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Should I Be Willing to Take a Step Down in My Career?

By Taunee Besson, CMF, CareerCast.com Senior Columnist

Q: After 20 years of continuous employment, I've been out of work for six months. And while the economy is beginning to grow again, unemployment is barely budging. I'm very concerned about my future and having to step down to find work. While money is important, I think there's more to my anxiety than dollars and cents.

Should I take a job I'm overqualified for just to make ends meet until the job market improves? Or will moving down the ladder, even due to extreme circumstances, permanently damage my career?

A: Taking a step down – This phrase is loaded with angst for most job seekers. Very few people want to be less successful in the future than they've been in the past, whatever their definition of success. Yet, if you ask a number of unemployed individuals what stepping down means to them, you will likely get a variety of responses. So in this circumstance, you will have to ask yourself: What does stepping down imply for you?

What Stepping Down Means to You

  • Is it making less money, or seeing a reduction in benefits?
  • Is your concern about things like sending your kids to public instead of private school, or having to walk away from your house because you can't afford your mortgage? In a society where people often measure their self-worth by the number on their paychecks, a lower salary can mean a substantially reduced lifestyle, and be a devastating blow to your ego.

  • Does the thought of less authority mean you're no longer a player?
  • Would you feel less important if fewer people reported to you, or your title changed from Vice President to Director? Our culture tends to judge us by our accomplishments rather than our character. The loss of face in accepting a lesser position can be humiliating, and for some of us it's too much to bear.

  • Is it working fewer hours?
  • Many professionals become underemployed because they take part-time positions that pay significantly less than a full-time salary. For non-exempt employees, a regular 40-hour shift instead of 50 with overtime means fewer hours with lower pay. These lost hours decrease both your income and your self-esteem, especially if it means you can no longer support yourself or her family due to a reduced income.

  • Are you concerned about moving to a company that seems inferior to your former employer?
  • A reputation for mediocrity can make your job much harder, because underdogs get little respect. People who align their identities with the company they work for can experience a tremendous loss of self-worth if they don't perceive their organization to be the best.

  • Is it being forced to switch from being an employee to working as an independent contractor?
  • For many years, being an employee meant job security, and a company to call home. But recent downsizing has caused many organizations to use independent contractors and temps to do jobs formally reserved for full-time workers. For job seekers, this has meant vanishing benefits, insecurity and the loss of a sense of "belonging."

  • Do you feel you must resort to starting your own business because no one is going to hire you?
  • Many professionals, especially older ones, who have been hit by layoffs fear that corporations are only interested in younger, less expensive workers. Unfortunately, particularly with Fortune 1000 companies, this suspicion can be well founded.

When a Step Down is Truly a Step Down

If you're thinking about accepting a lower-level position that also has little-to-no upside potential, it's common to think that it will:

  • Undermine your self-confidence, and belief in your ability to do your job
  • Decrease your salary – both now and in the future
  • Give employers the impression that you're no longer capable of high-level work
  • Leave you stuck you in a position that saps your energy and enthusiasm, and prevents you from looking for something better
  • Set you up for repeated rejections because you're overqualified
  • Make you think you aren't marketable if you struggle to even land a low-level position

Stinkin' Thinkin'

To paraphrase Zig Ziglar, a famous speaker, author and self-help guru, "You are a victim of stinkin' thinkin'." Or, in psychotherapy terms, you're overwhelmed by catastrophic expectations and a negative world view. This is a debilitating state of mind that makes hunting for a new job in today's economy even more difficult.

Seeing the Glass as Half Full

When it starts feeling like your job search is being sucked down into a black hole and you're ready to give up in despair, try the following techniques to put things in perspective:

  1. Determine the underlying reason(s) why you're so worried
  2. Assign a percentage for the likelihood of this negative scenario actually happening.
  3. Is it 100%? 75%? 50, 20, 10? Consider both your long-term track record and current market conditions. Try to step outside your situation and look at it rationally. Potential changes often seem more unfavorable than they truly are when you're in a catastrophic mindset.

  4. Now that you've determined what the realistic possibility for what's worrying you, how do you feel?
  5. Usually confronting your demons head on goes a long way toward dispelling the hold that they have over you.

  6. Finally, decide what you'll do if the worst really does come to pass.
  7. Put together a plan A, B and C. If you're ready to take action when necessary, you'll be a lot more confident in your ability to produce the best result.


Senior Columnist Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979 that works with individual and corporate clients in career transition, job search, executive coaching, talent management and small business issues. She is an award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and a best-selling author of the Wall Street Journal's books on resumes and cover letters. Her articles on a variety of career issues have appeared on numerous career/job websites and trade and business journals. Ms. Besson has been quoted numerous times in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money, and a number of other websites and publications.

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