Career Coach takes your questions

Jun 20, 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!

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Dear Readers:


Welcome to another edition on our online chat. I look forward to answering your questions about careers, jobs, and life at work!




I applied, had a phone screening, and a 2-on-1 interview with an organization that I deeply respect and wish to be a part of in the first week in April. I sent thank you notes to both interviewers. In the next few weeks and months, phone calls to the recruiter went unanswered. Seventy seven days after my in-person interview, I received the generic thanks-but-no-thanks letter in the mail.


On the same day, I looked at their website and there is another position that I am interested in. It is much better suited to my skill set and my interests and it is with a different division. I think I should apply to this position with my updated resume? Is it worth my time? Thanks!

Yes, I think it still would be worth applying for the position since you really are interested in that firm. You may even let them know that you are very interested in THEIR firm. Sometimes, recruiters really can't get a sense for how strongly you feel about their particular firm. Persistence is definitely the key in today's marketplace.


I would still follow your procedure of sending thank you notes. If possible, get a phone number or email from those you interview with so you can follow up with them directly. Stay persistent with them.

I have been a trademark paralegal in a DC law firm for about 10 years now. Since I'm not going to get promoted to lawyer, what options do you think I might have as far as advancement is concerned? Thank you.

You didn't say exactly what you are looking for. Is it more pay, greater responsibilities, a better title? Whatever it is specifically, you  might meet with your boss to talk about how you can acquire that (more responsibilities, pay, etc). Perhaps you can take on additional work and alter your title and pay. Are there any precedents for that in your firm? What about in other firms? If you talk with other paralegals in other firms, you might hear about other creative options in what you can do. It definitely is worth asking about. It may not be as simple as paralegal or lawyer in the firm. Maybe there are other options or opportunities for you to take on new tasks, get additional schooling, etc that you can use for the future.

Good luck!

I have a friend whose performance during her first year at the job was not stellar because of the stress of relocating to a new area and personal problems.


However, the second year she has improved and is really a computer genius who solves a lot of difficult problems at work that no one else can. But she tells me that she doesn't get the recognition for her expertise.


Do you think her supervisors are holding it against her because she performed poorly her first year and are biased from their first impressions of her and just can't shake it off. Would it be wise for her to look for another position? Or should she approach her supervisors and let them know that she feels unappreciated. I and others work with her and feel she's a good worker whose great skills have helped our organization a lot. Hate to see her go.

I don't think she should just plan on leaving at this point. You didn't say if they have a performance appraisal plan. If so, then they should have documented her better performance this year. If not, she should write down what she has done for the firm this year, and then plan to meet with her boss to see how he/she perceived her performance. Maybe her boss does not see her performance in the same light. It would be good to know. But, I would not go to see the boss until she has spent some time writing down for herself what she has accomplished this year. That way, she will go in to ask how the boss perceived her performance (listen to his/her view), and then can offer her own views. 

If the firm collects feedback from peers and colleagues to evaluate employees' performance, then it sounds like the boss would have collected some good data about her. If the firm does not do this, she can suggest it.


The way she goes in to talk to the boss is pretty important. She should remember to first ask his/her opinions, and try to understand the boss's views. Then, share her own.


Best of luck!


I have a job interview coming up, and they've asked me to bring a current pay stub with me to the interview. Does this strike you as unusual? I can only guess that it would be used to verify employment and see what my current salary is, but some of the other information on there (like banking information, employee ID) is a little too sensitive for my liking to share. What are your thoughts?

Yes, this is not that unusual. You are right - they are typically trying to verify your employment and salary.


If you feel uncomfortable sharing this (and many people do feel uncomfortable), then you could nicely ask them "if you want that information to verify my employment, I am happy to share some other documentation with you about my having worked at the firm".  Then, pause.


Often, if you say this, you will really find out if they are just verifying employment or if they are trying to see your salary. They can not require that you turn this in, but many applicants feel pressure and stressed and do turn it in. It is up to you how you want to nicely play it. If they keep pressing you, you might give them the information (up to you), and if you are worried that they will use this in determining a salary for you, then it would be very important for you to have done some research to then document what type of salary you should make (based on the external market, not your previous salary).


Good luck!

What do you do when you work with someone who is just truly mean to you, often over petty stuff? Fortunately, I don't have to interact with this individual much, but when I do, the encounters invariably leave my blood boiling, and I can't even concentrate on my work for the rest of the day. Mean Person has power in this company, so although many of us underlings find Mean Person's behavior and attitude appalling, Mean Person is keeping the executives happy and is protected. I just don't understand how someone so consistently nasty continues to be employed... How do I keep my cool?

Sad to say, but this seems to be a problem for more and more people. The last few articles I wrote for the Capital Business section of the Washington Post (May 28, June 18) both dealt with this topic - dealing with bullies in the workplace and incivility in the workplace. They are very real issues. You might check those out since I provided some tips. In the meantime, I would say - is there anyone you can talk with about this person? Someone who might be able to address it with the person? If you are experiencing these issues, chances are that someone else is as well. I am assuming you have already talked to the person yourself and that didn't work? If not, you could try to meet with them to learn more about them. Sometimes befriending a person helps to stop this type of behavior (but I know that may be the last thing you want to do). But, it often works. 


If this person has power in the firm and is protected, you need to be able to find another powerful person you might be able to talk with about the person's behaviors. You need someone in your corner. Good luck with this.

I decided awhile ago that I needed to start searching for new employment. I am currently employed but do not want to stay at my firm long term just because I want to move out of the industry and back to something similar to what I was doing before. I started looking/applying/networking in January, and am feeling discouraged by the lack of jobs out there. I've started applying to maybe one a week just because I don't think applying online gets you anywhere anymore. I also feel like I've exhausted my networking contacts. I'm just not sure what to do. I've tried recruiters, job fairs, etc.


I feel like everything I find that interests me either requires a Masters (I am in no position to go back to school right now) or is just a personal assistant. Is there anything I can do to get out of this rut and get motivated again? Any new channels I should go after? Does applying online EVER work?

Sorry about your frustration over the job search process, and yes it can be tough. Hang in there! Online applications do work, and in many cases, you have to apply online. But, in this market, knowing people in a firm you are interested in working in is even more important. Can you try to indicate the key firms (and locations) that you are most excited about working at, and then look to see if you have any contacts at those particular firms? Having a specific plan is much better than a generic (apply anywhere) type plan.


Sometimes it is also helpful to take a break from the job search. If you have a current job, you can just give yourself some time away from looking  - maybe a month. Then, when you come back to it, have a specific plan. You will feel more energized at that point.  Good luck.

I'm a journalist, I live abroad and I formerly worked for two of the biggest (financial) news services, and then freelance. I am looking to work again in journalism. After leaving the profession to do more creative work I had two bicycle accidents, one in 2001 and the next in 2003, just when I was on the mend (I suffered quite intense whiplash injuries from each).


Despite my repeated efforts to get back to work, I was unable to work full days for much of the past 9 years, due to stubborn and undiagnosed health problems. While local specialists inferred that it was 'all between my ears' it has now established that I've been suffering from migraines (apparently because the whiplash was not properly established or treated seriously) and just two weeks ago, a surgeon confirmed that my shoulder is not actually in the socket, which generates a lot of pain and perhaps also triggers the migraines.


I really want to get back to WORK, and would like some advice about handling this extremely sensitive topic should it come up in an interview. (It has been nothing short of a nightmare!) Moreover, I do still have migraines from time to time, but I hope this will subside after the shoulder is treated. By the way, I live in Northern Europe.

First, I am sorry to hear about all the health issues you have had to deal with. This had to be frustrating and painful for you. I am  glad that you are finally able to learn what the real issues are. I am assuming you are now able to get them taken care of?


What are you most concerned about in the interview - is it people asking what you were doing for the past 9 years and why you don't have a more "normal" work record? If that is your concern (and I totally understand that), then you will need a response for how you will address these questions. In the U.S., employers should not be asking about your health at all. They should only ask whether or not there are any reasons why you would not be able to work all the hours. Also, as an applicant, you do not have to volunteer any information about your health at all.


If, however, you figured they might want to know why your work history is spotty (I am assuming that is a concern for you), then you can preempt that question by letting them know you had some health issues that were misdiagnosed, but are now under control and will not be an issue for you. While you do NOT have to volunteer this information, it might be good since it will "take care of the issue in the room". You need to let them know that working is not an issue for you, and you are now ready and excited to be taking on new responsibilities.


Of course, this will be difficult from their perspective to take a chance on, so maybe personal contacts can really help you break through to employers you are really interested in working with. Good luck and I hope your health continues to improve!

My paystub also lists the health plan I'm on, specifically that I have the family plan. It also lists money that is withheld from my paycheck for medical and dependent care FSAs. Potential employers wouldn't legally be allowed to ask me if I have kids or have a lot of medical expenses, but they could learn this information by looking at my paystub.

True, so ask them in a nice way, "are you seeking to verify employment, and if so, I can show you some other documentation about that." Then, see what they say.

Just curious. How costly is it, typically, to an individual if their former employer takes them to court over a non-compete (assuming the individual wins in the end)? Thanks.

This of course varies, and truthfully, often it doesn't happen that companies even follow up. While many firms have employees sign noncompetes, they often do not follow up with checking them out. It's often too time consuming. Of course, that doesn't mean they all don't. It really might depend on how large the firm is and how much someone who violated the noncompete hurt them (by taking business away, etc). You could check the website to see if you can get more stats on this issue.

I am a 77 year old male who worked as a United Methodist minister for seven years, with a state anti-discrimination agency for ten years, sold life and health insurance for 18 years, worked full time as an Episcopal priest for six years. My health is good enough that I would like to try a new area of work that involves creative problem solving. I have had some clear indications in interview that I was being rejected for consideration because of my age. Any suggestions?

Age could have been a factor (which would be unfortunate and illegal), but it might have also been that people were wondering what your career goals and objectives are at this point in time. You might make sure that someone carefully reviews your resume to make sure you are selling yourself and really showing what you have done and hope to do. Your resume needs to tell a story about your past and future, and should let people know that you have specific ideas about what you want to do next. This is also true for your cover letter. They need to understand what you are hoping to accomplish. Saying you want to work in a job that requires creative problem solving does not tell them what exactly you are really good at and want to do. Given your background, it sounds like you have some good interpersonal skills or mediation skills. Did you ever consider working in that field? Of course, it depends also on your educational background. What about taking more business courses? There are lots of online programs as well as courses at schools. 


Work with someone to try to define your objectives at this point, so this is what comes across clearly to recruiters. Good luck!

How exactly do you do this? My job that I had two jobs ago is a much better fit for what I am applying for now, but it seems weird to put my current job at the top, then an old old job, then my last job since the dates wouldn't match up. At the same time, I'm worried people will pass over my resume once they see my last job because it's not related.

You need to keep the resume as you mentioned - with current jobs listed first. But, on a cover letter or summary at the top you can list your strengths or interests to highlight those areas relevant to the new job.

Hello! My job and all of the jobs in my group were recently changed dramatically to the point where I'm barely doing what I was originally hired to do. I am more than capable of doing my new duties, but they are far below my skill level and the whole thing feels like a demotion. I'm gearing up to do a job search, but what do I do in the meantime? Do I have any recourse? Or do I just buck up and focus on looking for a new position?

You can either just start looking and/or you can also speak with your boss to better understand what they are hoping you accomplish in your new job. You can also share your concerns for being underutilized with him/her and see what suggestions he/she has for this. I think it is important that they know how you feel about this in case they can do something about it. But, you should also start looking in case there is not much that can be done.

I would black out everything except my name, my current period gross pay, and my YTD gross pay before providing a copy.

Good idea. You could black out everything you did not want them to see.

Hello, I would like some input on how to return to the IT field after three years of teaching. During this time I have continued to perform small user support tech-type jobs. Any insights are welcome. Regards, L Jackson

Lots of jobs in this field. You did not say what you do in IT so you might need to clarify this. You should also join some networking groups, and you can joined social media sites like Linked In and share your interests in getting back to IT with your former colleagues and other professionals in the area. There are numerous listings in the Post regarding IT organizations that you can try to affiliate with. Networking will be key for you to break back into the IT field. Good luck!

what's the best way to assess a company's culture before you get inside? I thought I did such a great job the last time I was interviewing, as far as talking to current and former employees, but now that I'm inside, I realize this place is not for me. Work is work, but if I don't feel comfortable with my coworkers and their personal style, it isn't going to be a fit. But everyone behaves well in interviews, and no one can really tell you what daily life is like.

Great question. I think you really have to ask a lot of questions (and repeat some of them to different people). I think you also have to ask about a "day in the life of" to learn what do they really do at the firm. Interviews are not one of the better ways of learning about a firm, but everyone uses them. Often people will tell you all the positive things and not give you a realistic preview of the firm. so, in addition to going to interviews, you could try to attend lunches, dinners or other social events (maybe they have happy hours) where you can see people in a more natural setting to learn more about how they work, get along, etc.

How do you suggest responding on an application when *required* fields are (a) your current salary and (b) your future salary requirements? With most job listings giving no idea what the job pays, I'm wary of pinning myself to a number that may be too low, and that would all but guarantee I wouldn't have a chance to negotiate for anything higher. On the other hand, I don't want to highball (?!) and cost myself an interview. Typing "negotiable" into these fields hasn't worked; I have gotten an error message saying I must put in a number.

Good question and a very common one that I hear. If you can not leave it blank or type in negotiable, then what about typing in XX or 00 to see if it will let you move on? I have had some people do this successfully. I know that some recruiters do not like this and will tell me that, but from the applicant's side, I agree with you that it is much better NOT to give them salary information at this point in time. Better to wait til you get a written offer to talk about salary. 


If you still have to put something in, then make sure you have really done good research on salaries for the field, and try to type in a RANGE (not a fixed number). This shows you have flexibility and does not pin you down as much. Good luck!

What the best strategies for trying to get a job in another state? I do not have specialized skills, such as engineering, so what can I do to get my applications noticed? I am preparing myself to move first, but ideally I would like to find a job before moving.

Generally, it is best to have contacts there and set up interviews onsite. It is often hard to get jobs in another state unless you actually go to the state and meet with people. It can be done, but it is harder. You might plan some trips there and set up some interviews in advance. This is also where you will need to use any contacts you have from that state to help you set up interviews. 

Hello. I'm an upcoming sophomore this year in college, and previously I've got my major changed from history to art. I will eventually add minors once I transfer back to a university, because I'm going to my community college for this fall semester.


I changed my major because I wasn't feeling the lawyer thing anymore. I had to stop and think to myself is being a lawyer something I really want to do. I use to want to be a lawyer and never would I've thought I would have a change of mind. It is a little sad, as if I lost a good friend or something, because I've always wanted to be a lawyer since I was little. However, I've been told that lawyers are structured, and read for maybe 8 hours straight sometimes. I'm not too impressed with that, it may bore me. So when I met up with the career development lady at the college I was going to, few of the things she asked were what's something that I love to do that I can see myself doing for free. I said art, I like to draw. Then I compared what comes to mind when I think of lawyers and what comes to mind when I think of fine artists.


My main concern is, I just want to be sure that art is something I really want to do. To be specific, I'm considering to be a multi-media artist and animator. I just want to be sure if this is "my thing" like my cup of tea. Thank you.

Great that you are asking yourself these questions. Keep in mind that you have plenty of time before you really have to make a "for real" decision. Generally, there are plenty of required core classes you need to take to graduate (regardless of major) that you can spend the first few years doing. Then, you can go after your major.


What I would encourage you to do is to meet with lawyers, artists, and any others you think might be in possible careers for you. You can meet face to face, over email, phone, etc and ask them questions about what they do in their jobs, what they like, dislike, how they got into the job, what would they do differently, etc. This is really important because it will give you a sense of what is involved in those jobs. I would make sure to ask several people in each field, don't just rely on what one lawyer or one artist tells you.


You could also have a career counselor give you some assessments such as Strong Interest Inventory, Career Leader, MBTI, to see what fields best suit you. This will give you some better ideas for other career fields to think about.


Good luck with this. Remember too, that you may end up having multiple careers in your lifetime so whatever you do initially will not be the only thing you will ever do. Don't be too hard on yourself to "have to pick the exact right thing right away".

I am in my early 60's and have been in the computer field since the 1970's. I am feeling a bit burnt out but in no shape to retire. I have been thinking of going back to school and studying something to work on saving the oceans. What are my chances of getting a job in my mid 60s? Should I just hang out in this job until I die?

Sounds like you have plenty of energy to keep learning, growing and working so I would look at new options. There are plenty of people working later and later today in the U.S. - either for economic reasons or just because they enjoy working.

Going back to school is so much easier today since there are online options as well as so many more schools and programs of study. Why not take some assessments like Career Leader, MBTI, Strong Interest Inventory - to see about your interests in the oceans or other fields? What about working parttime in your computer field while learning a new discipline? Sometimes it is easier to do it that way, rather than leaving something "cold turkey" and switching to something totally different.  Good luck! 

My mentor is resigning from my firm today because executive management was unwilling to accomodate his desired work schedule among other things. He's really known in our industry and already has opportunities lined up with a smaller firm. He was the only VP/MGR who really cared about my career growth and worked hard to get me promoted. Now that he's leaving, how do I continue to stay at my firm when I know no one else will take interest in my career growth? I'm tempted to follow him to his new firm.

This is very common that someone might follow a person to another firm. You might first want to see if there is anyone else that you could still have as a mentor. You should also talk with your mentor to get his perspective on this - what does he think you should do? Does he have ideas for who else could mentor you? Does he even think you would get a job at the new firm? I would definitely hold a candid conversation with him before just leaving. He will probably have some good ideas for you. Good luck!

Keep in mind, Ocean conservancy non-profits need 'computer guys'. Instead of complete career overhaul, apply your finely honed talent where you will be fulfilled. As an added bonus, non-profits often need extra hands and you might end up directly assisting in more direct "ocean saving work" if you let them know it's a great passion for you.

Feedback from a reader.

Hi Joyce. Do you have any advice on considering taking a new job shortly before having a first child? I have an opportunity to move into a position that, while not my dream job, would provide more opportunity for career mobility later on and a shorter commute. I'm having a hard time weighing those benefits with the stress of a career change close to having a new baby!

Sure. You did not say when you were expecting your baby. Congratulations by the way!

But, there is nothing to stop you from doing this, and if you have childcare plans set up, the employer should not be that concerned either. Even though you don't need to tell them your childcare plans, if you are obviously pregnant then you might volunteer this information (up to you) so that they are comforted knowing that you will be working there and have a plan for coming back. Best of luck!

I'm interested in changing careers because I'm not currently happy in my current role. I'm seeking a career changes in the hopes of making more money and having more responsibilites in my daily role. I'm not sure what jobs are open to me based on my education and work background. Would you recommend going to a career coach to get advice and network?

Yes, I would recommend this. I would also suggest reading What Color is your parachute as well as some of the Knock Em Dead books - both give lots of great ideas for career switchers.



Excellent questions today! Thanks for sharing your questions and offering your suggestions to our readers. Our next online chat will be on July 18th from 12-1 so keep those questions coming!




Submit questions here for Joyce's next chat on July 18.


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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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