Solutions: Keeping a Job Long-Term

  • This blog entry wraps up my trio of "Solutions" geared to employment. Future entries in the series will talk about housekeeping and other realities of living in recovery. Portions of this will be re-printed in a self-help book I'm working on, so you're hearing this first!



    On August 13, 1990 I started my first day on my first job. For seven years after, I worked in corporations. Though I was laid off from one job after another, I credit my experiences in business as giving me a good foundation that held me up in subsequent work. What follows now is a free-form discussion of suggestions for keeping a job long-term, based on what I learned in those early years.

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    First, demeanor is everything. Though my budget could barely take the strain, I bought good clothes because I knew appearance mattered. Mind you, I don't advise going into credit card debt to do so. Rather, I cut down in other areas of spending so I could allocate more for clothing.


    If you're a woman, treat yourself to a department store makeover, and buy just the foundation and lipstick. When these items are nearly done, take them to a drugstore to duplicate the look with a cheaper version. Eye shadow can be bought at a drugstore, too. When I was a lot sicker (trust me, I was), I wore garish eye shadow, crimson lipstick and streaked plum blush. Just starting work, I knew minimal colors were the way to go.


    Try to wear makeup at work. One study, years ago, claimed women who wore makeup were paid 20 percent more. Do it for the simple pleasure of feeling good. Keep your eye shadow and lipstick neutral and add a glow via a subtle application of blush. I have no doubt that when I wore the theater makeup I looked like a sick person.


    For men, a good quality tie (not polyester) will elevate your look, along with good shoes. Alas, I can't vouch for what works for men, but I can tell you what I do know. Make sure your shirt, tie and suits are color-coordinated. If you have a moustache, keep it trimmed. Get a manicure or at least keep your nails buffed; you don't need clear polish, you just need presentable nails.


    Lastly, and this is going to reflect poorly on me, but you should attend to your nose hairs. Men who are oblivious to this one sure turn-off run the risk of creating a poor image at work and elsewhere. This is an indelicate suggestion on my part, but I've seen the worst offenders and it's not pretty to look at. Sorry.


    More than how you look, what you say is part of the package. On my first job, my supervisor heard me tell a client on the phone, "Hold on a minute." She made a beeline to my desk and said, "No, Chris, it's ‘One moment, please.'" Ever since then, I've placed people on hold by saying, "One moment, please." Even at the job I have now.


    At that first job, I had to make telemarketing calls. I was simply out of my element. When the position was eliminated, I found work at another insurance brokerage. In hindsight, I can see the mistakes I made at this second job, where I was discriminated against because I had relapsed and had to be hospitalized two weeks. When I returned to work, no matter how good I was, my new boss found every excuse to criticize my performance. I worked for a jerk that gave me his work to do as well as my own. Nobody liked him, but he was a senior person and often went into our boss's corner office to slander me.


    From this job, I learned in retrospect that I possibly didn't get ahead because my heart wasn't in it. I wore a copper necklace I'd crafted in a jewelry-making class; it was hardly a professional accompaniment. And I wasn't on top of my game. One function of the job was to follow-up with the insurance company reps to see if they sent us the amendment documents to our clients' insurance policies. It was a loathsome task, and I wasn't good at it.


    As I look back on that, I understand the secret to keeping a job long-term: you have to be able to take initiative to start a project, follow through on it, and complete it on deadline without being prodded. The secret to success-in life as well as career-is follow-through. If you're weak in this skill, it's either because you're in a job you're not suited for, or you need to strengthen this muscle.

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    The truth is, I was miserable working in business. After I left my second job, I found work at a 10-person firm and was laid off only two months later. That should've been a sign, but I promptly accepted another insurance broker job only to be laid off six months to the day I started. During the eight months I was out of work, I took temp jobs because I could type 80 words per minute. In April 1996, I found another broker job that lasted until I was laid off in June 1997. From there, I went back to school for a library degree.


    What do I recommend? If you want to keep your job, act professionally, even if you have a part-time job in a café or elsewhere. While I attended school, I had a two-day-a-week job in the Pratt administration office, answering phones, calling deadbeats to try to get them to pay their tuition bills, and mailing out class bulletins and correspondence. My supervisor, a wonderful woman, was sad to see me go because I had applied my work ethic to these simple tasks as if it mattered.


    What you do on the job matters-even if you're flipping burgers. Aim to be the best you can be, wherever you work. If you're mopping floors, aim to make them shine. My ethic is that I would clean toilets if I had to put food on the table. Luckily I don't have to, but I never felt any job was beneath me. In my first two years of college, I worked at McDonald's.


    So we've talked about demeanor, work ethic and now I'll talk about something else: the kinds of jobs you can get. Studies show the average worker changes jobs six or seven times throughout her career span. You might even change careers that often. I'll tell you this: your first job isn't necessarily going to be the one you keep until you retire. Use this "starter job" to gain the skills you can use anyplace you go from there.


    Currently, I've been a public service librarian for over seven years. What have I learned on this job? Again, it requires the three elements I talked about: initiative, follow-through, and completion. One aspect of this work I simply must get better at: going up to the teens at the tables and promoting our programs. It's the one thing that used to terrify me, but last week I bucked up and told myself, "It's part of your job, so do it."


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    I recommend library work for people who have schizophrenia. Over the past five years, I've met numerous people-online and in person-who have this illness and work in libraries. It's well suited to us because there's less stress and often, at least in public libraries, you have a union so can't be fired unless you do something blatantly offensive or royally screw up.


    Closing out, I'll list my top 10 ideas for keeping a job long-term:


    1. Dress as if you're one position above where you are now: "dress for the position you want, not the position you have."


    2. Arrive on time, and if the boss wants you to do overtime, do it. Look for another job if you absolutely don't want to do overtime.


    3. Keep your personal life-and details of your illness-away from the office cooler conversations. Find something you have in common with your co-workers, and talk about this shared interest.


    4. You're there to get the job done as good or better than the next person would. Ideally, you'd develop a rapport with everyone, but that doesn't always happen. Make sure to have a social life outside of work.


    5. Remember: your work contributes to the company's bottom line, so find out what their bottom line is and strive to impact it positively.


    6. Always strive to learn new things, especially at work and don't forget, in your personal life, too.


    7. Find out what you can do to make your boss's life easier, and you'll be rewarded.


    8. Keep your resume up-to-date. Employers today have no qualms about downsizing, so job security isn't a given. On your resume, use action verbs to describe your accomplishments, not your responsibilities. For example, "Reduced cost of buying supplies 20% by switching to a new vendor." Or it could be as simple as "Created a welcoming mood. The restaurant saw an increase in customers during that fall."


    9. It may not seem like you've done anything substantial, but keep a list or journal of any positive contributions you've made on the job, so you'll be ready for a raise or senior position if one comes up, if that interests you. Decide if you want the challenge; it's okay to not want to advance. If you find a low-stress job that you want to keep, do it to the best of your ability and have fun.


    10. Ideally, an employer will see to it that you and the other workers are kept happy. Some encourage-and will even pay for-college courses or work-related seminars. If yours doesn't, do things after-hours to boost your knowledge.


    To close out, I'll end with a quote inscribed on a silver key fob available from the Sundance Catalog: "Live the Life You Love-Love the Life You Live." In the end, it's that simple: to enjoy what you do, and do what you enjoy.

Published On: October 17, 2007