Job Hopping For the Right Reasons
Frequent job change is a reality of today's workplace. A resumé showing too many company names or short-term positions shouldn’t automatically disqualify the candidate as an undesirable “job hopper.” One possible reason for the trend toward shorter job tenures is that downsizing by companies that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s permanently altered many people’s expectations of lifetime employment. Other contributing factors include portable 401(k) retirement plans in the U.S. that have replaced traditional pensions in many cases, thereby reducing some of the financial risk of frequent job change. Additionally, the Internet’s thousands of job postings make it easier than ever before for candidates to uncover new opportunities. Moreover, in today’s economy more employees, especially younger ones, view themselves as free agents who must actively manage their own careers, since their survival depends on continually updating their skills, and companies may lay them off any time a business slump or merger occurs. Under such circumstances, they don’t feel guilty about jumping ship to achieve better career growth or compensation. Recent research confirms that, among Europe, Canada, and the United States, employees are most mobile in the U.S., where the average length of job tenure for workers 25 and older is four years. Current rates for Canadian and European workers are still at least double that figure. But everywhere, especially in certain industries such as IT and marketing, job hopping has become more commonplace--even necessary for keeping up with change--and is no longer regarded—even by conservative industries--as universally bad.
The implication is that hiring managers must continue to scrutinize the length of time a candidate has spent at one company or in one position, as they have always done. But the context and sheer complexity of today’s job market require that they spend more time and effort than ever before to reach an evidence-based assessment as to what job changes (of lack of them) imply about a particular candidate. Hiring managers who fail to do so may be doing their companies a tremendous disservice by discounting candidates who could become top producers.
How many jobs are too many?
Most agree that a job tenure of less than one year up to two years could indicate a problem and therefore warrants detailed questioning about why the candidate’s term of employment was so short. And obviously, multiple short-term jobs may be a further warning signal that the candidate could be unstable, non-committal, disloyal, or incompetent.
On the other side of the coin, some hiring managers now question long tenure at one job as skeptically as they do short stints. The fact that candidates spent a long time in a single job used to attest to their competence and loyalty—and it may still. But these days you also have to question why were they happy there for so long? Did they complete whatever projects or commitments they undertook? Did they rise to a variety of challenges, acquire new skills, or receive a promotion? Or were they merely complacent with the status quo and invisible on the corporate radar? And if they were stagnant for so long, what are their chances of success now?
Probe for missing information
In trying to assess the validity of a candidate’s job changes, knowledge of circumstantial factors is critical. For instance, because short-term jobs are more common in certain industries and locales, you need to know clearly in what industry and geographic market the candidate was operating. You also need to understand his or her relative stage of career development.
Resumés should clarify not conceal
In some cases, resumés have made it look as if a candidate had worked with many companies, although the person had actually worked for the same company all along, because only the company’s name had changed through various mergers and acquisitions. Similarly, resumés can fudge a history of job hopping by resorting to a functional format rather than the traditional chronological format or by lumping several positions under one heading and time period (e.g., Sales Representative, ABC Company and XYZ Company, 2/94-4/96). To avoid negative impressions, the smartest candidates avoid any such ambiguities in their documentation. Some will even be foresighted enough to state a good reason for short tenures right on their resumé (for example, “offered a better position”, “no room for advancement”, or “company / facility closed”) or provide favorable references from companies where they were only employed a short while.
How candidates field verbal questions about their job changes can also do a great deal to dispel or aggravate your concerns. The best responses will be direct, unhesitating, and cite such positive reasons as career advancement, increasing challenge, or else circumstances outside the candidate’s control. Also, generally speaking, candidates’ honesty is commendable if they admit that a particular job turned out to be toxic, or things simply didn’t work out, or they left for personal reasons. But if these sorts of adverse circumstances have been repeated too many times, the candidate begins to look suspect. Also beware of candidates who site money as their main motivator, since they may only stick around until a better financial offer comes along. Other danger signals include frequent switching between industries, frequent lateral or backward moves, frequent episodes of being overqualified and underemployed, blaming the employer, burnt bridges, bad last impressions, and suggestions of impropriety. (One of the worst risks of employees who leave and take new jobs is theft of confidential data or intellectual property.)
Top candidates will emphasize their accomplishments at each job and show evidence of high performance and significant contributions wherever they go. And once you have made the effort to obtain such evidence, you can feel confident about hiring them. Achievement is a far more important measure of their success than how long they have remained at a particular job or company.