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Why a lousy job can lead to a bright future

Succeeding at an unpleasant job will tell your next employer a lot about you.

By Karen Datko Jan 27, 2010 11:40AM

This post comes from Julie Rains at partner blog Wise Bread.


In the past couple of months, two clients of mine have landed great jobs in the midst of the worst employment climate in decades. The secret to their success, I believe, was delivering outstanding results in lousy jobs.


The jobs weren't completely lousy, which I would define as requiring long hours and offering low pay, few or no employee benefits, demoralizing management, and an unsafe work environment. And the work content gave them valuable experience for specific career targets. But the jobs did contain elements that some career experts consider lousy: nonexistent budgets, no formal training programs, few procedures, signs that bills weren't always paid on time, and little opportunity for advancement. (See Careerbuilder articles on detecting that a new job is lousy and a current job is lousy.)


Before the recession, the clients' respective positions seemed to hold promise. Then, credit constraints stalled growth, prevented the companies from servicing all the sales generated by employees, and threatened survival. But, instead of playing "Murder" a la "The Office" and biding their time, they focused on logging significant accomplishments while looking for better opportunities.


Results included increased sales with no marketing budget in an industry that relies heavily on advertising dollars, entry into new distribution channels, and deployment of standardized processes that reduced customer complaints.


What excelling in a lousy job says to a hiring manager:

  • I can produce results with limited resources, no training, and minimal direction. I bring business savvy, creativity, and a fresh outlook to your organization. I can increase sales, protect profit margins, build (or rebuild) customer goodwill, and hold down costs.
  • I am a low-maintenance employee. You don't need to set, update, and enforce rules or offer special incentives to encourage me to perform well.
  • I am happy with a fair compensation package. I've worked for less money with no formal bonus structure, had fewer vacation days, received no match on my 401k, and paid a significant portion of take-home pay (more than 30%) on health care premiums.

How the lousy job helps overcome the "overqualified" objection: 

Especially in this recessionary environment, many people have been told by hiring managers that they are overqualified. This seems to be a lazy, useless explanation for a rejection, condemning someone for becoming educated, securing a position with a great organization, and having excelled professionally.


Still, there can be meaning embedded in being "overqualified." Employers, hiring managers and human resource managers are often unwilling to make an offer to a more-than-qualified candidate for many reasons. For example, the employee may:

  • Leave as soon as a better offer surfaces.
  • Be disappointed with existing support infrastructure, training programs (or lack of), benefits package, etc.
  • Spend effort on fixing the work situation rather than working with minimal resources.
  • And, consequently, lower company morale and reduce the effectiveness of current employees.

In the hiring arena, managers are often more interested in controlling risk with the right hire than seizing opportunity with a potential superstar. The candidate with a slew of accomplishments in a lousy job solves the dilemma of hiring managers who need highly qualified employees but can't offer boom-time compensation packages and employment environments. While it's true that many people are eager to take any job, even with dramatically less pay, employers may opt to hire those who have proven that they can thrive in uncertain, non-supportive workplaces.

How the lousy job can help you focus on what really matters to you: In his post "Avoiding grass-is-always-greener syndrome," Philip argued that all organizations are dysfunctional in some way and as an employee (or potential employee), it's advisable to define what dysfunctions you can accept and which ones are unacceptable. The lousy job can help bring those elements into focus. (For information on pros and cons associated with specific employers, the may be useful.)


Ideas for using the lousy job to move to the next level:

If you are unemployed or there is absolutely no way you can help your employer get better results, pursue accomplishments outside of a traditional company.

One client excelled so much at a part-time, retail sales job at the mall that he landed a job as a full-time sales representative in the health care industry.

If you have a lousy job now, find a way to improve the company, even if your boss doesn't care. For example, you might streamline a process by designing new procedures, even if the process impacts only your job.


If you are searching now, you likely know a harsh truth: Even a lousy job is difficult to get. Aim for a job you want but if you can't find the right job, be strategic about the lousy job you choose, making sure that at least some element is valuable. To get management experience, for example, one client took a part-time job managing a video store and another supervised itinerant workers on moving crews.


If you are changing fields, gain experience at a lower-level job before progressing (see a post on working while you wait).


Has a lousy job given you new opportunities or better insight into what's important in a job? Share in the comments.


Related reading at Wise Bread:



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