6 ways to sabotage your career

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True story.

A group of young workers were staying in an upscale hotel in the business district of a major city for a week of corporate training. On their first evening together, they all enjoyed a night on the town. Later, when they returned, one of them, in a drunken stupor, made a fatal mistake — a real career killer.

She set off the fire alarm. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hundreds of hotel guests were evacuated into the street at 11 at night while, at the same time, a senior vice president, also staying there, wandered into the lobby from his own night out. He asked one of the trainees what was going on and discovered the perpetrator had been someone from his company.

Security tapes were reviewed, people were questioned. The woman who sounded the alarm did not show up at training the next day — or at her job except to clean out her desk.

Moral of the story? It can take only one really dumb decision to derail your career.

Major career meltdown moments aren’t the only ways to sink a career though.

“Careers are rarely sunk by a single incident and if they are then it is clearly something dramatic,” says Will Robinson, co-founder of VirtualJobCoach. “Most damage is usually longer term.”

6 ways to damage your future:
  1. Bash your employer in public.
  2. Mix pleasure with business.
  3. Fudge the truth.
  4. Be real regardless of the culture.
  5. Just say no to new opportunities.
  6. React poorly to stress or fear.

Bash your employer in public

Forget about ever getting a glowing letter of recommendation if you tell the world how you really feel about your job and employer.

Lynne A. Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston, relates a story about a senior vice president who came into the office one morning obviously upset about something. “You could all but see the steam coming out of his ears,” she says.

“Apparently, he had been riding the T (a subway in Boston), and one of the employees was on the train talking to someone — in a loud enough voice to be overheard — bashing his manager and the company.”

The senior vice president relieved the employee of his misery. He was fired.

Employees are, of course, entitled to their opinions and can’t be forced to love where they work. But they’re also ambassadors for their company. Refraining from publicly trashing the organization or the people that you work with is just common sense.

Unfortunately, common sense is often anything but common. Compounding the issue for employees and employers alike is that the public realm has grown to encompass all of cyberspace.

Companies have begun to go online to research employees and prospective hires. Damning evidence online is a quick way to weed out candidates during the recruitment process.

Jennifer Mounce, founder of Coach Effect, a career coaching and consulting firm, recalls a client who found two candidates for a position, and ran a check on different social media sites.

“One of the two candidates actually had a video online talking about how they hate their job and their company. Suffice it to say, if something is going to tip the scale, having a video posted about how much you hate your company is it.

“That certainly is not going to fare well with a new employer,” she says.

Just changing the privacy settings on your MySpace or Facebook account may not be enough, warns Robert Capwell, chief knowledge officer, Employment Background Investigation.

“Although (online social media sites) are for members, some employers have been going in and getting into different accounts under fictitious names to throw off the candidate.”

Bottom line: “Don’t discuss anything about your current job or employment on the Internet in a bad light,” he says.

Mix pleasure with business

Commingling a work life and sex life can be inadvisable for most professionals. Although workplace restrictions on office romance vary from company to company, the wisdom of engaging in extracurricular shenanigans may call into question the judgment of the employees involved.

Such behavior lacks discretion “if, for a period of time, you’re prepared to prioritize an attraction over whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing,” says Alanna Fero, career coach and author of “Love Made Visible: Values-Driven Approaches to Work/Life.”

It goes without saying that downloading pornography on the job is the kiss of death.

Most companies explicitly prohibit downloading pornography to their work computers. Unless you’re involved in the adult entertainment industry, being known as the porn guy will never be good for your career.

“That is one of the really stupid things that people do. I guess people think they can never be caught, but charging $400 worth of pornography as a business expense. … No, you can not use client money to buy pornography. If you make a decision like that, it’s hard to recover,” says Robinson.

Fudge the truth

Everyone wants to look as good on paper as they know they are in real life, so some slight fudging on a resume is understandable, though not wise.

Out-and-out lying on your resume can be grounds for dismissal from a current position or can result in getting passed over for a job offer.

Interestingly, it’s not a rare occurrence. A sizable number of job seekers are guilty of stretching the truth or fabricating credentials.

“We actually have a 56-percent discrepancy ratio between what someone puts on their resume and what we find when we go to do an education or employment verification,” says Nick Fishman, chief marketing officer at employeescreenIQ, a background screening company.

A little fudging on salary or job dates is OK, but a lot of fudging can buy you walking papers, says Fishman.

An applicant who claims to have made $205,000 per year when in reality he earned $200,000 could be acceptable, he says. One who made $50,000 and claimed $150,000 will continue his job search.

Education is also a hot spot on resumes. The Internet has spawned a number of diploma mills where educationally challenged go-getters can order a degree. The companies have elaborate systems for verifying the degree to fool background checks.

Anyone with a computer and a phone could be tempted to set up a system to get by an unsuspecting employer.

One of Fishman’s clients wanted to promote someone, and had to do a complete background check on the employee. Long story short, the employee claimed to be a graduate of the University of Maryland, but the university had no record of the employee. The employer checked with the employee, who then furnished a name, phone number and e-mail of someone at the university who could verify the degree. The employer called and everything checked out.

“After a month going back and forth, we did a trace on the domain that was given to them, and the person had set up the phone number and e-mail address on their own and registered it to themselves. They had directed the phone number and e-mail to someone that would verify the degree,” says Fishman.

The employee was fired for lying. The worst part, Fishman says, is that this person wouldn’t even have needed a degree for the promotion.

Be real regardless of the culture

Not every company is the right place for every worker. Corporate cultures vary from highly formal and regimented to laid back and creative.

If visible tattoos and brightly colored hair are an intrinsic part of your personality, then an uptight corporate setting probably won’t be part of your career path.

Fero advises her clients to either get with the program or find a new job if it’s not the right fit for them.

“I had a client recently who was unhappy with her boss and felt like the job had become too constrained. So she pierced her nose,” she says.

“I had a conversation with her and said, ‘Is this that important that you are prepared to take a stand over it when you’ve already had three people at work say they really don’t think it’s working?'” says Fero.

The client lost the nose ring and the attitude.

In tough economic times, considering cultural fit may not be a top priority for job seekers, who might happily take a job shoveling coal in Hades just for the paycheck. In the end, it’s the employee who has to work to fit into the environment. Not fitting in may be enough to get canned.

“Performance is usually secondary to whether you think this worker is a good guy and you want to work with them,” says Robinson.

“How you interact, your communication style and what you say all have bearing. A lot of people want to believe that the workplace is a meritocracy, and they’ll be judged only on their work. But I can tell you point-blank that while that is a great environment to aspire to, it’s not found in the workplace today,” he says.

Even if the workplace isn’t your style, learn to fake it convincingly — at least until you have another job lined up.

Just say no to opportunities

Even though bosses may tell you they want honesty, the truth is they also want acquiescence. They want you to get ahead — but on their terms.

Depending where you work, you may have up to two opportunities to say no to a project or assignment. After two turn-downs, your career could become a layer of sedimentary rock — as in stuck at that level forever. 

“If your employer offers you a project or assignment and you turn it down, you only have that option twice and then you’re dead in the water and will never get promoted again in your life,” says Don Asher, author of “Who Gets Promoted, Who Doesn’t and Why: 10 Things You’d Better Do If You Want to Get Ahead.”

In tech positions, you usually get one shot at the brass ring.

“In high tech, if you turn down any assignment, you’re dead. If people don’t know this, they naively turn down something, thinking that something will follow. The reality is that if they turn down these interim opportunities, they don’t come back to you,” he says.

Robinson agrees. But accepting a chance to get ahead may involve considerable sacrifice.

“(There was) one guy I saw who was a rising, up-and-coming star in management consulting. The leader of the practice wanted him to go to Siberia for a year and he, a family guy with kids under five, said no, very politely. He did not make partner the next year and that was the direct result,” he says.

Though the ramifications may not be as dramatic as not making partner, when plum assignments are being handed out, bosses will think of workers who succeeded with less appealing or less prominent projects.

React poorly to stress or fear

Especially during times of economic turmoil and rampant layoffs, fear can drive employees to behave in ways they would not normally.

“The single most common way that employees totally unintentionally torpedo their job is by hunkering down,” says Dan Kilgore, principal at Riviera Advisors, a human resources consulting firm.

“They think, ‘If I don’t stick my head up, they won’t see me.’ But the employee still exists and is still on payroll. If the only value they add is a great attendance sheet then when the higher ups say what else has she done, the answer is nothing,” he says.

Flying under the radar can be one career-limiting coping mechanism, but some other employees take a more combative approach when stressed.

Yelling and throwing things when things go awry are obvious career limiters but more insidious are the angry behaviors that slip out when people just can’t control their bad moods from seeping out into their interactions with co-workers.

“Anger in the work place is not really allowed, and it is not appropriate for us to be in the office and scream and yell. So we kind of suck that up and then it comes out in other ways. We start sniping, we get sarcastic,” says Linda Dominguez, CEO and executive strategist with Executive Coaching and Resource Network.

Everyone has stories of co-workers who couldn’t quite hold it together under pressure. They cry, whine, shirk duties, mistreat customers or throw temper tantrums that send co-workers running for job boards.

No one enjoys working with bullying co-workers, or the emotionally erratic or consistently angry, negative people. On a day-to-day basis, these kinds of behaviors can really wear down the goodwill of co-workers and erode office morale.

At the end of the day, if someone is just plain grating, annoying or intimidating, they might find themselves looking for a new job — multiple times throughout their career.

“Fifty-three percent of terminations, not layoffs but terminations at higher levels, are not due to quality of work but due to personal style,” says Dominguez.

To stay on track and moving forward, employees have to learn how to play the game. To some degree that requires drinking the corporate Kool-Aid but also keeping a clear enough head so that they can see where they’re going and navigate the field intelligently.