Career Coach takes your questions

Apr 17, 2013

With an unemployment rate of 7.6 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 Spring, April online chat. Looking forward to responding to all of your career, job, and negotiations questions.



Please help! 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?

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 email.

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.

I've been loaned out to another agency and now a position is opening up in that department which I am qualified for and would like very much. My resume does not include the work I've been doing for them (which is for less than three months). Do I update my resume to include my time there? The person making the decisions wants me to apply and obviously knows what I've been doing for the group. I'm just not sure how to add that info.

Great question. Yes, definitely add that information to your resume and update it to  include the major responsibilities, projects, tasks, etc., that you have been involved with. Make sure to include the major person you have worked with (or supervisor).

Hi -- I know this is probably an enviable problem to have, but any tips on the best way to resign from my job? There is nothing blatantly wrong with the job except that it is boring and unfulfilling, and I have figured out that given family finances, and my approaching-retirement age (mid-50s), staying is not a matter of survival now or in the future. I have other things I want to do but nothing specific lined up where I could say "I'm leaving because of [x]." So I am having a hard time taking the step of actually telling my employer. Maybe this is more of a psychological problem, but I'd appreciate any advice. Thanks.

You did not say how long you have worked at the firm. Most firms expect that you meet with your manager to let them know in person and that you also write a letter of resignation. They often would need this for their own files,  although you did not say how large the firm is.

If finance are not an issue, then leaving a firm is not a problem (in terms of not having another job lined up). Normally, I would tell people (if they do need to worry about finances) to NOT leave a job until they have another one lined up since generally you are more marketable while you are still employed. Sounds like you may be looking to stop work altogether so this is less of an issue for you though. Best of luck!

I am an engineer at a large well-known company and have a valuable and somwhat rare skill set. I know (for a fact) I am underpaid, but I have other perks and benefits that have made at peace with that. I have been approached by a start up company who 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)?

Great question and one that is often asked. 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. Wait until you have another actual offer before going back to your own firm to try to negotiate (if you plan to do this). Don't start negotiating before you actually get another offer.

Good luck!

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

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 the books:  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. But, definitely check out those resources. They are well worth it.

I have the blessing of having a good job. I have been in the job for about 6 months. I plan to stay at my current job but have received interest from other firms. At what point should I try and re-negotiate my current salary or should I just be happy and let it be?

Only renegotiate with your current firm if you actually get a written offer from another firm and you are really considering it. Even if another firm expresses interest, that is not enough - it would be best to wait and actually get an offer.

Is it becoming more acceptable now for employees and job-seekers to have a limited online presence? Even if they are under 30? Do employers view not having a Facebook or LinkedIn account as a negative for potential new hires?

Good question - perhaps any of our HR specialists or recruiters out there can also give their thoughts on this. I would generally say it is not required that you be on social media (even if you are under 30), however, Linked In is getting to be  much more commonplace as a source that recruiters use for hiring. So, this might be a good one to subscribe to. Facebook, on the other hand, is also used for personal reasons so less relied on by recruiters. Also, one of the benefits of something like Linked In or other social media is that it enables  your resume to get reviewed by recruiters and enables you to also quickly look at other sites for jobs. So, something to think about, even if not required.

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."

Thanks for the tip. Yes, this does make a big difference in motivating others and is often not done enough. Kudos to your father!

Do employers actually check references? I have personal references but no strong professional references, which employers tend to ask for. I'm just out of college.

Many firms do check references so, yes, it is important to have them. If you are just out of college, can you get some of your faculty or professors fromyour previous courses to serve as references for you? It is best to use employers, but if you do not have them, then use professors in classes.

Personal references (e.g., friends and relatives) really do not carry as much weight in an employer's mind since they figure they would not know much about how you worked on a project, or in class, in leadership, in teams, showing initiative and organizational skills.

Hi Joyce, My wife has recently been told by her employer that she has about a month left (the situation of her termination is unfair, not illegal, but that's another story). The complication is that she is about 4 months pregnant. She can definitely get a new job, but interviewing with a (small) bump is tricky, and it'll be weird once she tells the new employer about the impending maternity leave. We decided that once this job ends, she can just stay at home and work on getting a certificate in her field (PMP). However, it'll be several months before she gives birth, and this would give her the opportunity to stay home with the newborn longer (it's our first). She's worry that this may be a longer gap in employment than she would've liked. As for financials, we have enough savings that we'll be OK on my salary alone. What would be your advice in this case?

Of course, this is a personal decision that you both will have to figure out. It seems that you have a good plan though - for her to work on her PMP is a great idea since she can explain that as one of the things she was doing while unemployed. And, she gets a valuable certificate. She could take other online courses if she really wanted to do this - to learn more about a certain field or enhance her marketability, but this is not required.  Plus, taking some time off (sounds like it will be less than a year??) should not be that difficult to explain since she had a child. Most employers do not view that gap as strange.  All in all, it sounds like you have a solid plan. Good luck!

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?

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 occassionally -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.

Hello! I am very unhappy in my current position and actively looking for new opportunities. However, my husband and I (I'm almost 30) are planning to try to start a family in the later part of 2013. I have a few job leads, so I could presumably be in a new position in the next month or two (or longer, I realize). Either realistically or ideally, what advice would you offer with regard to how long to be in a new position before becoming pregnant? On one hand, I definitely recognize the value of establishing credibility in a new organization, and on the other hand, there's probably never a truly ideal time to start a family and I don't want to put off something so important.

This is such a personal issue. I think you have to do whatever works best for your family. You really can't plan a job around a pregnancy  if you are just now  looking for your job since it is hard to tell what the market looks like for your field. 

While employers should not discriminate on the basis of pregnancy, it seems easier for women to land jobs at the earlier stages of pregnancy or after having a child. If you are already more than 7 months pregnant, even though employers should not discriminate on the basis of your pregnancy, it seems that many women have to "explain" how they will handle their upcoming child care issues (since it is noticeable that they are pregnant). Of course, this should not be the case, and women should be able to apply and take jobs at any point in pregnancy (current or future). 

You should really make your decision based on the best timing for you and your spouse. Best of luck!

I have been at my current job for more than 13 years. I love the field and I love my boss, but our funding situation has become very tenuous and I want to be proactive about finding a stable job rather than showing up one day and being told we are shutting down due to lack of funding. I can start looking outside my industry but if I want to try and find a job with a company in this industry, my boss would definitely hear about it (plus I want him as a reference and for connections.)  How do I tell him I want to look for a new job? He values loyalty and I don't want to just abandon ship, but want to start this process soon because I know it will take a long time to find another job.

If it is a funding issue, then your boss is aware of this and should understand what you need to do. If your field is a small world (and it would get back to your boss), then I would definitely talk candidly to your boss. Ask him for advice. He many advise you that it is (or is not) a good idea for you to look. This could be a great conversation to enable you to feel free to go ahead and look. Best of luck!

After a couple of interviews where I ended up in the top two, and where I believe the potential employer may have checked my references, I ended up not getting the job. I don't have any particular reason to believe my references are sandbagging me, but the thought has occurred to me. I have many people I could use as references, so if any of the ones I'm using is giving me a lukewarm or negative references, I'd just drop them from the list. So, I've heard there are firms that will call your references for you, and confirm that your references are giving you a positive reference. In your opinion, would it be ethical to use such a firm? If so, how would one locate a reputable one?

You could always call your references and ask them if they were ever notified by the firms. If they say yes, you can ask them how it went. Usually people who you ask to serve as references are generally positive. I am assuming you asked these folks to be references.

The other possibility is to ask the firms for some feedback about your interviews. It could be that the other candidates had stronger skills, better matched the jobs, etc. So, it may not be your references at all. You won't know unless you try to ask the firms for some feedback. Sometimes they will give you some and other times they won't - but, it never hurts to ask (in a nice way).

You also did not say much about your references - are they from jobs where you were really successful? Were they bosses? Maybe the firms used them initially but then asked additional people at those firms for some information on you. Sometimes this is done.

I would not suggest checking on your references yet, until you discover if this is the reason you are not getting those offers.

Thanks. The two "overqualified" comments came after phone interviews. I never got the chance to come in and show my portfolio, though I did fully answer questions, ask intelligent questions, and show enthusiasm. After recent interviews, I was told they hired someone with more policy experience--which will always be the case in D.C. Networks say they know of nothing open.

Were you able to ask how you were overqualified and to suggest that you would still like to come in to meet? Sometimes people use the "you are overqualified" whether it is true or not since they may not want to share the real reason for not bringing you in. That may not have happened here, but if you say "yes, I may be overqualified, but I am still interested in the job and feel I bring some important skills to the table" - they would then have to say something.

Is is true age is a barrier to getting hired? If so, how can one overcome this obstacle?

Age as a barrier? Doesn't it depend? It should not be a barrier, unless of course there are bona fide age-requirements for the position or for retirement. You did not mention whether you were asking about being too young or too old, and unfortunately discirimination seems to occur at many ages. While we define discrimination (according to U.S. law, as those 40 and over who are denied opportunities), sometimes younger folks are not given opportunities because they seem too young for certain jobs (or they don't fit what others perceive is the "correct age" for a certain job).

In any event, age should not be considered for a job unless the organization has shown that a certain age range is needed to successfully perform in that job (and that requires significant work on their part).

I am 58, female, owned my own restaurant for 10 years and still want to work in s high-end restaurant's kitchen. But I never get interviews, and I'm feeling rejected. I get that "Who do you think you are?" feeling in my head that I am too old for young chefs to care to work with me.

What does your resume look like? Where have you worked? Who are your references? Can you try to get former employees (at your own restaurant) or even before that to vouch for you and let you know about other opportunities? What about contacts you made over time while having your own restaurant? These networks would seem to be really important for your future jobs. Good luck!

I recently got some very good advice before I submitted a resignation with no immediate new job lined up: Make sure you tell the story you want out there, so people don't fill in the blanks.

Great tip and definitely one to think about. Thanks for sharing!

Hi Joyce. I quit my job last year, and I am now entering my eighth month of unemployment. I defied conventional wisdom by leaving my job before having something else lined up, but I really hated my job and my employer was aware that I was planning to leave (I told my mentor), so they were not going to allow me to remain employed indefinitely anyway. Anyway, I am petrified that the gap will be held against me. Also, my former supervisors are serving as my references, so it is clear that I did not leave on bad terms. I have read a lot of discouraging articles about employers' disdain for six-month gaps or longer. So, should I mention something in my cover letter about why I left (more eloquently stated here, of course)? I am starting to get very discouraged, and my network has not been helpful in securing a new job.

I would not mention your reason for leaving in a cover letter.  You could leave that for when you are interviewed. I would, however, start thinking about what else you can be doing while you are job hunting. Can you take any online courses or get additional certifications while you are looking?  What about any other type of work you can do even part-time? This might show that you were at least busy doing something productive. This gap is less of a concern today than in years past (due to the economy), but it would help if you have your reasons why you had a gap and what you specifically did to try to keep busy.

I've been searching for a new job for about a year. There aren't a huge number of opportunities in my field where I live, but there are enough. I've only had two interviews, out of about 30 resumes, and neither resulted in an offer. The thing that strikes me as odd is I'm fairly well known in my field, and although I'm on the young side (28), I have solid experience under my belt. And the economy is actually fairly good where I am. I've re-worked my resume twice...networked, networked, networked...and every cover letter is tailored to the specifics of the job. I need a better paying job with better benefits and better hours. I'm getting really frustrated. What do I do differently, and how do I keep from getting so discouraged?

Seems like it might be helpful for you to get feedback from a mentor in your career field - is it your resume? Your interviews? What specifically might be making this difficult for you? Talking with a senior person in your field (outside of your job) might be good to help reveal what else you can work on to get to that next level. Good luck!

Great questions this month! Lots of important questions and good tips and advice shared by readers too.  I look forward to responding to your questions next month at our online chat on Wednesday, May 15th. Until then, good luck in your job ventures!



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.
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