How to Deal: A step down the career ladder may be better than not working at all

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By Lily Garcia
Sunday, February 21, 2010

My wife has been a senior VP in marketing for a Fortune 500 company but was laid off and has been out of work going on two years. As we are running down our savings, I suggested that she take "lower" jobs, such as manager, consultant or program manager, while continuing to look for the ideal job. She refuses, because she thinks it looks bad on a résumé to take steps back and might hurt her in the eyes of CEOs. But, in this economy, I think CEOs will understand that you did what you had to do to make ends meet. My salary can't cover expenses. Would your advice be to get a job while continuing to look for the job to stem the red ink, or should she keep holding out?

I think your wife is a little too hung up on what the chief executive of her next Fortune 500 employer might think of her stopgap measures. Getting laid off is no longer the scarlet letter it once was. As you have expressed to your wife, she can expect to encounter a great deal more sympathy for her situation than might once have been the case.

When you have been out of work for almost two years and your savings have dwindled, getting a job -- even if it is less than ideal -- seems like a fantastic idea. If the job your wife takes represents a significant step down in salary, prestige or responsibility, she should be prepared to explain her choice to prospective employers -- although it would not take an incredibly shrewd hiring manager to discern that a long period of unemployment followed by a position that is surprisingly junior probably means that the safety-net money ran out.

What most worries me about your wife's résumé is the widening gap in her employment history. Even if she remains steadfast in her refusal to accept a "lower" job, she ought to actively engage in professional activities that she can list as part of her experience. I know the search for a senior executive job can become a full-time position in its own right, but she needs to find the time for work in some form.

This could mean offering her services as an independent consultant to companies that might not be able to afford the salary she is seeking, donating her expertise to a nonprofit agency or leading marketing association activities. She will thus keep her industry knowledge and skills sharp while enhancing her professional network, both of which will make her search for the position she desires more fruitful.

She will also build a résumé that illustrates for prospective employers her tenacity and ingenuity in the face of depressing odds. And she will avoid looking like a prima donna who refuses to hustle when she must.

I would encourage her to open her mind regarding what a non-senior-vice-president marketing job at a non-Fortune-500 employer really means. Could she entertain the idea of leading the marketing operations of a small or medium-size company? She could expect a steep pay cut, and she would be working with far more limited resources than she previously had.

But she could also reasonably expect a saner pace of work, a more intimate relationship with her staff and the opportunity to develop a different set of leadership skills.

Even as you encourage your wife to consider alternatives to unemployment, try to remain sensitive to her feelings. It is hard to get over the emotional impact of losing a job, and it is even harder to weather the disappointment of not being able to easily get a new one.

Remember that your wife's determined search for a position comparable to the one she lost is also a quest for validation. The support of an admiring and understanding spouse will be invaluable to her as she gradually learns to re-envision the next phase of her career.


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