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Being The Perfect Employee Is An Illusion

After years of being an “A” student, I assumed being a good employee would just come naturally. In school, I’d learned that hard work was rewarded, so, after sending what felt like an infinite number of job applications into the void, I was determined to give my all to whoever was willing to take a chance on a recent grad. 

The imposter syndrome hit almost immediately. As grateful as I was for a paycheck, I was shocked that anyone had agreed to give me one in the first place. A company was paying me? To do a job? There must have been some sort of mistake. To make up for the overwhelming suspicion that I wasn’t worthy, I vowed to make sure no one would regret hiring me. I got to the office promptly, rushed through lunch, and made sure nobody noticed when I peeked at my phone. I said yes to every request and agreed to every deadline, even if it meant an overloaded schedule.

TL;DR: I was a loyal, devoted employee (when I quit my first job, I felt like I’d committed a grave act of betrayal). Then, something happened that changed my perspective: the company I worked for (my second ever job) got acquired. The fallout left me with a new — and less charitable — view of what we owe to our employers.

Luckily, you don’t need to weather something quite as dramatic to learn the same lesson. Here’s how I (and several other alumni!) learned to stop feeling guilty about not being the perfect employee, and why you shouldn’t put that pressure on yourself, either. 

Perfectionism isn’t sustainable

The simplest reason to stop feeling guilty for not being the perfect employee is also the most difficult to accept: being perfect is impossible. Your pursuit of perfection can lead to burnout — one of the most pernicious problems facing American workers — and the more desperate we become to be model workers, the faster we spiral into exhaustion, anxiety, and even illness. 

Carina, a software developer and Cornell University ‘21 alum, remembers a piece of advice from her mentor that changed her perspective on burnout. “My mentor once told me there is never a ‘good time’ to take a vacation, and it really stuck with me,” she tells Her Campus. “In a previous role, I felt like any time I wanted to take time off conflicted with the project. There was always a meeting, a project deadline, or something else. I quickly learned there’s limited time before a pushed-off vacation request becomes a sick time request. So, take the vacation.”

Toni, a content and operations specialist and Molloy College ‘16 grad, brings that practice into her day-to-day. “If I know I have a gym class, dinner with a friend, or even therapy at 7 p.m., I’m less likely to overwork through the night,” she tells Her Campus. By blocking off personal time on her calendar, Toni can hold herself accountable for taking a well-deserved break. “It helped me realize the world won’t crumble if I don’t force myself to work 12-13 hour days. I’m still getting used to not feeling the full guilt, but every day, it feels a little better.”

Here’s the kicker: Even in the throes of hard work, it’s impossible to get everything “right.” As much as I wanted to believe that I could brute-force my way into perfection through a combination of hard work and willpower, the inevitable happened, and I made mistakes. The only difference was how catastrophic they felt. When an email campaign scrambled the names of a group of high-profile donors to the nonprofit I worked at right after graduation, for example, I went to the CMO’s office and broke down in tears. It was the end for me, I figured (it wasn’t). Leadership would hate me forever (they didn’t). No one would trust me again (they did).

In fact, working harder can often backfire, leaving us more likely to slip up and make mistakes we wouldn’t normally make. For Hanna, who graduated from Connecticut College in 2020 and works in communications, this realization was essential. “​​For me it was all about realizing that taking breaks is productive,” she says. “Logging off and making sure I get rest time is the most effective way for me to be consistent at work.”

Loyalty is usually a one-way street

A few years into my professional life, I began to realize my career path wasn’t my passion. Immediately after this realization, two things happened: 1) I found it more and more difficult to keep up with this vision of being a “perfect employee,” and 2) I noticed that my coworkers were consistently aiming for “perfect employee” status…even though their effort seldom seemed to be rewarded in any meaningful way.

For example, they came in early and worked through lunch; they bragged about customer calls in Singapore that had required 4 a.m. Zoom sessions; they sent follow-up emails on Sunday afternoons. Every time a coworker earnestly told me about the industry podcast they were listening to in their free time, I felt a pang of guilt. Did I have to be that dedicated? Could my colleagues tell I wasn’t? Would there be consequences? Were others advancing further or feeling more fulfilled than I was? My lack of passion started to feel like a dirty secret. 

Then one morning, we found out news that shook us all: we’d been acquired by a larger corporation. A month later, more than half of my coworkers were fired. By luck or happenstance, I wasn’t among them. It appeared that no amount of dedication made you irreplaceable.

Watching my colleagues get let go en masse wasn’t easy, but it made one thing clear: their loyalty hadn’t been reciprocated, and being “perfect” employees hadn’t saved them. 

Your Job Isn’t Everything

Despite the societal pressures that can make us feel otherwise, your job isn’t meant to be your entire life. Kaitlyn* realized she’d sacrificed too much for her employer when she was let go from her first post-grad job. “I realized I’d put all my eggs in one basket — I’d put all my happiness in one job,” she recalls. Though getting let go from her job was far from easy, it came with some important lessons. “I had time to reflect,” she says, and that soul-searching left her determined to get out of her overworked rut and make time for herself. Setting goals outside of work (which, for Kaitlyn, meant everything from learning how to snowboard to taking a trip with friends spread out across the country) has worked wonders. “Diversifying has helped me have a more healthy relationship with not only work but also my mental well-being,” she tells Her Campus. “It gives me something to look forward to.” 

Personally, I came out of my company’s acquisition with a new appreciation for the fact that my job was just my job — no more, no less. It was a less romantic notion, sure, but also a healthier one. I realized that associating my self-worth with job performance wasn’t only unsustainable, but it wasn’t even particularly useful for my career in the long run. I’d kept my job during my company’s upheaval not because I was the most committed, but simply because my skills matched what my employer needed in the moment.  

In the end, your work isn’t what defines you. Sometimes, we learn that the hard way, either at work or outside of it. Every employer is different, and there’s no one right level of commitment you should have to your job. However you approach your work, and however much pressure you put on yourself, the most important thing is that you take the time to check yourself. Are you approaching your career in the way that feels right for you? Or in a way you assume feels right for your employer?

Jobs come and go, but you’ve got yourself for life — your number one commitment should be you. 

Carina, Cornell University ‘21
Toni, Molloy College ‘16
Hanna, Connecticut College in ‘20
Fairley, University of North Carolina-Wilmington ‘20
Kaitlyn*, college alumna

*Name has been changed.

Koutsimani, Montgomery, and Georganta (2019). The Relationship Between Burnout, Depression, and Anxiety, Frontiers in Psychology.

Zoë Randolph

UC Berkeley '15

Since graduating, Zoë's served as a content marketer for non-profits and tech startups. She worked remotely and traveled the world full-time with her fiancé before becoming a freelance writer and settling (at least for now) in Montréal, Quebec. She likes reading good books, learning new things, and watching Real Housewives argue on TV. You can keep up with her writing over at zoerandolph.com.
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