how to ruin your professional reputation

Your professional reputation is enormously important; it’s what will make people want to work with you, hire you, and respect you as a colleague. It can be your safety net – getting you work when you need it, and putting you in a position where you have options and don’t need to stay in a bad situation or take the first opportunity that comes along.

But it’s easy to squander this incredibly valuable resource, and it doesn’t take much to do it. Here are eight easy ways to ruin your work reputation.

1. Accept a job offer and then back out later. People sometimes accept one job offer but continue interviewing in case they get an offer they like better – but there’s a huge cost to your reputation for doing this; you’ll be known as someone whose word is suspect and who cuts and runs. And people from one company have a way of popping up again at other companies you may want to work for. Imagine that you really want a job offer in the future, and one of the decision-makers is someone who used to work for this employer. “Jane took a job with us but backed out right before she was supposed to start” are not words you want spoken about you when you’re interviewing.

2. Worse, start a new job and then quit after a month for a different one. It’s one thing if the job is truly a bad fit and you’re miserable or if it’s not what you were led to believe it would be during the hiring process. But starting a new job and then leaving it quickly just because something better came along is a good way to do the same damage as in #1 above – but it’s even worse since the company will have invested time and resources into training you, introducing you to clients, and so forth.

3. Lose your temper at work. It’s normal to occasionally get frustrated at work, but you’re crossing a line if you’re yelling, slamming doors, or snapping at people. It only takes one incident like this to get a reputation as the angry guy who no one wants to work with, and that’s a label that’s very hard to shake.

4. Lie. Whether it’s lying to cover up a mistake or adding a few thousand dollars to your salary history in the hopes of getting a better offer, getting caught lying is a sure-fire way to fatally harm your reputation with anyone who hears about it. The workplace depends on being able to take people at their word; if you show that people can’t trust you, you’ll have a terrible time building the relationships that you need at work and when you’re looking for your next job.

5. Make commitments that you don’t keep. You build credibility by showing people that you mean what you say – doing what you say you’re going to do and following through on commitments. But if you do the opposite – if you say you’ll send that report over by Monday but forget to do it, or promise to set up a meeting about your new account but don’t follow through – you’ll ruin your credibility and get a reputation for flakiness and unreliability.

6. Recommend someone for a job when you don’t really think they would be right for it. When you recommend someone for a job, you’re vouching for them – you’re saying that the person does what you consider to be great work, and that they’re someone you’d be thrilled to work with. But if it’s not true, you couldend up being known as “the person who felt Joe’s work was fine, when in fact Joe’s work was awful and he was impossible to work with.”  After all, your assessment of someone’s work says something about your own work, standards, and judgment.

7. Quit your job without notice. Unless you have really, really good reason, quitting your job without notice will burn bridges with your employer (and often your coworkers too) and can be the kiss of death for future reference calls. Fairly or not, two weeks notice is the professional standard.

8. Send a hostile email after something happens that you don’t like. Whether it’s jotting off an angry response to a new policy at work or sending a bitter reply after you get rejected for a job, angry letter bombs are hard to live down. You’ll look like someone who doesn’t know how to address concerns calmly and professionally – and most people will respond by giving you a wide berth.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    #6 has gotten me in trouble before — I’ve wanted to help out an acquaintance who wasn’t qualified, and I’m pretty sure it’s resulted in people thinking that I have no idea how to assess what a good graphic designer does. So now I won’t recommend someone unless I’ve seen her portfolio backwards and forwards, or preferably have worked with her and can vouch not only for her skills but also for her working style.

    1. COT*

      Agreed–after recommending a friend or two who didn’t work out well (fortunately it was just a college student job, so lower-stakes) I am very careful about who I recommend. I have to know and trust someone a lot to recommend them. If I don’t know them well I’m always open about that with the hiring manager. I usually say something like, “I know them in this way and I like X and Y, but I haven’t worked with them enough to say much about Z.” I also make it clear that I respect the hiring manager’s decision so that I don’t come across as overly pushing one candidate (because what if that person doesn’t work out?).

    2. Christine*

      Exactly. I’ve gotten requests to serve as a reference for friends–not sure if they were meant to be as a character reference or not–but with one friend, I told her (after thinking about it) that I was not comfortable recommending her because I’d never actually worked with her. To be honest, I couldn’t really recommend her in good faith anyway just because of her personality. So I too will be much more careful going forward in accepting a reference request.

    3. Jessa*

      OH yes, I would never recommend someone unless I was sure because that just reflects rather terribly on me.

  2. Mike C.*

    Leaving my last job with no notice was the best professional decision I’ve ever made. My pay has doubled, I’m finally treated with respect and dignity and my whole outlook on life has improved.

    Giving them two weeks notice would have been akin to giving two weeks notice to ending an emotionally abusive relationship.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I assume, though, that you had extenuating circumstances that made that the right choice and it’s not something you’d recommend as a general practice?

      1. Mike C.*

        Yes, I had a laundry list of them. I posted not to disagree with you (you certainly did leave the door open for leaving w/o notice), but to reiterate that it’s a legitimate option for those who are in really bad situations, and that it’s not always career suicide.

        If you’re in a really bad situation and you have a way out, leave.

    2. A Teacher*

      Same thing here. Its not something I’d ever recommend people do but the last company I worked for lost the last bit of respect when they told us they “changed the bonus structure to make it harder” without any notice. I went from 94% at the fourth quarter review to 88% at year end when my numbers were consistently in the 90s all year. When asked how to get back to where I was or if I was less efficient at my job, the response was “we can’t tell you how to fix it because you’re doing better than this but we’re giving you this number because we can.” When we hadn’t had raises in 3+ years even though management had, our bonuses were are only extra money. That was just one of many things… abusive relationship for sure.

  3. Jane*

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say, in my opinion it’s unfortunate that #1 and #2 (backing out on an acceptance or accepting a job and moving on shortly thereafter) are viewed in a negative light. I can understand why, but it strikes me as an example of the employers holding all the cards. Employers have zero loyalty to employees in most cases but employees are expected to have a certain amount of loyalty. If an employer backs out on a job offer without a good reason, it is not automatically going to affect the employer’s reputation in the same way that it would affect the employee’s reputation to back out on an acceptance. Also, I think it’s fair (but again, I understand why people would judge someone for it) to think that an employee should feel obligated to stay in a job if something better comes along that is a better fit. It strikes me as unfortunate because employers will do what they want and need to do without regard to employees’ needs or feeling a sense of loyalty to employees and it may or may not affect that employer’s reputation. I would guess that it may have far less of impact on the willingness of others to work for that company in this economy as compared to the impact that would occur in a robust economy. My take on this whole thing is that my employer owes me nothing other than paychecks for the work I have done to date. And I owe my employer nothing other than doing the work for which I am being paid.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Actually, most employers will not rescind a job offer if a better candidate comes along 3 weeks after they offered the job to someone else. Some will, but most won’t.

      And doing so can indeed affect their reputation! Wouldn’t you have real qualms about accepting an offer when you’d heard that they’d rescinded someone else’s? Now, whether or not people hear about it is certainly a question, but that’s true when we’re talking about employees doing it as well.

      1. Mike C.*

        This means that people need to be willing to actually name names when they talk about stories like this. I find that most folks won’t for fear of appearing “unprofessional” or “overly dramatic”.

        1. Legal Eagle*

          I think the internet is changing the game in some industries. In the legal field, people anonymously tip off the legal tabloid Above the Law. ATL has covered many “stealth layoffs” and “soft forced retirements,” naming the law firms in their stories. The stories are corroborated by multiple employees at the firms, without ATL stating who the sources are. The archives were useful when I was interviewing. I would know if I was interviewing for a large law firm that had just let go of hundreds of attorneys and staff.

          Of course, this has not happened in every field or for every company.

          1. Cat*

            Yeah, for some reason, I think the legal field is not terrible about this (possibly because there’s so many abusive jerks; people had to develop coping mechanisms). When I was interviewing for clerkships with judges, my school maintained extensive files, accessible only to students and alumni, about different judges, including special notes about particular judges who were known to do things like fire clerks on a whim halfway through the clerkship. It was important given that – unsurprisingly – federal judges are otherwise the ones with all the power in the relationship.

    2. Jane*

      This should be an obvious typo but I meant to say “I DON’T think it’s fair (but again, I understand why people would judge someone for it) . . .”

  4. Kelly O*

    I’ve lost my temper before and I’m certainly not proud of that. In some cases I realize I came across as a petulant child, although I will say that there have been a few times I actually won some respect by finally losing my temper and speaking out. (I’m not saying I recommend it as a career strategy and certainly it’s better to stand up for yourself as you go, rather than waiting until your nerves are completely shot.)

    I’ve walked out on a job once. I do not recommend it. (Although for me personally it was kind of sweet to just walk up to the boss from h-e-double-sippy-straws and just tell her I was done. I spent my lunch hour clearing stuff out of my desk while everyone else was gone. When she came back, I just put an envelope with a resignation letter, my door key, and my parking lot access key on her desk and told her I was done. Again, not the best response as a general rule and I’ve not done it before or since. It was an act of desperation, which I recognized in hindsight. )

    The main bullet point of these two situations is that you need to learn to have the confidence to speak up for yourself before you get in dire straits and feel you have no other options, or when your frazzled nerves finally snap.

    1. Erik*

      I’m with you Kelly. I’ve been there a couple of times in my past when I bailed without notice, but only when it was absolutely necessary.

      Sometimes you need to go before you snap. I had one co-worker walk away because of the situation he was in, and he didn’t want to have a confrontation. It was better for him to walk away and not be upset.

    2. RLS*

      Agreed. My current workplace is so toxic, unprofessional, horribly managed, and inconsistent that people learn from the get-go the only way to get anything done is lose their temper. Everyone is constantly on the defense because of it. It’s a common sight to see a frontline person in tears. I can feel my own skills deteriorating because of the constant stress level. People walk out about every other week and they don’t care, nor does management realize they are the problem.

      I know the SECOND I get a “real” job offer; if they want me to start earlier than two weeks, I am on it like white on rice. Not like it’s likely that a professional-level job would ask that, but if they did…peace out, girl scouts! I am only sticking with this place so that I can get close to my work anniversary and not look like a job-hopper.

      1. Mike C.*

        Like I said above, once you have that real job offer, just leave. Those extra days are great to get random things done around the house or just to play video games in your PJs. The ability to have a few days to unwind will help you get a better start at a new job.

    3. Christine*

      I’ve been guilty of losing my temper at work as well. Definitely not proud of it. My breaking point tends to be a bit shorter than others’, particularly when there’s a lot going on at once, but I’m learning to just leave the room when I start to feel agitated.

  5. Erik*

    I’ve been guilty of #3 and #7. Then again, we all have at some point. It’s a matter of how often it happens and if there’s a strong pattern.

    My experience with #7 was thankfully been during my first couple of years of work – not much since then. These days I think before I type and click on the Send button. Sometimes it’s better to walk away for a short break and then come back.

  6. Tiff*

    Just adding to the list from my own experience working. I can’t make this stuff up:

    1. Sleep with the boss. Don’t worry when the boss gets fired, the new will love you the same as the old one, right? Riiiiiight.

    2. Gain the trust of upper management and use that freedom to squire your married boyfriend to out of town conferences. Put romantic lunches on your company tab.

    3. Refuse to do any work that you don’t feel you are being compensated for. Forget that you are actually required to do that work. When asked about it, file a false complaint of harassment and bullying. Get fired.

    4. Spend so much of your work day in casual conversation that no one in the entire department knows what you do. Even after you get fired, no one knows what you were SUPPOSED to be doing.

    5. Loudly threaten to “slap a hoe” while sitting at your desk.

    6. Tell anyone who will listen about your recreational drug habit. It’s cool, right?

  7. Christine*

    I’d like to add another one:

    #9 – Lacking self-confidence. I’ve been told before that my anxiety tends to alienate people, and I can understand why. You want to work with people who project confidence in their skills and interpersonal interactions, or at least not being afraid to say “I don’t know, but I’ll look into it” or reading up on an unfamiliar topic. I know all of that intellectually, but in the moment, the brain just automatically switches to scaredy-cat mode.

    1. KellyK*

      Just remember, you don’t have to be confident, you just have to fake it. Being aware that anxiety can hurt people’s impression of you can make that anxiety *worse.*

  8. Ed*

    I did #8 once. Saying something stupid out of anger is one thing, even in front of witnesses, but putting it in an email ensures it will live forever. I only did it once but I hear it’s still circulating years later:)

    1. tcookson*

      Someone at an office I used to work at left a company-wide voicemail message right after she came out of the bathroom where nobody had replaced the toilet paper . . . there was this big, long rant about how uncomfortable it is to be out of toilet paper because nobody is courteous enough to refill the roll.

      I kept that voicemail for MONTHS so I could replay it when I needed to laugh

  9. Riki*

    Guilty of #3. It was definitely immature of me. However, looking back, the office environment was extremely unhealthy and not a good fit for me. I wanted to get out and I think, unconsciously, I found a way to get out, although it was not the *right* thing to do. I didn’t ruin my life, but it definitely put an end to that job as I got “laid off” shortly after.

    The upsides are that it taught me that I really need to pay attention to my gut/yellow flags before they turn into red flags and I no longer have to deal with a situation, or be around people, I find so distasteful.

  10. Ali*

    Had someone do #8 to me the other day. Yeah, I am not perfect (but who is), but it pretty much sucked to get an angry e-mail that listed all your wrongdoings and offenses that you never knew about! I’m not much for revenge or anything like that, but if I were, I could’ve had it forwarded/viral like crazy, as the person who did it works in one of those small world type of fields.

  11. Lora*

    Definitely walked out of a job with no notice before. And I would do it again in the same situation. I was asked to do something highly illegal. I replied, “I am not comfortable with doing that because it is illegal, and Regulatory Agency recently fined us a pile of money because of that.” I was told to do it anyway, with HR as a witness to the conversation. “I am not comfortable with that. It could really hurt people who received that product since it is known to be contaminated. Furthermore I don’t want to be debarred from the industry. If Boss is comfortable with this, then he is welcome to over-ride my work, but I don’t want to sign my name to that.” Got a nasty letter from a much more senior manager telling me that I had better do it by the end of the day Or Else. Carefully put the senior manager’s note on Boss’ desk, along with the stack of paperwork for the poisoned product, and walked out.

    In fact I wish I had had the resources to walk out of some jobs after a month. Bait-and-switch, finding out that the company is really in dire straits and might not last much longer, finding out your boss doesn’t really have the money to pay you what he promised…that’s good reason to bail early, and if you bail early enough, maybe they can call their second choice back before they’ve invested too much in you.

    1. Anonymous*

      They told you to do something illegal in writing?!?!? Sounds like a good case for reporting to Regulatory Agency (in the interest of protecting the public)

  12. Andy*

    I think there is another angle to #1: recommendations from old bosses can actually backfire. In my situation, an old boss of mine reached out to me with a job offer. I was not actively looking to leave but I figured why waste the opportunity to at least learn about the company. I went and interviewed, and they ended up counter-offering to me three times and I rejected all of the offers.

    In this case I think I may very well have burned a bridge with my old boss. I never formally accepted the job, but I’m sure he recommended me very highly to his superiors, and for me to decline all three offers must not have reflected very well on my old boss. I don’t think he’ll ever be recommending me again should our paths ever cross in the future.

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