The Three Main Reasons a Job Doesn't Work Out

Posted by Julie Jansen on June 19, 2011
The Three Main Reasons a Job Doesn't Work Out

Usually, when people interview for a new job they look at the job title, location, work responsibilities and compensation first. Although these factors are all important, they are rarely the reason a job doesn't work out. Instead, the three primary reasons are the boss, the company culture and the job has been misrepresented or changes once you're in it. You can help avoid these problems by doing the following three things before you accept a new job:

1. Assess Your Prospective Boss

Bill DeLeno, a psychotherapist in private practice in White Plains, New York, specializing in people with problems at work. He asserts that the number one difficulty that people have at work is their boss. One of Bill's patients actually told him that he was so afraid of his boss, he couldn't go to his mother's funeral because he had to work.

If you've had a bad experience with a boss, then you will naturally tend to try to learn as much as you can about the person you'll report to in your next job to avoid repeating that unpleasant experience. Even so, few people feel comfortable "interviewing" their possible future boss. Instead, we behave as if the relationship goes one way instead of two. It's important to keep in mind that this person is crucial to your success or failure in your job, so the more you can find out about your prospective new boss before you start working for him or her, the better off you'll be. Remember that bosses usually show their "best face" to you during the interviewing process, especially if they see you as a viable candidate for the job they're trying to fill. If your prospective boss is rude, insensitive or appears uninterested in you during the interview, this behavior will only become magnified during your working relationship. Asking the following questions will help uncover his or her personality quirks and style:

  • How would you describe the ideal relationship you could have with someone who reports to you?
  • What would you expect of me during my first three months at this job? First six months? First year?
  • How does this align with the organization's expectations? What about its strategy?
  • What about your job keeps you up at night? How would I help you with the solution to this challenge?
  • How do you like to communicate and receive information from the people who report to you? How often?
  • How would you describe your work style?
  • What should I realistically expect from you as my manager?
  • Who was the best boss you ever had and why?
  • What are your top three values?
  • How do you think people view you within the organization?

Some of these are tough questions to ask; however an individual's willingness to answer the questions and his or her candor in doing so can be very telling. When you ask any or all of these questions, do so in a very non-threatening way so that your prospective boss isn't turned off.

The most useful information you can get about your prospective boss is from the people who presently work for him or her or have done so in the past. Why is it okay for the people interviewing you to ask you whatever they are legally allowed to and it isn't okay for you? It's not okay! Working consists of a mutual agreement. Your response to the question, "Why do you want to talk with these people?" is the following:  "I want a productive relationship that is going to be the best possible fit for both of us. I know what it costs to recruit, hire and retain an employee, financially and psychologically."

Whoever you ask may be cautious about answering your questions, particularly when the answers may not be positive. Again, be sensitive to their position of needing to protect themselves and their job. Read between the lines and probe.

If your prospective boss is new to the organization, ask him if you can speak to someone at his previous job. Again, if he balks, be concerned.

With the constant change that occurs within organizations, you may not be working for the same person for very long. We all know, however that even three months of working for someone with whom we don't get along can feel like an eternity!

2. Assessing the Company's Culture
Every work environment has its own culture. If you fit into a company's culture - the values employees share, the way people communicate and dress, the behaviors that are accepted - then you probably will have a good working experience. On the other hand, if you don't fit in, regardless of how talented you are at your job or what you've accomplished, the chances are strong that you will either derail voluntarily or you will be asked to leave the organization.

A company's culture is very powerful and cannot be changed by one person, even a new leader, overnight. A culture is an interwoven system of beliefs, values, history, mythology, rituals and ceremonies. In a work context, these create meaning for people, and although it may not always be easy to describe it to others outside the organization, the company culture definitely influences behavior and the way business is conducted.
Because of this, it is important that you learn how to effectively assess a company's culture to determine if it is a fit for you. Remember you spend a lot of time working. There is no reason to be unhappy or to be working in an unsuitable work situation. If you've already had an experience where you went to work for a company and realized you didn't fit into the culture, you know how painful this can be. Learning how to identify the right culture for you is easy to do if you ask the right questions and rely on your intuition.

Several elements of company culture are important to consider when you are pursuing a new opportunity. One important element is that of values and beliefs.  Values and beliefs are principles, standards or qualities considered inherently worthwhile and desirable. They cannot always be neatly defined in a manual. Values create focus and shape behavior. A historic (a past leader or pioneer) person in the company exemplifies core values and beliefs. Now that you have identified your own top ten values, it will be easier to ask questions in an interview to find out how closely your values match those of your prospective employer's. 

Think about what you want in a company culture from a "clean slate" perspective, especially if you have never felt as if you fit into a company culture in the past or have had some disappointments. Sit at your computer or take a piece of paper and list the ideal elements that you want and need to feel comfortable in your work environment. Forget about reality for the moment. You can go back to your list later and focus on what you think is realistic. 

How do you assess a company's culture? By asking lots of questions; meeting as many people as you can; sitting in the parking lot and observing; sitting in the reception area; looking at the company's Web site, marketing materials and annual report; and -- most important -- by following your intuition. As a prospective employee, you have every right to talk to as many people as you need to, including vendors, clients and employees who don't work in your functional area. If there is resistance to this, take note and be wary. Remember, if your gut is telling you that something is uncomfortable, in all likelihood, it is!  It's okay to be excited or interested in a particular job opportunity but don't fixate on the title, money, perks or job description and lose sight of the one aspect of the job that can make or break your chances of success - the culture!

At the same time, a word of caution - "fit" means the most suitable. You will not find perfection in any job or work situation because it does not exist. Companies are not always completely candid about their cultures. This is another reason to try to talk with as many different people as possible before signing on.

Bill DeLeno advises that even if you've done a thorough job of assessing a company, "You don't know what you've got until you get there." While it's not easy advice to follow, Bill recommends that if you do find yourself in a situation that is making you very unhappy and you can't seem to change it, "don't linger if it's bad. Every job and work experience is a stepping stone today, anyway."

3. Assess the Job Itself
When you are interviewing for a new job, it is normal to ask questions about the responsibilities you'll have. It's also important to ask questions about the business goals you'll be expected to achieve. Whether you are starting a new job with a company or moving into a new role with your current employer ask these questions of your boss:

  • Why does this job exist?
  • What are your expectations of me in my first three months in this position?
  • How will you measure my success after a year in this job?
  • How does this job fit within the department or division?
  • Who worked in this job before and where did she or he go?
  • What did he or she accomplish in this job?
  • What was difficult for him or her?
  • What do you think my greatest challenge will be in this job?
  • What are my top three most important business priorities in this job?'

Whenever you start a new job or are promoted, create a plan with your new boss and any other stakeholders (stakeholders include peers, direct reports and senior management) who can influence your work and job.  Jackie got a big promotion to run operations for the sales division of her company. Jackie was an assistant controller with no experience in sales; when she was asked what her what her plans were for her first 30, 60 and 90 days, it hadn't even occurred to Jackie that she should have a plan. Not only did she need to understand what her boss was interested in accomplishing, but she was also inheriting a big staff. The first thing she should have done was to immediately make an appointment with her new boss and prepare a list of questions for him. She then should schedule a one-on-one meeting with every single person on her staff to get to know them individually, and understand what they had contributed in the past as well as what they would like to do moving forward. Jackie needed to make a strong first impression to everyone in her new role because the department was experiencing problems and because initially Jackie wouldn't have seemed an obvious choice for the job.

Once Jackie gathered all this information and started to develop relationships, she needed to set goals that were measurable and realistic, and have her boss and any other stakeholders sign off on them. Going forward, Jackie should meet with everyone at least every 45-60 days.  If possible, she should make an ally out of the person who was previously in her role.

It's just as important to continue assessing your job once you've been doing it for a while. While most people who are laid off from their jobs aren't fired because of performance, people do lose their jobs because business priorities shift. With this shift comes the assumption that different skills may be needed. Most companies aren't very good at assessing their employees' skills and putting them in a different role that will benefit both employees and company. Often a person is hired to accomplish one thing, and if the needs of the organization change, that person may no longer be viewed as relevant to the company's new priorities. Sometimes it's difficult to know whether you are still viewed as integral to the company's priorities. How can you be aware of this in your company, so that you aren't caught off guard? Unfortunately very few people are truly unaware that they may be losing their job when they actually do. Sadly, very few people take care of the things that they can control before they lose their job. As a result, the recovery period takes much longer.

What can you do to stay aware of the status of your job? Ruth Luban talks about the "signposts" that signify the first phase of being a corporate refugee which she calls 'On the Brink' and is when you know something is amiss at your job. Some of the signposts that Luban describes in her book are things like: frequent reorganizations; budget cuts; vacancies left unfilled; you're not being invited to the planning meetings you always used to attend; a boss who doesn't have time to meet with you; a merger or buy out of your company.

Instead of burying your head in the sand to avoid what you think may be happening, Luban recommends some things you can do to replace your feelings of uncertainty with structure. She suggests that engaging in these practical activities will equip you for the possibility that the signposts are indeed leading to the loss of your job. Here are some of her recommendations:

  • Start networking with recruiters, your competition, former colleagues and trade associations.
  • Get organized by cleaning out your files, updating your Rolodex, contact management system and personal digital assistant.
  • Use your benefits by scheduling all those doctors' appointments you've been putting off. Staying healthy is even more important than ever while you're going through this stressful time.
  • Simplify your life by reducing clutter and winnowing down scheduled activities. 
  • Reorganize your finances by assessing your savings and looking at areas where you can cut expenses, and avoid using credit cards. 

Taking action in these areas will help you feel more in control and less stressed in the event that you do lose your job. 

About the Author: Julie Jansen is a speaker, coach, consultant and trainer who helps individuals and businesses reach their fullest potential in today's chaotic workplace. Visit her website at to see her new Workplace Coach booklet series.

This article is excerpted from
I Don't Know What I Want, But I Know It's Not This by Julie Janson.  To buy the book, click here.

About the Author