Back at work, but facing a 25 percent pay cut

Karla: It’s understandable that you would feel thankful to have a job when so many others are still unemployed. But remember that even a generous employer’s choice to bring you back onboard involves a business calculation. Paying out 75 percent of a salary in exchange for 125 percent of a job is a pretty sweet deal — for the employer.

Still, your humility is heartwarming, and it will serve you well as you diplomatically press your bosses for information on when they hope to restore balance to this equation. They probably can’t guarantee a date, but they should be willing to identify benchmarks — revenue or profit levels, for example — that would indicate the company is able to return to pre-pandemic payroll levels. At the very least, they should recognize the need for compensatory down time to keep from burning you out. If they refuse to commit to righting this imbalance, you may not be able to walk away now, but you can mentally point your toes toward the door in preparation for any opportunities that pop up. That’s not ingratitude; it’s business sense.

Reader 2: Shortly before I started as the number-two member on a new team, the number-one person unexpectedly left. Now our new CEO is reorganizing things, dimming prospects that we’ll ever be able to replace the team lead.

I’m eager to prove my mettle as an interim team leader. But one of my two bosses has told me to avoid “active participation” in meetings, I assume because it jeopardizes her case for hiring a new leader and having a full team again. Meanwhile, my other boss seems convinced that present circumstances leave no alternative but for me to perform the leader’s duties, and advises that I do so quietly. They are in discussions to resolve the matter, but a stalemate seems inevitable. Your advice?

Karla: If your new CEO is looking to streamline, my first suggestion would be to take a hard look at the apparent redundancy in your middle-management structure. But the CEO’s not asking my advice.

Agreeing to take on more work for no credit, authority or increased pay is a sucker’s bet. And taking on more duties in secret at one boss’s urging means undermining the other boss’s goals. Whoever wins, the person in the middle (which of course is you in this case) is guaranteed to lose.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t take some initiative; you just have to be transparent about it. Take note of what specific tasks need doing and why, and ask both your bosses if they want you to tackle them. Focus on specific tasks — not “Do you want me to take charge of the XYZ Project?” but “Do you want me to ask the XYZ Project team for a status report on their tasks this week so you can see if we’re on schedule?”

That shows you have a leader’s ability to see what needs attention, but you’re not overstepping or undermining. If you end up doing the work, those small tasks can add up to leadership skills for your résumé. If you’re told to hold off and the project fails, your integrity remains intact.

Pro tip: If you can’t get your higher-ups to write down what you’ve agreed to, send them a follow-up email summarizing your understanding of the terms, and keep a copy to refer to later.