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What I Wish I Knew: Melanie Sloan

If someone tells you “everybody does it,” or “that is just how things are done here,” don’t believe it; that is kindergarten logic.

This week, Melanie Sloan, the executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, gives her answers for “What I Wish I Knew.” Sloan gives hope to all of us who have ever worked in the food industry for putting table-waiting skills to good use.

How did you start out?

I worked as a waitress all through college. It was a great job to learn the importance of reacting quickly and keeping a positive attitude — your income depends on both. These skills transfer to other jobs — the most successful people I know respond promptly to email and phone calls.

Best advice received?

A partner in a firm where I was a summer associate advised me never to take a job just to set yourself up for the next one. In other words, you can’t plan out your entire career. As you go down one path, you may realize what you’re doing isn’t for you and move in an entirely different direction. Or opportunities may come your way that you never envisioned. Take a job because you think that position, in and of itself, will be interesting, you’ll learn something from it, and you have something to offer.

I was working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia handling sex crimes when I was approached about starting an organization that eventually became CREW. The combination of my experience as a Hill staffer and as a federal prosecutor made me a good fit to open CREW, but until then I had never envisioned myself starting a nonprofit organization focused on government ethics.

What I didn’t know then but I do know now?

Jobs are like marriages, they have to work for both parties. Your prospective employer must believe you have the right skills for the job and, at the same time, you need to be confident the position is a good match for you. There is no point, for example, in working in communications if you hate talking on the phone or chatting with reporters. Also, first impressions count for a lot. If you start out strong in a new position, but later make a mistake, it likely won’t seriously diminish your boss’s confidence in you. If, on the other hand, you botch something important early on, it may suggest you aren’t up to the job and negatively color your boss’s view of everything else you do.

What pays off in the long run?

Do the right thing and don’t cut corners. If someone tells you “everybody does it” or “that is just how things are done here,” don’t believe it; that is kindergarten logic. Ethical lapses can have serious consequence and doing something you know is wrong just to keep your job may not end well. You don’t want to wind up explaining yourself to the Ethics Committee, or even worse, a grand jury. Once it all comes crashing down — as it often does — whether fairly or not, you may be tainted by the scandal and find it tough to land something new.

Fill in the blanks: Don’t waste your energy: networking for its own sake. Yes, Washington is a town in which relationships count for a lot, but angling to attend an endless number of receptions won’t help you move up; it just means you’ll eat a lot of cheese. But one thing that does pay off: proofing your work. Sloppy written products reflect poorly on the whole office. Make sure to proof all documents, whether short emails, one-pagers or longer memos. Better yet, have a co-worker review your work, looking for typos and grammatical errors. It can be hard to catch your own mistakes in something you’ve been working on and re-reading for days. At CREW, as part of the interview process, we ask every prospective employee — from staff assistants on up — to write something for us. I can’t tell you how many people have made a strong impression in an interview, only to blow an offer through lousy writing.

For more “What I Wish I Knew” check out advice from Eric Dezenhall and Gloria Story Dittus.

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