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Should I Quit My Job Even Though My Salary Is Too High?

Less than a year ago, I switched from a job at a nonprofit whose mission I was deeply passionate about to a more senior role at a nonprofit in a different sector. I was very underpaid previously and nearly doubled my salary in this new role. Because this role is outside my field of expertise, however, my job satisfaction is not nearly as high as it was in my previous job.

What worries me is that my salary is about 20 to 30 percent higher than comparable jobs at similar organizations. Though my employers hired me for my years of experience, it’s now clear to me that the job doesn’t actually require my level of experience. This nonprofit could easily pay a significantly less experienced person significantly less money to do exactly what I do.

This leads me to the part I am culpable in: I do not need to work 40 hours a week to do my job well, and I don’t. I meet every deadline, attend every meeting, reach every goal, but I also take long breaks and sign off early. In previous jobs, my passion for the field made me take on extra tasks and work extra hours. But because I don’t feel the same about this job, I do not go above and beyond.

Am I doing wrong by using up extra resources at a job where I am not willing to go above and beyond? Should I tell them they created an incorrectly scaled position? I have been applying to other jobs, but it’s a competitive field; it may take some time to start something new, and I can’t afford not to have an income. — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

It’s a decent impulse to think about whether you’re providing your employers with the best value for their money. But let’s put the issues you raise in perspective.

First, your job apparently makes a meaningful contribution to the work of a worthwhile organization. You’re not marketing Marlboros; your organization has a mission that, though it isn’t close to your heart, represents a social good.

Second, you’re doing your job well. It doesn’t take you 40 hours a week to do so, but that must be true of lots of people. Nor do you seem to be misrepresenting how you spend your time to management.

Third, salaries for occupations are distributed around an average, and it’s customary for those with more experience to be paid more. If we replaced people simply because their salaries were higher than the average, those annual raises that organizations routinely disperse would automatically result in the dismissal of longtime employees. (In which case employees would respond in kind, jumping ship whenever a more lucrative offer came along.) Because of the way we pay people, a fair income is a fair income over time; the right comparison is not simply with people in your job but with people at your career stage. And of course, at nonprofit institutions as elsewhere, salary schedules are designed to attract and retain people with the relevant skills.

The real problem is that you’re not as excited by this job as you were by your previous one. So a big question is whether you could reconfigure your work to make it more rewarding — both to you and to the organization. You think your employers would be better off hiring someone else to do what you’re doing for less money. That’s true only if you take the job’s remit as fixed. One way to contribute to an organization is to shape your job around your talents. Good managers know this.

The previous column’s question was from a reader who, as a teenager, had a summer fling with a woman who went onto become a famous singer. This happened before his marriage, and for decades he has never told his wife about it. He wrote: “I am in the habit of playing this artist’s music, in part because of the personal connection and memories it evokes. Not long ago, my wife remarked that I am a ‘big fan.’ I smiled, nodded and changed the subject. My fear is that sharing this connection with my wife would jeopardize my continued enjoyment of this artist’s body of work. No jealousy, I’m sure, just gentle ribbing I could do without. An ethical omission?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “So for decades of married life, you never mentioned your summer with — well, readers can fill in their fave from the category of famous female pop singers who emerged in the mid-1980s. This is surprising. And yet the liaison doesn’t have the kind of inherent significance that would make its disclosure obligatory. Every couple develop a cultural microclimate — their own set of expectations, conventions, values. Whether your failure to mention this relationship is ethically troubling depends on the norms of your microclimate.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

Acknowledging the “microclimate” of individual relationships is spot on. I, too, was involved with someone who later attained high visibility. Because of my field, I could simply share with my spouse: “I worked with her years ago. We actually dated for a summer. A good person!” For us, it’s never been an issue. What came before we met is considered just that. Steve

There is little to be gained by revealing this long-ago affair, and much to be lost. Though the writer is sure that his wife will be amused and not upset, he can’t know that for certain. By revealing the affair decades after the fact, he risks upsetting her greatly. And to what purpose? Stan

Both the Ethicist and the letter writer seem to have overlooked one possible outcome. Maybe the wife would not be jealous or tease him, but she might feel that for the past three decades, her husband has been thinking about another woman every time he plays this artist’s music, even when he does so in her presence. Don’t you think that could be very hurtful? Raili

Does anybody else know about your fling? If I were your wife, my first reaction would be: How in the world has this never come up before? Tell her if you are indeed confident that she will be amused, but make sure you have a point of view on whether she can share the story with anyone else in your circle. Margaret

In a moment of open communication, the letter writer should tell his wife that for years he never revealed to her that as a teenager he had a fling with someone now famous. Make it a guessing game for as long as it takes (a few days?), and when the singer is revealed, hopefully the wife will go: “Aha! That’s why you played so much of her music!” Bob

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