Finding your next job: Don’t be a jerk

August 1, 2012, 7:19 am

Thanks for sticking with this series on Finding Your Next Job. I’ll probably have one or two more posts after this one before I’m done. If you’re heading to MathFest this week, this series ties in to a panel discussion on Issues for Early-Career Mathematicians in Academia that takes place on Friday at 2:30, where I’ll be speaking and leading a breakout discussion on this topic. If you’re interested and available, please stop by. Also, in case you want a one-stop shop for all the posts in this series, I have one for you: I’ll be adding posts to this bundle as they go up.

Last time, we talked about the importance of being creative when looking for work and exploring all options, including nontraditional ones. There’s another point to consider at this initial stage having to do with how you choose to conduct yourself during the long slog ahead: Make a commitment to act with integrity, and don’t be a jerk. Yeah, that’s two things, but they’re interconnected and instantiate the same idea.

A lot of academicians looking for a next job are in a place where the relationship between them and their current employer is not good. There can be a lot of negative feelings going on in these situations— frustration, anger, and resentment being some of the most common. In that kind of environment, it’s natural to mount a job search in which one of the perks of finding a new job would include the satisfaction of sticking it to your current employer as firmly as possible.

It’s natural, but not healthy. It’s never good for anger, frustration, or a desire to do harm to another person or institution drive a very important decision in your life. When I was starting my last job search in 2010, I was having some of those feelings before I came across this blog post by Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers and now a professional blogger and speaker. Hyatt says in that post:

Face it. You will eventually quit your job. It may be this year. It may be next. It may be ten years from now. But it’s inevitable. It’s only a matter of time. The only real question is how to do it in a way that doesn’t burn your bridges. You never know. You may want to come back. At the very least, you may need a reference.

Unfortunately, many people don’t always end their tenure at a company as well as they begin. The key, in my opinion, is to begin with the end in mind. As leaders, we should be intentional about everything we do—even quitting.

Let’s start with the outcome we want. Here’s how I would define it:

You want your employer and fellow employees to celebrate your contributions, grieve your departure, and eagerly welcome you back if ever given the chance.

He goes on to list seven steps to take before quitting, among which are Determine to exit with dignity and honor and Honor your commitments to your current employer. (Some of the other steps are a bit more in line with the corporate world than the academic but still worth a read.)

At the time in my 2010 search, the outcome Hyatt described seemed unlikely to say the least — nor had I really considered whether or not I wanted to have that outcome. The outcome I wanted was a new and better job! But I began to realize that how I exit my current job — even if I don’t end up exiting it — sets the tone for how I do my work from there on out, even if it’s right back in the same place in the Fall. If I left with bitterness and negativity, those feelings will pervade my next position like a bad smell. And I get the same pervasiveness (but a good smell) if I determine to leave with grace and positivity.

There were things that were involved in my decision to seek a next job (not only in 2010 but in the other searches as well) that were unfortunate and in the past — therefore out of my control — but how I act and comport myself in the present is definitely in my control. I determined at that point that I wanted my search and, if it came to it, my exit from my current job to be steeped in a positive attitude, dignity, graciousness, and integrity — because above all else, I wanted to be happy where I was working, whether or not it was a new job, and a pervasive negative atmosphere prevents happiness. Insofar as it was up to me, I wanted to work to create positive energy around me.

This is hard to do. It’s easier to be vindictive and negative than it is to be gracious and positive. That’s why I think, at the outset of the search, you have to commit yourself to not acting this way and seeking the high moral ground at all times. You’ll have to refer to that commitment and be held accountable to it repeatedly through the process — a topic we’ll take up again in the next post in this series. Before applying for any jobs, before laying down any drafts of teaching philosophies or cover letters, make this commitment and start acting this way.

By the way, about application materials — If you haven’t determined to act with graciousness and integrity before you write, the materials you write will drip with negativity, whether you intend them to or not. And there’s no more visible red flag on a job applicant than someone who consciously or unconsciously channels those kinds of feelings. People who place blame on their current employer, who think they are better than the students they currently have, who think they are misunderstood geniuses — nobody wants to hire people like that, except the very kinds of institutions those people are seeking to leave in the first place.

Don’t be a jerk is one short way to sum all this up. One commenter in a previous post pointed out that some folks who decided to look for a next job will pick fights with their employer just to create as bad of an atmosphere as possible, and then blame the bad atmosphere as the primary reason for leaving. Don’t be a jerk to your students by cutting back on the effort you give to your courses. Don’t be a jerk to your colleagues by picking fights or failing to be useful. Don’t be a jerk to your administration by complaining — or blogging or Tweeting — about them incessantly. Instead: Act with integrity, like a professional, like a class act.

What do you think? What does acting with graciousness and integrity look like for you?


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