4 Signs Your Employer Will Ruin Your Career

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Employers ruining careers

“No one will hire me.”

Jim Walters was blacklisted. His former boss tried to ruin his career. When prospective employers contacted Jim, they asked for references.

So he sent them.

Inevitably, these employers decided they didn’t want to hire Jim. 12 employers made an offer. They all backed out after contacting his references.

His former boss was attempting to ruin his career.

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Maybe Your Boss is Terrible

Employers ruining careers

Maybe they’re a tyrant, focused on dominating you. Or maybe they’re clueless micromanagers harassing you about your work. The real question, though, is this:

Will your boss ruin your career?

It doesn’t seem like a legitimate question at first glance.

Who cares? It’s not like they can ruin my career. What are they gonna do, tell on me?

A terrible boss will ruin your career. Spend enough time with them and the damage becomes inevitable.

But how?

Aren’t there laws to protect employees?

Sort of.

Laws, for the most part, are limited to eavesdropping on private oral communication, anti-discrimination, equal opportunity, etc. But aside from that?

Employers, your boss, can pretty much do what they want, when they want.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Lynne Gobbell was fired because her boss didn’t like the bumper sticker on her car. When her boss saw her sticker he said, “either work for John Kerry or work for me.” She refused to remove the sticker, and was immediately fired.

  • Best Lock Company in Indiana fired employees for social drinking at their home. The reason? Their president believes drinking alcohol is a sin. They even go so far as to deny unemployment.

  • Johnson County Community College installed hidden cameras in their bathrooms and locker rooms. They stated workers had no right to privacy. What’s worse, they got away with it.

  • Glen Hillier was fired from his job at an ad agency. During the 2004 presidential race, he asked President Bush some embarrassing questions. One of his company’s customers felt offended and reported it to Hillier’s boss. One day later, Hillier was out of a job.

Lewis Maltby, in his book Can They Do That? discloses the abuse workers face in detail.

And there’s the problem.

Your employers know they can do what they want. The vast majority of employees know it too, which is why so many people work in fear.

Dysfunctional Employers Feed on Your Fear

Employers ruining careers

They use sadistic and dysfunctional behavior to extract the results they want from their employees. Then, once you’re burned out and used up, they toss you aside.

When that happens, you’re treated as damaged goods.

Future employers are suddenly nervous about hiring you. You’re blacklisted by your dysfunctional employer directly or implicitly. It’s suddenly difficult to get a new job.

That’s the thing about a ruined career.

It creeps up on you slowly, gradually. Ignore the signs, wait too long and the damage may be irreversible.

Here’s the worst part.

The vast majority of developers reject these signals automatically. “It won’t happen to me,” they tell themselves. Their rejection is based on a wide variety of reasons.

  • Most believe the solution is beneath them somehow.
  • Some are afraid they’ll dig up unpleasant things.
  • My company isn’t like that, they tell themselves.
  • Others think “working hard” or doing a “good job” is enough. (It’s not.)
  • Things are good, so why bother with that now?

As developers, we create rationalizations to avoid facing stupid or unpleasant things. But the signs of a bad employer are there, screaming for us to pay attention. You can protect and save your career … if you know how to read the signals. Here are four signals, numbered from 4 to 1 …

Signal #4: Chronic Emotional Invalidation

Invalidation is an attempt by others to control how you feel about something and how long you feel that way.

It’s accomplished by rejecting, mocking, judging or minimizing someone else’s thoughts, values or feelings. It’s a devastating part of work that most developers have come to accept as a normal, everyday part of work.

What does that look like?

  • Procrastinators are made. A fear of failure, perfectionism, or a lack of focus is all that’s needed to induce procrastination. The sad part? All three of these causes are really part of the same problem. Make a mistake and you’ll probably lose your job.

  • Silent and disengaged. Co-workers who couldn’t care less about their jobs and are eagerly looking forward to the weekend/holidays/vacation, etc. Thanks to interpersonal dynamics, the idea of doing a job at work has completely lost its appeal for them.

  • Distracted co-workers are fixated on all the wrong things. They’re not working on exciting projects, aren’t being trained to do more or simply aren’t in the environment of their choice. So these developers focus their time and attention on doing as little as they can.

  • Fearful. Your manager or boss asks for an “honest opinion” or “feedback” in a meeting. Everyone looks down. They stare at the table or their hands. Everyone in that meeting knows feedback or honest opinion is code for tell me what I want to hear. Mess it up and you’re out of a job.

An organization struggling with these dysfunctions runs into a predictable problem. A-player developers quickly leave, while B- and C-players do their best to survive.

Those who stay absorb these bad habits like a sponge, taking them wherever they go, ruining their careers in the process.

Most developers will allow their boss, their employer to hurt their careers — even after learning about these details.


They believe that feelings/emotions don’t matter. “I’m a logical thinker, I’m clear-headed. These things just don’t get to me.” Here’s why that’s a problem.

It’s a lie.

That’s because logical decision making is a myth.

Antonio Damasio, Professor at the University of Southern California, made the surprising discovery. His research focused on patients who were normal in every way, except one. They all had a damaged limbic system.

They couldn’t feel emotions at all. This led to a surprising but unusual problem.

None of Damasio’s patients could make decisions.

They were able to logically describe what they should do, but without emotion, they found it incredibly difficult to make the simplest decisions. These people couldn’t decide what to eat, when to eat it or even how they should eat.

Damasio found that emotions are absolutely vital for decision making.

It gets worse.

Negative emotions, fear, stress and anxiety, kills your performance. Whether we like it or not, these emotions are slowly chipping away at our ability to perform, giving dysfunctional employers the ammunition they need to hurt our careers.

Signal #3: Codependency and the Drama Triangle

It’s a silent epidemic, codependency in the workplace. It’s something that makes developers (and employees), in general, miserable. But, what is it?

Here’s a simple definition.

When I work on your desires, goals, fears and frustrations more than you do. It’s a behavioral problem that masks itself in lots of different ways.

  • The micromanaging boss
  • Abandoning your work routine to bail out a co-worker
  • Allowing someone else to take the credit for your work
  • Feeling compelled — almost forced — to help an irresponsible co-worker solve the problem they created
  • Offering unasked for advice
  • Controlling others with guilt, helplessness, threats, shame, advice-giving, manipulation, domination, etc.
  • Pretending a problem isn’t happening or isn’t as bad as it really is.

This isn’t a comprehensive list. It’s meant to show the types of behaviors present in a dysfunctional workplace.

Why does this matter?

The Drama Triangle is a social model of unhealthy human interaction. In an unhealthy environment, developers and employers play a dysfunctional role where everyone fights for control.

Here’s how it works.

This dynamic is at play in our personal and professional relationships. Here’s an example of what that looks like.

  1. An employer decides to become a rescuer, choosing an employee they feel will help them but also finding one they feel needs a leg up.

  2. Their employee realizes they’re making less than their friends and feels victimized, cheated by the employer because they’re not being paid enough.

  3. The employee asks for a raise. Employer, feeling taken advantage of (victim state), says No, becomes a persecutor telling their employee they need to see a performance improvement first.

  4. The employee becomes enraged and swears revenge. They make the move to persecutor doing everything they can to punish their employer and their co-workers.

  5. The employee takes revenge, completes the cycle of persecution and destroys the company.

Sounds a bit extreme, doesn’t it? I mean, who’d go to the trouble of doing something malicious like this? Ask JournalSpace. JournalSpace was a blogging platform. The keyword is was, because their IT guy (the same guy who was caught stealing from the company), maliciously wiped out the main database (for which there was no backup). JournalSpace shut down immediately.

Here’s how his employer described the whole affair.

It was the guy handling the IT (and, yes, the same guy who I caught stealing from the company, and who did a slash-and-burn on some servers on his way out) who made the choice to rely on RAID as the only backup mechanism for the SQL server. He had set up automated backups for the HTTP server which contains the PHP code, but, inscrutably, had no backup system in place for the SQL data. The ironic thing here is that one of his hobbies was telling everybody how smart he was.

Notice how both employer and employee decided to persecute each other. They both had a role to play but neither wanted to accept any responsibility for their role in the situation.

That’s the destructive power of codependency and the drama triangle at work.

Signal #2: Coercive Control

Many employers and organizations have a problem with coercive control. It’s a methodology employers use to maintain power and control over employees.

The areas of control are typically focused around the following:

  • Psychological control can appear as emotional blackmail, social rejection, the silent treatment, love bombing and mind games.

  • Physical control typically takes the form of hazing and workplace bullying.

  • Sexual control can be as extreme as trading favors for money or as subtle and complex as trading attention for money

  • Financial control typically comes in the form of compliance in exchange for rewards, rather than receiving a raise based on merit.

  • Legal control. If your employer owns your personal projects, there’s a problem. If they’re focused on restrictive non-disclosure agreements, harsh non-competes, you’re being controlled.

Bosses and co-workers may also display controlling behavior by …

  • demanding absolute loyalty and total commitment
  • dictating the details of employees’ personal life
  • making unexpected and unreasonable demands on employees
  • using shame, guilt and fear to gain compliance
  • extending favors and rewards to compliant workers.

What are the symptoms of a controlling employer/workplace?

  1. Addiction to control. Bosses and managers seem to be obsessed with power and control over their subordinates. Their actions are always for themselves.

  2. Low or falling productivity. Unhappy employees aren’t efficient or productive. Scientific research shows fear, stress and anxiety kill your performance, remember?

  3. Poor behavior, low EQ. Employers and co-workers display what John Gottman calls the four horsemen. Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt. These behaviors destroy workplace culture, morale and most importantly relationships.

  4. Self-absorbed behavior. Controllers believe they know what your problem is before you tell them. They offer unasked for advice, then they get angry when you fail to follow their advice. They simply don’t understand why others think and feel differently than they do.

Dysfunctional employers use financial leverage to gain and maintain control over their employees.

You already know that, though.

Most employees know it. They feel the fear that comes with a dysfunctional employer having control over their career. If you’re already a part of a dysfunctional organization that exhibits these symptoms, you have options.

You can detach. Maybe that’s finding another job, limiting how much time you spend with your employer, or you can go remote, go freelance, request a transfer. And that’s the point. No matter where you are, even if you feel stuck, you have options.

But what if you haven’t been hired yet? Is there a way to spot these red flags ahead of time?

Absolutely …

Signal #1: How They Sell You is How They’ll Serve You

Matt Buckland was an HR executive; he was responsible for hiring candidates at his company. One morning as he rode the train to work, an impatient commuter shoved Buckland out of the way. The rude commuter shouted at Buckland and told him to, “** himself.” The commuter launched into a foul mouthed tirade, continuing to abuse Buckland for standing in his way.

Buckland and his rude commenter would meet again in a few hours … for a job interview.


Karma: the guy who pushed past me on the tube and then suggested I go * myself just arrived for his interview … with me …

— Matt Buckland (@ElSatanico) February 16, 2015

This awkward example goes both ways.

How an employer treats you in the initial negotiation is often a good indication of how they’ll treat you once you’re hired. Or, as the saying goes, “How they sell you is how they’ll serve you.”

It’s tough for employers to hide these signals.

They may be able to hide a few of these signals, but they simply can’t hide all of them. If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see the signs everywhere.

From other employees, customer reviews, even vendors and partners. You’re looking for trends of bad behavior.

Can You See the Real Behavior Problem?

The one problem hiding beneath these symptoms? It’s control.

Each of these signs points to a problem with control. A controlling boss will go out of their way to bend you to their will. Lynne Gobbell was fired because her boss didn’t like the bumper sticker on her car. Barbara Webb was fired for becoming pregnant.

It’s gets bizarre.

Employees have been fired for taking an approved vacation, for almost dying, for having tattoos — you name it. But the root cause in each case was the same: controlling behavior.

Of the vast majority of employees who lose their jobs, most never completely recover their previous levels of psychological well being, self-esteem and life satisfaction.

But this doesn’t really ruin your career, does it? I mean, you can find another job, right?

It all depends.

Why? The background check. When you’re laid off or terminated, it appears on your background check. And what do employers assume when they see it?

You’re damaged goods.

If you’re lucky, the amount employers are willing to offer you, your benefits package and incentives, will all go down. If you’re unlucky, like most employees you’ll struggle to get a job.

Want to protect your career?

Avoid controlling employers. Read customer reviews, talk with former employees, reach out to vendors and partners, troll prospective companies on Glassdoor.

A Bad Boss Doesn’t Automatically Equal a Ruined Career.

Controlling behavior is the red flag.

Employers use controlling behavior to extract the results they want from you, their employee. Then, once you’re burned out and used up, they toss you aside.

You can protect your career. You can avoid a ruined career if you steer clear of controlling behavior. If you’re a good developer, you’re good at your job. You’re reliable and focused — an A-player.

Don’t let a controlling boss take that away from you. Set clear boundaries. Focus your time and attention on the right employer and you’ll find they’re eager and willing to protect your career.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Career Sabotage by Employers

What are the signs that my employer is sabotaging my career?

There are several signs that your employer may be sabotaging your career. These include being excluded from important meetings or projects, receiving unjustified negative performance reviews, noticing a sudden change in your employer’s attitude towards you, or being denied opportunities for professional growth. If you notice these signs, it’s important to address the issue directly with your employer or HR department.

Can an employer blacklist me?

Yes, an employer can blacklist you, although it’s illegal in many jurisdictions. Blacklisting involves an employer sharing negative information about a former employee, preventing them from finding new employment. If you suspect you’ve been blacklisted, you may need to seek legal advice.

How can I find out if I’ve been blacklisted by a former employer?

It can be difficult to find out if you’ve been blacklisted. However, if you’re struggling to find employment despite having the necessary qualifications and experience, it may be a sign. You can also ask for feedback from potential employers or hire a reference checking company to investigate.

What can I do if my employer is trying to ruin my career?

If you believe your employer is trying to ruin your career, it’s important to gather evidence of their actions. This could include emails, performance reviews, or witness statements. You should also report the issue to your HR department or seek legal advice.

Can I take legal action against an employer who is sabotaging my career?

Yes, if you can prove that your employer is intentionally sabotaging your career, you may be able to take legal action. This could include a claim for unfair dismissal, discrimination, or defamation. It’s important to seek legal advice to understand your options.

How can I protect my career from sabotage?

To protect your career from sabotage, it’s important to maintain a professional attitude, keep records of your work and achievements, and build strong relationships with colleagues. If you suspect sabotage, address the issue directly with your employer or HR department.

What is career sabotage?

Career sabotage involves actions taken to prevent an individual from progressing in their career. This could include spreading false rumors, denying opportunities for professional growth, or unjustly criticizing performance.

Can a former employer ruin my career?

A former employer can potentially harm your career by providing negative references or blacklisting you. However, such actions are often illegal and can be challenged legally.

How can I recover from career sabotage?

Recovering from career sabotage can be challenging but is possible. It’s important to remain professional, seek support from mentors or career coaches, and focus on rebuilding your reputation. You may also need to consider legal action if the sabotage is severe.

Can an employer sabotage my job search?

Yes, an employer can sabotage your job search by providing negative references or blacklisting you. If you suspect this is happening, it’s important to seek legal advice.

Andrew McDermottAndrew McDermott
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Andrew McDermott is the co-founder of HooktoWin and the co-author of Hook: Why Websites Fail to Make Money. He shows developers and designers how to attract and win new customers.

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