WHEN YOU SHOULD STAY
In contrast to those described in Part One of this article for whom inertia is a driving force, others have a natural preference for just the opposite. These individuals prefer change and variety over routines and they excel at adapting to new information and spotting new trends. They are more likely to embrace entrepreneurial opportunities. The downside of these positive attributes however is that these individuals are not as good at following through and sticking with things as they are at starting new things. When the going gets tough or the job gets routine or boring, they like to move on.
These individuals may become job hoppers – a term loosely defined as one who moves around to different jobs and doesn’t stay in one place too long. We’re not referring to workers who freelance or contract for projects with employers. We’re talking about people who want to work on-staff on an ongoing basis within an organization.
So, what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to frequent job changes? It depends on many factors, including industry sector. Technology firms and early-stage companies for example, attract and embrace employees who have changed jobs more often than the norm. More traditional companies such as consumer packaged goods, oil companies or utilities firms tend to have much longer tenured employees. Tenures less than a year, even two back to back are usually not a problem for recent college graduates, but this would be an obstacle for a mid-career person with the same situation.
The Employer’s Perspective on Stability
Employers want to hire people that will stay a while at their company. It is expensive and disruptive to fill vacant positions. They also would like to have talent waiting in the wings to promote people from within when openings arise. In evaluating your candidacy, your career history is the best evidence they have to try to predict how long you might work for them. If you have a history of short tenures because you got recruited away for bigger jobs, they might be impressed, but they have to worry that you would be easily lured away from them, too.
Employers also want to know that the experience you claim to have is solid, not just superficial basics learned from a quick tour of duty. This becomes more important as you go up the ranks to higher levels. They may discount your success in short tenured jobs because you didn’t stay around long enough for the results to stick. This is true even if one or several of your short stints is a result of factors beyond your control such as mergers, financial downturn, new management, etc.
When you work for a substantial period of time for one firm you build up what I call stability capital. It’s like having stored up goodwill that can carry you through a rough patch. If, for example, you had a very long career with one firm before one or maybe two recent short tenured jobs, your stability capital from your long-term employer will help to offset your recent instability in the minds of prospective employers.
While having a respectable stint at a brand name employer won’t change the reality of short tenures at other companies, it can serve to mitigate a potential employer’s negative impression. I can hear someone defending your candidacy with “She was at Blue Chip for four years, and we know how high their standards are – she wouldn’t have lasted there even one year if she hadn’t been a good performer”.
If you jumped around a lot early in your career, but you’ve been at recent employers for solid stints, your earlier lack of stability is not likely to be a problem. Also, if you’ve made a major career change and have stability in your new field, earlier hopping is probably irrelevant. In these cases you can make an entry on your resume called “Various positions in retailing” or whatever, and indicate the overall dates for that period of time, not for specific employers. You also have the option of leaving early experience off altogether, but give it some thought before you do. If the employer feels like you are hiding something or withholding relevant information it can work against you.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU DON’T HAVE STABILITY CAPITAL
To gauge your stability capital and see your job history through the eyes of a hiring manager or recruiter, take a pen and in the margin of your resume next to your dates of employment, write the number of years you worked at each place. This is something they really do! Assume you are a reasonable person who works in your field, write the tenure for each job in the margin, and listen to how your gut responds when you look at the data.
If you lack stability capital and you are currently employed, most likely your best strategy is to stay put and build some tenure. If you’re ready for new challenges, perhaps there are other jobs within the company that are appropriate, or perhaps you can focus on developing skills or experience on special projects within your current job that will prepare you for an eventual move.
If you lack stability capital and are already in transition, be sure to invest some time looking at the underlying reasons for your job changes. Look for patterns and factors that have contributed to jobs ending prematurely, as well as the positive factors that contributed to your staying at jobs where you worked longer. Write down your key findings and incorporate them into your job search plan. Your goal of course is to make better career decisions going forward, and maximize the likelihood of staying at your next employer a while. You will want to perform extra due diligence on your prospective employers and pull out and review your career plan before you accept your next job.
You should have a knock-out resume, chock full of accomplishments, and you should prepare clear, concise answers to questions you will inevitably be asked in interviews about short tenures. If you stumble on your reasons for leaving jobs and/or ramble on, you will come across as defensive and your reasons will sound less credible.
You want to arrange your resume so that your jobs with the longest tenures and the employers with the best reputations are visible – preferably on the first page. If you had multiple jobs with the same employer, be sure to give the dates of your overall employment at that company. If you had an employer that was acquired by another company and you worked for the successor company, represent it as one employer, not as two separate entries.
There are many creative ways these days to “spin” your work experience in your resume in a flattering way and still be honest. Note that in today’s employment world, a resume is a marketing document, not an official record of your job history. So, within reason, you can take some liberties. For example, if you held a job for just a few weeks or months, it’s okay to leave it off your resume.
Consider Becoming A Free Agent
If you have a history of short job tenures, and your self analysis shows that a traditional employment environment doesn’t suit you, perhaps you should consider working for yourself. Many technology and creative professionals have been working as independent contractors for decades. Now, virtually every field has possibilities for professionals to work in ways that enable you to do what you do best for clients, and have the independence and flexibility of working for yourself at the same time.
Individuals with a wide array of talents and interests may job hop in search of outlets for their abilities. The Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, an organization that provides aptitude testing services and researches aptitudes as they relate to careers, defines an aptitude as a natural talent that is not influenced by education, training or socialization. Their research reveals that most jobs take advantage of three to four aptitudes at most. Individuals who have five or more high aptitudes will have trouble finding jobs that fully utilize all their talents. Hobbies can be a great outlet for many aptitudes. Another possibility is a “portfolio career”.
Many professionals today earn a living from multiple jobs or types of work–what has come to be known in recent years a portfolio career. If you think about it, there is some built in job security to a portfolio career – if one of your income sources dries up, you will have other sources of revenue. There may be synergies between the activities, such as teaching, consulting, and writing books in your field of expertise. Or they may be unrelated – accountant by day, wedding photographer on Saturday nights, with each endeavor utilizing quite different abilities.
A NOTE TO HIGH POTENTIALS
From the employer’s perspective, perhaps the most desirable employees to have, but most challenging to retain, are those referred to as “high potentials” or sometimes “high potentials/high performers”. Whether they are hired directly from top universities with stellar grades, or recruited from industry with big salaries, the corporation looks to develop them to be future executives. These bright, ambitious employees are accustomed to steep learning curves and a constant stream of new challenges or assignments as they move up the ladder. But if the next promotion seems a little too far off, they tend to head for the door. It’s easy for them to do so, since there is always a good job market for high potentials.
Does this profile fit you to some degree? If you fall into this high potential/high performer category, you may be tempted to change jobs whenever opportunity knocks. I have counseled some talented individuals whose job hopping became a real problem in their job search – no matter their impressive education, employer names and potential.
Before you launch an external job search or consider taking a job for which you are being recruited, be sure to consider your options with your current employer. Sometimes a little patience pays off big. If your tenure with your current employer is short, you should have a really good reason to change jobs.
In the early years of your career your employer may move you quickly through different positions, and this affords you excellent experience quickly. As you move into mid or senior level roles however, try to stay long enough in a position to get substantive experience and verifiable results. Sometimes you learn the most from a job just after the learning curve has begun to flatten. You may think the job is done when you’ve made obvious improvements or solved key problems in your job. But sometimes solving the smaller problems, getting that next degree of improvement, or managing the aftermath of a transformation, provides equal management challenges. Savvy employers can see through quick fixes – they want to know that the success you claim was also sustainable. It’s hard to show this if you have a history of moving on before the dust has settled.
Timing is everything they say, and certainly when it comes to your paycheck, timing can be critically important. In the ideal world, most of us would prefer to have a new job in hand before leaving our current employer. There are obvious advantages to conducting a job search while you are still employed: a certain cache to employers, plenty of time to be selective, and of course steady income. A little less obvious is that you get access to a lot more jobs over a longer span of time, instead of being limited by jobs available during a shorter period of time.
The adage our parents taught us that it’s always easier to get a job when you have a job, is still pretty good advice, but it’s not as true as it once was. In their generation, before the restructuring and downsizing of recent times, employers were quick to suspect that an unemployed professional had been fired from his last job. The stigma associated with being unemployed has diminished significantly in recent years. Today’s employers know that even the most talented candidates can lose their jobs through no fault of their own.
Whereas until recently it was almost unheard of for an employee in good standing to quit a job without having another one lined up, it does happen more frequently today. Let’s face it: some jobs are so demanding that conducting a job search while working is practically impossible. For those that can afford to quit, or have been fired or laid off, being able to conduct a full-time job search has some definite advantages.
If you were looking to sell your house, you would want to let as many potential buyers as possible know about it, right? While you are employed you typically cannot announce your availability to the world, and thus you’re at a disadvantage in attracting all possible employers. With limited time to devote to a job search, it can be hard for an employed candidate to generate enough activity and momentum to ensure a successful search.
If you choose to resign from a job before lining up your next one, you will certainly be asked about it on interviews. A truthful answer such as “As a client services manager I was available to my clients virtually around the clock – there was no way I could effectively look for a new job and do my current job well at the same time”.
ONE FINAL THOUGHT
Whatever career decisions you make along the way, I hope you will think about the implications of your decisions for your longer term career. The best career strategy is one that gives you the most qualifications for the type of jobs you would like to have down the road.
There’s an old Chinese proverb to keep in mind: “The Road to Success is Always Under Construction”. Indeed.
Copyright 2007 Laura Hill
Laura Hill is founder and managing partner of Careers in Motion (http://www.cimllc.com), a career coaching firm based in New York City. She works with individuals at all levels – from college graduates to senior executives – in the areas of career strategy and planning; market positioning; resume development; job search; interviewing skills; and negotiations.