Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 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.


Silver Spring, Md.: I'm curious as to why a potential employer would want or need to know a person's salary history. Seems to me that it's really none of their business (no pun intended) and irrelevant as well. I see this a lot: "To Apply, email cover letter, resume and salary history to:" If I don't send my salary history, am I automatically overlooked? Your thoughts, please. Thanks, Katie Lemen

Mary Ellen Slayter: Long-time readers of my chat and column know that I agree with you 100 percent. Salary expectations are a reasonable request. My salary history is between me and the IRS. OK, and my mortgage lender.

I think in 90 percent of cases, it won't hurt you to just leave out the information, subbing in your salary expectations instead. The exceptions include government jobs.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Mary Ellen, I recently interviewed for a job and found out today that I am one of two finalists for the position. I wrote back to thank the hiring manager for keeping me informed of the progress, and mentioned that I would be "keeping my fingers and toes crossed." I intended this to be a lighthearted line as the hiring manager had a great sense of humor during the interview and was not at all uptight, but my wife seems to think that I just ruined my chances of getting the job. What are your thoughts? Sincerely confused.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I would totally hire you if you said that to me in an e-mail. Just to keep your toes from cramping.

But really, I think it depends on the hiring manager, the industry, etc. And since you actually met the person, I think you have a better sense of that than your wife. She can relax now.


Olney, Md. : Hello Ms. Slayter: I am a full time loan officer for 8 years now, part-time realtor. As you know business for us has been slow because of the mortgage and market meltdown. I've been looking for a secure, stable job. I would like to work with an agency where I could help out homeowners who are in the verge of losing their homes. Do you have any suggestion which agency I could work for?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Gosh, I would think *you* would have plenty of contacts among those groups that work locally, given your background. NACA ( is the big, famous one.


Washington, D.C.: Is there anyway to tell that an interview went well (while you are waiting to hear back.) Are there any definitive signs?

Mary Ellen Slayter: It's a lot like a date, I think. Mostly chemistry. Just a good gut feeling. Did you feel like you and the interviewer were on the same wavelength? Were you able to answer their questions confidently and concretely? Did they make forward-looking comments, like "when we bring you back for a second interview" as opposed to "if" we do?


Chicago, Ill.: Is it acceptable for resumes for federal jobs to be more than one page? Even though I don't have a particularly long job history, I don't think I can fit everything on one page. Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Federal resumes are often 3-5 pages. Indeed, for a mid-level professional, there's no way you could include sufficient detail on one page.


Kind of Hating it here: Dear MES, I wrote in last week, the boss who hated the way I dressed, So now I have a follow up question. Since the organization is rather small, we don't even have an "HR" dept., and the prospects of me going to HR to see if something can be done won't work. What are your thoughts on my starting to look elsewhere? As I mentioned last week, I've only been here 3 months, I don't want to be seen as a job hopper so my initial reaction is to stick it out for the next 9 months (probably hating life). I was at my previous position (which was my first job) for a year and some change, if that makes a difference. What do you think I should do?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You can start looking, but choose carefully before you leave. Think about how you're going to answer the inevitable question about why you want to leave so quickly.

I think you could also stay put and work this one out, though.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Ms. Slayter, I work for a very small company (seven employees, including the owner and myself), and the owner is a one-man show. He is the HR Dept. and the Treasurer and the Accounting Dept. He pays all of the bills and signs the paychecks. We don't have direct deposit. No one else in the company is an officer. I was wondering what would happen if the owner died suddenly in a car accident or something. What would happen to the company? Would we, the employees, be responsible for paying the office rent, telephone bill, etc.? None of us are authorized to talk to his bank or our health insurance company. What do people do in a case like that? I guess you can see why I couldn't ask the owner what would happen if he died, but really, do any of you know what would happen to us? And if the answer is that we would be SOL, then why would anyone want to work for a small company totally controlled by one person?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Well, I hope he has an estate plan. Is he married?


Anonymous: When should one offer unsolicited advice? I have a younger colleague who is badly in need of some professional mentoring. She never (or rarely) does anything "wrong" but she acts and talks like she's at a college mixer. I know her behavior greatly irritates our supervisor, though he never (or rarely) addresses it. He just roles his eyes when she's not around and is a bit harder on her than the rest of our department. To be honest, she irritates the heck out of me too, but I also feel badly for her. Until someone tells her "don't talk about your boyfriend so much, don't interrupt other people's conversations, don't make the status meeting all about your weekend," she will continue to do so and she will have a difficult time advancing or being taken seriously. Should I just leave a "Business Etiquette" book on her desk?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Offer to be her mentor. Don't start in harshly though with your criticism, though. On your first coffee "date," ask her if she has any questions about the office culture, etc. As she starts to trust your judgment, you can sneak in some tips. You can also give her a copy of a good business book. Make it a gift, not an anonymous swipe.


Washington, D.C.: What exactly is the point of the second interview in the Federal Government? I understand that in the private sector, you tend to meet multiple higher-ups, learn more about the company, and you may spend all day there (receiving a tour, etc.) But every second interview I have had in the Federal Government has left me wondering about the point? You typically meet your potential future boss's boss, which tends to be someone that you may have little to no contact with. I've been asked very basic questions about my background, asked questions about hobbies, asked why I am interested in working there. It has basically been a recitation of the previous interview. Do you have any tips or advice on how to impress the interviewees in a Federal Government second interview?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You might not have much contact with your boss's boss in a federal agency, but you can bet your step raise that they will influence your life. Use this opportunity to ask questions about the department or agency's goals, etc. Big-picture stuff.


Manassas, Va.: In Sunday's paper you had an extract from an on-line discussion where you encouraged a woman to seek feedback after failing to land an offer - I have one sentiment to offer you - HAH! After two 1-hour phone screens, a 4-hour nonstop interview, and then a second 4-hour nonstop interview, neither the hiring agency nor the company who did the interviewing offered any feedback: No rejection letter, no phone call saying sorry not a fit, no email -- nada, zilch, nothing. Neither entity would even acknowledge his phone calls (thanks to voice mail he never reached a live body). So after investing 10 hours of personal leave time, sending his thank you notes, investing emotionally in the process, he is left with nothing to show for it. And this is not the only time this has happened (to him or colleagues). Now, to the proactive side, he is going to see placement service to be assessed on how to improve his chances of securing a new job, but companies should do their part and play fair.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'm sorry you encountered such unprofessional HR people. Really, they aren't all like that.


Personal Days Okay?: Hi Mary Ellen -- My current company (very small, only 5 employees) does not have a vacation policy; meaning, if you need a day off, just take it. I feel guilty taking time off, but really need a personal day. How do people typically do this -- do you call in sick or schedule it? The thing is, I'm off next Friday, so I think I would feel bad scheduling a day off for some "me time." The last time I stayed home sick for example, I ended up working all day from home. Any ideas?

Mary Ellen Slayter: What do the other 4 employees do?


Virginia: Hi, Mary Ellen. I'm 25, almost four years into my first job out of college, and thinking of applying for a position at a different company. I don't want my current employer to know that I am looking unless it's pretty certain that I am actually leaving. I don't think they would do anything unprofessional, but I'm sure they would not be happy. Since this has been my first long-term/full-time job, I don't expect my prospective new employers to hire me without talking to the current employer. Of course, I'd like to put this off until after the first interview, and only if things are moving in the right direction. What's the best way to put this in a resume and/or cover letter? Right now, my resume has "Please let me know if you would like to contact my current employer" where I would have otherwise put the boss's contact information. Will this seem unusual to the interviewer? Is there a better way to handle the situation?If things get that far I will give the new company my boss's phone number but ask them to wait a day or two so that I can personally tell my boss that I am considering another offer.... Again, unless there is a better approach I should take. It all feels awkward, probably because I've never done this before. Thanks for your insight!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Don't share that information with them at all in your cover letter. If you make it through the interview, that's when you share your references.


Re: Manassas, Va.: They aren't all like that? You're probably right. I guess I've had a string of bad luck. Out of the last dozen interviews I've had only two who bothered to let me know that I didn't get the position. And one of those responses was sent to me after I'd inquired about the status mulitple times. Sadly, the nonresponse has been the norm for me over the past few years. How hard is it for HR people to send a vague e-mail rejection letter?

Mary Ellen Slayter: This is a pet peeve of mine, also. The level of follow-up seems to depend on the industry and how high level the job is, among other things. But I feel very strongly that anyone who has been interviewed deserves to know they didn't make the cut in a timely manner. I don't expect hiring managers to respond to every resume they receive, of course.


Mentoring: I think the term mentor is getting over used these days. What's wrong with just offering some advise? Especially if someone is a peer, you don't want to try to put yourself in a position of being a superior. Maybe just getting together for coffee and making some suggestions would be more in line.

Mary Ellen Slayter: It doesn't sound like this person is a peer, though. You're right that it doesn't have to be a formal relationship.


Salary History: The only reason an employer wants to know your salary history is to offer you the lowest compensation possible they think you'll accept. I had an employer ask for my history, which I gave because I didn't want to take myself out of the running by leaving blanks. They offered me exactly $1000k more per year than my highest listed salary. I held out, because I was underpaid at the other job and knew it. I asked for more and got it -- they didn't even blink. But they would have been thrilled for me to just accept the first offer.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'm guessing that number is a typo, but I think your overall assessment is correct.


Second Interview: I work for the federal government and we just had to do second interviews for a position. Really, the panel was just split completely between two candidates, and we had to push it up to a higher level to make the end decision. A second interview means you've done good -- but you're not in yet...

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for the inside scoop.


Chantilly, Va.: Mary Ellen: I accepted a job as a copyeditor last fall and was given an office. In fact, it's one of the main reasons I took this job over other editor offers. It's crucial editors have quiet and space for materials so I went for it. Well, a few months after I started they put another person in the small office with me. She smokes and is very nosey. I can't take it and am losing my mind. There are no other places for me to sit. Can I quit over this or am I being silly? It is affecting my work and my manager is not sympathetic.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Did you tell your boss that this was one of the main reasons you chose them? Working conditions are very important. I wouldn't necessarily just quit over this, but I would start looking elsewhere if your boss doesn't prove more responsive.


Sunday column on negativity: I like the idea of being more positive in the workforce, but for myself, one of the biggest detractors is that my management team never says "good job" or "nice going" (in a serious way) when things are going well. Corporate plans for acknowledgemnt are quarterly, and only select one person per group. So you can have several initiatives that you are working on, and in most cases, not be complimented on anything. The last time someone in management complimented me was 2 years ago, in a offhand after making announcements about other people. I've tried to address this with my boss, but he replies that he'll let you know if something is wrong. How can you move forward from that?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You just have to focus on your little corner of the world. Instead of complaining about the lack of corporate back-patting, focus on encouraging the people who work for and with you. You can actually control that.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Ms. Slayter, I work for the one-man show. We don't know if the owner is married. We can't really ask him, can we? What if he died? How long would we keep coming in to work without knowing what was going on? What would happen? Would we have to pay the bills?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You personally? No. The business, somehow, yes.

Most small business owners have a plan in place should they die or become incapacitated. It's a legitimate question to ask your boss. If the answer doesn't satisfy you, you could look for work elsewhere.

Given how small your company is, I am a bit shocked that you don't even know if your employer is married -- and thus has a spouse who would take over to sign payroll.


Washington, D.C.: Salary History. Why are there exceptions for government jobs? It is very likely that I will be hired by the Federal Gvt. in the next few weeks. The job I currently hold way underpays me. Will this be used against me? How can I get the salary I deserve? I am not being selfish here, I've done the research and I am severly underpaid and I don't want it affecting any future salary. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Some government forms require you to share history. But it's also not likely be held against you, since there is a pay scale for each job.


Toes crossed?: I don't get it. How would saying that ruin his chances of getting the job? That makes no sense.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'm guessing she just thought it was too casual.


Not a typo: I was making 37k; the new company (after reviewing my salary history) offered me 38k.

Mary Ellen Slayter: then that's $1K. $1000K is a great deal more ....


Washington, D.C.: Negativity in the workplace is a big one for the non-profit business that I help run. Some of us in management believe that a lot of the negativity we experience relates to class differences. Some on our staff seem to enjoy "bitching and moaning" because it may give them an outlet for personal bitterness over the lack of justice in the world. We've also noticed that one person's complaining infects others. Do Jon Gordon or other authors address issues of class and/or "viral" negativity? Any suggestions? JBZ.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think I am going to try to schedule Jon to join us on the chat.


Arlington, Va.: I've recently come to the realization that my boss is... mean. I think she's overwhelmed and lets her natural sarcasm come out and make all criticism sound much worse than it should. I'm able to understand that she's having a tough time, and that she's just not a very good manager and she's in a difficult position -- so I'm sympathetic and whatnot -- but she's making my life really unhappy. At this point I realize my options are to learn to cope or to find a new job. Is there any point in going to HR? I have mean e-mails from her. But what can HR really do about it? So I'm a wimp who can't take meanness -- is that the company's problem? It's a company that tolerates a lot more meanness than I think is really necessary, but all this just kinda makes me think it's me who should look elsewhere.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think you'll find mean bosses everywhere. If you otherwise like the job, work on finding ways to cope with her. Is she verbally abusive (calling you names, etc.) or just curt when she's under stress?


Positive Reinforcement: The Wall Street Journal had an excellent article about the newest generation needing constant positive reinforcement. Is this really necessary? Aren't getting a paycheck, bonuses, raises, and positive performance reviews all the recognition you need? No news is good news. Always.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I feel the same way, actually. So I'm not sure how much is generational. I think some people just need more verbal encouragement than others. And hey, it's free.


If you make it through the interview, that's when you share your references.: That's not always true. Many ads ask for references along with the resume and cover letter.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Ads can ask for whatever they want. You don't have to include them.


For the person working for the one-man show: Why not just ask what the contingency plan is in case an emergency situation crops up and he's unavailable? (For example, a rent check goes missing and needs to be rewritten while he's on holiday?)

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes. I mean, this should not be a sensitive question.


Personal Days again: No one really takes time off ever -- which is why I feel guilty sometimes. But part of the reason I took this job was because boss stressed on work/life balance. But her version of work/life balance is heavily weighted toward work. To put things in perspective, my boss was emailing/leaving voicemails up until 5 minutes before giving birth. Any ideas?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Schedule a one week vacation and see how they react.


Springfield, Va.: As to the two Federal Government questions -- Resumes can be over a page. In fact, given that many federal positions are looking for particular skill sets, a longer resume detailing the relevant skills may be in order. There may be a valid reason for a second interview. Foremost among them is that the person who does the initial interviewing is not the ultimate hiring authority.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks


Alexandria, Va.: Hi Mary Ellen: I have decided that I would like to freelance full-time, be it a combination of working from home and going to an office. I have a master's and 8 years of experience, and I was wondering if there are some negative impacts this could have on my career that I am not considering. Other than the possibility of a spotty income until I am more established, could this affect any possible permanent job offers in the future? I am just not having luck finding permanent work in an office setting but still need to make a salary. I have health insurance through my husband.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'm not sure how it could be any worse than just being unemployed.


RE: Should I leave a "business etiquette" book on her desk?: I am a young employee (27, first "office job" out of college), and I would be hurt if someone did that. I routinely ask for feedback from my superiors, i.e. "what can I do better?", "what do I need to improve?". Sometimes I get input from them, sometimes I don't. Sure, most people are hesitant to criticize, but I can only fix a problem if I know exactly what is wrong. Thank goodness I have a few mentors who aren't afraid to say to me, "hey, you might consider...". Chances are, she's already seen the eye-rolls and has noticed that the boss is harder on her, but she might not know what to do about it.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, this. I don't know why people think they are doing someone a favor by dropping anonymous books, etc. at their desks.


Washington, D.C.: When should I let my employer know I am getting an MBA. Should I just wait and give two weeks notice?

Mary Ellen Slayter: When you know for sure that you are going. If you were starting in September, for example, early summer would be appropriate.


Then that's $1K. $1000K is a great deal more .... : ummm No. I'm not the original poster, but $1K and $1,000K are the same number, the latter is just written oddly. Both are a thousand bucks.

Mary Ellen Slayter:$1,000K is a million dollars! That K means 1,000.


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


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company