Take a voluntary demotion to boost your career

A step down the corporate ladder could be the best step up for your long-term career goals and quality of life.
Caroline Tapken, who lives in Dubai, demoted herself from an executive position for a luxury hotel chain.
Caroline Tapken, who lives in Dubai, demoted herself from an executive position for a luxury hotel chain.

When Colin Dodd moved to the UAE in 2005, he was looking for faster career progression and the opportunity to work overseas for the first time.

Back home in the UK, the senior quantity surveyor worked on construction projects worth £50 million (Dh330m), but in the Emirates Mr Dodd had the chance to work on developments far in excess of that value. And he hoped the exposure to such large-scale projects would help him land his dream position of commercial manager - a role that would have taken him more than 10 years to achieve in the UK.

Then, just three years after arriving here, he was offered a job as commercial manager for a contractor with projects across the UAE. For Mr Dodd, 36, the position not only meant several career leaps but also a salary increase of Dh20,000 a month - plus a company car and flights home.

"It was very exciting because I'd reached where I wanted to go and was being offered the job well before I ever expected to," says Mr Dodd, who lives in Dubai with his wife, Louise, 34, a grants coordinator, and their two sons, who are five and eight months. "Beyond that the next step up was regional director and when I have had senior level interviews since then, the interviewers have said 'we would've expected someone in that role to have a few more grey hairs'."

However within a year, Colin had quit his new role and taken on another job - not because he had a more senior position to go to but because he actually wanted to take a step down.

"I started working for them just as the industry imploded on itself, and like everybody else, they lost a few major contracts," he says. "It was supposed to be a five-day working week but you could see the pressure to be there on weekends and with the commute to Abu Dhabi from Dubai, I found myself doing 12-hour days because I was needed on site a lot more."

Mr Dodd says the crunch came when he felt he could no longer ignore the company's accounts - something he had access to because of his senior role - and became concerned not only for the company but his own position.

"I wanted to stay in the Middle East and decided that job security was a better way to survive a recession as opposed to being well paid and sitting as commercial manager for one of the contractors."

Mr Dodd secured a job as a quantity surveyor for a government developer, a position that came with a pay cut of Dh18,000. "Even though it was a step down, I had the chance to work on a very unique project. But the drop in salary was significant, and while I hadn't been blowing the extra money I'd been earning, we'd been ploughing it into our savings," says Mr Dodd, who owns a three-bedroom house in the Springs development in Dubai and a two-bedroom maisonette in the UK.

"Financially we sat down, redid the budget and worked out what we could and could not do. The impact was more what we could no longer invest in as opposed to changing anything we were doing. We weren't living the Dubai lifestyle so it was more a case of 'if we want to save up for this, it's going to take a bit longer now'."

Amanda Cowie, the founder and managing director of Apple Search & Selection, an executive recruitment company, says despite the recession she is seeing an increase in the number of people putting lifestyle over career at the top of their priority list and making the decision to demote themselves.

"More people are making career decisions based on individual choice and there is more opportunity for them to do that now," she says. "And taking a step down is not necessarily a bad career move.

"Obviously you will have to accept taking a demotion comes with a reduced salary, however in the long-run you will be less stressed, happier in your job and following the career path you want so the decision can pay off."

This was the choice made by Mohammed, a teacher in Dubai who does not want to reveal his full name. Mohammed moved to the UAE from the UK with his young family in 2004 for a better salary and hoped to progress up the career ladder to improve his prospects even more.

"I'd been a teacher for five years when I came out so I was in the middle of the teacher pay scale and the only way to increase my income was to take a step up, " says Mohammed, who accepted a head of department position a year after arriving, adding Dh3,000 to his Dh13,000 salary. The position also came with housing, medical cover and school places for his two daughters, aged seven and five.

"At first I was thrilled with the added income, but I had to work an extra four hours a day to stay on top of the workload which over the course of a month broke down to Dh37.50 an hour - barely more than the minimum wage in some countries.

"Working nearly 12 hours a day and never seeing my family simply didn't seem worth it, so after two years I went back to just being a teacher. I suppose I've swapped money for time and my family are all happier as a result."

Mohammed is a perfect example of someone who has picked lifestyle over career, but the decision to take a demotion is not always voluntary, Ms Cowie says, particularly since the credit crisis where many senior level employees were made redundant.

"We place quite a few candidates that have taken a reduced salary and a step down in their career in order to secure a job following the recession. I'm placing a finance manager at the moment who was on Dh60,000 and is now looking at salaries of Dh35,000 to Dh40,000.

"If you've got someone at CEO level who can afford to wait for the right job to come along that's fine, but the majority of people can't. Living in Dubai is very expensive and people have got families to support and need to keep working and while there are still some senior level jobs with high salaries out there, they are few and far between."

This was the scenario faced by Mr Dodd, who after making a voluntary decision to demote himself to achieve a better work-life balance was then made redundant by his new employer after only seven months, in October 2009, forcing him to quickly secure another job with a consultant.

"This time the step down was far clearer," says Mr Dodd. "The title was the same but before I went to work for a developer, so it was more of a sideways move, whereas this was a consultant so I was back in the position I'd left to go to the commercial manager's job in the first place."

While Mr Dodd says he would like to go back up the career ladder again, his priority now is to stay in one position for a period of at least two years.

"The issue with making so many moves in such a short space of time is my CV looks as though I lack commitment," says Mr Dodd. "Yes I would like to go back up the ladder again, but I think I'd be more worldly wise the second time around. I don't think I was necessarily ready to make that jump when I did. And I know that to go into that kind of role it's going to be hard work."

Career expert Ms Cowie agrees, saying it is certainly possible to rise back up the ladder after taking a demotion due to the growing opportunities in the region, but people need to be realistic about what they want.

"The UAE has always been a fast-paced work hard place and if you are not willing to put the hours in there is always the threat that someone younger or with more energy will be happy to step into your place."

One person who has seen her career go full circle is business owner Caroline Tapken, who is based in Dubai. Mrs Tapken, who set up the PR consultancy CTT Consulting in 2009, made the decision to quit a high-flying role as director of PR and communications for a luxury hotel chain in Bangkok in 1995.

"It was a prestigious role and at the time there weren't many women at that level," says Mrs Tapken, 50, who moved to the UAE with her husband, Thomas, 53, a hotelier, and their daughter, Tatiana, 15, and son Timothy, 13, in 2001.

"But I was pregnant with Tatiana and was commuting two hours each way from Pattaya where my husband was working as a hotel general manager. To do that with a baby would have been very difficult so I resigned when I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant. It's always a shame that you have to make those decisions because I enjoyed the job but for me you don't have children and then leave them for 12 hours a day and not have any part in that," says Tapken.

Within two months of the birth, however, she was back working - teaching English to the Thai staff in her hotel - a job switch that meant a drop in salary from 90,000 baht (Dh10,824) to a mere fraction of that.

"At the time it didn't affect us too much as a couple because we lived in the hotel so our outgoings weren't that high. But it wasn't about the money; I'd worked so much, so hard, so long and always been active and to go to just changing nappies was not enough- I needed something stimulating."

When the couple relocated to Bangkok she continued to teach English before taking a part-time position as an English editor for PricewaterhouseCoopers. Then after moving to Doha and then Dubai in 2001 she took on a series of part-time jobs in recruitment, advertising and PR.

"Being an expat you have to be adaptable," adds Mrs Tapken, who made the biggest leap in her career since her step down when she set up her company two years ago.

"My children were older and had different needs and though I sometimes end up working seven days a week, because it's my own company it's still flexible," she says. "Business is good and career-wise I'm back to where I left off in 1995, which feels good.

"Taking that step down didn't damage my life but if I'd wanted to be an executive in the hospitality industry holding a high-powered position in a national chain, then yes it did damage my career. If I'd stayed on the same career path I might have a slightly higher title by now but I think I've had a more interesting career path. I'm now running my own PR consultancy and I still have a husband and a family. It could be a lot worse."


Published: June 3, 2011 04:00 AM


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