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Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 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.

Submit questions and comments before and during the discussion.

The transcript follows.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon! Hope all is well in your work world. If not, now's the time to tell me about it ...

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Richmond, Va.: May I offer a suggestion to HR folks out there? Ask for the driver's record AFTER an offer has been accepted, NOT at the 1st interview. Driver records now cost $13 (in VA) and for someone unemployed, possibley interviewing half a dozen places, that ADDS UP. Why not handle it like the drug test and make final employment contingent on passing, once an offer has been accepted.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Because the process of interviewing someone multiple times, making a choice, turning other people down, etc. costs a heck of a lot more than $13. If I were an employer, I would absolutely check driving records upfront if a clean record is a requirement for the job.

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Washington, D.C.: Okay, admittedly, this is a bit of a rant but I am so frustrated with HR! I have been searching for a new job for the past couple of months and have had five interviews. However, only ONE has managed to return my calls and emails. I have contacted HR at these companies once a week since the interview and still cannot get a response. Is this an HR strategy so they don't have to call and say I'm not longer being considered? A note to HR folks reading the chat -- Please just be a professional and return my call!

Mary Ellen Slayter: If they don't call you, yes, you can assume they aren't interested. But I agree that it's very rude not to tell people they don't make the cut, if they have made it to the interview stage.

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Philadelphia: What are some good resources for first generation college graduates? I'm struggling with separating personal and political issues with class differences from my professional life. I know lots of other people have been here, but I don't know how to set aside those feelings of otherness (and yes, I'll admit, bitterness and anger). It's been a big thing keeping me from going to grad school, which would arguably help my career and would otherwise be enriching, but not with a bunch of rich brats. And of course, the part time programs that are more diverse don't give as much aid, so that's not really an option.

I think it's important to recognize and point out class issues, so just ignoring it or paying less attention is not a viable option to me. But I also don't know how to move forward without feeling angry and like a sell-out. Thanks for any ideas.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The bitterness isn't helping you, not at work, and not in terms of your personal life.

If you haven't read it already, check out Limbo by Al Lubrano. Wonderful book. I grew up poor/working-class, and this book really resonated with me.
http://www.amazon.com/Limbo-Blue-Collar-Roots-White-Collar-Dreams/dp/product-description/0471714399

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Sunbury, Pa.: If a company fires someone and then realizes that they are obligated contractually to pay them a lengthy severance; can they force the person to return to work?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I suppose it depends on how the contract is worded. At the same time, I can't imagine why any employer would want to keep someone around in a situation like that.

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New Haven, Conn.: Hi Mary Ellen, I became a consultant today for a nutrition program in addition to my regular full time job. Since I'm a consultant, they won't be taking out taxes, state, fed, social security, etc. They'll just cut me a check for what I'm paid. How do I go about paying these taxes? Do I wait until I file my income taxes next April? I had to fill out a W-9 if that helps. Thanks

Mary Ellen Slayter: You should pay them quarterly. Alternatively, if it's not much money, you could just adjust your withholdings at your main job to cover the additional taxes.

Your best bet is to check with an accountant.

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D.C.: Still waiting for an official offer from an agency. They said two weeks from the time I turned in security clearance paperwork, four weeks ago. They said "two weeks" back in June after the second interview. ARGH!

I'm starting to consider if I just should go back to law school for an LLM since the market is terrible.

Wait for the agency or more loans I can't afford?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Wait for the agency. Apply for other jobs in case this one falls through. I doubt it will, though; government hiring is just slow.

*More* law school is an awfully expensive job avoidance program.

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Maryland: Hi Mary Ellen, I wrote in about the "dream" nonprofit job that was still open several months after I turned it down due to salary. I took your advice and checked in. Unfortunately, they couldn't budge on the salary and filled it just as I was checking in anyway. I have since applied to another job at the same organization but in a different department. The person I chatted with about the original job asked for my resume to pass on directly to this department. It's been a week and I haven't heard anything. I was hoping to have an interview for this other job. Do I let it go?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Check in again. It can't hurt.

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For the consultant: Definitely check with an accountant. My husband and I are both self-employed and we've been using an accountant for years. The paperwork is just too complicated for us to follow anymore. It's a good investment.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I agree.

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Because the process of interviewing someone multiple times, making a choice, turning other people down, etc. costs a heck of a lot more than $13. If I were an employer, I would absolutely check driving records upfront if a clean record is a requirement for the job. : The same logic could be applied to a drug test and employers always wait til there's acceptance to do a drug test to save everyone time and money. I DO expect my prospective employer to be respectful of all their employees and this ONE place that asked for the record up front shows me they don't think about their employees. FYI, EVERY other place I've ever worked asked for that record after I accepted the job, out of respect for my trouble and expenses.

Mary Ellen Slayter: They are likely playing the odds. People are more likely to fail a driving record check than a drug test, I imagine.

If you don't like their policy, say something. If it's just one place, it's just one place.

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Washington, D.C.: New Haven nutrition consultant should also check out the IRS Web site's section on Self-Employed filing.

Mary Ellen Slayter: This too.

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Fairfax, Va.: After being in the telecom workforce for many years, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. For the last 7 yrs I have been out of the loop, working a less stressful job as a teacher. I am ready to get back into my original occupation. How do I update my resume and what do I include in a cover letter?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I would worry less about your resume than the skill set it advertises. How up to date are you? Have you taken any classes? Certifications?

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Annapolis: What Web sites do you consider best for finding jobs in this tight job market?

Mary Ellen Slayter: The Post's site, of course! Along with Monster, and any trade groups for your field. Web sites should only be about 20 percent of your job search strategy, however. Networking is the way to get the jobs that are never even advertised -- a situation that becomes even more common when HR budgets are cut. Whether online or in print, ads cost employers' money.

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For First Generation College Grad: Friend -- being a rich brat is not actually a REQUIREMENT of going to grad school. You'll find a lot of other types of people there. Some people have scholarships and fellowships. Some both work and go to school full time. Some worked first and scrimped and saved and so are going full time without working. Some also work kids and spouses into the mix. Some are 40+ years old. Some are being paid by their jobs to go back to school. And yes, there are probably also some rich brats, though even when I went to grad school 25 years ago there weren't many, (I can't think of any, but given the odds I'm reluctant to say there are none). The thing is, you have to keep a 3.0 average in most grad schools, and the classes are harder. It's much more difficult to just goof off. You really need to have some brains to get by.

You might find yourself more relaxed if you realized that not only are you just as entitled to be in grad school as anyone else, it's unlikely that anyone will question your right to be there, no matter what your richness or bratiness level. Just breathe and go about your business.

Second Generation College Grad/First Generation Grad School Grad

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thank you, thank you, thank for saying this.

-- Also Went to Grad School Despite Not Being a "Rich Brat"

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Mary Ellen, thanks for the chat! I am pregnant, and near the end of the first trimester, so I will be informing my employer soon. I am trying to decide if it would be best to speak with HR first, and make sure I understand all the ins and outs of FMLA, our maternity coverage, etc., before speaking with my direct boss. But I'm a little apprehensive and concerned that my boss (who tends to be a little overconcerned with all things protocol) will be offended that I spoke with HR first. It's a small-ish organization, so it would be difficult to hide who knew what when. Any advice?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Tell your boss first.

BUT you are certainly free to go ask HR about the policies first. You don't have to disclose your pregnancy to get that information.

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Denver: During most of 2007, I was out of a permanent job (did consulting, temp gigs) while I looked for work. I accepting someting in October, but by January the honeymoon was over (basically boring job, not enough interesting work), so I looked for and accepted a new position in late January. To sweeten the departure, I stayed on until the end of February. While I love my new job an opportunity came up in June (friend departing pos, would act as a reference, MUCH more $$). I applied but during the interview, the prospective boss asked off the script about my job moves. Is there a general rule in this area? How would one explain this during an interview. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The truth usually works pretty well. An upbeat, forward-looking version of the truth, anyway.

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Farmville, Va.: Hi Mary Ellen -- I've been in my job for over 9 months and since then I have taken on more responsibility (supervision of professional employees), provided research for senior leadership, and I have earned a number of career-appropriate professional certifications in the same period of time. Do you think it is appropriate to ask for a raise?

Also, because I work for a government entity, salary information is public record and readily available. Would be appropriate to benchmark salary against others who have similar responsibilities? I appreciate your advice.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Your one-year anniversary is coming up very soon. Why not wait until then? That's a natural point for that conversation, and it sounds like you have a concrete case for a raise.

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Washington, D.C.: I have been unemployed for 2 years and a week. After 10 years with the same IT company, in 4 different positions (all training and skills development oriented), I was let go in August 2006. I am wondering now how to begin looking for a job. Due to savings that I had, in all honesty I have not looked for work before now. Do I explain the gap on the resume, even though there is no good reason for the gap? Do I explain it in the resume instead? Any suggestions for someone that was let go, but then stayed unemployed by choice?

Mary Ellen Slayter: What did you do during those 2 years? Travel? Learn to play guitar? Take care of a family member? Anything?

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D.C.: As someone with a graduate degree who has been in the work force for a little over a year in my field, I've come to the conclusion that advanced degrees, by-in-large, don't result in much higher pay. This has been further proven true as I've talked to others with a wide variety of degrees who feel the same way. Moreover, those I know in HR have flat out stated that they generally don't give better offers to those with advanced degrees, and are only willing to go a few thousand higher when pressed.

As people I know ask for advice on spending the time and money on graduate degrees, I steer them in the other direction. Your thoughts?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think in most cases, you are right, but I don't think you can make a blanket statement. Some careers require a graduate degree to even start (lawyer, psychologist, doctors, academics in any field) and others expect it after a while (MBAs, in some cases.) But as a general rule, when you really "need" a master's, it will be very obvious. And in many of those cases, someone else will be willing to pay for it.

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Virginia: I don't think you understood that the interviewee pays for the driver's record, so it's standard to wait til an offer has been accepted. If the company pays, they can do it whenever they want and that cost analysis you mention makes sense.

Mary Ellen Slayter: No, I do understand.

Let's say I am hiring 1 person for a job that requires a clean driving record. I have 100 applicants, including 10 whose resumes claim to have exactly the type of experience I need. I bring in those 10 people and interview them, pick my favorite and tell the other 9 "thanks, but no thanks." I ask my chosen candidate for his driving record, and it turns out he's a disaster (perhaps he lost his last driving job because of a serious accident and didn't share that!). Now, I have to call back those other people, hope they didn't already take an offer elsewhere, make them an offer and pull their driving record, and so on.

OR, I just ask the 10 top choices to share their driving records, and make my final pick out of those that make the cut.

As a courtesy, I would recommend that the company reimburse those not chosen for the expense, assuming the check didn't reveal that they had lied to me about their record on the application.

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Arlington, Va.: Mary Ellen, I don't understand why HR folks won't call/e-mail people back who have gone through one or several interviews. My mother-in-law has been unemployed for a year, gone on many interviews, and people will not call her back. And this is for someone who has owned her own mildly successful company and won many national awards in her field.

For a few months last year, I was given a project to work with HR and interview candidates for jobs. This is not even close to my real job, and was in addition to actually doing my job. I can tell you I was swamped, and yet I emailed/called everyone who was interviewed to tell them their status. I do not understand why people whose primary job it is to process employment "stuff" cannot do the same. Any HR folks out there give any insight?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I don't get it either. I know HR people are swamped. But if you are interviewing too many people to be able to spare the time to send a form e-mail or make a 30-second phone call, you are interviewing too many people.

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Poor vs. Rich: I grew-up really poor. I have wound up working for the very rich in a NGO setting. They are all lovely people and I like and respect them but we really are from foreign culture. I can't get my head around the type of things their wealth allows them to do (a weekend getaway to Belize, for example, as a regular thing) and they have a hard time understanding why I can't just scoot down to Belize when I've had a bad week or do my shoe-shopping in Italy (I took one woman with me to Famous Footwear on a "cultural expedition"). It doesn't make them bad people any more than my being poor means I come from people too stupid to make money.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Or just unlucky. A lot goes into how wealth is distributed. Smarts is part of it.

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Just an Observation:: It really says something about the stress levels in telecom if being a TEACHER is less stressful!

Mary Ellen Slayter: You know, I think any job can be stressful if you're just not the right person to do it (in terms of skill and temperament).

Teaching is a classic example of a job that can either be perfect for someone -- or drive them insane.

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HR Speaks, Burbank, Calif.: Hi Mary Ellen!

I don't work as a recruiter(but am in HR)... although it is very annoying for the candidate to have to wait to get a response, there are occasions when HR waits until the final offer has been received and accepted before calling the other candidates. If the first person didn't accept, the next guy on the list might be the next offer. Seems like there is a lot of frustrated people pointing fingers at folks who are following company processes. Just my two cents. Thanks for your great columns.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Oh, but it can be so nerve-wracking! Of course, this makes sense. And it's why companies give prospective employees deadlines to make a decision on an offer.

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I'm an accountant : Unless you have a very large, complicated tax return, most folks can read and understand how to pay in estimates. Here's the link to the IRS: http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f1040es.pdf

Go to your state revenue department Web site, and look for individual estimate tax payments -- the instsructions and forms should be there. Not to stiff my fellow CPAs over fees, but for lots of people, paying accounting fees is just not in the budget. Public Service announcement over.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Good thing this is anon, right? The other CPAs would totally be after you right now ...

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re: first generation: Of course not everyone is going to be a rich brat, plenty of different types of people go to grad school. Of course. But, as I mentioned, the more diverse cohorts are usually in part time programs, and part time programs often give little to no aid. That's not exactly a viable option for those of us who do not have tuition benefits at work and cannot get a job at places that offer them (I've been trying for two years). And some of the full-time programs have no diversity in this area, literally, zero. It's a dismal situation -- tons of debt to have a more diverse part-time experience, or less debt and be with a much more monolithic group in a full-time program. What a choice.

Mary Ellen Slayter: What kind of grad school are we talking about? I went PT, and I had a fellowship.

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For Unemployed in Washington, D.C.: The same thing happened to me in the spring a few years ago. I decided to take the summer and fall off. When I started looking for work again, I flagged the time on my resume as "Sabbatical" and told interviewers that I'd worked hard for years and hadn't had a decent vacation in years and I just decided to take time off. Nearly everyone expressed deep envy.

Mary Ellen Slayter: This is fine, I think. It will all hinge on how you explain it in the interview.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, During the 2 years off, I hate to say I didn't do anything substantial. I traveled to Colombia, South America, for a couple of weeks, and also to Florida for a couple of weeks, Montreal for a week, etc. I didn't do any volunteering or take any classes. I did work on renovating my house. Catch up with some family issues, etc. In a side to my original questions on resume/cover letter, should I contact a headhunter or professional job search agency? Some friends have suggested I add something to my resume suggesting I was working, but I don't feel comfortable being dishonest. Thank you for your help.

Mary Ellen Slayter: No, don't lie. See the comment above for a way to account for the time on your resume. But you will need to think carefully about how you will explain the gap in an interview.

You should definitely try a temp agency or a recruiter.

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To 1st Generation Grad: Maybe this person needs to look at where they're applying as well. I mean, are you applying to Ivy League schools? Or are you applying to the state university? As a grad student myself at a state U, I've found that the question isn't about my pedigree but can I contribute substantially to the class discussion? Am I someone they want on their team when the group project comes due? I've never walked in your shoes as a 1st generation grad, but I am a 2nd gen college grad and a 2nd gen grad student. I think you should let the chip fall from your shoulder. I doubt it's that serious for anyone else. Enjoy the opportunities you're going to have and be confident enough in your capabilities to deflect anyone who doesn't take you seriously based on your qualifications. Good luck!

Mary Ellen Slayter: More advice for our 1st gen grad.

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For First Generation College Grad: I grew up solidly middle class -- not rich, not poor. I know how frustrating it can be to be surrounded by people who have had life so easy financially, but I've also been berated by people who had less than I had and called me a "rich b-----." You need to remember that the things people are given in life are not their fault and try not to punish them for it. Grad school is a place where everyone goes to earn something in life that hopefully will help them to earn more later. Is it easier for the people who don't have to worry about finances? Yes, of course, but you can't get upset about that and hold yourself back. Be grateful for what you have and move forward to improve yourself. Don't focus so much on other people and certainly don't punish them for having wealthy parents. You wouldn't want them to punish you for your blue collar parents, would you?

Mary Ellen Slayter: And another perspective.

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Poor writing skills: Hello Mary Ellen. Some of the people that I work with use incorrect words. For example, their instead of there. But others have really bad grammar, to the point that I don't always know what they are trying to say.

Is there a nice way to say "I don't understand what you are trying to write to me"? Especially for people who time and again do not make sense? I had a horrible time trying to learn grammar, so I don't just want to say "Learn how to write English," while that's really what I'm thinking in some cases! I'm keeping my inner mean child under control, but it's been getting harder lately!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Are these documents for internal communication? Or do clients see them? If it's the former, just let it go, and ask whatever questions you need to clarify. If it's the latter, you should bring repeat offenders to your boss's attention.

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Grad school right after college: The "rich brat" poster made me wonder what your thoughts are on going to grad school right after college? I think it makes sense in some instances, for some professions, but I can't tell you the number of times I've turned down applicants who went straight to a master's program after college. The reason is that they tend to expect to be compensated more for the extra education, but they often have no professional experience beyond internships (which I'm not at all discounting the value of). In my opinion, I'd rather pay less for someone with just a bachelor's because when it comes to professional experience -- which is usually worth more -- they are on par with the people who went into a master's right out of college.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Unless someone knows they want to work in a field that requires a grad degree (academia, medicine), I think they should work for a year or two. You will notice that I did not include law school in that brief list, because I think most wannabe law students would particularly benefit from some time in the "real world."

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the Sabbatical suggestion for the user. I will try that. Mary Ellen -- how would you suggest I explain such a large gap?

Mary Ellen Slayter: With the truth. I mean, that's all you've got. Keep it brief, and focus on what you can bring to the job.

Thanks for all your comments and questions. See you in a couple of weeks.

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