Career Advice

How to Screw Up Your Career in 5 Easy Steps: What We Have Here is a Failure to Lean In, Ladies.

Today I’m beginning a series on the stupid mistakes that people make that screw up their careers. Ok, let’s be real. It’s about the stupid mistakes that I have made to screw up my own career. As I shamelessly try to associate myself with the All-Hail- Sheryl-Sandberg movement, I’m starting a series of brief posts to illustrate just how a seemingly accomplished and “wow, she has her s**t together, all things considered” 30-something woman already set back a career by several years and thousands of dollars in lost wages. From an Imaginary Reader: “Wait, but didn’t you run and sell a crazy successful startup? What in the world do you mean?”

Why yes, Imaginary Reader. But today, I’m focusing on my early career, when I was really young and naïve and hadn’t yet grown the thick coat of armor that I often (but not always) wear nowadays.

Mistake #1: Taking their BS and then Failing to Call Their Bluff

I always had loved baseball, and my dad had taken me to many games with the Anaheim Angels over the years. So when I was offered a job managing all of the baseball team’s corporate sponsorships at the terribly young age of 24, I jumped at the chance. After a long and drawn out process, I was offered $45,000 a year for the job, plus “probably some commission as things progress.”

At the time, I was starstruck and saw the job as a chance to be a part of something magical and inspiring. Baseball! My career! I felt so lucky to have been given the opportunity to work for a major league team. It was going to be so, so special. Can you hear the off-season sarcasm dripping from my voice a decade later? Feeling like this opportunity was an oh-so-special gift completely shaped and warped what this really was going to be – a very stressful job that was way over my head.

One evening, as I was packing up boxes from my apartment and getting ready to move 50 miles away, my soon-to-be boss called and said that they could now only offer me $40,000 for the job. He hoped it would be ok, and was sorry for the mix up. I thought that I was in a bind – I was already moving! I had already quit my old job! What does a girl do in this situation?

I did what a lot of young women who have been socialized to be the “good girl” would have done – I said ok. And then I spent the next two years struggling to increase my salary (pretty please?), get the promised commission (but you said…), all to no avail. The Angels and I had a love-hate relationship during that time. I learned all of my customer management skills on the job and was thrown into the fire – and came out alive and probably better for it. But I was resentful and bitter about not getting what I was promised, and ultimately, I didn’t earn what I was worth.

The right thing to have done would have been to say “no” to the lower salary. I fixed my manager’s problem for him by saying that I would take the pay cut, but in reality, if he had offered me more than he should have, that wasn’t my problem to fix. There’s no way they would have rescinded their offer to me over $5,000 – realizing this and demanding my initial offer would have given me more money and shown them that I had some guts from the get-go. But this incident signaled to them that I was a pushover. And at the time, I was.

The other solution would have been to get everything in writing – up front. It’s frustrating to hear lots of women that I know across many industries complain that they were promised promotions, raises, vacation time, and more – but we have all learned the hard way that if it’s not on paper, ladies, it’s not real. Get your offer in writing, and if your employer isn’t willing to put it in writing, run. Too often I hear from women that, “I didn’t want to come across as needy” as a reason why they didn’t ask for their offers in writing. Well you know what? We shoot ourselves in the foot later by going back to our bosses time and time again, asking for the things that were verbally promised but never delivered upon – and we DO become needy. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that we create. Getting what you want up front and in writing simply outlines the expectations of the relationship so that it doesn’t turn into an emotional and disappointing game.

So ladies, remember that your job is not a romantic relationship. It’s temporary and it’s a business arrangement with specific expectations on both sides. Demanding what you rightfully were promised and securing those expectations in writing will make you a stronger employee and will make them respect you more.

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