Is it Time to Move On? How to Read the Writing on the Wall

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by Calvin Bruce

Most professionals derive a great deal of satisfaction in landing a job that offers a clear career pathway, challenging responsibilities, equitable rewards for outstanding performance, and the psychological benefits of being a valuable contributor to the organization’s success. What more could one ask for from a job?

But the workplace culture and environment can alter rapidly with changes in upper management. Promotional opportunities – once plentiful – may become severely restricted to only a chosen few.

The expectation of remaining with the organization until cozy retirement may suddenly become a pipe dream.

Under such circumstances, what is the proper course of action? The first course of action is to clearly read the handwriting on the wall. 

Early in my tutelage as a professional recruiter and career counselor, a wise mentor advised me, “Always trust your instincts. You’ll never go wrong.” Since then, I have passed along those words of wisdom to scores of young and seasoned professionals.

Trust your instincts

Here are some workplace situations that should instinctively put you on the alert:

Your company is targeted for take-over, “hostile” or otherwise.

No matter the dollar value involved, any merger or acquisition portends upheaval in the workplace – even if upper management and Human Resources try to dispel the anxiety and panic that naturally spread throughout the organization.

The prevailing thought among the corporate family is “Who will be let go?” Obviously, there will be no need for duplicate roles. The acquiring company automatically has the upper hand. Regardless of seniority, their associates are in a favored position to keep their jobs.

If your organization faces cutbacks, where would that put you as decisions are made concerning the realignment of staff personnel? This uncertainty alone may justify beginning a low-key job search.

Your company is in the crosshairs of state or federal investigation.

Such action can result in devastating consequences. Case in point: the Enron scandal of 2001 that resulted in dissolution of the firm and its auditor, Arthur Andersen.

Even the hint of scandal can – and often does – tarnish the professional reputations of anyone associated with the organization. Even if the average employee may have been completely in the dark, onlookers wonder, “Couldn’t you have discerned what was going on that led to a government investigation?”

If you face this scenario, be advised that the aura of “guilt by association” is virtually inevitable. Thus, it may be advisable to think seriously about moving on before the full brunt of legal consequences takes its toll on the future of the enterprise.

Your boss “resigns” unexpectedly.

This may or may not portend some serious ramifications that affect your longevity with the company. The resignation may be entirely personal and understandable. But it’s possible the boss may be facing some serious circumstances that justify departure from the company for the good of all concerned.

What immediately comes to mind are sudden resignations that issue from #MeToo accusations of inappropriate workplace behavior. To minimize further scandal, it’s determined that the accused resign and fade from the scene, as much as possible.

Or because of less than stellar performance, the boss may be ushered out the door. Clearly, when the boss loses the respect and confidence of his or her superiors, his or her days with the company are numbered. With little or no advance notice, there’s a glaring vacancy one rung above you on the corporate totem pole.

You may assume that none of these hypothetical scenarios would have a bearing on your job security. Wrong! No matter what precipitates your boss’s leaving the organization, you will soon be reporting to someone else. That could be a current management figure who has been groomed to become the successor. Alternately, it may be an outsider brought in as “new blood” to revitalize the department or division of the company that has lost a key senior manager or executive.

Again, not knowing the outcome of this human resources shake-up, it may be advantageous to scout the market for what, hopefully, could be “greener pastures.”

Your workload and assigned projects are reduced significantly, or your travel and entertainment budget is slashed dramatically or comes under intense scrutiny.

These could be real tell-tale signs that your days are numbered. For instance, a major project on the drawing board that would involve out-of-town travel that was initially assigned to you is suddenly – and without satisfactorily explanation – delegated to someone else, perhaps an associate with less experience and seniority.

How would you react under such circumstances? Issuing a complaint would not serve you well. After all, everyone in the organization is supposed to be a team player, right?

Even if you express your dissatisfaction to your boss confidentially, your grievance would undoubtedly trickle up the totem pole. And when any employee is thought to be unhappy, the only logical recourse – in the minds of Human Resources and upper management – is for you to find a place of employment where you will be happier.

Your annual performance review is put on hold with no further explanation.

How do you respond? Certainly, you can’t force the issue and demand a performance review. In fact, expressing any sort of dissatisfaction can hasten your involuntary departure. Feeling “unwanted” is the emotional component of a workplace reality that is too obvious to ignore. In simple terms, it appears obvious the company is giving you ample time to find other employment.

You’re asked to mentor a new employee whose job description mirrors your own.

This is serious business that cannot be swept under the rug. In some respects, this is, perhaps, the most telling handwriting on the wall.

Upper management would likely explain the new hire as an effort to bring new blood into the corporate body, perhaps under the guise of expanding diversity. Your assignment is to take the new associate “under your wings” and motivating him or her to achieve a high level of productivity as soon as possible.

In one sense, it serves a purpose for the new hire to shadow you so closely. In the event that something would happen to you – such as a lengthy, extended illness – he could step in and maintain the workflow. On the other hand, there appears to be no reason to employ two associates doing essentially the same thing.

Catch a clue: In less than subtle fashion, the organization is pointing you to the exit door. It’s foolhardy to deny that reality and tell yourself that everything will be okay.

Practical course of action

When the handwriting on the wall is this clear, you have no choice but to initiate a job search. If the organization has given you a set timeframe for landing another position, it’s imperative to move full speed ahead. If your instincts tell you it’s wise to at least scout the market, start thinking about the appropriate steps to take.

Here are some practical tips to “make the best of a bad situation” (to quote Gladys Knight), as you reassess your occupational situation:

Maintain productivity.

Don’t give the company reason to speed up your departure. Granted, active or even passive job hunting will put you in another mindset. Understandably, the passion you have for your work may diminish.

Even so, try as much as possible to maintain a high level of productivity. After all, you will want to receive a positive – if not “glowing” – reference from your current employer.

The worst case scenario is to slacken your workplace performance, so much so that they employer might say, “She did very good work until her departure loomed on the horizon. Then she became lackadaisical and, frankly, we’re glad she’s gone!”

Don’t bad-mouth your employer.

Facing an imminent exodus from the organization is typically accompanied by strong negative emotions. Resist the temptation to discuss your discontent even with trusted confidants. Frankly, you never know exactly what coworkers might say – not to your face, necessarily; but behind your back. Perhaps you feel, “I’m leaving soon; so I don’t really care.” That attitude can come back with a vicious bite to you- know-where.

It’s a truism that whatever you say about your boss will get back to them, and such remarks will not be well received. They can taint your reputation and make it virtually impossible to ever return to that place of employment.

Also keep in mind that many industries are close-knit. Key movers and shakers know one another. It’s possible that you might end up interviewing with someone who has worked where you work now and knows personnel there.

Your departure from the company may end up being speedier than you imagined. Worse yet, what is perceived as airing “sour grapes” can be a strike against you that prevents you from getting the new job.

Job hunt discreetly.

As the old saying goes, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Whether your employer gives you time to find another job or you casually begin to scout the marketplace, proceed with caution and utmost discretion.

Suppose your employer grants you time off for interviewing. If so, you don’t need to announce to the world where you interview and specifics of the opportunities you are pursuing. Frankly, it’s no one’s business.

For one thing, it’s ill-advised to give employment leads to coworkers who might also be scouting the market. It’s not unheard of for unscrupulous colleagues to submit their resumes for the same job that their associates have interviewed for.

Furthermore, it’s important that you control the outcome of your search. Being in contention as a job candidate is not the same as receiving an actual job offer. Prematurely discussing a potential job offer with your colleagues or current boss may not be in your best interest. Your employer might opt to cut the ties sooner than later.

The Positive Side

For many, leaving a job they have held for a lengthy period takes an emotional toll. Even bad experiences have memories that are at least bittersweet. And the thought of starting over can produce a lot of anxiety, even when it seems like the best thing to do.

But look on the bright side of things. For one thing, a new position gives you a fresh start and clean slate. With experience, you can avoid missteps or miscues of the past. You have new and unlimited opportunity to prove your worth and establish your brand as a highly valuable associate.

Secondly, you may discover a better overall career path at your new place of employment. The circumstances that held you back in the past may be nonexistent in your new occupational role. Additionally, the wealth of experience, array of skillsets and breadth of insights you have developed over the years will serve you well in advancing within the new organization.

Thirdly, you will have the chance to develop new friendships and associations. Every workplace has a few toxic employees who gripe and complain, gossip and sow discord. Sometimes, this toxicity surfaces only after a workplace friendship is established. And you may have you asked yourself: “How come I didn’t see their true colors before I took them into my confidence?” Hindsight is always 20/20.

Starting a new job allows you to be more selective and discerning in choosing close associates.

Conclusion

Only members of the U.S. Supreme Court have a job for life. Even chief executives with seven-figure earnings have been toppled from their lofty perches.

Clearly, unforeseen circumstances at any moment can derail your plans for staying with your current company. When handwriting on the wall clues you in to the fact that your occupational situation may be a bit shaky, it’s high time to at least scout the market for what might offer more long- term security.

Job hunting need not be a dreaded endeavor. If you continue to be productive and discreet in exploring options and opportunities, chances are that you will find something suitable sooner or later. Make sure, though, that you don’t burn your bridges – such as speaking negatively of your employer. Stay positive and focused on doing the best job you possibly can. After all, your reputation means everything.

Who knows? At some point in the future, you current employer might even invite you to return. Should you? That’s the subject for another article entirely.

Calvin Bruce recently retired from a recruiting company designated as “Atlanta’s Best Employer” (in its size category) three years in a row. He has regularly contributed articles to publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Atlanta Employment Weekly, National Law Review, MBA and the Engineer, and IM Diversity.

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