Has the senior partner stopped introducing you to new clients? Have you been assigned a “special project” or more work than you can handle? Falling out of favor is a tough blow to the ego, but it doesn’t have to ruin your career.
Does this sound familiar? You land your dream job at a firm that offers a clear path for advancement, with all the values you’ve ever sought in an employer, and a salary that far surpasses expectations. Add to that the great atmosphere, rampant teamwork and, well, let’s not even get into the fantastic benefits.
You have arrived.
But, after a while, something changes. Sure, things seem normal on the surface, but there are subtle signs your dream job is not so dreamy anymore. At first, you ignore the signals. Then, you begin to wonder — is it your imagination or is something really going on? You tell yourself it’s the firm that’s changing; it’s not you. Yet you can’t pinpoint what has changed.
Uh, oh. Finally, you realize you might be in trouble here.
That’s trouble with a T: no praising with a P.
Brutally Honest Signs You Are Falling Out of Favor
Has your boss stopped calling? Stopped introducing you to new clients or handing you new matters or projects? Falling out of favor with your boss — particularly when you believe everything is fine – is a tough blow to the ego. It stings so much that many people take shelter in denial, pretending everything is A-OK, rather than address what’s really happening.
Unless you turn around and face reality, you will waste time working for someone who is not exactly high on you anymore, and your career will suffer. Here are the signs to watch for.
1. You’re receiving assignments beneath your level of competency.
Despite your awesome credentials, your boss has chosen you to be the errand runner or lower-level clerk. Added to that, you frequently stay after team meetings to clean up the conference room. You thought this was the job where you would get ahead, but it’s hard to do that when your boss views you as the office intern and cleanup crew. Although you’re one of the hardest workers on the team, your efforts are being wasted on menial tasks or lower-level assignments.
Career-saving tip: It all depends on your boss and your specific situation, of course. If this is a highly competitive job that will be a steppingstone to a high-salary position in a year or two, maybe you stick it out. But if you want to stay yet can’t bear the thought of being a glorified intern, take some positive action. First, stop ordering the birthday cakes, bringing in the Friday bagels and washing the coffee cups. You are creating the perception that you are an intern, not the competent professional that you are. Then, make a “brag book” and fill it with specific examples of your noteworthy successes while on the job. Present it to your boss and ask for added responsibilities. Pitch a new project or idea you’ve been cooking up, and tell your boss you’d like the opportunity to pursue it. Ask for the assignment above the ones that you have been getting, i.e., you are destined to order medical records. Ask to write the discovery brief that illuminates the hot docs.
2. Your firm is not making money.
If your firm is unprofitable, it’s ripe for some kind of change — whether job cuts, reorganization, the pursuit of a new business strategy, or a merger. You notice there are a lot of meetings behind closed doors, consultants are being called in and there is a rumor of partners leaving. You feel that you might not be able to survive this crisis. No matter what, you have to realize your job may be in jeopardy.
Career-saving tip: Pay particular attention to the way your department or practice group is viewed inside your firm for further clues. If its function is viewed as a commodity — or the “stepchild” — the partners may decide to shutter the group, outsource the entire department or replace the department head with someone cheaper. If the work is just trickling in, it’s definitely a red flag. Either way, start looking for a new job.
3. Your top priorities don’t match your boss’s.
This is a clear indication that you and your boss are drifting apart. Unless you get back in alignment, they may decide to let you go. Similarly, if you find your lines of communication with your boss are drying up — or worse, you are assigned to report to someone else — it means you’re no longer a priority in her mind. If you were, she’d devote at least some of her precious time to you.
Career-saving tip: Check in with your boss regularly to make sure you’re on the same page. Send regular status reports to let them know where you are and what’s going on,
4. You screw up big time.
Screwing up an assignment has cost countless legal professionals their jobs. If you consistently miss project deadlines, whether you’re a lawyer, paralegal or business professional, the firm is going to toss you out and hire someone who can get the job done. Also, if the project for which you’re ultimately accountable causes your firm to lose a client, you can count on getting canned.
“You’re not a fit” is code for “you’re causing trouble here.”
Career-saving tip: Come up with a way to spin your failure so that it doesn’t appear to be such a big liability when you interview for your next job.
5. Your boss places unreasonable demands on you.
If you are continually asked to do something without the right resources, beware — say, your boss tasks you with building a database for a case with millions of documents but fails to provide the right software. Of course, some bosses may place unrealistic demands on you because they truly do not understand what’s humanly possible in your role; in that case, you need to educate them. But sometimes a new boss who wants to get rid of an incumbent team member will use the tactic of setting unreasonable expectations. They’re setting you up to fail so they can eliminate you.
Career-saving tip: Being set up to fail is tough. The best you can do, especially if this is happening under a new boss, is to “take the high ground” and try to understand your new boss’s demands from their perspective. They may not be all that unreasonable — just different from what your previous boss wanted.
On the other hand, this position just might not work for you anymore. It may be time to start perusing job websites and calling your nearest recruiter.
6. Your boss asks you to work on “special projects.”
Special projects are a euphemism for busywork. When you’re assigned to special projects, it may mean the boss has lost confidence in your ability to perform your normal duties satisfactorily, so she’s trying to get you off the matters you’ve been working on until she can find your replacement. With rare exceptions, the purpose of special projects is to put someone on an island without having to give them a lot of maintenance.
Career-saving tip: Unless the special project is one that other high-level employees are involved in or it’s an incredible move for the firm, it’s too late to save face. The best you can do is keep a smile on your face in the office while blowing the dust off your resume.
7. You notice paper trails between yourself and your supervisors.
Suddenly, you notice everything is happening through emails instead of casual conversations. There’s a reason for that. HR requires written or printed evidence of everything if there’s to be a firing. A paper trail is necessary to determine that your manager did everything by the book, and to record every single one of your screw-ups. They may keep a document you prepared riddled with typos. They may quote a complaint from a colleague. So, if you’ve gone from getting a few emails per week to a daily deluge of paper and a full inbox, you can bet your sweet bottom that you’re being watched very, very closely.
Career-saving tip: If you feel like you’re falling out of favor, have a heart-to-heart. Your boss will either come clean about what’s going on or continue to keep you in the dark. Either way, that handwriting is prominently on the wall.
8. You are told you are “not a good fit”
This is the career buster of all career busters. Firms are not only seeking the most talented, skilled and savvy employees, they’re also looking for people who can mesh well with the firm’s goals, culture and values. Any conversation you have about your fit should be treated as a warning sign that your boss (and others) may not like you.
“You are not a fit” is code for “You’re causing too much friction here,” or more directly: “People don’t like working with you.”
A lot of managers use “lack of fit” as the magical potion for dismissal since it can’t really be disputed. It’s all in the eye of the beholder — and if that beholder is your boss, you just ran out of luck.
Career-saving tip: You can ask someone to “fix” things like tardiness, or improve specific job skills, but it’s hard to tell someone to change their personality. If you don’t “fit in” anymore, or your personality clashes with a superior, or drives colleagues nuts, it’s time to open up your network and find out what’s happening in the job market. It’s far better than crying in the shower every morning because you think nobody likes you.
9. Your personality seems to be a problem.
People don’t get hired for their skills. They get hired for their skills and their personality. The reason that most people get hired is the same as the reason most people get fired. And that reason is personality.
You get chosen for a job interview because your resume, and maybe a pre-screening phone call, confirm that you have the desired credentials. But nearly every other candidate interviewed will also have those same skills. So, the hiring decision almost invariably comes down to personality. Which candidate did the hiring manager like the most? Which one is a better fit with the team and the firm culture? That’s who gets hired.
It’s also why people get fired. Most employment relationships come to an end over some form of a personality clash between an employee and a manager, or a staff member’s fit with the overall team. That’s because teams evolve. Staff come and go, people are promoted, new managers are brought in, and firms are restructured. The job your personality got you hired for could have a completely different vibe six months or a year down the road.
Career-saving tip: In my career motivational, rah-rah seminars, I always say: “A job is not a marriage. At some point, you leave.” Don’t stay until the bitter end. It can cost you your mental health, make your family unhappy — and you may find yourself out on the street with no plan B.
Most People Lose a Job at Some Point
I was fired from the Bob’s Big Boy job I had as a teen when, as a new server, I was carrying a tray and dropped six root beers and a coffee on a customer. Life does go on, believe me, and this is where you pick yourself up, learn what you can from the experience, and move on.
There are wonderful new experiences on the way. It’s time to go and seek them out.
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