Great job or great organization?
May 1, 2014 10:45 AM   Subscribe

I have been working at two nonprofits for about 6 months, and they're both now offering me full time positions. One is a really fun job at what can be a very frustrating organization. The other is a ho-hum job at a great organization. I'm torn.

I've posted about this previously, but here are the current relevant details:

Job 1 is super fun. I provide direct services to people and have a lot of options to create programming which uses staff talent, including my own. I have leeway to educate myself on issues that interest me to improve my performance. I would love to do this job for the long term and it meshes with my overall career goals. Boss has assured me that I have an opportunity for advancement which will come up in the next couple of months. It is often frustrating but also very rewarding.

Job 2 is fairly okay. I am an admit support person and I occasionally help support programming as well. I do a lot of photocopying, mail carrying, and organizing of the office, which is fine but not exciting. This job allows for great work-life balance because it has a set schedule and doesn't require evening or weekend work--could also potentially give up my commute/car entirely if I worked here full time. It's rarely frustrating but I often have trouble motivating myself to do the dull parts.

Organization for Job 1 is a mess. There are often no policies in place for difficult situations. A lot of my coworkers behave in somewhat inappropriate ways because management doesn't seem inclined to redirect them. In general, it's hard to get management time when I have an issue. I had thought that tuition remission was a benefit of this position because it's in their employee handbook--today I found out that that policy has been discontinued for several years, but they haven't bothered to update the handbook. It can be very difficult to schedule meetings because everyone is so overworked. I have, however, formed good relationships with a lot of my coworkers.

Organization for Job 2 is wonderful. Everyone who works there is really nice and they are super supportive, always telling me how much I am appreciated. I always have managerial support if I have a question--but of course I rarely need it, because my job is fairly simple. Benefits are slightly better than at Job 1, including 3 weeks of paid vacation. Otherwise, salary etc. are about the same.

I keep swinging back and forth based on what my experience is each day at each job. I just don't know which to pick. And I have to pick tomorrow! Help!
posted by chaiminda to Work & Money (22 answers total)
I'd take Job 2 without hesitation. There is always room for a job to change and become more interesting. And work/life balance is unbelievably important.

There's usually no fixing a crap organization. The issues you're finding now after only 6 months are very possibly just the tip of the iceburg.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:52 AM on May 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

What are your career goals? Do you want to grow or just punch in your 8 hours?

This is what I would ask myself. People impact your day-to-day feelings but which job will give you more professional opportunities? Can the nice people at #2 advance your career?
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:53 AM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would go with the healthy organization. Working in a sick system will give you bad habits, and you will be powerless to change the dynamic. Also, jobs that are frustrating but fun when you're working part time can feel a lot more frustrating and a lot less fun when you take them on full time. But definitely be looking for new opportunities in the good organization! If they are really that good they should support your professional growth as well as your work in your current position.
posted by mskyle at 10:55 AM on May 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Five years from now, which place would you rather be? Assume that you'll be proceeding along the normal career track at each firm. Odds are you'd rather be in a five-years-better job at the good place than a five-years-better job at the crap place. Now start doing what you need to do to make five-years-from-now job even better at the good place.
posted by Etrigan at 10:57 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've had jobs from cleaning hospitals to working "big and important" jobs for international corporations, and the #1 lesson I've learned, & keep re-learning, is that the people with whom you work have the biggest impact on how happy your job is. A yucky, non-challenging job with great co-workers and a healthy organization is (in my experience) way better than a wonderful job with awful to okay co-workers and a rotting core.

#2 is the less commute I have, the happier I am. (Think about this way: a half hour commute each way - an hour a day total - is 40 hours a month...the equivalent of 1 work week a month just driving your car.) But it's not just me; there's several studies that support how commuting time affects lifestyle and happiness. (It's also more time sitting, and sitting time has big, long-term adverse affects on health.)

As someone pointed out already, the question you have to ask yourself is what do you value most, and what are you willing to give up for that value? You can easily have some impact on your simple job and its responsibilities. It's incredibly difficult to change company culture.
posted by barchan at 11:12 AM on May 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Great answers so far! Just one clarification, because I'm not sure this is clear--job 1 is primarily programming-oriented, and job 2 is primarily administrative, so these are two very different career paths.
posted by chaiminda at 11:15 AM on May 1, 2014

Do not ever take a job at an organization that has no set policies to deal with mundane issues, because they will be unable to handle any serious workplace issues. What if they change the health insurance situation without giving anyone notice, as with the tuition situation? If you can't get schedule a meeting now for work related issues with management, how available are they going to be when you have an HR issue?

Take job #2.
posted by elizardbits at 11:23 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

job 1 is primarily programming-oriented, and job 2 is primarily administrative, so these are two very different career paths.

This is an important clarification. Especially in an organization like Job 2, the wall between Operations and Programs is not that permeable. People advance within their own team but don't often cross over.

See if Job 2 would give you some assurances about your ability to switch to a program-side job if one arose (assuming you performed well). Unless the assurances feel solid, I'd decline Job 2 in the most gracious way possible, take Job 1, and then apply when a relevant program-side job arose at the healthy [job 2] organization.

Do not hunker down to stay at Job 1 for a long time. Keep your resume current and send it out when you see opportunities to transfer laterally to a better-run organization. You want to be learning from and associated with healthy organizations, both for your well-being and for your career.
posted by salvia at 11:27 AM on May 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

In an organization that is a mess, what's fun today can be a nightmare tomorrow. You might get a different manager, they may decide to outsource the work, who knows? In a disorganized, frustrating place, even work you love doing can be a chore, especially if your co-workers are folks with poor boundaries.

I would keep your programming skills current by working on all the fun projects you'll have time for in the calm, even, no commute, good work/life balance organization.

You are not committing yourself for life to the organization, you are selecting the work that works for you TODAY.

You may decide to move on after a year, for more money and a better job. And that's okay.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:47 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Job #2. I have found that - barring a job that is a really poor fit with one's temperament and skill-set - a humdrum job at a terrific organization with great co-workers and bosses is better than a job that looks good on paper, but the company culture is dysfunctional and/or your coworkers/bosses are toxic.

A long commute is soul-sucking and a drain on your time and energy. People with long commutes are unhappier and unhealthier. Having no commute at all is a huge, huge perk. Work-life balance is another huge perk.

"Terrific" jobs can sour quickly if accompanied by a toxic workplace, a long commute, or punishing hours. On the other hand, a "meh" job can be a great job if you like your co-workers, bosses, and workplace. And it's so nice to get home from work and have the time and energy to exercise, cook and socialize.

If I had the choice, I'd jump on Job #2 and see if there was room for training and advancement there.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:41 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's always another option, which is to look for another job entirely! I am getting the sense you'd rather work for the better company, but in a programming capacity. If that job is not an option at that organization, then you should look for a company that has both a good culture and the job you'd like to do. Meanwhile I'd take the company you like more. As others have said, the day to day of your tasks can always change but working for a company that cares about its employees is hard to find. Trust me!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 12:45 PM on May 1, 2014

If you're young & flexible (no kids), take job 1 but keep looking.

Office/admin work can become a pink-collar yoke. Have stuff on your resume that you want to keep doing.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:56 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't see that there's a great answer either way -- I'm somewhat inclined to say take job #1 with an exit strategy because I agree with salvia and the young rope-rider, but getting a new job is still easier said than done in this economy. If things turn awful at job #1, that's going to suck your will to deal with a job search, plus you'll have less time for that job search since you'll have a longer commute.

Also, if you're doing good programming, but at an organization that is known to be a mess generally, that complicates how your experience will be perceived by future employers. If you think that job #1 will offer you the chance to be perceived externally as a rising star in your field, it might be worth the risk that your workplace will implode into an epic mess in some fashion. But if they're both entry-level jobs where your contributions will mostly be seen and appreciated in-house, job #2 sounds less risky.
posted by EvaDestruction at 1:18 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would take Job #2, but if you are that passionate about the work of Job #1 and enthused by it, can you volunteer there or elsewhere in a similar capacity a few hours a week (or whatever you desire)? Do what you love as a hobby, it's no sweat off your back if the organization falls to pieces eventually, and you stay fresh in an alternative field you may someday like to work in again?
posted by rawralphadawg at 1:40 PM on May 1, 2014

I can understand why many people are voting for Job 2, but I would recommend taking #1 unless you want to be in admin for a long time. You don't have to stay forever, just a year or so to have the experience to show on your resume.

But, that said, definitely keep your eyes open, and make sure you have emergency savings, just in case the situation really gets to you.
posted by rpfields at 3:48 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having taken the "better job" at what turned out be a very poorly run organization with lots of problems, I can say take Job 2 and follow others' advice about making them clear on your longterm goals and using time to develop. If Org 1 is chaotic as a part-timer, imagine that doubled and what might get dropped on you as full-time. The job there might not be so exciting then.
posted by Gotanda at 4:26 PM on May 1, 2014

I'm a little queasy about Job #1 from my personal experience at work with bureaucratic issues.

For Job #2: how easy do you expect to change from an admin path to a programming path?

Hope these considerations will help you choose between the jobs!
posted by Tsukushi at 4:36 PM on May 1, 2014

I commented once but want to comment again about the risks of taking an admin job hoping it will turn into a program job. I would've been more optimistic about this (it sounds good in theory), but at my last job, I saw two people leave an admin job because their hopes to transition into work they would find more meaningful hadn't come to pass. You need to be climbing the right ladder, developing the right skills, gaining experience that's applicable -- not trying to learn by osmosis. The fact that Job #2 is well run is all the more reason to think you won't do much program work (unless you are officially, say, half-time admin, half-time program). Unless they'll give you a formal commitment on this, I wouldn't do it.

It's true that you don't want to be affiliated with Job #1 forever, lest its bad reputation rub off on you. But the flip side of that coin is that people are not surprised to see staff leaving those organizations after a relatively short time. There are certain organizations in my field from which you regularly see refugees (for lack of a less dramatic word). "Oh yes, another person who used that job to get their foot in the door but who has too much talent and self respect to stay long." Will you have an opportunity to build up relationships outside of the organization via partnerships with other groups, monthly professional development gatherings of the "XYZers of Chicago," etc.?
posted by salvia at 6:09 PM on May 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

if the jobs were in the same field, I'd say #2 without hesitation. But it's the exception, rather than the rule, for an admin to get the right experience and exposure to be able to advance into different types of work. Unless company #2 can show you examples of people who've started in admin and got into different roles - i.e. show you the actual career path and that they really are set up to promote people out of admin -- then I wouldn't take it. Take #1, learn what you can for a year, and then use those skills to get a (still junior, but non-admin) role in a better company.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:23 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

In a similar situation, I left "Job 2" for "Job 1" and it was HANDS DOWN the best career decision I've ever made. While there are millions of bad things about working for poorly run organizations, some of the good things (like you pointed out), like being able to have way more responsibility or flexibility than you would have in a more well-run organization can do wonders for you at the early stage of your career if you take advantage of the unique opportunities present in the chaos.

I stayed at my version of "Job 1" for three years, and while I was there, I volunteered to lead or develop the stuff that no one else wanted or had time to do and got a TON of experience. Now I have a job at a super stable, respectable organization, but it's at a much higher level. It would have taken me 10+ years to "work my way up" in a stable organization.

So I'd go for "Job 1". Don't stay forever, but use it to make yourself the best possible candidate for "Job 3" in a year or two.
posted by mjcon at 6:33 PM on May 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I disagree that co-workers and a great company can make up for a dull job. I've done both and strongly prefer the job responsibilities I actually want in an imperfect organization.

But I'm career oriented and willing to move to a different company for a better job. For someone who just goes to work to make a living and has other priorities Job #2 wins. For someone who is more interested in skills and resume development Job #1 wins. You just need to decide which kind of person you are.

An optimistic way to view a disorganized company is as an opportunity. You can be the person who is competent and helpful and improves your area of responsibility. If there is lots of turnover that may give you career advancement sooner than you would have at a company where people are content and don't move on. Just another way to view a situation that does not appear ideal.

Also, no organization is perfect and even the best run companies have their issues, so I wouldn't assume Job#2 would be ideal either, particularly if you don't want an admin career.
posted by rainydayfilms at 5:21 AM on May 2, 2014

After seeing your update I think both jobs are not a great idea. You should take one of them, because it's good to have a full-time job with benefits, but you should keep looking!

One question I would ask about the coding job is, are they using good coding practices? Are they at least testing, if not doing TDD? Are they using version control appropriately and stuff like that? If the organizational clash is sort of "above your paygrade" it may be worth it to spend a year or two there. But if they're writing shitty untested code, believe me, people in the community know about it, and they will assume you're learning bad habits at this place, and it may not help your career as much as you would like. On the other hand, at least you'd be coding. But you could also spend that extra hour (from commuting) and that extra brain space (from an easier, less stressful job) to work up an awesome sidehack project or get involved with an important open-source project (if you're a sidehack-y kind of person).
posted by mskyle at 6:24 AM on May 2, 2014

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