Moira Forbes is one of the 10 finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest.
About me: When the disintegration of the Soviet Union crushed her dreams of becoming a spy, Moira switched to domestic policy and moved to Washington to work in consulting. She has been at the same firm for over 15 years—through three acquisitions, six supervisors, eight titles, and at least 30 boxes of barely-used business cards. Along the way she lost her Russian language skills, acquired an MBA, advanced from research assistant to vice president, and developed a reputation for giving good advice. She now lives in Virginia with her husband, two kids, and three cats. She dreams of someday meriting a Wikipedia entry.
Why I should win: Some people think that what you do for a living shouldn’t define who you are. For me—like many others in D.C.—work actually is a big part of my identity, and being good at my job is an important source of personal satisfaction. The intellectual challenges are part of it, but what really matters are my relationships with colleagues: a “job” is abstract but the people are real. Therefore, the recipe for happiness at work is being able to get along with folks in all kinds of circumstances. It’s not always easy to do, but over time I have come to know what’s important and what’s not, when it’s good to speak up and when to stay quiet, and that neither good times nor bad last forever. Most importantly, I can tell when I need to get out of my own head and look at things from another point of view. My goal in this column is to help readers gain some perspective by sharing the lessons I’ve learned—the ones handed down by my mentors as well as those I had to learn the hard way.
Work mantra: “No matter how bad things are, try to take the long view. In time, everything is just a funny story.”
My workplace anecdote: My lowest day was when my worst client—the one I’d shed blood, sweat, and tears over for a year—asked my boss to remove me from the project. I’d never been fired before and was not prepared for the shame, anger, and dejection. What turned that day around was a procession of senior staff who slipped into my office, closed the door, and shared their own tales of being sacked and disgraced. Knowing that my mentors had been just as low—but survived—gave me the perspective I needed to let it go.
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: God bless … er, nevermind: I work in a small office where no one says “bless you” when you sneeze, nor do they say “thank you” if you say it to them. I am always careful to not add the “God” in fear of offending someone, but the complete lack of acknowledgement is odd -- or did I miss a new political correctness memo?
Forbes: For someone who claims to be careful not to offend others, you’re quick to paint your co-workers with the PC brush — attributing their non-response to political correctness implies that they are deliberately refusing to participate in a minor social courtesy! You may be reading them right — if you don’t routinely hear “thanks” from your colleagues, your office culture may be chillier than normal. However, it’s also possible that everyone is just focused on their work, has never noticed you sneezing, and would be surprised to hear that this bothers you. Either way, you have three choices — you can continue doing what you think is proper, adapt to the status quo and let these moments pass in silence, or look for a job with more like-minded people. What you don’t want to do is let your annoyance come through — a peevish “bless you” is worse than none at all.
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?
Forbes: All bosses worry about two things when they hear someone is pregnant: Is she going to slack off? Is she going to come back? If you expect to keep working while pregnant and intend to return after maternity leave (or at least want to keep that door open), three things will show your boss that you remain serious about your career.
Address the main concerns directly. Prepare a realistic plan for your absence and be up-front about what you can handle before and after the baby — if you know your birthing class will conflict with your community meetings, find a backup now. Present your solutions in a way that shows that you’re thinking about the organization’s needs, not just your own.
Keep your commitments. While work does not need to be the center of your universe, it does need to be the center of your attention while you’re there. As tempting as it is to surf the web for nursery ideas, focus on your job and bank goodwill as long as you’re able.
Be honest if your plans change. If you learn that you need to stop working earlier than planned or realize you don’t want to come back, let your boss know sooner rather than later. Be remembered as the person who helped her avoid a crisis, not the one who left her in the lurch.
Carolyn Hax: Pro: The advice, particularly in the turnabout (and quick treatment) on the “God bless” question, and in the good catches in the maternity answer — 1. Stay focused, don’t nursery-surf, and 2. Plans you make now are subject to change. Con: This isn’t the liveliest prose.
Eric Peterson: Very solid advice, delivered in a clear and relatable style. As the competition continues, she might be sidelined by those with a more vivid style.
Douglas LaBier: Good, solid responses. Overall, would be even better for readers with more liveliness and tighter replies.
Sydney Trent: Smart and succinct presentation of choices to the “God Bless You” writer and insightful suggestion to resist the temptation to surf for nursery ideas. Her writing could use more verve and humor.
Lynn Medford: Principles! Practical principles. Moira offers good medicine, but could it have more flavor?
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists