A personal anecdote to kick off this post:
A few weeks ago an agency recruiter reached out to me on LinkedIn and asked if I’d be interested in speaking with their firm about roles. Since I’m on the market, I said yes to a conversation. When we eventually connected by phone, the recruiter surprised me by saying that her boss, the agency Director, would actually be the person asking me questions during the call. The Director jumped in, introduced himself, and we started the interview.
He began by asking me to go over my career history. I walked him through my experience at my first company and how I built campus recruiting there, managed interns, and hired for a ton of different roles in a short period of time. I then started to explain what I did at my next company (which isn’t on my resume since I was only there for about six months). But he interrupted me and asked: “well wait, tell me why you left your first company after only a year and a half”.
You can probably guess how the rest of conversation went: each time I explained a job change, this guy dug into why I left but asked very little about what I accomplished in each role. At the end of the conversation he told me that my resume was a bit “hoppy”, that I should “really spend at least four to five years at my next company” and he needed to mull over my background a bit more before sending my resume to potential opportunities. It’s not surprising that I haven’t heard a peep from the firm since: they disqualified me as a candidate because I haven’t spent more than three years at a company.
The whole experience got me thinking about behaviors I’ve had to navigate with my own hiring managers. Most of them still have a knee-jerk negative reaction to candidates who have spent less than five years at a job. They assume that moving employers means that a candidate is flighty, or lacks loyalty and dedication. But this isn’t necessarily the case and these managers run the risk of missing out on a viable (and qualified!) applicant pool.
Shorter employment periods are becoming the norm.
Workers, especially those in tech industries, aren’t staying at jobs for long periods of time anymore:
- Payscale data shows that employees at Eastman Kodak stay for 20 years and employees at Google stay for one year. As much as I respect Eastman Kodak (I am after all from Rochester), they don’t strike me as the most innovative company in the world. Especially when I compare them to a Google.
- In 2018 Business Insider published a list that showed employees at Uber stay on average for 1.8 years, at Tesla for 2.1 years, at Facebook for 2.5 years, and at Netflix for 3.1 years.
- And, even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the 2018 median job tenure was 4.2 years, there is a sizable difference in employment longevity when you break out the data based on age:
Generally, median employee tenure was higher among older workers than younger ones. For example, the median tenure of workers ages 55 to 64 (10.1 years) was more than three times that of workers ages 25 to 34 (2.8 years).
So why are younger employees at tech companies moving around so often?
New opportunities are easier to find
Even when I’m happily employed, I have at least 4 recruiters reaching out to me every week with new job opportunities. Social media and LinkedIn have made it incredibly easy for folks to find new work…and if it’s easy for them to find new jobs, why not look around for a new role every few years?
Work is also becoming more and more flexible. Back when I first started recruiting, commute and location were big factors that could prevent a candidate from moving from one job to another, especially if they had a spouse or family that would be impacted logistically by a change. Now, the rise in the remote-work and work-from-home trends mean that workers can change jobs without moving to a new city or impacting their partner or significantly increasing their commute. If the table stakes are lower in a job move, they’re more likely to do it.
Startups are tough
Startups are great because you learn a lot there. The rate of change is rapid: within 3 months a startup can double or triple in size, develop a new product line, close down development of another product line, raise a round of funding, open a new office, go through a lay-off, or completely change the leadership team. Constantly thinking about things like burn rate, retaining talent, finding product-market-fit, and outmaneuvering your competition teach people a lot. You learn to be scrappy, you learn about every area of a business, and you learn how to manage yourself and your team through change.
But startups have their faults. For one, they’re volatile, research shows that 90% end up failing and that many do not last more than 4 or 5 years. That means that startup employees are more likely to have shorter job tenures based solely on the fact that their employer no longer exists.
Startups can also be emotionally exhausting. The rate of change I mention above is a fabulous opportunity because you are forced to learn quickly and adapt; however, this pace can leave employees burnt out. And burn out is a big reason why employees leave businesses. People will look for new work simply because they need a break.
Remember that people make the wrong decision
Another thing to recognize is that employees sometimes move on because they made a mistake in choosing their current employer. An interview process is typically 4–6 hours in length and even the best designed process doesn’t give the employee an introduction to everyone they will be working with, the work culture, the team dynamics, and the responsibilities of the job. And, even though it’s icky to talk about this, some work situations are just plain shitty. Friends and colleagues have told me horrible stories about sexual harassment, insane bosses, bro cultures, rampant drug use, blatant sexism, and mind-numbingly boring work that they’ve discovered only after accepting a job. They are faced with a choice: stick this out or move on, even though they know that this puts them at risk of having a short stint on a resume. Tough catch-22.
Another side to this is the employer sometimes hires the wrong person into the role. I’ve seen this a lot with startups that are growing quickly: they assume today that they need a person who can do XYZ but within three to six months the needs of the business have changed so drastically that the individual they hired is no longer needed. Sure you could argue that, for the right employee, the company could create an opportunity for them or transfer the person to a different team. But in reality, both of these choices come with trade-offs. Sometimes it’s easier for the company to part ways with the employee even if that person has done great work for them in the past. Mutual separation because a role is no longer a fit is a thing, and doesn’t necessarily mean the employee is bad.
How to separate the good job hops from the bad job hops.
Now I’m not saying that job hops are never bad. You will absolutely come across some candidates who job hop for the wrong reasons. Some candidates are toxic to an organization and only last at each new company for a short time because they are an HR risk or a net-negative culture add. Other candidates are motivated solely by cash and use frequent job hops to significantly bump their salary. And still others may quit at the slightest sign of a challenge. These are the folks you probably want to avoid.
So how do you figure out which candidates have the right motivations? Ask the right questions:
- Focus your interview questions on what the candidate accomplished in each role. My favorite way to do this is by asking behavioral questions. What was a challenge they faced in their role and how did they solve it? You can also ask them to quantify the results of their work by asking about things like growth of the company, how many products they launched, number of customers acquired, etc. Even candidates who were at companies for a short period of time will be able to demonstrate positive contributions to a company.
- Ask them why they moved. Candidates who move for the right reasons will have a genuine story to tell about each new role. Look for patterns in their answers. Do they always seem to move because they weren’t promoted/ they didn’t like their boss/ they were frustrated with the work? Or did they leave because they got burnt out at one company, another company shuttered, and another company eliminated their role?
- Check references. Ask the candidate to provide names of previous managers, colleagues, and direct reports. When speaking to the references, ask if they would hire or work with your candidate again. And ask the references what the candidate accomplished while they were working at the company; their answers should match up with what the candidate told you in an interview process.
The tl;dr is don’t assume job hops = a bad candidate.
Remember that the world of work is changing and it’s no longer common for folks to stick with an employer for their entire career. Job opportunities are more visible and flexible making it easier for candidates to move. Candidates are incentivized by the opportunity to learn new things. Lots of companies fail after short periods of time, employees get burnt out by a fast pace, and employers’ needs change. Shorter tenure is a fact of life now.
If you’re a manager reviewing a resume, remember to do a gut check against that initial bias telling you that a hoppy candidate is a bad candidate. Before rejecting the candidate, look at their entire career trajectory on the resume, and when you speak to the candidate ask them what they accomplished at each employer and why they left.