20 Biggest Career Mistakes to Avoid (and What to Do)

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Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Biggest Career Mistakes

Nurturing a career is never easy. It takes time and patience, and you’re bound to make a few mistakes along the way.

Learning the hard way is all well and good — but there are some career mistakes that can have serious consequences and are best avoided altogether.

This article covers 20 of the biggest career-ending mistakes. We discuss what they are and how you can fix them so you can keep your career on track and go from strength to strength.

1. Neglecting to network

Networking isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is essential to advance your career.

Avoiding networking is a massive career mistake. If you don’t invest time and effort in building (and maintaining) your professional network, you risk being passed up for promotions or training opportunities. In more senior roles, meanwhile, networking not only becomes a more important form of career advancement, but it’s a vital part of getting work done.

How to avoid: Try to network often. Even if you hate it, seek out networking moments and make them count. Even if you network infrequently but meaningfully, you can still make a great impact and ensure people notice you for all the right reasons.

2. Becoming too loyal to a boss

It’s great to have a brilliant relationship with your manager, but it’s possible to be too loyal to them. If they move, following them to a new organization can come at the expense of your own career. Being too close to your manager can make it look to others like you’re “sucking up” to them, damaging your standing in the workplace.

How to avoid: Be brave and stay put if your favorite manager leaves. Conversely, if you’re getting too close to your manager, look at transfers or job moves to re-establish a more neutral relationship. Remember that you can remain friends with your manager away from work.

3. Being too risk-averse

In some jobs, it’s the employee’s duty to be risk-averse, but most careers require a little bit of personal or professional risk-taking. Not taking risks can slow the pace of your career advancement and your earning power. Avoiding risks at work can also make you appear less effective in certain situations.

How to avoid: Get more comfortable with asking difficult questions, such as requesting a raise or a promotion, or asking why you didn’t get that job. Do this by rehearsing and practicing. Undertake appropriate risk-taking at work by researching scenarios and involving others to help you form opinions that can guide the risk.

4. Believing it’s too late to change careers

Many people make the mistake of staying in a career or a job they hate because they think they’re too old or they lack skills to change. This can lead to dreadful consequences, like wasting years of potential and, worse, happiness.

How to avoid: After evaluating that a career change is right for you, put together a plan of action. You might need to research potential new careers and salaries, and ways into those roles. Network with the right people, and get started as soon as you can on acquiring the right skills. You might have to take a step down to make the move, but it will be worth it in the long run.

5. Burning bridges

The world is a small place, and you never know who you might work for in the future. Bad-mouthing ex-bosses or causing trouble as you leave a job can lead to you acquiring a bad reputation and finding it difficult to land new roles.

How to avoid: If you've had a rough ride in your job, do all you can to repair these wounds before you leave. Stay in touch with your ex-colleagues, and only talk positively about your experience working there.

6. Engaging in office gossip

Gossip might make you look disloyal and undiplomatic, as well as downright nasty. These traits might catch up with you further down the line. Being a gossip-monger can also impact your effectiveness as a future leader by harming your impartiality.

How to avoid: Actively disengage yourself from gossip and rumors. If you’re asked to share information, explain why you can’t and move the conversation along. If others are gossiping around you, either ignore them or attempt to change the subject. This avoids unnecessarily damaging relationships.

7. Expecting things to happen for you

Your career is in your hands, and expecting managers to proactively promote you or offer you a raise will rarely happen, while this mindset will cause your career to stagnate or leave you feeling undervalued.

How to avoid: Grow your confidence to ask for opportunities. The answer might not always be "Yes", though, so be receptive to feedback and seek out opportunities to learn and grow.

8. Failing to meet deadlines

Being regarded as unreliable or a procrastinator can stall your career. People will assume that you’ll have poor management of important projects or deadlines, and approach other people for support. This can slow your development and impact people’s trust in you.

How to avoid: Research ways to improve time management, and find one that works for you. Keep an organized to-do list and set reminders for small things like birthdays and large things like professional goals. Getting into good habits early in your career is a surefire way to keep them.

9. Ignoring the effects of stress

Workplace stress is common, and while some stress can be motivational, too much can cause serious health issues. Ignoring stress is one of the deadliest career mistakes, as it can cause burnout or illness, drawing your career to an early close or simply stall further progression.

How to avoid: Conduct regular “stress audits” or reflective practice to see how stress is impacting you. Consider things like sleep patterns, changes in your mood, physical ailments, and asking peers. If it looks like stress is getting on top of you, you must avoid exacerbating this by speaking to your manager or looking for ways to adjust your workload.

10. Job hopping

Although the average time in a role is falling, especially for younger professionals in their 20s, there is still such a thing as changing jobs too fast. This can mean that you don’t leave legacies where you work, and can make you appear disloyal and uncommitted — and maybe being perceived as an underperformer who is jumping before they are pushed.

How to avoid: Tactically plan your career moves to ensure you make the right moves at the right time and to minimize the temptation to leave. Although pay raises might sometimes be a factor to move, carefully consider these moves before you commit to them.

11. Engaging in inappropriate workplace relationships

An inappropriate workplace relationship can be a serious career problem. Relationships between a manager and a subordinate are usually regarded as inappropriate and might result in you losing your job or being transferred. Similarly, relationships with people in sensitive roles like finance or HR are also generally not allowed.

How to avoid: Avoid high-risk relationships at all costs. If you find yourself in one, then declare it to HR immediately. If your relationship is low-risk (eg: two workers at the same level of responsibility), then still ensure you declare it to avoid any accusations of inappropriate behavior, as well as to minimize gossip in the office.

12. Letting the basics slip

Even if you have progressed well in your career and don’t need to rely on basic skills anymore, ensure you keep them developed. Not doing so can make you look complacent or lead to you being passed over for further promotion because the basic requirements for the role have moved on.

How to avoid: Never stop learning. Research basic skills that are evolving in every area, such as basic AI proficiency, using spreadsheets or programming trends. The best way to learn this is by spending time with employees less senior than you, which also improves your visibility and effectiveness as a leader.

13. Not knowing your worth

All employees have a self-worth, which is a measure of their earning power versus their unique skill sets and job market factors. Not knowing your earning power can mean that you fail to see opportunities to upskill or see your earnings rise slower than your peers.

How to avoid: Actively research your job market and look at what people with your skills are being paid. Take the time to earn new skills if this might increase your value. Finally, if you feel you’re undervalued, then have a candid conversation with your manager about a raise.

14. Not meeting recruiters

Ignoring recruiters can have serious consequences for your career. Firstly, you might miss a discussion about a dream job that comes up once in a blue moon. They could also stop calling you, even when you’re in need of a job.

How to avoid: Even if you’re not seriously looking for a job, take the time to have a call or coffee with a recruiter from time to time, just to touch base and see what they can offer you.

15. Not staying true to your values

We all have a set of personal values that are immovable and important to who we are. Letting a job or career get in the way of these values can lead you to become very unhappy or left seeking personal fulfilment. It can damage your personal relationships as well.

How to avoid: Take time to assess what’s of top importance for you, and if you can’t influence these factors where you are, then be confident to move on from a role that is at odds with your core values. If you’re job hunting, research the values of organizations you’re applying to and see if there’s alignment.

16. Not undertaking CPD

Continuous professional development is becoming ever more important. As competition for the best jobs heats up, not upskilling and learning new things could mean that your professional growth can stall. If you don’t learn new things, this could mean that you’re passed over for promotions or, worse, made redundant.

How to avoid: Take regular time out of your working week for career development activities. Attend a training course, take an online lesson or network with someone new. Even reading a book is an effective form of CPD. Volunteer for projects, and do all you can to throw yourself into new situations to continuously develop.

17. Passing up projects

Passing up projects can mean that your potential and talent can be overlooked, as well as your willingness to be a team player. Do this too often, and these opportunities will start to go to other people, and your career might start to stall.

How to avoid: Unless you’re irrevocably busy, try to seize project opportunities with open arms; you would have been called upon to support for a reason. Delegate to or call upon someone to help with your day job if needed.

18. Saying “yes” to everything

It might appear helpful, but saying “yes” to every request can be a big career mistake. You can appear a pushover or someone that can be used or manipulated. If you aimlessly agree with managers, you might appear as a “yes man”, someone currying favor with leaders for their gain.

How to avoid: Successful people learn to say “no”. Do this by offering alternatives and giving careful, appropriate solutions for why you can’t support a particular request. Respect your own time and keep your diary to avoid the risk of your day spiraling out of control.

19. Succumbing to imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a nagging feeling that you’re underqualified for your job and undeserving or incapable of success. Imposter syndrome can damage confidence and can lead you to leave jobs you’re doing well in because of the fear of otherwise.

How to avoid: Learn to be receptive to feedback and be open in communicating how you feel to your managers. This way, you will get the honest truth about your performance.

20. Thinking your job will last forever

Losing a job that you expected would last a lifetime can be a crushing experience. It also means that you risk sitting in that role not learning or preparing yourself for what the future might hold.

How to avoid: Continuously learn and grow, even in the safest of jobs. Look for development opportunities and network with recruiters on an ongoing basis.

Watch our video on how to develop a personalized career plan:

Final thoughts

It’s sometimes said that a mistake is only a mistake if you make it more than once, but there are some career missteps that need to be avoided at all costs. Hopefully, this article has provided some insights on how to avoid these situations.

When thinking about serious career mistakes, bear in mind:

  • Serious career mistakes have both immediate and long-lasting consequences.
  • They can be self-inflicted or caused by external factors.
  • Many examples of serious career mistakes involve complacency — it's vital to be proactively managing your career to avoid them.
  • Career mistakes not only impact your career, but also impact your health and personal life.
  • A serious mistake at work, made and repeated often, can become a habit and be challenging to recover from. This said, you can learn from them, and the experience can make you stronger.

Do you have any thoughts, experiences or questions about making serious career mistakes? Let us know in the comments section below!

Originally published on April 27, 2018.