Career Care

Maximizing your chances of retaining your job and of getting promoted.

Posted Mar 25, 2017

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

“You’re fired!”

Outside of The Apprentice, few people are terminated so brutally. More often it’s “Your skill set just isn’t a good fit.”  Or: “The contract is over and there’s no more work.” Or, if the organization’s lawyers are worried about wrongful termination suits, “We need to lay off Workgroup A.” (But they usually find a way to hire back the people they want.)

True, sometimes, avoiding termination is beyond an employee’s control. For example, union rules often require termination by seniority: “last hired, first fired.” Or an organization moves an entire function, for example, accounting to India or customer service to the Southeast U.S., where not only are salaries lower but the rate of employee lawsuits is lower..

But usually, employees have much influence over whether they get terminated, keep their jobs, or move up.

There are obvious ways to improve your prospects, for example, being smart, expert, and hardworking, but you already know that. This article lists less obvious ways to maximize your prospects.

Redo your job description. Yes, some job descriptions are cast in stone but many can be molded to suit your strengths and better serve your organization. Your leverage for revising your job description is maximum when you’ve been offered the job but haven’t yet accepted it. If you might like your job description adjusted, add that to your list of items to negotiate before accepting the position.

Optimize who you report to. Your boss can make your life heaven or hell. You may, on hiring, or later, be able to report to a boss who’s smarter, fairer, or more powerful than the one you were originally assigned to. If it’s pre-hiring, during the interview process, you’ll be interviewed by your prospective boss. Don’t be afraid to ask such vetting questions as, “All bosses are different. How would you describe the way you’d be supervising me?” or “What would you hope I’d accomplish in my first 30 days?” Post-hiring, if you’d like to change bosses, see if you can “run into” your desired boss, for example, in the break room. Say something like, “I’ve heard good things about you. If you ever need an extra person on a project or need to hire someone, I’d be pleased if you’d consider me.”

Understand your boss’s priorities. For example, upon hiring, ask, “Are you able to give a clear set of expectations for my ramp-up days and subsequently? Or is that something you and I should develop together?” You might also ask, “Would you like a lot of reporting on what I’m doing or prefer I speak up only when there’s a significant problem I can’t solve?” Or, “How can I make your life easier?”

Understand the organization’s priorities. Some organizations are all about the bottom-line. Others really do care a lot about process, rules, or avoiding hurt feelings.

Understand the organization’s culture. Some workplaces welcome your asking lots of questions. Others feel you should be able to hit the ground running. In some workplaces, you’re expected to get and give lots of direct feedback. In other workplaces, there’s a lot of beating around the bush. Another example: While officially, most workplaces say they expect only a 40-to-50-hour workweek, the truth is that in some workplaces, people who work less than 50 may be viewed as lazy and thus more likely to be “laid off.” At some workplaces, you’re expected to take a full-hour for lunch. At others, you get brownie points for eating a yogurt at your desk.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. If you work diligently only when it’s fun, you’ll never find a job you’ll stay motivated to do. Ethical, productive work is its own reward. If it’s too difficult, yes, try to get help or reassigned to less challenging work. Otherwise, be grateful for the privilege of being productive. Not everyone has that privilege.

Understand the overt and covert power people. For example, a particular administrative assistant may hold the keys to the information and scuttlebutt castle. If there’s a higher-up who is well-respected or widely feared, understand his or her hot buttons and, without unduly pandering, keep those in mind. For example, if that higher-up hates when other people take credit for his work, beware of that. If s/he really believes in work-life balance, don’t try to make your claim to fame 14-hour workdays.

Embrace office politics. Start by practicing positive politics: At the risk of sounding like your parents, try to be pleasant and helpful to all and avoid the gossip vine. That reduces the chances of your being in a saboteur’s cross-hairs.

There may, nonetheless, be a time when you sense someone is trying to hurt you: Perhaps it’s a peer vying with you for a promotion or someone jealous of your looks. Of course, don’t jump to conclusions but if you and perhaps a trusted colleague verify that sabotage is afoot—for example by withholding information that could help you do your job—privately tell the person something like, “I’ve heard that when material comes in for me on your printer rather than mine, you toss it rather than send it to me. Is that true? (Even if it is true, s/he’ll likely deny it but you will have put the person on notice.) I don’t like running to the boss but I want you to know that if I get wind of further sabotage, I will.” That’s usually enough to make your rival turn his or her nefarious attentions elsewhere.

Be quietly assertive. In most workplaces, being too overtly aggressive is off-putting, seen as too willful. So, for example, when presenting ideas an a meeting, often use what I call California couching: “I’m wondering whether X is a good idea. What do you think?” If you  want a certain promotion, rather than your selling yourself to higher-ups, see if you can get a trusted colleague to say things to higher-ups that imply you'd be great in that position..

Make your accomplishments visible. If you’d like one of your work products to get higher visibility, consider emailing a draft to staff “for feedback.” Try to get on projects with powerful group members or in which the product will be highly visible or core to the organization’s priorities.

Be low-maintenance. Of course, occasionally, it’s wise to complain, for example, when you see that something should be done more efficiently, or there’s a co-worker who really is gumming up the works. But generally, key to keeping your job is to keep your complaints rare, only when important. Save most of your grumblings for your private journal.

Prioritize just-in-time learning over degrees and certificates. Of course, a degree or even a certificate enhances your employability but the opportunity cost of the time and money is often too high. It’s often wiser to do your professional development on a just-in-time basis: Read an article, self-study a text, get a tutor, take a webinar,  weekend bootcamp or pre-conference workshop. Cumulatively, those may, net, benefit your career more than a degree. Consider doing such learning to become an A player on your current job as well as to prepare for the job to which you aspire. For example, management and leadership positions require ability to run meetings, do public speaking, and perhaps understand finance or something else technical related to your employer or field.

Dress thoughtfully. Alas, homo sapien is a visual species. So it helps to look the part: Dress at the top of your range for your current position or for the promotion to which you next aspire.

Be in reasonable physical shape. Right or wrong, being very overweight is often perceived negatively when evaluating an employee. And cigarette-smoking, alcohol, pot and other mind-altering substances, especially if used heavily, can take a toll on an employee’s productivity, even if used only after work. For example, the National Academy of Science’s 2017 metaevaluation of hundreds of studies on the effects of marijuana conclude serious risk: yes of memory and motivation impairment but also of more profound mental as well as physical diseases.

Where appropriate, delegate. Sure, you may do a task better than the person to whom you'd delegate it, but not only will delegation free you up for more important tasks but will empower others. The result is that your workgroup’s overall productivity may well increase. No one to delegate to? How about getting an intern or co-op education student?

Avoid burnout by being in the moment: staying focused on doing your task well, not on an outcome that’s beyond your control, nor on the other tasks you need to do in or outside of work.

The takeaway

Is there at least one idea herein that you’d like to adopt?

Dr. Nemko's nine books area available. You can reach career and personal coach. Marty Nemko at