What To Do If You’re Stuck In a Dead End Job – Ask HR Bartender

by Sharlyn Lauby on April 14, 2013

I recently answered a reader question about using certification to advance a person’s career. You can check it out here. In the reader’s note, there was a sentence that stood out to me:

My first ‘real’ job after college gave me some good exposure to HR, but it was a dead end.

How many times have we either heard or said those words – dead end? “I have a dead end job or career.” Or “I work for a dead end company”. So I wanted to write about being at a dead end in your work life. I reached out to a couple of super smart people and asked if they would share their thoughts.

Hannah Morgan (aka Career Sherpa) is a well-known job search, career and social media strategist.  She’s the co-author of “You Need a Job: 5 Steps to Get One!” and a regular contributor at U.S. News & World Report. Ron Thomas is director of talent and human resources at Buck Consultants, a Xerox Company. He serves on the Harvard Business Review advisory council and is a talent management contributor at TLNT: The Business of HR.

I know we’ve all heard the phrase before. But let’s say someone has just said to you “I have a dead end job.” What does that usually mean?

career, dead end, dead end job, Career Sherpa, human resources, talent management, Hannah Morgan[Hannah] A dead end job usually means the employee feels stuck or stifled in their role. This could be because they do not see any possibility for promotion or because they aren’t given the opportunity to learn new skills, develop other capabilities, or take on new challenges.

[Ron] There’s no such thing as a dead end job.  That analysis depends on the person.  If you’re in a job and you want upward movement or you see no value in what you are doing, that’s YOUR sign it is time to move on.  Someone else could be in that same spot and it could be their dream job.  To paraphrase: One man’s dead end job is another man’s dream job.

How can I tell if I’m at a dead end?

[Hannah] Indicators that you are in a dead end job might include your feeling of dissatisfaction with the work you are doing or your efforts have gone unrecognized by your manager. More concrete examples of a dead end job could be:

The promotion chain in the company is stalled. Is there someone in the position you want but they have been in the job a long time with no indication or mention of leaving the role anytime soon?

The company culture is one of “do your job, period”. Is your manager not allowing you the opportunity to take on new challenges or assignments?

You aren’t ready. Have you been passed over more than once for a promotion? Perhaps you are lacking skills suitable for a promotion or maybe you don’t have the “right stuff” to get promoted in that company.

Once someone is at a dead end, is there a way to reverse it? Or are you just stuck?

[Hannah] Getting stuck in a dead end job can happen as a result of corporate culture, manager style, or an individual’s outlook. Some company cultures reward/promote/recognize certain types of people or behaviors. For example: one company may only promote top performing sales representatives into a sales manager role. Often, it is the manager who determines the department or division culture and the type of employee who gets rewarded and promoted.

It can be difficult to change the company’s perception of you if you have been with them for a period of time, however, it isn’t impossible. To change this, you will have to re-program how people see you by changing your behavior to one that is more compatible with the company’s leadership. This is a tall order for sure.

If you are being honest with yourself about your feelings and capabilities, the signs might point to your making a change outside of the company.

If someone says they’re at a dead end, should they quit the company? Why or why not?

career, dead end, dead end job, Career Sherpa, human resources, talent management, Ron Thomas[Ron] Sure, quit when you have another opportunity.  Unless you have the financial backing to walk out, I would suggest you stay put till you have another opportunity.  That’s a lot easier to explain during an interview than trying to build a narrative around ‘I got so fed up that I walked out’. As an interviewer, my thought would be if we hired them and they got upset, would they just walk out again?

You always have to think long-term.  Making quick rash decisions without thinking it through can lead to disastrous results.

Are there activities I can do to ensure that I don’t get myself in a dead end situation?

[Ron] Research, research, more research and even then, you can’t be 100% sure.  But the more you look at a company both externally and internally you can get a reasonable look into the culture and the job.  There are a couple sites that you should take a look at: Glassdoor and Vault.com.  Search the company on LinkedIn and see who you may know there and contact them to get some insight.  During the interview process, ask about the person that was previously in the role. Were they promoted or did they leave? How long they were in the role?  This may provide you with some context around the job.  Remember in any interview you should be interviewing the company as they are interviewing you.

[Hannah] The best over-all career insurance is to build an internal and external network of supporters. Create alliances internally and externally with people at all levels of an organization and develop a reputation for being a good team player. It is also important to assess the culture of a company before starting a new job, especially if your goal is to get promoted. You could ask about how performance is rewarded and what jobs people have moved on to once they have left their position. Have they moved up or out of the company? Ask about the company’s willingness to let their employees take on other assignments and new challenges. Is this a documented process or ad hoc? Once you know the ’rules,’ you’ll be able to play by them. The more you can learn about the company’s track record for developing its employees, the more likely you are to find one that will put you on the fast track.

Here are some suggestions to help prevent getting stuck in a dead end job:

  • Set up a regular time to meet with your manager to discuss your successes and challenges. Don’t wait for the annual review.
  • Be sure to take credit for the work you have done and credit those who have also helped you.
  • Ask your manager for specific feedback.
  • Ask to take on special projects or get involved on company task forces or initiatives.
  • If you are dissatisfied, ask your manager for their ideas and solutions, but be prepared with your own as well.

Many thanks to Ron and Hannah for sharing their expertise. You can get more of their wisdom by reading their blogs or following @CareerSherpa and @Ronald_Thomas on Twitter. I believe if someone can recognize the signs before reaching the dead end then, more opportunities are available. The closer you get to the end, the fewer options you have.

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