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Getting Unstuck From the Rut
Thought, Energy and Networking Are Your Get-Out-of-Jail Cards

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 4, 2005

"I stayed in my position for eight months (about seven and a half months longer than I wanted to). The work was boring, it was in a field I had no experience in or desire to learn about . . . and there was a bitter and awful office manager who had the ear of the president, and used that to constantly undermine my work."

"This job I have now is just one more in a neverending series of dysfunctional situations. Wayward staff, messed-up inventories, incompetence, unrealistic expectations; a myriad of other issues to deal with and no satisfaction."

"I stayed in a job I hated because it wasn't the 'job' that I hated -- it was only parts of the job. . . . I felt at times like I was being dragged -- down a winding hill -- by a blindfolded runaway bull."

These are some of the juicy tidbits from workers who chatted with me about why they stay (or stayed) with a job they hate. And, my goodness, there are a lot of you out there. It's easy to see that many people don't enjoy their jobs. Just check out the grim faces next to you on the Metro, the nasty person on the customer service line, the sullen boss who hides in his office and complains about your new e-mail system, his boss, his assistant, your co-worker, the commute. The coffee.

People are miserable. But do they have to be?

Is it really that hard to find work that makes you a little happy to get out of bed in the morning? Work that is more than just a paycheck? To some, it might seem like finding a job that doesn't leave you slumped over, head in hands, is impossible. And in some cases, it is nearly impossible. But others say they moved on from their soul-sucking experiences after some trepidation and . . . well, thank goodness.

Some told me that they could not move on from their jobs because they had no time to look for a new job.

Pishposh, kids.

Say you had only one life -- one -- to live. How would you live it? Oh, you do have only one? Great, so get on with it already. You're wasting your days in that miserable job.

"They have the skill sets," said Clay Parcells, regional managing director with Right Management Consultants. Which, really, you do. Otherwise you wouldn't be sitting there, miserable in a job already, right? So figure out where those skill sets fit -- elsewhere -- and start to take charge.

One step at a time: First, you have to realize you must network. You can't just send your rsum around for months and expect automatic gratification. Join a professional association, Parcells suggested. Start regularly attending those monthly meetings or breakfasts. Go after work, before work. During your lunch hour. "People have to take control of their career. Their employers aren't going to do it," Parcells said. "They have to take time out of their busy schedule to go out, network, find out what people do, if they are happy, who they work for."

So you score an interview but don't feel like you can sneak out of the office? That's what vacation time -- if you get it -- is for. If you don't have vacation time, how about that lunch hour? Employers doing the interviewing should understand your need to not skip out of work (and hey, how about that loyalty? Bonus points with the interviewer . . .) . They may try to be accommodating.

The woman who said she stayed in a job seven months longer than she wanted to said it was hard to find work while she was employed. (See above.) But she also had a legitimate reason: Her husband was in graduate school and she was the sole breadwinner. But she continued to look for work. When her husband graduated, she had a little more freedom to look and found a job at a nonprofit that educates and advocates for people in the reproductive health care field. Before working here, this woman was unsure what she wanted to do with her degree. "After working here for a short period, I decided that I wanted to get a law degree and become an advocate." She is looking at the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is excited about what is to come.

Clap, clap.

Parcells thinks that, like this woman, many people stay in hated jobs because they don't know what they want to do with their lives. Figuring that out takes some time and work, too. You hate your job: That's a good thing. Why? Because you can figure out what you don't like about it and try to avoid that in the future. Why do you hate the company you work for? What is it about the management style that makes you want to slam your head against that keyboard? Once you have a rough outline of this, you can start networking -- yes, it takes time -- and talk to people about their own workplaces.

Another woman -- the one with the blindfolded, runaway bull -- was tapped for a promotion at this place she detested. She realized that she had to move on not just because she couldn't stand some of the things about her current job, but because she knew she did not want to be a manager. So she knew she had to do something.

Soon thereafter, one of her customers -- from an organization she admired -- encouraged her to apply for a job at that company. (Talk about networking.) "I applied, and was interviewed and hired so quickly that my head is still spinning after 18 months," she said. "I am employed in my field as an adviser, not as a supervisor. Just like I wanted. And I got a promotion to boot!"

This was after six years in her dysfunctional workplace. She disliked her job for so long, she had a hard time pinpointing just why she stayed.

Parcells may have figured it out:

"People don't want to make that move because even though they are unhappy, it's a known unhappy place," he said. "I think people get stuck in a rut where they think 'at least I know what I'm dealing with.' "

Join Amy from 11 to noon Tuesday at washingtonpost.com to discuss your life at work. Happy employees welcome. E-mail her with your ideas for a column atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

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