It’s no secret that bad feelings about your job rarely stay confined to the workplace. And considering that Americans quit more than 32 million jobs just last year, it’s likely that you too have suffered in a kick-the-cat job. Whether you’re an entry-level starter or a mid-level careerist, learning how to approach a tough job situation — and how to bail out — is an important experience to have in your professional toolkit.
Just a few months before graduating from an elite New England college, Katie (who asked that her last name not be used) landed a plum entry-level post at Goldman Sachs, the investment bank where new analysts right out of school can make well over $100,000 and where overall compensation topped $622,000 per employee last year.
It was “a job most people would kill for,” she says.
But from day one, the former creative writing major felt that sinking sensation that comes when you know you’ve committed the cardinal career miscalculation: Taking a job you have no interest in.
“I hated going every day — I’d just be so depressed,” says Katie, 23. “Imagine spending 12 hours a day on something you just don’t care about and actually having to produce stuff.”
She started in September, and by October, was fed up with living “on a leash”: Her 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. workdays left her no time to have a life. By November, she says she knew she wanted to be out before Christmas. After three months of work, it had become abundantly clear: “I kind of missed the boat,” she says. “Genuinely, you really do have to be interested in the material, and I just really wasn’t.”
Worse, that material couldn’t have been a farther cry from the work she really wanted to do, which was writing. Katie had been an enthusiastic writer in college, but she was temporarily turned off to related careers after a lackluster radio internship her senior year.
“I wasn’t a bad analyst. I did my job. I just hated it,” she says.
Quitting was probably the right move for Katie, according to industrial and organizational psychologist David Dickter, who says that if the nature of the work or the company is to blame for your unhappiness, the situation probably can’t be remedied without a move.
“If your day-to-day is making you miserable, your long-term prospects are not going to be much better,” he says. “You have to be able to think, is this something that you can change? That you are empowered to change?”
In Katie’s case, her fundamental lack of interest in the work was non-negotiable. She decided to take a $38,000 pay cut and moved one step closer to satisfaction when she took a job at an academic publishing house, where she manages the making of books as a production editor.
“The salary is like unbelievably bad,” Katie says. “I told my mom and she told me I might as well work at Taco Bell.”
Still, she says, it was the right move, and she’s happier for it.
A career change remains a big deal, even though workers nowadays often have four or five different occupations, and many more jobs. Tom Stern, an executive recruiter and Fast Company expert blogger, advises prospective career switchers to research other occupations carefully before making a major change. Volunteering, freelancing, networking and informational interviews are all good supplements to online research.
“You have to always be wary of the grass-is-greener factor — you may just want to escape where you are rather than truly move to something better,” Stern says. “You don’t want to be a rebound career person.”
Now taking summer writing classes on the side, Katie says she’s looking to get published and is considering another career swap into teaching.
But let’s say you think you do have an idea of what you’re signing up for; you’ve weighed the pros and cons, and with an eye toward advancing your career, you decide to take a not-so perfect job on what may be the path to career nirvana.
That’s what happened to Kathryn, 24, who thought she knew what to expect when she took her first job as a personal assistant to a magazine design director. She had experience in art and the newspaper in college, and says she was prepared to pay her dues, even if her ground-floor job involved a fair share of coffee fetching.
“Someone said [that] maybe in the turn of the century people had domestic servants, and now they have assistants. It’s kind of true –[my boss] just used me,” Kathryn says. “My daily job consisted of what she came up with in the shower that day.”
It didn’t take long for Kathryn to become fed up with performing mindless tasks for her boss. Boredom and depression set in.
“It was very Devil Wears Prada,” she recalls.
And yet, she felt obligated to stay for the first full year before seriously looking at other options. She felt a certain inertia even at the bad job, she says, and despite the mid-week depression she often experienced, she had some trouble dumping her routine and felt “trapped.”
“People get stuck in jobs that they hate or are dissatisfied with for the same reason people get stuck in other situations in life that they’re not satisfied with,” Dickter says. “People can get stuck in a bad job just like they can get stuck in a bad relationship.”
After mulling over her job options again and again, Kathryn eventually interviewed for and landed a freelance design job at another magazine, where she was so thrilled at the interview that “I had one of those moments,” she says, “like a Beatles fan, like a squealing girl.” Excited as she was about the new job, she said she would have to hold off to give her current boss sufficient notice.
It wasn’t until Christmas, during a family vacation, when Kathryn had the epiphany that it was really time to get out: Her boss tracked her down on a ski slope and called non-stop, berating her because boots she sold on eBay and told Kathryn to ship hadn’t arrived on time in Scandinavia. At the same time, Kathryn received a friendly email from her prospective employer at the other magazine, offering to push back her start date.
“The juxtaposition of those two experiences made me know: I want out, and I don’t feel bad about it,” she says.
The three-month freelance gig would become a full-time position.
“I’m so much happier now,” Kathryn says. ” It’s amazing how a bad job will just really make you sad.”
The boss-from-hell scenario comes in more subtle flavors, though. Although Ryan, 25, wasn’t eBaying any shoes for his supervisor, his job satisfaction bottomed out because his boss quashed his creativity.
An equity researcher, Ryan says he knew the field would be a good fit for him because he wanted to be challenged, tackle tough math, and report his findings.
“I got this job because I wanted to think,” he says.
And think he would in his first job at a major bank, where it quickly became apparent that thinking meant thinking like the boss, who led a “very established team” that approached problems uniformly and left little room to innovate.
“No matter what came to me, there was a very standard way to answer it,” Ryan says. “It became very robotic and mechanical.”
Meanwhile, working as part of a team of six associates assigned to one supervisor made it hard to get enough mentoring or facetime with his boss. That lack of facetime likely made it easier for Ryan to detach himself from the work situation. Stephen Stillman, a work psychologist who teaches a graduate-level course on career and lifestyle, blames digitalization in part for the workplace disconnect that frequently leads to turnover. The hiring process has become less personal, he says, since many employers now hire by screening thousands of resumes online, and telecommuting reduces face-to-face contact on the job.
Luckily, Ryan had identified one of his job requirements early on: room to grow. Once he established that the growth potential he needed wasn’t to be found at his bank, he knew it was time to go.
“Make sure you know what improvements you need before you go and quit or go and accept a job somewhere else,” Stillman advises. “A lot of times you have it better than you think.”
Staying on board to try to make it work was his “biggest mistake,” Ryan warns. “It’s kind of like dating somebody and hoping they’ll change — it just never really happens.”
“What people often don’t realize is that the people who employ them have accountability,” since the employee is the one who gets reviewed, has to ask for raises, and so on, Stern says. “The way to hold them accountable is to ask questions like, do you plan to correct this? What is your strategy for my career development?”
Once his boss had conveyed that change was “not going to be an option,” Ryan decided it was time to seek out an office where he could be more creative, and a little under a year into his tenure he began researching jobs at other banks, talking to employees and interviewing. Within a month or so, he had landed a job at another bank.
“I really knew what I wanted and I was just able to align that with the jobs that were out there,” Ryan says, noting that the “very honest conversation” he had with prospective employers helped him find a position where he is working one on one with his boss. And despite working even more hours than he did at the old job, where he had a mandatory six-day week, his satisfaction is much higher.
That honest conversation with prospective employers is key, Stern says. “Use the let’s-get-real factor,” he suggests: Start with a compliment — tell your interviewer what impresses you about her company, and then ask what she thinks could use improvement.
Getting the facts before any job or career move is huge, according to Stern.
“There is no science to this decision making. It can’t be derived just from a spreadsheet,” he says. “The problem is if you don’t get information, then your instincts are based purely on emotion and that creates a high probability of poor instinctual response.”