Starting Out


Seven Career Killers

Erin Burt

You worked hard to get the education, the skills and now the job. Don't let these mistakes sabotage your climb up the career ladder.



Lying on your résumé, stealing office supplies or failing to show up for work will surely dampen your career prospects. But young workers need to beware of less-obvious mistakes that can sabotage their careers. Your behavior, attitude and appearance will play important roles in finding success, not only in your first job, but also throughout your entire working life.

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As someone just starting out in the work world, you probably don't have a reputation yet. Take advantage of this blank slate. "You want to be seen as an up-and-comer, not the stereotypical young slacker," says Marty Nemko, a job coach in Oakland, Cal. Avoiding these seven career killers will help you craft a stellar reputation and keep your career on track.

1. Procrastinating. Remember the first time you put off studying for a test then crammed at the last minute and still got a decent grade? Many of us have been procrastinating since grade school and have done just fine, but that's a habit you have to break. "There's no grade inflation in the workplace," says Nemko. If you pull together a report or presentation at the last minute, your shoddy preparation is going to show. And if something unexpected happens -- say your computer crashes or a key contact fails to return a call -- the old "dog-ate-my-homework" excuse isn't going to cut it. "Procrastination is an ingrained habit," Nemko says, "but if you don't kick it pretty quick, you're going to find yourself on the corporate slow track."

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2. Having a sense of entitlement. Our generation was raised on instant gratification -- we're used to getting what we want, and getting it now. Yet when it comes to our careers, no matter how hard we work, we cannot get five years’ worth of experience in one year. Younger employees tend to feel entitled to quick promotions, says Randall Hansen, founder of Quintessential Careers. Falling into that trap can hinder a climb up the career ladder. If you carry the attitude that you deserve to be promoted or else, you may find that "or else" is your only option, says Hansen.

Remember that you're fresh out of school, meaning you're on the bottom rung of the career ladder. You're going to have to pay some dues, such as taking on jobs others don't want or working days others want off. But that doesn't mean you should accept your low status forever. Learn more about how to know when it's time to move up -- and how to pull it off.

3. Settling into your job description. You may have your set responsibilities, but you should always be on the lookout for opportunities to shine. Going above and beyond your mundane entry-level tasks can demonstrate your untapped talents and show your boss you're not afraid to take initiative. Settle into your job description for too long and your reputation may be cast as a low-level lackey.

You may have to do a little self-promotion, but try not to come off as a braggart. Nemko's daughter, for example, got her first job working for Hillary Clinton -- but her job description was to answer letters to Socks, the Clintons' pet cat. Soon after starting, she approached her boss and said she was willing to pay her dues, but that she had good research and writing skills. She pointed out that she might be useful on some other task. A few days went by and her boss asked her to research a topic and write a one-page brief for Clinton. She ended up spending a year as a researcher -- that certainly beats handling feline fan mail.

4. Avoiding office politics. When it comes to playing office politics, there is naughty and nice. Naturally, you shouldn't engage in backstabbing and gossiping. But avoiding politics altogether can be deadly for your career. Like it or not, every workplace has an intricate system of power, and you can -- and should -- work it ethically to your best advantage. To get a promotion, avoid downsizing or get a project approved, you need co-worker support. Get that backing by building relationships, asking others for advice, offering your help and showing sincere interest in others, advises Nemko. (Learn more about how to make yourself fire-resistant in the workplace.)

It's also crucial to identify your workplace's hidden pockets of power. On paper, a certain person may be in charge, but you need to know who else in the office has influence so you can be sure to impress the right people.

5. Not being a team player. Getting stuck with this label is one of the fastest career killers, says Hansen. But young workers face a delicate balance. "You can't be so much a member of the team that your individual efforts are not recognized and rewarded," Hansen says. You still need to demonstrate your skills and abilities to successfully build your career without giving the appearance that you're interested only in looking out for yourself.

6. Not dressing the part. In an ideal world, you would be judged by your merits alone. However, we live in a visual society. How you present yourself can play a crucial role in the progress of your career. You want to look professional and in control, not sloppy and indifferent. Keep your hair and nails trimmed, your clothes ironed and your breath smelling nice.

As for your apparel, take your cues from what others are wearing -- you don't want to show up in a suit and tie if jeans are the norm. But it doesn't hurt to dress for the job you want, advises Nemko. It can set you apart from the rest of the crowd and subtly help higher-ups visualize you in a position of more power and responsibility. If you want people to take you more seriously and build influence, you've got to dress the part.

7. Failing to network. You've heard that networking can be a good tool to help you find a job, but maintaining your contacts after you're hired is critical to the continuing success of your career. Keeping in touch helps you stay atop the latest issues in your field and gives you people to call on when you need advice. And a contact just may help you land your next job.

When you're starting out, you probably don't know many people in your field, but there are plenty of ways you can plug into the grapevine. Check out the resources offered by your college alumni association, join a professional organization or club, or subscribe to a trade magazine. Also keep in touch with college acquaintances in your major, especially those who may have graduated before you, and always keep a business card on hand when you're outside the office. You never know when you might run into a potential contact.

Don't forget to build rapport with higher-ups in your office. You can introduce yourself at informal company socials or even while riding in the elevator. Then send them an e-mail or stop by their office to ask an occasional question or to follow up on something you chatted about previously. You never know when that friendship could come in handy down the road.



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