How to deal

When your identity clashes with your company's culture

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Lily Garcia
Thursday, May 20, 2010; 7:56 AM

My husband and I recently moved to D.C. after he accepted a new job here. Quickly after we arrived I was offered and accepted a new position as well. The job is in a respected organization in my field, and the position was an appropriate step for someone with my career history and credentials. Although I interviewed people within the organization - both managers and the people who were to become my peers - and talked to people outside the organization before I accepted the position, after less than a quarter (3 months) on the job I have concluded that it is not a good fit. Since I have been in the job I have witnessed both astonishingly bad management practices and an institutional culture that is rigid, hostile, and entirely intolerant of even the most minor mistakes. Neither of these things is likely to change.

While I have a good deal of compassion and respect for the people working at my new firm, and understand the business pressures that caused the dysfunctions, I do not think I can be successful here over the long run. Most of my experience has been in far more racially diverse environments that were much more collaborative and that saw difference as good and failure as an opportunity to get even better. The strengths I bring to those working environments are many and are what got me to the point where I could be considered qualified for my current job. Now, however, I am being asked to abandon my strengths and develop a different set of skills; which I'm confident I am technically capable of doing, but that I find distasteful. The bottom line is that the person I would have to become to succeed in this environment is not who I am or want to become.

Is there any way to get out of this situation (quickly) with career and soul intact? Finances are not really an issue as even a part-time position in retail could cover my portion of our family budget.

Even though you could manage the financial consequences of a quick exit from this job, I worry about the impact of this transition on your longer term career prospects. Despite your strong aversion toward the management practices and culture of your employer, you should think carefully before making a move. I am not suggesting that you stick it out in your job for the long term, but only that you take time to map out an exit strategy that does more than pay the bills.

I know nothing about your industry and how well it is weathering the economic downturn, but I want to suggest that you start by applying for jobs at other respected employers in your field. You have already beaten the odds by quickly finding a good job in a new city. If your credentials were impressive enough to get you to where you are now, then you might be able to find a new and better situation on short order.

I would not worry so much about how to explain the fact that you are looking for a new job after only a few months. If your current organization is as challenging to work for as you say, then the word is probably out and other industry players are likely to understand your reasons for leaving without much elaboration. In my experience, in fact, employers sometimes favor "refugees" from rival organizations in the application process. After all, they bring with them valuable competitor knowledge, and it buoys the self-image of the firm to think that it could serve as a safe haven for disaffected workers. Be very careful not to speak disparagingly about your current employer, but do offer a brief and diplomatically worded explanation that will make knowing heads nod.

I hear you saying that your employer is demanding behaviors of you that you find morally objectionable. It sounds to me almost as if you fear that you will be corrupted by the culture if you stay a moment longer than necessary. But that does not need to be the case. To achieve success within your current organization, you might feel obligated to act in a way that does not feel natural or right to you. But who is to say that you should be aiming for success? Despite the pressure you are under, stay true to who you are. It may not make you the most popular kid in the class, but it will also take a long time before this catches up to you in the form of any meaningful personnel action. I have heard of people being fired for not being "a good fit" with the culture of an organization, but that is usually a pretext for some other performance-based reason that the organization does not want to confront. In short, I don't think that being a collaborative, inclusive, or open-minded person at a company that is competitive and cut-throat is going to degrade your character or get you fired.

Finally, despite my admonishment that you should be deliberate about your transition, remember that only you can legitimately decide when enough is enough. If you feel like your job is having a negative psychological impact that you are unable to mitigate and your prospects for re-employment are not bright, then making the decision to accept an interim position that is not a perfect fit might be a sensible alternative.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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