Education

10 things you might be doing that could hurt your career

If your job isn't going as well as you'd hoped, you may unwittingly be doing something that's holding you back. Alan Norton looks at some of the less obvious ways people sabotage their careers.

Over the years, I have observed some of my closest friends and associates make mistakes that had a negative impact on their careers. Other mistakes I have discovered for myself. I won't focus here on the obvious gaffes, like insubordination, poor work performance, and other common methods of committing jobicide. I will instead discuss some of the ways you might be unknowingly hurting your career.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Portraying the wrong image

Take a critical look in the mirror and ask yourself if what you see is the image you want to present to the world. If you dare, ask a true friend for his or her honest opinion. What you see may not be what others see:

  • If your desk is a mess -- you are disorganized.
  • If your shoes are unpolished -- you lack attention to detail.
  • If you interrupt -- you don't listen to others and lack patience.
  • If you have poor hygiene -- you are lazy.

Even the wrong body language can be sending the wrong messages. Slouching in your chair might be telling others that you are tired and lacking ambition.

2: Asking when you should have been silent

In many situations, your wisest course of action is to keep quiet:

  • Asking for a transfer -- If you have any value at all, your manager will not be happy to hear that you want a transfer. I have seen it too many times. A quality employee telegraphs that he or she is looking for greener pastures. If the transfer never comes, and it almost never does, your manager becomes wary. Not only is your career hurt, but your job may be at risk.
  • Asking for a raise -- Aggressively asking for a raise when times are tough may be seen as inappropriate. Each manager is different, so knowing his or her preferences will give you a good idea whether you should ask for that raise you think you deserve. If you are unsure, it is better to concentrate on demonstrating your worth and just keep quiet.
  • Asking for permission -- It can be annoying to a manager to have a subordinate who continually asks for approval. Your manager may view you as an employee unwilling to take responsibility and lacking leadership skills.
  • Asking for forgiveness -- It's better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission -- but it is even better to take responsibility.

3: Failing to be a team player

Becoming a member of a team, especially if the team is successful, can bring you exposure and new opportunities. But if you bring along a "do it all yourself" or "lone wolf" mentality, you may be labeled as a person who isn't a team player. You may believe that hoarding information, code, or documentation will give you job security, but it will first give you a reputation as someone who is unwilling to work with others.

4: Acting unprofessionally

Failing to be professional in your behavior and demeanor can stall or hurt your career. I recently listed 10 things that define a true professional, which you should practice on a daily basis if you want your career to prosper.

5: Working with friends or relatives

A recommendation by my brother led to us working together at the same company. He then became manager of a new development project and as an experienced developer, I was assigned to that team as technical lead. I reported directly to an intermediate manager and indirectly to my brother. It was a difficult if not impossible situation. I believed that I wasn't treated as well as I should have been to avoid the impression of nepotism. No doubt, my peers felt that I got the technical lead role and was treated better than they were because of the familial relationship. One contentious situation came to a head and my technical lead position was taken from me.

I have learned that any situation where you are working with family is almost always a no-win situation. Working with friends is more doable, but it's still like negotiating a minefield. Working with family did hurt my career, but I am grateful for the opportunity and for the lesson I learned the hard way.

6: Being unprepared

You are asked to travel to the other side of the country to present your team's work in an important conference meeting. When you set up a demonstration of the new and wonderful system you have developed, it fails miserably. I have personally witnessed this and I felt bad for the guy. But bottom-line, he was unprepared.

7: Being unavailable

I know of one employee who was the first to go during a layoff. He missed too much work due to sick days. He may have actually been sick, but he was absent too many times when he was needed. Turning down the boss for special assignments or opting out of weekend duty when asked are other good examples of being unavailable in your boss's eyes. If you are missing in action too often, you'll be considered unreliable and a liability instead of an asset.

8: Not using/improperly using networking opportunities

Failure to attend company-sponsored events, share a round of golf with colleagues, or show up at family picnics and other social venues with coworkers and bosses may be the reason that others are moving ahead and your career is stagnant.

There is also the all-important world of social networking on the Internet, which should be used but not abused. It amazes me, but some people are still using social networking sites like Twitter to speak ill of an associate or boss. Your credibility will be dinged if someone from your company runs across one of your online rants. And these social blunders seem to live and follow you forever.

9: Lacking ambition

Perhaps you are unwilling to take risks. Perhaps you are satisfied with the status quo. Perhaps you like the routine of daily life. Failing to aggressively tackle new challenges can be comfortable and safe, but it won't score you any points and it won't advance your career. But being too ambitious can be hazardous to your career as well, so you need to find a happy medium that best fits your manager's expectations.

10: Using company assets for personal gain

I have more than once seen an employee copying their personal documents on the company copy machine or using the computer to do their personal work. I have even participated myself. I don't remember how I justified behavior I knew was wrong -- perhaps it was the fact that I was printing out my tax documents on my own time after hours. But sneaking the occasional copy sends the wrong message to your manager: What else might you be capable of?

The bottom line

One of my managers' favorite sayings was "Perception is reality." I didn't like it, but he was right. IT professionals tend to overlook the more subtle messages they are sending with their behavior and body language. When these messages are perceived negatively, they can wreak havoc on your career -- and then perceptions do become reality. And it is more complicated than that, because everyone's view of the world is different. But if you keep that in mind -- and try to avoid the 10 behaviors listed here -- you'll be better able to create the right perceptions and keep your career on track.

Author's note

I want to thank my friend Phil for reminding me that social networking is more than LinkedIn and Facebook.


About

Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a wri...

35 comments
malid01
malid01

I am sorry to say so but I think most of the points are not important. Most careers I have seen are just due to working a lot (or making the impression of) and reaching goals - with whatever means, being very straightforward against others (leader attitude) and have good networking. All other points are just making you a good employee - but not necessarily a good manager.

alan.douglas
alan.douglas

Reading through the comments, I'm struck by the arrogant attitudes displayed. I understand you're venting in a perceived-safe environment, but really!? ... after THAT article? Good article.

van
van

In my opinion, Alan's "on the money" with his 10 points. If you want to climb the ladder, pay heed to this post. That said, as I read each point, it became clearer and clearer how much time and energy is spent on appearance and perception. Points 1-5, 8, and 9, in particular, are all relative to the perception of your manager and co-workers. Take point 9, for example. Be ambitious. But don't be too ambitious! I love it! It depends on the whims of your manager as to whether you are achieving the happy medium or not. No, thank you! I want to focus on being the best that I can be in my areas of expertise. It's exhausting keeping up with office politics. And frankly, the amount of time that you have to spend to navigate these fickle waters effectively is not helping the organization either! That's time that could have been spent furthering your project instead of worrying about whether Mary Ann thinks that you were assigned the project to begin with because you're the manager's pet! And let's face it. Good managers are in short supply, especially in technical areas. Consequently, you have to spend an inordinate amount of time compensating for your manager's lack of management skills. It takes a lot more effort making sure that your mediocre manager has a good perception of you than it would if you had a great manager. So, Alan, thank you very much for reminding me why I went out on my own! It's so much simpler than corporate life! The customer hires you for a specific job. You do that job to the best of your ability. You get paid. You move on to the next job. OK, maybe I'm over-simplifying it a bit! Yes, you have to make sure that the customer has a good perception of you, and there can be a bit of politics from time to time. But it's so much easier and more efficient than functioning in an office environment as an employee! Anyway, great article!

lars
lars

2) If you don't ask, you don't get. But if you do ask, make sure you are ready with an exit strategy. If you can see that what you do command a higher rate elsewhere, ask for it. And if you don't get it, start looking for the higher rate somewhere else. 3) Gah, I hate those people. I'm currently working for a university, so there are plenty of those around... 5) Something I would never ever do if I can avoid it. 7) Fortunately I'm hardly ever ill, so if I call in sick, they know it's bad. Overtime and weekend work? If it's paid, sure, if it's not paid, blow me. It's my time off to relax and recharge. Want me to be available on-call? Pay a fee so I'll stay sober/near a pc. Hilariously, I worked for a service provider that expected me to have my work blackberry on me at all times. I almost laughed out loud in my manager's face when she told me. It still makes me chuckle to think of that. 8) If I'm not being paid to spend time with my colleagues, then chances are that I won't be there. I like to spend my free time with my friends. The only thing I usually have in common with colleagues is work, and we can talk about that in work. 10) It's a two way street. If they expect me to stay the extra 5-10 minutes (unpaid) to finish something or to help a colleague, then I expect to be able to use company assets for personal use. Otherwise I'm one at 5pm on the dot.

andresurfer
andresurfer

I don't think that product fail alone during a presentation is a sign of an unprepared professional! I'd agree that not being able to handle the fail professionally fits better in this context. For instance, Bill Gates and Microsoft failed a few times while presenting their new products (including some successful Windows). It's all about how you cope with such situation! Professionals well prepared w'd turn a product fail into a great marketing catch for the company or product, while unprepared professionals can mess up a presentation even when a product works properly!

MohitSharma779
MohitSharma779

Nice article, didn't realize that I was doing half of the mistakes myself.

willit63
willit63

Thanks for this interesting and useful article. Many of these items are obvious to anyone with much professional experience, but are surely worth repeating for anyone just starting out or in need of a reminder. Here are some comments for your consideration... - I suppose they still exist, but when was the last time you telegraphed anyone? I bet a lot of younger people have no idea what you're referring to. - Maybe it would be useful to include a link to the referenced 10 Things That Define a True Professional article. I found it elsewhere on Tech Republic. - One rule I try to follow is never bring a problem to your manager unless you have a solution. You shouldn't expect your manager to do all your thinking for you. Put yourself in their shoes before bringing anything negative to their attention, and imagine what their reaction is going to be ahead of time. Thanks again for the good advice.

Gis Bun
Gis Bun

Shoot. My ex-boss would account for just about everything listed in #1. Junk upon junk. Dirty clothing. Doesn't listen to others. He also fits [fully] 4 others listed and partially others.

PC Pete
PC Pete

For years I lost out on interdepartmental transfers because I was seen as a "loose cannon". This was mainly due to my focus on customer problem resolution (as opposed to following the company line). While I eventually learned that it was in my favour to adhere to company policy, this didn't fix customer issues - and then it turned into catch-22. When I resolved (and kept or enhanced a corporate customer), I wasn't a "team player". When I adhered to company guidelines, I wasn't "creative" enough in my solutions. Either way, I was a "loose cannon". And NOBODY wanted anything to do with me - the higher up the manager, the lower their estimation of my ability WRT the company. I eventually left the company and kept my dignity - and 80+% of customers followed, simply because my solutions worked for them. There's a fine line there somewhere, but damned if I could find it! Maybe I have "fat feet"? I think I may have created a new thread with this - my apologies if my cannon shot killed you!

harryolden
harryolden

I like folding my arms and crossing my legs when sitting at a meeting but this is regarded as bad body talk, also when giving a speach get your hands and arms to talk, my self I like to feal at ease and give undivided attention when talking to the other person or persons thy do not understand why I am so calm about things it drives them mad but when I leave work it is my time and forget about work that is why I look about 45 years old.

Rorke
Rorke

This is simply a sign of a tight labour market. If you don't ask - you don't get. If employees did all of the above they would get taken advantage of by the 1% sociopaths. If a manager says 'Please work the weekend' he is saying 'Sorry, I'm a schmuck and I can't be bothered to employ enough people to get the job done. Would you mind suffering, so that I get more credit?'

dave.auman
dave.auman

I do like almost all of what was said here, but I have some reservations about this comment ".. opting out of weekend duty when asked..". I worked for a high-pressure electronic engineering firm in the early 90's, and I almost always was available on evenings and weekends, but in the end, it just caused me to be taken advantage of. There are circumstances when it is prudent to offer to help after hours, but it must be done cautiously, especially in this economy.

maclovin
maclovin

So, USERS and EXECUTIVES expect us to be professional, but can yell down the phone at us and curse at us on a regular basis when an electronic device fails? Devices, just like humans, have a life expectancy... (Some humans' lives are most likely shortened b/c they pissed off the wrong admin) I kid, I kid! Anyway, the minute computer users understand that their computers don't work by using the FM (F$CKING MAGIC) method and that we admins keep things running on a constant basis, and that they don't need to yell, or type messages in ALL CAPS to get their point across.....THEN I will listen. In most cases, the only time unprofessionalism comes out is when it is provoked! By the way, I LOVE #10, because the same management-types that bitch and moan about us "admin-types" are the ones who store all their crap on my networks! (And they ask why things are so slow!)

Rania299
Rania299

Great article, you bring up some points i never even considered. Thanks for sharing Alan!

cynic 53
cynic 53

This reads like the handbook of "How to become a Worker Ant" or "Resistance is Futile-Be assimilated into the Borg". No thanks! I act in a courteous and professional manner to those both superior and subordinate to me in my work but am not subservient. Here in the UK we do treasure our individuality and most of us keep our work and our life as separate as we can, we work to live and not live to work.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I was pretty good at finding ways to damage my career. If you are like me, you find some of these like Item 8, Not using/improperly using social networking, difficult to follow. Item 2: Asking when you should have been silent - Reminds me of this song. Item 6: Being unprepared - It's not easy giving a demonstration or presentation in a foreign facility. You may have to use someone else's computer to give a PowerPoint slideshow or use a different system to demonstrate your new software. Eliminate as many unknowns as possible. Arrive early to do a walk-through if possible and always carry hard copies of your presentation - just in case. As always, I will be participating when I have something intelligent to say and to answer any questions.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

...between 'ex-boss' and his behavior?

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Not everybody wants to or can given their personality tow the corporate line. You found the solution that worked for you and took a risk leaving the company - good for you. Perhaps you weren't a good fit at the company you had the "loose cannon" image? It's an interesting discussion. Thanks for sharing.

lars
lars

I like to cross my arms and legs too, but I know that it 'looks bad' so I always keep both open, which is apparently more engaging...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

It may be his manager. I've been in situations where everybody directly involved knew that we were undermanned, but the manager was told he couldn't have the additional people he needed to do the job. At one job, overtime was prohibited and techs were punished for missing SLAs, even if they missed for reasons beyond their control. Needless to say, turnover was high while that company was still in existence...

lars
lars

Copy/Pasting myself: Pretty much anywhere I've ever worked have known that I am 90% likely to be available for weekend work, evening work and general overtime. At time-and-a-half of course. If you're asked to work and you don't get paid for it, then IMO you're a fool.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Asking worked for the small things but not the big ones. Perhaps my arguments weren't persuasive enough. You are right. The labor market has changed dramatically since the go-go days of the Internet bubble.

khurtwilliams
khurtwilliams

Weekend duty, if consented to often enough, leads to an expectation that you are always available. Which robs you of the very thing ??rest and recuperation ? that you need to perform at your best. If you have a family it also send a subtle message that they are not as important as whoever signs the paycheck.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Hi Dave. It's a fair comment and only you can decide if you are being taken advantage of. Personally, I would be concerned if others were doing weekend duty and I wasn't. I did some weekend duty during my career but then again I was a single bachelor at the time. I had the type of managers who were appreciative and personally thanked me for giving up part of my weekend to help with an important project.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

There is a certain amount of venting that occurs at whoever is handiest. The amount of venting is directly proportional to the number of days since a full backup. (No backup = infinity) That doesn't make it right - just human nature in action.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I am pleased to hear that you found something new and interesting in the article.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I am like you. I don't like social mixers after work but I also believe that those who do participate have an advantage when promotions are handed out. I, too, like individualism and there are plenty of ways to do that with your clothes, hair, shoes etc. My attire was always what I would call eccentric. There is a certain amount of Borg-like behavior in those who successfully climb the career ladder.

four49
four49

People use personal resources (phone, computer, office supplies, TIME) for company business all the time. Its hardly unethical to print a tax form after-hours on the company printer.

lars
lars

Pretty much anywhere I've ever worked have known that I am 90% likely to be available for weekend work, evening work and general overtime. At time-and-a-half of course. If you're asked to work and you don't get paid for it, then IMO you're a fool.

cyphercell
cyphercell

Defecating is human nature, defecating on a professional for the shallow purpose of gratifying one's ego when faced with impotence is psychotic, especially when one considers the overarching message delivered to said professional. I refuse to be held liable for the mundane failings of technology, while having my greater works viewed as trivial. This situation is untenable whereby the "Human Nature" excuse would lead a prudent manager to consider all such workers as a potential psychological liability. However, this is the problem of working the helpdesk for too long.

khurtwilliams
khurtwilliams

One thing to consider is that: 1. I may not participate in social events where drinking is expected because of health or religious reasons. 2. I may not eat lunch with you at 1PM ? again for health reasons.

maj37
maj37

Most of the time my bosses have given permission for limited and reasonable use of company copiers etc.

PC Pete
PC Pete

I figured out fairly early on in my support career that getting dumped on was more likely (and more vicious) the less the user knew about the technology, and the less responsibility they took to make sure they'd done all that was required of them. It's like a contract - we'll do everything we can to ensure your data and info is safe, and you do everything YOU can to let us do what WE do best - keep things running. Unfortunately, end users who understood the technology (and it's limitations, in the extreme case) were few and far between. Most just wanted to vent because they felt guilty for not backing up/copying/using passwords/whatever properly, and we were the lucky recipients. I realised later that most people are bastard-coated bastards with a bastard filling. :)

lars
lars

There's also the issue of give & take. If they expect you to regularly stay an extra 5-10 minutes to finish something or help someone, then it is not unreasonable that they reciprocate by letting you use their equipment for reasonable personal use.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

If you have permission then it shouldn't be an issue. The costs can add up. If in a company of 20,000 employees the average employee makes $1.00 worth of copies per month the company cost over one fiscal year is $240,000!