I knew it was time to look for a new job when they said....

Or, Phrase Translation: Get Your Résumé Out

If you've been in the industry for a while, undoubtedly you have had a Bad Work Experience. Whether you left a job on your own determinism or because you were pushed, months later you can look back at one incident that should have been a clue. With the help of several other people (all contributing anonymously), I hereby provide a Translation Machine to help you understand when the manager says one thing but really means, "Perhaps you should explore how best to improve your résumé and brush up on interviewing skills."

For example:

Manager says: "You are not a team player."

Manager means: "Start circulating your résumé, because there is no way you're going to make it past the next layoff."

Lesson: While it's perfectly reasonable for the company to want team members who care about the project's success, this phrase is not actionable and thus you cannot survive it. Especially if you're the programmer who worked through the weekend to make the software work.

Useful feedback is specific, meant to help you improve, with some sort of metric that lets you and your manager measure success. "You are not a team player" is a meaningless expression that means, "I don't like you."

Manager says: "We are reorganizing the department, but your job is safe."

Manager means: "It's very easy to upload your résumé to Monster. You should try it."

Lesson: Maybe they mean it. Today. But how much do you want to trust them?

I could provide several variations on that theme. But the bottom line is, anytime there is a major change in the company, your job is at risk. You might indeed be the safest person there — but how much do you want to count on it?

Here's one of the variations: "Can you come to my office when you get to a good stopping point?" Wrote my developer-friend, "That was my first layoff. I had the misfortune to solve the last major problem for a project the day before the layoff, thereby earning myself the distinction of being the very last name added to the list."

Manager says: Nah, you don't need to go to that trade show. (And it's the primary show on your technology beat, utterly relevant to your job. You've attended every year for five years.)

Manager means: Bye.

Lesson: If they won't invest in you, they don't expect to see any return.

Manager says: Nobody got a raise this year, you shouldn't complain.

Manager means: We don't value your work. Also, no-raises is swiftly followed by pay cuts, which are soon followed by layoffs. Guess who's on the list? (Extra points for, "Yes, those were valuable contributions, but unfortunately they don't count as part of your real job.")

Lesson: The economy is a real issue, and I won't make light of it. But you shouldn't, either. I've known several companies whose idea of deciding, "Which employee is most expendable?" is "Let's sort the employee spreadsheet by salary, and cut from the top." (Never mind that this also likely eliminates the most experienced staff.) If you suspect you're making more than anyone else in the department... Gosh, which buzzwords should you include on your résumé?

Manager says: We need you to volunteer to "help" QA (or documentation, or pre-sales support) for a few months.

Manager means: We are banishing you. Have a nice day.

Lesson: I've known several companies who "kindly" gave staff a graceful exit. At a high enough managerial level, the employee is given a title like Vice President in Charge of Nothing in Particular, an office with a folding chair and no window, and absolutely no job responsibilities. It's an unspoken suggestion that the company will provide a good reference if only the executive will kindly leave soon. People lower on the totem pole don't get such opportunities.

Manager says, "Here is our new employee policy for use of the Internet. Please sign this to indicate you've read it."

Manager means, "We're going to need an excuse to fire people in the not-so-distant future, so we'll forbid you from checking your e-mail or doing any kind of non-work-related surfing, even on your lunch hour — and then catch you when we need to."

Lesson: It's time to polish that résumé. And to get everything personal off your computer.

And a few more, that need no explanation:

"At the first company I ever worked for, I was head of training/tech support/consulting. They announce the sale of the company at the company Christmas party: Our company was sold to our largest competitor, our arch enemy. I introduce myself to the new owner as the head of technical support. He says, 'Oh, tech support. Well we won't be needing you guys any more!' I went home and prepared my résumé MERRY CHRISTMAS!"

In one of my first jobs, wrote one correspondent, "Every so often the chairman would visit the office and during his walking tour would stop and ask various people 'So, exactly what is it that you do?' Translation: Pack up your stuff as the HR director will have you escorted out the door by day's end (no matter what answer they gave)."

Manager asks, "How long have you been working here, not including tomorrow?"

Manager says, "So. I was reading your blog...."

What would you add?

This story, "I knew it was time to look for a new job when they said...." was originally published by JavaWorld.

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