This question doesn't apply to me yet, but it is something I am watching happen in my workplace to a few other colleagues.

I am a sales engineer, which is a role which bridges tech and customer needs on the most basic level.

Case 1: There was a fairly senior engineer who had always straddled the line because he has a family with issues. Eventually the issues got to the point where he had to take a month off for mental health reasons (and by month off, a month off with limited contact with work as the doctors wouldn't let him work in the hospital).

He came back to find that some of the more junior engineers had successfully labelled him as unreliable and dysfunctional. They just kept assigning him important work during planning meetings and stayed silent while the scrum master asked whether it was done to emphasize to the product owner that it was not getting done. Project manager now no longer trusts him. He is seeking to leave as he is no longer assigned any serious work. Literally, this 15 years of experience Java engineer is being assigned to write some extra unit tests.

Case 2: Another colleague of mine went on maternity leave. She is more on the sales side. While her job still existed when she returned, a junior sales guy had arranged meetings with all her contacts, said that she had left, and arranged to have him made the point man. He did this in part by sifting through her paper calendar book of notes that she left on her desk when she went away.

She came back to a job, but nothing to do.

I am someone who may want to start a family someday. How can I compete careerwise with those who have no obligations outside work and are willing to do whatever it takes to win?

  • 1
    My own answer to that is that it is very hard, if not.impossible. therefore, it is vital that one's country has fair employment laws which do, for example, forbid undocumented overtime. so act for a change in the world and get active in politics!
    – guest
    Mar 8, 2020 at 11:13
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    Wait, I'm confused about Case 1 - he "came back" (from a month off for mental health recuperation, presumably) to find that he had been labelled unreliable etc because... they kept assigning him work during planning meetings even though he was out of the office on medically recommended leave, and then they were Surprised Pikachu when the work (that they had assigned to someone who, um, wasn't actually in the office) wasn't done - and now they don't trust him? Please tell me I've misread something here, and this isn't how the company actually operates? ... if it is, you should look to move on. Mar 8, 2020 at 20:26
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    This doesn't seem to be about competition with "people who don't take breaks from work", but about people stabbing you in the back.
    – ObscureOwl
    Mar 8, 2020 at 20:34
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    Just to emphasize the point already hinted at: These people are dirty cheaters, not "careerists." I think this is an important point to make, because methods for "competing" with (honest, legitimate) career oriented people may be very different from methods for dealing with people who do dishonest things.
    – dwizum
    Mar 9, 2020 at 12:19

4 Answers 4


This is far from an exhaustive answer, but in those cases you listed, the primary issue seems to be that the individuals did not have effective relationships with their superiors (or the superiors above them).

#1 should have been taken care of with a simple 5-minute talk with the PM about how they were off for a month, their team knew they were off, and so by assigning work to them anyway and allowing it to fail, they were deliberately sabotaging the project to try and make them look bad.

For #2, maternity leave is more difficult because you're off for a long period. But why was there no continuity plan for who should look after their clients while they were on leave? What was their boss doing the entire time? How did none of the clients have the individual's number or a way to contact them?

The general point is that you need people on your side, and you especially need people higher up in your chain of command to be on your team, or at least to have a favourable impression of you.

Neither of these situations seem especially complex or intelligent, they could have been easily headed off had there been a single person at the company looking out for the individuals involved.

You don't need to be friends with everyone, or even most people, but you do need to be on good terms with your boss, your boss's boss should at least be aware of your existence, and you should make sure you have a minimum of at least 1 friend and ally in the workplace.

Alternatively, since these are the same company, it's possible that the whole thing is completely dysfunctional and full of conniving, manipulative, backstabbing individuals. Where the way you climb the corporate ladder is by being even more ruthless and manipulative than anyone else. If that's the case, then the only solution is to quit and find a job at a different, more sane company.

tl;dr, to explicitly answer your originally question: You need your boss (and preferably their boss as well) to be supportive and on your side. And while you can be on leave, you should spend at least some minimum amount of time each week (literally just a couple of hours) checking in with work and staying abreast of what's going on. If you do all of that, then you should be alright.


The simple answer is: you can not. Period. Career wise promotions and the way forward goes goes to people who play the game best - from being nice to their boss to actually delivering, in various degrees (in some companies delivering is actually no important at all). If you are a worse player than someone else you loose, that is simply how the game is plaid. You could as well ask what how you can win a gold medal in any Olympic category when you are not as good as the winner.

The point is that the higher you go, the less positions are to be filled and thus the competition gets harder. Obviously you should not play it stupid - in your example the first person was NOT labelled unreliable, he WAS unreliable. He failed to maintain clear communication with his team and his superior. You said yourself - "had always straddled the line". It may well be this was done on purpose because the team was tired of him or feel t betrayed. From a Senior Engineer I do not expect him to "always straddle the line" and permanently have issues. How can he compete with someone who does not do that, does not have the issues and does not put more time in? He can not.

Same with the second person. Maternity leave. Now, you do not rank this as country wise, but in most countries maternity leave is not a holiday (i.e. one or two weeks) but significantly longer. You state: "arranged to have him made the point man. He did this in part by sifting through her paper calendar book of notes that she left on her desk when she went away." This sounds like bollocks to me. If the sales person goes to holidays for 6 months or so for maternity leave, do you really expect the clients to not have a contact point? The notes she left on her desk (WTF? Not in the files? She just disappears for half a year without cleaning up her desk? FISHY) are not HER notes, they are the company notes. Someone else in the team saw a chance and she obviously was:

  • Not maintaining a good enough relationship to the clients and
  • Not preparing her maternity leave enough by informing the clients.

If she would have had a good enough relationship with the clients, she would have informed them - you will find very few clients will just dump a sales contact they work well together under those circumstances. This smells like deflection - someone else had to handle her clients while she was away and he did such a better job that he is now the contact. Also - how comes all this happened without the team coordinator taking sure she is not left without clients? The whole story smells like a week old fish. Deflection of someone grinding their way up possibly by not doing a stellar job and now blaming someone else - typical deflection.

The simple question at the end marks it:

"How can I compete career wise with those who have no obligations outside work and are willing to do whatever it takes to win?"

You can not. You will always be second fiddle compared to someone who can put more energy and focus into his job than you AND is willing to do what it takes. You can mitigate this to a degree by being in a job where team work counts more and the career is not cut throat (like seriously MOST jobs are in this category) but if you are in a job where results count first and someone else delivers more - then no, you do not get a winning medal for being second. And your boss is quite likely just paying lip service to team building etc - he has his own career to handle and he prefers to build that on stronger players.

Your two examples, though, are bad - both hint at way more underlying problems than you tell us because both are quite seriously quite off the line for "doing more". Both smell like there are untold realities there that make this whole thing look very different if you ask the people around why they did it.


(I disagreed with the existing answers, so wanted to add my own, but I upvoted them as I think they are valid viewpoints even though I don't agree!)

I'm aware I am making a few assumptions here:

  1. I'm assuming you are quite early in your career (is it your first 'career' type of job?) from some of the comments you made about maybe starting a family 'someday' etc.
  2. I'm assuming you are in the UK or other Commonwealth english-speaking country, specifically not in the USA, due to your spelling of the word "labelled", references to 'maternity leave', etc.

Your situation isn't standard in companies

In short... the kind of behaviour in Case 1 and Case 2 as you described them... aren't normal for most companies. They are pretty dysfunctional behaviour.

In Case 1 (I commented on your Q to ask for clarification) it seems that the team (and I use the word 'team' quite loosely!) continued to assign work to someone who was medically excused from work for the moment, then remained silent in sprint review meetings when asked about that subject, presumably to "show up" the absent team member.

What a weirdly passive-aggressive thing to do! I could sort of understand one passive-aggressive inclined person doing something like this, in a misguided kind of way. But this was an orchestrated act as a team. I'm not sure if that is passive-aggressive or just plain mobbing actually.

(BTW in genuine Scrum this shouldn't be able to happen, because each Scrum team member 'voluntarily' commits to take on particular tasks during the sprint.)

In Case 2 (maternity leave) have you asked yourself why it is that a junior colleague told clients she had left the company?

A frame challenge...

As such I think you are asking the wrong question in your circumstances (but I agree it is a good question in general!) because of false assumptions. To put it in user story terms you are essentially asking "As a person with commitments in life outside of the company... I want to prove my value to the company... So that I am considered on equal terms with the 'careerists'."

And that is a valid question, I don't deny it! But I am answering in the context of the additional info you provided. In most normal companies what would happen is that a month or a few months here and there in a few years long career would be covered for, handled by management, and accepted as a normal part of business.


It seems to me that there's a kind of "Hunger Games" (I've actually never watched it myself, but I know what it is through pop-culture) dystopian culture at your company in which resources are scarce, everyone is in competition with each other.

Search out "scarcity mindset", e.g. the link below. It's a situation of believing that there's only so much to go around so 'peers' are competitors, essentially.


These kind of cultures sometimes develop spontaneously but are typically due to some event in the past (like surprise mass layoffs) influencing the way people think of their colleagues (collaborators or rivals for "the few jobs we have remaining"...)

The responses you've described in your Case 1 and Case 2 are not normal in most workplaces, as I said. Case 1 is just plain wrong. Case 2 depends on interpretation -- it's not unreasonable to go through someone's hand written 'rolodex' to find contacts if the person was not so good at keeping centralized electronic records. But saying to clients that Person 2 had left the company (what?!) is not normal and is unacceptable.

It seems to me that here you have a situation where for whatever reason (and if you think about it, you can probably identify the reason) people are constantly in competition with each other, undermining other colleagues at every opportunity, maternity leave (etc) is an opportunity to be seized upon rather than just covered for a few months in a mildly inconvenient way, etc.

I did find it striking that in the cases you described it was "junior" people undermining someone senior to them, in order to discredit them in some way.

I wonder if that's the only way people are able to move up in this company? Not by the honest route of proving themselves through increased knowledge, project exposure, value to multiple teams etc.. but instead just by discrediting someone else so that they can be promoted in the person's place? (And I wonder how that will end for them when they inevitably have to take time off for maternity, mental health, a broken leg, or whatever it is?!)

I'm sorry it isn't a neat answer in terms of "here are some steps I can do" but I would suggest really looking inside whether this company is dysfunctional about that, do you want to continue to work in a place like that and so on.

  • Upvoting because this is a thorough and insightful answer, and I think your "frame challenge" is entirely spot-on. You can't really "compete" with someone willing to play dirty in a poorly managed environment.
    – dwizum
    Mar 9, 2020 at 12:21

While these are fairly sad stories to hear, my experience is a bit different. I have a mental disorder which not only labels me as unreliable but also makes me need some sick leave some amount of the time per year.

You may call me lucky but I never had any problems with coming back to work. For some part of it, I am making myself quite knowledgeable on subjects that usually take over a month to take over. For some other part, I also tend to choose work environments that are friendly to the stigma my illness carries, and make sure to make a very good impression. So usually, people are eager that I come back from sick leave, despite me not working any extra hour.

In a non-dysfunctional workplace there is enough important work for everybody to be able to take responsibility and make an impact. Sure, people will try to cope with your absence and doing so they may put in place the very mechanism that could you get you replaced, but if you are able to put yourself in a position to keep your job in a company that has a lot to do, you keep it.

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