Working Spirit

1. It's not just that they don't pay you enough, it's that they couldn't ever pay you enough to make you feel good.

People who feel underpaid always think that more money will make them feel better. Sometimes it will, but sometimes it won't. And I can prove it. If your biggest complaint about your job is the salary, consider whether an amount 10 percent higher would make you happy. Then think of a number that is 20 percent higher. If a 10 to 20 percent increase would make you feel well compensated, you're in the right job—you just need to work on getting a raise. If you could go as high as 50 to 100 percent more and still not be satisfied, then money isn't the problem and more of it won't make you feel better. It's time to find another position within the company or a new job altogether.

2. You believe that nothing you do makes the least bit of difference. .

This a demoralizing position to be in, but it's usually not the work itself that makes you feel as if you're not making a contribution. One of the world's most admired companies specializes in cleaning services, and its employees, who scrub office floors and bathrooms, believe they have reason to be proud of themselves and the work they do.

You need to discover a sense of purpose. Your job is making copies? Find out who needs them and why. Or maybe you need to shift your focus to what makes you happy outside of work—traveling, playing tennis, volunteering. Then you can think of your job as the means to make those activities possible. If you still think that everything you do is meaningless, then you need to prepare for a job change—because once you believe you're wasting your time, it won't be too long before your employer believes it, too.

3. You're not learning anything.

Of all the things that can go wrong with a job, I think feeling as if you're not growing is one of the most dangerous. The market for your talents is changing every day, and unless you are evolving, too, you run the risk of becoming as obsolete as punch cards in a software world. Be vigilant if you feel you are not learning anything and your current employer is paying you more than anyone else would. That means it is definitely time to run, not walk, toward opportunities for building new skills. (A boss looking to cut workers will always target the ones who cost him more than their talents warrant.)

You might register for technology courses or simply ask your current employer for new responsibilities. Concentrate on shoring up an area you feel is your biggest weakness or building on your second-greatest strength (you've probably automatically refined your strongest suit because it's something you love to do).

4. No one ever talks to you about the future in a positive way.

Many of us feel we don't get enough positive feedback. In today's fast-paced environment, managers are often so overwhelmed that they fail to notice when someone could use a little praise. But there is a difference between not getting enough compliments and not having any indication that your boss or senior managers imagine you playing an important role in the company's future (something like "You know, you would be good for job X, one step up"). If no one further up the food chain says anything to you about the future, it could be a sign that the plan is to keep you in your slot—if you're lucky, and they don't need to make cuts.

Finding out that you're not on the fast track—or any track at all—can be painful, so don't press for more information than you can handle. When you're ready to deal with the worst-case scenario, ask for some time with your boss and say, "Here are two or three jobs I would like to grow into. What should I do to be ready for the next step?" If the boss says, "I think you're terrific, but the company needs to do better before we can offer you, or anyone, any opportunities," that's good news.

5. You hate your boss so much that it's hard to think about anything else.

The number one reason people give me for wanting to change jobs is that they hate their boss. But let's face it, if you have a boss, any boss, you have days when you aren't thrilled with her. The occasional incident doesn't turn a good job into a wrong job. But when every day is Boss-Hating Day, that's another story.

Nancy, for example, was working in a café with people she liked. This group had such great style that they turned what could have been just another lunch spot into the place in town. Yet their boss continually changed his mind, insulted his staff, and micromanaged and second-guessed everything they did. One day, Nancy realized that her work menu never altered: It was always more servings of boss hatred. The only way to change the situation was to change jobs.

6. You feel that who you are at work doesn't have much to do with who you are in the rest of your life.

Little mismatches can always crop up between our individual preferences and what our job requires: Maybe it's the daily irritation of pulling on pantyhose or being forced to defend a dumb company policy. But you might discover a profound discrepancy between yourself and your company. Maybe your casual style doesn't fly in your buttoned-down workplace. Or, more seriously, you may find your ethics don't match.

Just a few weeks ago I heard about a young woman who was bothered by the bookkeeping practices of the family-owned business she worked for. It's not that these procedures were illegal, but she prided herself on adhering to the highest standards of ethics and these loose policies made her acutely uneasy. If you're consistently uncomfortable at your workplace—as the result of a major personality conflict or a clash of ethics—you should get ready to move on.