5 things you didn’t know could hurt your career

Some of the ways you could damage your career are obvious – poor work performance, shouting at your boss, and stealing from the company are all pretty well-known career-harmers. But there are less obvious things you might be doing that can also damage your career without you realizing it – and they’re worth paying attention to.

Here are five ways you might be harming your work progression that might not be so obvious.

1. Staying too long at one job. You might think that loyalty to an employer would be valued, and it is, but there’s also a point where staying too long at one company can raise questions for future prospective employers about how you’ll adapt to new environments. Somewhere north of eight years and south of 20, many employers start worrying that you’ll be stuck in one company’s way of doing things, won’t have been exposed to a wider variety of practices and cultures, and thus won’t adapt easily.

(You can combat this, however, by demonstrating adaptability: showing a progression in responsibilities and job titles, and finding other ways to show that you’re flexible, open to change, and don’t have an insular viewpoint.)

2. Being too good at something you don’t like. In general, the better you are at something, the more you’ll be asked to do it. Of course, that doesn’t meant that you should purposely do a bad job at work you don’t enjoy – that won’t accomplish anything helpful for your career either – but it does mean that you should focus on becoming best at the things you do like to do, so that you’re sought after for those instead.

3. Not speaking up when you disagree with the boss. Sure, some managers just want to be surrounded with yes-men – but working for one isn’t a good way to build your career. You want to work for good managers, and good managers want to work with straight-shooters who they can count on for the truth. That doesn’t mean that you should push back on every minor disagreement, of course, but it does mean giving your candid opinion when it matters.

Part two of that is being able to accept it if the eventual decision doesn’t go your way. When your boss knows that you won’t sulk if she ultimately makes a different decision than you’re advocating, it’s much easier to welcome your input.

4. Recommending someone for a job as a favor to them. When you provide a positive reference for someone, you’re putting your own reputation on the line to vouch for them. You’re saying, “I consider this person’s work excellent.” If the person’s work isn’t actually excellent, it will reflect badly on you and your judgment – and can really harm your own reputation. After all, if Jane’s work is awful and you said it was great, what does that mean for your own work and quality standards?

If you want to help someone out but can’t honestly recommend their work, help in other ways: Send them job leads, give feedback on their resume, and point them to helpful resources. But don’t sacrifice your own reputation by giving a reference you can’t stand behind.

5. Not going to workplace social events, ever. Not everyone loves office social gatherings, and that’s fine – but the higher up the professional ladder you go, the more you’ll be expected to at least make an appearance at some. In many companies, habitually skipping these events can signal that you’re not interested in building relationships with colleagues, and can even damage your career. It might be unfair or unreasonable, and it’s still up to you whether you go or not, but beware that never showing up might come with a price tag.

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

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Regarding #1 – I’ve been with my employer for just shy of seven years. This is my first employer out of college. In that time, we had of a huge shift in leadership and some dramatic turnover thereafter, because this place was massively dysfunctional and did a total 180. I went from a temp, doing the lowliest of tasks, to a permanent employee, then manager, and now I’ve been made the department director. I just got this most recent promotion about a year ago, and it’s a pretty high level position, so I wouldn’t feel right giving it less than two years because of the long-term changes and restructuring we’ve started. I’m worried for selfish reasons, though, that this long stay is going to hurt me. Is this long stay going to look bad, though? And how the heck am I going to get references when I job search and have only worked here? I have many peer-level references, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking my boss to give one without an offer pending.

    1. Cat*

      I can’t speak to references, but as to the length of stay: (1) as AAM said, it’s somewhere north of 8 years; it’s not that you become undesirable as soon as you hit 8 years of employment; (2) there are ways to mitigate the effects, and you’re doing those by showing progressive responsibility; and (3) I think mitigation should really be the focus here; leaving a job you like and where you’re still learning and progressing for another job because you’re worried it may eventually look bad that you stayed so long is a little backwards. You look for a job to find exactly the situation it sounds like you’re in right now; do figure out how to continue progressing and growing and look for something else if you no longer are, but don’t ruin a good thing for fear of something that may never materialize.

      1. Anonymous*

        Thanks for your answer. I was only planning to look eventually because I was worried it would hurt my future prospects. Now that I think about it, that would be a mistake. I love what I’m doing and have had great opportunities here, obviously.

        1. AB*

          Anonymous, I participate in recruiting and hiring decision-making in my company, and one thing that I think you should keep in mind, and be prepared to present a good answer for while interviewing for a new job, is relative to the results you achieved in your current company.

          You talk about a massive turnover, and I’ve experienced that in a previous job. In our case, all the talented employees left first, so promotions were available to plenty of low performers who weren’t attractive to other companies.

          I’m not saying this is your case (it probably isn’t if you are here in AAM asking for advice :-). But because this is your first job out of College, and given the circumstances, if I were to interview you I’d be paying close attention to what you were able to tell me about your results during the period you’ve worked at your current company. (What is better now? Sales? profits? market share? Is the company’s overall performance improving over time? What was your contribution to these positive results?)

          As long as you can make a case for superior results you achieved as you progressed through the internal ranks, you should be fine. But don’t sit back and relax; make sure you are building your network beyond your internal contacts, as one day you may need it. I have a colleague who spent 8 years in a company, receiving excellent annual performance reviews, and one day his entire department was let go as the company changed leadership management. He had extreme difficulty finding another job because all the people he knew worked for the same firm.

          (This is not to make you worry; you are definitely in a great position to be, with proof of career advancement and the opposite of job hopping. It’s just a matter of making sure you are taking charge of managing your career, and not getting too comfortable where you are that you forget to continue to build relevant skills and a network of people who can help you find your next job when the time comes.)

    2. Rob Aught*

      I noted in the article and agree that showing progressive experience does counter-balance this.

      What usually happens in my field is that someone takes a job in a company and essentially stays in that role for a long period of time. For instance, they may join as a software engineer, make senior software engineer, and then stay in that role for the next 7 years. Not a hypothetical by the way, I’m thinking of a former employee. This person actually entrenched themselves and became a little too comfortable in their knowledge. Their value to the company lessened every year as they refused to adapt and it hurt their career prospects as well.

      7 years from line employee to middle management is faster than a lot of people advance. In fact, what could hurt you is a lateral move since you may be perceived as “too inexperienced” which is code for “too young”. Although ageism can usually be overcome by showing good knowledge of the role, the proper leadership and management capabilities, and strong domain knowledge.

      There WILL be some companies that will worry that you are too attached to your long term employers way of doing things. Question yourself on this. Do you follow process because that is the way they’ve always done it or because the process is proven to be efficient. If it is inefficient, what can be changed? If it has been helping, what was the business driver? Being able to identify and answer these questions will help you in the future to prove to a potential employer that you are adaptable to new ideas.

      1. Anonymous*

        Thanks for your feedback, you’ve given me some great things to consider going forward. I actually love it here exactly because we’re always changing. Re-evaluating processes and making our operations more efficient has been my speciality and what’s driven our growth and success, so it sounds like I should be okay here at least a few more years, as long as our awesome CEO doesn’t move on and get replaced by someone less dynamic.

      2. Lora*

        “There WILL be some companies that will worry that you are too attached to your long term employers way of doing things. ”

        +1. That would be me. Although it’s cool if someone has a very long career, it’s expected that they will have a long term stay or two, but they will also have worked at multiple places as well.

        One of my colleagues, bless him, feels that [his only previous employer’s way] is the One True Way and everyone else is just wrong. And he frequently tells us why he is right and we are all wrong (“and stupid” is strongly implied, he’s quite sarcastic). At length. Regardless of experience, seniority, or even applicability to the situation at hand. He doesn’t have a lot of friends…

  2. Rob Aught*

    #5 – Not attending social events

    Although you should watch your alcohol intake so it doesn’t became a career limiting event.

    That said, I have found that getting team members, supervisors, and employees out of the office and on “neutral ground” has encouraged an openness that you sometimes don’t get in the office.

    I am a big believer that trying to attend outside of work functions can be a big boost even though I hear the complaints from people that “I spend 8 hours a day with these people and get paid for it. Why would I want to attend?”

    How about for this reason? I had an executive give me some very positive and open feedback in an after hours function. She and I rarely interact because we are usually in two different states. It was great to find out she thought so highly of me and frankly has opened some doors for me.

    If you’re not career minded I think you can skip the social functions. Alison is absolutely right on this one. If you want to progress you can’t always think of your job as occurring during office hours.

  3. De Minimis*

    It depends on the workplace culture—if it’s okay for someone to just stay in the same position long term and there isn’t pressure to advance, then people can feel free to skip out on social events, although they should be aware that keeping a low profile might be risky if the day comes when it’s time to reduce headcount.

    I think that so few people are into these events that even a minimal level of participation can go a long way…

  4. Erik*

    For #3, that would depend on your company and/or boss.

    At my last employer, speaking up at all would label you as a troublemaker and they would find a convenient way to get rid of you.

      1. Rob Aught*


        I can’t know everything. I need my employees to speak up. Agree or disagree. If I’m waffling on a decision, finding out a respected employee agrees with me might help me commit to a course of action.

        I’ve been convinced of my brilliant idea and an employee blew me out of the water. Oops, turns out it wasn’t such a brilliant idea once they pointed out some facts I was overlooking.

        If an office, boss, culture, whatever doesn’t value that it’s got bigger problems.

        1. -X-*

          Yeah – if you feel you could, in the medium- to long-term, get a better job, develop the habit of speaking up. It’s a test to see if a place is a good place to work, and also will benefit the good places to work by making them stronger.

      2. MJR*

        Or get to know a manager within a company. I had a manager who will ultimately terminate a contractor and/or employee for disagreeing with him upfront when it comes to decision-making. At one point, he actually told everybody he will terminate if the quota isn’t met and one of his contractor confronted him about his threats and backed out a little bit. On the other side of the company, a different manager (from different region) wants us to voice up our thoughts, disagreements, or even negative feedback on his part.

  5. Ann O'Nemity*

    My problem is #2. Without even trying, I’m excel at a skill that I really, really don’t enjoy doing. I can’t seem to get away from it.

    1. Jamie*

      I have become more than adequate at a couple of software products that I will never, ever touch again.

      If I ever move to another company I will leave them off my resume, pretend I’ve never seen them, and not step in if I see the new co-workers struggling with someone I could fix.

      Okay, the last one would be impossible but then they’d become my problem so I’d have to immediately quit.

      Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you want to lose years off your life with the stress of doing it.

      1. Jessa*

        Ah, someone else who selectively edits their resume to leave out the stuff you do NOT want to do. Yes, because otherwise you know that every single interview will just focus on that one line you forgot to leave off.

  6. happy cat*

    I have been in the same company seven years this month. I do feel it is time to move on, and at the same time worry that prospective employers will see my time spent here in a negative light.

    Luckily I have worked at two locations, I hope that shows I can adapt.

    Being good at a task one does not like, oh, I HEAR YOU on that. Regretfully in my role, it IS my role that I excel at, and I cannot seem to move out of it. I have seen so many people move to the next level, or even just in the same level, and a different role, while for me, EVERY internal job I apply for I am told conflicting messages:
    1. overqualified. 2. under qualified. 3. you won’t like the role, it does not focus on what you are good at, working with people. 4. at least you are good working with people, that will help you in your next role. 5. you need technical skills to move up. 6. you need more than technical skills to move up, you should be able to move as soon as a role you like opens up. 7. apply for lots of roles see what happens (that you qualify for). 8. don’t apply for too many roles, focus on one field / group you really really like..
    I conclude that they really like me in this role and cannot see me in any other role. If it was that they did not like me, they would have let me go ages ago. I am paid well, and treated decently, I just cannot move out of this role. At this point I am considered an ‘old timer’ as it is VERY rare for anyone to stay in reception this long. Nice, but, not so nice if one wants to move..

    1. Jen M.*

      I have the same problem, though I am not in reception. It’s so frustrating!

      Good luck to you!

  7. MJR*

    Should have added another item to the list – charity donation. In my work environment, charity donations are big and I hated when the envelope is passed around to collect money. It makes me feel look bad if I don’t donate for a specific cause or a purpose (i.e. monetary gift for a newly parents with newborn baby or whatever). It should be done privately and out of voluntarily. I know some major firms have a strict policy on this part but not all.

  8. Rob (Bacon) Bird*

    I had #4 happen once. Someone I used to work with (who was a very good worker) needed a job so when she put in her app at the company I worked for, I let her use me as a reference.

    They asked me about her and ended up hiring her. 3 months later, she quit. They said they didn’t hold it against me, since keeping the job was her responsibility and I couldn’t have known, buit I still felt used.

    Needless to say, I never recommended her (or anyone else) for a job again.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wouldn’t let that keep you from ever recommending anyone else, if the recommendation is genuine! People who do great work count on other people backing that up.

  9. glennis*

    The length of employment is an interesting pitfall – I can see how this can evolve without a person seeing it.

    I’ve been at a public agency for 7 years. When I arrived, most of my colleagues had over ten years’ service. Some had over 20 years’ service. This was the case at all levels, from custodial staff to Department Directors.

    Within five years of my starting here, a wave of retirements changed the face of the workplace. Now, I’m among the oldsters.

    One thing that complicates my situation is that my agency was embarking on a massive redevelopment and planning process. My department was supposed to change business models. Certain core staff – of which I was one – were supposed to transition and take on different responsibilities. It was actually a very exciting prospect, and one I wanted to see through. There were real opportunities for growth on the other end. It seemed like a good place to stick around.

    What happened was a lot of foot-dragging, then the economic crisis, and suddenly Boom! funding dried up. My department is being eliminated, and I’m being laid off and having a hard time finding a new job. It’s a little weird to think that having stayed committed to the planned transition might have negatively affected my employ-ability.

  10. Elizabeth West*

    The social thing is what bugs me. I don’t typically socialize with coworkers outside of work. Most of the time, it’s because when I leave for the day, I don’t want to even THINK about work in any way, shape, or form. NewJob isn’t quite as bad; it’s also so huge that I can (and did) meet a friend’s cousin’s husband at a party who works in the building next to mine and I didn’t even know it! But mostly the people in my department are either remote, or they’re on the road. 90% of the at-work socializing I do is with people in another department who sit near me.

  11. Erica B*

    in regards to #1, I have been at my job 9 years, and while I never intended for it to become a “career”, I guess it has. My position is grant funded at a university and as a result my title hasn’t really moved since I started. It did change when I switched from PT to FT w/ salary & Benefits to the ever vague “Research Fellow”. There isn’t anything I can really do to change that even though I have increased my duties and skill set in the time I’ve been here. I’m screwed. The other downer is that because my BA (communication) is not in my field (environmental engineering) so finding a job that I’m “qualified” for is pretty much non-existent.

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