“Why don’t they just quit?”

The Great Myth of Job Portability

The news these days is full of announcements about massive layoffs. There are stories about the people left “holding the bag” at companies that are, by all reports, purely toxic workplaces. I’ve seen the sentiment, “why would _anyone_ stay there? They should all quit! That’ll show those horrible bosses a thing or two!” It’s easy to judge from a place of relative stability. If you have a job or have chosen to move on, it’s hard to consider the perspective of someone who isn’t in that same mental or emotional space. At the same time, there are ways to build an escape hatch to get out of the trap of a job you cannot leave.

Golden Handcuffs

One way people get trapped in jobs they hate is through the power of “golden handcuffs.” The idea behind golden handcuffs is simple: a person is compensated in such a way that they feel they can’t leave because they believe they won’t be compensated as well elsewhere. This isn’t just about the salary; sometimes, it’s about stock options or pension plans that promise stability in the future. They believe that by suffering through their job today, they’ll have a much better future (maybe an early retirement or the ability to pay for college for their kids). In a way, these people are caught in a real-life Marshmallow Test.

Imposter Syndrome

Compensation isn’t the only driver to stay at one’s employer. People may feel like they aren’t good at what they do and will be found out if they start interviewing. Others may believe that their experience isn’t applicable anywhere else, so no one would ever employ them. In other words, people experience Imposter Syndrome. Imposter syndrome can be debilitating when trying to find a new job; every failed attempt only reinforces a person’s belief that they aren’t good enough to be anywhere else. Taken to extremes, imposter syndrome requires therapy to get over. Therapy that might only be affordable via employee health benefits. Employee benefits that suddenly become part of those golden handcuffs keeping people in lousy jobs. Life is legit hard.

Introverts Unite

People often say it’s all about who you know when it comes to getting ahead. And, at least in my experience, there’s something to that. It’s much easier to find new employment if you already have contacts with the potential employer. But building and maintaining the human networks to make this happen… is there anything worse for the introvert that just wants to get their job done and not have to deal with the demands of humanity? It’s already draining to be in a bad employment situation; engaging with more people to get ahead is beyond daunting.

Work-Life Balance and Family Ties

But let’s say you’re not an introvert, you have a healthy appreciation for your worth, and your compensation is ok but nothing extravagant. It should be much easier for these people to get up and go! Unless, of course, they have other priorities in their life. The need to keep their kids in a good school system with minimal disruption is incredibly important to many. Or, if it isn’t about kids, it might be about aging parents who need care and will do better with minimal disruption. In this case, it isn’t the golden handcuffs of employment as much as the demands of life take priority over a crappy job.

Bracing for the Future

I don’t have advice for people in the midst of chaos. I can’t even imagine the turmoil right now, and working through your options and concerns is likely better handled by a professional coach or therapist. That said, I do have advice for how to be in a better position to respond in the future. And it all starts with the hot topic of personal branding.

Companies like SimplyBe. are amazing when it comes to professional help with getting your professional image sorted out. This isn’t something just for celebrities and public speakers! Personal branding is about taking control of how you are perceived online. One of the best pieces of advice anyone will give you when it comes to personal branding is that it has to be authentic to who you are. So, while it provides the framework for taking control of your online persona, it still works in in-person interactions because it is all about you at the end of the day.

Every day, I post something on social media (I am really loving Mastodon right now). I’m not trying to get new contracts (though I wouldn’t say no to one that’s interesting). I’m not trying to (always) be a serious professional. I’m posting links to articles I find interesting, favoriting posts from other people, and posting photos of my cats. I’m showing up as a real person on a growing network. I try to do the same on LinkedIn (but with fewer photos of cats). The point is my name is out there, and people remember me as an interesting person. That’s the first step in building and maintaining a human network that will help me find new freelance (or employment) contracts in the future.

As someone who enjoys freelancing, I am fine living with the chaos and uncertainty of contract work. But then, I don’t have kids. I’m slightly extroverted. I deal with imposter syndrome like everyone else. Still, I also have a great coach (thank you, Lisa Kollisch!) to help me consider my work life more clearly. My life has different constraints and goals than people who feel trapped in their current places of employment. The advice I offer above has worked for me, but only pieces of it may work for you, and that’s ok. Take what helps, ignore what doesn’t, and keep breathing. You can get through this.

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