My first real job was a total nightmare. I’d eagerly accepted a role as an admissions counselor for a private university, only to discover that I was actually hired to cold call prospective students all day long.
On day one, I was handed a list of names and phone numbers, seated in a storage room with two other newly hired “counselors,” and told to book as many admissions appointments as possible. I didn’t even have a computer. The worst part? My performance would be evaluated based on how many new students I was able to enroll—and none of the people I called were remotely interested in attending this university. Most of them hadn’t even heard of it.
Initially, I was in complete denial. I kept telling myself that I probably just misunderstood the role and that things would get better. I was determined to make it work. Whenever my friends or family asked how my new job was going, I would tell them that it was great, that I was learning a lot, and that helping people get into college was so rewarding. I was honestly embarrassed and didn’t want to tell them how bad it actually was going.
As time went on, the situation got even worse. My fellow new hires & I were berated for not bringing in any new business, our sales goals were tripled, and we never did get working computers. It also became clear to me that the school was making money by convincing prospective students to enroll on the spot and then walking them over to an in-house loan department where they would be strongly encouraged to take out thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for tuition then and there. (It’s worth noting that this school, along with 90 of its other campuses are now closed, the parent company responsible for a billion dollars for defrauding students.
One day, I finally worked up the courage to address my dissatisfaction with my manager, who told me that I probably wasn’t cut out for this work anyway since I hadn’t convinced anyone to enroll. After that conversation, I was moved to a cubicle—right outside of my manager’s office—so that he could listen to every single call I made.
After about two months, I reached my breaking point. I woke up one morning and just couldn’t will myself to go back into the office. I emailed my manager and asked him to call me as soon as he could. I then proceeded to sweat bullets for the next hour while I awaited his response.
When he finally called, I told him that I wouldn’t be returning, that I felt like I’d been hired under false pretenses, and that I wasn’t comfortable with the way the organization did business. His response? Complete shock. He said he was baffled by my behavior, that I was lucky to have been given this chance, and that I was a huge disappointment. Then he hung up on me. At first, I felt relieved. Then the self-doubt kicked in.
Eventually, my aversion to admitting defeat won out over my desire to feel sorry for myself. So, I updated my resume, emailed all my friends & family to let them know that I was looking for a new job, and reached out to a couple of trusted mentors for advice on what to do next. I also started researching tons of different industries and types of jobs to try and get a handle on what might be a good fit for my skills and interests.
Within a couple of weeks, a family friend reached out to me about an entry-level recruiter opportunity at her staffing agency. She loved her job and was confident that she could get me an interview if I were interested. I was, of course, excited about the prospect of getting a new role, but felt leery, nervous about making the wrong choice again. I asked her tons of questions about the company, her responsibilities, her boss, how her performance was measured, and company turnover.
Everything sounded pretty great, so I decided to apply and was ultimately invited to interview with the manager, regional director, and a couple of recruiters on the team. Getting the chance to meet with a variety of people at the company was so helpful, and it gave me the opportunity to ask tons of questions and get a solid feel for what it was really like to work there. I struggled with whether or not I should be honest about my situation throughout the interview process.
Being a recent graduate, I probably could’ve gotten away with not mentioning my failed foray into the world of cold calling, but I worried that the truth would eventually come out. Ultimately, I decided that honesty was the best policy and simply explained that my previous job turned out to be much different than I thought it would be and that the experience has helped me to better understand what I wanted to do next.
The manager was sympathetic and understanding and seemed to genuinely believe that I deserved another chance. This ultimately gave me the confidence I needed to accept an offer—and I ended up loving the job. It turns out that even though I was a lousy cold caller, I was a pretty great recruiter. This job led to a fulfilling and rewarding career and enabled me to work my way up to managing my own recruiting and HR department. I’m actually glad that my first position was so horrible because I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it had worked out.
The Big Life Lesson
Surviving a disastrous first job taught me a lot and made me much savvier when I went looking for my next role. I’m not afraid to ask tough, straightforward questions about opportunities I’m considering, and I know how to spot red flags and warning signs. For example, if the company I’m interviewing with has high turnover or my prospective manager can’t provide me with a clear outline of what my potential role would entail, I think twice about moving forward. I also do tons of research on the organization and scour the internet for company reviews by employees.
I’m now quicker to admit when something isn’t working and more willing to address issues head-on, ask for what I want, or walk away if I don’t believe things will improve. This isn’t to say that I jump ship as soon as I hit a bump in the road, but I’m now able to distinguish between a tough job and an unhealthy work environment.
Having just graduated, I had no idea how to navigate a situation like this. Looking back, I’m proud of myself for trying to make it work, addressing my concerns with my manager, and knowing when to walk away—but I wish that I’d been more comfortable talking to my friends and family about what I was going through. Once I finally opened up, they were extremely supportive and ultimately helped me find a new, better job.
In hindsight, I wish that I’d researched the company and asked more questions before signing my offer letter. I also wish that I’d been more honest with myself when I realized that things weren’t right so that I could have put an exit plan together. And, of course, I should’ve given proper notice (although, truth be told, it did feel good to tell my boss what I really thought, and I was relieved to not have that incredibly awkward conversation in person).
Giving your employer—no matter how terrible—reasonable notice is a much classier move, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t worried about running into my former manager again. Ideally, I wish I’d been the bigger person, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to use anyone from that company as a reference or include the job on my resume going forward. Burning a professional bridge certainly isn’t a best practice, but I came out of the whole ordeal relatively unscathed (and 10 years later I’ve yet to run into my former boss).
If you ever find yourself in a situation in which you feel like you need to walk away abruptly—whether it’s to leave a toxic job, accept a new offer, or deal with a personal emergency—I always recommend giving at least two weeks’ notice if possible.
But, if you have to quit right then and there, do your best to keep it professional, make it a point to recognize that this isn’t an ideal situation, and apologize for the inconvenience. Just know that you may be forfeiting a good reference and running the risk of hurting your professional reputation (at least within your current company). That said, if you don’t make a habit of quitting without notice, you’ll mostly likely be just fine.
Chances are, we’re all going to come across less than ideal (or straight up unbearable) circumstances at least once or twice over the course of our careers, and that’s OK. Do your best to avoid toxic work environments by doing your research, be honest with yourself when you realize you’re in a bad situation, and be proactive about taking steps to remedy the issue before things get out of hand. Then, pick yourself up, take some time to think about what you’ve learned, and move forward. Someday, you’ll probably look back and be thankful for the experience—or at least grateful that you got the heck out of there.