[New Rules] 5 Landmines to Sidestep When Changing Jobs

Landmine Explosion during UNMIN Training

Image by United Nations Photo via Flickr

Changing jobs in today’s economy is tough enough without adding complexity. But something as seemingly straight forward and simple as moving from one organization to another for a job change can get sketchy if you manage to make some highly avoidable mistakes.

Here’s my take on five things – some may be more traps than landmines  –  you can, and should avoid when changing jobs:

Moving from the frying pan to the proverbial fire : In my experience people are either moving to something (e.g. the chance to move from a smaller role to a larger one) or moving to get away from something – a boss that’s not a good match for you to one you hope is.

Regardless of the motivation, a common error is to be so keen to move that the blinders you’ve put on makes you miss some other aspects about the new shop that would be otherwise glaring. Haste, in many cases, means you are landing someplace that has issues that are just as problematic, just different.

When I left Chiron in the late 1999 (to move away from a job that was mostly restructuring and layoffs, something that I’d done for 10 years while with McKesson), I jumped to a start-up that I thought would be a build and grow opportunity. What I missed, as an officer and senior exec of the new firm, was that the chairman and major shareholder had issues that looked suspiciously like fraud. 97 days from hire date I left that firm and had to start a job search from scratch. Moral of the story: I jumped too fast.

Prevention tactic : Slow down, and assess the old place / new place on a series of factors (perhaps the old “positives – negatives” checklist ) so that you’re giving yourself a balanced view. While I am always leery of bias in online review sites, Glassdoor.com might help give you some ideas for a framework to scorecard things based on their reviews.

Burning bridges: It’s a very small world, and one of the worst things that people can do on their way out is to badmouth their employer, boss, or co-workers on their exit to their new shop. The best thing someone can do is to focus on the move, talk about something positive that attracts you to the new place, and transition as gracefully as possible. Former associates have a habit of becoming new associates – or even supervisors – and saying negative things harshly is the sort of thing that won’t endear you to anyone.

The list of people I know who have torched people or places on their way out – only to subsequently wish they hadn’t – runs in the dozens. Smart folks find a way to be gracious.

Prevention Step: Take Thumper’s advice from the movie Bambi : “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

Failing to do their research: A cousin to jumping into the frying pan, people should do as much research as possible (See “And Don’t Forget to Do Your Homework ” in the earlier Choose Me, Hire Me! series ) to make sure the place they’re going is what it seems – particularly as it relates to financial and organizational stability. With such economic bumpiness around us, I’d want to find out how any new places handles lay-offs (any anticipated, what sort of severance provisions exist, etc?) before I jumped from one place to another.

Sometimes easy online research will help you tap into rumors, and for larger employers there are websites that carry some (just take it with a very large grain of site) information. I know of several candidate who negotiated minimum amounts of severance as a condition of coming on board. In those cases there were host of rumors about the sale or merger of their would-be employers, and they were candidate that the employers were keen to hire. No sales occurred and the candidates had peace of mind with some air cover.

Prevention Step: Ask around, do you homework, and try to mitigate any anticipated downside. While a severance clause in a new hire letter will probably not help you if a company goes bankrupt (but check with your favorite employment attorney anyway), there are other ways to make sure you’ve not jumped to a suddenly sinking ship.

Losing Touch: You are only as good as your work, your reputation, and your network. Yet many people fail to keep their network informed when they change jobs, and fall off the radar of a host of people who can help them (and who they can help) in the future.

I advise folks that as soon as their change is made public, send an e-mail note to anyone (blind cc’ed, not the mass “to” note) they know advising them of the change, the place they will be going (if any), contact info if you know it at the new place, and personal e-mail address just in case they don’t have it. If e-mail is not your MO, call people so that they hear the news first from you. As best as possible I’d mentioned in a positive manner the attraction of the new role, or if it’s a lay-off, let them know it’s affected you.  If you are going the e-mail route, give anyone you’re close to a personal call before the e-mail so they hear from you directly, rather than the more impersonal e-mail.

In a few end of this job, no new job at the other end cases, that simple note (inadvertently) surfaced new job prospects by people in the friends / co-workers / clients / vendors network.

Prevention Step: Keep your work related contacts current, including folks like clients, co-workers, and vendors. My gold standard is an e-mail address, phone numbers (mobile and land), and snail mail address.  For folks who don’t use something like a Blackberry, iPhone or other pda to sync work contacts, I recommend logging things in Google contacts. Any number of places don’t give folks the time to download contacts from something like Outlook if you’re fired (think layoffs or closure) so I recommend to always have you contact file current.

Failing to Consider Your Personal Narrative: Sometimes you take a not-so-great job because it’s better than no job, or better than the really not-so-great job you currently hold. But in stitching together a body of work called a career, thinking about the narrative – e.g. what’s the enduring storyline – is something that I’d place high on my to do list when considering a job change.

Candidates who are usually the most attractive are those whose stories “make sense” – there is a flow to their work and a reasonable set of circumstances for each change – so that the candidate is seen as creditable and believable.

A resume that has a series of jobs, usually many of them short term, suggests a number of undesirable qualities and these are the types of candidates that get popped to the bottom of the pile while the employer hopes that someone better is available. A bumpy storyline gets translated to “bumpy candidate”, something that you want to avoid unless your preference is to be relegated permanently to the temp or contracting pool.

Prevention Step: Try out the “new” narrative on friends and family. A mentor or trusted former colleague is a pretty good choice as well. Ask them to poke holes in your storyline: if it still holds, then you’re probably OK. If you see wrinked noses (as in something funny stinknose), reconsider.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, new role, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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