Readers' Digest cover

Take This Job And Lose It

The Top 12 Career-Limiting Moves
by Kate Zimmerman for Chatelaine Magazine and Readers' Digest

THE MOST FAMOUS CAREER-LIMITING MOVES PLAY OUT IN THE NEWSPAPERS. SECHELT, B.C. HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER HEATHER INGRAM EARNED HERSELF A NEVER-ENDING “PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT DAY” BY HAVING A RELATIONSHIP WITH HER 17-YEAR-OLD STUDENT. TORONTO NEWS ANCHOR AVERY HAINES GOT THE AXE FROM CTV AFTER MAKING AN UNFORTUNATE JOKE ON-AIR, THINKING HER MICROPHONE WAS OFF. AND OF COURSE THE NAMES MONICA LEWINSKY AND O.J. SIMPSON NO LONGER APPEAR ON EMPLOYEE-OF-THE-MONTH PLAQUES.

You, clever reader, probably won’t repeat the career-limiting moves made famous by those listed above. But there are other, more common mistakes that can get you into serious trouble in the workplace. Chatelaine queried Canadian professionals who counsel employees in transition — people who are changing jobs because they want to, or, sometimes, because they have to. Herewith, the experts’ list of career-limiting moves, starting with the five offenses they feel are punished most severely. Needless to say, criminal acts are not included, as they are too obvious. Neither are sexual or racial harassment, which, as career-limiting moves go, are total no-brainers.

DOOMSDAY MOVES …

  1. Using your office computer inappropriately. That means surfing the Internet for pornography … or using work time to cruise for information on any topic of a controversial nature. Exchanging highly personal e-mails and shopping via the Internet are also taboo. “Obviously, any parcel that comes marked ‘For Adults Only’ is not for office delivery,” says executive coach Ken Scott, Calgary-based regional manager at the international firm Lee Hecht Harrison. The  “Net” and e-mail are both relatively new areas — the rules may not yet be spelled out at your workplace. “There are people who don’t know how to turn these machines on and are sitting in judgement,” Scott warns. “Realize that the company can track this and probably is tracking it.”
     
  2. Embarrassing your boss. Vancouver’s Margaret J. Livingstone, of the outplacement and personal coaching business Margaret J. Livingstone & Associates, cites a perfect example. One employee decided to get the attention of her boss (let’s call him ‘Jim’) in a group of colleagues by shouting “Earth to Jim! Earth to Jim!” Another no-no is using the “Reply All” function on your computer to answer, in grisly detail, your supervisor’s call for frank feedback from staff. According to Livingstone, even discussing your company in nasty terms in a public place can prove embarrassing to your employer. “As a general rule,” she says,” if one thinks negatively about an organization, one probably shouldn’t be working for that organization. Staying there and bitching about it isn’t a good idea.”
     
  3. Bringing your religion to the office. In this country, you can believe in any deity you want. But whether you churn out office memos detailing the Third Secret of Fatima or erect a funky shrine to Goddess Gaia at your desk, broadcasting your religion makes other people uncomfortable. In fact, says Scott, many companies are now so leery of exhibiting religious bias that they eschew the traditional company Christmas celebration in favour of secular events such as, in his city, the Calgary Stampede. Ultimately, he says, religion “tends to be seen as unrelated to the work setting.” Unless, of course, you’re the frickin’ Pope.

 Which brings us to our next career-limiting move …

  1. Making inappropriate jokes. Publicly addressing your boss as “Little Hitler,” as one Calgary reporter used to call his editor, won’t net you the keys to a company Lexus. By the same token, racist humour, Scott says, “could, and probably should, get you fired.” Likewise, sexist jests. This applies both in the workplace and at company functions, which leads to another warning from Scott. “To the people I work with, I’d probably say ‘Never have a drink on company time.’”
     
  2. Not understanding or conforming to the culture of your workplace. Every corporate culture dictates how the people within it should dress, what they ought to talk about around the water cooler and how they treat clients and co-workers — formally or informally, with distance or with friendliness. Know what the culture is and make it second nature to you at the office. Scott remembers when he moved to Toronto from Calgary many years ago, one of the executives in his firm at the time took him aside and said “We don’t wear sheepskin coats here in Toronto on Bay Street.” “Companies hire people for competencies,” says Karen Coe, of the Calgary-based executive search group Coe & Company International. “They fire them for ‘fit.’”

They may not fire you for the following, but you would do well to
GET OUT OF THESE HABITS …

  1. Resisting change. Don’t let your fear do you in. You may not like it, but change is a fact of life — in business, as in all else. Livingstone says change, especially if it’s introduced by a new boss, intimidates many people. But, she notes, many changes in the workplace may actually prove beneficial once the dust settles. An intolerable work situation may right itself if the crazed despot who used to be in charge is sent elsewhere and someone more reasonable takes the reins. (Of course, sadly, the opposite is also true. But try not to think about that.)
     
  2. Positioning yourself as an expert who no longer needs instruction, correction or advice. Scott says the expression “I don’t take courses any more — I just give them” is a major no-no. No matter how senior you are, you should be capable of learning something new. “If you’re the expert, you’ve got nowhere to go. You’ve got no one to blame — you’ve limited yourself.”
     
  3. Taking a myopic view of your company’s business, and your own role in it. Coe says employees often make the mistake of reading and informing themselves only on matters directly related to their business. If you don’t do any reading outside your industry, don’t interact with your customers or suppliers, and don’t pursue external executive programs that provide you with networking opportunities, you may be looking only at the small picture. Someone with a broader world view may scoop opportunities from right under your nose.
     
  4. Expecting others to detect and reward your hard work without you promoting yourself. Antithetical though it may be to the Canadian zeitgeist, shameless self-promotion is what separates the big cheese from the blob of edible oil product. Whining about your workload is not the key to drawing attention to you, yourself and you, however. Scott says it’s being visible, being there to take the credit and being part of the team that celebrates reaching a goal. Livingstone once heard an executive search specialist complain that when she phones successful women to find a worthy candidate for a position, many of them will paw through their Rolodexes to find someone else to recommend. Few ever say “Actually, I’d  be perfect for that job.”
     
  5. Refusing to admit that you’ve made a mistake. Jane Stewart, Mike Harris, Jean Chretien, Bill Clinton … the list of stubborn, apparently remorseless politicians is endless. What they fail to recognize is that people are much less infuriated with you when you admit right away that you did something wrong, and apologize. Employers (and voters) are not as impressed when you deny, deny, deny and then, weeks after the fact, finally say, “Oh, yeah. Uh … sorry. I guess.” Coe points out that interviewers sometimes ask a job candidate about mistakes they have made in past jobs, what they learned from them and how they would go about things differently next time. This is not the moment to claim you’ve never, ever slipped up. “Own it,” she says.
     
  6. Turning your nose up at networking. Attend company functions. If you don’t, says Livingstone, you can be perceived as “unfriendly” — not a positive attribute in most businesses. Go to external events where people in your industry congregate. Don’t attempt to look for a new job at these events, Coe warns — that’s seen as “self-serving.” Instead, trade information on changes in leadership or markets, mergers and acquisitions, suppliers or even a book you’ve read that’s of interest to others in your field. “People often think of networking as idle social chitchat,” she explains. “Networking should be an exchange of information of benefit to both parties.”
     
  7. Not having a career plan. Coe used to suggest that her clients have a 10-year plan. Now, if she interviewed you, she would ask you to look three to five years into the future and come up with a strategy to help you develop your skills. You need to figure out what you can do for your company, and what your company can do for you in terms of that development. For some workers, a lateral move into an area that’s exciting to them may be more rewarding than a big bump up the ladder. You have to determine what is truly important to you, whether it’s money, prestige or work that rewards your spirit, Coe explains, and go after that.
     
  8. Being glued to your original definition of success. Coe recommends reassessing your career on an on-going basis, whenever there’s a significant event in your work or home life. People get their hearts set on following a certain path and sometimes forget why they chose that route in the first place. She mentions an employee who was offered a transfer to Australia but planned to turn it down because she wanted to finish her Masters degree. Coe had to remind the woman that she had embarked on the degree to help her reach her goals at work … and that being transferred to Australia was the realization of one of those goals. Finishing the degree could wait, whereas the job in Australia could not.

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