Career Limiting Moves: Are You Kidding?

Perhaps the most toxic thing you can hear in the arena of people management is “That’s not my job.” It should be grounds for firing. But at least it’s a declarative, first-person statement.

Unlike another leading candidate for management poison: “That’s a career-limiting move.” A passive-aggressive statement if there ever was one.

Let me be clear about my point of view on this: if you work in a company where “that’s a career-limiting move” is part of the vocabulary, you work in a career-limiting company. And if your company has acronymized it to CLM, then you probably have those stupid round-figured laughing cartoon characters saying “You want it when?” in the coffee room too. Bad signs all.

What “Career-Limiting Move” Really Means

In my experience, the term doesn’t get applied to dumb stunts like mooning the chairman or emailing your bookie on the company’s email server. It gets used when you’re talking about doing something very right, that feels personally risky. Things like speaking the truth about an abusive partner; or about taking advantage of a customer; or about skating on thin legal/ethical ice. 

Usually there’s just enough truth in “career-limiting moves” to make it a scary proposition. After all, whistle-blowers often do get fired. But that’s not usually the case. Usually, “career-limiting move” just means speaking the truth where most people prefer to let things be unspoken. And more often than not, truth-tellers are appreciated, not punished.

Why People Don’t Speak the Truth

Human beings demonstrably mis-assess risk all the time. We are more afraid than we should be of doing the wrong thing; and we are less afraid than we should be of failing to the right thing. We constantly avoid the clear and present discomfort of speaking some truth, in favor of the faint hope that maybe someone else will speak up, someday. Meanwhile, things get toxic because of our failure to speak up.

Why ‘Career-Limiting Move’ is a Disastrous Concept

Every time someone invokes “that’s a career-limiting move” to justify a failure to act, their company sinks a little deeper into the muck. It means an organizational shortcoming has been fed, not stopped. That shortcoming will metastasize, since the more you refuse to speak the truth, the harder it is to do so the next time.

It means someone has put their own perceived self-interest ahead of the organization, and selfishness is the death of collective behavior. It means a failure to lead. When “leaders” invoke “career-limiting move” to justify their failure to act, it makes hypocrites of their claim to be leaders. 

It means a stake in the heart for collaboration, transparency, and innovation, because it punishes the risk-taking that is the fuel of those virtues. 

I can hear some of you saying, “But Charlie, you don’t appreciate the real-world situation; people have families, they have to earn a paycheck, they can’t afford the high principles you like to talk about. Get real.”

Fair enough. But we all have to live with our consciences, too. And we each have to draw that line by ourselves, for ourselves.

Where’s your line? When would you invoke the CLM clause rather than speak the truth? And are you sure about that?


2 replies
  1. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    I’ve left two jobs because doing the right thing at them was a CLM far too often.  One was an editorial job (I didn’t get into blogging to be told I couldn’t tell people the truth), the other was a corporate job where telling senior management that what they wanted to do was illegal, immoral, or in some cases, both, was definitely a CLM.

  2. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:

    Let’s replace CLMs with TTTs (total truth telling) or — even more redically — with CEBs (consistently ethincal behavior.)  "Wow.  That was a TTT!"

    Great post!



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