Underappreciated at work? Here’s what to do.

If you feel unappreciated or underappreciated at work, you’re certainly not alone. It’s happened to me, and it happens to a lot of other people. Here are some examples, what you can do about it, and why you should do something about it before it’s too late.

My underappreciated at work story

underappreciated at work
If you’re underappreciated at work, there are some potential remedies. But if those remedies don’t work, move on before you damage your career.

I was talking to a friend about work and I told him about a situation I was in, around 2000 or 2001. I had about five years of professional experience and a good track record, with some notable accomplishments. But I wasn’t making enough money to support a family. I was working in IT, which was a hot field at the time. There wasn’t much reason for me to be in that situation.

I told management that I wasn’t making enough to support a family, but everyone in the department who was older than me did. I asked what I had to do to be like them.

“That’s awesome that you showed that kind of initiative!” he said. “What did they say?”

“They ignored me,” I answered.

Now, I did what you’re supposed to do, or at least what my parents’ generation did. I toughed it out. I worked hard, proved my worth, and made them promote me.

That was a mistake. At most companies, you can find someone who’ll answer that question. You should walk if no one will. But if you want to fix it, there’s a proven remedy you can try, if you want to see if a situation is truly unsalvageable.

Fixing when you feel unappreciated at work

When you’re unappreciated at work, it can be tough to fix. The first question is whether you’re meeting expectations. If you’re meeting or exceeding them and still feel undervalued, maybe it’s a communications problem. I really recommend you look into the author and speaker Simon Sinek.

Sinek argues that why you do things is far more important than what you do. Normally people say what they did, and follow it with how and when.

Take a famous example, Steve Jobs. Here’s how he described himself in 1988:

I’m Steve Jobs. I make computers. When I designed the NeXT, I went to all the leading computer scientists at major universities, and I didn’t ask for their specifications. I asked for their dreams. Want to buy one?

He sold 50,000 of them. Nice, flowery talk, but with results like that, no wonder Apple fired him in 1986.

So why do we remember Steve Jobs as a legend, not a screwup? Because of the way he talked after 1998. Sinek describes the pitch as going something like this:

We believe in challenging the status quo, because thinking differently is how you change the world. Our products are beautifully and elegantly designed, easy to use, and work together effortlessly. I happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?

When you can state why your employer does what it does, and then you can describe how the things you do fit into that, your perceived value changes. Now, you may have to wing that first part, because many companies, even successful companies, don’t know why their company came into being.

Managers love to say they’re results-oriented. That’s a problem when the results aren’t exactly what they were looking for. Talk like the second example shows that the results will follow, even if this time didn’t go quite as well as it could have.

Why I shouldn’t have toughed it out

What happened was they promoted me, but I was underappreciated and underpaid in that position too. And I did talk like that late-career Steve Jobs. I don’t know where I picked it up, and I had to relearn it because it got pounded out of me.

What happened to me there was they heaped more responsibility on me, but only gave me a cost of living increase. The year after that, they didn’t give me anything at all. And the year after that, they laid me off.

Then I had trouble finding work. And it wasn’t for lack of practice. I’d looked around before, but never had much luck getting anyone to return my calls. When I did find work, it was a place that also wasn’t ideal. But they were desperate and I was desperate so we made the best of it for a while. They gave me a raise while giving me less responsibility than I’d had since I started working full time. But you have to start somewhere, and at least I was getting decent pay.

I questioned why this was the only opportunity available to me. Was there a blacklist somewhere? And what had I done to get on that blacklist?

I have no reason to believe I personally was on a blacklist. But I think my former employer was.

Why companies blacklist each other

My friend works at a large company you’ve heard of. You see their products several times a day, every day. I know people at one of that company’s suppliers, and I know they have operations near here. I suggested he find work at the supplier, because I know that supplier treats its people pretty well.

He said that company won’t call you back when they see his company on your resume. They know his company uses people up and throws them away, and the good company doesn’t want to spend the time and money it takes to fix the other company’s damaged goods.

I think that’s what happened to me all those years ago. I’m far from the only person they’ve laid off. And the longer people stayed at that place, the harder it was for them to find other employment when their time was up. The people who stayed 15-20 years before being thrown out usually found themselves involuntarily retired, sadly.

I’ve worked places with terrible reputations and places with stellar reputations. The longer you stay in the bad places, the harder it is to get in at a good one.

My current employer’s opinion of me

I know, I know, my story sounds like every disgruntled former employee who got let go because he deserved it. Except my current employer has considered promoting me twice in the last year.

Considered. They didn’t promote me because I withdrew from consideration before we even started any kind of formal process. I told them I wasn’t ready, and told them exactly what needs to happen for me to be ready. And in the meantime, I’m happy in the role I’m in.

My manager respected that. And he told me we’re growing, and there will be other opportunities, and I will get promoted at some point.

How to move on when you feel underappreciated at work

First things first: If you’re not on Linkedin, get on Linkedin. While it’s an overrated social network, it’s where recruiters hang out.

Fill out your profile as if you were filling out a resume, but in this case, you’re not necessarily limited to one page, front and back. You can go into detail when it’s warranted. But be careful what detail you share.

You have to talk about what you did at your previous jobs, of course. But you don’t have to tell everything. That’s the mistake I’ve frequently made. Every line item on your previous jobs needs to serve one of two purposes. It needs to either show a valuable accomplishment, or it needs to relate to what you want to do next.

I get inquiries from recruiters from time to time wanting to put me in jobs like the one I had in 2009. That’s why. I haven’t updated that part of my Linkedin profile since 2009, so I still come up in searches for those kinds of roles.

Your profile and the resume you submit for the job need to point to your future more than the past. And for that matter, on the paper resume, you only need to go back 10 years. That’s helped me.

Getting coaching

In past jobs, I’ve seen coworkers get promotions before they were really ready for it. I didn’t quite understand why. Then one day I was on Linkedin and I saw an offer to have a career coach look over my resume and my profile. I clicked on it, and then I saw one career coach that virtually every one of those very people had used and endorsed.

These career coaches can cover everything, from rebuilding your Linkedin profile or your resume to preparing you for job interviews. How much it costs depends on how much of that you ask them to do. Making a few adjustments to your resume may cost $100. My colleagues who got promoted a couple of pay grades over their head probably paid more like $2,000.

I contacted her. Her suggestions were helpful. If a job I absolutely must have opens up at a company I absolutely must work for, I’ll contact her again.

How long you need to stay in a role where you’re unappreciated

When people job-hop every 6 months, that raises a lot of red flags. I worked a little over two years at what was then known as the worst company in America to work. (It was bad. Not as bad as the place I left in 2005, but you have to be a certain size to register on these lists.)

I would say that six months seems to be the minimum. And you don’t want very many six-month tenures. I have two of those, and it raises questions. If my resume makes it through HR, I can expect someone to ask. When I tell them I left after six months because someone offered me 25% more than I’d been making, they move on to the next question pretty fast.

Frankly a year is better, but nothing says you have to wait a year to start looking. If you’re six months in and going nowhere, start looking now. It may take 6-12 months to find something.

Handling yourself in the interview

It’s important in your interview not to come across as damaged goods. Damaged goods get a lateral move, at best. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a lateral move, but you want that to be an option, not the best possible outcome. Knowing what you can do and what that’s worth to your prospective employer is a good balance to strive for. You don’t want to come off as meek, and you don’t want to come off as arrogant. I’ve done both, so I can vouch that it’s a fine line you have to walk.

I really recommend that you watch a few Simon Sinek videos on Youtube, and if at all possible, get one or two of his books. Following Sinek’s philosophy makes it much easier for me to talk convincingly about what I do every day.

Consider this:

I know a guy who loves cars. He would mop floors in an auto plant if that was the only job they had available, because he wants to be around cars that much. That’s not what he does. His job is to make sure that every car that comes off the assembly line is absolutely perfect. When a car isn’t perfect, he makes it perfect. He finds that job incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

Dude fixes dents for a living.

That last paragraph is technically true. If you don’t like him very much, that’s probably how you’d describe him. The paragraph before that is more like how Simon Sinek would describe him. Don’t talk about yourself, or anyone else, in an interview like that previous paragraph. Talk about yourself more like the paragraph before it.

And when you talk about difficult times in your career, if nothing else, you can say it was a challenging situation, but it got you one step closer to where you want and need to be.

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