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Friday, September 17, 2010

help! my department is imploding

A reader writes:

My department is imploding, and I'm struggling to decide what I should do.

I've worked in in the IT department for a small health clinic for 10 months. In that time, 5 employees have left, and the rest are actively looking for new jobs elsewhere, including the VP and my direct supervisor. Reasons for leaving include the president of the company, who is demanding and hostile to employees, and the department's current managers, who seem to have checked out completely.

I've moved around a bit over the past few years (this is my third company in 5 years), and I was hoping to stay here for several years. I like a good portion of my work, and I have friends in the company who I admire and respect. Still, I feel worn down by the negativity in my department and constant whispering about potential job interviews and company gossip. Owing to the small size of the company, an internal transfer or promotion seems unlikely, as I'm the only employee who works in my field of technology and I don't have the expertise to become a manager yet.

Should I stick it out? If I decide to look for another job, how should I explain my current situation to a prospective employer? What questions should I ask during an interview to hopefully ensure that I find myself in a more productive office next time?

I can't tell if you're thinking of leaving because you too are bothered by the company's president and managers, or if it's that the instability of so many others leaving and actively seeking to leave that's bothering you. I get the sense that it's more the latter -- and if that's correct, then my advice is this:  Tune out everyone else's opinion of your bosses. The fact that they find conditions there intolerable doesn't mean that you do (unless of course you do, but again, I'm not getting that from your letter).

Different people have different deal-breakers. I once had one of the best working relationships of my life with a boss who a lot of other people found challenging to work with. You've got to get clarity about what your deal-breakers are, not what your coworkers' are.

And yes, high turnover can be stressful, but it can also be filled with opportunities for the people who remain, depending on your mindset.

Now, all that said, if I've interpreted your letter completely wrong and in fact you're miserable because of the management too and would be thinking about leaving even if your coworkers weren't, then that's a different matter. In that case, you need to decide what you value more: having a longer-term job on your resume or getting the hell out. What's your bottom line in this context? Only you can decide that and there's no right answer, but it's important to get really clear in your own mind about what matters most to you.

And if you do decide to leave, you have a fairly understandable reason you can use to explain your decision:  "In the 10 months I was there, __% of the employees in my department left." That kind of thing tends to function as social proof that you're not overreacting. And as for what you can ask next time to avoid a toxic situation, here are some previous posts that may help:

But remember, figure out what's tolerable to you, not your coworkers.


Mike said...

I'm just a bit surprised that laying down turnover numbers is an acceptable thing to do during an interview. How does this not break the "don't speak ill of a current/former employer" rule?

Anonymous said...

Negativity can spread like wild fire, and if people are down, then others can sometimes have a hard time picking up the atmosphere to a more positive light. Is there a way word can spread to stop people from talking about their plans to leave and just keep the talk to the tasks at hand?

Anonymous said...

I agree with AAM--there is nothing wrong with wanting to stay when everyone else wants to leave. If that's what you want, then do it, and ignore everyone else. In fact, it can be a great opportunity. If everyone else leaves, you will be indispensable, even if you don't have the experience to be a manager.

In my experience, it will probably take more than just 'tuning out' your coworkers. You'll probably actually have to tell them that their behavior is a burden to you, both the topics of conversation and their overall negative attitude. Rarely do people in these situations realize on their own, the impact of their behavior on the people not involved. Especially they don't realize the cumulative impact when many people are behaving the same way.

Anonymous said...

I'm the reader with the imploding department. Thanks so much for all of your feedback. I think AAM is absolutely correct: I need to decide for myself what my deal breakers are.

The head of my department announced her resignation today, so we'll see what else develops over the next few weeks. I'll send an update soon.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mike.... how does this not say somethign bad about your former employer?

Ask a Manager said...

You don't want to say it with anger or bitterness, of course. You want to be matter-of-fact, just presenting an objective fact. It's often difficult to work somewhere that's hemorrhaging employees.

Anonymous said...

how long have the employees who are leaving been with the company? This sounds a lot like my workplace (I'm leaving this week for a new job after 2 years), and I've been trying to explain the situation to my replacement since she started a week ago (I'm training her). Basically, our company has been bleeding employees left right and centre for the last 6 months, not on the work but on management, and even that's just changed. We had a really horrific manager who was demanding and abusive and we all just got burnt out on her. She's left now too, but upper management is very much like her- and there is just too much bad blood now.

Sometimes, if the problem is long term, even when things change (and managers leaving tends to do that), employees can't get out of the negative mind set. Every little flaw or problem, and every workplace has them, is magnified because they are so bruised by things in the past. So if they've all been through the wringer and you haven't, it could be a great opportunity for you- I agree with AAM, you need to look at YOUR experience of the job and the environment.