Four Signs You Have a Dead-End Job

Back Bloomberg Dec 3, 2015 By Sarah Grant

The balance of power in the workplace has begun to shift subtly from employers to employees, resulting in what the Harvard Business Review dubs a “candidate-driven” economy. That means if you’re a young professional unhappy with what you’re doing, you’re in a better position than ever to make a move.

But it’s not always obvious what a bad job looks like if you haven’t been in the workforce very long, said Catherine Tinsley, a Georgetown University management professor who researches workplacedynamics. Women, especially, are known to stay in work environments that aren’t conducive to career advancement, she said, because they are more conservative about taking job risks. Women are so aware of seeming annoying in a negotiation that some won’t negotiate at all, she said.  

Tinsley has noticed that certain company policies can signal that advancement will be difficult for the average employee—and for female employees in particular. The signs she identifies can help anyone, male or female, figure out whether her daily grind will add up to a promotion or whether it’s time to dust off the résumé. Here are Tinsley’s four red flags:  

Job negotiations are one-off events

Many companies have annual performance reviews only during set windows when an employee can seek a promotion (just when everyone else is asking for one), hurting your odds of getting ahead, Tinsley said. If that’s the case, creating your own timeline by meeting with your superior every quarter will alleviate the pressure of an annual performance review and help you correct mistakes sooner. “You’re putting a bug in their ear,” said Tinsley. “Touch-base meetings will give you more opportunities for feedback on what excellent performance looks like and how it will be rewarded.”

During these talks, Tinsley recommends having an exit strategy in the event your boss doesn’t give you what you’re asking for. “What would make him say yes? You want to leave the meeting with a time frame and a plan of action so that in three months, you can come back with specific results he or she wants.”

An example: If you ask for a promotion and get turned down, your exit strategy could be to ask your boss for two to three concrete examples that would make her say “yes” after a set time frame (three months is a good benchmark, she said).

Salaries are mismanaged

Salary transparency can be a tricky path for companies for many reasons, such as disclosing bonus compensation, said Tinsley. But if you know that you’re being paid less than a colleague who does the same work, it’s worth asking your superior about the disconnect before growing resentful or wasting your time. “One of the things we know from research is that the absolute amount a person is paid matters less to an employee than whether their colleague is making more in the same position,” said Tinsley. One way companies can preempt these conversations is by constructing equity equations that show what every role is awarded that’s diagnostic of actual performance, said Tinsley.

When your company isn’t transparent about its salary policies, it’s not just unfair—it could mean you’re in a dead- end job. Employees who aren’t aware of their worth, and can’t quantify what more responsibility equates to in a salary, are less likely to advance.

According to Tinsley, if you find out that a peer is compensated more than you are for the same work, it’s important to have your own measured outcomes readily available before you confront the boss. Have you made money for the company? Added clients? Led successful projects? If you’re at a company that won’t provide specifics job equity and you’re still underpaid, it’s time to look for anotherjob.

The executive board is full of outside hires

The leadership board of any company is a good litmus test for how balanced the company is in gender and race, said Tinsley, but it’s also an important indication of whether a company encourages upward mobility within its staff. “Lots of companies like to tout women who are on executive boards,” said Tinsley. “But did those women rise through the ranks of the company, or were they plucked from other firms?”

For publicly traded companies, you can find the board members’ background in SEC filings. If a company’s board is composed of outside hires, the first step is to investigate the underlying reasons by asking your managers if they notice the trend. With a little digging, you can find out how your company is cultivating young women. More often than not, you will see a pattern, said Tinsley.

Few employees take advantage of flexible work policies

Offering such benefits as extended family leave and the ability to work remotely is in vogue at companies such as Netflix as a way of retaining top talent. But taking advantage of that freedom can hurt you if no one else at the company is doing so, said Tinsley. “It can be great to have the capacity to integrate other parts of your life with work, but is every employee taking advantage of these benefits?” she asked. If your colleagues get more face time with managers than you and are better equipped to take on work by simply being in the office, those work-from-home policies could beworking against you.

Women are traditionally more likely than men to choose to work from home, Tinsley said, which puts them at a disadvantage if they’re being compared to men who are more visible to supervisors. Plus, a work environment where there is an unspoken penalty for taking advantage of benefits is a culture of inequality, said Tinsley.