dealing with career resentment
January 16, 2021 12:02 AM   Subscribe

I'm out of work and narrowly losing job offers because I can't disguise my resentment over my past workplaces and disappointment with the state of work in general. I need coping strategies and mental hacks to reframe this when I interview.

I am a non-managerial worker in a technical role. I am currently out of work and while I have been able to ride it out financially and get interviews, I just got turned down for two roles at the end of the interview process largely over personality, not lack of skill or experience (this comes from feedback, not guessing). I know positive spin is part of the game and that resentment or saying anything negative about a prior employer is going to kill my chances, but the way I went wrong in the last two interviews was more subtle. I'm fairly specialized and senior and I don't disguise that I have certain expectations about how I am managed, the amount of autonomy I have, and how I see the lines between my role and others, and asking questions that made those expectations clear cost me - questions about prioritization and process, emotional labor parts of the job that aren't formally part of the role, diversity and transparency, etc.

I don't know how to deal with the resentment that is killing my chances while actually asking enough to screen the bad workplaces from the good ones, and now I see red flags of one kind or another almost everywhere I interview. I'm angry at the amount of strategizing, mind reading and "education"/coddling of higher paid more powerful people I have to do on top of my actual job in order to be considered good at it when I just want the job to be the job description, to do it well and log off and not think about it at the end of the day. That seems impossible to obtain. I'm angry that I can't get a job without putting layers of gloss that feel like lying over everything. I've had two consecutive bad experiences in my last two jobs where my best efforts at fulfilling the formal parts of my job description were not enough to overcome politics and power struggles playing out over my head that affected my ability to focus and deliver. I took stress home with me every day to the point where I quit both jobs. Now everyone can smell it on me no matter what I do or don't say. I hate that I have to participate in American capitalism and work culture as it currently exists just to feed myself, and I have a plan to save as much as possible and opt out as soon as I can to something non-corporate or retire fully, but that's at least a decade away. I actually like what my work itself involves when I'm left alone to actually do it, which never happens for long.

How do I cope with my job search and career and this festering resentment? How do I frame responses and questions in interviews in a way that feels authentic but not resentful or doormat that will get me out of the cycle?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I know it may be hard to see right now, but the outcome of these interviews seems to have been correct, meaning you were kept from jobs that would have been bad fits. You don't necessarily need to do anything different, you may just need to hold out for the right place, somewhere that genuinely values things like ability and work ethic over ingratiating people-pleasing.

Since you can survive financially for now, I'd say continue trying to find a better workplace, so you don't end up having to quit a third job in disgust.

I totally relate to almost everything you said, BTW. I'm a former programmer who had to quit my last job of 2 years when the sexism and politics got intolerable. I too would frickin love to ever be allowed to simply do my supposed job without all the BS. So many people in management roles seem to actively prevent good work from being done.

I have been unemployed for a while now, and frankly haven't even been trying to find another job lately, due to Covid and family reasons. Now I'm worried about my resume gap in addition to worrying about how to identify a non-shitty place to work. I feel like the emphasis on continual employment is less about whether your skills are rusty (they can test for that!) than it is about making sure you were owned continuously and didn't have too much time on your own experiencing freedom. I too hate having to play a game in order to get and keep employment, and it's harder and harder to face the older I get. I feel like many roles call for the worker to act like the dancing Warner Brothers frog, and I just don't feel like turning into a rug-cutting amphibian for my bread.

I see you've posted as anonymous, but I wouldn't mind memailing if you want to discuss acting strategies or complain some more to get it out of your system and let whatever optimism you have left rise to the surface in interviews.
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 2:45 AM on January 16, 2021 [18 favorites]

I see red flags of one kind or another almost everywhere I interview... I hate that I have to participate in American capitalism and work culture as it currently exists just to feed myself

I hear you, and this is the curse of experience once you get into more senior roles and have more work history. My advice is orthagonal to your question - is your skill set such that it can be done outside the corporate machine? Outside consultant / contractor / one-person show? Can you get your skills to work in another industry / area - e.g., non-profit or charity type work, where the mission appeals to you? Hard to say without specifics about your actual tech job. Maybe some additional training / coursework could get you into those specialist high paying type gigs?

Good luck!
posted by Meatbomb at 4:54 AM on January 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

I wonder if it would make sense for you to pursue non-corporate jobs *now* - after all, you're out of work, so you wouldn't exactly be taking a pay cut right this minute. And a year or two working in a different kind of environment might be useful in a lot of ways. (For what it's worth, in my experience, none of the things you complain about are *less* common in a non-corporate environment - the only big difference would be the mission of the organization.)

Alternately, at least look into different types of companies than you've worked at in the past, if possible. Could mean switching sectors, like if you're in fintech try e-commerce or whatever, or if you're at a big legacy company try a smaller company or a startup (or vice versa, of course).

For reframing you've got to look at it as "my work is good, my work has value in the marketplace, now I just need to find a job on a team that values the kind of work I do."

For interview hacks, I think the biggest thing is you need to talk about the things you want to move *towards* not the things you want to move away from. Is there anything you've liked about prior jobs? (I know, putting your head down and getting your technical work done - but *everyone* likes that part.)

I think you also need to think about how realistic your expectations are. Outside of some kinds of very strict union jobs, the job is never just what's in the job description. It's pretty unusual that you can avoid *all* the things you're talking about *all* the time, at least in a senior role. Everyone *wants* to be handed well-defined, reasonably-prioritized tasks that they can just sit down and do, but that's not always possible above a certain point in the org chart, even if you're not managing people. If you're in a senior role there's going to be some expectation that you can justify what you're doing to stakeholders, or that you'll have to defend your priorities against other people's or teams' priorities. That's normal, and that's part of what the money's for.

Which is not to say that you can't or shouldn't draw boundaries around your work! As a specialized contributor I would say that part of your job is to explain the tradeoffs to management so that they can make a decision. But ultimately, the decision is not your responsibility. You might not like the decision they make and you might feel like the product that you produce is inferior as a result of their decision making. But sometimes that's the way it goes, and you give them what they ask for, step away from your desk, and you don't worry about it one bit because you did your best to explain the consequences and they made their choice accordingly.
posted by mskyle at 5:47 AM on January 16, 2021 [9 favorites]

I think you have a few strategies you can use but first - it’s really hard. When I was laid off from media it was the best thing that ever happened to me, but it took me quite a few months to recover my positivity - not towards work but about myself.

Strategy one: just work on the interview phase. I agree with the idea of talking/asking about what you want, not what you don’t want. For example “I have a deep expertise and am looking for a focused role.”

Also, take time before your interview to list out some reasons you got into the field, work you’ve done that you are proud of, etc.

Remind yourself that if you take a job and it’s toxic, you can leave it. It’s good to explore the new work environment but it’s possible it will be better. In my case my next job was so much fun a sexist environment I ultimately had to leave. I still benefited, I just had my eyes open more.

if you can take a course with 20 yr olds, even remotely, I highly recommend it. I’ve been taking design courses and they fill me with optimism. I am mentioning this because you asked for hacks. These are hacks, not solutions. But sometimes you just...need a job to see the good parts again.

Strategy two: question the ladder. As I was promoted up the media ranks I got further and further away from the work I loved. It was up or out. When I took on my next role I went from senior staff to individual contributor was so nice!

Strategy three: career change. Consultancy might be a great one, or contract or temporary work that keeps you out of the politics. For me I found a small business and while my work is...weird, like I fix toilets and bring bus drivers jump cables along with designing training programs and implementing CRMs, all I have to do to do things is get my boss on board and make sure we have funds.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:26 AM on January 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

I feel you need to resolve your internal conflict, possibly with therapy. You say you hate American capitalism, yet your goal is to be a senior worker to use your privilege over others. Either you should you should get a different perspective -- start reading media that isn't communist and points out the good side of capitalism -- or live your values -- move to a place with values you support, whether that's another country or 40 acres in Nebraska to live off the land.
posted by flimflam at 8:24 AM on January 16, 2021 [9 favorites]

I also think it’s asking a lot to inquire of a cog in the capitalist machine how they can reassure you that you won’t be inserted as a cog in that machine. They cannot do this and while they might feel you are right about certain desires and needs, the labor it would take on their part to create whatever environment you say is your requirement is likely beyond them.

Consider reframing your needs. When I was looking for work actively, I decided (because I had so many disparate skill sets that could be used or not used in different ways) that what I was looking for was *good people.* You can do anything if you are working with good people. You have to be one of the good people, too, though. When I did get a job, I both adopted some of the patterns that I had previously hated (on purpose) and drew stronger boundaries around some areas that I wouldn’t compromise. Ultimately, that worked well. And because I had the driving rule of “good people,” I was able to leave the first job (not good people, it turned out) and find a better one.
posted by amanda at 8:42 AM on January 16, 2021 [20 favorites]

You sound really, really burned out, to the point where I'm not sure any workplace would make you happy. I don't think this is about the workplaces entirely. While you're looking for a new job, also look into resources for overcoming burnout, whether it's books or therapy or whatever. If you go into the next situation with this level of mistrust and resentment, you'll just end up extremely unhappy again, and the cycle will continue. Here's one resource to maybe get you started. Good luck with this, I've watched many people go through burnout in the past and unfortunately it takes a while to overcome.
posted by ch1x0r at 9:20 AM on January 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

From a purely practical angle, do you remember the answers you gave or the questions you asked that you think sunk your chances? I can't tell from your question if you were truly interested in these roles and felt good about them or had any spidey senses that they would be problematic. If it was the latter, I agree this could be a gift disguised as a loss. If it was the former, someone hiring for a healthy culture may be concerned that you'd bring negativity into the workplace. Not saying that's valid, but it's possible!

I'll also note that I went through a similar experience in 2017 when I job searched while deeply burnt out and angry about my experiences at work. I knew my feelings were spilling out of me no matter what I did to mask it. It was my truth, I couldn't hide it, and I also found that I would get interviews but no offers. Now, in retrospect, I think those companies did the right thing not hiring me, because I wouldn't have been excited about any of them and they probably found someone else who was.

Perhaps you could spend some time writing out your questions and answers and see if you can find a way to word it so you make the same point but say it in a more positive way? Maybe a friend could give you an honest assessment as well? If nothing else, it might help you feel less out of control. No harm in having great interviews and then getting offers you pass on because they aren't right for you - in that scenario, you are in the drivers seat.
posted by amycup at 9:36 AM on January 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I completely sympathize with the resentment of having to manage your self-presentation solely to exist within the late-stage capitalist hellscape that is survival in America. It sucks and your grievances have a ton of merit.

You don't talk about your field, but is it possible for you to find a workplace that is either unionized, worker-owned, or some kind of cooperative model? I work in a job that's great (like you said, when I can do it!) against the backdrop of being in the public sector which has a lot of management that thinks we should just act more like the private sector, and which is constantly subject to never-ending austerity because American capitalism doesn't tax rich people enough to fund public goods. One of the things that keeps me sane amidst this is that my workplace also has a fairly active union, and that's a really good outlet for my angst about the dumb expectations of capitalism and how it manifests in bad management.
posted by mostly vowels at 9:40 AM on January 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

PS read again and saw you mentioned seeing red flags everywhere. Sorry, that didn't stick when I first read! I think this would be another good place to talk to someone you trust, whether it's a friend or a therapist, to help you evaluate the severity of the cue objectively. It seems like you are having trouble trusting your judgment and feeling confident in your interpretations of the information you are receiving. Having an outside person to bounce your thoughts off of may help.
posted by amycup at 9:48 AM on January 16, 2021

I hate to have to suggest this, but it's a strategy I've used in my life. Can you reframe "strategizing, mind reading and "education"/coddling of higher paid more powerful people" as "just part of the job?" Jobs today try to squeeze as many different roles as possible out of workers. I'm autistic and I am in complete agreement that these unspoken roles are bullshit (not to mention exhausting, demeaning, and sexist) but I'm not sure that perfect dream job where you don't have to do any emotional labor exists. I have done things like pretending I'm an anthropologist in a weird culture to get through the day, setting myself little gamified challenges like "how well can I fake it" and such. All that being said, I am in the same position as you right now and I don't think I can go back. You might want to consider remote work you can do alone, if it's possible in your field.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 11:00 AM on January 16, 2021 [11 favorites]

the amount of strategizing, mind reading and "education"/coddling of higher paid more powerful people I have to do on top of my actual job in order to be considered good at it when I just want the job to be the job description, to do it well and log off and not think about it at the end of the day. That seems impossible to obtain

I'm a bit outside this world, so I'm honestly asking, but when I read this, I wonder: wait, so IS it actually outside the job, or is it one of the unwritten parts of the job? Every job I've had has had unwritten parts. Maybe just thinking of it that way will help, or maybe someone in your industry can help you find positions with the least amount of the unwritten stuff you hate.

Or maybe it's like "dealing with coworkers," where you have them in pretty much every job, but in some they're the best part and in some they're the worst. In that case, yes, asking questions to figure out which situation you're dealing with makes sense. I think there, one trick might be asking the right people, i.e., people who get where you're coming from. It's very different to ask a co-worker "how's the boss? Do they interrupt you all the time?" than to ask the would-be boss, who (no matter how good they are) will still think of the times when they have had to interrupt someone's work.

The only cure for work-related PTSD (not the right term, but you know what I mean) that I've found is to get into a good job. You can think "that wasn't fair," a million times, but nothing validates that like being treated better on a regular basis. That is, if it's a one-off personality mismatch or something. If it's a mismatch between what you want from work and the position then you might have to look around in other sectors or whatnot. Good luck!
posted by slidell at 12:56 PM on January 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

I don't disguise that I have certain expectations about how I am managed, the amount of autonomy I have, and how I see the lines between my role and others, and asking questions that made those expectations clear cost me - questions about prioritization and process, emotional labor parts of the job that aren't formally part of the role, diversity and transparency, etc.

Sincere question: do you think that, if this is a toxic workplace, your asking questions like these will genuinely elicit that fact? Or are they likely to drown you in BS anyway? If so, asking these kinds of questions in a formal interview setting seems like it might not even be useful to you. If the answers are bad, you won't get them. If they're good, you still might seem offputtingly critical and negative.

To me, trying to figure out things about culture and unwritten expectations is a process best done through informal channels. It's hard when you don't have the connections. But I don't really regard the interview process as a good way to get insight into a company's true work environment. It may happen, but it won't happen reliably.
posted by praemunire at 1:38 PM on January 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

Your questions have helped you weed out workplaces where you wouldn't have been happy and employers who would not have been happy with you. As someone responsible for hiring, I wish more job candidates were as up front as you. It's painful for everyone when an organization can't deliver what an employee is looking for.

I have certain expectations about how I am managed, the amount of autonomy I have, and how I see the lines between my role and others

Is your specialization and seniority in a technical field that lends itself to freelancing, consultancy, or starting your own business? These are the kinds of expectations that have led many people I know to go out on their own and create their own environments with priorities, processes, and expectations of emotional labour that meet their personal standards. Of course, they still have to deal with clients or customers but most find it easier to make the necessary trade-offs when all their eggs are not in one basket.

In the short term, thinking of the interview process as a way of hiring your main client rather than entering into a binding full-time commitment that has to last for years might help, as will focussing on the positive aspects of what you're seeking.
posted by rpfields at 5:13 PM on January 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

questions about emotional labor could mean almost anything and few of the possibilities are good. without knowing your exact concern or phrasing, I can still say that any interviewer who interprets you to mean that you expect to be paid extra for exercising tact and civility, or that you expect such requirements to be specified in a job description, will see this as a reason to rule you out. This is including employers that don't abuse or exploit their employees, as well as the ones that do.

The way to communicate your expectations without being accusatory or off-putting is to fold it into a different place in the interview (and if an interview gives you no such opportunity, consider that its own red flag.) specifically, when they ask you to describe the way you like to be managed, or the aspects of a past job that you enjoyed the most, say you loved X position because your duties were clearly communicated to you and you were then left alone, trusted to use your skills and exercise autonomy, which you then used to complete high-quality work. or whatever. if this has never happened to you and you just wish it would, lie. make up an instructive story about the kind of workplace you're looking for and praise it, versus describing the kind of workplace you hate and demanding they prove they aren't like that.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:22 AM on January 17, 2021 [5 favorites]

I agree with others who said it might well have been for the best that you didn't get either of these two positions. Though it's hard to tell, if you feel like you might have come off as resentful or off-putting in trying to get some reassurance about your concerns.

My reframing would begin with the admission that I was possibly drawing inaccurate/unfair inductions from a small sample size (your previous two jobs). This analogy is likely imperfect (and I imagine almost certainly trite), but I would think of these interviews as first dates -- in your case, first dates after coming out of a bad relationship or two. Is it fair to be concerned that this person seems nice here at Migliaccio's but, six months in, will be passive-aggressive every time you say you want to go meet up with a friend, if that happened in your last two relationships? Sure, but it's a tricky thing to bring up over entrees, so you gotta put some faith into the whole thing before you walk into the restaurant. I doubt you're doing the interview version of 'Soooo ... you're not possessive, are you?' but you need to trick yourself into going in with an open mind and heart. Then you stand a better chance of finding the right words (queenofbithynia has a good suggestion there) and your nonverbal cues won't sell you out -- it can seem like just another question you're asking. Thinking of it like a first date might also help you with the power dynamic; you seem resentful that they have the power, and can reject you, which sure, couldn't agree more. But both of you have to want you to work there in order for you to work there.

So maybe think of interviews like first dates where you learn a little about the company, knowing that you'll never learn enough to be completely reassured on every point without the two of you going ahead and committing to each other, but also that every company is necessarily different, just like people. That's why you're back on the market to begin with, right? Hope. (Admittedly, this is where the analogy falls apart, unless you work for pleasure more so than for money.) Anyway, this company could be the one! Be a shame to have gotten an interview with them and then not gotten hired because you talked too much about some other, failed relationship over dessert.
posted by troywestfield at 4:00 PM on January 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

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