Question: “I’ve finally received a job offer after several months of searching, but the salary offered is much lower than I’m used to making.  Should I accept it or wait for something better to come along?”

While the above scenario is not one most people hope to encounter, or anticipate having to face at the outset of their job search, professionals in transition have no choice but to deal with this issue when it comes up — which is surprisingly often, in our experience.   This past month, in fact, we’ve had to guide clients through this challenge no less than three separate times, which is why we thought we’d share our thinking around the topic for the benefit of the newsletter community at large.

For starters, when faced with this situation, we’d emphasize that there’s no simple formula that will give you the “right” answer in terms of how to proceed.  All one can do is engage in the best possible risk/reward analysis at the time — soliciting objective feedback from trusted advisors, if needed — with your level of risk usually best calculated based on your current financial situation, as well as your track record of job search success to date.  On the former note, a person who is able to fall back upon a comfortable level of personal savings (in addition to severance pay and/or unemployment benefits) is obviously going to be in a far more advantageous position than a person already in the danger zone, financially speaking.  So if you have a cushion of savings to play with, you’ll unquestionably feel less pressure to “settle” on a lower-paying job compared to the person struggling to pay the bills or keep the credit-card wolves at bay.  Many individuals we work with, however, do not have the luxury of a savings account or any form of severance pay (remember, employers in Washington State are not legally obligated to provide severance benefits), so in these cases, we typically have to advise people to take an offer — any offer — much more seriously than they would otherwise.

As for the second half of the risk/reward equation, which involves forecasting your odds of receiving a better offer in the weeks and months ahead, this is where the hard work we advocate in the job search process really pays off.  Those people who have been taking their job search lightly will struggle at this stage of the game, since they’ll have less data to draw upon and will have to speculate blindly in terms of whether a future, better offer might be forthcoming.  Those who have been hunting on a full-time basis and tracking their results carefully, however, should be able to project their future lead-generation rate with a reasonable degree of accuracy, given that they can extrapolate based on the pattern of results they’ve achieved to date.  If an individual has consistently turned up 2-3 solid opportunities per month, for example, there’s a good chance this pattern will continue and that they’ll have some decent new options to consider, down the road.  And of equal validity, despite the more negative context, a person who has been conducting an all-out search for months with NO other good leads to show for it will also have a very clear answer in terms of the right move to make in this situation.

Aside from these fundamental risk/reward considerations, there’s another critically important question we urge our clients to ask themselves in these situations, as well.  Namely, the question: “What have I learned in my previous jobs in terms of what makes me happy, or unhappy, and how can I factor these lessons into making smart career decisions in the future?”  Quite often, in the heat of the moment, the thrill of being “wanted” by an employer causes many people to forget the valuable lessons they’ve learned about their true career-related wants and needs — such as the fact that they swore never to work for a micromanaging boss again or to take a job that required heavy travel on a regular basis.  To borrow a phrase from the credit card commercials, however, these insights are priceless, and you’d do yourself a huge favor to think through them carefully when making any type of offer-related decision.  In the majority of cases, you’ll realize that money turns out to be a less important consideration in taking a job than you might think, especially if your inner voice keeps telling you that a smaller paycheck is an acceptable tradeoff for a job that offers other tangible/intangible benefits essential to your professional well-being — such as a shorter commute, healthier environment, or a highly supportive boss.

In the end, of course, while most of us will still want to have our cake and eat it too when it comes to job offers, one needs to be prepared to address those opportunities that don’t measure up to one’s expected compensation standards.  Should it turn out that the salary offered is only 5-10% lower than what you are targeting, it’s often possible to close this gap through good negotiating and salesmanship tactics.  If the offer is significantly below this threshold, however, it will take careful analysis to determine whether a “yes” or “no” answer is the appropriate response.  Ultimately, as stated above, the more seriously you’ve taken your job search, the more effective you’ll be at assessing the authentic risk/reward variables at stake — and if you combine this analysis with an honest reflection of the career lessons you’ve learned in the past, you’ll be optimally positioned to make the decision that’s right for you!