Being a career coach for the past 16 years and having worked with almost 6,500 clients globally I have come to recognize patterns that repeat themselves when it comes to my clients’ careers. By carefully listening to what they are saying and by probing with some in-depth questions about their experiences at work—with their boss and management, and with their peers—I am able to predict with high degree of accuracy what the next fateful milestone is going to be in their current job and what they must do to protect themselves.
How do I know this? I know that my predictions came out to be true is when my clients tell me their regrets for not listening to me when I signaled them to make a change and to take preemptive action. This pattern recognition also works for me when something positive can be affected through proactive action that my client can take, such as getting their next promotion, securing a juicy assignment, or asking for more responsibilities as a prelude to their next promotion.
I want to limit the scope of this blog to the warning signs that spell trouble and signs that require you to take immediate—even preemptive—action to protect your résumé, your career, and your sanity. So, what are some of the telltale signs that you need to recognize and to take charge of your job and your career? Here is a partial list:
1. Boss’s feedback: You are going about your job thinking that everything is going well. No one has yelled at you for a while and your boss has not hauled you in their office for a chat. You have planned a long family vacation to take some time off. Suddenly, you get an email from your boss that says, Jim, I want to give you some feedback after you return from your vacation. On your last day of work before you are going away on vacation with your family you get anxious and pop your head into your boss’s office to acknowledge the ominous email and politely ask if there is something that you should know before you disappear for a while. To further provoke your anxiety your boss says, “I do not want to ruin your vacation, so let us wait until after you come back.” Now, you know your vacation IS ruined, but you put on a brave face and go away, fretting all the while about that feedback when you return.
Upon your return you cannot get hold of your boss. Your anxiety level has reached its peak after a ruined vacation and you are now even more stressed than before you went away. Your boss is busy in meetings, traveling, and is just not available, yet you see your boss whiling their time away gossiping and giving short shrift to their job. Finally, you catch them and anxiously ask about that feedback they mentioned five weeks back, before your vacation. Your boss calmly responds, “Oh, that feedback! It’s nothing serious, but I just want you to be aware that Sally—your skip-level boss—feels that you need to put more effort in your emails and reports to make them more effective. Personally, I think that they are OK, but that is what she has told me to convey to you.”
You go away shaking your head, not knowing what you need to improve to please Sally. You make some random efforts to improve your reports and emails for the next few months. The next surprise is that your boss calls you for a meeting in their office. You walk in and see your boss, Sally, and an HR representative waiting for you. The only words you register from your boss in that confused state is, Jim you have 30 days to find another job!
2. Your workload: Over a period of a few months (less than a year) you see your workload diminishing. Initially, you are comforted by how you will have more time to catch up with all those things that are pending on your desk and you get excited about getting rid of that backlog, even writing a blog or an article about your project. But, what troubles you is that the workload keeps getting lighter and lighter. You complain to your boss and ask why in the middle of a task it was suddenly pulled away from you and given to one of your peers. Your boss gives you some flip response: Oh, we’ve some more important project for you to give in a few days, so we wanted to free-up your calendar. Well, that exciting project never materializes and now you are spending your time in your office counting your Spam emails in your inbox.
3. Key meetings: Yet another sign that you are on your way out is when you stop getting invited to meetings where you were previously required to attend. Some of those meetings are about the projects that you are leading or where you are playing a key role. Worse is when you can attend these meetings, but no one asks you for the status of your task.
4. Missing emails: Suddenly you discover that you have stopped getting emails about your project or task and you find that out when one of your team members forwards you an email on which your name was previously on a distribution list, with a query. You go to the email’s author and ask why your name was taken out. That person responds by pointing the finger to your boss who requested that your name be taken off the distribution. You go to your boss and ask, when you hear some lame excuse such as, “Oh, he misunderstood what I said. I’ll make sure you are back on the list.” You wait, but you stay out of the email loop from then on.
5. Reversing past actions: Yet another sign that you are done in your job is when, after you are suddenly removed from your project for a “more juicy assignment,” you realize that some of the decisions you had made on the project are being reversed openly. Since you no longer have any say on that project you just watch this from a distance and wonder what is going on. Soon the entire project takes on a new path and you fail to recognize anything about it.
Of course these are just signals that affect your immediate work and how you are treated before it’s time for you to exit, either voluntarily or otherwise. There are factors that go outside your sphere of activity and about which you must also be vigilant. Some of these factors include worsening financial condition (sales, margins), acquisition by another company, or negative media coverage about your company. Any of these factors should give you ample warning about your future in your current company. You must take charge and act preemptively to protect your career and your résumé.