Let me start things with a story, recently told to me by a friend that we’ll call Tammy.
Tammy has a reasonably well-paying job in a corporate research lab. She’s still paying off student loans and a car loan. She goes out with friends a lot, for meals and for drinks. She basically spends what she earns and enjoys her young, single life.
At work, however, things are a bit tougher. She’s at the first or second rung on a ladder of career progression that can lead to some great places. However, there aren’t a ton of jobs open all the time in her field, and reputation has some value. She’s also living paycheck to paycheck.
What this adds up to is some rather… difficult… treatment from her boss. She is constantly given far more work than she can complete in a reasonable amount of time, meaning that she’s often at work until very late, coming in on weekends, and so on. Her boss ignores her input and suggestions, and criticizes everything she does.
This came to a head recently where her boss ordered her to do something she considered borderline unethical and incredibly time consuming for relatively little benefit. She started to argue against it and her boss simply said, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
She wanted to leave, but her financial situation made that impossible. She could not afford to cover her combined debt payments and rent for even a month without a steady paycheck. She wasn’t sure if she could easily find new work in her field at all, let alone with any speed.
Her financial situation basically meant that she took that abuse and did the requested task, feeling trapped and feeling absolutely awful about it. She knew that it was going to happen again, and it did, and it has happened regularly since then. She hates going into work, but she feels like she has no other choice.
She asked me for advice, and I gave it to her.
The best – and only – way out of a situation like this is to make yourself as financially and professionally independent of your current job as you can. You need to be able to survive a period out of work without having your finances collapse. You need to be able to easily transition out of your current job into a new one if the current job becomes untenable for some reason.
If you do not have those things in place, then you are handing a great deal of manipulative power to your boss. Your boss has power over your day to day life. Your boss has power over your career. Those are two things you should have power over, not your boss.
Some bosses out there are kind and ethical and treat their employees with respect and dignity. Other bosses will figure out exactly how much power they have and use every ounce of it to squeeze what they want out of you and then discard you when there’s nothing left in the tube. You need to have the power to escape that second kind of boss.
Some workplaces are wonderful, supportive places. Others are fraught with politics, with backstabbing and oneupsmanship being the norm. You need to have the power to escape that second kind of workplace.
Even if your workplace currently seems wonderful and your boss currently seems wonderful, it only takes a few management changes to flip the equation. That’s why you should always be financially and professionally prepared for a sudden job change.
Here are some strategies for doing that.
You should have an emergency fund that covers at least a few months of living expenses. This prevents the immediate financial crisis that occurs if you’re abruptly fired or laid off and it gives you the financial ability to simply walk out the door if your workplace treatment becomes too much to bear.
The easiest way to build this up is to set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to a savings account. Set it up to transfer a small but reasonable amount each week – say, $20 or $50 or $100, depending on what you can afford – and then let it just keep accumulating. Use it for genuine life emergencies, but just let it grow so that the savings account eventually has a few months of living expenses in it. If you transfer $20 a week, that becomes $1,040 at year’s end. If you do $100 a week, that’s $5,200 at year’s end.
You should avoid carrying high-interest debt if at all possible. Having a strong financial foundation in your life is key to being flexible enough to move on from a difficult professional position, and there’s nothing more corrosive to a strong financial foundation than carrying high-interest debt. Typically, this debt is in the form of credit cards; if you’re carrying a credit card balance, get rid of that balance as fast as you can. After that, start eliminating your other debts in order of interest rate while not building any new high-interest debt.
This will probably require some changes to your spending habits. Start by looking at the big bills you pay throughout the year – things like rent, insurance, car payments, and so on. What can you do to lower those bills? In terms of regular expenses, look to cut back on the things that aren’t as important to you by doing things like buying store brand versions of as many regular purchases as possible. The key is to turn just a little bit of overspending into enough underspending that you can start chopping down your credit card debt with extra payments.
You should have a strong professional network. Much of the time, the next big professional step in your life will be aided by someone you know professionally. They’ll help you get a foot in the door. Thus, the more people in your field that you know well, the more likely it is that someone will be able to help you get a foot in the door at the precise moment when you need it.
Obviously, this means establishing real meaningful professional relationships. Start by getting involved in any professional groups in your area. If there are any opportunities to go to conferences related to your career, take those opportunities and use them as a chance to connect with people in your professional peer group. As you start to build relationships, follow up with people and help them when you can, especially when the value to them is much greater than the effort required from you.
You should have a resume ready to go at all times and have it publicly available. Having a correct resume ready to go at all times means that you can immediately respond if an opportunity falls on your doorstep. Having that resume publicly available means that people can find it and help find offers for you without you even lifting a finger, meaning it’s the perfect complement to a strong professional network.
You can start by updating your resume right now with all of the latest information about your career: job history, skills, certifications, and so on. Sign up for a service like LinkedIn where you can share your resume publicly and others can easily find it and contact you if they see something of interest.
You should constantly be looking to have that resume ready for the job you want next. You may have a strong social network and a readily-available resume, but is there anything on it that people will want? You should be taking steps every single day to polish that resume so that it’s ready to help you get the job that you want for the next step in your career, or, at the very least, a job competitive with your own.
The first thing you should do is make sure that you know what the typical requirements are for the job that you desire. Then, put in the effort to make your resume work to fill that position. If at all possible, take advantage of your current workplace’s resources and opportunities to nudge yourself in that direction. If your workplace offers education and certification, take advantage of it. Try to put yourself in positions at work where your work will allow you to build and cultivate skills that will help you take that next career step.
Remember, your overall goal should be to make yourself independent of the job you currently have so that, in the face of bad treatment, you can easily walk away. Life is too short to be in a miserable situation at work, so prepare your financial and professional life so that you don’t have to.
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