Let’s face it—navigating your career at any stage is one big leap of faith. You’re trying to get ahead, prove your worth, and impress the powers that be all without falling on your face, overstepping your bounds—or both. We get it, you’re eager and you want to stand out from your peers so much so that you might not even realize your well-meaning actions are getting you noticed for the wrong reasons.
Things that may have been okay in college (like wearing board shorts and a graphic tee to class) or sound good in your head (“let me surprise my boss by negotiating a big company-wide deal all on my own and loop the boss in after it’s all locked in and no changes can be made!”) are actually the very things that won’t get you promoted, won’t win you any praise, and could actually get you fired.
What’s scary, is that many of us don’t have a clear understanding of the types of missteps—the well-meaning ones at least—that can get us in trouble until they actually happen. So, consider this your crash course on the seemingly innocent, day-to-day tasks that should give you pause from here on out.
We spoke to several top-notch career experts to break down the biggest offenders and get the scoop on how to avoid these rookie mistakes and start climbing the ranks.
1. Taking Advantage of Your Company’s Non-Existent Dress Code
The Offense: No one ever said you couldn’t wear flip-flops, so it won’t matter if that’s your attire to a last-minute meeting with a top executive, right? Wrong.
Why Your Boss Is Cringing: The rule of thumb on workplace fashion is to dress for the job you want—not the job you have. Even if your company doesn’t specifically say, “don’t wear flip-flops,” it doesn’t mean you should. In fact, it will make you look like you don’t care.
Expert Advice: As a rule, always dress up, not down. Lindsey Pollak, author of Becoming The Boss: New Rules For the Next Generation of Leaders, says, “You want to be one level up from the person that you’re speaking to. If I’m in an environment where everyone is wearing jeans, I’d wear jeans and a blazer.” Alexandra Levit, author of Blind Spots: 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success, adds that when in doubt, check in with HR. “Ask your HR manager for specifics on what casual dress actually entails, and emulate people who do it with class,” she says. “But, you should never look like you’re going to the beach, no matter who you’re meeting with at the office.”
2. Managing a Project and Throwing Team Members Under the Bus
The Offense: You’re in charge of a big project, with a team member or two working under you. This means you’re responsible for everything from meeting deadlines to checking for typos. But, when a member of your team fails to complete their part, you furiously go to your manager, tattle on said team member, and demand they get reprimanded.
Why Your Boss is Cringing: Do you think your boss panics and runs to superiors to blame you and everyone else when something goes wrong? Trust us, the answer is no. Your mantra should be: your project, your problem!
Expert Advice: You have the control here to become a stronger manager and develop your leadership skills—all you have to do is ask your boss for training. Tell your boss you want the development and it’ll make them want to invest in your future at the company. If that isn’t something your company will provide, “you can get it yourself,” says Pollak.
“There are a million TED talks and career books, blogs, and twitter feeds that can give you even a little bit of insight into team management. You can even just Google ‘how to manage a friend’ or ‘how to be responsible for my team’ or ‘how to take the fall in business.’ Each of us today has to be the CEO of our own career, so you share the burden of leadership training if your employer does not provide it.”
3. Coming To Your Boss As The “Unofficial” Team Spokesperson
The Offense: You’ve been talking with your teammates about any number of things that are stressing you out or getting you down at the office. Maybe your boss lacks empathy over the late nights you’re all working. Or perhaps you’re all frustrated by a complicated project and don’t feel you’re getting enough direction. It could even be that you all feel you deserve a comp day for working so hard. Whatever the case may be, you’ve decided something needs to be done. So you nominate yourself to go to your boss on behalf of the entire team to voice these complaints.
Why Your Boss is Cringing: Feedback is a great thing and many bosses welcome it—but only when they specifically ask for it. And coming to your boss on behalf of the entire team is extremely presumptuous and could end up backfiring on you—and you alone.
Expert Advice: Yes, you have a voice and you have the right to use it, but you need to figure out the right time and place. “Complainers are bad enough when they’re whining for themselves—it’s ten times worse when you’re vocalizing a whole group’s displeasure,” says Levit. This is especially true if you just barge into your boss’ office with no warning.
“Ask your boss if you can set a meeting and say, ‘I’ve been talking to the team, we have some situations we want to discuss or some feedback we’d like to share. Would you be open to having a conversation at 3 p.m. Friday? May I put that on your calendar?’” suggests Pollak. “Asking to share feedback as opposed to dumping it on your boss is a nice way to approach it.” Remember, your feedback is very valuable to your manager—but you just have to be mindful of boundaries.
4. Blaming Your Parents
The Offense: This is the 2014 version of “the dog ate my homework.” Your parents booked you a surprise vacation and now you can’t get the days off from work? Do not even think of giving your boss a sob story about the non-refundable tickets your mom bought for the annual family getaway.
Why Your Boss is Cringing: Parents can be like kryptonite in the workplace! If you’re in the professional world, your manager will only hold you responsible.
Expert Advice: There’s good news and bad news. The good news is this behavior isn’t entirely your fault. According to Dan Schawbel, author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success, parents can be your biggest influence when making career decisions. Why? “A lot of millennials with jobs are still living at home with their parents,” he says, “And so parents are a huge influence because they’re seeing you every day.”
The bad news? You really do have to cut the cord. Immediately. “Your parents have no place in your work life whatsoever,” says Levitt. “Involving them when you are trying to get your boss to do you a favor such as take a vacation when you want is not going to cut it.” Bottom line—this isn’t elementary school where your mom can complain to your teacher if things aren’t going your way. And maybe start booking vacations with your friends on your own time too!
5. Sealing a Deal Without Giving the Higher-Ups a Heads Up
The Offense: An opportunity comes your way to bring a big exclusive deal to your company. Here’s your chance to shine and show your boss you have the goods to make big things happen. So you move forward and fill your boss in on the details after everything is set in stone. You know your boss is busy—you’re taking things off of your boss’ plate by setting this up.
Why Your Boss is Cringing: Believe it or not, you’re potentially making things worse for your boss! Just because you think this deal sounds great, there could be reasons it’s not in the best interest for your company. You may not be aware of what those things are—but your boss would. And if you’ve already committed to making this happen and things now have to be undone, that’s going to cost your boss a lot of overtime.
Expert Advice: If your boss didn’t explicitly ask you to go after a deal, then you need to formally pitch it before moving forward. “Always check with your boss before jumping in on something that isn’t your direct responsibility,” recommends Levitt. “Explain why your idea has potential and how it will benefit the business, and volunteer to take the initiative. This is a good thing—but you always need to wait for the green light before proceeding.”
6. Going Totally TMI on Social Media
The Offense: From complaining about a not-so-stellar performance review or bragging about an unexpected raise—these are considered “company secrets” that shouldn’t be shared. On the flip side, marathon binge drinking sessions with your pals or an epic fight with your ex are things no employer should know about you or wants to see play out on social media. Remember—nothing is truly private these days.
Why Your Boss is Cringing: Talking about the company online? What if you have friends at competing companies? Clearly you can’t be trusted! Partying until 4 a.m.? Well then you must not have your priorities straight. Sure, you know that isn’t the case, but you don’t want any of these doubts forming in your boss’ head after reading your tweets.
Expert Advice: Think before you post. Yes, this is the social media age, but posting the wrong things can leave you in a vulnerable place in your career. “Make use of privacy settings, keep personal and professional accounts separate, and never post anything negative about your employer,” recommends Levit.
Remember, losing a job because of what you post online is possible. “It really is common sense. Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t want on a billboard in New York City,” says Schawbel. “What you post lasts forever, so maybe it has no impact on your career today, but in 20 years when you’re an executive, it can pop up. It becomes part of your permanent record.”
7. Being a Social Butterfly at the Office
The Offense: You’ve hit the workplace jackpot and instantly bonded with your co-workers, finding yourself with a whole new group of besties to hang with all day long. So what’s bad about that? Well, your besties are now with you to chat, laugh, and goof around with all day long when there’s work to get done.
Why Your Boss is Cringing: Your boss walks by your workspace and there you are whispering and lingering at your friend’s desk. Body language says it all, and it’s obvious you’re not planning for a meeting but panting over a steamy scene from last night’s “Scandal” instead. This can hurt your cred and start to sink your reputation.
Expert Advice: Once again, it’s all about boundaries. Want to know a secret? Companies do benefit when you get along with your peers. “Retention rates are better when you’re working with friends. Many companies pay referral fees when people recruit new employees from within their network,” says Pollak. “It’s fine to talk in the break room, or in the morning when you first get in. It’s not fine to talk about your personal life in the conference room in front of clients.”
Keep in mind that you’re being remembered not just for how you act in meetings but also for what your boss sees when they walk by your desk or how you behave at the company holiday party. Pollak’s ultimate words to live by: “Your professional reputation is being shaped everywhere you are!”