When to Take That Career Step Backward

When you first started your career, you likely envisioned your trajectory as a steady climb up a steep but manageable mountain. But now that you are at least a few years in, you have realized your career has peaks and valleys—and you might even find yourself at a crossroads where it makes sense to take a metaphorical step backward. Stepping back in your career—whether in terms of salary or title—can be scary, but sometimes it makes sense. Here are seven times when you might want to say "yes" to a career step backward.

When to take a step back1. When you have flexibility

The new job offer comes in, and it checks every box except salary. Don't consider this an automatic "no" until you have had a chance to examine your financial situation. Do you have the flexibility you need to swing the pay cut? If you have several dependents and are living paycheck to paycheck, maybe not—but if you are single and can cut your expenses, perhaps. Consider it an investment in your career.

2. When you are in a toxic environment

You think you have read every workplace article on the internet. You've consulted with trusted advisers. And still, you're miserable at work because of a narcissistic boss/unreasonable workload/impossible lack of resources. When you've exhausted the possible solutions, it's OK to admit a workplace is toxic and get out to save your mental health, even if it means taking a pay or prestige cut. (These tips for explaining a toxic work environment in a job interview may be useful.)

3. When it could pay off in the long run

Your current job has been a great experience—but you've plateaued. Perhaps you've hit the top of your position's salary range. Maybe you've looked around and realized your boss and your boss’s boss aren't likely to go anywhere, so there's no room for career advancement. If you're not comfortable with the status quo, a career step backward in the short term could position you for the growth you need in the long run.

4. When you're changing industries

You've built a career in human resources, but your volunteer work at the animal shelter is so fulfilling you find yourself wanting to be a veterinary technician. Congratulations to you on figuring out your heart's desire—but you need to go in with eyes wide open. Your new industry will likely have an entirely different value in the marketplace, and you'll be entering the field with little to no experience. Neither of these are reasons you shouldn't follow your heart. Again, consider the loss of salary an investment in your career and your happiness.

5. When work-life balance is out of whack

Another 60-hour workweek, another soccer game missed, and another fight with your partner. If this sounds familiar, your work-life balance may be askew, and it may be time to look for a new situation. Sometimes doing what's right for your mental health and your family will come with a pay cut, less responsibility, or less long-term potential for growth. In this case, you need to evaluate your priorities and determine what matters most to you.

6. When you're starting your own business

On a bad day, we've all fantasized about being our own boss. Some of us have the entrepreneurial gumption to make it happen. It's not an easy road, though, and starting your own business often comes with a pay cut. You may need to invest in equipment, marketing, and office space, and you may need to hire employees.

7. When it's a shot at your dream job

You might say, "Is it really my dream job if it comes with a pay cut?" Well, Grasshopper, it might be. Like anything else in life, careers take twists and turns, and the biggest payoffs only come with some risk. Only you can know when it's time to leave your job or stay put, but don't let a pay cut or a change in title keep you from chasing your dreams.

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