Beware the Golden Handcuffs

June 10, 2015


Here’s an interesting story that speaks to the way that the world of work has changed, and an interesting conundrum:

One of our top recruiters was recently speaking with a longtime candidate—let’s call him Tom. She’s cultivated a long-term recruiting relationship with Tom over the past 10 years, knowing that he’s a star performer in Supply Chain – a stellar, high-potential individual who’s always been on our radar. His background is that he works for an extremely well-known large, multinational organization that also recognizes his high potential and has been moving him up in the company with a higher salary and more progressive, senior roles over the past 10 years.

Tom is obviously thrilled that he’s had such great upward trajectory, but there’s an underlying issue that he expressed concern about, one that comes up surprisingly often in our recruitment practice: he’s reaching a point with this company where he’s going to look like a “lifer.”

In our parents’ generation, it was extremely common for an individual to graduate university or High School and work for one company for their entire career. It was a sign of stability and loyalty. But typical career trajectories have changed, and now high-performing candidates are expressing more and more concern about the perceptual costs of spending too long at one company. What a turnaround.

The fact is, a candidate who has spent their entire career at one company suffers a few disadvantages when they start looking around: One, there’s a perceptual cost that companies will more and more see them as a “lifer,” someone who’s risk averse, who hasn’t had a diversity of experience in terms of industry and different organizational cultures. And two, there’s the very real financial issue. If you’re a truly great performer, a company will make sure you’re well compensated – even over-compensated based on market rates – to keep you around. This makes it really difficult to switch companies, because taking an equivalent position in a different company might result in a pay cut. And it’s hard to wrap your head around that type of move being good for your career, even if it is. The company has done their job in terms of keeping Tom around and retaining him as an employee. But from his perspective, it’s your classic “Golden Handcuffs” scenario.

 This individual has looked outside this organization for other roles, but more and more, it’s becoming harder for him to make a move. Because as much as he’s enjoying the job, the company and the fruits of his labour, he’s facing a real dilemma: Do I stay or do I go?

These days, what’s truly best for your career is to have three or four high-impact, progressive roles at three or four different organizations. The longer you stay at one company past the ten year mark, the harder it is to leave. And the sad fact is, a company wouldn’t think twice about restructuring you out of a job later on if economic conditions dictate, when you’re no longer that high-potential mid-level candidate. The most recent recession was full of stories of individuals who hadn’t switched jobs in decades facing restructuring and finding it hard to get back into the job market. For people who get restructured out of a job later in their career, what has their loyalty really earned (other than the high compensation at the time)?

Despite these factors, what makes this a true conundrum is that Tom truly does enjoy his job. He feels valued. He feels like he’s driving strategy and making a difference. But how valuable would it be to have different experiences in different environments? How valuable would it be to have experience in a smaller, more entrepreneurial workplace where he could make an even bigger difference? Or to work in a variety of industries and open himself up to the possibility of doing consulting later in his career?

It’s a really tough call.

It’s easy to hear this and think, “I should be so lucky to have this kind of conundrum.” But the Golden Handcuffs can be a real issue for many high-performing individuals. There’s a notion that upward career trajectory is measurable only in terms of salary and title, and that’s not always the case. It’s possible to avoid the possibility of growth that comes with the possibility of failure, in a role that’s very well compensated but below your true potential.

So here’s our question for you: What would you do?



  1. Robert Alt

    Great article, but what about those fur lined, diamond studded, golden handcuffs called long term incentives? Taking a pay cut to make a move is one thing, but how do you walk away from an incentive that wouldn’t be paid out for one and two years and each could be worth as much as your salary, or maybe even more?


    • Argentus

      Great points, Robert!

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