6 Career Missteps You'll Live to Regret

Portrait of doubting businessman
By Robin Madell

Perfection isn't the goal at work. In fact, it's impossible over the course of a career. But certain decisions you make on the job can have lasting effects – and not the ones you want. To avoid looking back with regret about your choices in the office, steer clear of these five career missteps:

Burning bridges. When something goes seriously wrong at work with colleagues, your boss or a project, it can be tempting to cut and run. Leaving may be the answer depending on the circumstances, but avoid doing so in a way that negatively affects the future relationship with your current employer.

Carolyn Betts, founder and CEO of Betts Recruiting, notes that this mistake is particularly common when employees are just starting out. That's because newbies are more likely to underestimate the long-term impact certain actions will have on their business relationships and career."Burning bridges is the No. 1 way to damage your career – worse than not performing at your job," she says. "If you quit in a distasteful way, leave people high and dry or steal clients and head to a competitor, you will spoil your professional references." Betts adds that employers often assume the references you supply will be biased, and so they routinely check "back channel" sources.

A prospective employer can discover your last burned bridge and decide not to offer you an interview. A burned bridge from your past employment can also cost you a job offer at the end of a lengthy interview process when the hiring manager contacts sources.

Not recognizing when your boss is pulling you down. A supportive boss who pushes your talents forward to give you visibility with other key decision makers can make your career. But a boss who doesn't have your best interests in mind can easily break it.

Author, coach, and small business expert Lisa Baker-King believes it's important for both junior and senior employees alike to learn how to recognize the warning signs of bosses who are pulling them down. There could be trouble if you fail to notice that your boss engages in conversations with the people around you but always ignores you, doesn't select you for special projects and avoids eye contact with you during team meetings. "Bottom line: Your boss will not give you the time of day if he or she is pulling you down, because you are not seen as worth their time or energy," she says.

Mismanaging your manager. While your manager technically manages you, you must also "manage" your boss if you aspire to career success and hope to avoid regrets. In part, this means managing yourself and the way that you interact with your boss for best results.

"When employees find themselves being supervised by someone who isn't supervising well, it can be tempting to tell them what they are doing wrong and how they should change," says Arron Grow, associate director of the School of Applied Leadership at City University of Seattle. "As much as this may seem like a good idea at the time, it can be dangerous. If one is being led by a less confident, overcautious individual, any discussion of how they aren't doing well will be taken as a challenge."

Grow adds that in such situations, having a good relationship with your manager is no guarantee of career safety, and that even suggestions made diplomatically with the best of intentions can sit wrong with the one in charge.

Taking or leaving a job for the wrong reason. You'll rue the day you took a job that you knew you shouldn't have – or left one without thinking it through. According to Tad Mayer, lead consultant, mediator and negotiation trainer at Inclined Communication, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is taking any job regardless of your true interest in the work, then advancing in the field and figuring out you are unhappy – but staying because that's now your career.

"In my work, most of my clients were reactive in getting an early job (applying to any posts they could find), which put them on a path far from where their interests truly lay," he says. "Especially in early careers, doing the important work of identifying professional interests and then meeting with lots of established people to find out what the field/industry/company/role is really like can help put people on the right track."

Tony Beshara, owner and president of Babich & Associates, adds that leaving a job for a poor reason – especially when you don't have another job lined up – can set you up for regrets down the road. "There has to be a really good business reason for leaving a job," he says.

Showing impatience in your job search. Another mistake is only focusing on the short-term perceived stability of a job offer rather than finding the right long-term career fit. Tarek Pertew, co-founder of Uncubed, suggests that the time spent finding the right job should be treated the same way as someone taking time to find the right life partner.

"Impatience in the job hunt to maintain a certain lifestyle or immediately reach a new one is a critical mistake in the pursuit of professional happiness," he says. "It's vital to take more time finding the right job fit and take a lifestyle hit than to find yourself in the wrong job and regretting your choice only a few months into a new position."

Not applying to a position, or staying too long in one. It's a delicate balance, but failing to act when you see an opportunity can be just as regrettable as clinging to a position after you've outgrown it or hit a dead end. On the front end, it's easy to opt yourself out of a potential position during your job search if you're worried you don't fully qualify.

According to Sarah Nahm, CEO of Lever, a lot of people – particularly women – look at every requirement they see on a job description as a must-have and don't apply unless they check off every box. Nahm says this isn't wise, given that job descriptions aren't generally hard-and-fast requirements; they often just outline parameters for what a role could entail.

"Studies have shown that men apply to jobs when they meet only about 60 percent of a job's qualifications, but women only apply when they meet 100 percent of them," Nahm says. "Employers will almost always hire candidates with the right combination of soft skills, attitude and intelligence over candidates who look like the perfect fit on paper."

On your career's back end, career coach Angela Copeland notes that many employees fall into the trap of clinging to their current post even when the writing is on the wall. "They assume things will get better at their current company," she says. "They assume they'll eventually get a raise or promotion. They wait and wait. But staying at one company for too long can decrease your long-term financial – and professional – outlook."
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