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Bury that smoking habit behind a slew of time-stamped emails

I’m a smoker who works in a high-rise. There’s no explicit rule about how many breaks we can take or anything, but I know it looks like I’m slacking off when I head out to burn one every hour or so. Should I tell my boss that I’m taking butt breaks or continue to slip away a half-dozen times a day? I do take pains to keep it on the down-low — smoking in the alley, using mouthwash, etc. And no, quitting is not an option at this point in my life.

—C.B., Old Town

Here’s an interesting thing I learned after I developed a rash on my everywhere: Mouthwash only washes your mouth. The rest of you still smells like cigarettes.

And though you may think your periodic absences go unnoticed, it’s more likely that you’ve convinced your manager that you have irritable bowel syndrome. Which, these days, is less of a stigma than your current habit.

“You probably think you’re hiding your habit pretty well, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: If your boss is a nonsmoker, she already knows,” says author and HR executive Amanda Haddaway.

You may feel besieged by legislation like the Smoke-Free Illinois Act, which mandates that you steer clear of any entrance, exit, or window that opens by 15 feet when you light up. And with the price of a pack of cigarettes in Cook County now creeping past $11, there’s little question that the smoker is low man on the civic totem pole.

But lost in all of this shaming is the fact that plenty of Americans still smoke — around 1 in 5, to be kind of exact. And it’s hard to be a true pariah when you’re part of a group that’s more prevalent than natural blonds. It’s true that fewer white-collar workers smoke than the general population, and I assume that if you’re on the 41st level of anything other than “Candy Crush,” you fall into that category. Still, you’re probably not the first smoker in your office, and you won’t be the last. Don’t expect your boss’s jaw to drop. Do expect her to hold you to the same standards as everyone else, which means you need to make up those five or six 10-minute breaks somewhere.

“My advice? Multitask while you’re getting your nicotine fix. With today’s technology, chances are good that you can read a few emails or make a few calls while you’re taking your break,” Haddaway says. It’s just like working from home, especially if you live in an alley.

Smoking, which has connotations of recklessness, poor judgment and facility with an open flame, certainly isn’t the best way to climb the corporate ladder. But you’d be wise to remember a recently reformed smoker who managed to get pretty far in life.

And I’m sure Barack Obama didn’t tell his cabinet he was just going out for a breath of fresh air.

I just had a Skype interview, and I think it went pretty well. They told me they’d be in touch in a few days with next steps, one of which would be flying me out for an in-person. Should I send them a thank-you email, a thank-you note, or just wait to hear back from them? It feels pretty formal for what amounted to a glorified screening.

—Cautiously Grateful

As we march toward ever more informal workplaces filled with kegerators and ping-pong tables and napping pods filled with kegerators and ping-pong tables, the hiring process has also loosened its tie. In some cases, it even goes shirtless.

But the thank-you note persists, a holdover from a more genteel time when men wore wristwatches and ate gluten. The thank-you note’s durability is probably because it gives the HR folks an easy box to check. And in a competitive environment, hiring managers gravitate toward areas in which they can make easy distinctions among candidates. Like everyone else, they’re fiends for certainty, even if it comes at the expense of nuance.

“Following up should always take priority after an interview, so I wouldn’t recommend waiting for the employer to be in touch,” says Tom Moran, CEO of Addison Group, a huge private staffing firm based here in Chicago. “You want to show how interested you are in the position, and make sure they know you’re available for any additional meetings or interviews.”

So, next question: email or hard copy?

If your prospective employer has embraced technology to the extent that he’s dialed you in for a Skype interview, it’s a safe bet he won’t stand on ceremony when you email him. Plus, there’s the issue of timing. “An email is better now because often, you will have gotten feedback before an actual letter would have been delivered,” Moran says.

In truth, the thank-you note is like deodorant. It won’t win you much, but its absence can ruin everything. And you should be clamoring for more opportunities to show what you can do. The thank-you note gives you another chance to show your writing chops. A few choice observations about the interview will testify to your shrewdness. And a touch of flattery or two won’t hurt the cause — everyone who has a bum appreciates when someone’s kind enough to blow smoke up it.

Got a question about how to act around the water cooler? Tongue planted firmly in cheek, we’ll find an adult to answer it. Email us at advice@chicagogrid.com or tweet at us with the hashtag #AskAmos.

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