Colleen O'Henry* loved her job as a $68,000-a-year advertising copywriter at a large ad firm in Boulder, Colo., and was anticipating a healthy 5% to 10% raise as her review period cropped up.
But then the economy got in the way. The firm lost some clients, and O'Henry, 42 and single, found herself on the unemployment line and scanning Monster.com and other Web sites for leads. She quickly discovered many ad agencies in her area were laying off workers or imposing hiring freezes. But one good prospect came her way: a promotional advertising manager position that paid $75,000 at an insurance company not far from her home.
Although the first interview went well, she hedged her bets by applying for several lower-paying, grant-writing positions. In desperate need of funds, nonprofits throughout the much of the U.S. were hiring grant writers like crazy, and people with backgrounds in copywriting made especially enticing candidates. Sure enough, O'Henry was offered a $55,000-a-year position at a local school for the arts. She asked for more; the school raised the offer to $58,000 but said that was the absolute ceiling. If she accepted, she could start the job immediately.
By this time, O'Henry owed Cobra four $400-a-month payments. Combining her Cobra, mortgage, and car payments, plus the cost of food, fuel, and incidentals, her expenses far exceeded her monthly unemployment income. "I hate the thought of taking the job at the school and then quitting if the insurance company comes through," she told her best friend. "I'm basically an honest person. But what if I don't get the job? A lot of people are competing for these slots. How long can I wait by the phone? I need money now."
Her best friend, as well as every other friend and family member who knew about her situation, basically said the same thing: "Take the job. Your first responsibility is to yourself. If the other company gives you an offer, you can worry about it then."
With a guilty conscience, O'Henry accepted the position at the school and started the job the following week—all the while hoping to get a second interview from the insurance company. Did she do the right thing?
Next: Read career coach Liz Ryan's analysis.
*This case study is based on a true story. Names and some identifying details have been changed.
Employers are playing by increasingly self-serving rules. Workers should, too
The guiding principle for all working people in today's environment is this: Every job is a consulting job. It doesn't matter whether you've been a full-time W-2 employee thus far, or a contractor, or consultant, or a combination. At this moment, we're all consultants; only the lengths of our assignments vary. Anyone who relies on the security of a position because of its full-time W-2 status needs a reality check.
All these realities apply in the case of Colleen O'Henry, a laid-off copywriter who must sit tight hoping a $75,000 position commensurate with her experience will pan out—or accept a $58,000 grant-writing position right away but quit if she's offered the better job. As a longtime career coach, I vote for the latter option. Why?
The not-for-profit organization in need of a grant-writer may mean well or may have cynical intentions where Colleen or any other grant writer is concerned. How can we know? By cynical intentions, I mean the organization may take the view, "We need someone to write fantastic applications to help us secure five important grants, at which point we won't need him or her any more." Often, it is less expensive to hire an employee at a low hourly wage ($58,000 amounts to less than $30 an hour) than to get an outside consultant to do the same work.
Colleen has no guarantee her not-for-profit job will persist for any particular length of time. The same is true for all of us. She's perfectly right (from both the ethical and practical standpoints) to snatch the bird in the hand and take the job she has been offered. There's no implicit promise that she'll remain on board for an extended period—or any promise from her employer of a long-term job.
I assume Colleen will do her best work while she's at the not-for-profit organization. The insurance job may never materialize or may take weeks or months to work its way through the pipeline. Colleen neither deceives nor harms anyone by taking a job while hoping a more appealing one eventually comes through. In a sense, all working people are in the same position—consultants and employees alike. We're working hard for our employers today while keeping an eye trained on the next chapters in our careers.
An employee's obligation is to give his or her best effort every day on the job. An employer's challenge is to give the employee an incentive to come back to work tomorrow.
The not-for-profit is not unaware of Colleen's value on the for-profit market. There's a calculated risk in making any hire, and in the case of the not-for-profit organization, the risk is associated with hiring a person for a job below his or her skill and compensation level. That organization may benefit immensely from Colleen's contribution, even if the relationship is short. It's getting a $75K person for $58K. In the modern workplace, situations like this will be more common. Rather than looking for victims and bad guys, we should remember that, even in a tough economy, water has a way of finding its own level.