Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 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.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon! Lots of good questions already, so let's get started with our conversation about this wacky and wonderful world we call "work."


Washington, D.C.: Do you have any thoughts on the current federal job market? I have been looking for a new job for a year now because my boss is insane. I received a number of offers for interviews last year, almost for every position I applied for. This year, I have yet to receive an offer to interview. Has the job market changed dramatically in this short amount of time? Has the poor economy flooded the federal job market?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Federal hiring appears to be as strong as last year, but I think you are right that the competition for those jobs has become much more fierce. The federal government's package of pay and benefits, along with relative job security, is starting to look more attractive to many workers in the private and nonprofit sectors.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Mary Ellen, I am a senior level IT professional. I was laid off due to budget cuts in February, while I was being treated for breast cancer. I took this as a sign to take a pause to refresh, but I have been looking steadily since then. I have gotten face to face interviews, but no job offers. I have even written thank you notes! What am I doing wrong? I've become quite discouraged.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Is there anything going on in your interviews that could be putting people off? The fact that you're getting to that stage is a sign that your resume, cover letter, and overall skill set are attractive.

Are you perhaps revealing too much about your illness to these potential employers. It shouldn't matter, but hiring managers might be skittish about taking on a new employee who could add signficantly to health care costs -- especially smaller businesses.

It could also just be that employers are interviewing more people for individual positions, knowing they can afford to be picky these days.

Have you asked any of the employers with whom you've interviewed for feedback?


Richmond, Va.: I was turned down for a promotion at work and I'm having trouble refocusing. My manager said I did great on the interview and it was a very close race. They felt confident that I could do the job. Ultimately, I was not selected because I didn't have supervisory experience and someone who applied from the outside did. I know that I'm very good at my job but I'm young and that would be my downfall. She said I should now start working on gaining more supervisory experience. So how exactly do I do that? What are specific responsibilities I should ask for that will give me supervisory experience with out stepping on any toes? I've got back to school to get my MBA and I thought that would help set me apart but maybe it's not. I really like where I work and I plan to stay here for the long haul. Thank you for your help!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Hold off on the MBA. You won't get your supervisory experience there. Just more debt.

You and your boss need to develop ways together for you to acquire supervisory experience. It's hard to say exactly what that means without knowing your industry. In general, though, it would mean taking a leadership role on smaller projects, under your boss's guidance. Your boss would gradually step back, until you were running the show on your own.

You should also ask if your company offers any leadership training seminars. Many do.


Washington, D.C. (but not for much longer!): Hi Mary Ellen,

Any advice on how to handle the time between; when you give notice and when you actually leave a job? I know I need to still do a good job at work and take steps to make the transition as easy as possible. My concerns are partly personal--I'm leaving a department that is already short-staffed, so people aren't exactly thrilled about me leaving. I'm just not entirely sure how to present myself when I'm feeling a mix of guilt and excitement. I kind of wish I could lock myself in my office until my 3 weeks are up, but that's not an option, especially since I'm finishing up a big project that involves a bunch of people. Any advice is welcome! Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You're doing exactly what you need to do. Be cheerful and professional. It's not your fault they are short-staffed. Wrap up any loose ends, and volunteer to be accessible for questions by phone or e-mail for a couple of weeks after you leave.


Bowie, Md.: I need a new job -- the workplace is unfriendly, the work is unfulfilling, and promises about growth in the position have not been met. I've had this job for two years, and I don't know whether that makes me look like a jobhopper. My other jobs lasted five to seven years, but immediately before this I was not working for two years. Does that affect my employability?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Nope. Two years is plenty of time. You have my blessing to start looking.


Northern Virginia: Hi Mary Ellen,

I'm currently looking for a job but I have a chronic disease. When I'm between flares I'm fine, but when I'm sick, I'm SICK. My doctors still haven't gotten my disease under control, and I lost my last job due to my condition. What do I tell any prospective employers about my disease? I'm worried that I'll be lucky enough to find a job, but lose it because of my health issues. FMLA doesn't kick in until you've been there for a year, am I currect to assume that I'm up a creek with no paddle until then?

Mary Ellen Slayter: The time to discuss the accommodations you need for your illness is after an employer has made you an offer, but before you've accepted it.

But you also need to take the limitations of your body into account as you decide which jobs you apply for. You may not be able to work full time with this illness, or you may need a job with some flexibility. You may need a fairly low-level position, one in which frequent absences won't be an absolute disaster for the company.

Are you eligible for disability? Or any other assistance?


Washington, D.C.: Mary Ellen,

Previously I put in my application for a company, knowing that the salary offered for the position would be lower than my current income. I provided a salary figure range and that it is fully negotiable. I was told that the salary offered was significantly lower and conversation ended there. What do you recommend doing in this situation?

Also are HR managers using sites like Linked In to vet potential hires, find new pools of applicants? How do they know them and what is their value?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Don't share your salary history with them! I really hate that question, and I wish employers would stop asking for it.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, I am currently working for a nonprofit. I would very much like to begin searching for a government job. I've been on USA Jobs and it's like reading a different language, not to mention figuring out how to write KSA's. I am willing to pay a head hunter or consultant that specializes in assisting in the government job search process, does one exist? I realize this will be a long process and I'm willing to give it a year or more to land the right job. Can you provide me with any name of a service that provides that help? Thank you!

Mary Ellen Slayter: I can't recommend specific services, but if you google "government resume writers" or "ksa writers" you'll get tons of hits. Call a few and get a feel for their philosophy. Ask about their prices. You should be able to find someone to assist you.


To Bowie: I would say don't worry about being a job hopper - especially in this (D.C.) area. However, with unemployment seeming to creep back up... is this still holding true?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Even then. Two years isn't job hopping! Especially not after working longer stretches at other places. Job hopping, in my mind, is repeatedly leaving jobs after less than a year.

And as far as I know, unemployment hasn't started creeping up here. We still have one of the strongest job markets in the country.


Anonymous: Can you really not provide your salary history when asked? Is there anything else you can decline to provide a prospective employer (references, access to current supervisor, etc)?

Mary Ellen Slayter: They're requesting the information. That doesn't mean you have to supply it.

Generally speaking:

Decline to share salary history; give a range for your salary expectations, instead.

Share your references after an interview, not before.

And unless you have an unusually charitable boss, I wouldn't grant access to my current supervisor until after the new employer has made me an offer.


Washington, D.C.: I'm just about one year at my job and the office is moving out of D.C. to Maryland later in the year. It will make my commute worse than it already is, even though I live in Maryland. The move will take me away from couple of D.C. groups I'm involved with. Is an office move a good enough reason to start looking? There are other issues (feeling unfulfilled, micro-managing boss, too much down time, etc.), too, but moving office would be the main one.

Mary Ellen Slayter: If you're not wild about the job now, you're really not going to like it after the move. Start looking.


Washington, D.C.: Is there any acceptable way to ask about salary parameters when a job is listed as "salary negotiable" before agreeing to interview?

The public sector usually identifies salary ranges for the particular job grade, or even "expected entry level" ranges - but I'm up for a public sector job right now that says "salary negotiable". I know there's an upper limit - there has to be because it's tied to the localities adopted budget.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Why ask for that before the interview? Just go and see if the job is a good fit for you. How much do you need to be paid to do this job? That's a question you can answer.


Ohio: I need some advice. Long story short, I just found out that my employer of 8 years treated me and a group of people I was training differently. The trainees were treated to a hotel for a few weeks to avoid an hour-each-way commute, while I was forced to travel nearly as long to and from work each day, away from my "home site" office where I regularly work full time (I am a consultant). To add to this, I also found out that other people asked to train new hires have in the recent past been allowed to count commute time as hours worked, but I was discouraged from doing so.

Any recourse here legally, or is my employer just being unfair? I've asked HR, who answered in my favor informally, then reversed course. HR is in a shambles and the company is generally filled with incompetant people (I will be leaving at year's end for school, but am trying to make the best of it for now). I am also not getting a response from my (offsite) boss.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Unless you have reason to believe they were treating you differently because you were a member of a protected class (i.e., you are of a different race, gender, religion, et al from the trainees), I don't think you have any recourse.

It sounds like you answered your own question there at the end. This organization just sounds like a mess.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Mary Ellen,

Two years ago I started working for my current employer - a law firm. I worked as a "temp" for a year before the firm started rumbling about bringing me on staff, seven months ago they did. I just had a great performance evaluation (complete with raise and bonus), but I'm really not happy here. In a way I knew I wouldn't be, and hesitated about accepting their offer, but I ultimately decided that my resume would look better if a "temporary" job morphed into a "permanent" one.

I'm wondering if I need to stick it out for another five or six months before I start job hunting, or if my short time as an actual employee combined with my "temp" time beforehand mitigates any "job-hopper" red flags that my interest in an employer might raise.

I harbor no illusions about how small the legal community inD.C. can be, so I'm also worried about my current employers catching wind of my desire to relocate. I'm not talking "discreetly adding my resume to an online database," either, I'm planning on an all-fronts employment assault - calling in favors from law school classmates, meeting with headhunters and networking my butt off to get on people's radar screens and in for the first interview. The likelihood of any of this happening while keeping my (gigantic law firm) employer in the dark is virtually nil.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Do you know what you want in your next employer?

If you have a specific sense of what kind of job you're looking for, I think you should fire away. But if it's still just a general sense of "not here," take the next few months to think about where you want the next step to take you.

The short time as an employee after an also short time temping does make you look a bit flakey. To counteract that, you need to have a good explanation for why you want to leave.


Re: Northern Virginia: "Are you eligible for disability? Or any other assistance? "I've applied for disability, but it takes quite a while to get through the process. I'm checking into other assistance and temp jobs while I await a determination. A girl has to eat (and have a place to live!)

Thanks for your answer.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Temp jobs could also be a good answer. Many even provide health insurance and other benefits if you put in enough hours each quarter.

I'm sorry I couldn't offer a better solution. You really are in a tough spot.


Houston, Texas: I was offered a job but asked to speak to the VP of the division (my would-be boss's boss) before accepting it. They then withdrew the offer -- did I do something wrong?

Mary Ellen Slayter: No. And I suspect you dodged a bullet. That's a natural question, and it's weird that you hadn't met that person in interviews already. They're hiding something.


Raleigh, N.C.: How concerned should I be about appearing to be a "job hopper"? I've been in my current job 9 months and have no desire to stay more than one year, my previous job was six months and before that I got a graduate degree while doing several internships. I'm almost 30 and my longest job has been almost 3 years. I realize now that the last 2 jobs I was trying to force myself to do something that would look good on my resume despite the obvious poor fit.

Mary Ellen Slayter: OK, you actually do have a job-hopping problem. And you're starting to reach an age where it's going to be an issue. Stick it out at this job for the next 3 months, and make sure the next place you hop to is somewhere you settle down for a while.


Arlington, Va.: I have been at my current job for over 3 years. I'm looking to leave because of management issues and overall quality of life issues (working 80-90 hours a week with no comp time, few benefits and vacation time). When asked why I am leaving my current job is quality of life a good enough answer? Also, what is the best way to go about handling interview times when I'm still working? I work in an office where I have to explain where I'm going if I leave and doctor's appointments and "marketing" are getting old...and I don't get a lunch break.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Quality of life is a fine excuse, especially given what you're describing.

What would happen if you just took a personal day for your interviews? As in the whole day, not just a few hours. Would anyone die?


Anonymous: Hi,

I resigned from a job in January and found another job a few months ago. Problem is there are some unethical things that are going on with the company. I asked the owner about these practices and he acknowledges a conflict of interest in what he is doing, but is okay with doing it. I plan to resign this week, when I get a chance to speak with him face to face, but I want to know if I should put this position on my resume. It's only a few months worth of work but it shows that I'm hireable and left based on an ethical issue versus job hopping. Please let me know what you think.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Include it, and be prepared to explain it in your interviews. Consider the hiring manager's reaction a litmus test for the ethics of your next employer.


Washington, D.C.: Doesn't working as a temp prove you can work and thus make you ineligible for disability?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Disability doesn't have to be total, is my understanding, though I wouldn't swear on that. The original chatter would need to check with a social services agency or lawyer to get the details.


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


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