In the May 5, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader falls into a wrong-job problem and can’t keep a job.


I’m a dedicated, loyal employee, and I would do anything for my employer. Why, then, do I lose my job every few years and have a hard time landing a new one?

Nick’s Reply

wrong-jobThe easy answer would be that you’ve just been unlucky and that you got caught in a series of unfortunate downsizings through no fault of your own. But that would make for a very short column.

Your question, which is not detailed enough for me to really answer, nonetheless raises a bigger question that’s relevant to everyone: Why do people take a job, only to find themselves job hunting again so soon? Let’s tackle that, and I hope you’ll find something useful for your situation.

A good job is the right job

The economy obviously affects jobs, but you can’t control the economy. So let’s consider something you do have some control over: the choices you make. I believe that most people go job hunting because they took the wrong job to begin with. This is a subtle phenomenon worth thinking about.

Some people take a job because it’s offered, not because it’s right. Some take jobs because employers flatter them, not because they’re particularly interested in the company or the job. Lost in the joy of being judged worthy, they forget to judge the job and the company, and to think about whether the job being offered is really the kind of long-term investment they want to make. (See Forget Glassdoor: Use these killer tips to judge employers.)

A wrong job is not going to be a good job. It will quickly turn into a recent job.

The wrong-job cycle

Relieved to be “off the street” (or overly impressed at being recruited), wrong-job takers will accept work that does not satisfy them. They will rationalize a poor choice and try to live with it. Gradually, their morale drops and their performance suffers. The effect is cumulative, and eventually the mismatch becomes glaring. They get fired, laid off, or they quit.

Because the parting was bitter and probably sudden, the next job search is likely to be desperate. This job seeker is likely to make a similar mistake. The wrong-job cycle starts again.

(Looking at this from the employer’s perspective, when faced with doing lay-offs, employers favor keeping productive workers with good attitudes. How has your choice of a job affected your attitude? Are you the obvious sourpuss to eliminate when cuts are made?)

Now, I don’t blame anyone for taking a job — any job — to pay the rent. But if you reveal a poor attitude at work because you accepted a job you don’t really want (or because the economy depresses you), then I have little sympathy. When you accept that job and that paycheck, do the job with pride no matter what it is, and learn to smile until you move on.

You can keep the right job

When you find your next job, will you choose it, or will it choose you? That is, are you pursuing what’s good for you, or settling for what comes along? You’re more likely to keep the right job than any job, so choose carefully.

Success depends on making good choices to begin with. When you choose a job that stimulates and keeps you engaged, it shows in your performance and demeanor. Being on the right job drives creativity, which in turn can help your company out of a jam — and keep you employed. Will you choose a job that inspires you to be a profitable worker, or one that’s likely to make you start job hunting again?

I’ve met far more people who took the wrong job than the right one. Before you take a job, ask yourself whether you’re doing it for the right reasons.

  1. Is it a job you sought out, or did it just fall into your lap?
  2. Do you really know what you’re getting into, or are you just in a hurry?
  3. Are you truly motivated by the work, or are you merely looking for a pay check?
  4. Can you really contribute to the success of the employer, or will you just show up and mark time?

Again, if you need money, I’ve got no quarrel with you. But please realize that later on you may wonder once again why you are unhappy or why you got laid off. Break your wrong-job cycle.

Try to look ahead. Find the right job, and you might not have to search again so soon.

Why do people take the wrong jobs to begin with? What factors tell you that a job is right or wrong?

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  1. And if the writer did take the right job for them, was it the right company? If they lost their job through downsizing, maybe it would be a good idea to check the financial health of a company before joining.
    But besides that, I’d wonder if there were warning signs. Not all managers are good at giving feedback, but a string bad at it? And the writer could ask.
    I know someone who had trouble getting and keeping a job in Silicon Valley during the tech bubble. It was him, not bad luck. We don’t know about this case.

    • @Scott: That’s why I included a link about ways to vet a company. Here’s another:

      • Highly recommended–anytime I thought I could get away with ignoring these lies, I struck out. “Never work for jerks’ should be engraved in your brain.

        Another thing to remember: if it occurs to you to get up and leave because you smell a rising sewer, do exactly that.

        • “Another thing to remember: if it occurs to you to get up and leave because you smell a rising sewer, do exactly that.”

          I look back at a lot of times I wished I would have done this. At the time, I was trying to be polite. I swear, there are so many people in this world who will, for lack of a better phrase, “weaponize” social situations where another person is feeling vulnerable and exposed and who has the expectation of being “civil” and “courteous.”

          It toughens you up to do this, and requires a deliberate decision at the time. Prepare yourself beforehand, would be my best advice for anyone.

          One more thing. Be direct, and do not bluff. If you are uncomfortable in any situation, get up and walk away. There may be people who tell you that you have been silly, or stupid, or question your manhood, but if you aren’t feeling valued, walk away, hang up the phone, and cut that person/company out. Now, to practice what I preach in the future….

          • Ryan- I trigger some on here for posting more than what they consider is my supposed allocated amount, but sir, your post is one of the smartest most insightful ones I’ve ever seen on here. Describes what I’ve endured over the years, and foolishly failed to walk away from. Finally, late in life, I got smart, called these jerks bluff, got up and walked out, or just hung up. I’ve actually had a couple of these slack jaws follow me out to the lobby, and even follow me out to the parking lot and call me out to fight. In this day and age, with a lot of unstable running around, with no moral compass, no filter, and nothing to lose, that sort of conduct can be fatal. Have you ever thought of mentoring young people? Solid advice!

  2. This topic hit me between the eyes. . . I tried to make a career in a dead end industry and delusional thinking overruled my rational decisions. All the signs were there but I chose to ignore them and accept job offers to pay the bills and hope for the best. After four job changes that I told myself (and family) were the fault of the employer, I decided to get busy in other endeavors. It’s hard work but worth it. Explore your strengths and talents and be honest and willing to question your convictions. Three years later, I’m an entrepreneur having a blast.

    • @Paul:

      Don’t feel too badly about the choice you made. Turns out humans suffer from systemic biases when making judgments. This excellent book by behavioral economist Dan Ariely will help you understand it and maybe alter your thinking and behavior a bit. It’s had a huge effect on me.

      Predictably Irrational:

  3. Sometimes fate offers a hand one can either accept or refuse for the various reasons cited here. I’ve had two wonderful jobs during my career. One I sought. The other was a referral from a good friend who worked at the company . He thought there was a good match and arranged a meeting with the hiring manager. Unknown to me the manager was about to hire another person that very week. But he agreed to meet me as a favor to my friend. That led to a change of mind. He offered me the position. I learned a lot in both roles. Know thyself is a good start. That way you can search for a good match and also know one when fate offers you one. No complaints!

    • @David: You call it fate. I call it “how managers hire.”

      When I ask people why they lost out to another candidate, a frequent answer is, “Oh, some insider was wired for the job!”

      And my response to that is, “Don’t cry about it. That insider just showed you how to land a good job. Be wired for the next one yourself.”

      “Know thyself” is indeed a good start. But to get to the finish, it helps when the hiring manager knows someone who can speak up for you and make a referral! In any case, nice work!

  4. Sometimes the right job turns into the wrong job with a change of ownership, managers, or the economy. 9/11 killed the travel industry where I made my first half of a career. Companies are not uniformly good or bad. Neither is management. Ultimately, you have to temper your expectations, make the tradeoffs, and be the best you can be even when it hurts. This may sound a little defeatist, but as I near the end of a traditional working career, I look at things very differently than I did at 45 or 50.

    Quite frankly, after 2 years I am pretty much done with a position if it doesn’t change or add stuff. The hard work becomes remote, and I feel like a mule.

    For instance, my position (been with present company for 2 years) was eliminated in an acquisition. It was sheer head count, my age, and the fact that I work 100% remote (in a culture which wants everyone in an office, what a notion today!) Not my reviews or what I do. They’re presently arguing about what to do with what I do for 50+ hours a week in what is now deemed to be two jobs. No, they won’t keep me FTE or consultant, based on the stories I’m getting. Yes, they’re all scared for THEIR jobs. Those are signs it’s time to go.

    One thing I recommend is having an avocation or a second string job that gives you a different skill or satisfies a need. It’ll keep your sanity and maybe money coming in.

    • “One thing I recommend is having an avocation, or a second string job that gives you a different skill or satisfies a need”. Back in the day, I’d agree with you. Makes perfect sense. I even did this 30 years ago; took stop over jobs to try and survive, or open up opportunities in other industries. For me personally, I was pigeon holed into a level where I shouldn’t have been. Took years to barely climb out. But today (and we both know especially if you’re past 45) employers will push back with the “you did this years ago, but your skills aren’t current”. Or “you’re looking for a job like this until something better comes along, then you’ll jump ship”. Or further, the old “so why did you take a low-level job”? This endless Nuremberg defense of justifying your existence to some disinterested a moral perspective employer. I’d rather set through a root canal! And this is the few employers being somewhat civil and polite. I’ve been told much worse than this in my time. I know there’s going to be a lot of older workers out there now vying for lower-level jobs. I worked as a production MIG welder and metal fabricator for 6 years many years ago. God forbid if I lost my current job, I might be able to convince some employer to hire me and land another such job. But at 62, I have no desire to work 60 hours per week, and my eye sight (now in the bifocal stage) wouldn’t help me either. But the question begs, just how does one convince a perspective employer to give you a shot on a second string job, or a job you have other skills in ( especially when you’re older) , short of some Shylock with a smirk on his/her face thinking, or telling you outright, they got their best deal “bang for the buck”?

      • I hate this state of affairs.

        We had a brief reprieve for about 2 years when unemployment was low, but we’re back to 9/11 and 2008-9 or worse time due to an overreaction to the spread of a really bad flu that decimated the already sick and old. (BTW, I am among the moderately vulnerable by age). If you go outside, you might be yelled at by a busybody if your mask is off because you’re getting anoxic, or not staying 10 feet away. Or you might get clubbed by a cop or buzzed by a drone. Trying keeping sanity with an avocation? No events or restoration work–no avocation.

        Now we have a real bug, as in insect, which kills honeybees, for which we are dependent upon for pollination–and it can kill you. The next terror awaits! I am so fed up with living like this.

  5. Like Paul, I too have made some very bad job/career choices based more on immediate need or desperation(sometimes the best job is the only job mindset), misinformation, naivety (especially as a younger man), being sold a bill of goods (yes, employers do blatantly LIE!), but most of all, being far too generous with giving the benefit of the doubt, and not “TRUSTING MY GUT”!! It took me late into life, and more bad job decisions than I care to admit to, to finally “vet employers” (and people in general)as rigidly as I’ve been vetted, and to trust my gut. I now ascribe to the worldview “I’d rather have 4 quarters than 100 pennies”.
    My late father used to say “most people want to do a good job”. I’d add “most people don’t set out to fail at a job (or with most anything in life)”.
    I admire Mike Rowe. To quote him “don’t chase dreams, chase opportunities” and “find something you can do, that someone will pay you to do, and then get good at it”. Provided you’re treated reasonably civil and fairly, and your check clears on payday, one can learn to like what they’re doing, or at least, learn to tolerate it.
    I’d also add “find a side gig, and get good at it too”.
    I think there’s far too much emphasis placed on a false fantasy of finding some “dream job/career” (also, finding the perfect “soul mate” finding the “dream house”, yada-yada).
    Granted, I agree that one shouldn’t waste their time and life in toxic jobs they loath, but one has to be realistic, and “work to live” (how employers hate this term).
    Many people (including myself) are not working in what they originally set out to do, or dreamed of doing, and in fact, did “fall” into something (sometimes, into a bed of roses too).

    • @Antonio: “I now ascribe to the worldview “I’d rather have 4 quarters than 100 pennies”.”

      I love that!

  6. I have been a claims examiner for State unemployment for 7+ years. Often people get chopped for not complying with basic rules, like showing up on time on a consistent basis, doing your job (as expected and as required, basically completely and on time), following the rules, etc. Does this case have anything to do with the ‘basic rules’? If not, then it’s a good idea to do some long term planning. What are your priorities? After a series of losing and looking for work, I decided it was stability, it meant more to me than making the most money I could. And benefits mean a lot – I’m ‘pre-retirement, so health insurance, leave time, possibly pension. Don’t wake up surprised at age 50 and realize you’ve little to show for years of working and no retirement plan!

  7. With the current economic situation associated with the virus, this could be a game changer for both short and mid-term employment. As such changes that result from reaction to this virus will have an impact on the job market. Companies, supervisors, etc. do not always make sound decisions in the best of times and this qualifies as not the best period in business. The probability factor is many decisions concerning employees will not go according to sound logic. As such it will be difficult for those permanently laid-off to obtain either the job of choice or one that pays the bills.
    Faced with this environment, the jobseeker must rely on their ability of critical thinking to navigate through the fog that will take place once the pandemic eases. There will be (already are) companies that were fairly sound that have and will close their doors forever. The employee in today’s marketplace must always have the mindset that “tomorrow I may be terminated.” As such upgrading one’s skill level and learning new/different skills will be necessary in the job jungle.
    For the most part, this is a continuation of what always has been the case. Technology and innovation have both created opportunities as well as eliminated many careers. That’s life. The employee has and will have to adjust. Unfortunately the impact of this particular pandemic could speed things up that a person may have to think short-term in employment and be prepared to make changes much sooner than they expect.
    Only time will tell the depth of the impact from this pandemic on the job market. For those in the twilight of their career, the upcoming events may hasten their retirement. For those just beginning their career, they better be flexible and adapt to whatever comes their way.
    What was considered “normal” in business probably won’t resume once all restrictions are erased. The “new normal” will reflect survival of the fittest. Survivors will be based on attitude, adaptability, and seizing available opportunities.

    • @Soothsayer: That’s a good discussion about the employment market changing as a result of the health crisis. I can’t offer good evidence yet, but my gut tells me employers will be more selective when hiring going forward.

      Why? Of those 30 million vacated jobs, only a portion will be re-filled. Companies are just going to try to save money. Wharton researcher Peter Cappelli points out that modern corporate accounting systems treat vacant jobs as a reduction in costs, and thus as an increase in profits. (A good buddy of mine calls this “junk profitability.” I think he’s right.)

      Because managers will be faced with the same expectations but lower staff levels, I think many will step up to the challenge by hiring more carefully. I think they will handle more recruiting on their own because they know HR has no skin in the game — HR will continue to shovel the wrong candidates into interviews, based on dopey key word matches. I believe managers will be much more receptive to job candidates who walk in and demonstrate, hands down, how they will do the work and do it profitably.

      I think this will be a “smart employee’s market” where the best workers who keep their eyes on only the jobs they can do best will be able to negotiate very good compensation packages.

      We’ll see if I’m right. I think your closing comments point in that direction:

      “What was considered “normal” in business probably won’t resume once all restrictions are erased. The “new normal” will reflect survival of the fittest. Survivors will be based on attitude, adaptability, and seizing available opportunities.”

  8. “Break your wrong-job cycle.” This has proven to be as difficult as kicking the nicotine (smoking) habit which has been said (medical community) to be almost as hard as quitting heroin. stated earlier this year that (depending on the survey) “…half of workers making under $50,000 (according to Nielsen data) to 74% of all employees (per recent reports from both the American Payroll Association and the National Endowment for Financial Education)” are living paycheck to paycheck.

    Even CareerBuilder (NOT my go to source) pegged this figure at nearly 80% three years ago so at least they got something right.

    This debt trap has been going on for well over a decade so no matter what source you wish to believe the fact is that a majority of Americans are living deep in debt and will continue to take the most convenient (wrong) job – over, and over, and over…

    • @Chris S: I’m afraid you’re right. Thanks for showing the underside of this phenomenon.

  9. Not to beat up on the questioner, but when they say:

    > I’m a dedicated, loyal employee, and I would do anything for my employer.

    I can’t help but wonder, “Does your employer know that?”

    It’s easy to say that you’d do anything, but shy away when the boss is looking for someone to step up on a difficult task. Or to never be around when the boss is looking for volunteers. I’m not necessarily saying the questioner does this, but I’ve seen a lot of people who SAY they’d bend over backwards, but never seem to be around when the rest of the team is stretching….

    • Then there’s guys like me who offer to pitch in, sink my teeth into it, and run with it only to be told “go *%#€¥* yourself”, or “you’ll fall flat on your face”.

    • Or really give your all for the team, recreate and expand the job you were given, turn it around fast, cheap and right, everyone loves ya, your reviews are outstanding, but when the company’s acquired, that love goes exactly nowhere to keep you on board and suddenly what you’ve done means nothing. Fortunately, I’ve learned to expect it and always keep one (concealed) foot halfway out the door. I only regret that I didn’t get in another year, especially now.

  10. Sometimes the employer will just lie to get you to take a job

    I was 63, had been laid off in a reorganization from the job I expected to last to retirement, and was working a soul-sucking contract job to pay the mortgage and health insurance. My resume was everywhere and a company contacted me for a position doing something I had done well before in a very similar organization. Just like at the previous good job, this necessary function had some major problems but I had the knowledge and experience to turn it around quickly. During the interviews I made it clear that good software was the key to straightening things out and running them efficiently going forward. I named a product that I knew was good. I was promised that I would be choosing the product as soon as I came on board. The salary and benefits were decent and I would be doing something I liked.

    It became clear that the problems with this function went a lot deeper than they disclosed (and I did ask) and they had no intention of keeping the promise made. I soon learned that there was no money in the budget for the kind of software I specified and that my supervisor had already all but given the business to the vendor of a highly inferior product costing a tenth as much. I could write a book on the other issues with this job. It went downhill from there and I was let go after seven months. I hung on until they fired me rather than quit so I could get unemployment. The experience made the prior soul-sucking job look attractive in comparison.

  11. This downturn is an opportunity for many firms to convert permanent positions into contingent positions. The dud position for a permanent employee may be ideal for a temporary employee.

  12. Nick is addressing the core of a so-called job search. I like work harder and get the potential employer search for you.
    That accomplishes what you think is not possible. Being in charge of you and your future and your life and your demeanor.
    We all have demons.
    They flourish in, on and around job seeking, job accepting, job doing, and every other aspect of the our USA workplace culture.
    Accept as Nick says OWNERSHIP of the process from end to end.
    Ans knowing Nick, never ever accept a job as if it is a dream job. It’s not.
    Have a back up plan that calls for you to be contiguously network and search for yu next job. I call it “bench strength”. Or craft your own golden parachute, because no one else will do it for you. Puzzled? Your are not ready for prime time. Don’t got it alone. Get professional help before you accept another job. Be willing to invest in your most precious asset, YOU!

    • @Stephen: Right on with continuously working a backup plan. You can bet your employer’s bean counters are doing that every day.

  13. I heartily endorse Mr. Zoli’s notion of having an avocation, preferably one that produces an income stream. Most companies have more than one product, likewise. When I did it, it took me out of the “we bought you we own you mentality that’s part of the thinking of too many employers. I’ve watched others become multimillionaires the same way, and officers in their own companies.

    There’s no need to be confrontational about it. Just go to the job interview with a customr in your pocket, make sure there’s no conflict of interest, and ask nicely. If there’s a “no”, make a choice and live with it. Your existing customer will want to know you can continue to deliver.

  14. Is it a job you sought out, or did it just fall into your lap?
    *I had just wound down a startup that I really loved, and my headhunter neighbor just happened to ask if I was looking for a role in an industry I had been in previously.

    Do you really know what you’re getting into, or are you just in a hurry?
    *I knew of the company before, they had a good reputation in our industry, but there were red flags that I missed.

    Are you truly motivated by the work, or are you merely looking for a pay check?
    *My partner was getting tired of being the sole bread winner.

    Can you really contribute to the success of the employer, or will you just show up and mark time?
    *I definitely could have helped the employer, but they had a severe talent leakage problem on the engineering side and could not stop hiring for the wrong roles. They had 2x the number of product managers and marketers than engineers who could actually the products to market.

    I lasted 9 months and left for a large company that I had always wanted to work for and haven’t looked at a job listing since. Title and responsibility decreased substantially, but I got a huge raise. I never realized before how important work-life balance is.

  15. I was working as a consultant and the job found me, while I continued to manufacture a product I had developed. I thoroughly enjoyed doing both, and continued the manufacturing when the job burned iut. The financial cushion was good to have, too.

    Just before the Civil War, many working people considered employment to be only slightly better than slavery, and “employment at will” to be the worst kind of employment. The ideal was to own a business, and that was the advantage I received. It was well worth pursuing.