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Feeling pigeonholed at work?

Have you been pigeonholed at work?
Getting pigeonholed in my career is something I work hard to avoid. Unfortunately, it’s a tough condition to shake and my experience is that I have to initiate the shaking-and-moving to stay get out of the hole. This is an important topic for professional workers that don’t want to grow stagnant and that continuously seek new challenges.

Pigeonholed is an expression with various meanings depending on context. For this writing, I’m referring to it as a verb meaning “to assign to a definite place or to definite places in some orderly system”. We use the term to refer to people in the workplace that are locked into a position or a set of responsibilities based on past achievements. Colleagues, management, and others place a label on the person which makes changes in positions or responsibilities difficult.

One of the reasons workers get pigeonholed is they perform well and there is no one else in the organization that knows how to do what they are doing. Often there is not a sense of priority to make sure the person has a back-fill or that that work rotates among people. Organizations get caught up in managing the day-to-day operations of the business and personnel matters are often pushed to the bottom of the to-do list.

Cheryl Dahle captures this thought in an article in Fast Company entitled Escape Your Pigeonhole.  Dahle explains the conundrum as “How do you develop the expertise to be known as the go-to guy or gal for certain projects or jobs without getting so tightly defined that you’re stuck working on the same project (or in the same industry) year after year?”

The remainder of Dahle’s article gives four areas of practical advice that professionals can use to escape and avoid the pigeonhole. A common theme in her recommendations is that we are responsible for moving our own careers towards paths that interest us and that match with our skills and strengths. We can’t rely on our managers, human resources, or anyone else to take us there.

What are you doing about it?
A former colleague once told me that “everyone should be fired or reassigned from their current jobs every three years.” His idea may seem a bit extreme, but his point was that companies benefit more from fresh ideas this way. It keeps workers motivated and challenged and allows them to grow. His thought follows the same mindset as executive leadership programs within some companies where they identify employees with “leadership potential” and change their job function and responsibility every 24 months.  It’s a form of job rotation.

But there is only so much an individual has control over in their workplace. Even if they are doing things to avoid a pigeonhole and to advance to other areas, there is no guarantee they’ll change perceptions of others. Which is exactly why this is a difficult condition to avoid. Just how do you change someone’s perception of you?

I’ve been pigeonholed.
In my personal career I’ve had success and failure getting locked into a position. I know of two times that I have been boxed-in by a pigeonhole. In both cases I had to leave the situation to escape the hole.

The first time was after I entered the organization as a college cooperative student (similar to intern). I stayed with the company after I graduated because they offered me full-time employment. After a couple of years however, it became apparent that management still thought of me as a college co-op student. There really wasn’t any opportunities to continue personal growth. To get out of that pigeonhole I had to leave the company.

The second time was with an employer that no longer exists (due to acquisition). I worked in the IT group as a product manager for many years and sought to advance within IT leadership by moving into management and gaining a broader breadth of responsibility. I felt I was a good fit because I had previously been in roles of analyst, project manager, and network engineer which gave me knowledge of systems, networks, and programming. I knew the business side more than most because of exposure to clients and Sales. But management went through a time of hiring outside people into the positions I was interested in serving. I was told at one point “Just keep doing what you are doing. You are good at it” (AKA – pigeonhole). To escape this pigeonhole I finished a MBA and applied for a position in eCommerce Marketing. It worked and I moved on to new challenges and opportunities for service and learning outside of IT.

Why does it matter?
Getting pigeonholed limits our experiences. It cuts down on the skills we could develop. It reduces the breadth of opportunities which directly influences career choices. This isn’t a power-play to climb the traditional “corporate ladder”. It’s about personal satisfaction with our work and output. It’s about serving others by staying motivated. It’s about learning and growing.

I’d love to hear your experience on this topic. Have you avoided being pigeonholed? Have you escaped a pigeonhole?

  • pigeon-holed

    I need your help! I work as an administrative assistant at a prestigious university in the south. I came to work here for the tuition benefit for my children. They are now in college and the tuition benefit is really great. However, I don’t make much money in this position and I recently completed my BA degree in Management. I have sought other positions within the organization and I can’t say for sure, but having been an admin asst for 5+ years, I am finding it very difficult to move out of this position, thus I feel like I’m being pigeonholed in my current position by our HR department. I have a lot of other experience from my 20+ years of working such as sales & marketing. I’ve also done graphic design, news letters, manage budgets, etc but I can’t seem to even get an interview with another department. HR will send an email stating they found someone “more qualified” or I won’t hear anything at all. Please help!! I know this article was posted a year ago, but someone out there has to have some kind of advice for me.

  • pigeon-holed

    I need your help! I work as an administrative assistant at a prestigious university in the south. I came to work here for the tuition benefit for my children. They are now in college and the tuition benefit is really great. However, I don’t make much money in this position and I recently completed my BA degree in Management. I have sought other positions within the organization and I can’t say for sure, but having been an admin asst for 5+ years, I am finding it very difficult to move out of this position, thus I feel like I’m being pigeonholed in my current position by our HR department. I have a lot of other experience from my 20+ years of working such as sales & marketing. I’ve also done graphic design, news letters, manage budgets, etc but I can’t seem to even get an interview with another department. HR will send an email stating they found someone “more qualified” or I won’t hear anything at all. Please help!! I know this article was posted a year ago, but someone out there has to have some kind of advice for me.

  • pigeon-holed

    I need your help! I work as an administrative assistant at a prestigious university in the south. I came to work here for the tuition benefit for my children. They are now in college and the tuition benefit is really great. However, I don’t make much money in this position and I recently completed my BA degree in Management. I have sought other positions within the organization and I can’t say for sure, but having been an admin asst for 5+ years, I am finding it very difficult to move out of this position, thus I feel like I’m being pigeonholed in my current position by our HR department. I have a lot of other experience from my 20+ years of working such as sales & marketing. I’ve also done graphic design, news letters, manage budgets, etc but I can’t seem to even get an interview with another department. HR will send an email stating they found someone “more qualified” or I won’t hear anything at all. Please help!! I know this article was posted a year ago, but someone out there has to have some kind of advice for me.

  • pigeon-holed

    I need your help! I work as an administrative assistant at a prestigious university in the south. I came to work here for the tuition benefit for my children. They are now in college and the tuition benefit is really great. However, I don’t make much money in this position and I recently completed my BA degree in Management. I have sought other positions within the organization and I can’t say for sure, but having been an admin asst for 5+ years, I am finding it very difficult to move out of this position, thus I feel like I’m being pigeonholed in my current position by our HR department. I have a lot of other experience from my 20+ years of working such as sales & marketing. I’ve also done graphic design, news letters, manage budgets, etc but I can’t seem to even get an interview with another department. HR will send an email stating they found someone “more qualified” or I won’t hear anything at all. Please help!! I know this article was posted a year ago, but someone out there has to have some kind of advice for me.

  • pigeon-holed

    I need your help! I work as an administrative assistant at a prestigious university in the south. I came to work here for the tuition benefit for my children. They are now in college and the tuition benefit is really great. However, I don’t make much money in this position and I recently completed my BA degree in Management. I have sought other positions within the organization and I can’t say for sure, but having been an admin asst for 5+ years, I am finding it very difficult to move out of this position, thus I feel like I’m being pigeonholed in my current position by our HR department. I have a lot of other experience from my 20+ years of working such as sales & marketing. I’ve also done graphic design, news letters, manage budgets, etc but I can’t seem to even get an interview with another department. HR will send an email stating they found someone “more qualified” or I won’t hear anything at all. Please help!! I know this article was posted a year ago, but someone out there has to have some kind of advice for me.

  • IT engineer

    This is an interesting topic that apply to a lot of employers today, especially considering the increasing complexity in our knowledge based society. Being good at something can definitely push you into a corner, making internal advancement difficult. Sometimes it may help to get additional education that elaborates your basic training, in other cases it may be necessary to get an entirely new education, go back to square one and pursuit another degree in a different field. In my opinion quitting should always be a last resort option if there’s really no other way to advance.

    Another option that more people should try out and that’s heavily underrated, given some experience with customer relations and the field of expertise in question, is to start your own business. Depending on current responsibilities within your job it doesn’t always require resigning your current position, there are plenty of examples of people that started their own side projects and finally ended up running their own business on a part time basis. It’s rarely an easy path to undertake as it requires quite some work capacity but it may help you to show your colleagues and managers that you’re fully capable of undertaking other tasks – It’s often a solid piece of evidence as you demonstrate that you’re already doing it.

  • none

    Been there. My experience is that it requires leaving the company all together. After expressing interest of pursuing growth and trying to transition to another department or requests denied to be assigned new tasks time to leave. It is one thing to be pigeon holed in one role in one company it is another thing to stay in one job too long where it pigeon holes you professionally.
    Make a change to avoid that. They pigeon hole you because you are good, no one else wants or can do the job. Follow you gut instinct and get out. Good luck.

  • Leigh Anne

    I know the feeling of being pigeonholed! I used to work as a lab tech in pharma/biotech industries. The technology was very interesting, but the culture and shift work were not for me. After trying out new things, taking a few classes, assessments, and some soul searching, I decided I’d like to go into recruiting and HR. To me, it isn’t such an extreme move. I wrote policies and procedures in my old career, I also put together and delivered training presentations and helped interview people. I liked all of those tasks more than doing the same test over and over again in the lab. I knew I’d have to show I was serious about making a switch though, as well as gain some more skills. So I earned a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership with an HR Management concentration. While enrolled, I took jobs that would give me hands on experience in office administration, customer service, and eventually assisting in the HR department (as a temp). Despite the fact that I have not worked in a laboratory since 2007, I keep hearing feedback such as “we want someone with a purely HR background and she has all that science experience”. Completely ignoring my new degree and 8 years of experience in other roles since then. A recruiter recently told me she was so frustrated that her hiring manager seemed to be favoring a person with only a 4 year degree and 1 year work experience over me, due to the career change. In my interview for my most recent temp job, I was even asked if I’d rather have a permanent job in the quality lab instead of temp in the HR department. Obviously I did not want that. I was kind of perplexed they’d ask that after I’d just highlighted the key efforts of my career change. I am considering taking my old experience off my resume completely, although some recruiters have told me that employers will see that as a form of dishonesty, or at least will assume the worst about what I did from 1998 to 2007.

  • Leigh Anne

    I’ve never had good experience with telling a prospective employer that I was self employed for a while. They always assume that means you can’t take orders, or failed at your business. Hiring managers can be SO…. Idk. I had one tell me that she questioned why I’d sometimes taken 3 months off between jobs. When I told her I traveled while researching companies she made a face. Obviously I did not get the job. It was for a small company that didn’t even own a computer anyway. Two days later, another interviewer told me it was a strength that I’d traveled and taken time to transition. Did not get that job either but at least I got polite follow up after my interview.

  • Liz

    If you find yourself pigeon holed, it’s time to leave. The best time to look for a job is when you already have one. It’s better to know exactly what you want to do next. Than tailor your resume to the job you are applying for. If you want to get into HR but have lots of science experience, remove it. It’s not dishonest, it’s irrelevant and the reason why employers are suggesting an alternative to what you are looking for. They can’t ask questions about experience you don’t mention. General rule, if you don’t want to do it again, don’t put it on your resume or bring it up in an interview. That doesn’t mean you leave your years of experience out. You mention it in a way that shows your transferable skills. The name of the game is, does this relate?, Can you outdo your competition?, & what value can you add to the company? Answer those questions correctly and you’ll get the job.