When you're faced with new-job regrets: Should you stay or go?

Expert says a quarter of recently hired workers deal with 'acceptance remorse,' Here's how to handle the situation.

After working in public relations in Washington, D.C., for many years, Vicky Jaffe wanted to relocate to New England. The prospect of a position as vice president of public affairs for a New Hampshire bank sounded appealing.

So appealing, in fact, that she ignored a "funny feeling" about the job before she accepted the offer.

"During the interview, my future boss said, 'How do you feel about inputting data?' " Ms. Jaffe recalls. "It struck me as odd, but I said, 'I'm happy to be a team player. I'll work on anything.' "

But when she started working, she realized she had made a mistake. "The title was high-level but the job wasn't," she says. "It was terrible. I ended up just doing very mundane things."

That experience put Jaffe in the company of an estimated 25 percent of workers who regret taking a new position within the first year, according to outplacement consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Even Katie Couric hinted in a recent interview with New York magazine that her move from hosting the "Today" show to anchoring the "CBS Evening News" might have been a mistake.

With so many newly hired workers singing the "uh-oh" blues, more employers and job counselors want to help prospective employees avoid "acceptance remorse."

Sometimes a new employee's initial misgivings are simply part of the transition. "It is natural to have second thoughts in the first month or two of any new job," says CEO John Challenger. "Any type of major change elicits such thoughts, whether it is taking a new job, moving into a new house, or buying a new car."

But if feelings of regret persist after six months, he suggests discussing the situation with a supervisor. He also encourages "in-depth soul-searching about what matters most to you in a job and then listing where your current job succeeds and fails at meeting your expectations." If the gap between pluses and minuses is significant, the job may be impossible to salvage.

Jaffe was determined to make the best of her situation. "I told myself, 'Vicky, you've got to stay a year.' But after six months, I got called in and told it wasn't a good fit."

Through a contact at the bank, she found an interim position doing public relations for a nonprofit group. "It was positive and supportive," she says. She is now an account supervisor for a PR firm in Boston.

For young workers with no mortgage or family responsibilities, taking the wrong job might represent only a temporary professional detour. For those in midcareer, the consequences can be greater.

Fifteen years ago Edward Hershey, who spent 40 years in journalism and communications, realized it was a mistake to accept a position as vice president of a small Eastern liberal arts college. His job ended within months when the school's perilous finances came to light. After that he found a satisfying post at a large university, where he stayed 12 years.

"Regardless of the situation, you have to get over the shock," Mr. Hershey says. "If you go through all those stages of disappointment and anger, you'd better do it real quick. Get out the other side and say, OK, what's next?" He is now a writer and consultant in Portland, Ore.

One New York publicist who was desperate to leave a bad job ignored warning signals in interviews. "I thought, I'll take anything," says the man, who asks to be identified only by his first name, Russell, because of the sensitive subject.

"The week before I was going to start, I was told I would have to travel to Chicago my third day there," he says. "I had to be somewhere at 3 a.m. for a project. The first week I knew it was a really big mistake, and it never got better." He learned that the woman before him was fired after four months. The person before her lasted only three months.

After six months of working hard but being miserable, Russell was given an interim review. It was harsh, and he resigned.

Russell found another job as a senior manager and has been there a year. "I'm happy where I landed," he says. "The hiring process was very fair and professional, and that's how I've been treated."

For Lisa MacKenzie, warning signs began when she told others she was talking with a manager at a technology company in Silicon Valley. "I started getting a lot of raised eyebrows," she says. Even so, she accepted the position.

Soon she realized the reason for the raised eyebrows. "He was tremendously abusive, he swore at me, and ripped up things I had written," says Ms. MacKenzie, now of CareerWomen.com. She stayed exactly a year and then "bolted out of there." Through a contact at that company, she found another job.

Depending on the severity of the regret, Mr. Challenger advises employees who feel acceptance remorse to leave.

"There is nothing to gain by staying in a position you regret taking, but there is a lot to lose," he says. "By trying to stick it out, it is likely that the individual's performance will decline and that his or her attitude will worsen, both of which could damage future job prospects." If things have not improved by the one-year anniversary, he adds, it is time to look for new opportunities.

Ten years ago, BJ Gallagher, a workplace consultant in Los Angeles, received a job offer from a high-profile company in Newport Beach, Calif. She says, "I let myself get seduced by all the superficial things – VP title, handsome boss, ocean view, gorgeous office. The people were nice, too, and it seemed like a good opportunity."

Yet she sensed that something wasn't right. On her first day, the CEO sent the entire management team a memo outlining his policy on work hours. He needed to know where each executive was at all times.

Ms. Gallagher realized she had made the wrong choice. She resigned the next day. Others in the company called her "The Two-Day Wonder."

"I didn't ask discerning questions about the job itself," she says. "I failed to ascertain the CEO's management style. I didn't check out their policies and procedures."

Noting that the Internet makes it easy to check a firm's reputation, MacKenzie says, "You have to peel back all the layers."

Companies can also help prospective employees avoid mistakes by clearly defining responsibilities and expectations, and explaining how they measure success, says Herb Greenberg, CEO of Caliper, a management consulting firm in Princeton, N.J.

Workplace specialists at Yahoo! HotJobs.com advise unhappy new employees not to panic. Resist the urge to make a dramatic decision or rush to judgment, they say. Instead, analyze why you feel you have been duped. They also suggest sharing concerns with supervisors and the human resources department.

Others warn against trying to assign blame when a job does not work out.

James Gardner of Aquent, a marketing staffing firm in Boston, reflects on the challenges employers and prospective workers both face in making successful alliances.

"We'd never marry someone after two or four hours of dating, yet we accept jobs and fire employees after the same amount of interviewing," he says.

To make the process easier, Aquent uses a try-before-you-hire model. It places candidates in companies for up to 90 days. During that time they receive a salary plus full health and 401(k) benefits. "If they don't work out, or decide the job is not right for them, they can gracefully move on," Mr. Gardner says.

Aon Corp. in Chicago takes another approach, offering employers realistic job previews for potential employees. It uses technology-based simulation to take a candidate through a day of work in a particular position.

When a job offer comes, employment experts advise applicants to take three to five days to consider it objectively. They suggest talking to friends and family about the position and seeking their opinion. They also caution against compromising on benefits and salary.

Jaffe, considerably wiser after her experience at the bank in New Hampshsire, says, "I always tell people they need to listen to their heart and hear any doubts that are in their head during the interview process. At an interview, do your best and be honest. When something doesn't sound right, trust your feeling about it. Maybe it isn't right."

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Before you take that job ...

To avoid new-job regrets, BJ Gallagher, a workplace consultant, offers these tips before accepting a new position:

• Make a list of questions you want to ask during the interview process.

• Pay attention to the workplace and the people. Do they seem tense, or are they relaxed and friendly?

• Ask what happened to the person who had the job before you.

• Ask to interview some of the people you'll be working with – peers.

• Ask about your prospective boss's management style.

• Take notes during the interview.

• Notice how long it takes them to get back to you after the interview. Are they slow and bureaucratic or quick to decide?

• Do some research on the company. Read its annual report. Google the organization and see what has been written about them in the press.

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