Finding the right balance: What to do if your job doesn't feel like a good fit

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It isn’t first week jitters or the adjustment that comes with any job - rather, it’s the slow realization, maybe six months or a year into working for an organization, that your job isn’t a good fit.

Like any relationship, the employer/employee dynamic can be a delicate balance, with aspects that can prove more challenging, in terms of fit, than anticipated. In this article, we examine factors that contribute to a poor fit, what to do if your job just isn't working for you any longer and how to avoid getting into such situations in the first place.

What do you mean by poor fit?

While nonprofit professionals may be attracted to the mission of the organization they work for, sometimes the actual day-to-day operations are not what the prospective employee had anticipated. Tina Capalbo, a communications specialist in a start-up working with nonprofits, says, “Sometimes, in the job search process, certain values may be presented that are not the full story. Only once you’re in [an organization] do you truly discover the values that are in practice. When that happens, people can find themselves not fitting in with those values.”

Other times, there might have been warning signals even before an employee took the job, perhaps ignored or even missed altogether.

A mis-fit can occur in various ways:

  • Marie-Claude was hired to raise funds. To her, this meant a long-term process of building relationships with donors but she was quickly told by the ED and board of directors that they wanted results now.
  • Katrina was a vegan who took a position with an animal welfare charity. Once in the job, she discovered the organization also promoted humanely raised meat.
  • Beth began a job with a mental health organization, eager to help people. When the role turned out to be almost exclusively a desk job with little front-line interaction, she became demoralized.
  • Paul took on a role with an association that lobbied for its members, only to discover that the entire organization had political leanings which were very different from his, which he was expected to bring to his lobbying.
  • Elaine was eager to start work with a nonprofit she respected but soon found “our work styles didn’t jive. There were tons of useless meetings. There were problems with the team. And there were weird conflicts of interest that made me raise my ethical eyebrow.”

What happens to you when you have a poor job fit?

Sara-Jane Linton, who left a government job to return to school, says, “At one time, my job was a great fit: I was engaged and loved what I did. I couldn’t wait for Monday morning. And then, after a period of significant changes, it was no longer a good fit and it was no longer healthy to be there.” She describes the experience: “I wasn’t sleeping, had stomach issues, it took a physical toll. I went home and was depressed. I was constantly in tears. I didn’t want to go back the next day.” Eventually she realized she couldn’t do it any more.

Kathline Holmes, founder of Gailforce Human Resources Solutions, explains, “A bad fit sets people backwards. It knocks down their self esteem and erodes their self confidence, which impacts their productivity.” This can be particularly true for younger employees who may further question themselves because they haven’t had time to build their identity in the workplace, but it is equally disappointing and demoralizing for an older, more experienced professional. As Paul says, “I didn’t think something like this would be so stressful but it is. I need to work and want to have a job I’m happy in. It’s constantly going through my head: do I just quit?”

Many people start work in the nonprofit sector with high ideals and excitement; when such a person experiences a workplace or organization that is a poor fit, Holmes says it can “knock them off course.” Beth agrees. “When I started crying at my desk every day a few weeks in, I knew it wasn't going to work - which was heartbreaking because working for that organization was my dream job.”

Such an experience can also make an employee fearful for the future and about their reputation. Elaine says, “I was constantly questioning myself – I think I’m gifted and talented at what I do but I came home wondering whether I was doomed to have this feeling anywhere I went.” She describes “a kind of internalized guilt where even when things go badly, you tell yourself to suck it up because it’s for the greater good.”

How to negotiate change?

Eventually, however, many people in this situation find they can no longer “suck it up” and realize a change is necessary. Holmes says that the first step is to determine what specifically is wrong and whether you have the power to do something about it. Then you can figure out who can you talk to and what your options are.

Clarifying your concerns both internally and with a person outside of the organization helps you know what you can or cannot do. If your concern is about your work tasks, for instance, Holmes suggests discussing this with your supervisor, explaining that you had a different idea of what your work would be like and asking whether there are other opportunities to bring your passion to your work. This approach looks at supervisors as allies, and offers the organization an opportunity to help you excel. Holmes notes, “If you aren’t enjoying the job anyway, you have nothing to lose. A good organization won't fire you for having an open, respectful conversation about your concerns and you can gain more knowledge to help you decide whether you want to stay or go. Without such a conversation, you could leave prematurely when accommodations could have been made.”

How do you know when the gap is too big?

Some people are content to work at a job that feeds other values such as stability or paying bills, but there can come a point when you just need to get out. Linton says, “Having a pension, benefits and good pay wasn’t enough to keep me there. If you don’t believe in what you are doing, don’t do it. If it affects your health, leave.”

Determine how much stress the situation is causing to your sleep, your mood, your productivity, and your morale, Holmes says. She adds that if the values of the organization absolutely don’t fit with yours, this is not usually negotiable and it is probably time to start looking for a new position elsewhere.

How to leave well

One day, Marie-Claude’s boss called her in for a meeting and told her "you just need to make more money."

“It was an attempt to get me to give 200% but the next day I handed in my resignation.” She adds, “I kept the conversation at a level of philosophical differences. I suggested I hoped they would find the right person and that it was best to part ways before there was real damage done to their reputation or mine.”

This type of open, respectful dialogue can be helpful for organizations too. As Holmes points out, “If it’s a bad fit, the employer didn’t find the right person and they need information to be able to make improvements to their hiring practices.” Explaining why you are leaving gives the employer questions to ask in future interviews to better ensure a good fit.

How to move on well (and make sure this never happens again!)

The process of moving on actually begins before you quit as you learn about your values and what you need in a job. Beth says, “From my desk job, I learned that I need constant stimuli and that I don't do well in systems that are bureaucratic or sterile.” Consider making use of the many personality tests and tools available, whether online or through government-funded employment services.

It is also helpful to develop a plan for your next step before you decide to leave. Linton says, “I figured out what I wanted and I left to go back to school but I didn’t have a plan,” adding that she wishes she had figured out a flexible way to earn income as she pursues her retraining.

Volunteering can be an important part of figuring out the next step and rebuilding confidence after a bad experience. It can also be a good balance to a job that is a bad fit, allowing you to regain a sense of purpose.

When you are ready to pursue a new job, there are many ways to avoid getting into another position or organization where you may experience a poor fit:

  • Only apply to organizations whose work you really believe in.
  • Do your homework. Elaine says: “I would really research all about the organization – their members, their culture, who they work closely with – other organizations, sponsors, etc.” Use their website to find organizational values and priorities.
  • If it looks like a good fit, Holmes suggests setting up informational interviews with people in the organization, asking critical, open-ended questions that are related to values and behaviours that are important to you.
  • Be honest about your previous employer in a job interview, says Holmes, but avoid being derogatory or negative. You don’t have to provide all the details of why you left; you can redirect a question to explain why the job you are applying for is a good fit for your values.
  • Ask questions to understand the culture and values of the new organization. Marie-Claude observes, “I needed to be able to shut my office door and the interviewer skirted my question about my space and said ‘it’s a big and bright with a big desk.’ I pushed to see the space – it was tiny and I would be sharing it with someone 75% of the time. If I hadn’t asked, I might have taken the job and spent the next year trying to make it work.”
  • Take time to figure out which challenges you can work with and which are deal breakers. Finally, don’t jump into a new role just because it looks good on paper. Marie-Claude says, “I have four kids and a mortgage. It was tempting to take what I could get and figure it out afterwards, but I had to ask myself: am I going to do this all over again in a year? The new job I was offered would have been a step up on the professional scale, but as far as fit, I could tell it would be even worse than my previous job. I couldn’t take that risk. I needed to be sane for my family and myself.”

Holmes agrees. “Our first responsibility is to be upright with ourselves and to find a job that is a good fit with what we value and need.”

What if the problem is that the organization is involved in unethical or illegal activities?

Holmes calls this a challenging, personal decision: do you quietly walk away or do you dig deeper and ask questions? She notes that the fear of losing your job or your reputation can sadly be a valid one, as often people with power in the organization are involved when there is corruption. However, if it is possible for you to make a positive impact, it can feel great to help the organization and its stakeholders through a difficult time. If what is happening is a criminal matter, go to the police, seek legal counsel or go to the appropriate government authorities. If children are involved or at risk, report the matter to child protection services. Beyond that, if you are unsure who to report to, Holmes advises getting counsel from a local advocacy centre, the RCMP or someone you know and trust who is outside organization.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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