Vault's Careers Blog

Career advice and job search strategies for the modern careerist

What’s Your Breaking Point?

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A rocky job market affects more than just the unemployed and recent graduates—even those still employed are feeling the sting. With little certainty of finding placement elsewhere, labor statistics show that few professionals are willing to leave their jobs, despite a rise in reported employee dissatisfaction and especially dispiriting working conditions recently seen in the news. To gauge this sense of career confinement, in a recent poll Vault asked its readers “What would be the last straw to make you quit your job?”

One workplace issue which held the collective attention this past summer was the threat of bedbug infestations in New York City—and it would be hard to blame anyone who runs screaming from an office crawling with them. However, just 2 percent of Vault readers said these vermin would prompt them to resign. But quitting may not be necessary: Bedbug infestations have thus far resulted in complete shutdowns of a Victoria’s Secret, Manhattan offices for Google and Cadwalader, and most recently the flagship Niketown store. And you can’t quit if there’s no job to go to.

Fewer still indicated that they would pack it in for an impending company merger. Yet, if we’ve learned anything from the year’s rash of buyouts, industry consolidation doesn’t leave much room for staff: The merger of Pfizer and Wyeth, for instance, resulted in thousands losing their jobs and facilities shutting down around the globe. Now, with the completion of United and Continental Airlines’ amalgamation, another drastic round of layoffs won’t be far off.

The prospect of benefit reductions also failed to influence resignation decisions, with just 5 percent stating that would be their breaking point. Sadly, this has been reflected in practice: One of last year’s more shocking developments was the news that insurance company WellPoint reduced its own employee health benefits, even while encouraging staff to protest health care reform. In spite of that, there was no surge of people lining up to leave Wellpoint in response.

The point at which respondents begin to rankle, it seems, is the prospect of outright mistreatment. While toxic offices have inspired some of our favorite films, from Office Space to The Devil Wears Prada, they remain a professional hazard. Abuse can take different forms at different levels: Some superiors will demoralize staff to the extremes seen in the tragic suicides at Foxconn, while sexual harassment may (allegedly) come from such diverse figures as the New York Jets or the CEO of Hewlett-Packard. That kind of treatment would apparently cause 31 percent of respondents to move on.

And then there’s the suffering endured at the hands of customers and clients. By now we’re all familiar with one such incident, when an allegedly unruly passenger prompted the abrupt resignation and emergency chute escape of JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater. And he’s likely not alone in his frustration: some 9 percent of respondents to the poll said they’d have likely done the same.

Ultimately, however, stability rules the day: Nearly half of our respondents confirmed the notion that the only way they’d quit is with a new job waiting for them. But even if that seems the safe bet, it’s not always the wisest—by continuing at a job that doesn’t meet your standards, not only do you risk stagnating but your industry does as well. As posited by author AnnaLee Saxenian in a Wired article, “Job-hopping, rather than climbing the career ladder within a corporation, facilitates flows of information and know-how between individuals, firms, and industries.” When the workforce is able to distribute its talents effectively to where they are required, that’s when growth becomes possible.

While one hopes that a healthy dose of self-esteem should sufficiently compel disenchanted employees to say enough is enough, the viral popularity of “folk heroes” like Steven Slater and TheChive.com’s fictional “Jenny” still indicates a sense of powerlessness in the workforce. Their exploits, real or not, reflect what many wish they could do themselves—throw caution to the wind, and “deploy the slide” as a defiant act of personal satisfaction. But without dramatic improvements in the rate of job creation, most will remain in a holding pattern.

— Alex Tuttle, Vault.com

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