Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 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, so let's jump right in.


Washington, D.C.: Any advice on getting a government job if you've never worked within but don't want to come in entry-level? Is it really as stable as it looks, given the economic downturn? Do people get laid off in government jobs?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Federal government jobs are about as stable as it comes, though some of them are spun off to contractors. State and local jobs are more vulnerable to budget swings.

My best advice for anyone applying for a fed job is to take your time on the KSAs and be really, really thorough. They may seem like a chore, but they are your best chance to demonstrate why you're qualified for the job.


Fairfax, Va.: Is it ok for me and my manager to flirt? Or is it against something?

Mary Ellen Slayter: It's against common sense. Unless, of course, you don't actually need your job ...


Arlington, Va.: Hi, I'm planning to pursue a PhD at another state. In the meantime, I'm looking for jobs that are related in my field. Is it a good idea to let potential employers know during the interview process that I plan to pursue a PhD in a year; therefore, I won't be staying long w/ the company? Or do I just keep mum? Thanks, mention it or not?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Keep mum. You have no idea what will happen over the next year that could require you to postpone that PhD plan.


Washington, D.C.: What do you do when you are trying to get a job that you are qualified for and can do but the company runs your credit file and you have been out of work for a year so it looks back and they won't hire you. How do you get your file straight when you have no income.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Is there *anything* you can do to bring in some short-term income? Bartending? Clean houses?

I agree that it's an awful spot to be in. Some jobs it makes sense to run a credit check for, if you're handling money. Others, I don't understand.


Fairfax, Va.: I've been interviewing for jobs and had a very good prospect that didn't pan out. During that time I was called about another job that sounds promising. I was honest that I had something in the works. I received an email from the recruiter for Job 2 about the next steps and I responded enthusiastically. Like I said, Job 1 didn't pan out but I haven't heard from Job 2 since the original email. Would it be wise to reach out again and say that I'm still available and would like to meet with the hiring management? The job does sound interesting and the company sounds great, so it's not necessarily like I'm settling. What do you think?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, of course. Send the follow-up. You might as well give them a shot.


Washington, D.C.: I am updating my resume and am not sure how to list a long- overdue job title change -- responsibilities have grown a lot over five years, repeated requests for new title were fulfilled this summer. At a previous employer, my job and title did change so I list the responsibilities with the appropriate title. I am concerned that prospective employers will misinterpret this year's change, while the simple truth of the matter is that my current employer does not recognize or reward its employees adequately (which is why I'm updating my resume). What's your advice? Thank you!

Mary Ellen Slayter: For most private-sector jobs, titles matter less than actual job duties and accomplishments because titles themselves are so vague and inflation has made everyone a VP of something.

Also, official promotions usually lag duties, anyway, so your situation isn't unusual. Treat your new title like a promotion and group the appropriate duties/accomplishments underneath it.


Alexandria, Va.: Mary Ellen: I have a question about finding the right job. The last three jobs I have had -- the manager changed my job duties after I accepted the job. We're talking about major job duties! I have 8 years of experience in my field and a master's degree so I apply to and get interviews for mid- to upper-level positions. At interviews I am told they want a self-starter and usually need a variety of processes created and some management of projects. After I start work, it becomes apparent they needed a qualified person but to do lower level work. Or to put it another way, it seems like they need to hire an entry level but either do not trust the candidates or do not want to train them. I am frustrated that I have been lied to and have had to leave these jobs after short stints because it wasn't helping my career. How do I prevent this with future jobs?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Since this has happened several times, I would like to suggest a little introspection. There may be something about your behavior on the job at the beginning that makes them reluctant to give you control over the higher-level work. It could even be unconscious.

It may also be a patience issue. How short are these stints?


20036: I have a male friend who has not held a steady job for the last couple of years. (He claims to be doing freelance work for an archaeological organization, but I have not found any evidence that this organization actually exists.) He's in his early 30s and has a bachelor's in psychology or something like that. He also says he does not like working in an office. I want to help him get a job so that he's not constantly sponging off his parents and his friends. What kinds of jobs could I possibly interest him in? How can I help him apply for jobs given this huge resume gap? (In case you're wondering, my own parents died when I was in my 20s and 30s, so I'm keenly aware that you can't live off of them forever.)

Mary Ellen Slayter: Why do you care? Is his laziness really your business?


Charleston, S.C.: Thanks for taking my question. I have worked in my current office for just under a year. I started as a temp in October and in February was taken on as a permanent employee by the company. I am currently looking for a new job as every pay cycle, at least one person's paycheck at the company bounces. I signed up for direct deposit, however payroll advises due to cash flow issues they have to give me a check instead of using direct deposit. When I was hired, I signed a confidentiality agreement to protect the company so I don't believe I am able to disclose any financial information. My first interviews are coming up for potential jobs and I don't know what to say when asked why I am leaving my current position in less than a year. Can I simply state: "I'm petrified my paycheck is going to bounce every time I go to the bank?"

Mary Ellen Slayter: Of course you can, as long as you do so diplomatically. What an awful situation. Good luck getting out of there, and make sure you cash your checks first thing when you get them!


Fairfax, Va.: Mary - My subordinate keeps flirting with me. I try to laugh it off, but they're not getting the hint. Is this Okay?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Ha. Stop laughing when you tell them to knock it off. As long as you're laughing, they will think you are flirting back. And the next thing you know, you'll both be out of work!


Bird, Hand: Yippee, it's Monday! I've been waiting to ask you this: I've been approached by two different departments of the same federal agency. One department has offered me a direct hire job and is running my references. The other department has interviewed me for a higher GS-level job and has told me to not accept the offer I've received; but these folks haven't offered me anything yet. The first department is trying to move faster than the second department so to force my hand. I'd prefer the higher-level job, but I'm concerned about losing the "bird in hand." Do you have any advice for me? Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: What does the second department think about this? And can you appeal to a higher authority over both of them?
You must feel very flattered!


Chantilly, Va.: What is a good way to deal with direct and intentional rudeness in the workplace? I am currently temping at a company where co-workers have been outright rude and "putting me in my place" Currently I do the ignore and walk away. I am polite in my dealings with everyone but there is a lot of gossip sharing in the office. I think a lot of this behavior stems from a falling out I had with my officemate. I am trying to stay out of the gossip and I don't speak about the run in with my officemate to anyone in the office, is there something else I could do? Or should I continue with the ignore and walk away.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You can't control other people, just yourself. Continue to be polite and cheerful, and eventually things will settle down. I wouldn't spend a lot of time thinking about this. It's a waste of your energy and if you act like it's getting to you, it just feeds more drama.


Anonymous: Hi Mary Ellen, I'm interviewing for a job in California that would allow me to switch careers. Everything has been going well and I'm waiting for them to make an offer (or not, but it would be a total shocker if they didn't). When talking to HR I told them what the least amount of money I would be willing to take, which is 30% less than what I was making in my previous career. While in Caliph. for an on site interview, I took some time to look at apartments, and found out based on the number I gave them, that I would be living in a crime infested neighborhood -- not somewhere I want to live. My question is how should I go about negotiating for more money -- purely to deal with the cost of living adjustment mistake that I made? Should I be proactive and let HR know my minimum has increased after spending time looking at housing in the area? Should I wait until they make an offer, and then negotiate salary? If they stick to the number I initially gave them, would it be silly (unreasonable) to ask to work remotely one day a week or have 4 10-hour days a week after a initial period (1-3 months)? I really want this role, especially since it would allow me to switch careers, and would like to remain with the company long term. So any advice you can give would go a long way. FWIW, I would still take the job even if negotiating doesn't work, with the plan to transfer to a different team/city as soon as humanly possible. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Tell them NOW that you made a mistake and hadn't realized how big the cost of living difference is. Give them the real number, and proceed with negotiations from there. As for the other things ... none of those requests are silly.


Washington, D.C.: How long does one actively pursue a job before just letting go? I was contacted months ago and interviewed almost two months ago. The hiring manager e-mailed me (in response) that they haven't made a decision (this was two weeks ago). I've forgotten what the people I met with look like and wonder if I'm getting the run-around. I haven't seen the job re-posted. Do I wait another week and ask again or do I just let it die? Frankly, most days I forget it's even still hanging out there, it's been so long.

Mary Ellen Slayter: If you're still interested, send them an e-mail just to check in and let them know.


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

Mary Ellen Slayter: I recommend your network over any Web site. Job ads are hit and miss. And really, the job market around here isn't tight right now, not in the way you mean. Unemployment in the Washington area remains significantly lower than the nation as a whole.


RE: Is his laziness really your business?: She wants to date him.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Then she should wait a few years while he finds a job himself.


Chicago, Ill.: About three months ago I was laid off and since then have been having trouble finding a new job in the industry, in the area. I am wondering if I should take a job that is in my field but realistically is not what I want/expect to do and would mostly just be a "place-holder" job until I can find something better for me. Even the project manager that I would be working for made a point to tell me that while the contract has been going for years and will continue to go for years most employees only stay for 6-12 months, because the work can be very tedious and frankly boring. As far as pay/benefits the job is great (considerably better than the one I got laid off from), and is a great opportunity to get some experience and is a well-known city project, so would be good for my resume (I have only been out of school for a year and half) since it would be recognizable to other companies, but I am wondering if it is a terrible idea to take a job knowing that I will probably only be there temporarily? I also wonder how to go about interviewing with other companies when I will have only been at a job for 3-4 months? I should probably mention I intend to go back to school to get a masters degree sometime in the next year or two, so any job I take will be "temporary".

Mary Ellen Slayter: A short-term job like that sounds like it would be a good fit for you right now. It pays actual money, and it's better than doing nothing. Plus, it will be easier to find the right long-term job while you're already employed. The universe just works that way.


RE: Change in Duties: Most of the jobs were contract to begin with so the stints were about 6mo to 10mo. All 3 jobs changed their job duties on me within the first 2 to 3 weeks. I am confident and was told it had nothing to do with my abilities. They tried to make it sound like everyone was not doing what they wanted, as though that was okay. I seriously think they tried to make the job more appealing to get someone in and hoped they would stay. My opinion is -- this is the difference between working for a paycheck and working to do something you have a passion for. Don't get me wrong, I need a paycheck but want one with a job that delivers what is promised.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I see. I still find it very odd that it managed to happen to you three times in a row. Most people have a story like this in their career, but it only happens once. Perhaps it's something peculiar to your field.

In any case, one of the best ways to prevent this situation is to find out what happened to the last person who held this job. Did they get promoted? Leave after 3 months? Can you talk with them?


RE: 20036:: It sounds as though you've invested a lot of time in man. Why? Is your interest in his professional life a smokescreen for interest in his private life. Just ask him out already. If Mary posts this, I'd be curious to know if you're a woman. I think you are.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Oh it, it's TOTALLY a woman.


Your recent column: I just wanted to throw my two cents in about job searches and Web sites. I have an extensive network and have never received a job lead that manifested into anything, whereas I have always found jobs through internet sites and have had great success doing so. Perhaps it's the field of work you are in. FWIW, I am a technical writer.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Good point.


Bird, Hand (again): The second department, the one that's interviewed me but hasn't offered anything, says that it hasn't made a decision yet. I do not know of a higher authority over both departments. I asked for advice from the HR person who was checking my references, and he hasn't returned my email. I'm feeling a little strange about this...

Mary Ellen Slayter: If it's the same agency, there must be some person who has say-so over them both.


Washington, D.C.: My friend has worked as a paralegal with a law firm and is interested in switching career fields (into consulting or financial services)and moving to NYC, where she went to school. Her job search hasn't really led anywhere, even though she's been looking since Spring. I suggested letting some of the lawyers know about her plans, since at least one has worked in N.Y., as a way to network, but she thinks it's a bad idea to let her bosses know of her plans. But she graduated from a good school and I feel that it's almost expected of paralegals to leave their job after a few years. What do you think?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'm with you. And I would be even if she went to a "bad" school.


Anonymous: Hi Mary Ellen, I am a fourth-year political science major with a Spanish minor graduating this coming spring. I made it through undergrad debt-free and am seriously contemplating the risk of going straight to graduate school. If I were to move to Washington and look for employment after graduation (instead of trying to get into a masters program) what kind of experience should I expect? Are temp agencies readily available if I can't find work? How is the field for entry-level positions? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: What do you want to do long-term? And do you need a master's degree to do it?


Alexandria, Va.: I'm looking for an Admin job and I've applied to several openings the past 4 weeks and haven't had any response. I've had my resume looked over by professionals and they say it looks great. What's wrong? Should I try a headhunter? How do I find one?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Keep trying. Four weeks is nothing.


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


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