Career Coach takes your questions

Apr 11, 2012

With an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent, a little career advice never hurt anyone.

Career coach Joyce Russell discussed jobs, negotiations and salary issues. Ask questions and get advice now!

Want more? Read Joyce Russell's Career Coach columns.

Welcome readers to our April online chat. I look forward to addressing your various career-related questions. Feel free to also share your own tips to enable our readers to be even more successful in their job search process.

J Russell

In this bad economy I realize I am facing a challenge that many others would love to have, but it is still frustrating me. I am in my early 40s and have been working in public affairs for non-profit associations, with a stint at a PR agency, for my entire career. I have been at the director level since 1997. However, despite excellent performance reviews, raises, etc., I have not been able to get promoted to, or secure employment elsewhere, at the VP level. I have been with my current group for 7 years. How do I make that next leap, or should I be satisfied to have a job at a thriving non-profit when so many are struggling?

This is a great question. I am assuming you have applied to other positions at the VP level, right? What feedback have you gotten from those interviews or meetings? It is hard for me to say what you should do next until we see what you already have done, and what feedback you have gotten so far. Did you make it to the VP stage for interviews? Have you let others in your network know you are interested in VP jobs? Many times, others figure that if we've been in our job for a while, that we are content at that level so they don't even ask. You need to let people in your network know you are interested in the next level positions. You need to be active in professional associations, get on social media sites (e.g., linked in), and update your resume and contacts. Have you used a recruitment firm to help you out to see what else is out there at the VP level? Have you looked on job websites for those types of jobs? I would suggest you try to be much more active in your job search process in order to get the word out that you want to grow and move up. Have you talked to your own managment about your interest in moving up? If not, this would be very important to do.  Good luck!

Hi--hope I'm not too late! I just got an invitation for a phone interview tomorrow, for a job I'd really, really like. Any tips on phone interview etiquette so as to make a strong, positive impression?

I may have missed your deadline so I hope the phone interview went well. Since so many others also have phone interviews, let me offer some tips. First, make sure to treat phone interviews just like a face-to-face interviews. Too many times, people treat them in a very informal manner and this comes across as unprofessional to recruiters. Make sure to take a deep breath before starting to get calm and have a pleasant voice tone. Speak clearly and concisely - don't ramble or take too long to answer a question. Practice with a friend or tape yourself and see how you sound on the phone. Make sure you have a clear, strong voice tone that sounds positive and confident. It is amazing how many people mumble on the phone and really don't know they do this. Be friendly and polite, especially to gatekeepers who may direct your calls to HR personnel. Be personable - ask their name and learn something about them. Then, refer to them by name during the conversation. The key thing is to treat a phone interview like a face-to-face interview and be professional.

My last day as a contractor for the federal gov't is April 24th. The work I do is rather specialized and not really transferable to another career. Not really sure where to start.

Do they have an career assistance onsite that you could go to for help? Maybe an HR office or career office? If so, they might be willing to provide some outplacement assistance (e.g., help with your resume, interviews, etc). If not, you might want to reach out to others in your field via networking to learn more about what else is out there and how you can transfer those skills. Are  you active on social media websites? This would be a way to learn more about other options. Do you attend professional events for networking? What will be important is for you to find a way to show how the skills you have are transferable to the markeplace, even if they are specialized skills.

Do you have any advice on how to deal with an extremely ambitious employee whose attempts to get ahead come across as insincere and transparent? So far I've limited my coaching to "Stay true to yourself" and other benign comments.


I don't want to squelch his personal style, but I am wondering if I need to be more direct in my feedback. FWIW, the employee's suck-up attempts are directed at executive staff, not me (his direct supervisor). Thank you.

Great question and one that many managers have to deal with. It might be good if this person has an internal mentor in the organization (besides yourself) that he can get some advice from. If he won't listen to you, he may listen to another person in the organization (particularly if they are an executive level person) who takes him on as a protege. Or, you can always collect feedback about him from other managers and then share this specific feedback with him so he sees how he is coming across. Getting specific feedback will be very important for him, and obviously getting it from the executive level (if you can make this happen).


The head of our organization arranged a happy hour after work one day with several members of our staff -- it was part meet-and-greet, part business strategy meeting. I was curious if there are etiquette rules for this situation in terms of what you should order to drink and how much. Logic obviously says you shouldn't drink yourself under the table -- or on top of the bar -- but are the "rules" more nuanced than that?

Good question and one that many ought to ask (and don't!). I agree with you that when you have these types of events  you have to be sociable, yet maintain a level of professionalism. Sometimes, these types of events are difficult for employees who do not drink if the events are always held at bars. So, whoever organizes them needs to be sensitve to the fact that people who attend may drink too much, not at all, or be under age! I think the leader needs to set the tone for appropriate professional behavior. For people who are of age and do drink - most might expect that you only order one drink unless the event is a very  long one. The key is to do what enables you to stay professional. I have known many people who attend such events and don't order anything, and this is actually perfectly acceptable as well.

I can't seem to find my niche and I am not happy at all with where my career is headed. I was laid off in October, but have been extended multiple times which on the surface is great (still getting paid), but my happiness is at an all time low because I am not working towards anything other then getting out. I have been brainstorming a career change, and want to give a healthcare career a shot, but I just don't know how to narrow in on what it is I want to do. Throw in the cost of changing careers with a young family and I just feel stuck in a rut.

I have heard from a number of people who feel the same way. They are staying at their current job mainly for financial reasons, yet feel "stuck". To get out of this "rut", you need to devote some time each week to exploring new opportunities. I know this can seem like a daunting task. But, if you develop a plan with a timeline, it can actually work. First, start by getting someone to review your resume to make sure it is up to date. Then, pick up a career book such as What Color is your Parachute (by Bolles) or Mojo (by Marshall Goldsmith). The goal is to start thinking about what you enjoy doing now or in your past. You want to spend some time each week reading or exploring new ideas. Talk to your friends to let them know you are open to new possibilities.  Join a professional association to start attending networking events. Create a plan for yourself where you might give yourself  a set amount of time (several months) to just talk to people about what they do (that you think you might be interested in), followed by more active searching. Too often, when we feel stuck in a job, we don't take any action. This makes us feel even more stuck. So, start small - and devote a little time each day or week towards learning more about other careers that you might be interested in. Don't feel like you have to do this alone. It helps to have friends that you can share ideas with or talk to about all this. Best of luck!

I am having trouble expanding my network. I've been contacting various alumni from my graduate and undergraduate school who are working at organizations I find interesting, but I haven't been receiving many responses. How can I craft a more compelling introduction email requesting people for information and advice? And when I do these calls or meetings, how do I transition from learning about their own career path to actually asking for help?

Great question. One thing that helps when reaching out to people is to use someone else to help you. For example, if you can tell them that so-and-so suggested that you reach out to them - this usually enables you to get time on their calendar much more readily. So, think about which firms you want to contact and who you might know who actually knows people at those firms. Use your friends and professional contacts to introduce you to others via email.


As far as your other question - you are right to first ask for their career advice, rather than specifically asking them about a job. You can ask for their suggestions on who else you can talk with, what questions to ask them, who they can introduce you to, etc - these types of questions. You can even ask them "what would you do if you were in my shoes" - to try to get even more specific ideas from them. The key is to get them to want to help you out and work with you as a team to make something happen for you. Good luck!

How can I get my mojo back? I've been working for my boss for over 2 years. She wants me to take more initiative and be more assertive & creative when dealing with clients but when I do, she's constantly analyzing every step I take or don't take. It's just the two of us in the office and when I make a phone call to a client, as soon as I hang up she'll go "you should have said this or asked this question." It's gotten to the point where I don't make calls when she's in the office! I try to be objective about her feedback and not take it personally but where I once felt confident in my job, I now feel passive and meek. Just what she doesn't want!!

You might want to sit down with your boss and ask her for the top 2 things she thinks you should work on (when dealing with clients). If she tries to give  you more than 2 things, thank her but remind her that you just want 2 at this point. Then, brainstorm with her how you might improve them - would taking a course help, getting mentoring from another colleague, etc. Allow her to give you some ideas. Then, thank her and let her know you will be working on these 2 areas, and you would like to come back in XX weeks to get her feedback at that time. You can let her know that in the meantime, you are going to work on these areas, but would appreciate it if she can just wait to give you feedback until you meet again (set up a meeting with her for 2-3 weeks). You can even suggest that she take down notes to save for this meeting. This may seem strange to do it this way, but what you are trying to do is let her know you appreciate her views, but you are also trying to limit the feedback to specfic times (rather than constantly). This will enable her to feel like she is offering her suggestions, and will also give you some time to work without constant interruptions and feedback. But, you have to be confident when approaching her about all this. It does work! Good luck.

Do you have any tips on how to effectively convey an aptitude in certain "soft" skills? Just about everyone can (and will) mention in an interview that s/he is organized, can multitask, communicate professionally, etc, even when it isn't true. I am only about average when it comes to the technicial expertise in my field and therefore know that my past successes are all based on those soft skills. (That is also the part I enjoy the most--organizing, helping, getting things moving up until the project is completed.) I want to show this off to potential employers but don't know how.

Great question. The best way to do this is to prepare some examples you can share with the interviewer about your strengths. Give them specific examples about times you displayed strong organizational skills, or communication skills. Ask those who are writing letters of recommendations for you to also highlight your soft skills, and give examples of when you showed great iniative or team building or leadership. The best way for recruiters to understand your talents in these areas is for you and others to give them very specific behavioral examples of what  you did to demonstrate strengths in these areas. Anytime you can demonstrate how you showed great leadership, teambuilding, emotional or social intelligence, this will be valued in the workplace. The key is to offer specific examples. Good luck!

Hello I am a contractor and I was told in a meeting that contractors can not take on-the-job classes that are related to my job. What are other ways can I stay motivated with my job?

I am not sure I get what you are saying - you are not allowed to take classes that are unrelated to your job? If so, that is very common in many firms. Or, are you saying that because you are a contractor they will not allow you to take classes?


What about exploring online classes that you can take in your field - just to help you stay more motivated? Is there anyone at your work you can talk with more about this to get their assistance or support?

Joyce , you mentioned in a post last month about not giving comepensation details until AFTER an offer is made... that's a complete waste of time on both the companies and the candidates part. I also have the responsibility of hiring and negotiating salary but if we can only pay X amount, and I have a candidate who wants X+Y amount it's not going to happen and makes it look like we can't produce the person. Again a waste of time. I also expect someone to answer me when I ask the dreaded salary question.

Thanks for sharing your views. It is always great to hear from both the applicant's and employer's sides on this issue. My view about waiting to negotiate compensation until after an offer is made is based on what is best for the applicant, not the employer.


Obviously, it is in the employer's best interest to learn about salary issues as early as possible. It is not, however, in the best interest of the applicant to discuss salary too early in the process. I have known many applicants who brought up salary too soon, which hurt them by giving them a lower salary or by eliminating them from a job they might actually have taken (even if they stated a higher salary initially). 


I do agree with your concern about a waste of time - if that is the case, then why not can't the employer just offer the salary first and then see what the applicant does. If it is really too low and the applicant feels there is no way they would take the job (and doesn't think they can get the offer raised) then they could pull out at that time and little time is wasted. Why does the employer have to try to get the salary number out of the applicant first about what he/she was compensated in a previous job (which is less relevant anyway)? If it is important for the employer to not waste time, then the employer should offer the salary number first, and not even bother asking the applicant about his/her previous salary. What do you think about this strategy?

I have been employed with a large firm and had two good interviews with a smaller organization. I have been told that the next conversation will go over salary and benefits. It has not come up yet, but I would like to bring up the possibility of some flexibility to work from home a few hours per week. Quite honestly, that is more important to me than salary. Is there a professional way to do this?

Yes, this is a concern for many people and a good one to address. It would be best if you make sure to get the written offers first (so you know they definitely want you for the job). Then, I would bring up the first most important issue you really want - if it is salary or telecommuting. I would still ask about salary, especially if it is lower than what your market data reveals (make sure you have prepared for addressing this question).


More than likely, they will not be able to give you eveything you want. Then, you can bring up the telecommuting option. They are moer inclined to help you here if they have not been able to give you everything you want in salary.


I would also check to see what the precedents are for people who currently work at the firm - does anyone already work one day from home? Find out everything you can about this, since this would make your case easier to bring up. You might think about what would be ideal - working from hom 2 days per week? Then, ask for this ideal, recognizing that they may compromise to give you a little less than this. Also, be sure to think about it from their perspective before you have the discussion. This should  be a win-win. What can you do to make it work for both you and them? It is important to do this so you are not just trying to make it work only for you. Good luck!

I'm a dinosaur - I've been with the same company for more than 30 years. Now it's time to move on - I've gone as far as I can go and I need to make a change. Is it a good time to make a move? How does someone at my age and stage approach a job search ? I believe I have decent skills and experience, and want to make comparable money.

It is never too late to make a career change, and in fact many people today have moved into new career fields after working for one firm for a long time.


First, you  need to think about updating your resume and making sure to get some help from professionals on how to best market yourself. Meeting with someone from the career field (even at your current firm if they will help you) is a good idea. They can assist you in taking a fresh look at your skills to see how your talents are transferable to other fields. For example, if you were in teaching for a long time, you probably have great skills to move into the training field.


Check out or for lots of information on job issues and career fields or go to the or career sites for more ideas. I would suggest working with someone otherwise you can overwhelmed by all the career sites out there.


Also, think about how you want to spend the next decade - what kinds of things do you want to do - working with people, writing, analyzing data, etc. This will enable you to narrow down your starting point. Good luck!

Hi. I'm looking for suggestions for how to broach this topic with my boss. I've recently returned from maternity leave and would like to cut back to 4 days in the office. My current workload will support this, and I want to make this as seamless for her as possible. I don't think it would be an issue as long as I'm completing my tasks. I'm nervous to bring this up because I really do believe I can get all of my work done with less hours.

If you can make this a win-win for both sides (sounds like you can), then this is the way to go. I would prepare your case which outlines how you would continue to do the work on and off site. You have to think about the questions your boss might ask and make sure you are addressing her concerns. Once you prepare your ideas, share them with someone close to you who can serve as a devil's advocate so they can view it from your boss's perspective and let you know if you have thought of everything.


Then, I would write down what you will say, the order in which you will say it, and again practice it before you meet with her. Schedule a meeting where you know you will have at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time to share your thoughts. The more prepared you are, the less anxious you will be about this. You can do it!

Why do some companies think that management by intimidation and harassment make employees more productive? Do they not realize that when employees are continually threatened with firing for not hitting metrics that it counterproductive to the ultimate goal of more productivity? Do companies also not realize, or do they no longer care, that positive reenforcement gets better and faster results than negative enforcement?

You are right on track with your comments! In fact, there are several great books out there now about the importance of employee engagement and recognition, and how powerful these tools are for promoting better workplaces and greater productivity. The companies rated as the BEST by Fortune, Business Week, etc know this and are ahead of the game on these factors.


But, sadly, there are still companies like you mention who are operating in the dark ages and think fear is the  best motivator. Have them read any of the recent work by Gallup - they have done numerous extensive studies on employees in organizations and reported the criticality of employee engagement and recognition for higher organizational performance. Don't despair - there are many more organizations who understand the true way to motivate people by engaging them at work -look at GE, Zappos, Google, Wegmans, Whole Foods, etc - this is where people are flocking to go work.

I don't respond to cold contacts, even if they went to my college. You must have a contact; Fred recommended I call."

I agree with this comment from our reader. Try to get a personal contact you can say suggested that you call them.

How long does it normally take to fill a government position? I applied for 3 jobs that had closing dates at the end of January/beginning of February. I also applied to about a dozen private sector jobs at the same time.


Within about a week of the 3 government jobs closing, I got notices that I was qualified for all the positions. About 2-3 weeks later, I got notices that I was among the most qualified, and that my resume was being passed on the selecting official. But since then, I have not heard anything at all.


In the meantime, I've had interviews for 5 of the private sector jobs. I've contacted all of the government jobs at the contact they had listed, and have only heard back from 1 of the 3 (an HR contact who told me they were going over the resumes and would select people to interview within the next 40 days or so). The other two have not responded to voice mails or emails inquiring where they were in the hiring process.


Yesterday, I received a job offer from one of the private sector jobs. It is a good job, but not my dream job, and one of the 3 government jobs IS my dream job, so I would hate to accept this offer, and then get called about this particular government position. I am currently (unhappily) employed, so I do not HAVE to accept this position for monetary reasons, but I am just not sure how long I should wait to hear from these government jobs. It is very frustrating!

I have heard this issue and concern a lot. I can understand your frustration over the timing.


First, I would try to get an extension of time to be able to give an answer to the firm you just got the job offer from. Hopefully, you have not yet accepted. Then, since you have gotten an offer, I would call back the government agency that you are most interested in working for and let them know that you have received another offer but are very interested in working for them instead, and you wanted to better understand their process. You need to let them know that you need to know something from them within xx time period (if the other firm gives you another week to decide, etc).


The value of taking this approach is that it communicates two things to the government job - 1) that you have another offer and are an attractive candidate for a job, and 2) that you have a timeline - this should speed up their process in being able to let you know.


Good luck!

I need a change in my life, I have a great job but earning money is not satisfying anymore so I think is time now for me to pay back and do something meaningful. So I'm considering applying to Peace Corps Response which consists of short assignments in various program areas around the world for people that have at least 10 years of work experience.


I do qualify for this program and fortunately don't have any debts or dependents, have a month by month lease and savings in case of emergency. I know that as a returning volunteer I will have one year of noncompetitive eligibility for employment in the Federal government but what else I need to consider before doing this?


I can only think that obviously I will not have the job that I have now and it will take a longer to get a new job but what else?

Great that you are interested in giving back and ready to join such a great organization! I would suggest you talk with others who have worked for organizations like the Peace Corp before and get their insights on what they had to do to successfully make a transition back to the business profit community. They can give you the most realistic understanding. In addtion, it would be good to investigate what types of career services the peace corp offers to their members for tranistioning back. They should have some programs in place, and these would be good to know about in advance. Other nonprofit organizations might also exist for making these types of transitions so you could check with them as well. Best of luck and thanks for all you are doing!

We have an employee who just cannot work with others. He was assigned to my project and in attempting to explain it to him, he was cantankerous and accused me of being condescending. After three days of this, I asked that he be assigned elsewhere. He is bounced around from team to team as he alienates others and brings morale down. Management seems content to keep him "on the move" since there are no projects he can work on by himself. How to stop this madness? He has been counseled repeatedly by his supervisor but it hasn't taken.

Sad to say that this is not that unusual. Does the firm have a 360 performance appraisal system or a way of having peers provide feedback anonymously? This is often the best way to really catch a person's attention about what he/she has to do to improve.


Sometimes, management doesn't want to deal with the issues so they pass this type of employee around in hopes that it will just work itself out (which it rarely, if ever, does). If you can suggest that they implement a developmental peer feedback system with even just two questions (what is a person doing that is effective and what can a person do to improve), and have this collected by a 3rd party and summarized for each person, this would be a great way to provide the needed feedback and a developmental plan. But, management has to support this initiative. Good luck! 

A couple of reader comments about salary negotiations:

I totally agree with you. If I tell my current salary, that does NOT tell anything about my salary expectations. Maybe I want a less stressful job and would willingly take a pay cut. Maybe, I realize I was under paid and wouldn't work for that amount again. Maybe, I make thousands more than they expect to pay for that position but after interviewing me realize I would make a great manager for someone in that position and would consider brining me on at my desired salary for a different position. Having the conversation too early or from a one-sided approach is not an effective way to filter candidates.

I like Joyce's answer on this. You can save the candidate and yourself time by not even having to review their resume if they decide not to apply because the salary range offered was too low for them. I love it when employers list a salary range. It helps me weed out the jobs I wouldn't want, and it also tells me something about the level of the position. Sometimes job announcements are written in such a way that it is surprisingly hard to tell if they are expecting entry level or more senior candidates to apply.

Greetings! I am 52 years old and have been unemployed for 18 months now. I have rather an unusual name -- only two people in the U.S. have my name, and the other one is a distant 67-year-old relative in California. Even though I don't put the years of my B.S. and M.S. degrees on my resume, anyone doing a Google search on my name can find my age through, and all those other sites. Am I doomed to never work again because I am so far above age 40?

Well, there is not much you can do about your name unless you want to change it! But, you should not feel that you have to do this. There are plenty of people in the workplace now who are in their 50s and older (lots of baby boomers) who are extremely productive and valuable employees!  I would still be honest about recording your degrees on your resume, but those should be listed at the end of your resume, not at the beginning. You should start our your resume with a summary of your qualifications and then list your professional experiences. This gets the focus on what is really important - your skills, not your age. In today's workplace, 52 is really not very old.

Just make sure your resume is updated, you are active on social media sites (e.g., linked in) and are doing plenty of networking. Best of luck!

My office will be shutting down and there's been a lot of comradarie amongst staff in the collective job search process we're all undergoing. Unfortunately, as we share documents with each other to edit or pass along, there have been a few examples of outright lies on resumes. Is this something that should be addressed by people of the same level, or should we just let it go and assume they'll either get caught or learn their lesson?

Lying on resumes is a big problem and one that more and more organizations are checking  by employing firms to do background checks to verify resume details. I would call attention to these issues to make sure people are truthful, otherwise, they will have difficulties getting jobs. If you see the lies, you might nicely point out what I have indicated - that firms are checking resumes for truthfulness and are screening out people who are lying. Some issues are rather easy for them to check out - GPA, where a person went to college, etc. While it might be uncomfortable to bring this up, it would be in their best interest if you did!

I need a career change and have been exploring opportunities that suit my skills, education, background, but none are located where I live. Due to an underwater mortgage, we just can't afford to move, probably for several years. How likely is that I could apply to positions based elsewhere, and propose becoming a remote employee? Or do you have advice on how to find jobs in which working remotely is commonplace or acceptable?

I understand the dilemma you are in. It might be easiest to actually physically go to a place to look for jobs there, but be clear about having to work remotely. This is more common than in the past and with some types of jobs. You might look at career web sites to learn more about this (career,, etc). Why do you say there is nothing where you live? Can  you get others to help you explore options where you are? Networking with porfessional associations in your geographic area might help.



Thanks for all of your great questions today. I look forward to responding to more of your questions next month on May 9th [you can submit questions here]. Thanks also to all of the readers who wrote in suggestions for some of our questions. It is always great to hear lots of good ideas!


Best of luck to everyone on the job market!


J Russell

In This Chat
Joyce E.A. Russell
Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist.
Recent Chats
  • Next: