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Lily Garcia
How to Deal columnist, The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 15, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post job expert Lily Garcia discussed workplace issues on Tuesday, December 15, 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. Let's begin.

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Arlington, Va.: Lily,

I am finally leaving my company for a new job after a year of my company hiring people above me with no experience and claiming they can't promote me because I don't have enough. Knowing that I have two weeks of leave on the books (vacation + personal), I gave my notice on December 7 to be effective December 31. I thought that, in contrast to the previous four people who have left (just walked out), giving the company some transition time would be the right thing to do while still being able to take leave. As it turns out, they are only going to let me use three days of leave over the Christmas week and are not allowing me to take other time off. They do not pay out leave at the end, and have repeatedly said that while they appreciate my efforts at a smooth transition, I'm lucky they didn't just walk me to the door. My friends tell me that this can't possibly be legal; I've earned the time. Can they do this?

Lily Garcia: If you are an at-will employee, your employer can ask you to leave at any time for any lawful reason. This includes when you have been considerate enough to provide a generous amount of notice of your departure.

Regarding the payout of your accrued vacation, here is a link to an article I wrote that you may find instructive: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/20/AR2007062001352.html

If you believe that you have had wages illegally withheld, contact your state's department of labor and ask to speak with the wage and hour commission.

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Fairfax: From what I hear, networking is THE way to find a job. Problem is, I don't have a very big network. My first step will be to join Facebook and LinkedIn. Should I friend/link to anybody and everybody I know, even if they're just acquaintances or people I've only met once or twice? What other things can I do to network? (Also, if you have time to address it: I'm still employed, so is it possible to discreetly network online?)

www.washingtonpost.com: Special feature: How to network (Post)

Lily Garcia: Having a small or otherwise limited network need not necessarily hamper your networking efforts. As with so many things, success in networking is about time intelligently spent rather than casting an enormous net. So, no, you do not need to go overboard friending and linking to everyone. It is best to carefully target who you want to meet based on their expertise or standing in the field or organization that you wish to penetrate.

Here is a link to special feature on networking that you may find helpful.

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Arlington, Va.: I was recently fired, and I think it was to make room for my boss' friend. What should my next move be? How do I address this in interviews?

Lily Garcia: First, file for unemployment. Even if you were fired, you may yet be able to obtain benefits in your state if you can demonstrate that you were asked to leave through no fault of your own.

Also approach your former employer to ask whether they would be willing to assist in your transition by (1) not challenging your unemployment claim and (2) providing a neutral or positive job reference for you.

There is nothing illegal about firing an employee to replace her with your best friend unless the decision was also motivated by some impermissible factor such as race, sex, national origin, religion, age, or disability. If you believe that you have suffered illegal discrimination, as opposed to just being victimized by favoritism, then you should contact an employment lawyer, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state's fair employment practices agency.

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Arlington, Va.: I work in an office that has several after-hours social activities that are not mandatory, but they are mandatory. I have a fairly long commute, I work long hours and I am a single person with a dog at home. I can sometimes get a dog walker on the days that I know well in advance, but sometimes it's impossible and I have to miss the happy hour. I am given a lot of grief by my colleagues for not being able to make some of the events, most along the lines of the I'm-not-a-team-player avenue. Is there anything I can do about this? I'm already not a fan of my place of work because I come here to work, not to socialize, but I try to make as many of these things as possible. If I say, "I can't make it because I couldn't get a dog walker" and people still give me a hard time and pry as to why I can't, what's my best way of handling this?

Lily Garcia: Have you tried suggesting to your coworkers that they organize some social activities around the lunch hour? I think that it is wise to invest time getting to know your coworkers socially, even if the idea makes your skin crawl. But it is unfair for your coworkers to pressure you into joining them after hours when you have legitimate personal reasons why you are unable to do so.

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NY, NY: I participated in a phone interview yesterday and believe I came across okay. I think I would have done better in a face-to-face interview, because it was very difficult to hear the interviewers (four) who were on a speakerphone. I am writing my thank you letter to get it in the mail today and don't know if I should address this or just express my continued interest in the position. Suggestions? Thanks.

Lily Garcia: I do not think that you should complain about the format of the interview. Just express your continued enthusiasm for the job and thank each person for his/her time.

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Woodbridge, Va.: It's been 10 years since I've had to look for employment and so much has changed. How do I submit a salary requirement with a cover letter?

Lily Garcia: Unless a salary requirement is requested, I don't think that you should provide one. If requested, provide your salary requirement as a simple one-liner in the last paragraph of your cover letter. For example, "My salary requirement is $85,000 to 100,000 depending upon other compensation variables." Some recruiters suggest not providing a salary requirement even if it is requested. I disagree with that approach. You will only annoy the prospective employer and you risk being ruled out from consideration over a technicality.

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Reston, Va.: I'm thinking about switching jobs and careers in 2010. I'm pregnant, and I'm wondering if companies even would entertain hiring someone who told them "I'd love to work here, but can I start when my leave is over?" (I'm a teacher, so my leave is happening over the summer.) Or would they just move on to the person who could start immediately?

Lily Garcia: It all depends on the employer, the job, and the impression you make. Some employers hire quickly and others take their time. Some jobs are budgeted to be filled immediately and others can wait. For the perfect candidate, most employers would consider delaying the start date for a position.

With all of that in mind, if you are not able to start a new job until after next summer, then it seems a bit premature to start your job search now, pregnant or not. I may be missing some important detail about the education industry, but that is my impression.

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Rockville, Md.: Performance review time is coming up; I have concerns about how to deal with a potentially hostile supervisor who seems to have it in for me. It's tough to point to one specific example, but there's a preponderance of small things that have just added up over the past six months. What can I do to either defuse an explosive situation, or limit the damage?

Lily Garcia: Make sure that you gather detailed notes regarding your view of your performance, including any back-up documentation that you may have (e-mails, work product, etc.) If your performance appraisal turns out to be as negative as you fear, you will be prepared to make your case to your supervisor and, if necessary, to another higher authority in your organization. Meanwhile, your performance discussion with your supervisor presents the peerfect opportunity for you to address your working relationship and how it could be improved. Mention a few specific examples of situations in which you have felt uncomfortable and ask your supervisor to share his/her perspective.

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Greenbelt, Md.: I agree with the advice about networking in order to get a head's up about possible new jobs, but do you have any pointers on exactly how to network if you're not familiar with anyone in that company/industry? For example, I am looking for a federal communications position but I do not know anyone who works in the offices I've targeted. How do I get my foot in the door?

Lily Garcia: First, appeal to the network that you do have to see whether anyone knows someone in the industry either directly or through another friend. If you come up empty-handed, I see nothing wrong with sending out letters of introduction to people in the industry letting them know of your interest in the field and asking if they would not mind answering a few of your questions. It is not as strange as you might at first think. Most people are flattered to be identified as knowledgeable enough to mentor someone who is interested in their line of work.

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No to Fido: Please do not tell someone inviting you to a social event that a pet needs take precedence. Your co-workers presumably don't want your dog unhappy or uncomfortable, but they likely think human interaction and networking offer a strong alternative to dog walking. Keep the Fido news to yourself. Be glad in this economy you have a job, and your co-workers still seek you out.

Lily Garcia: Thank you for sharing your perspective. However, I think it is better to explain the important personal reason why you cannot make it to a social event rather than just excusing yourself from attendance.

I'd love to hear what others think of this. Is walking your dog a legitimate reason for missing an after-hours gathering of coworkers?

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Bitter and B**chy in Ballston: Lilly, over the past three weeks I just received two rejection e-mails for jobs that would have greatly increased my title and salary. The funny thing is that all seems to be going well, and I make it to a final round interview, but in the end they seem to find a candidate that they like better. The issue is not my recommendations nor my background check, since both of these employers were not going to ask for these until they made someone an offer. In the last interview, the HR lady actually asked me when I could start. How misleading!! The only saving grace is that I am an employed (but miserably underpaid)attorney (making a measly $80,000 a year) with government procurement experience in what has got to be the worst legal market in ages. Should I just throw in the towel and accept the fact that I am doomed to be a failure in my career?? Is it even worth my time asking the people who I interviewed with earlier for feedback or job leads? How do I keep my spirits up and focus on the career goals? Your honest advice is much appreciated.

Lily Garcia: I highly recommend that you ask for honest feedback regarding why someone else was chosen over you. You might find that it has little to do with your credentials or your interviewing skills. The market for legal employment is undeniably tough. However, it is a numbers game. If I were you, I would be encouraged by the fact that I twice made it to the final round of interviews and take it as a sign that persistence will pay.

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Attitude: What do you do if you supervise someone who does good work, but always has a negative outlook? He gets things done relatively independently, preferring not to ask for help or little input and typically does good work. However, he makes no effort to communicate unless he absolutely has to (not even a hello or goodbye) and always is negative. The glass isn't half-full -- it's shattered. I'm finding it very hard to deal with because I am mostly a positive person. It's really pulling me down.

Lily Garcia: As a manager, your objective should be to ensure that the work of the organziation gets done efficiently and well. If someone's attitude is interfering with that objective, then it becomes an important performance consideration. In other words, you need to balance the quality of this employee's work against the negative impact of his attitide on you and others.

If you determine that your employee's negativity is outweighing the value of his good work, you should address the issue with him. He may have little appreciation for the impact that he is having on morale.

You should also give serious thought to whether this employee simply has a different, yet legitimate, work style that you perceive as negative only because your style is different.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a good indication that I might get fired at work. Is it better to quit before they have the chance to fire me or try and wait it out while I look for a new job. Is it easier to explain a break from work or why you got fired?

Lily Garcia: It is better to quit instead of being fired unless you can negotiate for a neutral or positive employment reference.

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re: Bitter: Wow. A "measly" $80,000 per year? I'm sure there are a number of people in the metro-DC area who would jump at that salary.

Lily Garcia: I have to agree.

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After-Work Socials:: I would like to think the days of Don Draper lecturing Betty why it's bad for her career to not go out with everyone are over. "Sorry, can't make it... too many obligations after work, how about lunch sometime?" That will suffice. The nature of said obligations is nobody's business.

Lily Garcia: Thank you for sharing your perspective.

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Fairfax, Va.: Was this "making a measly $80,000 a year" statement supposed to be a joke? I certainly hope so. As an attorney, I know that that number is a little low for an experienced attorney in private practice, but wow -- that takes cajones to say that when so many people are out of work and would kill for an $80k salary.

Lily Garcia: Based on the feedback I have received over the past few minutes, I think that many people would agree with you.

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Washington, DC: How do I talk to a co-worker about the possibility that her child is stealing money from my wallet? The first time money disappeared, I reported it to security and later someone clued me in that they had seen the child in my cube. This time I haven't reported it to security, but it was strongly hinted again that the child is the culprit. Obviously I haven't caught the child in the act, but the person giving me the hints tends to be fairly reliable. I don't have first hand knowledge, and this is a terrible accusation, but I am also out about $50 and getting tired of my money disappearing.

Lily Garcia: I am foremost left to wonder what your co-worker's child is doing in your workplace in the first place. Most employers have fairly strict rules about bringing children to work. It may be allowed once, or even twice, due to a family emergency. For obvious reasons, however, employers do not allow employees to bring children to work on a regular basis.

I am also left to wonder why your coworker's child has apparently been left unsupervised while s/he is in your work space. This seems like something that you should be addressing with your manager.

Putting all of that aside, you must address the issue with your coworker. The best way to do so is not to assume fault but to simply tell her that money has gone missing from your wallet and that you have been twice told that her child was in your cube. Ask her if she would not mind investigating a bit on her end to determine whether there is any reason to believe that her child was involved.

In the meantime, lock your valuables when your co-worker's child is present.

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Bellevue, Neb.: I am interested in freelance editing work, preferably for a large publisher. I have experience, (I am a content editor for local company and I teach writing at the college level) but I am unfamiliar with the publishing world beyond my immediate community. (I am also aware that, in the current economy, EVERYONE is looking to pick up freelance work.) Do you have any suggestions for where or how I should start my search? Thanks so much.

Lily Garcia: There are a number of Web sites on which freelance assignments are posted. Perhaps this would be a good place for you to start. Unfortunately, I cannot provide you with the names of any specific sites, but a Google search should get you on the right track.

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Going home to take care of pets: Absolutely this is legitimate! Consider the alternative to not letting your dog out! How is this any different than having to pick up your kids at daycare? When you have commitments at home, socializing after work comes second. You can't just blow off the dog, or the kids. How insensitive!

Lily Garcia: Thank you for your comment. Many people would agree with you.

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Spinning wheels: What resources do you recommend for trying to figure out what one wants to do with his/her life? I have both college and law degrees, but I'm not sure how I want to use them. I need to be looking for jobs as my grant-funded position ends next year, but it's tough to look when you don't know what you're looking for. Right now, I can't even answer the typical soul-searching questions, like "picture your dream job." I just have no idea what it will look like. Any suggestions for working through this?

Lily Garcia: Try, "What Can You Do With a Law Degree" available at http://www.amazon.com/What-Can-You-Law-Degree/dp/0940675463

In my opinion, it is the definitive resource for attorneys in your position.

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No to Fido, Part 2:: A dear friend of mine used the "need to walk the dog" excuse frequently on her old job. To be fair, in her world her dog was her faithful companion and an important part of her life. When she was fired for a complex set of reasons, her supervisor did mention that she couldn't have valued her job very much if her dog took precedence over work events. Later on, she learned that she had become the butt of co-worker jokes. Every time someone inquired about her whereabouts or asked what her project status was, someone replied "walking the dog." Not how you want to be remembered by your former employer.

Lily Garcia: Now that is truly sad.

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Lawyer Salary: $80K a year for a lawyer is not that high if you also have $120K+ in debt to pay off. Give her a break. She probably expected to make $160K+ after graduating.

Lily Garcia: Thank you for representing the other view of attorney salaries.

With that, we are unfortunately out of time. Please join me for the next How to Deal Live on Tuesday, December 29th, at 11:00 a.m. EST. You may also email me at hradvice@washingtonpost.com. Although I cannot guarantee a speedy reply, I will answer your question.

Thank you for your participation. Have a great afternoon.

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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