Career Coach takes your questions

Oct 10, 2012

With an unemployment rate of 7.8 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 to our October online chat. I look forward to receiving your job-related questions. Feel free to share your insights as well. All of our readers love to hear about what works and doesn't work!



If you are offered a job, is it inappropriate to ask if you will be assigned an office or a cube? I know it sounds petty, but it honestly would make a difference in my decision. Would this seem like a "high maintenance" request to an employer?

I think if you are visiting the firm, you might just ask where you would be working. This should give you an idea of what space you might have. Often, the answer to this question comes from visiting a company and seeing how they are organized. If you are talking to them over the phone, generally this is not one of those questions that you should ask right away. Better to first learn about the nature of the work and colleagues. But, you could still ask them what the work environment is like. You could also ask employees who work there (and might be doing the same type of work) what the work space is like. Good luck!

I have a problem: I want to explore new career opportunities when I go back to work (at home with the kids right now), but I literally have no idea which direction to go. I don't want to go back to my prior field, but I feel lost when I start imagining other jobs or employers since I don't have a realistic feel for what they entail. My own college doesn't have a strong career network, and I have only a so-so list of prior colleagues that I'm in touch with. Are there other avenues (other than hiring a career coach, which can be pricey) that can help me find a compass in all of this?

What is your timeline for when you want to go back to work? It is a good idea to be planning for this at least six months in advance so that you can build the network to start letting people know you are looking. What about just getting connected via Linked In  to friends just to get the word out? Even if you looked at the book What Color is Your Parachute, that could help you get some ideas for what you might want to do. Sometimes just talking to friends to hear about what they are doing at work and what they enjoy about it can also be helpful. What about taking some online courses or courses at a community college part time to see what other fields you might be interested in? I would suggest using any of the career workbooks out there or career assessment tools (Strong Interest Inventory, Career Leader, MBTI) to learn more about areas you might be intersted in pursuing. Good luck! 

My boss is about to leave and the person that's going to take over scares me in their ability to be unfair towards employees based on personal favoritism. Also, I may be asked to step up into a role that I am not quite feeling ready for. How long do I give this situation as a trial before seeking other employment?

First, about the person who will take over as boss - I would try to meet with this person and get to know them as a person. Sometimes, befriending a person who seems political is a good strategy to make sure they give you a "fair shake". 

About your second point - what is it about the new position that you are not ready for? Do you need training? More resources? Think about this and then see if your HR person (if your firm has one) can help you to be better prepared for this job. Remember that this new job (if you work on getting prepared for it) can offer you greater marketability for your future. So, it may be worthwhile to get the training you need and take that position. Good luck!

My brother graduated last December with a civil engineering degree. He has been unable to get a full-time job. He gets a lot of second interviews, but not a job. What advice can I give him? He has used his university's career center for resume help, and is beginning to become discouraged. Thanks!

Well, he has majored in a good career field. We  definitely need more engineers. Perhaps his resume looks good since he gets called in for interviews, but something is not working well in the actual interview. Has he practiced interviewing with someone to get feedback on what he is doing in the interview and how he is coming across? Rather than just getting resume help, he might need to get interviewing help. Recruiters are much more sophisticated at interviewing than ever before. Has he practiced interviewing with someone? Has he been videotaped? This can be very helpful to see how he is coming across. I would first work on this area (interviewing) and then see what to address next. Best of luck to him. It's wonderful that you are such a caring family member!!

Joyce- The next round of my job interview will consist of a test and a meeting with a psychologist to determine whether my personality is a good fit with the company. Is there any way for me to prep for that?

Yes, but if we don't know which specific tests  you will be taking - it might be a little hard. It seems you may be applying for a higher-level job if they are using a test and meetings with a psychologists. Is this true? If so, the interview may have both behavioral and situational questions in it (you can research these types of questions online). Also, the test could be anything - personality-based, integrity, crtical thinking, etc. You could always ask them more about the nature of this part of the process. Sometimes they will tell you what you will be doing. You can't really practice the "exact" tests, but you can at least be mentally prepared for the experience. No matter what you do, the most important thing is to get plenty of rest the night before (especially if they use a critical thinking test) and just answer truthfully. But, definitely ask them. Often they will give you an overview of the types of tests you will be taking. The meeting with the psychologist is probably just an interview based on your work experiences, goals, and aspirations. Think about these things in advance. Good luck!

I recently started a new job with a defense contractor - I've been here for a few weeks. I've received an offer from a federal agency that I interviewed with as part of my job hunt (before starting my new job). Their hiring timeline obviously took a lot longer than my current employer. What is your take on leaving a new job a few weeks/months in? I realize I'd be burning any bridges with my current employer. My current job has shown a few warts in the first few weeks and the federal job would be a great opportunity for me. I realize many people would be thankful to have such a "problem."

Yes, this is a "tricky" issue. If you can at least stay six months that would be helpful for your own career and what your resume looks like. Is that a possibility or does the firm have to put someone in place now?

Of course you can leave at any time, but staying in a firm for only a few weeks really does not look that great on your resume. Some might interpret thsi as not having commitment to a firm. Can you talk to the federal agency to see if they can keep a position open for you longer? They will appreciate your willingness to not leave your current employer in a bad way by leaving suddenly. What do you think?

Wht would you do if an employee left your organization, but accidentally left a scathing gmail chat with his spouse up on his monitor (it was trashing the staff and firm). This person is now supposed to be a consultant with the organization. Do I have a responsibility to go to administrators and say, "this is for you to help determine if this person has the committment to the firm that you would expect?"

Wow - this is a tough one. It is amazing what "stuff" people leave at their desks. I might first talk to the person (since you said they are working there as a consultant) and let them know this "chat" was left out. You could even probe to find out their thoughts about working for the firm. Often people say things to family members about their firms that are "just talk" and really do not mean much by it. Personally, I would only talk to the person themselves about it. I would not share it with others. On the other hand, if it is something related to a serious offense (stealing, harassment, etc) then I might reconsider and share with an HR person. Tricky situation.

Hi, Joyce. I had a boss who repeatedly divulged sensitive personal and professional information about her employees to their colleagues, routinely dropped the ball on tasks, regularly took credit for her employees' accomplishments, belittled her direct reports, and, through her lack of time-management skills and follow-through, often made her employees look bad. When I left the department (largely because of that boss), I reported all of this to her manager, who was next in my chain of command. My ex-boss has not only kept her job but is now applying--and being seriously considered as a candidate, I believe--for a new position of much greater responsibility in the company. I think this would be a disaster for the organization. And, on a more personal level, she would once again become my manager. I can't imagine enduring another couple of years under her "leadership." Should I raise my concerns to the hiring manager evaluating the candidates, or to HR? Or should I just look for another job? Thanks for your advice.

Yes, I would definitely raise these issues with an HR person. Or, do you have a mentor in the firm? Someone high enough up that they would be willing to listen to you? I would not start looking for another job just yet, especially if you enjoy the job. But, I would definitely talk to someone about this. Did you ever follow up with that boss whom you reported all of these things to? Is there anyone on the search committee who you can talk with about this person's leadership style? Hope it works out!


How do you determine if a potential employer truly has a good work-life balance or if they're just paying it lip service? I can't figure out a good way to ask in an interview without making it sound like I don't want to work hard.

Good question. I think you have to ask enough current employees about this question. Ask them how they handle their work-life balance and they are generally truthful. Recruiters or hiring managers may not tell you as much about this, but current employees (particularly those who are around the same age or life stage as yourself) might be more forthcoming with this information. You could also ask questions about how active people are in the community, etc. This might give you an idea of whether the firm values time away from work. Good luck!

Hi Joyce- I'm a federal government employee and am currently interviewing with several private sector companies. Based on my research so far these companies offer fewer benefits than my government agency (fewer holidays, less vacation time, no health and wellness time). When I'm negotiating my salary how do I monetize the value of those benefits? Thank you!

Great question, and yes this is a common issue. You can try to add these benefits up to see what the "total compensation" of your current job really is. Would be good to try to do this since private firms will often just tell you that they cannot match those types of benefits (e.g., longer vacation times, etc). You could also try to figure out which of those benefits were most important to you (e.g., time off, healthcare, etc) and see if you can negotiate for those with the new firm. You would not get them all, but if you pick 1-2 that are really important to you, you might make some progress on one of them. You could also see about getting those "benefits" put into salary at the new firm or a signing bonus (which private employers are more willing to do) since you would be "giving up" benefits you have. Definitely add them up into a "total compensation" package since you really need to make this comparison when taking a new job. Sometimes, the new job might have a greater salary and signing bonus or performance bonus, but not the extent of benefits. You would then have to decide which are more important to you.

With my very first job out of school, I thought I had found a great place to work. I was on a fast track to a management position. Then things started to fall apart within the company and our group was eliminated and I was laid off. That was 10 years ago. Since then, I have had a few different jobs, but none have given me the same sense of fun and belonging that I had with my first job. I have been with my current employer for many years and there has been no growth or change. The same people are in the management positions and nobody seems to move to new positions. I feel like I am in a lower position than I was 10 years ago at my first job and haven't been given the chance to really shine. It is hard to get up in the morning and find motivation. I know that the grass isn't always greener with other companies. I feel like I need someone who knows what I used to be able to do to give me a chance again. How do I get my career back on track when it has been so long since I have felt valued and had things to "brag" about?

Understandable feelings you are having. What is it about that 1st job that you really enjoyed? Think about this to see what exactly is missing. Is it the challenge? the opportunities? the comraderie of working with others? the nature of the work? Once you think about this, you can see how you might be able to build this into your current job if possible. Do you have a mentor at your current firm that you can talk to about your job and opportunities for further development? If not, it might be good to clean up your resume and reach out to your friends and network just to learn what else is out there. It doesn't mean you have to leave the firm, but you should at least explore options. It is generally easier to find a new job when you are currently working, than when you are unemployed. 

Or, is it time to head back to school to broaden your options into a new career field? Sometimes getting another degree or certificate can be helpful in expanding your options. Good luck! 

Hello and thank you for taking my question. I am in my mid-50s and after a couple of years as a stay-at-home Dad and 30 years in the sales and distribution business,  I have gone back to school to finish the Bachelor's degree I never finished earlier. Before going back to school, I tried for a couple of years to find a job in government or private industry, but had no luck. Now, I have a year and a half of straight A's at community college under my belt and am looking towards finishing my degree at a 4 year university (accounting) in about another 2 years. My question is whether, given my age and the fact that job-hunting at this stage is a challenge to begin with, I should try to find a part-time or student job (possibly with the federal government) and go to school part-time, or just focus on finishing school as soon as possible. At my age, is it better to try to get employed sooner or to finish my degree sooner? Thanks for your guidance!

Good question. I am not sure there is a "correct answer" for this one. Either option can work. I would definitely try to get some work experience in your field (accounting) while enrolled in school (if you can work part-time). Some accounting firms (e.g., PWC) like to hire students during a "winter term" from Jan-April during their very busy season. This means you might work full time during the spring semester and take that semester off from schools. This is a new thing they have been doing to give students experience and to give them some great help during their busiest times. Sometimes, this is even more desireable to them than doing summer internships.

Are you planning to go on to get your CPA? I would think this might be important depending on what you are planning on doing. I really think getting some more accounting experience while in school will give you a stronger edge. It will enable you to already make connections with the accounting world to help you get a job once you do finish your degree.  Best of luck!

How much does it help to volunteer for local industry associations and/or events? I moved to a new city in April due to unemployment and to be closer to my family. I did go to grad school here, so I do have some connections. In May I started networking the heck out of my local industry & sector & grad school groups. In July I was lucky to start an awful, though consistent contract job that is 40+ hours/week. I was lucky to meet people at paid-entry networking events. Should I continue to volunteer - literally, for free - for committees and events that are local industry and sector associations, but do not seem to be leading anywhere? It seems like the only people I meet through there are low on the totem pole or second-career folks who want to stay active - there have been zero job leads through these networking events. I don't think I'm in the wrong city or wrong industry, but where should I spend my valuable time?

You ask a really good question. I would be strategic regarding what I volunteered for. You only have so much time and it makes sense to use it wisely. I would consider 1-2 types of events and try to have a stronger leadership position in those events. I would also only pick ones that were related to my future career. 

On the other hand, if you really enjoying volunteering at certain events, then that makes sense to do those. But, don't look at them as "stepping stones". Instead, view them as leisure activities. It sounds though that many of these events are taking up lots of your time and you are not getting as much enjoyment out of them. If this is the case, pick 1-2 events you really enjoy and like I mentioned earlier - try to play a stronger, more visible, leadership position on them. Serving on numerous events at lower levels will be less helpful to your job search and networking, than picking a few key events and serving in a higher leadership capactity. Good luck and thanks for serving the community!


Obviously, it is not wise or appropriate to leave Gchats where they can be found. But that aside, the person who found it wants to report it. It is certainly his/her right, but while management may thank you for letting them know that they are paying someone who doesn't always think highly of the organization, they may also think " a snitch is still a snitch." If I were your co-worker and found out you did this, I'd treat you like a snitch and tell others you were a snitch as well and govern myself accordingly.

Thanks to this reader for sharing their perceptions.

After teaching secondary school for 25 years, I wanted a career change. I have been doing international development work for the past one and a half years in Afghanistan. I'd like to return to my home in DC and work with the federal government but I don't know in which agency or specific type work. To explore options, I was wondering if you know if the federal government hires temporary workers?

You ask about temporary work. Are  you looking to just work part-time? Have you considered any of the consulting firms that are located in DC and that work with the federal govt? Do you have a security clearance? If so, this could also help you in landing a job. Given your teaching and international experience, you could have much to offer to employers. Have you rewritten your resume to add the global experience to it?

Can you offer protocol or tips for job hunting while employed? I'm very happy in my current job but feel I need more opportunities for advancement than my workplace currently offers. Obviously I'm worried about alienating my boss if s/he finds out from someone other than me.

Yes, this is tricky. Can you talk to your current boss about more opportunities? Sometimes people don't want to bring these things up with their current bosses, and yet bosses often say they would have done something to keep the employee. So, start there. 

Then, you might look around, letting people know to be discreet (if possible). If it looks like you are starting to get offers or go on interviews, you could then bring this up with your boss (that other firms are coming to you) and see how your current job can offer more opportunities for learning or development. 

This actually happened someplace where I used to work. The situation, though, was the new person had started and worked a couple of weeks, and it was only after this person had started at the new job, did his OLD employer make a counter-offer to come back. And yes it was lucrative enough that he went back to his old job. There is of course other backstory to this, but it does speak to the lunacy of some companies that they are not really effective at keeping talent if it takes the fallout of a departure for them to even make the effort to keep them.

Good point. Current employers should always make sure they are paying market rates and know how their current employees feel about their work. Don't wait until  talent walks out the door to make a counter-offer. Make sure your workplace is motivational enough that they don't want to walk out the door!

I would recommend reaching out to trade groups that represent individuals and companies in the industry. For the engineer, there is the American Council of Engineering Companies. I am sure for folks in other industries there are similar organizations.

Good ideas. Thanks for sharing!

Thank you for taking my question. I've been interviewing for a job at my dream company, and I think I have a good shot at it. I also think that the pay will likely be less than what I make now. That's okay; I can afford to make less money and the intangibles of this job will make the pay cut worth it. I am concerned, however, that their initial offer will be less than I can afford. I've negotiated successfully for raises, but never for an increase in the salary of a job offer. Any tips? How does the process differ from negotiating for a raise in a job you already have?

Great question. First, make sure you get the job offer in hand before you bring up salary. Try to get a written offer first. That way you know they really want you for this job. Then, once you have received an offer from them, you can bring up the salary issue. Before talking salary it is a good idea to do plenty of research on the market. Look at, among other cites to learn what would be a good salary for this position from the external market perspective. If you can also learn from internal folks what a typical salary (and range) would be for the position (maybe you have a good friend that works there or you know the HR person well), that will also help you in knowing market rates. 

Get them to give the offer first. Then, ask them in a nice way, How they arrived at that offer. Then, share your salary data with them. You should be prepared to share a range with them about what you think is reasonable given the market data. Make sure the lowest number from the range is something you can live with. Also, it is reasonable to assume you would not take a job at a pay rate lower than you are currently making. These are some tips, there are plenty more if you get on one of the sites I mentioned. Practice your salary discussion with someone before doing it with the firm. That helps!

I have been asked to write a letter of recommendation for a fellow public school teacher who is applying for a promotion to school district math instructional specialist. I believe that my colleague has proven to be the most qualified applicant through my direct experience. I am trying to use specific examples that "show" not "tell." Words can pack a punch and I really want to deliver on this one. I am working through several drafts and doing my best to make this count. Any tips? Thank you.

Sounds like you already have some great ideas. I would agree with you about using specific examples. You might also look at the job description for the position and ask your colleague what specific aspects they would want you to highlight. They should get letters from multiple people and have them highlight different aspects of their experience that reflect the important qualifications of the new position.  

You want to highlight key aspects of the new job and how your colleague demonstrates those aspects. You can only do this if you know the job description and what they are really looking for. Also, make sure it is concise. You could also use a table format where you list the key job aspects of the new position and for each of those, list your colleague's job skills. Great job doing this for a fellow colleague! I am sure they will appreciate it.

It's not the end-all be-all, but might have some insight. If it's only one or two reviews, it might not be helpful, but if it's a bunch, you can usually get a feel for an organization.

I have been in my organization for several years, but I've never been good at networking within the office. I know my immediate co-workers, but very few people outside of that group. I feel this limits me when it comes to new positions and opportunities in other departments. What advice can you provide on networking within one's own organization? Especially, when you've been there awhile and don't have the "new kid on the block" card to play.

Good question and an important one! Do you have a company list or website with people's names on it? If so, you could start by learning more about other departments and who works in those departments. That way, when you see people around (in lunch rooms, elevators, restrooms, walking past them in the hallway), you can use their name to say hi and just stop them for a moment to say "remind me, you work in ... dept" "How's it going in there?" Starting out just by learning who people are and acknowledging them is a good first step to building relationships. Also, do you have a lunchroom? If so, can you try to sit with different people just to say and learn more about them. If  they wear colors from various sports teams you can use this to comment on the team. Small ways to start making conversations. Also, what about your boss? Can that person put you on cross-functional project teams so you can meet and work with other people from other parts of the organization? I think you have a great idea to do this. Start small, and you can start to learn who people are. Good luck!


Thanks again for your great questions. Thanks also to so many of you who also wrote in to offer your advice and insights. It's always helpful to hear multiple perspectives. Please join us again for our November 14th online chat from 12-1pm. In the meantime, best of luck in your job searches and careers!



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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