that best applied to the job being sought. In some cases there was a lot more I had done at a particular job and I would add maybe one or two more of those items just to show some breadth or to make me stand out. I never embellished what I had done. I also didn't put everything in because I think it makes me look like I want "any" job not the job being advertised.

For what it's worth, I used several of my resume items in my cover letter, particularly the ones that met the requirements of the job. Very often HR don't get past the cover letter. I think it helped me stand out.

Just my two cents.

Mary Ellen Slayter: This is exactly how you should look for jobs. It seems like a lot of work upfront, but it's actually very efficient.


Anonymous: Re: The employee who questions higher-up decisions and expects to be included in meetings beyond her level. My question for the company is what are you telling employees? I once worked for an organization that did the whole big everyone-is-equal-open-door-all-opinions-valued song and dance and it was completely not true. I was one of a long line of employees who believed it and then was burned badly. And they wondered why the turnaround at the lower levels was so high. Companies should make it very clear what the hierarchy is, but most won't because there's this "we're one big happy family and the receptionist is as important as the CEO" fantasy going on.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Oh yes. This is one of my biggest pet peeves. Every employer wants to seem so much more democratic than they really are.


Re: So here is my question: Which Washington are you speaking of? : I wonder if some of the bitterness evident in this posting is also evident to potential employers. If so, it's not good.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, it never is. But it's a tough spot to be in. It's all too easy to develop an attitude when you've been rejected over and over again.


Re: Silver Spring, Md.: I understand your frustration as I am going through the same thing. However, luck also plays an important role in job hunting. A majority of my internships and last two jobs had something to do with being in the right place at the right time. I had to be qualified and competent to do the tasks assigned to me sure. But I also happened to be in an fortunate position where some organization needed someone with my skills at that exact moment.

And believe me...there were millions of other times where even though I had what it took it just simply wasn't the right timing -- either they weren't hiring or someone else got it or they never called back for some unknown reason.

I think you will find that life works a lot like this as well. I found my last romantic relationships and apartments in the very same way -- luck.

Mary Ellen Slayter: More for our frustrated job seeker.


Columbia, Md.: The article that I keep thinking about is your article regarding those with master's degrees looking for entry level positions. I'm in that boat. The only dilemma I have is that I see entry level positions that I would love but a salary of "low to mid 30s" will not be enough to pay my student loans which will be $800/month after my grace period ends and move out of my mother's home. I must move out. Consolidating will reduce payments but I'll end up paying $30,000 extra dollars... What should I do?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Take the job, and put your loans in hardship deferrment. Get a roommate. The entry-level pay isn't going to magically skyrocket in the next 5 years while you're not working.


Re: Two interviews in four hours: Any chance we can find out what field that person was in? All I hear is that "we receive hundreds of resumes for each position and can't respond to everyone" so it seems unlikely that he's in a field with a high volume of competition

Mary Ellen Slayter: If he or she is still here ...


Baltimore, Md.: I have nothing significant in terms of accomplishments in my position as an HR Manager. I really struggle when I have to do my resume, especially knowing that 3 of the companies I worked for are no longer in business. No accomplishment can be verified. What do I do?


Mary Ellen Slayter: You accomplished NOTHING? You didn't recruit any workers? Or successfully manage a benefits for program for X number of people?


Washington D.C.: My office is throwing me a surprise birthday shower. I tried to avoid this but they have one for everyone.

What is the best way to handle thank you cards. I really appreciate them going through the trouble for me. But they will probably do a group gift and there are a lot of people in the office. Do you write everyone an individual thank you or send out a group email? And what if someone did not contribute. Would it be bad form to send them a thank you because I may not know whether they contributed or not?

Mary Ellen Slayter: A group e-mail is fine. Thank everyone in the office. No need to know who specifically contributed or not. Presumably they all wish you well.


Alexandria, Va.: One of the most difficult things to realize is that D.C. is a magnet for many young professionals, and depending on your field (mine is publishing), many employers in this area use the young workforce to pay lower salaries. I have been told 8 times in the past month I am too qualified for this area and unless a management job opens up, nobody wants me. Just wanted to show the other side.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I do think there is some truth to this in some fields.


Odenton, Md.: I keep my resume posted on various job sites, not because I am looking but just in case. I receive a lot of off the wall job emails from this. Do you have to personally respond to each of the inquiries? I don't want to burn any bridges but at the same time, sometimes I don't know if I am just getting spam or a real job opportunity. Also, many times the recruiters emailing are out of state and my resume says I am not willing to relocate.

So do you respond to these emails or not?

Mary Ellen Slayter: If it seems legit, send a quick note declining, explaining that you don't want to move out of state. If it's just spam, ignore it.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Mary Ellen,

How long should someone pursue a Hill job before throwing in the towel? I have been looking to get into a Hill position -hopefully a committee job - for 3 months now, and I haven't heard anything. I have a law degree and legislative experience (at the state level in FL), but not even an interview has come up. I am stalled in my current position and I hate to give up my goal of working on the Hill, but I need to find something soon that is beneficial for my career. I just don't know how long this process should take - any words of wisdom are much appreciated.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'd hang in there through the end of the year, when the elections are going to shake things up a bit. Keep networking.


Washihgton, D.C.: Re: the comment about entry-level positions with a Master's degree...I started out in the fed govt at a GS-9 (approx $36k) with my Master's and 6 years later, am making about $91k. So, not too bad for an entry level position...

Mary Ellen Slayter: Exactly. Things ramp up pretty quickly, but you have to get started somewhere.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions! See you next month!

Mary Ellen


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