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Lily Garcia
How to Deal columnist, The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post job expert Lily Garcia discussed workplace issues on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 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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D.C.: Is it kosher to use someone from my current organization (not my boss) as a reference? Or is this a bad idea?

Lily Garcia: You may not be able to count upon your boss to serve as a reference because it is against your organization's policies, because you are not leaving on the best of terms or because you are reluctant to disclose to your boss that you are looking for another job. In any of these cases, using a different member of your organization as a reference may be an acceptable alternative. Be aware, however, that your prospective employer will be curious about why your boss is not available to speak to the merits of your work.

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St. Louis, Mo.: Just looking for your opinion here. I started working for a small non-profit in July. In December they gave us information on raises for 2010. The raise is based on a percentage of income and is tiered, so an employee gets a higher percentage for the first $20,000, a smaller percentage for the next $20,000 and so on. My employer decided to base my raise not on my salary but on what I earned in 2009. Since I started in July, my raise was based on about half of my actual annual salary. I'm kind of baffled at this and am wondering if this is common. Have you ever heard of this?

Lily Garcia: No, I have never heard of such a compensation structure.

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Washington, D.C.: My credit score isn't very good. Will this stop me from being considered for a government job?

Lily Garcia: No, but it may bring your application under greater scrutiny, especially if you are applying for a job that requires a security clearance. I am told that people with poor credit histories may be regarded as a potential security risk for the government.

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Haymarket, Va.: My husband has been asked to return money to a former employer. He was in sales working for base plus commission. Over the course of one year the company changed his commission plan multiple times. (Basically every time they saw him getting close to his goal, they increased the quota.) Also, some companies that he signed deals with have declared bankruptcy and the company wants their commission monies back from him (50K). The numbers are so confusing, no one can even explain how they get their total. We have refused to pay, so the company has turned this over to a collection agency. I'd like to know what our rights are, and what kind of process we can expect. We have excellent credit that I expect to maintain.

Lily Garcia: I think that you should immediately consult an attorney regarding your rights in this matter. Meanwhile, you should insist upon a clear and detailed accounting of what money your husband allegedly owes and why.

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Arlington, Va.: It's very possible that I missed some memo (it wouldn't be the first time), but are phone interviews now considered verboten, bad interview etiquette? The reason I ask is because I was contacted for a job interview, but the next few weeks will be a very busy time for me at my current job, so I inquired if a phone interview would be acceptable -- and the interview request was withdrawn.

I'm admittedly surprised by this move, for what I think is a legitimate compromise. But again, is it possible I missed some memo?

Lily Garcia: Your lack of availability for an in-person interview signaled to the prospective employer that you were perhaps not as interested in the position as they would like. In this economy, employers have the luxury of cutting applicants based on such reasons as this.

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Baltimore, Md.: What is the best way to send a resume if the job posting gives you the option of e-mail, fax or mail? Should a resume be sent in the body of the e-mail or strictly as an attachment?

Lily Garcia: I think that it is best to both copy your resume into the body of your e-mail and also send it as an attachment. Regarding the best way to submit your resume, I think that it cannot hurt to send it two different ways. That is, unless the job posting explicity states that you should only send your resume via one mode of communication. If you must pick one way of sending your resume, opt for e-mail.

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Fairfax, Va.: In my department, we have a seriously bad case of group think going on that's causing a lot of drama. I'm usually the black sheep of the group and when I disagree, I'm out. It's either you agree with us or you are the enemy. To me it's classic group think and needs to be stopped. Should I discuss this with my supervisor? They probably know this, too, but I don't know what to do about it. Also, since I am their peer, not their supervisor, what can I do to help get everyone to think for themselves again? I'm at the point that I think just being quiet is just as bad. THANKS!!

Lily Garcia: If you perceive a legitimate problem with the dynamic of the group, then you should discuss this with your supervisor. It would also be helpful for you to obtain feedback from your supervisor or another person you trust regarding how you are expressing your disagreement with the group's thinking. It may be that your ideas would be better received if only you modified how you express them.

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Arlington, Va.: A slightly different question: I've got a Behavioral Event Interview (BEI) next week. I understand the general ideas behind BEI, but does that format allow for me to ask questions about the organization?

Lily Garcia: Behavioral interviews are based on the principle that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. In a behavioral interview, job applicants are asked a series of hypothetical questions designed to elicit detailed information regarding how they might respond to the demands of the open job. The behavioral interview may allow a period for your questions at the end. It all depends on how strictly the organization sticks to the format.

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Alexandria, Va.: At our last board meeting, my boss lied outright about one thing and effectively through his staff under the bus regarding another.

About nine months ago, our contract with our event management firm ended and not without animosity. They broke the contract. At the time, the president of that firm indicated that they felt reasonable commission was getting the commission from the hotel contract. At the time, I calculated what that commission would be -- a minimum of $10K. My boss said he would take care of it. Flash forward nine months and because of pick up at the hotel, the commission is closer to $14k. Last week during the board meeting, my boss announced the issue about commission and said "I just learned about this. As soon as I did, I immediately contacted so-and-so."

Later during the same meeting, when asked why our sponsorship dollars were lower than budgeted, he said that he never expected to make that amount. The fact is that it was his job to bring in the big sponsors, and he never even made a phone call. My colleague and I brought in a number of smaller sponsors while also every other aspect of the conference planning. Several times we offered to set up calls with the big guys and my boss never followed up and refused to let us make contact ourselves. When the board asked follow up questions about the lower sponsorship number, my boss indicated that his staff was clearly overwhelmed, and that this is why more staff was needed. Help?

Lily Garcia: You are in a very tough spot. If it puts your organization in jeopardy, you should tell the board anonymously about your boss' misrepresentations. If it may imperil your job, you should talk to your boss about the situation with the sponsors. Set the record straight so that this does not come back to haunt you later on in a performance review as your boss seeks to legitimize his misstatement.

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Arlington, Va.: I read with interest the ongoing conversation about celebrating birthdays in the workplace. I work in a small office that has regular gatherings for birthdays for which people are sometimes asked to chip in as much as $10 each, which I think is unfair. So, today is my birthday, and I didn't tell anyone about it (or plan to), and I'm perfectly happy with my choice. I will go out to happy hour later this week with my colleagues and enjoy time with them then. Isn't that a reasonable solution?

www.washingtonpost.com: Transcript: Office birthday parties and other workplace dilemmas (Post, Jan. 12, 2010)

Lily Garcia: That is a fine arrangement. Happy birthday!

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Washington, D.C.: I am planning to go out of state in the fall for graduate school. I think I can still be an asset to my organization as a part-time employee and would like to present my case. The alternative would be to simply leave. I would be across the country and have to do work remotely, but I am confident I could perform the work without physically being present. Do you have any tips on how to broach the subject?

Lily Garcia: Great question. I will respond to you in an article later this week.

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D.C.: Six months ago I started a new job. Prior to this job, I was at my last job for almost 10 years. I left for the sole purpose of doing something different. Well, I don't like what I do now at all and do not see my tasks here ever being something I enjoy. I feel that if I stay here even a full year that I'll be losing out on gaining experience for what I want to do. How bad will it look to prospective employers that I'm looking so soon into a new job? Both jobs are federal positions for what it's worth. Thanks!

Lily Garcia: Tenure in your current position is only one of many factors that a prospective employer will consider. As long as you have a positive, non-disparaging explanation for why you you want to leave your current job after such a brief time, you will be fine. After all, you already demonstrated in your past position that you are capable of making a long term commitment to a job.

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VA: For 10-plus years, my company let employees accrue personal leave with no cap, and you could cash it in at any time. New owners recently announced no more cash-outs. But now, also, employees with large banks of leave must now use a certain amount each year, or forfeit it. (New vacation time will also be capped, so must use that, too.) Can they do that? I've already earned those hours and could have cashed them in at any time, but never chose to. Can they be taken back? Also, the policy effectively furloughs me for seven-plus weeks a year, limiting my earnings. Do I have any recourse?

Lily Garcia: Generally, yes, they can do that. But be sure to double check with your state's wage and hour commission. In California, for example, accrued vacation is considered wages and cannot be forfieted.

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Alexandria: Hi, Lily. I'm currently consulting with a company but do not intend to stay past my contract end date. However, my superiors at this position are really pleased with my work and are talking about the next project they want to put me on. They won this project as a result of my good work. I have not spoken up about leaving when my contract ends because I do not want to be let go before my contract end date. I don't want to be dishonest but also do not want to tell them I will not be working on the new project and they let me go because they want people for the new project now. Thoughts?

Lily Garcia: You should let them know your intentions at least two weeks before the expiration of your contract. If possible, give them as much as four weeks of notice. You may not wish to stay past the end of your contract, but I presume you do want to leave on good terms and keep this company as an employment reference.

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Columbia, Md.:

Dear Lily Garcia,

I came to the U.S. to study as an international student. I finished my bachelor's here, and right after that I applied for an MBA program in Florida and I graduated in December 2009. I would love to get a financial position in the D.C. area. The problem is that I have no work experience and no internships. (As an international student I wasn't able to work off-campus.) It is really hard for me to find a company that would hire an entry-level MBA graduate, because usually people get their MBA degree when they already have a few years of work experience.

Does my MBA degree count as at least one or two years of experience? How should describe this in my resume and how should I act at the interview? My adviser at the university told me that my MBA counts as a few years of experience. Is that true? And how should I look for a job? Hope you can help me with my problem.

Lily Garcia: I would unfortunately have to disagree with your advisor. I do not think that your MBA studies count as work experience. Without work experience, your job search will be more challenging. However, I am confident that you will eventually find an employer willing to take a chance on you.

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Washington, D.C.: Speaking of behavioral interviews, I had a seven or so question behavioral interview. Two questions stumped me. Just flat out stumped me. I wound up not answering them (after pausing for 20 seconds, "can we move on to next question?" was my response). I'm told that shows poise. I'm told that shows you aren't a good fit/have a good background.Am I screwed? Is there hope?

Lily Garcia: I am very sorry, but the honest truth is that skipping over behavioral questions in an interview will most likely disqualify you from consideration.

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Washington, D.C.: I once had a stress interview. The interviewer placed me in a chair behind a desk that was pushed close to a corner. The room was small. The questions were structured to put me on the defense: "Why didn't you play football in high school?" "Aren't you competitive?" I pushed the desk away (had to in order to walk around it) and left. And this was a major firm. It no longer exists.

Lily Garcia: I can't see the point of treating interviewees in this way.

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Rockville, Md.: I need some guidance on how best to explain a short period of employment. I was employed by a government contractor from May to December 2004. I took on a job that was way below my qualifications and salary scale in a hope that this would be an entry point to the workplace. Initially I was very excited to be working. Over time I became bored. I did not feel stimulated. Also, I had a child who was at the time going through medical issues, and this affected my time at work and did not please my boss. How can I best put this in a positive way? I have not worked since that time although I have done voluntary work.

Lily Garcia: I think that you might just choose to explain that you were forced to leave your last job somewhat prematurely due to a family health emergency that has since been resolved.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm sure this question has been raised before about annoying office habits of co-workers. It has not been clearly defined as to the role that HR can take when one worker complains about a close-sitting worker who enjoys her earphones to listen to music, however, delivers a constant singing and humming concert while sounding like a bird with dying batteries, in addition to the constant conversation with themselves throughout the day. In making the complaint, HR wouldn't make any moves until I made the request to said worker to stop. As I could have bet a year's salary, I was met with a resounding, "NOPE". My requests for the last four months to be moved to a quieter location with less distractions were denied. Can I make a formal complaint of harassment in that worker is now aware of her annoying behavior but will not stop it?

Lily Garcia: This does not sound like harassment of the sort that most company policies would guard against. I would suggest renewing your appeal for a move to a quieter spot. I have to imagine that this coworker's behavior is affecting others as well, and I am surprised that she has not, apparently, been counseled.

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Washington, D.C.: Good morning. I am pregnant and having some complications. The doctor has advised me to work from home two to three times a week to manage the stress (which is leading to preterm labor). My boss is supportive in theory, but doesn't seem to grasp that I can't be in every day. Do you have any advice as to how to get the point across? I have tried to sit down with a calendar to determine days I would be in; I have a note from the doctor...I am at a loss and my husband (and myself) is getting worried that I am over doing it. Thanks!

Lily Garcia: You need to be more explicit with your boss about what you need and why. If your boss continues to be obtuse on the matter, seek out the involvement of human resources. They should be trained to recognize the urgency of your situation and the potential consequences of mismanaging it.

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Lily Garcia: We are unfortunately out of time. Please join me for the next edition of How to Deal Live on Tuesday, February 9th, at 11:00 a.m. EST. Meanwhile, you may also e-mail me at hradvice@washingtonpost.com. Although I may not be able to answer your question immediately, I will respond.

Wishing you 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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