Why a Lousy Job Can Lead to a Bright Future

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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 successes, I believe, were 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, their 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" ala 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 401(k), and paid a significant portion of take-home pay (more than 30%) on healthcare premiums.

How the lousy job helps overcome the "overqualified" objection

Especially in this recessionary environment, many people have been told that they are overqualified by hiring managers. This term 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 alike, 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 rather 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 desirable elements into focus. For information on pros and cons associated with specific employers, the Glassdoor.com 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 that you can help your employer get better results, then pursue accomplishments outside of a traditional company. Align yourself with a non-profit organization, where you might oversee a special event or increase volunteer participation in service activities (see ideas for translating volunteer experiences to workplace credentials). Or, launch a new business, start a summer camp, and take on part-time work. 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 healthcare 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 only impacts your job.

If you are searching now, you likely know a harsh truth: even a lousy job is difficult to get. Aim for job you want but if you can't find the right job, be strategic about the lousy job you choose, making sure that 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 post on Working While You Wait).

When you've gotten experience and accomplishments with a lousy job, move on before the company closes.

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

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Guest's picture

Let's start with the definition of a lousy job.

Sometimes, it's not at all about the job, but about the "management" and the company's approach to doing business. And what you can or cannot do, regardless of one's title, job descripton or alleged responsibilities.

You cannot do a good job in a company where you work for people who 1/Do not know about the business, but think they do and/or 2/do not let people who DO know about the business do their jobs.

I and several other well-qualified people held lousy jobs for over two years with the mistaken belief that yes, we could still help the company and build its brand, despite the management team.

Did not work out that way. Was a total waste of our time, energy and abilities. To say the least. Not to mention demoralizing and worse due to the backstabbing and rumours spread about those who tried to do a good job despite the management.

Some people left within months (the smart ones), others like myself really thought we could make a difference and "educate" the out-of-the-country managers who were clueless about the market.

In retrospect, I should have left, even without another job.

The best advice if you're in a lousy job? Get out ASAP. It won't get better.

And you may not be able to accomplish anything or even if you do, someone else will take credit!

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for the comment -- "demoralizing management" is one of my core definitions. The cool thing about crafting your own resume, as opposed to a company performance review for example, is that you can take credit for accomplishments. In some cases, sadly, the accomplishments are never recognized; one client told me that he had improved results by 10% but that was the company goal so it wasn't really an accomplishment; however, it was an accomplishment and the company who recruited him thought so too.

Guest's picture

I'm a member of Generation Y. I've worked many, low-paid, lousy jobs in my life. Florida isn't necessarily known for it's stellar employment opportunities. If you want a good job, a nice house, or any self respect, you either have to live with one or more people or you have to move out of state, where there are more opportunities.

Anyways, I started freelancing out of necessity. I'm a slow learner with minimal social skills so I kept getting fired. When I didn't get fired, I quit because the jobs were lousy. Finally I said "screw this" and starting doing something I knew I wouldn't get fired at: freelancing.

After taking several assessments, evaluating my skillset and personality, and talking with my support group I have come to realize that an hourly job just isn't for me. I'm not making as much as I'd like to be, but I am sure that will change once I become more established in my field. I think I am doing very well though and encourage anyone who struggles with traditional jobs to take up freelancing.

Guest's picture

I am in a situation where its a double whammy of a lousy job: blatant overt favoritism mixed with nepotism and owners who take a blind eye to everything because the "favorites" are all somehow connected to the management, i.e. friends, family, friends of family and hand-picked previous employees from the management's previous place of employment.
Myself and quite a few people who have been with the company 10 years plus are being "thrown aside" to "accommodate" all these new employees aka favorites. We train them and in a few weeks or months, they become our direct supervisor or are promoted to a better position MEANWHILE these new positions were never offered to the staff or posted...it was handed to them by management in a sliver platter. What is worse all these people connected are a bunch of slackers who know they will never be fired due to their connection with management and those, not related, are working harder than ever with more "hired help" to basically due these slacker's work.
Its demoralizing, degrading and frustrating and it makes it worse when you know you will be going nowhere under this new "management regime." So I am polishing my resume and taking all my skills and experience elsewhere even under this bad economy - working with anger, resentment and frustration is simply not worth it.

Julie Rains's picture

Training may now be a strength plus knowing how all the parts of a company work together rather than having one particular departmental expertise  -- and the scenario sounds familiar: the friend who has no relevant experience is favored (and listened to more) than the outsider with years of industry experience and accomplishments. The corporate culture starts to look less insane.

Guest's picture

Love the blog! People are more than just a face with a name, but humans with real emotion, dreams and desires. Whether employer or employee, we will all be better off when we remember that.

Guest's picture

• There's a movement to radically change California government, by getting rid of career politicians and chopping their salaries in half. A group known as Citizens for California Reform wants to make the California legislature a part time time job, just like it was until 1966.


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Guest's picture

The last job I had was lousy, controlling, and kind of discriminatory. I had to leave for my personal safety.