What exactly are golden handcuffs? The phrase was coined in the 1970’s to identify deferred benefits (bonuses, options, etc.) that companies offered highly paid and valuable employees to keep them from leaving their companies. Golden handcuffs are a subject my clients and I talk about a lot in coaching.
When I refer to golden handcuffs, I’m talking about anything at work that feels so important to us that we are willing to stay in a job that we don’t like. Maybe we stay for years; maybe we stay for decades. I’ve worked with people who have done both. I totally get how it happens; I am dedicated to helping people find their way out.
The “benefits” that create golden handcuffs are seductive and varied. Recognize any of these? Flex time, the ability to work at home or at the office, is valuable if you have a tough commute or kids who do stuff. Guaranteed pensions that provide an income for life based on our contributions and length of time worked in certain fields (like teaching and public service), typically vesting after we’ve worked 10, 20, or 30 years provide security as we age.
There’s also medical insurance. I call it golden handcuffs because it’s the number one reason my clients say they can’t leave their jobs. Of course, the need for medical insurance is real. Our families need the safety of insurance. We need insurance. What many people don’t realize is there are other ways to get medical insurance benefits besides signing up with traditional insurance companies.
Then there’s security. We know what to expect at work. Maybe we’re one of the lucky ones that has a “work” spouse – that person who’s always in our corner, cheering us on and sympathizing with us no matter what. We know the pecking order, the way things are done. So what if they’re not paying us what we’re worth? We’re being paid adequately (seriously? What about being paid well!!). We feel valued because of our relationship with our co-workers. Why would we even consider risking all of that for something new?
Golden Handcuffs to Golden Noose
We should risk exploring new avenues because we’re worth it. We deserve jobs where we thrive – where we grow both our skills and our income. Here’s the scary thing. Those golden handcuffs have a way of turning into a golden noose that chokes out our ability to pursue professional growth in both our skills and our income. The progression from handcuffs to noose is so slow and pernicious that we don’t even realize the life is being choked out of our careers. We’re stuck and it’s too scary and overwhelming to contemplate doing anything else.
But wait. Does it really have to be terrifying to contemplate finding another job or career? What if, instead of assuming that we know what we want to do next and looking for the same job at a different company, we pretend that we’re going to look for something different? We can take our time and explore different options and begin to move toward a new career. We could build out the skillsets that we want to use going forward. We could find classes to build our skills and Meetups that support our exploration. We could hire a coach (I have a coach).
Maybe there’s work we’d like to do in the future that we can start as a side gig. For example, if we’re doing work we love, but we’re not being well-compensated for it, we could do some consulting on the side. The beauty of consulting or contracting is that it helps us hone the skills we want to use to power our future.
If there are new fields that we’d like to explore, we can find all kinds of classes online. I have clients who have tried out multiple free classes on the same subject until they found the instructor/ method that works for them. It’s free and it’s freeing!
My Golden Handcuffs Story
Here’s how I shook off the golden handcuffs and embraced the next thing. Four years ago I was a special education teacher in a public school. My husband had just died, and my work community was literally holding me up so I could get through the days. I loved the people I worked with (I still do!!). I was 7 years into a teaching career that started when I was 50 years old. As a special ed teacher who worked with students with behavioral issues, my job was pretty stressful.
Maybe you’re wondering how I ended up teaching for the first time at age 50? Golden handcuffs! Our son had had cancer and we needed rock solid insurance benefits and I knew I could get a job at the public school next door. It was just kharma that I ended up in special education.
I had built my career on having a supportive husband at home. There were days when I was so exhausted and wrung out that I would call my husband and ask him to come pick me up. There were days that were so wrenching that I would just go home and crawl into his lap to regroup. And then he was gone.
I found that it was harder and harder to regroup and recharge. Sure, there were people supporting me, massages, yoga, all those things. But the one thing that instantly and constantly recharged me was no longer there. And that was coupled with an instant 60% drop in my household income because, hey, I was a teacher – forget well-compensated, I wasn’t even adequately compensated. Since I had had a career before teaching, I knew what it was like to be well-compensated.
So, I decided to quit teaching. Although I had 7 years invested in my career, I only had 6 years of experience towards a pension. I was looking at 4 more years of working in a career that I no longer enjoyed and that didn’t compensate me appropriately. I didn’t want to move into administration or consulting, so there was no way to make more money teaching.
I couldn’t stand to stay in a job where I only got to exercise my best skills 20% of the time and I wasn’t going to stay in a job where I couldn’t support myself. You know, I can’t even remember exactly when I decided to quit, although I do remember telling people about it. They’d ask what I was going to do next, and I’d say “I don’t know yet.”
Then there were kind questions about finances and benefits. Are you going to really walk away from a pension? What about your benefits? What about those breaks? I thought you loved the people you work with!
The thing was that none of those things were enough to keep me teaching. For every one of the great things at work, there were dozens of things I couldn’t stand. And those things made it easier for me to shed the golden handcuffs of a guaranteed check, insurance, and a pension.
Reaching Our Potential
I had to walk away. So, I did; I turned in my resignation in February of 2014 with no idea of what I was going to do next. Luckily for me, I wasn’t shy about sharing what I was doing with other people. One day as I was walking at the mall with a girlfriend, getting in our 10,000 steps, she suggested that I become a career coach. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, I knew that’s what I would do, and, I did.
I signed my first client in June 2014, received my coaching certification in March 2015, and I’m still going strong. It has been a tough road, but I love my work. I could coach people 24/7/365. Coaching people builds me up and energizes me.
So, now I’m dedicated to doing what I can to help people reach their potential. I get to coach my clients as they examine themselves and take steps (or leaps) towards new careers. They learn how to try on new roles and find new ways to use their favorite skills and talents. Some of them even shake off their golden handcuffs!