Career Coach takes your questions

Dec 12, 2012

With an unemployment rate of 7.9 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 December online chat. Feel free to send in your career and job-related questions. I look forward to hearing from you!



I work with a person who likes to gather "information" (sometimes work related, sometimes personal) via conversation and threatens people with it. I am very polite but distant towards this person. He has noticed my reticence. He vacillates between asking me why I don't speak to him or how come I say everything is wonderful. I find this very irritating. I may soon say something inappropriate. How do I handle this? Also, the "information" is not illegal or dangerous, but you may not want everyone to know you slipped in 15 minutes late to work or you partied really hard last Saturday night.

It is unfortunate that you have to deal with this, and I do hear about this from others.  I would be friendly, but as you are doing - keep it at a professional level. It is not worth sharing personal information if this person can not be trusted about who they share it with. Stay on the "high ground" and positive. Generally, this type of person will probably not bother you as much if they can't get any "dirt" out of you.


What do you think of joing an exclusive Country Club to mingle, socialize, and network to get a job? It really is who you know, and so this may be worth the investment.

Great question. It may be worth it depending on your career field and who you have access to (who are members of that club). If you would gain access to people that are important to your career (field of finance, politics, etc) it might be worth it. But, I would definitely scope out a plan for how you will use your time with the membership. Don't join without a plan, otherwise you may spend a lot of money and not really use it wisely. Think strategically about the types of individuals you want to connect to and how (over what time period), you can do this.

Through a chatty secretary in another department, I heard about an open position that is a higher grade than my own in which only external candidates are being vetted at this time. This department has a history of not following the rules when it comes to looking at internal candidates. How do I express interest in obtaining this position?

Good question. Are there some folks from that other department that you are closer to - that you can ask about the position? Any managers that you can talk wtih from that department? What about your own manager? I have known many people who actually talked to their own manager about wanting to stay in the firm, but work  in another department in order to enhance their own growth. Would this be possible or are you worried about telling your own boss?

My soon-to-be ex-husband ran up considerable debt in my name during our marriage. I am slowly but surely finding the accounts (sometimes it is bill collectors who are finding me) and paying them as I am able. I am in search of a new job but am concerned that during a background investigation the credit issues will appear. I am not in finance nor will I handle money in my positions. Do you have any suggestions for how to explain this? Would you proactively do it in the interview? Thanks!!

This is a tough issue. Sorry you are having to deal with this. Not all jobs will do a background investigation, although many do. I would probably not bring it up unless you knew they were doing a background check and it was a job you really wanted. Most firms don't need to know all about your personal life story (or past). If you do bring it up, it should just be under the context of being able to manage things and that you are organized. But, I would really not bring it up proactively since it was not your personal doing. If it is brought up, you do need to be able to explain this was a situation that you have been working on improving. Good luck!

I have been with my organization for a few years and I am looking to move into a different position as soon as possible. I feel stuck in my current role and do not believe it allows me to show my best work. My question: What is the best way to let my boss know that I would like a new challenge? Should I be forthright and professional? Is it best to bypass my current manager entirely and seek those in places where I would rather be? I want to move on, and quickly, but would prefer not to burn bridges in the process.

Give your current boss a chance by sharing some of your interest in learning and growing more on the job. You should also ask your boss for feedback on how you are currently doing on the job - listen to his/her assessment of your strengths and areas to improve. You might get some valuable feedback that can help you to better target specific growth areas. Good luck!

Just a comment - so often I read in these career advice columns about bosses who are bullies. There are also bosses who get pushed around (mine is one), thereby making life difficult for their underlings by exhibiting NO leadership. I'm sorry, but nice guys do finish last. Thanks.

Interesting point - thanks for sharing.

It is important for all leaders to be able to negotiate effectively for their staff (be advocates for their staff to other higher-level managers), as well as be firm in dealing with staff members who push them around. Not sure I agree that nice guys/gals finish last. Being nice is okay, but the leader also must be able to stand up to bullies as well. In addition, if a leader does not stand up to bullies, then he/she is actually condoning this type of behavior and this sends a message to other staff (that is perhaps not the message you want to send). So, leaders need to be clear about what types of behaviors they stand for, and what they will allow. They can be nice, but also be firm.

What do you do when you have had a bad boss (abusive) when it comes to a reference check???

Are you saying the boss gave you a bad reference someplace else? If so, I think you have to make sure you have additional references from other jobs or maybe even other higher-level managers from that job who can speak to your positive attributes. Some people have threatened to sue for defamation of character, but I am not necessarily pushing that idea. I think it would be helpful if you could get other positive references and then you can talk to the potential firm about the good attributes you bring to the job. Good luck - this is tricky.

I am on Linkedin. The company I work for is a small non-profit so I know there is no opportunity for advancement or more hours. One problem is that I am extremely introverted and socially awkward. It makes the networking process hard. I do have skills, just not social ones. I need to work, but I know I am not what society wants.

Given what you have said about your social skills, why not try to come up with a plan to enhance those skills by taking communications courses (such as Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie courses)? Or, read the book "The Introverted Leader" or "Self-promotion for Introverts". These books might give you some ideas. If  you are already on LinkedIn, how effectively are you using it to connect with others professionally?

It is not totally clear what you are looking to do. You might want to spend some time thinking about this. Have you ever read "Strengths Finder 2.0" or done the assessment that is included in the book? This might give you some better ideas about what your own strengths are and how you can maximize them in future jobs. Best of luck!

I work in PR for a nonprofit organization and have worked there ten years (but in a different capacity before 2010). I am considering a MA in this field (which my job wouldn't help pay for) but I am not guaranteed a rise in salary here. I do feel I would be more marketable in this career field, though, in Washington. Would you recommend doing it?

A Masters degree would definitely help in marketability, but I would check first on which exact field you are thinking about. There is plenty of data out there about salaries and opportunities based on whether you have a BA or MA degree. So, before you get the degree, I would do some research as well as talk to others in the field with advanced degrees to learn how this actually impacts career choices and compensation. Good luck.

I liked your response to badtalker. I have someone next door who overhears everything I say and spreads it all over the building. I stay just to annoy him.

I hear this from people in a variety of firms. You just have to know that this person does this and make sure not to share anything (or talk around them) that can be misconstrued. Can someone (like a boss) also talk to this person to help them understand the negative consequences to what they are doing (impact on morale)? That would really be ideal if a leader did this.

Has he ever used information against you? If so, you can always just be honest and say "the last time I talked to you, what I said ended up being use against me." If not, just pretend you don't know what he's talking about.

Thanks reader! Good points.

Re: Bad Boss References. Some years ago, I was laid off from a job in which I did not get along with my bosses. But I had friends among my co-workers, including a former supervisor, and I used some of them as references.

Thanks reader! Good idea.

Typically you should have other people who can serve as positive references that you can draw from.

I guess the title says it all and some people would envy this. I don't, however, and it is a problem to me. I changed jobs earlier this year to get out of a bad situation, of being a subcontractor to a company that initially was going to hire me but did a 180 and never followed up on it. On top of that I was on-call regularly, had tons of projects, but definitely was not paid what my experience indicated I should be. In any case, the job I am working at now pays what I believe I am worth, based on what I have done in the past and projects I have successfully delivered...however over this time it's pretty obvious that I am underutilized. Compounding this is that the lead person I work under is a control freak, keeps most work to themself, and does not involve me in projects. (This is despite the fact that said person has a serious health condition that could require extended medical leave or disablility retirement.) I feel like there are too many ways for me to deal with this, almost none of them really good (except maybe leaving for another job, which is a consideration). Since I am a contractor on this also, I really need to involve my PM, but I am concerned about the backlash if a lot of questions get asked.

Sounds like you still need to have a conversation with someone if you are going to change anything at your current job. What backlash from the PM do you expect? I am assuming this is not the same person as the lead person who is micromanaging the work. So, why not approach the PM to ask for more growth opportunities? What am I missing here?

I just finished a big project where I worked hard, the project was successful and I received praise from our clients and my boss upon completion. My boss even said he appreciated that it reflects well on our entire group. With the close of that I find myself with almost nothing to do; those around me with similar roles are busy each with a couple projects. Two projects that are about to start are slated to be led by one of the people with a healthy workload. Two weeks ago I brought up to my boss that I really wasn't contributing, though I want to be. I explained that the things I am currently doing are very small in the way responsibility and time. I asked if he would reconsider our team's workload, specifically the projects which were about to start and my roles in them.  Shortly after that, I was asked to do some work on project A, without clarifying if any of the project roles were changing. This rightfully upset the co-worker who had been designated for that project. I finished that task and the other co-worker took over, so after a couple weeks, I was back to pretty much nothing to do. I asked my boss if he had considered what I requested a couple weeks ago and he said he didn't want to change staffing on the projects though he knew I was "in a lull" and I should enjoy it. There isn't much coming up, so this "lull" will probably last at least six months while everyone around me is busy other things. I really don't know what I should do. - I'm on the internet killing time not because I think it's appropriate but I literally have nothing to do. I feel I need to respect by boss's decisions but this is not an OK work situation. Should I let some time go and speak to him again?

You did not say what industry you are in, but sometimes I have seen this with people in the consulting industry. They have periods where they are not working on any projects are are waiting to be "picked up" with clients on a new project. Six months seems like a really long time though. Do you regularly get feedback on how you are doing (how you are perceived by your work colleagues and  clients)? Sounds like you got feedback on the last project which was good.

You might need to have a chat with your boss about your strengths and areas to improve. If you are not regularly getting picked up for projects, is there a particular reason? Do you require more training that the current boss does not have time to give you? Do you have a set of skills in a particular niche that can help the firm? If not, you might look to see what are the typical clients your firm works with (e.g., healthcare, govt, etc) and use your downtime to gain additional knowledge on those clients. This might enable you to be perceived as a stronger expert in those areas so you can more quickly get put on projects.

Is there another higher-level person you have as a mentor at your firm? If not, you should try to find someone who can give you some honest career advice. If  you do have a mentor, reach out to them and share your thoughts and get their suggestions for actions to take to reach out to your boss or fill the downtime.

Definitely sounds like you need to collect more information here before reaching back to your boss. Best of luck!

Hi, Joyce. My husband has received the unfortunate news from his company that he is being laid off due to the loss of a major client. He has been offered a fairly generous severance package if he stays through the conclusion of the client's contract with the company. He has been actively conducting a job search, but has now learned that there may be an opportunity to stay with his company, though at a lower level and in a field that is not of interest to him. He is considering this position primarily out of a concern that a gap in employment on his resume will make it even more difficult for him to find a position in this economy. Financially, our family should be fine with my job, but we are trying to decide if in the immediate term he should try to stay with his company, or put all of his efforts into a job search and taking the opportunity to spend time with our children while receiving severance. Your advice is much appreciated.

Great and tough question. Sounds like either strategy will be okay with your family. It really depends partially on whether financially the family can afford for him to be unemployed for a period of time. You did not say how long the severance pay holds out. If it is several years, that enables him plenty of time to search. If it is much less time (a few months), he will have to be extremely active to make something happen quickly.

I also  think he will look more attractive to the market if he is still employed, even if the position is lower-level. He will also act more confidently in his interviews (most people act more confidently in interviews if they are employed than unemployed). So, if he can stay at the firm and still devote a certain amount of time to search for jobs, he will probably be perceived more positively by potential employers.

Overall, look at how long he gets the severance pay and how quickly (in his industry) he might get other offers. Remember, while he is doing this lower-level job, he can be looking at other offers. But, he will really have to plan out his time to get it all done. Best of luck!

Well, that's not true. The opposite of a bad boss isn't a nice boss, it's a good boss. You can be nice and be a good boss, but just because you are nice doesn't mean you will be. Also, I don't think being a pushover and being nice are the same.

Totally agree. We want bosses who are effective at their jobs and are leaders. If so, they would be considered by their employees and colleagues to be good bosses. They can still be nice. There is a great book called "Getting to Yes" that illustrates how in negotiations you need to separate out the person from the problem, meaning you can be nice to the person while still being tough on the problem or issue.

I'm in my late 50's and have had a successful 30+year career, including 20+ years of management experience. I have a B.A., but never got a master's degree. As we're all going to work longer, I'm hoping to be able to teach at the college level in the last phase of my working life. Is it too late to think about an advance degree? What's the best way to go about exploring this option?

Definitely NOT too late to think about an advanced degree. There are so many programs that are onsite or online that you can attend today. You may want to first research the colleges you are hoping to teach at. You may not need an advanced degree. Some colleges hire adjuncts or lecturers with more work experience or "executive residents" - people with more work experience who can share their insights with students. I would first determine where you might want to teach (and what possible subject areas) and then see what requirements they have for faculty.  Best of luck. We can always use more experienced people to teach!

I'm struggling a little in my re-entry search (detour into parenthood) as I want to explore subjects other than my previous career path. My college days are long gone and its resources for alumni are slim; I can't afford to hire a career coach to guide me with testing and brainstorming. I have limited time to network as well. Can you suggest some other resources for people like me that can help us figure out which alternate career paths are suitable?

Good questions. You didn't say how large of a network you currently have. This is important since you are basically starting over by yourself. You really need to make sure you have a good social media network (at least). Are you on any social media sites for your profession? Maybe Linked In? Can you use this to research previous classmates who might be working in industries or with companies that might appeal to you? This might be the easiest way to get connected to people if you don't have a lot of time to attend networking events. 

Readers - any other thoughts?

Our department just got a new boss. He's an external candidate, and management has indicated that they are counting on me to "show him the ropes" with vague commitments of future advancement for me if I help him. Any advice for striking a balance of being helpful without getting stuck doing a lot of work that I'm not being compensated for?

Good question. You are  being asked to be a "good citizen" to help the new boss learn the ropes, which is really important for you and the firm to be successful. You did not say whether you had applied for the job. If so, and you did not get it, you probably have stronger feelings about helping this new external person be successful.

I think it is perfectly fine to spend time talking about what you want to do next in your own career. You can even bring this up to the new boss and have a frank conversation with him about what's next for you. The good news is that you have the opportunity to shape this new boss's views of you and your role and views of the department.

I would also talk more with management about what specifically they were hoping you share with the new boss. If you have someone in higher-level management who also serves as a mentor to you, then you could ask them about your future and potential growth opportunities in the firm. If you do not have a mentor (good idea to get one), then you could go back to them to try to get them to scope out future opportunities. Making them lay out a specific plan may or may not be necessary since  it really depends on how much trust you have with upper management. Normally, I would say it helps to get things specified in advance, but if  you have a trusting relationship them (and they typically do what they say they will do), then you may not need to get things written down.

I know it's most advantageous to not discuss salary numbers until a job offer arrives and negotiations begin. However, I just went though a situation where after multiple rounds of interviews I got a job offer but the salary was significantly less than what I'm currently making. Even after negotiations, they could not come close to my current salary so I turned the position down. I'm very disappointed and would like to avoid this situation again. Is it ever OK to include a salary requirement in a job application, even if they don't ask for it? It's such a waste of time for the employer and the candidate if they're on such different salary pages. Thanks!

Good question. To avoid this problem in the future, it is helpful to see what type of research you can do in advance to learn what the possible salary range might be for the job. You might be able to learn this from Web sites where people in a specific job actually report salaries (, from talking to people you know at the firm, or it might be published someplace.  So, rather than asking them for the salary information in advance, see if you can learn what the possible range is from researching other sources first.

I do know some people who will actually ask about salary ranges early if they have very specific requirements for a salary. This is rare, but it does eliminate the issue you talked about.

This is a unrelated to your chat today, but I need advice. My company is being acquired by a larger firm, one which is owned by a global, publicly-traded company. This was totally out of the blue as the company is doing great financially. It is unlikely I will keep my job, since the parent company has people to do it (marketing director) already. I know severance is not guaranteed, but I'm hopeful at my salary level they will be fair since it may take a few months to find something new. If they don't offer anything, how could I go about requesting a package, with at least a few months pay and this year's bonus? And maybe health insurance? I'd appreciate any advice!

Great questions. First, don't make the assumption they will definitely get rid of you. Try to make sure to meet with the relevant leaders to see what the status is. Then, if you find that you will be asked to leave, I would definitely see what they might be willing to offer you. They really may not need to do anything for you due to the acquisition, but some firms may try to assist in order to promote good will, especially among the remaining "survivors". I would do some research (look on,,, to learn more about possible severance packages in your industry. Usually they consist of a certain amount of salary. It also depends on the level of your position. Obviously, the higher the level you are, the more likely you are to get a better package. Definitely collect some data before going in to talk with them. Best of luck!

Unfortunately, I work in a toxic workplace: micro-managing (e.g., assigned to projects without knowledge because manager determines your workload was low); overly restrictive parameters for just about everything;  incompetent personnel manager; any small "mistake" is harped on; and so on and so on. My co-workers and I constantly talk about it, but complaining doesn't do much. Any tips on how to survive this type of place? (Of course, while everyone looks for a new gig :-))

Does the micromanger have a boss who can talk with them? Does the firm collect anonymous feedback from staff or peers in order to share this data with the micromanager? Often, if 360 degree feedback (feedback from multiple sources) is collected, it can be helpful for letting a person know how they are coming across and for setting some goals with the person (which would center around delegating more with their staff). Unfortunately, without this feedback, some managers will never see that they need to change at all. Feedback is really important for letting someone know what needs to change. Then, having a manager to work with them on HOW to change is very important. Can this be done?

Hi, and thanks for your help. I am looking for work in my field after graduating with an MS this past July, but haven't found anything yet. My husband will likely be graduating and looking for work in another area in May. I will be following him to wherever he gets hired, as his job will pay much more. At this point, finances aside, would it be better to wait until we know where we will be living and explain the long gap in employment? Or keep looking, and potentially have to explain a six-month job stint?

This is definitely tricky and much more commonplace today.  You could continue to look (since May is still a ways off), but you may need to relook once he is done. As soon as he knows what geographical areas he might be in, you could start looking in those areas. Wouldn't he be job hunting by February if he is graduating in May? If so, you could start focusing on those geographical areas asap. Definitely you could start letting your professional contacts and networks know about this so they can start looking for you. I would also imagine that you both have somewhat of  restricted geographical locations in mind (most people do not say they are looking anyplace in the world or country) so that is at least a starting point.

Also, once he starts getting job interviews, you would need to start looking (visiting those areas) for jobs as well. Being onsite in a location is much easier for job hunting. Good luck!

I've worked at my job for close to 9 years, and I've been wondering lately if my longevity here has hurt my chances of getting another job. It's not so much that my job skills are going stale (just the opposite, I'm very good at my work), but I sometimes wonder if I'm a little too limited in my skill sets (I also don't have any significant certifications). Plus, I haven't taken the plunge with sites like LinkedIn, so I sometimes wonder if I'm too out of the loop with some of the latest job-searching and self-promoting resources. At best, I think I've adapted to the times with occasional freelance jobs, but sometimes I wonder if that's enough to keep up.

The good news is that you can always learn about these new social media sites and get yourself involved in them. I would not worry about being too far out of the loop. There is always an opportunity to extend your social network. Why not start small and first create your professional profile. Linked in actually provides training on how to create a valuable profile as I am sure other sites do as well.

In addition, your longevity actually should help you as it signifies commitment and dependability to a firm. You might make sure to update your resume to reflect the new skills and experiences you have gained on your job. Take the time to do this now since you will also feel more marketable which is important.

I am currently on maternity leave after having twins a month ago. I also have a toddler at home. In additio,n we are considering moving closer to my spouse's job since he commutes 60 miles each way every day. Assuming our house sells in the next 2 months, I would like to propose a plan for telecommuting, but I'm not sure how to broach the subject, or how detailed a plan I should put forth, or even what I should include in the plan. It seems insufficient to just talk to her and say I would work in the office 2 days a week doing xyz and work from home doing abc tasks.

Great question. Definitely think about this and work out a detailed plan, making sure to think about it from your boss's view. What will she most be concerned about? What will she most want to make sure is done on the job? You did not say if you were working full time or part time now. It is important to be clear about how much you will work and how you will be accessible to people who might need to get in touch with you. There is plenty of research on the value of telecommuting (check out since you might be able to share some of this data with her. Best of luck!

Thanks to all of our readers for their questions and for sharing their ideas and insights. We really appreciate it. We look forward to hearing from you at our next online career chat on January 16th from 12-1. Until then, good luck with your job searches and issues, and happy holidays!

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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