Young Corporate
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Young Corporate

How Long Do You Need To Stay In a Job?

Honest answer: you’re the only one who knows

35 years.

The other day, a woman I know celebrated her 35th work anniversary. That’s right — 35 years with the same company. She was applauded on a national team call, a colorful PowerPoint splashed across the Webex screen. It shouted her number. The team cheered and a couple of teammates who’ve been at the company nearly as long reminisced about early days in their careers.

If this woman stays with the company for another few years, she’ll be recognized by the CEO for her outstanding tenure.

And she’s not the only one. There are a handful of other employees spread across the country who have her beaten by 10, 15, even 20 years. I see their faces on our Intranet from time to time. They smile and talk about what the company was like when they joined. How it’s changed over time.

The idea of decades-long tenure feels strange to me. I’m coming up on five years. I can’t imagine thirty more.

On the one hand, this kind of tenure feels like something out of a movie. There’s a certain level of beauty in it. A consistency that, with everything going on in the world right now, sounds very appealing. Like a family home that’s seen children grow up and move out. And yet it remains.

But on the other hand, I can’t imagine it. I’m interested in so many aspects of the business world that the idea of staying at one company sounds limiting. There’s a whole wide world of jobs out there! And, at the same time, I look at the changing landscape, and the constant reorganization of large companies, and I wonder how someone could navigate all that. How would they survive?

The idea of decades-long tenure feels strange to me. I’m coming up on five years. I can’t imagine thirty more.

I’m a Millennial, after all.

I like brunch. I must be a Millennial. (Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash)

What do experts have to say about tenure?

35 years at a company may not be in the cards for me.

And it may not be in the cards for many other Millennial and Gen Z workers. Geographic barriers to work are disappearing, especially with the rise of remote work options. And the average lifespan of a corporation is dropping like a rock, with many companies driven out of business by new technology.

More options + new companies = a formula for change.

Besides, as a Millennial, I’ve been told by every major media outlet that my generation loves to job hop. Gallup, for example, recently posted an article titled Millennials: The Job-Hopping Generation. Headlines like this, at a minimum, introduce the idea that job-hopping is okay in today’s economy.

Every time I perused an article on job hopping, it seemed to contradict the one I read before. As if there’s no right way to handle a transition.

This brings us back around to the topic for today: How long do you need to stay in a job? If you are a member of the “job-hopping generation,” or the one that follows, how should you think about changing roles? Is it a free-for-all, or are there still unwritten rules?

To answer these questions, I began combing through articles that address the question of tenure. And I started with Harvard Business Review’s Setting the Record Straight on Switching Jobs. Even though it’s a little dated — October 2015 to be precise — this article isn’t afraid to buck conventional wisdom.

Here are just a few takeaways:

  • Many companies have changed the way they treat departing employees; some companies even have alumni programs focused on rehiring.
  • According to Human Resources experts, 70% of Millennials left a job within 2 years of starting it. And 32% of employers expected job-jumping.
  • Even when a current company counter-offers with a raise, 80% of employees who attempt to leave will do so within 6–12 months.
  • Lateral moves are on the rise. And with the flattening of organizations, a lateral move may be the best way to get ahead.

All of this sounds great. There’s more respect for individual employees. And there’s more respect for the fact that it’s really hard to tell what it’ll be like to work for a company when you’re on the outside looking in.

Employers are embracing the movement of employees. They’re viewing transition as a natural part of a business. Not as a personal betrayal.

And yet.

Hang on a second. (Photo by Rob Wicks on Unsplash)

As I dug beyond the HBR article, and began to cross-reference sources, an interesting trend emerged. There were plenty of articles that echoed parts of what HBR was saying — that staying at a company for two years was not a hard-and-fast rule, for example. But these same articles brought up a whole new bucket of job-hopping risks.

As frustrating as it is, there’s no right answer to how long you need to stay.

Take, for example, this article from The Muse, a popular career site. The author trimmed the amount of time at the company from two years to one year, and provided four situations where leaving may not hurt your career. And yet, for each situation listed, there was a potential trap to look out for.

Or look at this article from The Balance Careers. Not only did the author point out that leaving a company early can have a negative impression. Or that some companies are, get this, including two-year tenure requirements in their job postings. But she also said that staying too long at a company can be just as bad for your career aspirations as not staying long enough.

Every time I perused an article on job hopping, it seemed to contradict the one I read before. As if there’s no right way to handle a transition.

So, what’s a young professional to do?

The reason for all this conflicting information seems clear. There are, simply, too many scenarios where an employee may need to leave a company. In my reading, alone, I identified the following:

  • Mental and emotional health reasons
  • A bad boss or senior leader
  • A better opportunity elsewhere
  • Taking care of a parent or children
  • Leaving an unpaid internship for a paid opportunity
  • Unequal pay (when compared to peers or other firms)
  • Issues surrounding discrimination or harrassment
  • A lack of culture fit

The list could go on. And, because there are so many unique situations, it’s almost impossible for an HR expert or an article to address every scenario. It’s also impossible to read the minds of a manager or HR team (or a senior leadership team, for that matter) to determine how they will respond.

As frustrating as it is, there’s no right answer to how long you need to stay.

But there are principles you can follow.

Rather than a hard-and-fast rule, these three questions will help every young professional figure out what the right next step is. Should you step away? What will be the impact if you do?

Weighing these options is much more challenging than simply saying, “stay two years.” But doing so more accurately captures the reality of the market. And asking these questions beforehand will serve you better in the long run.

So, let’s start with Question #1.

Question #1

At Young Corporate, we’ve talked recently about the importance of mental health. Last week, for example, I published an article titled Wait, Companies Are Paying Their Employees To Take Time Off? focused on a new policy where PWC was incentivizing employees to take PTO.

And there’s a reason this topic is front-and-center.

If you didn’t know already, there’s a mental health crisis taking place for young professionals. And Gen Z is at the greatest risk, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The combination of youth, the stressors of trying to tackle school or find a job during a global recession, and an already-present level of depression and anxiety, has hit Gen Z like a bag of bricks.

All this to say that, whether Millennial, Gen Z, or otherwise, you cannot put a price on your mental or emotional health. There are financial considerations, of course, but if a job is placing your health at risk, it’s not the right job.

62% of employees in a recent survey said they are considering leaving their jobs due to stress factors. And maybe they should, even if they haven’t been at a company for the “required” amount of time.

At a minimum, mental and emotional stressors should be a significant consideration in whether you leave a job or not. The results of staying at an unhealthy workplace can be long-lasting and disastrous. So look for signs of excessive strain, and ask yourself how much is attributed to your job.

Ok, now on to Question #2.

Question #2

The entire issue of how long to stay at a job boils down to a simple fact. You don’t want to burn a bridge. You don’t want to walk away from an employer and have your boss, or worse the company as a whole, write you off. You don’t want them to bad-mouth you to others in the industry.

If you didn’t know already, many companies keep a do-not-hire (DNH) list. This list is maintained by the HR team and lists former employees who left under bad circumstances or candidates who showed red flags during an interview process. They are not to be considered for future openings.

The last thing you want is to wind up on a DNH list. Sure, on your way out the door you think you’ll never return to a company. But who knows? It’s impossible to predict future opportunities, and, at a minimum, you may be burning the networking connections you made at that company.

Even if a former boss wanted to bring you back for a big promotion, they wouldn’t be able to if you’re on a DNH list.

So, it’s critical to consider the relationships you leave behind. If you’ve been at a company only a short period of time, the fact of the matter is that it can damage relationships to leave. The company expended a lot of time and money to bring you in. And now they have to start the process all over again.

At least if you stayed for a year or two, the return on investment wouldn’t be so low. The company could justify it as a normal business expense.

That said, there are ways to address the relationship damage of leaving early (or leaving at all). The best thing you can do is have an honest conversation with your boss. Explain the reason for your leaving, especially if it has to do with personal health or family concerns.

A halfway decent boss will understand and you’ll stay in good graces. And don’t forget that you’ll need references from your formers leaders.

You may also want to consider how much notice you give to the company. In fairness, many employees are nervous about giving a lengthy notice — and for good reason — but two weeks is still mostly standard. You should consider all the angles of giving notice, including the impression it will leave with your manager and the HR team.

At the end of the day, honest communication and a showing of respect to your manager and the company can go a long way. Be honest about the reasons you’re leaving and look for ways to make the transition easier.

Lastly, let’s jump to Question #3.

Question #3

And you will be asked.

One of the best ways to consider whether you should leave a job early is to think about how you would explain this to a future employer. And once you’re done explaining, do you look like the good guy or the bad guy?

Do you look like someone who values health or family or culture fit? Or do you look like someone who’s going to jump ship again?

If, after asking this question, you feel like you would come across poorly in an interview, then it may be time to reconsider. For example, if your sole reason for leaving is a bump in pay, and you were with your previous employer for a very short window of time, this can be a concern.

As we said above, the way your actions are interpreted is going to differ from company to company. But it’s probably better to avoid the risk, especially if your reasons don’t hold up to questioning.

Remember: you’re going to have to list a job on your resume for years, most likely, so you want to feel good about your decision. And you want your decision to cast you in a positive light for future opportunities.

Conclusion

Being in a job that isn’t working for you can be a dreadful experience. It’s one of the universal workplace challenges, and something almost all professionals face at some point in their career. And it can be tempting to allow emotion to guide a decision. Or worse, to storm out of the place.

As much fun as it might seem, you probably don’t want to quit like this guy.

Keep in mind that, in today’s market, every former employer is a potential future employer. Teammates or leaders you meet at a company can rise to positions of authority, and they may reshape the way things are done. They may also want to bring you back at some point.

That said, there are other serious concerns to think about.

Mental and emotional health, for one, have to be a significant part of any job decision. If you are being worn down to the bone, and you have another option, it often makes sense to set aside workplace expectations (like the two-year rule) to take care of yourself. The same goes with family and care-related concerns.

At the end of the day, take the high ground. Speak honestly with your boss. Try to find a solution. And think carefully about what you want out of work, where you see yourself going, and how leaving a job might impact you down the road.

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Stephen Mostrom

Stephen Mostrom

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L&D @ SVB | Helping Tech Talent Level-Up Their Skills | Product Manager | Professor | MBA | Featured in The Startup, PGSG, and Entrepreneur’s Handbook