What to Do When You're Stuck in a Dead End Job

You started this job with such high hopes. You'd master this entry-level position, impress your boss and work your way up to a management role within three years. Five, 10 or, yikes, 20 years later, you’re still answering the phone, fetching coffee and making copies.

Dead end

“The wonderful job 20 years ago with job security is now a liability,” says personal and business coach Joanne Korman Goldman of JKG Coaching.

How’d that happen?

Maybe you got in at the ground floor of a startup that seemed promising but now has limited sources of funding and revenue generation, Goldman says. Your job rise elevator is stuck on the first floor.

Perhaps you needed a job so much that you didn’t ask key questions during the interview such as the company’s philosophy from promoting within, Goldman says.

Sadly, some companies don’t promote from within. They’d rather hire a shiny new outsider. Those outsiders don’t always work out. But while you can turn on your private evil grin when they get shown the door, you’re still at a dead end.

Or, your company doesn’t promote based on diversity and you qualify as diverse.

Goldman lists signs of a dead end job:

  • You’re not receiving new assignments, challenges or responsibility.
  • Your requests to be trained or certified on something new are repeatedly turned down.
  • During your review, your manager tells you there’s no opportunity for advancement.
  • You’re a top performer, especially in a revenue-producing sales role. Your boss tells you they like you just where you are.
  • It’s a family-owned business and all positions above you are held by family members.

The easy thing to do is…nothing. “Feeling stuck in a go-nowhere job, without knowing how to get unstuck, causes inertia,” Goldman says. “As much as the job is a dead end, it’s the devil you know. Getting out of your comfort zone means becoming visible, out in the world, introducing and advocating for yourself. That’s enough of a reason for most people to hide in that dead end job.”

It’s tough admitting you’re not going to move up—at least not in your current job. Take time to see your situation for what it is and acknowledge your feelings, Goldman says.

All right, time’s up.

While you may be angry or sad because you think you’ve wasted time running in place, don’t let those feelings show. “Don’t develop a bad attitude,” she says. “No one likes to work with people who have a sense of hopelessness, powerlessness and resentment. Don’t goof off. Even if you're feeling stuck and miserable, you’re still being paid to do a good job. Don’t challenge management as a way of taking out your situation on them. Don’t announce that you’re bored or unchallenged, especially in front of your coworkers.”

Instead, “Take responsibility for your situation by putting a plan in place, whether that’s having a constructive conversation with your boss, or deciding to take action to leave,” Goldman says.

Do your homework.

“If you’ve been in the same job for a long time, read up about the job market and job hunting,” she says. “A lot has changed in the past 10 or more years.”

Speaking of change, another potential problem is that your job skills don’t translate to other industries. That could be your situation if your role focuses on outdated processes or procedures or involves proprietary software systems and applications that don’t transfer to other companies or industries.

“Consider taking classes or getting up to speed on new technologies, concepts and certifications,” Goldman says. “Your mind will be stimulated, you’ll feel better about your career because you’re taking action, and you’ll be meeting new people for networking yourself into a new job or industry. You may even come away with ideas you can apply in that dead end job and it goes on your resume.”

Maybe you think it’s too late to move. Rethink that opinion.

“Is feeling stuck in the job creating health issues that will get worse as time goes by?” Goldman says. “Will the sacrifice of significant financial forfeiture be too great or difficult to recover from? Do you have the willingness to do whatever is necessary to change or move on, including starting over at a new company or industry, going back to school, taking a pay cut, taking a lower position, downsizing, risk being unemployed?”

As you look for a new job, do more homework to make sure you don’t end up in another dead end job. Research the company’s website to see if they articulate the importance of career advancement and to see if there’s diversity on their management team, Goldman says. Find the company on LinkedIn. See who works there, and scan their profiles to see if they advanced through the company. Use sites such as Glassdoor.com and Salary.com to find out if it’s a culture of advancement opportunities from current and former employees.

“Remember, you’re interviewing a company as much as they’re interviewing you,” she says. “Prepare questions in advance and listen carefully to responses about the career trajectory for the desired role. Ask, for example, ‘I’m curious. What happened to the person who had the role previously?’ If they were promoted, or moved to another part of the company because they’re being fast-tracked for a higher-level role, you’ll have a better chance of walking a similar path.” 

Just because you’re stuck now doesn’t mean you have to stay stuck.

“If the willingness is there, and you have the support you need, then it isn’t too late to change or move on from that dead end job,” Goldman says. “There are no dead ends, only new beginnings waiting to be discovered.”

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