Should You Accept A Job That Pays Half Your Former Salary?
A non-profit executive with 20 years of experience in strategy, operations and development is looking for a six-figure salary, but getting called into positions for half that. A former management consultant with a successful track record of building businesses over 20 years was at six-figures before the market downturn and is now seeing risky start-ups offering almost no cash salary. Would you advise these experienced professionals to take these leads seriously or move on?
Your instinct might be an indignant No! After all, why should someone with decades of experience consent to getting paid just a bit more (and in some industries less) than an entry-level hire? Since current salary is such a strong anchor to future prospects, taking a low salary now could pigeonhole you for years after leaving this job. Salary is a barometer for how much you’re valued. You don’t see the darlings of business like Apple or Amazon being deeply discounted even in a bad market.
I don’t disagree with these arguments. In fact, if you asked me whether someone should take a dramatic pay cut and gave me no other background on the jobseeker, my general response would be to hold out for higher compensation for the reasons above – to be paid commensurate with the value you bring, to create the appropriate anchor for future growth, to align your salary with your contribution and not just the state of the economy.
However, jobseekers who are unemployed are currently at $0 salary. Even if you were at six figures, you aren’t anymore, so thinking of a low salary only in relation to your past salary and not your current situation is misleading and dangerous. If you stay unemployed too long hoping to match that former salary that is now further and further into your past, you put yourself in a precarious situation that may force you to take far worse than a 50% pay cut.
I have seen situations where people have been unemployed for well over a year, have depleted savings or worse raided retirement accounts, and yet, instead of focusing on shoring up their cash position, including taking lesser-paying jobs, they fixate on matching former compensation and dig a deeper hole. The non-profit executive in the first example felt she was spinning her wheels – not interviewing well, not meeting the right people, getting $60k offers – and yet when I suggested that she get some interview coaching or even attend a $100 group class, she let me know she was concerned for her next rent payment, never mind a $100 class.
When you are concerned about meeting your minimum financial position, a $60k salary, even if it’s half what you made, is good enough. This person could have taken that job, spent the next year rebuilding her cash cushion and networking as a calm and employed (therefore more desirable) professional. She could then relaunch her search with a stronger foundation to support her. Instead, she has compounded the desperation and anxiety of a search that is clearly already not working.
I am not suggesting that you should start your search assuming you need to take a pay cut. I do suggest that you take pride out of the equation and focus on what is the best next move to get back your career momentum. Many successful people have taken a step back, whether it’s in compensation, title, lifestyle, or other barometer that we often fixate on to measure success. Taking a step back, in this case in the form of a lesser salary, might be the most logical thing to do if it keeps you in the market for that next better job. Don’t dismiss any job out of hand even it pays less than you deserve overall. You’re building a career and may need to take a stop gap job. Your time spent rebuilding is an investment in your future.
by Caroline Ceniza-Levine