Is Your Employer a Career Killer? Comfort, Complacency and Careers
Last week I had an interesting conversation that reinforced something I learned years ago. There are employers that can literally kill your career. How do they do this? With kindness. They are comfortable places in which to work but they either don’t grow or don’t promote internally beyond a certain level. If you work at a company like that, be aware that your short term comfort can end up killing your career. Here are some warning signs.
There are at least 3 specific companies here in the Philadelphia area that are career killers. They are where careers, hopes and dreams go to die. Career killers are everywhere. When I compare the ones that I have near me, they all have some things in common. Let’s go down the list;
1) They are established, mid-sized employers. They each employ between 500 and 1,500 people.
2) They have large HR departments that emphasize a “best place to work” attitude. In other words, they are cheerleaders for the company.
3) They are average in compensation, slightly above average in benefits and have a cliquish culture.
4) If they grow at all, it’s by acquisition.
5) They are not very challenging places to work. Lots of meetings. Little action.
On the surface one might think that doesn’t sound so bad. Indeed, that’s the problem. Here is what happens.
Let’s call our example Dorco Industries. A fresh grad professional (Jane) goes to work there and finds a nice working environment, some work/life balance and a good but not great salary. In two years she gets a superficial promotion from Engineer 1 to Engineer 2, to pick a functional area. That promotion is really just a meaningless title change with a small salary bump but it feels good nonetheless.
It’s about then, 2-3 years out of school, that other employers start reaching out to our young professional. Jane spurns those entreaties because she just got a promotion and likes her fellow employees. Her job hasn’t really changed for 3 years but she likes her boss. “There will be time later to look at other things”, she thinks.
Let’s move out another 3 years. Jane is now 28 years old with 6 years of experience. She has a Project Engineer title but nothing much has changed`. Frankly, she’s a bit bored but comfortable. Inertia keeps her from exploring other options.
From a career perspective, Jane is in a funny place. She is one of 6 Project Engineers who report to an Engineering Manager. The Engineering Manager is 50 years old, has been with Dorco for 25 years and is going nowhere. At the age of 28, Jane’s career has hit a plateau.
“Let me give it another 2 years. When I am 30 I will start considering leaving”, Jane thinks. After all, there is nothing actually wrong with Dorco. She feels a bit bored but decides that she will give it another 2 years.
Jane is now about 30 years old, a Project Engineer with experience on one product at one company in one industry. She feels well respected at Dorco and knows all the players and they know her. Her reviews are good and her boss is talking to her about her career track yet nothing happens. She waits another 2 years.
At the age of 32 she starts to consider new options and starts taking interviews. She is very selective in the opportunities she will consider because she has is pretty easy now and some of the opportunities presented to her kind of scare her. One’s a little too far. The other is too small. The next is too large. She gets one interview though. Here is what happens.
Jane has not interviewed for a job in over 12 years and that was a fresh grad interview. Fresh grad interviews are very different than traditional interviews. In this interview she gets direct questions about her specific accomplishments and reverts to babble about team building/mentoring. She is having a hard time coming up with things she personally accomplished. Dorco is a team place, she’s been told at work, so she has never had to put herself on the line there.
The wheels really come off when one interviewer asks her why she would consider leaving Dorco. She tells them it would be a tough decision to leave. The people she works with are friends. She likes her boss. The benefits are good. She admits to feeling a bit stale but indicates it would be hard to quit.
“Great”, thinks the Interviewer. “Even if this person has the drive I need in my group, I will make her an offer and she will just decide to stay at the last minute because of friends. What a waste of time.”
After a week Jane gets the feedback that the company did not think it was a good fit. Jane is relieved. Quitting would be tough but had also gotten the feeling that she would be pushing her envelope and that made her nervous. Better to stay here where she is valued and liked than risk everything and leave.
OK. Nothing bad has happened yet and it’s easy to see why Jane would stay. She has an easy job and is compensated OK but not as good as before because her raises have not been as good. She knows her way around the company and feels secure. After all, Dorco is a great place to work, as she is told every day. Jane is now officially a Dorco-ite. While she still kids herself by saying she would consider leaving, she isn’t courted as heavily and finds reasons to turn down the few interview opportunities she sees.
In the next 10 years Jane is promoted to Sr. Project Engineer. She still reports to the same boss, who is now about 5 years from retirement. Jane’s next move is into the Engineering Manager role, hopefully, when her boss retires. She still likes working at Dorco. She has 4 years of vacation time. Her salary has not increased in 2-3 years but she knows the VP Engineering likes her and is hopeful that, at the age of 48, when her boss retires, that after 25 years at Dorco she will get a promotion into a true manager role. She is secure, after all.
Two years later things change. The VP Engineering moves to another company and is replaced by someone who wants to change things. Her boss, the Engineering Manager, is told to take an early retirement and is replaced by an outside hire who is 5 years younger than Jane who expects a quicker pace of activity in the department.
Two years later, at the age of 48, instead of getting a promotion Jane’s position is eliminated. She is told that organizational changes have resulted in the need for 5 Project Engineers instead of 6 and she unfortunately ranks the lowest. Yikes!
Jane is now on the market. She has 25 years experience doing one thing for one company in one industry. She hasn’t had to extend herself professionally in over 20 years. She’s had one interview that scared the bejabbers out of her.
Frankly, the next part of Jane’s career story is not good. If she is lucky, she drifts from employer to employer over the next 5-10 years. Each position is a lower salary. She then retires.
Jane is a fictional character so let’s not feel sorry for her. But let’s not become Jane, or her counterpart John. Here are some things to keep in your mind;
1) In your career everything is meaningless unless you are growing and advancing. Everything else is fluff. What you know and how you perform is your only job security.
2) Your career is important because it pays for everything else. It defines you and your family’s life options.
3) Your company can be bought tomorrow. Your boss can quit. All those “Best Places To Work” promises can evaporate in a day.
4) The person making you promises or hinting of a great future also has a boss. If that boss tells him or her to change direction, your boss will do that in a minute.
5) If you haven’t been promoted in 3 years and see no realistic sign of a promotion you should leave. If not, you will be at the top of a salary band for your job classification and will be a target when costs need to be cut.
6) Be cynical about empty promises.
7) They will treat you differently at 25 than at 45 in age. And you will need the job more at 45 because you will have fewer options.
8) Most important, don’t confuse comfort with career growth. Challenge yourself to get better and to learn new things constantly. Don’t Be Jane. Or John. Don’t allow yourself to be road kill.
One of the most respected institutions of the last 50+ years has been the US military. Here is something they do that you should think about.
There are really two types on employees in the military. Enlisted personnel and officers. Enlisted personnel, like hourly or admin workers at your company, can work there for 30 years with no real career track. They are respected for what they do everyday.
Officers are like professional employees at a company. They are expected to advance and improve. There is a phrase for when they don’t- move up or move out. If you’ve been in the same job or rank for too long, the military is sending you a signal to move out. That’s what keeps a strong institution. Evaluate where you are now and make sure you are not getting the same, subtle signal from your employer. Better yet, don’t put yourself in that situation.
Think ahead. A career is a series of small choices made over decades. Each choice limits your options slightly but, after 10 or 20 years of choices, they point you in a direction that is hard to change.