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Lily Garcia
How to Deal columnist, The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 20, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post job expert Lily Garcia discussed workplace issues on Tuesday, October 20, at 11 a.m. ET.

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The transcript follows.

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Lily Garcia: Thank you for joining today's live chat. I look forward to answering your career- and workplace-related questions, and I welcome your thoughtful commentary. Let's begin.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I've been a stay at home mom for the past four years. Could that be the reason why I'm having trouble finding a job? I apply for the jobs that I am qualified for, but no one calls. Is it something that I am doing wrong? So far, I am working with a vocational counselor, revamped my resume. I don't know what else to do. Help!

Lily Garcia: Having that interruption in your work history can certainly make finding a job more challenging. It helps if you can list activities on your resume that demonstrate that you have continued to develop professionally even as you were raising children. You may have been involved with a local charity or the PTA and, like many parents, you may find upon reflection that your contributions have been significant.

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McLean, Va.: I've been volunteering for a non-profit for a few weeks doing various writing and editing assignments. They seemed very happy with my work and skill. But then suddenly the head PR person, whom I mainly reported to, stopped calling or e-mailing. I called and have e-mailed several times and have not heard back at all. Should I assume that they are no longer happy with my work or continue to try and contact them? Should I go over his head and contact the president? I feel very passionate about this non-profit and want to continue working for them. What should I do?

Lily Garcia: I don't think it would hurt to drop the president a line just to ask if everything is okay. There could be a number of reasons why you have not heard back. Maybe your PR contact is ill or maybe he does not work there anymore! As long as you adopt a tone of concern, it's okay to ask what is going on.

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DC: What do you suggest people do about a work bully? The rest of us never seem to be smart enough and work fast enough, and the coworker gets angry that we're not understanding what he/she want or think we should be understanding. This person's communications skills aren't the best so it's hard to interpret sometimes, and the teammate in question gets impatient when we ask for clarification. Granted this person has some special skills that the rest of us don't have, and we'll likely never be at the bully's level of knowledge. But we're tired of being given the silent treatment or being [expletive] at for just trying to do our jobs.

Lily Garcia: Talk to your coworker's supervisor regarding his/her communication style and how, specifically, this is presenting an impediment to the efficient completion of assignments. Make sure that you tie your concerns to business results so that it is clear that you and others are not just being sensitive.

You could also speak directly with your coworker, but I would not fault you for going straight to the boss if your coworker can be expected to respond in an aggressive or demeaning way.

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Washington, DC: All the time, my boss says, "I'm doing this because I don't want anyone to feel left out." I would like to point out to him that Russia showed us that communism doesn't really work. When high and poor performers are equally rewarded and recognized, I think high performers get discouraged and demoralized. Worse, if advantages are given to those who don't exert any effort for them, or can't justify why they need them except "because someone else has it," I think the organization ends up wasting money unnecessarily. My director even admits this! "We probably don't need to buy this extra software, but I don't want anyone to feel left out." I find this attitude wasteful and unfair. Thanks for any advice about how to deal with it.

Lily Garcia: If your boss and your director are aligned in their philisophy regarding employee rewards, then you are swimming against a strong tide. It will not help to tell your boss that he is running your workplace like the former Soviet Union. The best that you can do is focus on making sure that you are given what you need in terms of support and equipment -- even if that means that everyone else will reap the same benefits.

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Washington D.C.: I don't know how else to phrase it, but how to deal with brown-noser coworkers? I sit in an open cubicle environment. A few days ago my director came directly to me and asked if I was able to help with a project. My supervisor and coworker, who sit nearby, jumped into the conversation and volunteered to help before I even had a chance to say anything. I thought it was rude and somewhat undermining behavior. Not to mention my supervisor later that day AGAIN pushed her way into making herself available for the project, trying to make herself look experienced and knowledgeable. Meanwhile I have the same (if not more) experience. I feel a supervisor's job is to a) give underlings opportunities, and b) be supportive of their growth. Both of these coworkers have shown to me their abilities to brown-nose in the past. I want to say something to them individually about the incident, but I'm not sure if I should. How should I deal with this type of behavior?

Lily Garcia: You should speak with your supervisor and coworker about how you interpreted their response and how you were left feeling. You might have an impact on their awareness regarding their behavior. In the case of your supervisor, you can specifically point out to her that you were disappointed that she did not support you in the opportunity you were offered rather than trying to insinuate her way into the project.

You also need to make sure that you are being as responsive as possible when developmental opportunities are presented to you so that you are not overshadowed and preempted by your more aggressive colleagues.

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Falls Church, Va.: I was laid off a couple of weeks ago, and one of the people in my network wanted me to come work for him. I was delighted, as I had spent seven years working for this company. I had been laid off six years ago because of a lack of work. We got to the final paperwork stages and ran into a snag. There was a black mark on my record. No one has been able to give me any information about the black mark. I talked to my former boss, and he said that he didn't put it there.

Can you give me any advice? The company is a major player in my industry, and if they can't hire me, that really lowers my chances of finding a new job quickly.

Lily Garcia: You should urge your potential employer to describe the "black mark" to you to give you a chance to explain or correct it. If they make a hiring decision unfavorable to you, then you may have a right under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to be given details regarding the basis for their decision. You will then have more information about what to do to correct the problem, but you will have missed out on an important opportunity in the meantime.

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Re: Workplace Bully: I have some experience in counseling. I suggest in small groups, each person who is subject to the bully meet with the bully, his/her supervisor, and the person's supervisor (if different than the bully). I don't suggest all the recipients of the bully's abrasive behavior meet with the bully, for it would be ganging up on the bully. Repeated meetings gives the bully a chance to hear comments multiple times in different ways and one-on-one, with the supervisors too.

Lily Garcia: That is a great approach, as long as the supervisors are amenable. Thanks.

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Bridezillas or just me?: I am the newly-installed (four months) office manager for a small firm of 25+ employees. Two of the staff are "brides-to-be." While the firm's culture is casual and familial, I am growing concerned that their wedding planning is getting out of hand. Too much wedding conversation is creeping into office hours. (What are you wearing? Who's invited? Can you cover for me since I have to go for a fitting?) Right now, I have no complaints from staffers nor do I have any reason to address these two, but I sense trouble coming as months go on. Maybe in job performance, but more likely in office morale. (Again, who's invited or not?) How should I address my (overblown) concerns? While happy for their personal lives, I want the wedding stuff to recede in the office without being called callous.

Lily Garcia: I think that you need to take a step back to assess whether the wedding-related chatter is having any appreciable impact on productivity or morale. If it does develop into a viable issue, it should be addressed as such. However, it sounds to me like the wedding talk is currently at the point of being annoying, not destructive. I can think of other types of office chatter -- reality shows, March madness, elections -- that can tend to ramble on and grate or unnerve. In those cases as well, the important question to ask is whether the conversations are having a measurable negative impact on your ability to get the work of the organization done.

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DC: One of the employees in our very small office recently moved into the boss's second bedroom. It's unclear if this is a romantic relationship. It is clear, however, that it is changing the office environment. They now end up on vacation at the same time, or one will go on vacation to whatever city the other is in for business travel. This leaves only one or two people in the office dealing with day-to-day activity. Further, there are business decisions and discussions happening at their home. When we have meetings, the employee will just say "well, you know how I feel," meaning we cannot have an open dialogue. The rest of us are getting angry and resentful. What can we do? (We are so small that we have no HR rep, just the boss.)

Lily Garcia: When your boss's roommate says, "You know how I feel," ask him or her to clarify for the benefit of others. Whenever the boss or the boss's roommate make reference to their implicit understanding regarding group decisions, remind them that the rest of you are not privy to what they have discussed. It sounds like the relationship -- whether it is romantic or not -- has become at least somewhat inappropriate. Given that you do not have a human resources department or, I assume, a policy against fraternization, your only recourse would be to approach your boss with your concerns. If you choose to do so, focus on how the personal relationship between your boss and his or her roommate may be leaving you short-staffed and stifling open dialogue about important issues. Put aside your judgment of the relationship and address its impact on the mission of your organization.

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Project-stealing co-workers: You can address them one-on-one, but anyone that's willing to steal a project away from you will likely just give you lip service and smirk at your naivete. You could, however, e-mail the boss who was going to offer you a project and let that person know that you would have liked to participate in the project and are interested in any work that comes up. I work with some people like that and you really need to watch your back and proactively protect your work interests.

Lily Garcia: Thank you for offering your perspective. I agree that it is a good idea to reaffirm your interest in the project.

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Bethesda, Md.: How advisable is it to leave a job because of the emotional toll it takes on you? Not to sound alarmist or dramatic, but my job is the main reason I'm on medication for depression and anxiety (yes, it's that bad), and I genuinely feel that the best way for me to maintain my emotional health is to leave my job. But is that even a wise move in this economy?

Lily Garcia: Only you can ultimately answer that question. If you can find a way to make it work financially, leaving might be the best choice for you. If you simply cannot afford to absorb the financial impact, then it might be best for you to stay for the moment and find other ways to cope.

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DC -- please help!: Hi, Lily. Thanks for all your good advice. I was recently laid off from my job (corporate downsizing) and am looking for another. The trouble is that I've committed to starting a full-time grad school program next fall, meaning I would be working for a new company for only eight months or so. Do I need to tell interviewers this? I can't be unemployed for the eight months before grad school, but I'd prefer not to just temp. I have an interview on Friday, so I need advice on how to handle this. Thanks!

Lily Garcia: Is there any way that you can defer your graduate school program, if only for a semester? That would be best. If you plan to leave in only eight months, then I think that you should be up front with prospective employers. Yet, this is going to seriously limit your employment options.

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DC: I am a contractor for a large, publicly-held company. I work for myself, not for any agency. After nine years, the company now says that I am required, by government regulation, to become an employee. Is this true? They say the term limit for contractors is 18 months, and that they should have alerted me long ago. (Supposedly, this is to prevent companies from taking advantage of independent contractors.)

Of course, the employment offer is much less advantageous to me. My question: am I required to change a contracted relationship after only 18 months? If you don't know, can you suggest how I can find out? Thank you.

Lily Garcia: Many employers opt to terminate contractor relationships after a period of time (usually more like six months rather than 18 months) and either make the contractor an offer of employment or move on to another contractor. The reason is that, the longer you keep a contractor engaged, the stronger the argument that that person is really an employee with all of the legal protections that attach to employee status.

You don't have to accept the company's offer of employment, but they are within their rights to make your continued business relationship dependent on your acceptance of the offer. I cannot speak to whether there is a government regulation that requires this.

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Re: Project-stealing coworkers: Just to follow up, I did manage to jump in during the initial conversation to say that I was willing/able to volunteer. I also marched into the director's office later and started with "I didn't get a chance to say it earlier, but...." just to reaffirm my interest/availability. These two I work with can really be aggressive and/or major suck-ups. I will still speak with them about what happened. Thanks for the advice.

Lily Garcia: Thanks for the clarification. It sounds like you are taking all appropriate steps to address the situation.

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Bethesda, Md.: I am the only hourly employee in my department (about 30 people). I was supposed to go full time about a year ago, but a state hiring freeze hit right in the midst of my transfer and I've been left as a 1500 hour employee ever since. The one benefit I was told my position enjoyed was a flexible schedule. This makes sense, as I am not allowed to work more than 40 hours a week, or 1500 a year without penalty. Recently I got married, and a little over a month before the wedding I asked for three days off after the wedding. My supervisor took 18 days to get back with me, and then granted me two of the three days. When I asked for the third day, citing scheduling reasons, as well as the importance of having the time after my wedding,it did not go well. My supervisor mentioned that she had wanted to take those days off too, but was now giving up her vacation, and that we needed to maintain coverage here (there are six people who do essentially the same job including her -- we work in a creative field). I later found out that she had waited to give me the news about the time off after I participated in her 360 review. Is this a legitimately unethical situation, or just an uncomfortable one? How do I get past this and have a normal working relationship with my supervisor now?

Lily Garcia: If you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that your supervisor based her decision regarding your leave on the contents of your appraisal of her, then this does raise ethical concerns that you might consider bringing to the attention of your human resources department. Before complaining, however, you should ask yourself what you hope to gain relative to the risk you are taking that your relationship with your suprvisor will be irreparably damaged. It might be best to try to put the incident behind you.

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Lily Garcia: We are unfortunately out of time. Please join me for the next "How to Deal Live" on Tuesday, November 3rd, from 11:00 a.m. to noon, EST. In the meantime, please feel free to email your questions to hradvice@washingtonpost.com.

All the best,

Lily

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


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