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Is Good Culture Worth a Bad Salary?

Topics: Work Culture

It’s a debate about as old as the proliferation of “culture” in office life: is it worth taking a pay cut to work for a “cool” employer, or even just an employer that lets you be cool on your own time? This question is asked all over the internet, and is something Forbes’ Liz Ryan addressed last week in one of her columns. Ryan writes, “You get to decide where to spend your time and energy.” But where’s the best place to do that – the company that pays more, or the company that seems fun and/or allows you to have a life outside of work?


(Photo Credit: Eric Bailey/Pexels)

We don’t always have the luxury of these choices, and critics may be quick to say that in the face of multiple job offers, the debate about happiness over pay is a “first-world problem.” Even so, most of us would like to have both: enough money to live on and a chance to use that money to enjoy our lives. To have the best shot at doing that, we need to ask ourselves what’s important – before decisions like these come up.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

Doesn’t Money Buy Happiness?

First of all, on a practical level, finding a job that pays a livable salary is important. But once you’ve cleared that ground, how significant is your salary in the overall value of your job? Will it make your life inherently better to have a higher paying job?

From a cost of living perspective, you may want to consider how your salary enables you to live the live you want. But from a more intangible perspective, you may be surprised to find that higher salary won’t necessarily mean increased happiness.

According to one study, an increase in salary does contribute to general happiness, but it plateaus at about $75,000. Meaning, after a certain point, once you have enough to provide for yourself, you shouldn’t put too much stock in a high-paying job to fulfill you (by salary alone).

“Culture” Isn’t Always What It’s Cracked Up to Be

On the other end of the spectrum, you shouldn’t believe that every office offering “good culture” can live up to its claim. A recent story from The New York Times goes to show that the jargon-heavy culture of startups can sometimes — ultimately — be kind of a sham.

In his account of working at HubSpot, Dan Lyons says that getting fired at the company was described as graduating. Sometimes, the boss would even throw a recently terminated employee a party.

“It was surreal, and cruel, but everyone at HubSpot acted as if this were perfectly normal,” he said. “We were told we were ‘rock stars’ who were ‘inspiring people’ and ‘changing the world,’ but in truth we were disposable.”

The moral of the story: do your research, and don’t always believe the hype.

Be Practical. Love What You Do.

Ultimately, this is all a big gray area. There will never be a straight, blanket answer for this problem. But above all, it’s wise to find a job that can both provide for you, and provide you with work that you find truly fulfilling. Finding that balance, it would seem, is a gold mine unto itself.

Tell Us What You Think

Are kids these days too caught up in the entitlement culture myth of happiness at work? Should everyone just be grateful for whatever job they have? Share your strong opinions in the comments below or join the conversation on Twitter!

Peter Swanson
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