Are you doing everything you can to keep your career on track?

Often, the answer is not clear. But a bit of self-reflection can reveal some tendencies that lead promising careers to falter.

Carter Cast, a clinical assistant professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School and author of The Right—and Wrong—Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made and Unmade, identifies five major career derailers that can get in the way of reaching your potential. 

Then Dylan Minor, an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Kellogg, discusses some research conducted with colleagues including Kellogg's Nicola Persico. They find that—under the right conditions—companies that hire people with criminal records may be rewarded with more loyal employees.

Podcast Transcript

[music prelude]

Fred SCHMALZ: Keeping a career on track can be surprisingly difficult. Between stretching your skill set for a promotion, finding the right work–life balance, and standing up to that pushy coworker, there are a lot of opportunities to get things wrong. Your career plateaus. Maybe you get demoted or even let go.

So how can you avoid derailing your career? This month on our Insight podcast we take a look at how to recognize and cope with some of the common tendencies that lead promising careers to falter.

Fair warning, this requires some often-uncomfortable self-reflection. Because sometimes career derailment has less to do with circumstances and more to do with common personality traits that may be holding us back.

In the second half of our podcast, we’ll tackle something quite different: an interesting study that found that—under the right conditions—companies that hire people with criminal records may be rewarded with more loyal employees.

So stay with us.

[music interlude]

SCHMALZ: You’re a high flyer. Your company’s leadership has high expectations for you. They may see you as the next CMO, the next creative director. They may be taking steps to groom you for success. But you may not get there. You may lose your way. Your career may derail. Here’s Kellogg professor Carter Cast.

Carter CAST: We're not talking about people that lack talent. We're talking about people who don't reach the expected level of performance. And when they don't reach that, it usually comes in the form of, they plateau. They don't get the job that people thought they were going to get. They get demoted or they get fired.

SCHMALZ: Cast is a clinical assistant professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School and author of the new book, “The Right—and Wrong—Stuff: How Brilliant Careers are Made and Unmade.”

Of course, there are lots of reasons why careers derail that are beyond our control. No one can ignore the powerful role that racism, sexism, and ageism—conscious or otherwise—play in many workplaces.

But in Cast’s experience—and what he found in interviewing more than 60 executives and HR representatives, and surveying more than 100 people who have been fired or demoted—it pays to understand whether aspects of your own attitude and approach to work may also be holding you back.

CAST: We all have derailment characteristics. Everybody does. So it's not a question of whether you have one. It's a question of how you manage around it so it doesn't bite you.

SCHMALZ: So how do we know what may undermine our career trajectories? Cast draws our attention to five common pitfalls.

CAST: The first big reason people derail—and the biggest by far—is relational issues with other people.

You're defensive. You're overly ambitious, and you sort of bruise people on your way to the corner office.

You have like a dark-side tendency that comes out under pressure. So you get overly excitable under stress and you blow up or you become scared under stress and you actually recede. You kind of put your head in the sand. Or sometimes you become mischievous and overly dramatic under stress because you're kind of blowing off steam.

SCHMALZ: So whether your natural tendency is to lash out or fade into the background, a healthy dose of self-understanding is the first step to keeping yourself in check.

Employees are most susceptible to the second derailer when they first get the chance to start leading a team. Not everyone successfully transitions from doing one job—say, sales—to doing another—like leading a sales force. This can be thought of as, “good player, bad coach.”

We’ve all seen how this can play out, either in our own careers or in others’:

CAST: You're good at doing something. They promote you and you keep trying to do what you're good at instead of managing the team. So the team gets disenfranchised. They don't feel ownership for the work because you're diving in all the time and telling them how to do it. That often happens early in a career.

SCHMALZ: The third trait Cast found that can sidetrack a career is when a person, as he describes it, gets stuck in their own “Version 1.0,” meaning, they struggle to keep up with a business world that’s moving fast, so they find what works and cling to it.

CAST: You are not adaptable. You don't stay abreast of changes, technology changes, market shifts. You're not adaptable also to changes in your organization. Like, you get a new boss and you don't learn to adjust to that boss's style.

SCHMALZ: The fourth derailer is one that often accompanies a lack of experience: while you may be extraordinarily capable at your job, that doesn’t mean you have the ability to think strategically.

CAST: You're good at doing a task, but you don't have the broader perspective on how all the pieces fit together in your organization.

SCHMALZ: The fifth career derailer that Cast identifies is a common outcome of our desire to do a good job, help the organization, and be seen as a go-getter. We overcommit, organize poorly, struggle to prioritize, and we end up not delivering on our promises.

CAST: Sometimes it's people that we have difficulty saying no. I'm one of those people.

SCHMALZ: But Cast takes a tip from Robert Ury’s book, “The Power of a Positive No.”

CAST: He reminds us that when we say no to something, remember what we're saying yes to. So when I say no to doing something at night, I'm saying yes to my family. I'm saying yes to dinner with my family. So I have to remember that, too.

SCHMALZ: So in Cast's view, keeping a career on track has a lot to do with recognizing unhelpful traits and reigning them in.

But there’s one other factor—that’s not a personality trait—that Cast has found that can also put the brakes on our potential. When the thrill goes out of the job—when you lose that fire in your belly—that can signal that you may be about to stumble.

CAST: You're in the wrong context, baby. You are doing this job and you shouldn't be doing it because it doesn't fit your needs. It doesn't fit your motives.

But if we can uncover what our motives are, we can put ourselves in the right context at work so we're happier.

I think you’ve got to get creative. And a lot of times the answer to this stuff is not all sweeping, because there are parts of our jobs we like and parts of our jobs that we don't.

I try to look at the activities I'm doing. And I try to tease out which of these activities I like and which ones are actually causing me to flag.

SCHMALZ: Still, even with the best of intentions, we may fall short. So, what do you do if you feel yourself slipping off the track? Cast has a few tips.

CAST: You have to stay as open-minded and as receptive to the criticism as you can. Having this attitude that this is probably hard for the person giving me the criticism to do, so I have to honor and respect the fact that they're doing what's hard. Take your punches.

Then, let's say you've realized, okay, I have an authority problem. I tend to make snide comments when I feel the heavy hand of authority. This is not hypothetical, by the way. This is Carter Cast. Then what I tried to do when I got this bad review one time, I tried to identify the situations where this derailment dark-side tendency of mine comes out to play. Then I thought, what is a remedy or a corrective step I could take. So then it becomes a discipline. I had a wrist band that reminded me to be quiet and pause and consider before speaking.

SCHMALZ: And you don’t have to go it alone, either in identifying or finding ways to overcome your personal derailers.

CAST: Seek counsel from friends and seek counsel from coaches. I'm the, I never was a big fan of using executive coaches or management coaches. That was just my own ignorance. They can really help you put together a game plan on how you can attack some of the areas.

[music interlude]

SCHMALZ: Being mindful of your own career path may be your own top priority. But a company’s top priority is to ensure that all the employees it hires and retains are as good as possible.

And one thing many employers shy away from is an applicant with a criminal record. But is excluding ex-offenders really in a company’s best interests?

Recent research from the Kellogg School looked at data from almost a million job applicants to determine whether employees with criminal records are fired more often than those without records, and whether, perhaps, there's an upside to hiring these applicants.

Here's Kellogg's Dylan Minor, one of the authors of the study:

Dylan MINOR: What we found, interestingly to us, was that those with a previous record that are hired, it turns out, are actually no less likely to be terminated involuntarily. Which are the kinds of things we usually look at as negative. However, those with a criminal record are much more likely to hang around voluntarily.

SCHMALZ: The fact that criminal-record holders stick around longer can mean a huge financial boon to companies, which can save on the cost of recruiting and training new workers.

MINOR: And for the kinds of positions that we were looking at, which were sales positions and customer service primarily, turnover costs are huge. So having a worker that will stick around longer, even 10 percent, can result in massively improved profits.

SCHMALZ: Minor, an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Kellogg, teamed up with Nicola Persico, a professor in the same department, to conduct the research. Along with a colleague from Northwestern’s law school, they looked at data from a hiring consultancy that helped staff 11 companies. Nearly a quarter of a million of the applicants’ applications included information on whether the person was an ex-offender.

The researchers found that, overall, the turnover rate for ex-offenders was 13% lower than for non-offenders.

So why would ex-offenders, once hired, be more inclined to stay in their job? Minor sees a couple of possible reasons for this longevity.

MINOR: My conjecture is that for those with a history—we know based on past experience and we also find it in our data—there really is a hiring penalty. That is, if you have a record, controlling for all things, you are actually less likely to get a job. And so if you do finally find a job, then you're less likely to take another job just because you have a smaller opportunity set. And so it's in their best interest to stick around the job and perhaps, I would also conjecture, that there's some loyalty going on as well. That they're willing to hire them, give them a shot, things worked out, and they're actually gonna allow them to stay on.

SCHMALZ: While the researchers found that ex-offenders were generally more loyal employees, the picture gets a little more complicated when hiring for certain roles. Specifically, ex-offenders in sales positions were riskier hires. They were 28 percent more likely to be fired for misconduct than employees without a record, the researchers found.

MINOR: So it's a matter of being prudent within your business and, again, thinking about the roles and the person and what their background is and where they're coming from.

SCHMALZ: And there’s a public policy reason for understanding how well ex-offenders reintegrate into the workforce. In recent years, the “Ban the Box” civil rights campaign has emerged. This campaign seeks to eliminate bias in hiring by dissuading employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history. The logic is that improving the job prospects of ex-offenders will reduce recidivism.

Minor’s view is that the aim of the campaign is a good one. But there may be a potential downside.

MINOR: So on principle, if Ban the Box is implemented, the firm can't ask that question initially. Most likely in today's world of big data, they could actually still make a prediction—and if they did that, then you actually encourage discrimination on other dimensions.

SCHMALZ: So companies could deploy algorithms that would crunch an applicant’s information—age, gender, education level, address—and use it to determine the likelihood of them having a criminal record.

MINOR: And if they did that, then you actually could basically encourage discrimination on other dimensions that in the end could make it even worse. So that's the argument of the theory on the other side.

SCHMALZ: A better way forward might be to encourage firms to take a deeper dive, digging into just what type of crime an applicant has been convicted of.

MINOR: If they're gonna be running your financial operations, you might not wanna hire someone that previously got in trouble for say money laundering.

SCHMALZ: Good tip.

And, of course, companies hiring ex-offenders need to be cognizant of both the possible litigation costs and the reputational repercussions of having a rogue employee.

MINOR: There's also a potential disadvantage in that if you're advertising, "hey, we'll hire those with a past history," all of a sudden your hiring pool could change dramatically and things actually might not go so well in the end.

So there are some firms that publicly embrace some type of sustainability approach and certainly how they treat their workers and who they hire can be a part of that. And I've seen some examples of that with some companies.

SCHMALZ: Additionally, employers may see a larger economic opportunity. With a labor market that is achieving near full employment, finding an untapped group of loyal employees could solve lots of problems, not just for the companies that hire ex-offenders, but for those ex-offenders and for society as a whole.

MINOR: My hope, too, is in the current economic environment in the states here, with employment being so low that it could be as good of a time as ever to put in place some opportunities for these people to have a second chance.

[music interlude]

SCHMALZ: This program was produced by Jessica Love, Fred Schmalz, Emily Stone, and Michael Spikes.

Special thanks to Kellogg School professors Dylan Minor and Carter Cast.

You can preorder Cast’s book, “The Right (and Wrong) Stuff” at Amazon.

You can stream or download our podcast from iTunes, Google Play, or from our website, where you can read more about careers and leadership. Visit us at insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back next month with another Kellogg Insight podcast.