Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 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! I hope all is going well in your worklife. Well, not TOO well, or you wouldn't need me.


Washington, D.C.: I'm in quite a predictament right now. I started dating my boss (I know, I know...bad idea) about 6 months ago. Since then, I've found out that he's rather controlling and possesive and I have decided that I no longer want to continue the relationship. Anytime that I try to end the relationship, he threatens me and says that either I have to quit my job immediately or he is going to go to the owner of the company (as well as everyone else who works there) and let him know about our relationship so we both have to leave the company. I don't want to lose my job over this, but I don't know what to do. Is, what he's doing legal? And is there anything I can do to protect myself? Please answer online only and thanks for your help!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Don't wait for him to tell the boss. Go do it yourself. You also want to tell him about your boss's threats. And consider involving the police.

Yes, you were foolish to date your boss. But your boss is way, way, way more in the wrong here. Because he's the supervisor, and because he's BLACKMAILING YOU.

Yes, this may still cost you your job (though I hope it won't). But in the long run, you'll be better off.


I Hate my job: Maybe you can figure this out. I have averaged about one job interview every six weeks for the past two years. After the first twelve interviews which did not lead to a job offer, I sought the advice of a career counselor. Obviously I was doing everything right on paper because I usually hear from employers within two days of applying, but I wasn't closing the deal at the interview. The counselor told me to be more energetic at interviews, so I have. I have followed his instructions to the letter and since then, I have been on ten more interviews but am still stuck at the same crappy job. I HATE to think that it has anything at all whatsoever to do with my race but I'm running out of other reasons why this keeps happening to me. Have you come across another person with a similar experience or is it just me? For the record, I am always clean and professionally dressed with conservative clothes and hairstyle. Nothing (except the low energy) stood out as a red flag during my practice interviews with the career counselor.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Have you asked the people interviewing you why you weren't chosen? They would be the best source of information here, and you'd be surprised at how honest -- and helpful -- hiring managers often are.


Frederick, Md.: I am a guy who left his job around 6 years ago. I am 39 now. This was mainly to raise my 2 boys. My wife continued to work as she had better benefits. I worked as a research analyst prior to leaving and had around 12-13 years of work experience total, most as a government contractor. While I was raising the kids I started a company. It did well for about 3 years and the last 2 years have not been good. So, now with the kids in school full-time and the business not doing well I am ready to go back to work outside of home. Problem is, even with a graduate degree I am finding it difficult to get a job. I have submitted about 20-30 resumes in the past 6 months, but have not even garnered an interview. I would love to go back to the government or state agency sector. Do you have any thoughts on how I can make myself more appealing to employers?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Two things come to mind: temp agencies and a class in your field. The first will give you something new to put on your resume (and a reason to get out of the house every morning) and the second will help you freshen up your skills and contacts.


A Fashion Victim, Va.: Hi, love your column; its helped me on more than one occasion. I started a new job in May and in July they assigned an intern to me. This was unheard of because my predecessor was not allowed to have an intern as policy is, "Only directors/executives can have subordinates." Since then, on two separate occasions, my boss has made comments about my attire; eluding to the fact that my intern was out dressing me. Saying our intern was very "corporate" and that she, "Saw her in a N.Y. PR firm" and finishing off that she, "just thought you should know". The problem is that I think my intern wears too short skirts and inappropriate attire at times (Khaki Bermuda shorts, open weave dresses). I feel like I can't talk to her about it now since it is obvious that my boss likes the way she dresses. I feel like I'm being shamed and that my boss is re-thinking my being here at times and other times I think that she may just be pushing me to be better and to set a good example for my intern since this is a big trust-jump for my organization. What should I do? Ask her directly the next time she brings it up (if she does). I've already gone out and updated my wardrobe, to the tune of $400, but my budget can't stand too much of that. I work at non-profit organization in marketing if that helps.

Mary Ellen Slayter: OK, now I have to ask: What are you wearing to work? And how are Bermuda shorts "very corporate"?


Under-employed: Are there any temp agencies who specialize in older workers or career counseling agencies who can help older workers that you'd recommend for a 56-year-old woman who'd like a second act job, but keeps losing out to much younger applicants?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Pretty much any temp agency should be able to help you. Older workers who are semi-retired are a significant part of their workforce.

Another good resource is the AARP.


Portland, Ore.: I have a 12-month gap in my resume from the four-year period before I went to law school. There is no good explanation for the gap --basically I lived with my parents for that period. When I was in law school, my career counselor advised me to not put the months I worked in each position so that hopefully the issue would not arise, and I was only ever asked about it in one interview. However, I've always wondered if it was obvious I was trying to hide something and if it affected where I eventually ended up working after law school. Now, two years after graduating from law school I am looking for a new position and I'm wondering if I should leave my resume as is, without the months I worked in each position. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I really don't think it matters much to most employers at this point. Include it. And know that plenty of people did the same thing before heading to grad school.


Washington, D.C.: Great chat! Here is my question. I VERY recently received a promotion at my current employer and am in the midst of a (discreet) job search. When submitting my applications, do I include the new position "July 08 - Present" to show the advancement, or do I leave it off to avoid looking ungrateful? How do I handle this in interviews? BTW- This is my second promotion in less than 1 year.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Include it. Why would you look "ungrateful"? Promotions aren't favors.


Tired of the Commute, Md.: I'm a secretary in D.C. and I commute every day from Frederick. I'm young with a libral arts college degree. I really want to stop commuting but moving closer is not an option (I've done that and recently moved back to Frederick). Ideally I'd love to find a job where I could telecommute a majority of the time. What areas should I start looking into and would this be a viable option?

Mary Ellen Slayter: It seems like it would be difficult to telecommute as a secretary, unless you want to start a "virtual assistant" business. Are you considering a new career? Of course, you could look for a job in Frederick.


Re: Dating the Boss: This is the very definition of harassment in the workplace. Tell his boss IMMEDIATELY and document document document EVERYTHING. If the boss's boss fails to do anything about his behavior and/or retaliates against you for telling then you may have a case. You also need to look at your company's policy and see what it says about fraternizing. Good luck, you're really in a pickle!

Mary Ellen Slayter: I know! And of course she's mainly blaming herself for getting involved. But that doesn't make her responsible for her boss's insane (and illegal) actions.


Re: I Hate my job: Your advice is ideal but I wonder how realistic it is. I can't speak for anyone else but whenever I hire for a position I never ever tell the person the specific reason why he didn't get the job. Perhaps I'm paranoid and/or overzealous but I fear the dreaded lawsuit and would hate to create any hardship for my employer. Face it, we live in a litigious society where even the slightest criticism can erupt into a civil lawsuit. My standard response is either nothing at all or "we went with another candidate" or some other non-answer. I'd be very surprised if a hiring manager actually gave you an honest answer. That said, I sympathize. I am in the same boat, wondering what or if I'm doing anything wrong at all or if it's a case of bad luck.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I understand that fear, but I do think that hiring managers should fight it. For one, you should have a real, concrete reason for choosing the person you did, such as he had a master's degree or more experience. That is useful information for the candidate that lost out. Perhaps hearing you state that clearly will help him make a decision about returning to school, for example.

You only have something to fear if you're choosing people for illegal reasons. Be careful of picking people based on your hunches, if they generally translate into hiring people of your race, gender, religion, etc. That's what will get you sued.


Washington, D.C.: Second interview was successful with fed agency and was recommended for hire. They said 2-3 weeks, we're on 6. I emailed two weeks ago "on track" but hey it's government. I'm getting extremely I follow up again with an email? Call? Keep applying to other agencies? Call my doctor for some anxiety meds?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Send another e-mail. Take up yoga. Recognize that your soon-to-be employer does pretty much everything this slowly, for better and for worse.


Telecommuting Secretary: I have to tell you, this drives me nuts. I'm not picking on the previous poster but I have a secretary who is quite PO'd over -indeed outright hostile regarding- the fact that she cannot telework, while other folks in our office do (me included). I have tried to explain to her what I see are the differences and asked her how she would take phone calls, make copies, sort mail, etc. . . . the sort of admin duties that are the nuts and bolts of her job and how she would do it from home? It's not that I don't understand it would be hard to see others doing it and not be able to do it myself. I get that. But, certain jobs lend themselves to telework and others don't. Do people really not understand this? And it isn't just secretary/admin jobs: think customer service, trade jobs, manufacturing.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You're right that it's just not possible with all jobs.


Richmond, Va.: The woman from Frederick was looking for suggestions on what types of jobs allow for more telecommuting - I'm pretty sure she knows she could look for a job in Frederick. I would suggest looking at company/government websites and see what telecommuting options they offer their employees. Also, that is a valid question to ask during interviews.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, of course, but telecommuting options for a secretary are going to be rare. It's the nature of the job. Hence my question about considering other careers ...


New York: Hi, my boss recently resigned, and the job will be mine when she leaves. However, at the moment I am on contract and work out of home, while her position is salaried and with benefits. The president of the company told me that I will be working in the office when I take over. However, nothing has been said of the benefits, an annual salary or a pay increase. The president was away last week, so nothing could have been done. I'm kind of annoyed I have to initiate this, but I'm not going to say anything. But how do I bring this up? Send an email to the President requesting a meeting to discuss this? Any advice on how to go about this? Thank you.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Why would you be annoyed at having to take the initiative for this? Your career is your responsibility. Think about what you need to do this job, and ask for it.


Fashion victims, unite!: If your boss is a woman, talk to her about it. It'll only get worse if you think about it but don't do anything. I dress within my department's clothing outlines, and frequently feel either too dressy or too frumpy. Luckily, my boss is aware that I'm within guidlines and is primarily concerned about my performance, not whether my hair is in an updo. But I hate being in a meeting with women who get to wear jeans all day in the same company - I get jealous!

Mary Ellen Slayter: An updo? Geez. What decade are we in? Speaking of throwbacks, did everyone see the cover of the Washington Business section this week? It was on D.C.'s very own Mad Men (and women). The photo is hilarious.


Washington, D.C.: Here's a confusing one for you: I am an educated man, with a good job and good money. (I am not particularly career minded, as long as people pay me, I'm fine!) The problem is a lot of my lady friends, they play dumb to get ahead and to keep their jobs. It makes me really uncomfortable, not to mention beyond furious, to see these brilliant women, flip their hair all day, saying, "Oh my god" and "Like, stuff..." every other second, playing airheads. When I asked one, she told me that's the only way to get ahead in today's corporate world, and that women can't get ahead unless they play the damsel in distress role. Being who I am -- from a feminist background (Mom marched with Gloria Steinhem) I can't help but wonder -- is this now acceptable? What are your thoughts?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Oh, that's just silly. And I know very few women who behave that way at work. When they do, it stands out. Just like this lady is to you ...


Washington, D.C.: Hi Mary Ellen, a friend and I disagree on the salutation for cover letters. He says the rule is Dear Mr./Ms XXX. I've always addressed it with the full name if I have it available -- Dear XXX YYY. What's the best way?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I don't think it really matters, in terms of getting a job. But dropping the first name is proper form. So you owe your friend a beer.


New York: Re: Why would you be annoyed at having to take the initiative for this? I'm annoyed because when they offered me the increased responsibility they should have at least told me I can expect more money and benefits. It feels as though if I never bring it up, they'd go on paying me the same with no benefits. What do I do if they say they can't afford to give me more? This is my concern because they keep laying people off.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Right, that is what they are hoping. Because that's what businesses do. They want to hire people to work as cheaply as they can. You have to look out for yourself here. That's just a given, in ALL work situations. If they can't give you enough to do the job, you decline to take it.


Washington, D.C.: I just want the person who is dating her boss to know that no matter how stupid she was to date him, she doesn't deserve this. She sounds ashamed and I wonder if she won't be too embarrassed to do something about it because that's exactly what her jerk of a boss is counting on. It's time she teaches him a lesson.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, this. It's probably not even the first time he's done this. He just sounds too good at it.


Re: Dating the Boss: I don't mean to beat a dead horse here, but she should probably also approach her human resources department about the situation. In most companies, HR has been trained how to deal with this and they'll know what to do and how to help her.

Mary Ellen Slayter: If there is an HR department, yes. But it sounded like a fairly small company.


Re: Rejection Reasons: But those firm, more experience or a different degree reasons are often not what differentiate candidates -- it's soft skills. It's impolite to actually say that to the person you rejected, but at least it would be honest. I really hate that the soft skills are what endear or exclude certain candidates, but it's true. And as much as I hate it and believe in merit, I have found myself falling into that trap when I'm interviewing people, too. You can argue that soft skills impact work, but I would hope that as long as you have a basic level of soft skills then it would all be about experience, but that's just not the reality.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, and this is trickier. And this is where the "low energy" comment could be coming into play, from the career coach. If you're not getting specific, tangible answers about why you didn't make the cut, it's definitely time to work on the soft stuff. And a coach can help with that.


Anonymous: I'd be interested in hearing how the woman dating her boss handles this situation. I hope she let's us know next week. It might help others.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, me too. Please keep us updated.


RE: Fashion Victim: Before the shopping spree, I would wear dress pants, blouses, dresses or collared shirts. Skirt length was always below my knee.

The comment she made was that people have mentioned my clothes fitting too tight or too low cut. The only thing is, I'm "well endowed" and pretty much every shirt I wear can seem low cut. I'm very concious about this and try to either adjust or wear higher necklines. I think it should be mentioned that everyone in my office mostly dresses like school moms on the way to the store or just casual (not business casual)everyday. I was shocked when she made the comments because I thought I was in line with my co-workers.

An example of a co-worker: Skirt about 4 inches about the knee, flip-flops and v-neck t-shirt. Does that help?

Mary Ellen Slayter: OK, your boss is nuts. Keep an eye on the necklines, but otherwise go about your business. And it sounds like the people you work with need a project, if they have this much time to spend critiquing each other's wardrobes.


Office Romance: The woman should also talk to a lawyer. Nothing fancy, but legal aid or a clinic should be able to help her develop a framework for documenting things. If he gets her fired, she may have a civil claim against him.

Mary Ellen Slayter: This too. The lawyer could also help if the police need to get involved.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions! See you in 2 weeks.


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