Career Coach takes your questions

Oct 12, 2011

With an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent, a little career advice never hurt anyone.

Career coach Joyce Russell discussed jobs, negotiations and salary issues.

Submit questions here for next month's chat, which will address leadership issues.

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

Dear Readers:

I just wanted to say welcome to our chat. I am looking forward to addressing  your job-related questions.


J Russell

Hello - I work for a very small (three people) non-profit. I have never received a bonus.

My boss has a salary and receives a bonus based on fundraising. This year, I have brought in a significant portion of the fundraising proceeds and feel I deserve a piece of the fundraising bonus pie. Earlier this year, when I asked my boss about the possibility of my receiving a bonus, she wasn't too enthusiastic about the possibility. More money that I raised has come in since then. The officers of our Board set her salary and make bonus decisions (I believe, but am not certain, that she recommends my salary to them and they sign off on it, although I have not received a raise since 2008).

I don't know how much they know about what specifically have been my fundraising successes this year. I don't know if my boss would be willing to advocate for a bonus for me as it would mean a decrease in the amount of bonus she receives.

Yet, if I approach the officers on my own to make a case for my receiving a bonus, that could be looked upon as insubordination.

Do you have any suggestions for the best way to deal with/approach this situation? Thank you!

Great question, and you are not alone with this one (unfortunately). First, you need to get some more data on your situation to be better prepared to meet with your boss the next time. I do agree that you should meet with your boss again about this issue. You should first prepare some notes on what exactly you have done. You say you brought in a significant portion of the fundraising bonus pie - how much exactly? It would be good to write out the facts about this so you can present this information to your boss. Make up a list of clients and dollars to show her. Second, you should do some research to find out what others in similar nonprofits make for bonuses or salaries. There are numerous web sites you can check out to get some benchmark data. Third, think about what you really want for your bonus? Come up with a realistic range that you might be able to share with her. Do you have any way of finding out what she gets for her bonus? 


I agree that you should go to her about the raise before you approach the officers. When you meet with her, set up a time to talk about this, share the data you have found, and ask her for the bonus. If she says no, you will need to ask her to "help you understand why this would be difficult to do" in a nice tone. 


One other thing you need to think about is - what will you do if she says "no"? In other words, what is your alternative? Always good to be thinking about this.


Good luck!

What should you do if you feel you were unfairly let go, and there are problems endemic to the organization. Should you talk with your immediate boss or set up an appointment confidentially with the top supervisor. I feel my boss was playing cronism.

Sorry to hear that you were let go. I am sure that must be very difficult. Normally you would first go talk with your own boss to politely (and calmly) ask if he/she can explain why you were let go. If you feel that this would not work because you feel uncomfortbale talking to your boss about this, then you could talk to someone in HR (if there is a Human Resources department). If there are no HR staff members, you could talk to another manager in the hopes of "understanding the decision". It is best to get their views and just listen first before you say or do anything else. Once you know their views, you can then formulate your next strategy. Good luck on this tough issue.

Salaries have been frozen for my mother's government-funded position for three years now thanks to the poor economy. By many accounts it doesn't look like municipal budgets will be getting much better in the immediate future. Is there a way to negotiate for more pay? Is that harder to do in the public sector?

I can totally understand that, and yes, it is very common for the public sector jobs right now. It seems that little can be done about salaries and raises if they are "frozen" for everyone. Sometimes though, the firm has a way of finding "soft money" that can be used for retention purposes, but often this is only used if a person has another offer somewhere else and the firm is worried about losing them. This is unfortunate, but often the case. So, looking at alternative offers is often a good strategy. Also, she might see if there are other perks that involve "soft money" such as travel to conferences, money for materials, books, resources, professional certifications, training programs, etc, - sometimes these types of things can be supported even though there are not funds for salary increases. Good luck!

I just finished up my PhD - and had twin baby girls at the same time. I have become a stay-at-home mom because at this point child care would probably cost more than my post-tax take home pay. Any ideas on how to make a few bucks while staying at home and parenting my babies? I'm thinking maybe there's contract work I can do from home or courses I can teach online, but I'd love other suggestions. Also, how do I find these opportunities?? Thanks!!

First, congratulations on getting your PhD, and having your twins! Quite an accomplishment on all accounts! I know there are plenty of others who work at home part-time to earn money and take care of their own children. It depends on what field you got your PhD in and whether you want to use that degree for this job. Would your previous faculty have ideas for you? Maybe teaching part-time or helping out at the school but still being able to stay at home (e.g., grading projects of a previous professor, teaching online courses, etc). If you can do a part-time job in your career field that will help you eventually make the transition to that type of work once you decide to go back to work full-time. 

Hi, thanks so much for doing this! I'm wondering if you could talk a bit about the best way to handle the actual job search. I've heard it's a good idea to follow-up, but a lot of companies now say "no phone calls" about the job process. Is it OK to email them to ask about the status of an application? If so, when can I email and how often? How can I come across as interested and persistent but not annoying?

Great question. I get this one a lot. We know that persistence definitely pays off in the job search process, but you are right - you don't want to appear too pushy. I would definitely follow up if you have not heard from them - at least send a thank you immediately (by a hand-written note), then an email or phone call within 2 weeks after you last talked to them. Just let them know you are still very interested in their firm and just wanted to check to see if they needed any other information about you and/or you wanted to check the process. A phone call is best since they can more easily ignore you if you send an email. Your tone and style are important - polite, appreciative, etc. Good luck!

What advice do you have for first time job series's negotiating salaries for their first job out of college?

You can definitely negotiate, even in today's tough economy. The higher the level of job, the more likely you can negotiate. Jobs after college paying between $20,000-60,000 have less opportunities to be negotiated than higher paying jobs, but there still are things to do. First, do your research on what the market is paying. You can look at numerous web sites such as,,,  among others. It is critical to arm yourself with information on what the job is paying. Then, you need to look at what skills, etc you bring to the table to see if you should be at  the higher end of these numbers. Once you get all this information, you still need to wait until you get a written (preferably) offer from them first. Once you get the offer, you can begin the negotiations. Having multiple job offers at once is your best tool to being able to negotiate with anyone. Good luck!

Thanks for taking my question. I am interested in taking a several-month sabbatical from my job for both personal reasons and professional development. Is it too risky to pursue something like this given the job market and economic conditions? I worry it's easier to cut someone if they haven't been in the office for a few weeks.

It really depends on the company. There are some firms that actually offer sabbaticals so in those cases it is perfectly fine. Have you checked to see what the policy in your firm is for taking any time off like this or even changing to part-time status? Are there any precedents for this (i.e., have any others at the firm done it before)? If so, this will help. If not, you can always talk to HR or your boss to ask about possibilities. It may depend on what  you are taking the time off for. You may not need to give them all the reasons, but they will probably still judge you based on what they think your reasons are for taking the time off. I would definitely look for any precedents and also make sure to have a conversation about what will happen when you want to come back - try to get whatever they agree to in writing if you can. Best of luck!

I have been at my job for 7 years. The work keeps going up, but I feel I have reached a ceiling in promotions etc. I want to look for something else. Is there no severance negotiation for voluntary leave? But if I quit there is no unemployment while I look for a new job?

Generally, it is best to look for a new job while you have a job. Your new employer will not know how much you hate your old job or are just looking. So, unless you are miserable where you are, stay employed while looking. While this is difficult, it will enable you to look much more attactive to potential employers.

I held a number of jobs in college and shortly thereafter, but I have spent the last three years self-employed. I'm looking for a career change and am in a dilemma regarding my references. Those who can give me the strongest endorsements have not worked with me in 5 years. Those with whom I've worked most recently are not always as professional as I would like them to be and I don't want to risk them becoming a liability for me when reaching out to new employers. I'm still managing my own business, but I'm not sure how to acquire new references that can speak to my abilities. What should I do?

What you can do is still use some of your older references since they know you the best (I have done references for people I worked with 20 years ago and they still help!). The other thing I would do is give your resume to those newer people who may be less familiar with how to write a good reference and also give them a page with some points you would like them to highlight about your background or fit for the new job. Sometimes people can write good letters if they know what points you want them to highlight. Also, what about others in the community who are self-employed that you may have come into contact with? This might also be a good time to join more professional associations to build your networks and contacts. Good luck!

My husband is a federal employee who is on written probation due to his work performance (or lack thereof). He hates his job to the point he's just going in to get the paycheck. He is loooking for a new job but at a loss on where to start. He wants to make a career change but is scared to do so and doesn't know what he wants to do. Who would you suggest he talk too or where to look about careers that would fit his personality?

He can either try to do this on his own by reviewing job search books like What Color is your parachute? or other career books - just check out,, etc - there are numerous cites he can use to learn more about his own skills, personality and values and what he wants to do. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which can also be used helps to link your personality up to careers which would be better suited to you. 

The other idea would be to meet with someone to talk further about his interests and fit. What about a nearby college to see if he can talk with one of their career counselors? He can go back to his old school since they are always willing to help or just see if some of your friends have contacts at local colleges. Most people in this field are very willing to help a person and this issue is very common.

I've been contracting for a year now at a great company. I've really worked hard and have been hearing for about six months that they plan to make me staff. But as the end of my contract (Dec) draws near, I'm growing increasingly worried about having put all my eggs in one basket. Because I'm so busy at work (working overtime, weekends, etc.) I haven't even been able to do a thorough search. How should I proceed?

I can totally understand this - when you are wrapped up in your own job, it is tough to find time to manage your career. But, it is critical. You need to look at the market now so that you have options once you get to the December time frame. Plus, maybe you will have multiple options and this will give you more bargaining power too. You might need to really be diligent about spending at least a few hours a week to look at what else is out there. What about your contacts - can they help? 

I often see job postings that ask applicants to specify the salary they're looking for. I hate doing this, especially because the short answer is that anything is better than being unemployed. What is the best way to give a proper salary requirement that doesn't undermine your work, but also doesn't automatically rule you out for being too demanding?

Great question and one I get a lot. I would NOT put down a salary number or range if you can avoid it. You are right - it can limit them from even asking you to interview. You can just put "negotiable" or leave it blank since they will know you aren't agreeing to work for nothing and will want to talk about it. Even if they say you must answer the question, you might still be able to very nicely tell them that you would be happy to discuss that issue once you learn more about the job and responsibilities. Only if you are forced to answer (or feel forced) should you give them a range (not a fixed number) and then you need to make sure it is based on research you have done in the market.

I have a chance to see if the volunteer work I have done and enjoyed for 20 years can be a full-time paying position, and to take this chance, I will be leaving my current day job (that I haven't been happy with anyway). If the volunteer-to-paid work doesn't work out in the long run, would you see it damaging to my job prospects if after 5 months, I hit the interview circuit to pick up my day-job career back - fully explaining the "employment" gap and with a solid work history and references? Thank you!

Great question and I have actually coached some people who have done this exact thing. I don't think it will terribly hurt you on the job market as long as you can explain what you were doing and why. Most people today understand the importance of people doing work that they are passionate about, plus volunteer work has become much more highly valued now than in the past. So, go for it!

Hoping you might have some insight on this ... I'm in line for a promotion, but my organization has very strict limits on the percentage of increase in salary you can receive at one time. Even with the highest percentage, I'll still be making significantly less than others in the same position in my department. How can I negotiate to get around this?

Unfortunately, this is a common problem. I would see if you can get bumped up to the next higher level in the firm (assuming this can be done in your organization). If so, that enables you to get at a higher level position so you are not capped by the percent increase. If that doesn't work, I would do some outside research to see what others in your position are making and take that data along with the internal data to talk with your boss to see what can be done. It also helps if you have good alternatives (other possible offers). Don't threaten your boss about leaving since this generally is not received well. Sometimes just sharing the data and asking "what would you do if you were in my shoes" can help the boss to see it from your perspective. This is a tough one - good luck.

What are the best resources for job searches? Are sites like effective, or is it better to try to find direct contacts at companies? Obviously a personal reference is best, but what can you do if you don't have one?

Always best to use your personal networks especially in today's tough times. You can also use online sources, but you have a much better chance of getting into a firm by knowing someone who can introduce you to the right people. You can also check out the Wasington Post's online source as well as numerous other sources such as,,, among others. There are also sites for specific occupations that are valuable as well.

I've noticed that many job listings online do not include salary information or even a range. Why is this? For many jobs the salary would be a key factor in determining whether I would even consider the position and that would be helpful information to have before slogging through the applications process. I imagine it's inappropriate to ask that early in the game for their ideal salary, but is there a way to indicate early on what you hope the salary will be so that you don't waste their time or yours?

Actually, it is NOT in your best interest to bring up the salary early in the process. But, I can understand your view that there may be some jobs you might not even apply for if the salary is way too low. You might ask what the range for the position is or what the range for current employees is. Sometimes, you can ask the employees themselves. Be prepared - once you ask this question, they may then ask you how you feel about the range, and this is generally NOT the best time for you to address this question since they have not invested anything in you at all.

Hello, I work at an advertising agency, which as a whole, is a very cutthroat industry. Those who have good reputations often hop jobs every year to two years for promotions, substantial raises, etc. I have now been at my agency for a little over 2 years, and received my first promotion from them last year (I have been in the business for 5 years, and am fairly high up at my office). I have performed well for them by helping to increase billings and making our office more profitable, in addition to taking on projects no one else can or wants to take on, often sacrificing my own free time or holidays to assist - with no overtime pay.


My question is, even though I just got a promotion and substantial raise 12 months ago, do you think it's too early to ask for a raise based on merit? And if so, how should I go about it? When I was hired HR told me if there was ever anything they could do for me to please let them know, so I know their door is open.

Given what they told you I think you could have this discussion with them. I would first do some research to find out more external data about what someone in your position should be making. Check out some of the web sites I referred to earlier -,, and the Post. You don't want to have this conversation with them until you have done some research and know what you want. Many people go to ask for a raise with no idea what to ask for and how. Then, they don't know what to do if they don't get anything more. So, you need a specific plan for what you want (be flexible here and base this on research) and what you will do if they can't do anything. If they say "not now", then ask when you can come back to this discussion. Persistence pays off here.

I am a federal retiree (3 yrs) and I have been seeking part time administrative employment. I have applied for a couple of positions. One HR person responded via email to receiving my resume and asked if I would be available for a telephone interview that day. I emailed back agreeing to interview and I have not heard another word from her. This situation has happened more than once. I called after a couple of days and left message on her voice mail. I have not heard anything else. I am wondering that I am doing something wrong. I have a degree in Business and I have an excellent work history. I held a responsible position when working and can get excellent references. I am concerned that maybe it's my age. Can you offer some advice as to what else I can do.

I don't think age is the issue if they are willing to talk with you. I would get someone to give you feedback about how you come across over the phone and how your resume looks. Also, you might want to see how you are coming across in interviews. Get feedback from a trusted and truthful friend about how you are coming across in your resume, phone and in an interview.

Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful questions. I look forward to hearing from you and your colleagues next month on November 9th when we tackle leadership issues.




Thank you for joining us!


Submit your questions here for Joyce's next chat on Nov. 9, when she'll be discussing workplace leadership.


In the meantime, check out for local business news and Joyce's weekly column, Career Coach.

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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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