By Eve Tahmincioglu contributor
updated 4/30/2007 10:44:11 AM ET 2007-04-30T14:44:11

It’s one of the most perplexing career questions: How do I know if I’m in a dead-end job?

Lots of you ask me that question, and the answer is unfortunately not clear-cut. If you’re not getting raises, if a boss is derailing your advancement, if it seems everyone is getting promoted but you, then it might be time to do a major job assessment.

You have to ask yourself: How do I make it to the top of the ladder if I’m stuck on the bottom rung?

If you can’t see a way up, perhaps you should be looking for a new ladder.

When I interviewed more than 50 CEOs for my book, "From the Sandbox to the Corner Office," one of the themes I found among these leaders was they somehow knew when it was time to move on in their careers. They worked for many companies and many bad bosses, but when push came to shove they didn’t stick around when they realized they weren’t moving forward.

“When things just aren’t changing you have to move on," said Robert Cosmai, former president of Hyundai North America.

It’s probably going to be one of the toughest decisions you make, especially if you thought you’d spend your whole career with a certain company, but the bottom line is a dead-end job is just that, a dead end.

Annie Stevens, a managing partner with executive coaching firm ClearRock, offers these telltale signs:

  • Your conversations with your boss and/or performance evaluations are more about shortcomings and areas that need improvement, rather than about your contributions, areas of career strength, and potential career progression.
  • You don't have at least one annual conversation with your boss anymore about your career progression with your employer.  Or it is always you who has to initiate this, and then nothing gets done about it.
  • You have resigned yourself to running in place, keeping out of trouble, but not advancing in your career.
  • Your colleagues know more about what’s going on in your area than you do.
  • You have stopped being invited to meetings and consulted about business.
  • Some of your responsibilities have been taken away and given to others.
  • You have been discouraged from joining associations or going to conferences.

Here are some letters from readers:

I am an RN — and you know we are used to abuse — and now work for a multimillion-dollar insurance company. It is a new program started up in May 2006. I am at the top as far as my "numbers" are concerned, I am one of the "best" trainers, they tell me. I had perfect attendance and am always on the ball and helping with everything including coming up with novel ideas. I am a well-rounded seasoned nurse with a rich background in experience and education and I have a great reputation. I keep applying for things, and I am getting passed up for a young girl with next to no experience and not as much education. I have tried asking what it is I can do different and don’t get an answer. What do I do? I wanted to retire here.
— P.R.

So many of us get this idea in our heads that we plan on being with a certain company until retirement, and that cripples us from moving on even when it may be time to do so.

“People can be really attached to the comfort and security of a job,” says Anne Houlihan, a business consultant who specializes in HR issues. But individuals, she adds, need to open their eyes to what’s in front of them.

If you’ve asked your managers about the situation and get no reply, then it might be time to rethink your employer, she recommends. “I would say at this point if there’s no opportunities and the door is closed I would go somewhere where I am appreciated and valued for your knowledge and skills,” she says.

She suspects there might be something political going on.

I am a procurement engineering technician at a nuclear power plant and here is my dilemma.  I am under a glass ceiling because there are only two levels for technicians and I am at the top or senior tech level.  To go higher I would need to become an engineer, which would require a degree. What I want is for the company to establish a new, higher level for senior technicians. I filled a job analysis questionnaire for Human Resources, which will be presented to upper management with the hopes that a new level will be established.  It is not progressing at all as my section leader is still sitting on it.  To be fair to him, there is a tremendous amount of change going on now and this is not a priority; however, he does insist that he will fill out his portion and submit it.

I cannot complain too much as I have just gotten a very good raise; well, 6.5 percent is good for my position.  However, what does gall me a little is that my section leader stated that I was an outstanding employee but upper management vetoed that rating and dropped me back to average rating stating that the plant is not performing up to par at this time.

At this point in life I do not want to go back to school to become an engineer but I would like to be recognized and paid for my contributions.
— J.P.M., Phoenix

You are quite resourceful and ambitious to suggest a new job classification. Good for you! That’s a sign of a man who thinks outside the box, which is what companies always say they want.

But it’s not a good sign that the higher-ups knocked down your performance rating. That means they probably don’t realize all that you do. Making them aware of your strengths and everything you accomplish for the company is critical. For some reason your direct boss knows it but not those above him.

Ask your manager about this disconnect. You won’t be able to sell this new job classification if they don’t realize what you do now.

And Houlihan says your manager should provide you with specifics on what, if anything, you’re not doing. Push for an honest, open discussion so you can figure out once and for all if you’re just spinning your wheels.

If the door doesn’t open up to future advancement, especially since getting a degree is out of the question, Houlihan suggests you start asking yourself where your passions lie and consider following a new path.

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