The Five Career Setbacks to Avoid

For most of us, the goal is to be successful and productive in our personal and professional lives.

Our childhoods shaped us to always think about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Whether you changed your mind a dozen times or fulfilled that young dream, you’re now an adult with a job in your sights.

For the most part, if you’re actively pursuing career achievement, you’ll find it. But no matter what job path you take, you can’t control every variable that comes your way.

Working towards progress means that you move forward more than backward. Forward progression usually takes a gradual pace. Sometimes, it’s so slow that you don’t even notice it until you look back on your life.

Setbacks, on the other hand, tend to happen suddenly and drastically. You can be on the alert for them and still miss the signs until they are unavoidable.

Being aware of some of the most common career setbacks helps you prevent yourself from falling into the traps that spring them.

And even if you can’t avoid them, you can still learn from them and bounce back quickly.

The best way to do this is to learn from the mistakes of others. Regardless of your career, there are common threads.

Take these five career setbacks as an example, and follow our advice to learn from them.

1. Unrealistic Expectations from Your Boss

You’ve probably seen the statistics that say most people quit their bosses, not the job. There’s a lot of truth behind this theory.

Once you’re hired, you may find out that your managers have unrealistic expectations.

Unless you’ve been forewarned — and actually listened to the warnings — there isn’t a surefire way to avoid this setback.

Maybe you didn’t get to meet your boss before accepting the job. Or maybe they completely changed personalities after you were hired.

This is a potential conflict in any career. Since you know about it, you can plan ahead to make the most out of bad situations.

Keep these tips in mind any time you start a new job:

  • Try to get a set job description during the interview. This is a normal request for every position. If management seems sneaky or hesitant about telling you what the job entails, you may want to look elsewhere.
  • Learn to adapt. If your boss continues to have unrealistic expectations, work on learning how to anticipate and respond to them.
  • Communicate your feelings. Before things get out of hand or you become emotional (angry or frustrated), approach your boss. Let them know how their demands are affecting your ability to do the job.

Regardless of the outcome, you may find your career going backward a few steps.

If you can’t come to an agreement with your superior, you may have to find another job. Use this as a learning experience to watch for Jobzilla bosses in the future, and keep moving ahead.

2. Difficult Coworkers

When you first start a job, it’s tempting to befriend your coworkers. Everyone wants to fit in and be liked!

But it’s amazing how easily one person can turn a great job into a toxic environment. Never underestimate the power of a catty coworker to set your career backward.

You should be friendly with everyone at work, but you don’t have to be friends. In fact, you shouldn’t. At least, not for a while.

It’s better to step back at first and survey the potential minefield of problems in front of you. The work you’ll have to do pales in comparison to the skillful negotiations of getting along with other employees.

Most of your coworkers will be on their best behavior at first while they try to see which “group” you’ll fall into. It’s the typical honeymoon period as they wonder, will you be more like them or their opposition?

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Make it a point to avoid negative, gossipy individuals. Instead of joining any particular clique, focus on getting along with everyone.

If you do find yourself butting heads with a difficult coworker, confront them in a reasonable manner. You may be able to discuss the problem and come to a resolution.

If not, make sure they know that you won’t put up with their actions and you will go to a superior if it continues.

Document the discussion and what the coworker is doing. Then, schedule a meeting with your manager where you can air your concerns.

3. Company Downsizing

When you’ve planned for promotion and ended up laid off instead, it’s a big setback. It can drastically affect your personal life if you aren’t financially prepared.

Company takeovers or downsizing situations don’t have set rules. Sometimes, management will warn their employees about an upcoming merger or layoffs on the horizon. Other times, it’s a pink slip out of the blue for everyone on the chopping block.

With the tidal wave of movement from brick-and-mortar stores to digital shopping, downsizing is happening everywhere. No one is immune, no matter how high up the corporate ladder you may be.

The events leading to the downsizing may not be your fault, but you could find yourself dealing with the fallout.

How to Avoid Job Cuts

You can’t do too much about downsizing, but you can attempt to make yourself indispensable early on.

After you’re hired, don’t become complacent with your position. Master it first, of course. But then, start to learn all of the other roles in the company, or as many as you can.

If you’re consistent, the company’s management will take notice of your initiative and drive. When they begin considering initial layoffs, your name will be more likely to make the “keep” list.

How to Prepare

You should never wait for an emergency to happen to start preparing.

Financial advice guru Dave Ramsey recommends saving enough money to live off for three to six months. This will cushion the blow significantly during a layoff or job transition.

What to Do If You’re Laid Off

Ultimately, if you can’t avoid a layoff, leave on a good note. That way, you’ll be more likely to walk away with a letter of recommendation.

Yes, it’s a career setback. But how you handle it will determine how quickly you bounce back.

Depending on your financial situation, give yourself a little bit of time to recover from the shock of your newly jobless status. Like any loss, you need to process your feelings: anger, sorrow, shock, self-pity.

Take a few days off. Then, pull yourself out of the pit of despair and get back to the land of the living. Readjust your budget to get a realistic idea of how much time you have before finances get serious.

The most important thing is to remember that the company’s downsizing was not your fault. Don’t take it personally. If you fall down that slippery slope, it’s harder to get yourself back on track.

4. Promotion Pass-Over

When you work hard at your job, you expect to be appreciated for that effort. It’s not presumptuous; it’s human nature.

If your company has an internal ladder that employees can climb, you probably even expect to be promoted at some point. That’s a reasonable expectation, also.

Promotions aren’t usually handed out to those who sit around and do nothing. If your goal is to get promoted, you need to prepare ahead of time. Put in the hours, learn from the experts, and show your determination and drive.

But when you’re passed over for that coveted new role, even after all of your over-and-above effort, it can be a devastating setback.

Take a deep breath before you react. How you handle this blow to your ego and future plans can have a huge ripple effect.

No matter how you feel, you’re going to have to approach your superior at some point. You need closure, and you need to be able to learn from this experience.

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Take the bull by the horns and schedule a meeting. Even when you are face-to-face with the person who gave the job to someone else, be polite and respectful.

Request an explanation of why you were passed over so that you can learn from your mistakes. Remember that you’re asking for constructive criticism, so don’t get offended by what they say.

Once he or she has explained why you weren’t chosen, use this opportunity to be open about your career expectations. Explain to your boss why you’re not content in your current position. Find out if there is a better fit for you in the company somewhere else.

If there’s no hope in the near future, you may need to pursue another path so your career doesn’t stagnate for too long.

5. Long-Term Illness

Unless you have a chronic condition already, you don’t expect to end up with a long-term illness that keeps you from working.

But this does happen.

Or maybe it’s your loved one that needs you to take care of them for an extended period. Sure, the Family Medical Leave Act protects you from losing your job to some degree, but your boss isn’t required to pay you for the time you’re out.

Your health, or the health of your loved one, comes first. You should be able to concentrate on recovery instead of stressing finances.

If you’re like most people, this isn’t the case. Money issues will determine how well you can focus on your health.

It’s definitely a career setback, but it’s not preventable. You can’t avoid a medical crisis, but you can prepare for it, as well as any emergency situation.

The best way to prevent a tsunami of financial problems throwing you into poverty is to plan ahead.

With Ramsey’s suggestion of six months of bills packed into your savings account, you’ll be able to keep a roof over your head for a while.

Another smart financial move is to insure your major purchases. You might not want the extra few dollars tacked on with your mortgage or car payments.

But when a life-changing event happens, like losing your job, that insurance protection is money well spent.

One More Thing to Keep In Mind: Overstaying Your Welcome

Some jobs are meant for short seasons of your life, to teach you and train you for something else. These are frequently entry-level positions with no promotions in sight.

Entry-level jobs and no-growth positions will eventually become dissatisfying for most people.

If you overstay your welcome in a dead-end job, it’s probably not going to end well. You may get frustrated and quit over a straw that broke the camel’s back. Or you’ll get fired over the same minor issue.

Either of these situations can cause you to leave on bad terms.

This setback can cost you a recommendation. It may not make a difference right away, but without a positive report from your manager, you may have a hard time finding a job in the future.

So, leaving before things go worse could be the best option.


When your professional goals are clear and you’re working hard to achieve them, setbacks are devastating.

Big dreams are achieved slowly. When a wrench is thrown into your plans, it can be tempting to give up.

You can’t control every potential setback. But you can learn from them and take steps to get back on your feet.

Getting back on your career path after a wrong turn can be a long, winding road. Or your unexpected setback can be a shortcut you didn’t see. The choice is up to you.

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