A few weeks ago, a reader (let’s call her Becky) wrote to me with an epic tale and one question on her mind: “Should I start looking for another job?” The woman who hired her quit on Becky’s first day (but mercifully agreed to stick around the whole week to train her in her new job). Becky, who was just starting her career, suddenly had legal and fiduciary duties at an organization with an irresponsible power fiend who, as CEO, was driving the company into the ground.
“Should I start looking for another job?” The quick answer would seem to be an obvious yes. But maybe at second look, a better answer might be, “Yes, but don’t be too quick to jump ship.” Becky is in an interesting position. On one hand her long-term career prospects are at risk, because she’s learning bad things from the wrong people. On the other hand, she has the unique chance to fast-track her steep learning curve and build a resume that could turn her into a star in her profession.
When you search for a new job, you’re looking for more than a paycheck. You’re shopping for an opportunity to build your career, with the guidance of people you respect and trust. What do you do when you discover that you’re working for idiots? At a company that’s doomed? You carefully think through the answers to the following questions:
Will my continued association with this company wreck my future job prospects? There are so many businesses these days that not only fail but they fail notoriously. The higher up you are in the org chart, the more closely your name will be associated with the failure. Still, even if you’re at the beginning of your career, there will be a taint of failure on your resume that you won’t deserve. What kind of impact do you think this company’s name will have on your professional reputation?
On the other hand, will this company’s brand cachet burnish my resume, even though I happen to be working for a doofus at the moment? If you’re working for a company renowned for its excellence in its market or the way it does business, you stand to learn a great deal within the walls of the organization. And your resume will be able to bask in its reflected glory for years to come.
Even though my boss is an idiot, is there someone else here whom I can learn from? It’s not unusual for employees to seek out mentors inside their companies who are not their boss. So reaching out for professional guidance from others shouldn’t offend your supervisor. Just don't use your relationship with your mentor as an opportunity to vent your complaints about your boss. This is about your career, not making the world change just because you’re unhappy with the person you work for.
Does having an ineffectual boss put me at risk of learning the wrong things? Or does it give me the opportunity to take on projects that will fast-track my career success? I once knew someone whose boss drank in the afternoons. After lunch, the soundtrack of her workday was filled with the sounds of sliding and slamming as he opened and closed the desk drawer where he kept the Southern Comfort. The work still had to get done. So she did it. And she learned a lot fast – condensing about five years of professional learning into a six-month time frame. She wisely sought out the professional advice she needed from professional colleagues outside her organization and industry.
Will learning how to deal with an unreliable do-nothing supervisor add to my professional toolbox of interpersonal skills and politics? You’ll be dealing with difficult people your entire career. The sooner you learn how to work with the variety of personality types and the many ways they’ll make your life miserable, the more effective you will be. And then one day you can be someone else’s idiot boss.
Will accommodating this jerk land me in the slammer? It’s one thing to keep your boss’s confidences. But do you know where the line is drawn between being a trustworthy employee and colluding with a crime? Do you know what your legal obligations are to your company’s clients, the public, stakeholders and employees? Do you really want to get up on a stand and testify against the people you work for? If you start worrying about the legalities of your work – or the secrets you’re being asked to keep – it’s time to talk with an attorney, preferably someone who doesn’t work for your company.
So. Is it time to start looking for a new job? As far as I'm concerned it's always smart to keep yourself and your resume in circulation. And you should always be nice to headhunters who interrupt your busy day with their fishing expeditions. Therefore it really is just a matter of whether you want to turn up the heat under your job search pot. Default answer: Yes. Just do it prudently and discreetly. Which you would do anyway, because who wants to get fired -- especially in this job market?
In the meantime, don't "quit in place." While you're waiting for your next job opportunity, take advantage of being where you are. Take on new projects so your future interviews will be filled with conversations around what you accomplished and learned, rather than how frustrated you have been. Network around the other departments to see if there are other opportunities you can take advantage of.
Give yourself every chance at success. Even when your only immediate option at the moment is working for a monkey.