Here are the most common career-killing mistakes I see in my practice:
- Complaining about harassment: This is really the number one problem I see. If you write a long email to HR or your boss complaining that you are being "harassed," you aren't protected against retaliation. While harassment due to race, age, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or another legally-protected category is illegal, just plain "harassment" is not. So reporting it that way doesn't protect you against retaliation. When I ask why people didn't report that they were being treated differently than coworkers of a different race, sex, etc. they usually say something like, "I didn't want to go there." Well, if you'd gone there, firing you for your complaint would have been illegal. But firing you for saying you were harassed or bullied: not illegal.
- Disclosing pregnancy or disability during interviews or applications: So many people think they have to disclose a pregnancy or disability right up front when they're job hunting. And I know many misguided TV shows portray failing to do so as somehow dishonest. But disclosing pregnancy or disability before you get a job offer mostly means the offer will never happen. You need to disclose after you get the offer, and only if you need accommodations such as time off for doctor's appointments. If the job offer is withdrawn after you seek accommodations, you might have a discrimination case.
- Failing to put in for intermittent Family and Medical Leave: If you have worked at least a year and your employer has at least 50 employees, odds are you qualify for FMLA. If you need periodic time off for doctor's appointments, to care for a family member, to adjust your medications, or other medical reasons, then put in for intermittent FMLA. That way, you are legally protected against having those absences, latenesses, or leaving early held against you. I'm not sure why many employees are so hesitant to put in for FMLA when they or a family member have a serious medical condition. FMLA is there to protect you. Use it.
- Failing to report sexual harassment in writing: If the boss or a coworker is hitting on you, making inappropriate comments or touching you, report it under the company's sexual harassment policy, but do so in writing. Otherwise, I find that HR will almost always denied that you made any legally protected complaint. They'll claim you complained about unfair treatment or harassment or bullying but never mentioned that it was sexual harassment.
- Failing to get out of a toxic environment: If you have a workplace that is making you physically or mentally ill due to bullying or other toxic conditions, get the heck out of there. But do it on your own time. Start looking and keep working. The mere act of job hunting will frequently make the terrible job more bearable.
- Quitting without having a job lined up: If you let a sexual harasser or workplace bully run you out of a job before you have something lined up, they win. You're letting them put you in an even worse situation. When people tell me the workplace is too stressful and they have to get out, I ask them if they will be more stressed staying in the workplace or whether they will be more stressed being unemployed for 6 months or a year. It's way easier to get a job if you have a job. If you're in physical danger, then get out no matter what. Otherwise, unless you have enough savings to last at least a year while you're job hunting, try to stick out the bad situation while you're looking. Having a large resume gap is often a career killer. Oh, and nobody can actually force you to resign.
Hopefully I've just stopped you from making one of these career-killing mistakes. Tell a friend or a family member. Spread the word.