[New Rules] Stay or Quit: Which One is the Greatest Job Risk to You?

Quitting a promising job is tough, and it’s made even tougher in a choppy economy. The fact of the matter though is that sometimes the greater risk to you is to stay at a job rather than quit and hope you find something else.

Though the stink of Enron has mostly faded, former employees of one of the biggest corporate scandals still feel the effects from having that firm’s name on their resume.

Why is this important to you?

A career can be thought of as a series of roles, your accomplishments and impact in them, and where you worked. Missteps can happen, but having an albatross around your neck from working at a place that blew up can slow even the most promising careers. The goal, after all, is to avoid becoming known the next time you look for a job as the candidate from WorldCom or any of the others of similar notoriety.

And while I generally think that folks are not that curious about some things on your resume (though my friend Jane Howze of the executive search firm the Alexander Group assures me otherwise), on others that can get obsessed. I know from my own experience managing staffing functions that hiring managers avoid people from certain firms – call it guilt by association – when they’re hiring.

What can you do about it?

If you think something’s amiss, one of the first things to do is to figure out how much you actually know, and what it is you just think you know. Some companies – but not all – have decent internal processes for reporting out misdoings.

Second, think about what the impact of something going seriously amiss at the company might do to you. Apart from a possible loss of a job, that answer often is of the “it depends” category.

If the scandal is of an accounting nature, somebody who is in the accounting field at that firm has high risk, and not much upside – unless you’re the person who brought the issue to light.

Ten years ago, in a case that originated before Art Levinson became their CEO, Genentech paid $50 million to settle allegations aggressive off-brand marketing of human growth hormone .  I know personally from my work with competitor Chiron that people in the sales and marketing area of Genentech took a hit for the cloud surrounding their business practices.

If you’re more senior in the firm, it helps to take a hard look in the mirror to see if any of the potential company exposure harms your own personal brand. As noted earlier in a post titled Why You Need A Brand Called You your reputation is something that your carry with you throughout your work life: contaminating your brand is a marketing basics “no-no” and you’ll pay a stiff, heavy price.

Finally, sometimes there is nothing you can do: like the administrative assistants mentioned in the Enron link above, you may be in a position to have no chance to sniff danger before it hits. In that case, your best advice is to be clear that your connection and move on.

Any examples?

Sure – both of them mine.

In the late 90’s I took a role as a VP and officer at an Internet start-up. 97 days later I had resigned and was looking for another job.

Early in that 97 day tour I discovered a number of serious misdoings, including the fact that the application for Directors & Officers insurance has been falsified: if there a lawsuit against the company, it appeared likely that the D & O coverage would not be in effect, and officers could be held personally liable. I got great legal advice from someone at Littler & Mendelsohn at the time,  spoke out against the pracitice to the CEO and discharged my fiduciary responsibility as an officer by letting the board of directors know why I was leaving.

Like escaping a burning house, the goal of a situation like that should be to get out as quickly and as safely as you can.

In a second situation a left a well paying role for a number of reasons including concerns around two key issues where I thought there was high risk at the firm, and high risk to my personal brand (which includes integrity, honesty and candor). One of the items concerned the direction the firm was taking a potentially significant legal issue and the second was a little matter of engaging in the business of something known as collateralized debt obligations. I continued to speak my piece on the former, and left the firm before the latter hit and became a financial services disaster .

Short story: it can be tough to leave a job when you don’t have another job lined up. In those cases where there is trouble brewing that’s not of you’re doing, leaving can be the smartest move you can make.

New Rules is an occasional set of writings focused on changes in norms, culture, or ways of navigating work, organization and careers. More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the "About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc." sidebar or the "Hire Me" tab above.