A Move Down the Job Ladder Might Give You a Leg Up

Whether you’ve taken a less-senior position or started serving coffee to pay the bills, you can create the impression of career progress.


We like to consider our careers a progression. And a progression only knows one direction.

What happens when you have to make a career move that feels like a step sideways, backward or down? Will your next employer recognize the change in direction? Will progress, once stopped, cease to restart?

If the stories of hundreds of job seekers and career experts are to be believed, such a move might feel like retreat, but it’s all part of a modern career path that involves sidings and tangents but ultimately represents progress. Taking a less-senior position won’t necessarily derail your career, as long as you are smart about how you present the experience — and the reasons for it — to prospective employers.

“The key is to make ‘lesser positions’ sound interesting and worthwhile to future employers,” said Nacie Carson, a career-development specialist who focuses on career transition. Regardless of the job, you can create the impression of progress, she said. “Unemployed individuals can spend their time doing absolutely anything as long as they can explain to someone else how it gave them new skills and justify how the experience helped them grow,” she said. “Employers at all levels want to see people using their time well, not just waiting for the next best thing.”

People who are actively engaged in the workforce — even in a position that may not be their first choice — will usually be more appealing to employers, especially when interviewing for the kind of job that will right the career ship, said Dianne Durkin, founder and president of the Loyalty Factor, a consulting and training firm.

“Learning opportunities are everywhere, and it is important to continue to move forward even when you are looking for the perfect career move,” Durkin said. “While working even in less senior positions, your brain maintains growth and focus, both of which are important in growing your career. You may learn skills that you would not have the opportunity to learn in your desired position. There are always learning opportunities in every environment.”

Bud Whitehouse agreed, saying it’s a matter of marketing. “When you come down to it, what you’re marketing in the job search is not your last job; it’s the package of skills that you bring to solve somebody’s problem, said Whitehouse, the director of Career Management of Virginia and a career coach for nearly 20 years. “Interviewing is an art, and what it really comes down to is your mindset.”

Debra Yergen, author of the “Creating Job Security Resource Guide,” said taking a step down can work to your advantage if you use the trends you observe to give you a fresh take on a company, an industry, or how employees are thinking and behaving today. “In an interview, it’s important to let a future employer know that while you may have taken the position to keep the lights on, it was invaluable to your career because of what you learned,” Yergen said. “Share something you observed and how it changed your thinking and ultimately made you a better senior-level manager. Relate your newfound understanding in a way that can benefit a future employer, especially if your ‘step backward’ gives you a significant leap forward in better connecting with future staff.”

Serving coffee in the morning, interviewing in the afternoon

There may be value in taking a less-senior position; that doesn’t mean it will be easy to get one, especially in the same industry in which you have been working. Many hiring managers are leery of hiring an overqualified candidate, for fear the person will leave at the first opportunity.

Kimberly Bishop, an executive recruiter and career-management expert, said it’s very important to be proactive at all points in the job search: On your resume, address why you are seeking a less-senior position, and during the interview, create a positive message about your experiences. If you don’t address the elephant in the room up front, Bishop said, people will form their own — potentially negative — assumptions.

With that said, Bishop acknowledged that shifts in industry and the current economy have changed perceptions about resume gaps and frequent job changes.

This is something that Cynthia E. Kazalia, placement specialist at New Directions Career Center, has seen many times. “This shift, undoubtedly prompted by this challenging economy, has softened long-held, fiercely guarded tenets,” she said. “Recruiters and human-resource professionals seem to understand the basic need to survive and applaud efforts to do so. I think this is, perhaps, because few families have emerged unscathed by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. It has served as a great equalizer between rich and poor, young and old. Quality candidates now serve morning coffee at Starbucks, then transform themselves for an afternoon interview within their field of expertise.”

Kazalia said she believes employers will ultimately benefit from these detours taken by senior management. “While the job seekers may shed their survival jobs as employment opportunities in corporate America expand, it will be virtually impossible to let go of the life lessons learned on the road less travelled. These individuals will return to their more familiar roles with a deeper understanding of life and a better awareness of their fellow human beings.”