Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008; 3:00 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 discussion follows.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon!

This will be my last Career Tracks Live chat. I've taken a job at SmartBrief, editing their e-mailed newsletters related to workforce, leadership and entrepreneurs, among other things.

I am excited about the move, but I will definitely miss y'all. Anyone who wants to stay in touch can find me through e-mail at, or on Facebook.


Silver Spring, Md.: I have been retired for a couple of years and I need a copy of a cover letter for a job I want to apply for. How do I get one? Thanks for your help.

Mary Ellen Slayter: A copy of a letter? You have to write one! Or do you mean you want to hire someone to do it for you?


Washington, DC: I just accepted a position on contract with a Government Agency. Should I be qorried about losing this position soon based on the upcoming Administration changes?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Most of the government's workings have absolutely nothing to do with who is living in the White House. As a contractor, your position could be shaky, depending on shifting attitudes about outsourcing.


Silver Spring, MD: Great article. I am just curious about why all the interviewees were women.

Mary Ellen Slayter: What article are you referring to?


Seattle, WA: The majority of "bosses" today are still men. However, I did notice that 3 of the 4 examples you used in the article are about women bosses. Is there a message behind this that I am missing -- or potentially misinterpreting?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Oh, I think there must be some misunderstanding. Are y'all referring to the story on the cover of the Sunday Source? I didn't write that, though I am happy to talk about it.

_______________________ How to... Write a Cover Letter

Mary Ellen Slayter: This story addresses some questions about writing a cover letter.


Washington, D.C.: Congratulations on the new job! Bad news for us, but I'm sure good news for you. You will be missed. Who at the Post will be taking over your columns and chats?

Mary Ellen Slayter: My understanding is that no one will. Lily Garcia's column will appear in print now, as well as online. It's good stuff.

If you still want to follow my writing on career topics, you can sign up for my SmartBriefs. They're free. If you need more information, e-mail me after the chat at my personal address.


Need help by 2:30!: Dear Mary Ellen,

I hope that you might respond to this by 2:30 today. My company wants me to leave. I found this out because my bosses are conducting interviews for my replacement. I am to interview a candidate today at 2:30. What on earth do I say to the person? My major complaint with my employer is that people are treated very badly here (obviously).

Thank you for your advice.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Wow. Is there any way you can just go ahead and quit?

_______________________ Think Your Boss Is Bad?

Mary Ellen Slayter: The Bad Boss story from the Sunday Source.


New York, N.Y.: I really need your help. I randomly was offered a job (I think) on Saturday. I was at a convention and got chatting to another attendee. I just chatted informally and didn't think anything of it. At the end of the conversation, he just offered me a job. Said I was really smart and he gave me his card and told me to give him a call for a job. I checked it out and it's a great company, great field and they are recruiting (he is senior management and is the last word on hiring). I'm 23 and really not that career experienced so I need some advice.

1. My friend told me to send him my resume and cover letter TODAY, before I call him. Is this right? I've updated everything.

2. Struggling with a cover letter. I didn't 'sell myself' when I met him because I didn't know who he was. I was in casual clothes and cracking jokes. I'm afraid now that a traditional cover letter will look fake, but an informal one will look disrespectful.

3. We didn't actually exchange names, though I have his card. Do I address the cover letter to "David" or Mr X?

4. I have no idea what position they are hiring for or he is thinking of so how do I write this cover letter?

This is really crazy but will be awesome if it works out, please help me!

Mary Ellen Slayter: 1. Send the resume, with an e-mail reminding him who you are. Reiterate your interest in working with him. Ask when you can set up a time to meet.

2. Skip the cover letter. You don't need it. A cover letter is to introduce yourself. You're already introduced.

3. Mr. Until told otherwise. From now on, introduce yourself to people you meet. Just stick out your hand and share your name.

4. Really, stop worrying about the cover letter.


Chantilly, Va.: If I get what appears to be a bogus job offer via a resume I have posted on an online job Website, should I report the email to the Website or just delete the message and move on?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Report it. It's good for your karma.


Columbia, Md.: Sorry to see you go! You've given great advice over the years. Question: When interviewing for a job, is it okay to cite a lack of passion for your current work as the reason you want to leave? Or might this lead to questions about whether or not you put your all into your job?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think that's one of the *best* reasons to look for a new job. People burn out. Focus your attention on showing your passion about the prospective new gig.


Arlington, VA: Maybe this isn't so much career-based but I work in a tiny office and someone I hired does not seem to be working out. Its nothing that this person has done, just that after 5 weeks on the job we have questions about her work ethic. Although I always question myself whether I have been "course-correcting" the person enough to perform to the level I want.

My boss has left it up to me whether this person is let go. I've never ever fired anyone before, nor been the key decision maker. What and when should I tell them? Is it better to wait until Friday?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Has anyone said anything to her yet? Can you be specific about the issues? And how old is this person?


Arlington, VA: I don't mean to sound so end-of-the-world, but I have reached a stage of burnout so total at my company that I can barely even phone it in anymore. For at least a year now, I've been searching heavily for a new job, but with the current economy, I'm getting such a low response from companies. And the resultant disappointment I feel from that is nearly as bad as the job burnout itself.

I'm not contemplating a career change per se, but rather a simple job change--doing the same kind of work for a different company, thus allowing me to expand my skill sets and contribute what sets I already have in new ways. In other words, I'd very much like a fresh start within my own career field.

But in searching for a new job, I'm hampered by a couple of factors. One, I work in a generally low-paying field (publishing), so most compensation levels I'm finding are lower that my minimum salary requirement (based on DC's high cost of living). Two, in this field, there are far more people than there are jobs, so competition is very high. Three, some have suggested pursuing a Master's or other advanced degree, but publishing isn't a field that really requires an advanced degree, so I'm reluctant to spend the money on a degree I likely won't need. And four, as I said earlier, with the economy as bad as it is, I'm barely able to even FIND publishing jobs half the time. No joke--if I'm able to send out just one resume a day, I feel like I've accomplished something.

So I really feel in a rut by being totally burned out at my current company yet unable to find many--if any!--paths toward change for my own betterment.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The competition is always going to keep the pay low.

Are you open to other career paths that jump off of your current skill set?


2:30 person: I can't quit without another job lined up. I was just told (2:25 pm) that I should stay for another couple months to train my replacement.

Mary Ellen Slayter: If you're so awful, what makes you qualified to train your replacement?

You work for sadists. Leave and find temp work while you look for a new job. What they are doing is insulting. Leave now, keep your dignity.


Re: Columbia: The person didn't ask if a lack of passion is a good reason to LOOK for a new job. S/he asked if it's a good reason to CITE to potential employers about why you're looking for a new job.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, it is. Absolutely.


DC : Hello, I am currently taking classes before applying to graduate school, and have realized that I cannot pass my classes and continue to work at my deadline intensive, high-stress job at the same time. Given the current economic condition, is it a good ideai to try and find a part time job at a place such as restaurant/retail store so I have more time to committ to studying? I feel as though I would have a very hard time finding a part-time job in those areas now. Thanks so much.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Around here I'm not sure you'll have much difficulty. I see Now Hiring signs up all over downtown Silver Spring, for example. Just find a few places that interest you and start applying.


Washington, D.C.: Ms Slayter

I recently quit a job (first time in a 25 year career) because of a horrible boss. As I interview for another one the question is always asked about the circulstances of my leaving. I have heard that it is unwise to criticize a former boss. So I hem and haw and talk about lessons learned etc. I fear I am not convincing because itis not true and I dont believe it. Do you have advice about how to handle this situation?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Keep practicing. Your instinct about not directly slamming the old boss is wise. But it's ok if it comes out (a little) between the lines. Mainly you want to keep the conversation steered toward the positive, specifically what you bring to this new job.


Cover letter crazy NY, NY here again: Thank you so much! You give such invaluable advice.

Calming down about the stupid cover letter now!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Staying calm is half the battle. Maybe even three-quarters of it.


WDC: the Sunday Source article on bosses mentioned that the discussion would continue during today's 2pm discussion...

Mary Ellen Slayter: Ah, gotcha. Well, this is a logical place to talk about evil bosses, for sure!


Silver Spring, MD: The article addresses an important issue for me right now. I recently lost my job. I had worked for supervisors who were bullies and/or micromanagers for years. The evaluation process was pretty unpredictable and erratic. Over the past few years, while they would start out citing my excellent skills, knowledge, professional work, etc., this would be followed by a littany of faults. Some of these faults I fully accepted and took responsibility for and worked to correct them. Others, however, were either distorted (in character and/or proportion)and based on anxiety (theirs) and untested assumptions, or were altogether false. Sometimes it was clear to me that I was being used by my immediate supervisor to dodge bullets coming her way from her higher ups--ie things that were never assigned to me that she was responsible for that she later apparently reported to have been my failures. At first I was able to respond to specific points to clarify and correct some distortions and errors, but the cumulative effect of these evaluations and the daily bullying wore me down. It got to the point where I couldn't get myself to respond because just looking at the evaluation letter or even thinking about the letters or the meetings felt traumatic to me and I would be overwhelmed with feelings of shame, rage, helplessness, etc., causing me to avoid the self-advocacy in favor of trying to stay level-headed enough to do my job. In the end, I was not a good self-advocate and allowed myself to get pulled into an "agreement" to meet some concrete, short term, goals that were poorly defined and for which the measurement of progress was vague to me, although when I look back on the document, it had all the right elements legally, if not functionally (or professionally). In the end I was told I was being let go but no specific feedback was given on how they felt I had done in working toward the goals--just that I had not met the requirements of the agreement. And when I tried to discuss the issue of the process, the response about this, coming now from the highest executives, was to fault me for that lack of clarity in the process. While in principle, I understand, at least intellectually, the basis of the executives' reasoning (about my needing to have shown some initiative to get clarification and communicate my ongoing progress toward the goals), in reality, it felt like being kicked when I was already down, and I guess I had developed a sense of futility about trying to engage in the kind of communication that would have been needed to gain clarity about the process--because of the years of bullying. As you might expect, my confidence has been badly shaken and I think it is going to take a long while to heal from all of this.

Mary Ellen Slayter: That is awful.

I have nothing to add, but I wanted to post your story, just to show how much bad management can hurt people.


Bethesda, Md.: My father-in-law is in charge of hiring at a large company. There were two positions (highly sought-after and difficult to get in the industry) and 5 final candidates. Two of the candidates were just automatically rejected because of the, um, personal, nature of the photographs on their MySpace page. Just a warning to those who display all on MySpace/Facebook.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Warning is passed along.


County Employee: I work for one of the county governments in the area. My boss is a horrible leader. When you ask him questions you come back with more questions not an answer. He often forgets what we have already dicussed and wastes time sending us emails then coming to our desks to tell us the exact same information. I have no faith in his ability and generally don't have a lot of respect for him. I need to find someone to help me and my coworkers. How do I deal with this? Should I speak with his boss or HR or both? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Your boss. Be specific about one or two things, give proof of how it's interfered with your ability to do your job. Present this information calmly, in person.

But ... is it really a major problem that he repeats himself? I can think of so many worse problems to have with a boss.


Rockville, Md.: Hi Mary Ellen. I started my new job 2 1/2 months ago, and already I'm chaffing at the company's inflexible environment, especially now that I just discovered I'm pregnant. If I started looking for a new job, how would this look to the new company? How would I answer their question without sounding like a quiter? Would it be a double whammy now that I'm expecting? Other than that, I have a pretty good work history. Thank you.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Are you sure you can't get the new company to bend a little? Looking for a new job while you're pregnant is tough. You'll likely be foregoing any maternity leave, for example.


DC: Recently started a job that pays me a starting salary of about $45,000 per year, with 3% increases every October for the next 3 years. The benefits are great (100% coverage on everything), 401K, the works. The problem I face is that I'm still young (24), and I don't want to be tied down to one place. I don't want to be one of those people who's at one place for 25 years unless the money is really good.

At the same time, I also took the job b/c I couldn't find anything else (dozens of interviews, callbacks, and no final word on anyone of them!). So basically, I have a job that has nothing to do with what I studied in college.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Mary Ellen Slayter: But no one says you have to stay there until you retire. Work there for a year or two, see how you like it, and see where that takes you.

Also, I would say most people don't have jobs that relate directly to their undergraduate degrees. I have a B.S. in agronomy.


bad boss: What if your boss was incredibly angry that you left (and this generalized anger is why you left). I'm afraid to use him. Is is (kind of) a positive to say he was very angry that I left and let them figure out the rest?

Mary Ellen Slayter: What do you mean "use him"? Like, as a reference? I would avoid it if you can.

I wouldn't bring up the angry boss. They'll likely figure that out if they call him!


This may be more of a Hax question, but: A co-worker with whom I'm on mostly friendly terms is leaving at the end of next week. She's lately been trying to feel me out regarding everyone's reaction to her leaving, saying things like she thinks people are upset with her, etc. What should I say?

The truth of the matter is, yes, we're upset with her, even those of us who like her. She spent a lot of time lazing about the past summer, which meant that we had to pick up her slack (and our boss knew it, too, but we were short-handed at that point and so she didn't want to get rid of the lazy co-worker who was at least doing some things) and faked illnesses fairly often to get out of work (as in, saying she had "caught" something from others when they were out for asthma or allergy attacks). But she's leaving now, so I don't see the point in saying that yes, people are a bit upset, because it won't keep her around and won't motivate her to work diligently the rest of her time here. Any suggestions on what to say?

And thanks for all your previous advice!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Unless you think she'd actually take what you have to say to heart, I'd politely brush her questions off.


Centreville, Va.: Re Silver Spring's experience -- I wonder if this person worked at the same previous employer as I did? I had a very similar experience in my last job, and thankfully have found a much better place since then. I had to warn my current managers that I was the employee equivalent of an abused spouse, where I would see intent to harm me even when there was none, and asked them to be patient with me while I healed. They were, and I have, and everything is great. So I would tell Silver Spring to hang in there, that there are human beings out there who will not do this to you a second time.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thank you for sharing that.


Boston: Hi Mary Ellen -- I've been at Company X for a few years and I've done pretty well here -- I have a good relationship with my boss and get praise from my boss' boss, the VP. The VP is kind of a big deal in our field. I'm getting ready to apply to some graduate school programs in a related field, and I know the VP would write me a good reference, and that her industry status would mean it would carry some weight with admissions. But I'm not sure if it's wise to let my boss and the VP know that I'm sniffing around at grad schools -- some programs are local (so i would want to stick around my job while i was enrolled), but others are on the other side of the country, which would mean i'd have to quit. But having good professional references is important to me -- what to do?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Definitely talk to your VP. Ask her advice about the process. If she's well-known in her field, the grad schools might call her anyway.


DC: I have a good job with an academic, not university type of institution. I've had this job for 6 months. The only problem is that my boss is rarely here, rarely assigns me any work, and I'm extremely bored and not challenged. He really likes me, so I'm not concerned, and I created one really great project that he has co-opted, but I did not go to graduate school to earn a low salary doing very little work. I'm ready to work hard, long hours in order to earn my pay. I am scared that if I say anything to anyone that I will lose my job because I know that more than 300 applications came in for it and that more than 500 come in for other positions at my company. I need my salary for rent, etc. On the other hand, I am actively looking to leave and I know my boss will be devastated if that happens. I should be having my first review in late October.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Instead of waiting for your boss to assign you work, start initiating more projects. Don't let your impatience ruin what could be a very strong resume builder.


DC: Same person who talked about the staying in one place for 25 years. I just want to make a point that I'm in no way unappreciative of what I have. The working environment is good, and the bosses are firm, but fair. For me, I feel as though I just wasted 4 years of my life and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a college degree only for me not to get a job in my field of study. I've already planned to stay here a 1 year...2 years tops, and move on, but from time to time, I just ask myself "is this what I went to school for?"

Mary Ellen Slayter: What did you go to school for?


Washington, DC: I was fired from a ghastly job but asked to stay on to not only train but help hire my replacement. It was a horrible (though at points, laughable) experience. But not everyone can just quit and live on unemployment. I worked by day, fell apart in the therapist's office once a week, and looked for a new job. I found one and even got a decent reference from my horrible former boss. What doesn't kill you does indeed make you stronger. And maybe more marketable.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Another perspective.


Philadelphia: I'd love it if my boss repeated his instructions in e-mail - far too often we'll be working on something, be interrupted for an urgent project that a client needs right away, and then return to the original days later and have to resort to digging up old notes and comparing them to remember what he wanted. (I always keep notes, but have co-workers - and a boss - who don't...) Also, those occasions when he does think to send a follow-up e-mail there's no question that people misheard or interpreted something differently.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I agree.


Re: Arlington, Va. (firing employee): The employee is late-twenties, not much younger than myself actually.

As for the problems, some of it is just not working fast enough, getting lots of personal calls. A bigger issue is kind of being flaky about her schedule. Last week she was going to come in, the next day sent an email explaining she had an appointment and would come in later. Then never showed up nor called. Apologized today and said phone has problems, but hasn't worked a full week since starting. (Plus took off for family issue for two weeks, no communication when she was returning.)

Each of these has an explaination and is forgivable in and of themselves but its the culmination that leads up to us not trusting her work or her reliability. Admittedly the work can be boring but this is just a trial period even if they don't know it. If they really buckled down and showed some initiative we'd probably promote this person in short order.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Before firing her, sit down with her and tell her specifically what the problems are. Give her a chance to improve. If she doesn't post sufficient gains within a few weeks, let her go. Guilt-free.


Silver Spring, Md.: The article was interesting and some of the concepts helped validate how I was feeling (example -- the idea of the "spiral of shame"). Working for years for an immediate supervisor who is a bully and under the next-level-up manager who is a super-micromanager, I think that being in the middle of such dysfunctional dynamics at work makes it hard to maintain any kind of real perspective. The article reminded me of some of the things that were clearly missing from that job in terms of my ability to develop and grow for the benefit of me and the company. I guess I had gone into defense mode just to survive. I stayed as long as I did because I actually liked my direct job responsibilities, the clients and many other colleagues, and because I was paid quite well by industry standards (non-profit sector), something I will not be able to match in my next job. As I look for a new job, what questions might I ask in interviews to get a better sense of the supervisory climate?

Mary Ellen Slayter: More in response to the Bad Boss article.


What did you go to school for? : To get a Point taken.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I mean, you are obviously attached to the particular subject matter you studied. Beyond just getting a job.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions! Please stay in touch.


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