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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Career Rules You Can Break

It’s likely that you’ve spent a hefty chunk of your career thinking about rules.

First, there are the standard rules of creating a great resume (Action words! And don’t exceed one page, amateur!). Then, there are the rules of interviewing. (Cell phone off! Don’t be late!). Once you finally get a job, there are rules to play by, too. (Stay for a year before moving on!)

When I think about all the time I’ve spent frantically trying to learn the rules, it’s enough to make my head spin. Especially because—after all of that work—I learned the most important rule of all: You have to break the rules. Especially these three.

Rule #1 to Break: Don't Talk About Salary in an Interview

We’ve all heard this one. Career advisors, blogs, and forums alike will tell you that bringing up the word “salary,” especially if you’re inquiring about a salary in an interview, is a horrendous move. Did you ask what the intended salary will be before you even got the job? So presumptuous! Pack your bags, you’re already fired.

But tip-toeing around the Salary Elephant in the room until you can no longer avoid it can actually be a waste of everyone’s time. A couple of years ago, I went through several rounds of interviews at an awesome startup. This process involved travel, time, money, speaking at length about my previous experiences, and, most painfully, several hours of wearing proper work clothes and blow-drying my hair (straight hair and I are not good friends).

After all that effort, I was stoked when I got the job. That is, until I was informed of the offer—and I felt borderline insulted that the company was expecting me to pay rent and feed myself on a salary so low. I didn’t take the job because it was absolutely financially unfeasible, and my interviewers had to go back to square one. No one won.

So I’m going to go ahead and encourage a little rule bending here: There is a way to talk about salary in an interview. One approach that’s worked for me in the past is acknowledging the awkwardness of the question. Try, “I know it’s generally against the rules to talk about salary this early on in the interview process, but due to my financial obligations, I would love any information you could provide for me on salary range. I am very excited by this role, but I also don’t want to waste your time or misrepresent my candidacy.” If you’re tactful, sometimes being forthcoming can save you both time and heartbreak.

Rule #2 to Break: Negotiate Your Salary

There’s a lot of information out there on salary negotiations—battle strategies for turning your so-so offer into a VIP-paycheck by reminding everyone of how great you are, presenting competing offers, and other various mind games and covert ops. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t—and sometimes, they’re actually just not appropriate.

After spending a couple of years working for a Fortune 500 company, I interviewed at a startup. I knew the salary for the position I was interviewing for, but being the corporate bigshot I thought I was, I still went through the whole interview process, and (again!) secured a job offer that was in no way, shape, or form going to allow me to both pay back my student loans and avoid death by starvation. But, I was sure that with a little negotiation, we’d come to a package I was happy with.

When I awkwardly tried to negotiate a higher salary, the nice guys who had just given me the job seemed surprised. And then I was surprised that they were surprised, and then—it just turned into one giant fumble. This job was a gig where you could wear jeans, have a yoga ball as a chair, and work from home if you wanted. Those were the perks (and they are great perks). But it wasn’t a corporate job. A flashy salary, signing bonus, and profit-sharing were not part of the deal. And I totally miscalculated, because I just thought that the rules I knew were the rules, full stop.

Lesson learned—if you evaluate your field, decide on your priorities, and do a little research, you could save yourself some embarrassment of starting an inappropriate negotiation.

Rule #3 to Break: Don’t Brag, and Wait Your Turn

Do brag. And don’t wait your turn. At my first job out of college, I was mild, accommodating, and reserved. I sat back and waited for everyone to realize how smart I was, give me promotions, and send me to Paris (all expenses paid, of course) to sit in big-deal meetings and go to company parties.

I was also young and new, and a lot of other people had been there for a long time, so I figured I had to serve my time as the new, not-in-the-loop person, before I could realize my destiny as Chief Officer of Something Important.

This never happened, and honestly I would be surprised if my former boss even remembers my name. Although I worked hard, I never really spoke up. I just followed all the rules, and it got me exactly nowhere.

Meanwhile, a classmate of mine came in a year after me, guns blazing, and shot up the totem pole on our team by asking for a lot of feedback, voicing her questions and goals, and making sure that not only was she working hard, but that everyone knew it, too. She ruled.

The lesson: If you have the tendency to downplay your accomplishments, err on the side of assertive, even if it scares you. Because that is the road to Paris.

Bottom line: While it's always important to learn the rules, sometimes it can be more important to learn how and when to break them.

Photo of job interview courtesy of Shutterstock.

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