Joyce E.A. Russell took questions from readers online last week. Here are excerpts:

Work/life balance

Q.: Does it really exist? And when interviewing with a company, what are some questions that you can ask to find out if they value work/life balance without making it seem that you are not a hard worker?

Joyce E.A. Russell: Some would say work/life balance (and specifically the word “balance”) is a myth. But, to learn more about how a company views work/life issues, you should talk to employees who work there. You can get on their Web site and learn about them and their values, but this tells you what they say about it — not whether they actually live it. It will be very important to observe employees and talk to them about hours they worked, extent of travel, work at nights, work on weekends, to see how much of this is standard or how much is periodic. Anyone can work extra hours occasionally — what you are trying to learn is how much of this is regular, everyday life. In addition, observe and ask questions about the managers — do they seem to have any work/life balance or do they live at the firm? This will tell you what they are modeling for others to do.

Established company or start-up?

Q.: I am an engineer at a large well-known company and have a valuable and somewhat rare skill set. I know (for a fact) I am underpaid, but I have other perks and benefits and have made at peace with that. I have been approached by a start-up company that is offering more money and similar perks, but not as good. The big upside is early shares that could obviously become valuable (or not, of course). My current company knows that I am being recruited because it’s a small world and secrets have a way of spilling. What are the issues I should be evaluating when considering the start-up’s offer (and my current company’s counter-offer, which I’m confident will come)?

Joyce E.A. Russell: There are a number of great salary sites out there that offer lists of things to think about, such as Look at things such as benefits, child care, tuition reimbursement, equipment such as computers, phones, cars, etc.; travel, opportunities for additional development (certifications, licenses, etc.); and so on.

Perhaps most importantly you should look at the nature of the work, what you will be able to do (often you get more variety and responsibilities in a start-up, which is often appealing to people), your opportunities for growth and promotion, equity in the start-up, opportunities for partnership, along with the other employees working there. Lots of things to consider. Definitely look into it and then see how the two firms compare. Don’t start negotiating before you actually get another offer.

Unemployed for five months. Now what?

Q.: I just crossed the five-month mark of unemployment after two decades in print publishing. Every job wants more or different experience than I’ve had, though two places said I was overqualified (why won’t they let me make that decision?). I write strong cover letters (and get some interviews), take freelance work when I can, and recently registered with a placement agency. What else can I do?

Joyce E.A. Russell: I understand your frustration over others determining you are “overqualified” and not giving you a chance to interview for a job. In those cases, you could still try to talk with them over the phone to see if you can come in for an interview, especially if they have sent these notes to you via e-mail.

Have you had other managers or mentors in the field look over your materials to see what else you might be able to do? What about networks you are a part of? These might help as well.

Employee engagement

Q.: We work with rather dry clients (politics, business-to-business communications), so it’s particularly hard to keep the 20-somethings engaged and motivated in such boring client subject matter. How can I help them find something interesting in the work they do?

Joyce E.A. Russell: Not sure why you think this type of work has to be dry or boring for them. You might get some great tips from the work by Gallup on employee engagement. See books such as “The Carrot Principle” or “The Orange Revolution.” They offer some great ideas for how to get employees of all types more engaged in their jobs. Sometimes it is not so much the work, but rather the appreciation or recognition for the work that enables employees to feel engaged at work.

Best motivational advice

Q.: My father, an educational administrator, had one simple rule for motivating staff: “Catch them doing something right, and let them know that you caught them.”

Joyce E.A. Russell: Thanks for the tip. Yes, this does make a big difference in motivating others and is often not done enough.