Too much griping can kill your career

Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail

It’s a mistake to assume your private messages and complaints to colleagues won’t be passed on up the corporate ladder, VIRGINIA GALT finds

By VIRGINIA GALT

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Career adviser Colleen Clarke sees “some dillies” of career dilemmas in her practice. Most involve difficulties with The Boss.

Ms. Clarke has seen clients passed over for promotion because of cronyism at the top. She has endured rants about newly promoted managers who are “full of themselves.”

She once received a complaint from a scientist whose attempt to discuss career aspirations was derailed by a supervisor’s discourse about her favourite television show.

While these employees may be justifiably aggrieved, Ms. Clarke counsels: Tread carefully — the office landscape is filled with land mines.

Sure you have rights, she advises, but there is a power imbalance — and a dispute with a manager is far more likely to sabotage an employee’s career than a manager’s.

Few are kamikaze enough to engage in outright warfare with their bosses, she says. More often, it is their behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that sink them.

For instance, it is a mistake to assume that your supposedly private gripes will be kept in confidence. Ditto e-mails.

“You don’t know who is a spy and who isn’t and who is on the good side of so-and-so,” says Ms. Clarke, president of Colleen Clarke and Associates in Toronto.

If a person is too vocal about being passed over for a promotion, it becomes instant grist for the office rumour mill, she says.

And even those “passive-aggressive” protests — turning up late for meetings or cancelling appointments with a new boss — eventually get noticed, and noted.

And never, ever, take your grievance directly to human resources without first trying to work it out with the manager involved, advises former human resources vice-president Cynthia Shapiro, the author of a new book on how not to sabotage your career.

“In many cases, HR is required to tell your bosses about these conversations anyway, and bosses don’t forgive things like going straight to HR without talking to them first,” writes Ms. Shapiro, the author of Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn’t Want You to Know — and What to Do About Them.

For all the public pronouncements that employers might make about employee empowerment and open-door policies inviting feedback, there is usually a hidden agenda, Ms. Shapiro writes.

While an open dispute with a manager is a fairly obvious career-killer, a lot of transgressions are more subtle.

“Every day, employees are being quietly sidelined, marginalized, managed out, forced into retirement and laid off without ever being told the reasons why,” Ms. Shapiro writes.

They could be perceived as too negative, too sloppy, too unadventurous, too gossipy, too out-dated or too overwhelmed — impressions that are based, fairly or unfairly, on their day-to-day behaviour.

Ms. Clarke says one big mistake many employees make is bringing too much of their personal lives to work.

Employees who divulge too much information about personal problems might find themselves quietly bypassed for interesting career opportunities because well-meaning managers are reluctant to add to their load.

And as family-friendly as your employer might seem, Ms. Shapiro writes, nobody wants to hear about “every cute thing” your child said or did.

Go easy on the kid and dog photos, Ms. Clarke adds. One or two are okay.

“Certainly, you can make it cozy — you spend a lot of time in your cubicle. But if you start plastering your office with too many things from home, it starts to send the message that maybe you should be at home,” Ms. Clarke says.

When it comes to dealing with problems, either personal or work-related, Ms. Shapiro warns employees against falling into “the dangerous habit of treating their HR department like a confessional.” They should remember, she says, that the HR department is, in fact, “an agent of the corporation.”

“In the confusion of blurred boundaries and casual work environments, it can feel as though you are speaking to an entity separate from the corporation, a friend, an employee advocate. HR is none of these things,” she adds.

Ms. Clarke says casual work environments have also led some employees to become a little too casual about dress and work performance.

Even if a company has a “casual dress policy,” it is prudent to observe how its leaders prefer to dress themselves, Ms. Clarke suggests.

“Let’s say you are a middle manager and you dress casually all the time and a big client comes in, unexpectedly, from out of town. The senior people want to woo him, but they will not invite you along for lunches and whatnot if you are never dressed in a way that you can be taken out,” she says.

Ms. Shapiro writes that employees are never as invisible as they might think.

The hours they keep, their treatment of new colleagues and bosses, their support — or lack of support — for new initiatives all come into play when decisions are made about who gets promoted or who stays and who goes.

It is natural to feel disappointed, sometimes keenly disappointed, when someone else gets the job that you really wanted, Ms. Clarke says. But once the decision has been made, “your voice is not going to change that decision,” she says.

“So you either go with the flow or you swim upstream. But if you swim upstream, it is going to be noticed.”

Ms. Shapiro writes that inheriting a new boss “can feel more like an invasion than a transition. Employees can easily feel standoffish and distrustful, waiting for this new invader to win them over, approaching him or her with suspicion.”

But “this standard response is one of the worst things you can do for your career,” Ms. Shapiro says.

Ms. Clarke agrees that new colleagues, and especially new bosses, have difficulty fitting in because “everyone is sizing them up.”

Employees who engage in subversion make an impression. So do employees who help, rather than hinder, she says.

“And chances are, when there is one promotion, there might be another.”

What you don’t know can hurt you Expense reports are a secret test of loyalty.

“Companies look very closely at how you choose to spend their money,” Ms. Shapiro writes.

E-mail is secretly killing careers.

“Too many employees believe e-mail is private — it’s not. . .these false beliefs are taking down careers on a regular basis because employees are using e-mail too casually.”

It is dangerous to do what your company says.

Does your employer really believe in work-life balance or is it just paying lip service to improve its public image? Many employees make the “fatal mistake” of ducking out early to those soccer games when what the company really values is “staying on top, staying ahead of the curve. . .and putting the needs of the company first –at all costs.”

Skills and talent aren’t what’s most important.

“Even if you have the best skills in the company . . . no doors will be opened to you unless you gain the trust of those at the top. Trust is based on the company’s perception of you,” Ms. Shapiro writes.

There’s no right to free speech in the workplace.

“Employees are being quietly removed from their organizations every day for speaking their minds. . .It can be so great a threat, that even though they cannot tell you to refrain from speaking out, they can and might remove you over an apparently unrelated issue,” she writes.

If you’re in the wrong camp, you could be mistaken for the enemy.

The “us versus them” scenario can be very damaging to career aspirations, Ms. Shapiro writes. “Employees usually get snagged into this trap by thinking of themselves as one of the employees (us), separate from the management or corporate entity (them).”