My first “grown-up job” out of college lasted nine months.
I went into it feeling optimistic; I was looking forward to working on exciting projects and contributing to the young company’s budding development.
At around the four-month mark, one of my coworkers went on maternity leave. Instead of hiring a temp to take over her position while she was gone, I was handed a bulk of her responsibilities — some of which included customer service, which was definitely not part of my original job description.
I was also experiencing issues communicating with management and unresponsiveness when trying to negotiate a wage increase to reflect my increased workload, and I didn’t have the opportunity to participate in any of the projects I had been promised. By that point, I knew it was time for a change. Gratefully, I’ve been at my current job for more than two years and I’m quite happy.
Being unhappy in your job can be an incredibly difficult position, especially because the majority of us rely on employment for survival. There’s also a lot I learned from that job (and all the miserable jobs I’ve had in my life), so here are a few takeaways from that experience.
Embrace the positives.
Trying to seek out the good in a negative situation absolutely does not mean ignoring the unsustainable aspects, but I’ve also found that being dissatisfied with a job can often lead to negativity about the overall experience.
The job I had was in communications and digital and editorial production, both of which I studied and participated in during college — this was not the case for many of my friends who encountered difficulties finding jobs in their chosen field. It also included eating amazing food every day, office dogs, a beautiful location, and talented, kind coworkers.
Factors like these are obviously not a replacement for fair compensation, respect, or benefits like health insurance, but they can help tide you over while you find something that better suits you.
Seek out allies.
The best thing I did at my previous job was become close with two of my colleagues, Jackie and Julia. We were able to commiserate together and support each other during the roughest days. I also know I can count on them for professional references if I need them, and we have a group chat where we share cute animal photos and root for each other on whatever paths our respective careers take us.
What are you learning?
As cliche as it sounds, all of the jobs I’ve had have taught me something — especially the terrible ones. At each one, I learned new skills, how to to set professional boundaries, how I want to be treated as an employee, and how to advocate for myself. I can now look out for red flags and am better equipped to address them. As a young professional, I am also honing in on what I want my career to look like and each new experience helps to clarify that vision.
Examining what you can take away from a crappy job can also help ensure your success at your next one. Being honest about past challenges with new employers can set reasonable expectations on both sides, as well as give them an idea of what you’re looking to get out of the role, rather than the other way around.
Find what’s causing the problem.
Examining exactly where the issue is rooted can help figure out how to address it. In my experience, this can be broken down into three main categories:
Individual — This job isn’t for me, i.e. this isn’t the path I want to take.
Most of my teenage summer jobs fell into this category. When I was 17 and 19, I worked in retail and absolutely hated it. There are those chosen few who thrive in a retail environment, but I was certainly not one of them. I spent those months showing up, doing what was required, and then clocking out, and most of my pay went toward my college tuition. Most of us have had to go through at least one of these, and they’re often just a stepping stone to getting to where you’re going next.
Interpersonal — I don’t like my coworkers/boss, i.e. I don’t fit in here.
As my mother always told me growing up, “You don’t have to like them, you just have to get along with them.” Of course, exceptions like harassment, feeling purposefully excluded, and racist or sexist microaggressions are all causes for more serious action, but if you just don’t feel like your coworkers are Your People, that’s totally normal. The cast of characters at any given job is not a given and dynamics will naturally shift overtime. If you truly don’t feel like it’s the right fit for you, remain polite and professional, and move on with a clearer idea of the kind of environment you’re looking for.
Structural — The way things are done here sucks, i.e. the pay, benefits, etc. are terrible.
This is definitely the hardest category I’ve encountered, mostly because it’s so difficult to change. Unless you are in a senior position, and if there is no union or effective HR department to back you up, it can feel impossible to affect change. At the end of the day, no job is worth your mental wellbeing and in many cases, the best way to look out for yourself is to walk away.
If the job isn’t what you thought it would be and you have the opportunity, try to negotiate with your manager for something that works for both of you. To prepare for these conversations, it’s also helpful to know your rights and what you’re entitled to in terms of compensation. Refer to your company’s policy handbook for this, which all companies should make available to their employees.
Some examples of negotiation questions:
- What responsibilities are you taking on that technically don’t fall under your job description?
- Are there any projects you are interested in taking on and how can you be compensated for them?
- Are there opportunities for growth, such as shadowing one of your more senior colleagues, or participating in additional skills training?
Here’s a video from The Financial Diet with tips for negotiating:
Take care of your mental health.
Whatever capitalism will have you believe, your job is not your life. If you’re in a job that isn’t serving you, put in your required hours and then shut everything down after that. Your place of employment is not entitled to your time when you’re off the clock, especially if you’re an hourly employee. Look after yourself and prioritize things you actually enjoy doing outside of work.
Keep it professional.
It can feel good to rant to your coworker who you only kind of know, or even to your boss who seems “cool,” but remaining professional is important to the lasting impression you make when you do finally leave. Unless a workplace is outright abusive or toxic, do your best to be cordial, continue to do the job, and don’t burn any future bridges. You never know when you might need a reference or a networking buddy and chances are, you could run into your old colleagues later on in your professional life, and it should be a pleasant reunion rather than a bitter one. (Here’s my guide to the importance of networking — and how to do it if you, like me, do not love happy hours.)
Stick it out, but have an exit plan.
It’s often inadvisable to leave a position before the one-year mark. At minimum, one year gives you the opportunity to get to know your role, your coworkers, and the way the company functions. It also gives you a chance to build relationships; after all, it’s hard for someone to give you a recommendation or be a reference if they didn’t actually get the chance to know you.
However, there is a point when sticking it out is just not worth it. (My breaking point was the Wednesday morning I cried three times before even starting my commute.)
Because I was worried about seeming uncommitted or flaky to any new potential employers, I made sure I had a strong existing resume and built professional references outside the company. I also consulted friends and mentors and they advised that as it was my first job out of college, I should just be aware not to make a pattern out of it, and to stick around at my next position for at least a year or two. When I had a new opportunity lined up, I gave in my two weeks’ notice.
It might feel good to quit in the heat of the moment, but taking care of you comes first and for most of us, that can be pretty challenging to do without a paycheck. Check out my 10 tips for surviving your job hunt if you need an extra boost of encouragement during the process.
Knowledge is power!
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