If the finances are doable, there can be some great reasons to consider it. Although the right choice depends to a great degree on your personal circumstances, here are the questions that will help you get to your best answer.
Are there other benefits of value to me that I could negotiate in lieu of salary? The key here is “of value to me” – for example, a flexible schedule might be of little interest to someone without kids, but incredibly helpful to parents. Other options might include funds for conference attendance or professional development, tuition reimbursement, additional vacation time, a year-end bonus, the ability to work from home on specified days, company coverage of all health insurance costs, and similar types of benefits.
When you’re thinking about this question, keep in mind that not all benefits have to involve money that gets you closer to your previous salary; you may decide that quality-of-life issues are a much higher priority and value for you than financial offsets.
How much value would I assign to not having to do… [something you strongly dislike about your current work situation]? For many, that’s a commute. For others, it’s doing work that goes completely against your personal values. What dollar value would you put on not having to engage in an activity associated with your current (or previous) job that was, to put it bluntly, crazy-making? We’re talking about those soul-sucking aspects of a job that leave you feeling defeated, discouraged, and de-energized by 10:00 a.m. Monday morning.
This question, of course, takes into consideration the reality that no job is perfect, and will always be a balance of work that we like/love with tasks that we’d really rather unload onto some unsuspecting colleague…or intern. The soul-sucking job operates at a whole different level of bad – think major emotional damage, toxic stress levels, chronic depression, and ongoing dates with pints (quarts?) of Häagen Daz.
If the reason this job pays less is that it’s less demanding, what could I do with the leftover energy? In other words, would working an easier, less-demanding job leave you with more energy to work on other projects that are important to you from a career perspective? This could be things like writing a book, going back for a certificate in data management, developing and teaching an online course in health informatics for a grad school you admire, or some similar investment of time and energy that could deliver long-term career benefits.
An important corollary to this question, however, is whether you’d actually use that time to focus on projects that could lead to better career options (e.g., more independence, more rewarding work, higher salary), or would you be more likely to use it to, say, enjoy life a bit more? No judgment here, just a reality check to make sure you’re basing your decisions on solid self-assessments.
Would I learn things at this job that would make me more marketable or open up new career opportunities? This has always been my number one reason for taking a lower salary job – I considered the choice to be an investment in my career development and resiliency.
No one I know actually likes taking a pay cut, but many of us have done so as a long-term career growth strategy. A similar type of question might be whether a specific (lower-paying) job would enable you to grow your professional network in helpful/strategic ways, or would put you in a position to gain visible working on a signature project. (A “signature project” is any important initiative that will boost your value, credibility, and level of professional contribution, with the added benefit of giving you something terrific to talk about with interviewers.)
Would I have the autonomy to do my best work? The autonomy question can mean the difference between a lower-paying job having long-term career benefits and simply being a step backward in your career. It’s often the differentiating boundary between a real opportunity and “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” (Been there, done that, many times….)
As you consider this issue, you’d want to know what level of decision-making freedom you’d have, what budget you’d control, and what type of manager you’d be reporting to (avoid micromanagers like the plague). You want to be able to use the job to grow professionally; that will be impossible without at least a basic level of independence.
Will this help position me for my next career goal? If I think about the next job I might want to have, will this job help position me for that, or can I craft/structure the job to do so?
This is based on all of your answers to the previous questions. In what ways can a job, even if a step down in salary, have long-term strategic value by positioning you for your next career move? To answer this question, you’ll need to look at both what the job currently is and what you could craft it to be. Assume this may entail additional (read: unpaid) work on your part, but if the opportunity is there, the payoff’s likely to be well worth the effort.
Will it help you strategically expand some aspect of your professional equity (what you know, who you know, who knows about you)? If so, and your budget can manage the hit, sometimes taking that pay cut can be a really smart choice.
Dealing with Lower-Salary Fallout
One of the reasons not to take a job with a lower salary is having to explain your decision to an interviewer when you get to the salary negotiation stage. But this is where the why of having taken that job can be used to demonstrate your value.
Your narrative will be about your willingness to invest in your career and your ability to add value. You’ll talk about how that lower-paying job enabled you to expand your skills in a key area, take on a more challenging project or greater responsibility, work on an innovative initiative that pushed you to perfect your problem-solving strengths, etc. Then you’ll confidently explain how the benefits you gained can now be applied to their organization.