Cindy Coe is one of the 10 finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest.
About me: The Basics: Female, 50, married.
The Backstory: Grew up in the Southwest and did typical teen jobs. Quickly learned I wouldn’t be happy in the Southwest doing typical teen jobs. Decided law school would be an improvement. Graduated and marched off to a job at a big law firm. Worked hard, did well, got married, had a kid. Then another. And another.
The Climax: The weight of job, marriage and kids crushed me into a pile of smoldering ash. Decided something had to give after a frenzied Airport Baby Exchange, with my husband handing me the kids as I returned from a business trip as he left for one. Left the firm, practiced from home, then turned my attention completely to the world outside of law.
The Happy Ending: Who knows? I might kick start the law career someday. Or I might write an advice column for the Washington Post.
Why I should win: Wherever you are, I’ve probably been there.
I’ve been the interviewer, the successful applicant and the disappointed reject. I’ve worked full time, part time and no time. I’ve been savvy; I’ve been tone deaf. I’ve worked for a fee and I’ve worked for free. My feelings about colleagues and bosses have been love, hate and tolerate.
Through it all, the one thing I didn’t have was Someone To Ask. I needed an impartial bystander who would kick my problems around, see if there was an easy way out, and tell me to my face if I was out of line.
After years of hard knocks and close calls, I figured out how to weave through workplace landmines without blowing myself up. I’d like to think that every career crisis can be solved, soothed or avoided entirely. I want to be your Someone To Ask, and I’ll tell you what I think, straight up.
That will be my column. I think you’ll like it.
Work Mantra: “Job (jŎb) noun. Any responsibility standing between you and a nap.”
Anecdote: My first job was hawking sodas at Arizona State University football games. Sales were brisk if you were strong, persistent and friendly, yielding a profit of $.05 per soda (this was a long time ago, OK?). My strategy was to work the visitors’ side because they sat in the sun and were soon parched. Cha-ching!
My business plan broke down during the Brigham Young University game. No matter how charming I was, I could not sell a single Coke.
The lesson? Know your customer — carry Sprite.
On the contest entry form, we offered five sample questions (submitted by real readers) and asked applicants to answer the two of their choice.
Q: Correcting my boss: In conversations with customers, he regularly misuses a relatively common word. It hangs in the air of the conference rooms we visit and I squirm when I see the audience make the “Huh? What did he say?” face, then the “Oh THAT’s what he meant” look of embarrassment. Is there an appropriate way to correct him?
Coe: Play Scrabble and challenge his triple word score for “revenude”?
You’re right – this is the sort of Xtreme Awkwardness that makes you hope he participates by conference call, with you in control of the mute button.
If you’re sure the horrified looks are exactly that, you have to address it. If you speak up after the next botched presentation, he’ll be mortified. Better to give him a nudge beforehand.
One possibility is to get him to follow your lead. Use the offending word correctly and repeatedly and hope he’s a good listener. Awkward confrontation avoided.
If you’ve tried that or you know it won’t work, you’ll need to bring it up.
Wait for a private moment, then make a casual remark about it. Better yet, pose it as a question and try to distance him from the error: “Remember in the client meeting how everyone was talking about company ‘revenude’. I always thought it was pronounced ‘revenue.’” If he reacts badly, you’re free to drop it – you’ve planted a seed. If he lunges for a dictionary to prove you wrong, act shocked when his more creative version isn’t there.
It’s tempting to look the other way, but don’t. If you were promising to boost your customers’ profit margarines, you’d want someone to stop you, right?
Q: Maternity fears: I’m pregnant and dread telling my boss. My job involves attending community meetings, building relationships and planning events, and would be a hard role to fill with a temporary worker. My boss can be very demanding, and often thinks work should be the center of everyone’s universe. What’s the best approach I can take to break the news to my boss?
Coe: Well, *I’m* happy for you. That makes two of us, so maybe we can grow that to three?
Before we cast your boss as The Grinch Who Stole Motherhood, let’s give her a chance. She’s demanding, yes. Her reaction to exciting personal news may surprise you, though. Even the Grinch had a soft spot for Cindy Lou Who.
If your boss’ response is closer to grief than elation, she still deserves some empathy because this does affect her. Tell her the news (before the baby bump causes water cooler whispers!) and explain your plans. But how can you make a coherent plan when there are so many unknowns?
Be clear about what you do know: When you will leave and return, what’s on your plate, your transition plans. Tell her what you will do now so that your job isn’t dumped on a clueless temp later. If this isn’t your first child, remind her of how you stepped up the last time.
A word of caution if this is your first: You can’t know how you’ll feel when baby comes, physically and emotionally. Your guesses now may be (1) wrong and (2) not easily forgotten. Don’t blurt out assurances you’ll have to roll back later.
If dread still weighs on you, remember that demanding bosses mostly want the job done right. Which is how you’ve always done it.
Carolyn Hax: Solid advice that allows for contingencies, which makes it even better. “Revenude” fell flat, though, and Grinch is a cliche; the impulse to brighten things up is a good one, but it’s better to ignore it than force it.
Eric Peterson: Her advice to the mother-to-be was the most insightful of all the semi-finalists, but her “revenude” joke fell flat.
Douglas LaBier: Good balance in your answers, with reasonable advice, seeing different sides of the issue; your light tone worked well.
Sydney Trent: She doesn’t assume that the writer and the boss who needs correcting are chummy and advises a slow approach. I like that. And she shows she’s very tuned-in on the subject in advising the pregnant writer not to assume she knows now how she’ll feel after the baby is born. I also like the sassy kicker on that one. She needs to watch out for bad jokes/anecdotes though -- like “Revenude” and the whole Grinch thing.
Lynn Medford: Answer No. 1 was just okay, but Answer No. 2 showed real insight in getting the employee to examine her own role in seeing a problem when there might not be one.
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists