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.

By Alan Norton

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...