People lose their tempers, set poor expectations and embarrass themselves at the office every day. While perfect employees don’t exist, unemployable ones do. Here are a few simple guidelines that can help you maintain a positive professional reputation.
Don't Set Expectations
It may seem trivial, but when you fail to set expectations -- or set the wrong ones -- you quickly become an unreliable worker in the eyes of others. You may perform well or better than your coworkers, but if you set a bar too high and rarely clear it you look much less capable. When you set expectations correctly, however, you look better doing less.
Many of us like to attempt to overachieve and become the company all-star. While you can put yourself into overdrive when starting a new job, you’ll burn out fast and your productivity will sink indefinitely. When you tell your boss you can do just about anything, you’ll fail more often than not. Instead, figure out exactly what you can accomplish and expect that.
Conversely, some bosses will expect more than you (or most anyone) can handle. First, see this as a compliment. Your boss thinks you can handle a lot, and that’s a good thing. When you can’t, however, tell him or her. In most cases, you won’t disappoint your boss by setting a realistic expectation. You will, however, if you set an unrealistic one and fail to meet it.
Setting realistic expectations requires you to know yourself well, and that’s easier said than done. You’ll make mistakes along the way, but pay attention to how you work and what you can accomplish in a given period of time. When you know what you can do, make your limitations known to your boss or manager so they don’t pile too much or too little on your plate. When you have the right amount of work and do it well, you’ll maintain a positive work reputation. If you overburden yourself or take on too little by setting the wrong expectations, you won’t.
Badmouth a Former Employer
While most of us know not to badmouth a current employer, negative comments can hurt us even after we leave. When you quit a job, it never really disappears from your life. Like your credit history, bad marks in your past will stick around for quite a while and can make your life difficult.
People often badmouth a former employer in a couple of ways: in an exit interview at the former company or a job interview with a new one. This happens with exit interviews because your former employer will ask what issues you had around the office and how to improve them. While you should offer basic suggestions, never bring any anger into your answers. If you have to, you should lie about the problems you encountered if you don’t want to burn a bridge. It hurts to pretend to like a terrible job, but it hurts more when you can’t get a new one because your former employer took your criticism too personally.
When you interview for a new job, some employers will ask why you left your previous one. While honesty works here, and you should explain that you had your differences, you need to leave anger out of the equation here as well. When you sound bitter about an old job, you also look unattractive to a prospective employer. They’ll wonder if you’ll feel that way about them and they’d rather take a chance on someone less embittered by their past experiences. Reader Acmeindustrial noted that tactful answers made the all the difference in his interview:
I once interviewed at a place where they knew my former employer well, and had a good idea of why I would have wanted to leave there. They asked some questions about it, prompting me to bad-mouth the former employer. I answered tactfully and without complaining about the former employer (I had prepared for these questions). After the new employer hired me, several people said that it was because of my tactful answers to those questions.
All in all, when you don’t like a past job you should complain to your friends and not an employer. It often means the difference between getting a job and not.
Lose Your Temper
Anger can kill a reputation in seconds. Regardless of its justification, you will screw yourself if you lose your temper for even a short moment. Put an angry person into an argument with a perfectly calm, rational opponent, and you’ll side with the calm person almost every time. Angry people seem crazy. They look like they’ve lost control. In a way, they have, because if you can’t keep your temper under control in the office you shouldn’t be at the office.
In my first year out of university, on my birthday, I had to work through the night console angry customers during a server outage. I missed my party to talk to people about a problem I didn’t cause and couldn’t control. When I hung up the phone from one difficult customer I lost it and made a joke in very poor taste: I threatened to kill the customer’s family if he called back one more time. I immediately realised what I said was completely inappropriate and apologised to everyone who heard me. Still, my boss was one of those people. Had I worked for a less understanding woman she would’ve fired me. Instead I got a scolding and a hug.
When I lost my cool I said something crazy, but the problem actually had as much to do with what I said as how I said it. You never want to threaten to threaten to murder a client’s family, but you can get away with a lot more when you speak without anger. Anger makes you sound crazy. When you bring it to work, and you let it out, you frighten people. You seem unstable. You’ll get yourself into trouble quickly. In some cases -- like mine, where you have a boss who knows you’re just overworked and not a serial murderer -- you can recover. Even if you do, that bout of anger can still follow you to another job down the line. In reader Dorothy's case, it caused major problems as a team leader too:
My worst gaffe goes along with this: I have a strong personality and I know it puts people off at least initially. (A former boss once said, "When I first met you I thought you were a bitch, but then I found out you're not so bad.") I like to think of myself as professional and direct. But one day, only a couple months after taking over a new group, I lost my temper. I raised my voice and my displeasure was completely clear. That one indulgence in losing control lost me a good year of team-building. I never did it again in my professional career or in my private life.
When you think you’ll lose your temper, remove yourself from the situation and the office as quickly as possible. If you leave, you can't ruin your reputation with anger.
Bring Your Personal Problems to the Office
We all come with baggage and plenty of personal issues, but most of the time we need to drop that baggage at the door before entering the office. You’ll often make a few friends around the office and have the opportunity to talk when personal problems arise, but when those problems start affecting your work you consequently hurt your reputation.
Let’s look at a few examples:
A bad breakup makes you sad, distracted, and disinterested in your work: While breakups cause all sorts of emotional distress, your boss will excuse you once or twice for bringing your tattered emotional state to work. Beyond that, you need to find a way to function during the day. While this may seem harsh, your company pays you for a certain level of output. If you stop performing at that expected level, you become less useful. Lifehacker reader umataro42 explains how this caused a big problem at his workplace:
There was a guy at my last job that when he was sad because some girl broke up with him, it showed in his work, which was sloppy and sometimes late. I know this might sound cold hearted, but if you're messing up because of problems in your personal life, it doesn't change the fact that you're not only doing your own job poorly but possibly causing a negative ripple effect on what your co-workers are doing. He became known as unreliable and no one wanted to have to rely on him.
If you have such a hard time that you can’t keep it together at work, ask for some time off and see a therapist. You may lose a few paid holidays, but better that than your job.
- A newborn child causes frequent tardiness at work: While most companies will cut you a lot of slack, as you have a major new (and awesome) responsibility, at some point you have to get back on track and show up on time. If you struggle with timeliness, ask for help. Other parents in the company had to deal with similar issues before and can offer good advice.
- A family member or close friend dies and your work performance drops: Most companies understand the difficulty of losing a loved one and will provide help, but you have to ask for it. If you don’t, and you stop performing well, you won’t have a job after a few months. Whether you anticipate a death or not, know your company’s policies surrounding this situation. Some benefits include a little time off in the event of a loss. If no official policy exists, talk to your HR department or boss to find out what to expect. This way, in the event something terrible occurs, you’ll know how best to handle your work during the mourning period.
Most of the time, avoiding disaster comes down to preparation. When you know how you’ll handle personal issues should they arise, you have a plan of action to help keep your professional reputation intact. Talk to your company to learn how they often handle difficult situations, learn from the mistakes of others, and figure out how to best help yourself in the event your personal life takes a turn for the worst.
Manage Your Social Media Accounts Poorly
Time and time again, people post embarrassing pictures to their social media accounts. Some even publicly post how much they hate their jobs. Unless you want to a company to pass you up when choosing who to hire or fire you for badmouthing the company you work for, you need to watch what you do and say online.
The obvious solution? Watch what you post. Don’t friend co-workers or bosses. If you do, keep them in a separate group from your other friends so if you do have a moment of weakness and post something you’ll regret they won’t see it. As you may know, you can’t control the flow of information about you on the internet. Sometimes, friends will post and tag embarrassing images of you on Facebook. While you can’t prevent everything, you can manage your privacy settings to choose what your friends can do.
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you didn't do anything wrong, because someone with the same name already did it. Companies often search the web to see what you’re up to before hiring and they might find the wrong person making the wrong decisions. While you can’t remove search results about others with your name, you can add positive results under your name and push the bad ones away. The more you can put out there the better. Set up social media accounts beyond Facebook and Twitter, such as YouTube, Vimeo, LinkedIn, Flickr, Picasa, Instagram and so on. Post positive things to these accounts. Set up a website with your name as the domain and create a personal or professional landing page. For more suggestions, check out our complete guide for additional help.
In the end, managing your professional reputation comes down to two things: use common sense and don’t be a jerk. While this seems easy, we all can make these common errors because we like to believe we’re kind and relatively intelligent. You may fit that bill day to day, but everyone can become temporarily irrational or mean. That includes you, but you can mitigate a lot of the damage if you plan ahead and know what moments of weakness to watch out for. If you remember these tips and keep a watchful eye on your behaviour at the office, you’ll keep your professional reputation intact.