How to handle a career setback

Experts offer advice on what to do when your work life throws you a curve ball.

How to handle a career setback

Career setbacks can come in many different forms — you’re passed over for a promotion, you miss out on a big project, you’re disciplined and it goes on your record — and most people experience at least one over the course of their career.

If you feel like you’ve run into a setback, it’s important to really make sure it’s a setback, says Alan Guinn, managing director of the Guinn Consultancy Group. “In today’s new business environment, changing objectives and alternative pathways for business development may dictate business directional changes, and you may, in fact, be seemingly a victim of those changes.

“While you may consider these changes as being setbacks in your career, what you are experiencing may simply be a temporary delay in order to allow you time to learn new techniques, explore new opportunities, or gain the additional required knowledge to perform new tasks or achieve new goals,” he explains. Don’t immediately assume your setback is the end of the line.

Change can be difficult, though, and people often resist it, Guinn says. “When change occurs, however, learn to not view it as immediately negative in scope towards you.” It’s important to talk to your supervisor and get the whole story.

“If it’s a personal or professional issue, put the issue in perspective and determine how best to address it,” he says. “If the setback occurred because of something that you either did or did not do, or an action that you took or did not take, resolve to either begin or end what is necessary.” Recognize that your employer has given you a chance to make things right and seize it.

Some setbacks are more serious and may include disciplinary measures against you. If discipline is involved, manage it carefully, says employee attorney Donna Ballman. For example, your signature may be required on a performance plan or reprimand. Ballman recommends signing it, but adding “receipt only, rebuttal to follow” if you have a case you need to make.

In all of your correspondence with the company regarding your discipline, Ballman recommends you keep things factual and specific, and include proof if you have it. “This is not the time to insult your boss or air general grievances,” she says, especially if you plan on taking your lumps and staying with the company.

Finally, find ways to pick yourself up and try something new. A new project can help you shake off any self-doubt and position you for better things to come — whether you stay in your position or decide to move on.

“Create a useful knowledge piece, such as a presentation or white paper,” suggests John Paul Engel, president of Knowledge Capital Consulting. “Send it to all your industry contacts. I did this and within days received a call from the managing director of the largest consulting firm in Japan. He came to New York City to meet me. They were a client for 10 years and I generated hundreds of thousands of dollars from a free presentation.”

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