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The female executive looked impeccable in her sharp winter-white suit -- from the waist up. Somehow -- perhaps distracted by thoughts of the major presentation she was getting ready to give -- she'd made an unfortunate choice of unmentionables: red bikini underwear. "No one remembered a word she said," says Pam Holland, author of Help! Was That a Career-Limiting Move? (Career Skills Press, 2001), who witnessed the fashion emergency first-hand.
The woman, a brand manager with a pharmaceutical company, didn't lose her job, but she sure did gain the wrong kind of attention. More to the point, she missed a perfect opportunity to affirm that she was professional in every way and therefore indispensable to her company -- the most vital quality these days for any employee. In today's shaky economy, workplace slip-ups can lead to pink slips. (The layoff rate decreased somewhat in the first quarter of the year, but the unemployment rate has been increasing overall since October 2000.)
"These days, if you're not over-monitoring how you're working, behaving, speaking, or even dressing in the office, you may be sending signals that say, 'When it's time to cut someone, choose me,'" cautions Ronna Lichtenberg, author of It's Not Business, It's Personal: The 9 Relationship Principles That Power Your Career (Hyperion, 2001). Make yourself indispensable by avoiding the following sure-fire Career-Limiting Moves:1. Don't be unavailable.
Avoid telling colleagues you're "too swamped" to pitch in when they need an extra hand with an assignment (or, worse yet, expecting them to get the hint by not returning their calls or e-mails). Especially now that many companies must accomplish more with less, everyone is overworked; adopting a busier-than-thou attitude will not earn you any allies.
"You may think no one's keeping score or noticing that you never pitch in on new projects, but they are," says Lichtenberg. Word that you don't go the extra mile can travel the short distance to the people who make downsizing decisions.
On the other hand, you'll over-extend yourself and sabotage your job performance if you say yes to everything. The solution: Make manageable counteroffers -- "I'm swamped this morning, but I could help you on Tuesday." Or else sit down with your boss to discuss how best to prioritize your job tasks.2. Don't take everything personally.
"Women, especially, need to realize that business choices and decisions are often made without regard to whether they are liked or their work is appreciated," says Arlyne Diamond, Ph.D., a management consultant and professional development coach in Santa Clara, California. In other words, just because your boss passed on your idea at a meeting doesn't mean she's harboring a personal grudge.
Sure, office politics happen, but so do impartial decisions based solely on the ever-important bottom line. And when we're fueled, even subconsciously, by hurt feelings, we run the risk of muddying key business relationships with unfounded personal grudges.
So when things don't go your way, says Diamond, "remember that -- with all due respect -- the world doesn't revolve around you." Think of tough calls you yourself have made, at work or elsewhere, that had nothing to do with the individuals they affected.
But sometimes, of course, it is personal; the tip-off, Diamond says, is when roadblocks and setbacks start springing up repeatedly. Then it's time to speak up and say, "Hey, I've noticed this and this happening, and I'm not sure why. Can we discuss?" This way, you're giving someone the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to clear the air.3. Don't confuse business with pleasure.
At office functions, mingling with staffers at your own level and above is the smart thing to do. "Of course you can have office friends," says Diamond. "But part of getting ahead is being with people in a position to promote you and learning how to handle that -- which means knowing when you're socializing and when you're working."4. Don't strive for perfection.
A preoccupation with being the absolute best all the time can actually set you two steps back. "Point is, if you're not failing sometimes, you're not trying," says Diamond. "And if you're afraid of making mistakes, you're not taking risks and not mastering new skills. It's essential to know the difference between having to be perfect and simply striving for excellence," so be willing to take on new tasks and to ask questions -- or request a helping hand -- when need be.
And when you make that inevitable only-human error, says Diamond, don't hide it, whatever you do: "Admit it and find a solution."5. Don't forget to look in the (full-length) mirror.
Just one pair of unpolished shoes can tarnish the impression made by even the most talented employee. According to Pam Holland, the impressions you make are overwhelmingly visual.
"One's appearance is a reflection of one's thoughtfulness and thoroughness. If I see someone who looks nice from the neck up, but is otherwise sloppy, I can't help but wonder how much attention she'll pay to details and how much I can count on her to follow through." So shine your shoes, polish your nails, lose the gum -- and save the red bikinis for a party. (Not, however, the office party.)
Every amazing advance in technology offers a new way to set back a career. "All of these things are wonderful tools, but so is a chain saw," says career enhancement and workplace etiquette expert Marjorie Brody, president of Brody Communications, Inc., in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. "If you don't use them properly, they can be dangerous." Brody coaches clients to handle the following gadgets with care: