Five ways to commit career suicide

Calvin Sun identifies some no-nos when climbing the ladder

1. Sending inappropriate email

Most of us are bright enough to realise that chain letters or off-colour jokes have no place in business communications. Where many get into trouble is with the over-hasty email reply.

Before replying to an email that has elevated your blood pressure, apply one of these useful tests: Ask yourself, "Would I feel comfortable explaining my response on a witness stand?" or "Would I want my response to be published on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper?"

If the answer is no, take time to cool off. Store the message in a drafts folder and review it later. Are you sure this is what you want to say? Can your words be interpreted more negatively than you intended? And finally, would you want this message to find its way to your boss — or to the HR director?

2. Putting down co-workers

Having done a significant amount of work for a particular client, I decided one day to try to expand my presence there. I called an executive in another part of that organisation, introduced myself and said that "Carl" (a fictitious name for the IT executive with whom I had been working) was pleased with my work.

That executive responded, "Why should I care what Carl thinks?"

Not smart — especially when said to someone outside the organisation. If Carl had heard about this remark — and these things do get around — it could have created a huge rift between him and his indiscreet co-worker. More critically, remarks like this damage the credibility of the organisation.

Here's another example: Suppose you're the person the helpdesk elevates problems to when they are unable to resolve them. You find out, while talking to a customer, that the staffer she talked to gave her some really poor information. At this point, you may think the staffer is an idiot, but it's not a good idea to say so. It's a much better idea to maintain a united company front when dealing with the customer. Resolve the issue with your colleague privately.

3. Contradicting the boss in public

Suppose that your boss, while giving a presentation, makes a factual error. Should you jump in and correct the error immediately, secure in the knowledge that your boss will thank you for underlining the mistake in front of an entire room of people?

Um ... no.

Correcting your boss in public will hardly endear you to him. More likely, he will be upset at being made to look foolish.

Exercise extreme discretion when your boss misspeaks in public. If the matter is truly important (for example, the CIO gives the wrong date for your SAP go-live), approach him during a break and quietly mention the mistake. A smart and gracious CIO, upon resumption of the session, will identify the error, apologise and credit you with the correction.

If a break isn't forthcoming soon, try to catch your boss' eye and talk privately.

4. Committing social blunders at a company event

Staff misbehaviour at office parties has been a cliche since the 1950s, but that doesn't mean people still don't make fools of themselves. Don Michalak, co-author of Making the Training Process Work, stresses that such functions are not purely social events. "Don't do anything you wouldn't do at the office or at a client's office," he says.

5. Burning bridges when you resign

Many of us fantasise about telling the boss what we think of them when we quit a job — but before you let loose, think twice. Remember the '90s internet bubble? Many IT people left traditional companies with visions of pulling in millions from internet start-ups, only to be rudely surprised when their new companies went under. Those who left on good terms with their former employers had a better chance of being rehired.

When you leave, keep things as gracious as you can. When you make the big announcement, stress the advantages of the new job, not the shortcomings of the current one. Conversely, come up with reasons to be grateful to have worked at the latter.

If you learned something from your boss or co-workers, let them know. Even if you had difficulties with someone, you still could say, "Thanks for teaching me how to benchmark an Active Directory environment". Leaving on good terms can only help you if you encounter these folks later.

Career suicide can happen all too easily, in several different ways. Fortunately, by taking common-sense steps, you can reduce its chances of happening.

Calvin Sun is a business consultant, speaker and writer. His areas of expertise include executive coaching, leadership development and organisational effectiveness

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