Ask a Boss: Is Job-Hopping Still a Bad Thing?

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Dear Boss,

What constitutes job-hopping? And is job-hopping even a bad thing anymore? My husband and I (both 40 years old with professional careers) seem to be straddling the expectations of Generation X and millennials. When we left college, the expectation was that while you may not spend your entire career with one company, you certainly should expect to spend a good number of years in one place before jumping ship.

Of course, the dot-com bubble and tech explosion a few years later changed so many previously accepted mores. Now it almost feels like people who spend more than just a few years in one place are the ones getting side eyes for being unmotivated to change rather than pats on the back for loyalty. I’ve been in my current position for almost eight years and there isn’t really any room for growth here — something I am alternately frustrated with and okay with, depending on the day. Besides the lack of alternatives in my field, I worry that if/when I do have an opportunity to move on, potential employers will wonder why I settled for so long. On the other hand, my husband switched jobs less than a year ago after spending 17 years with his previous company. He’s already getting a bit antsy and feels like he can (and should) move as frequently as he wants and that the idea of switching jobs every year or two as a detriment to your career is a thing of the past. So what say you? Is there still an expectation that you should stay in one position for at least a certain amount of time?

This is an answer that requires a huge caveat up-front: It varies by industry. There are indeed some industries where it’s normal to move around every couple of years, and where staying for years is more unusual than moving every 15 months. But they’re not the norm. In most fields, employers are still wary of people with a track record of jumping around from company to company every year or two, especially once you get past the early part of your career.

If you think about it from the employer side of things, it’s pretty easy to understand why: When managers are hiring for professional roles, they’re usually looking for someone who will stay at least a few years. In most professional jobs, new hires don’t really start owning their roles until about six months in, so if you leave another 6 or 12 months after that, that’s a pretty crappy return on the employer’s investment in you. It also means you’re less likely to have time to do anything really interesting with the role; you’ll probably have done the basics, but you’re way less likely to have picked up the depth of experience — and sharper insights and more finely honed instincts — that in many jobs only comes with longer stays. Plus, having to hire and bring a brand-new person up to speed every year or two is a huge time suck. So it makes sense that employers want to hire people who will stick around for, say, three years or more.

And the way that employers guess whether you’re likely to stick around is by looking at your track record. If you have a history of moving on from most jobs pretty quickly, they’re going to assume that that’s your M.O. and that you’re likely to leave this new job relatively quickly too. And they may assume some other things, too — like, you get bored easily or have unrealistic expectations about the jobs you take.

To be clear, a single short-term stay isn’t a big deal. (And neither is a series of short-term jobs that were designed to be short-term, like contract roles or internships or other jobs that are necessarily term-limited.) It’s only when you have a pattern of quickly leaving jobs that weren’t designed to be short-term that job-hopping becomes an issue. That can be a little tricky because often when people leave a job quickly, they don’t intend to keep doing it … but if you end up not loving the next job you go to, you’re going to be more locked in than you were with the first one, because if you leave this one early, too, you are going to look like you have a pattern. So that means that if you do leave a job quickly, you really need to vet the next one well and make sure that you can commit to staying there for a good long while.

Of course, it’s not like job-hopping means that you’ll reach a point where you’ll never be hired again. Instead, you’ll just increasingly limit your options. The best, most interesting jobs at the best employers have a lot of competition, and those employers aren’t usually jumping to hire people with spotty work histories when they have loads of highly qualified candidates with stable work histories. I want to stress this point because sometimes when I talk about job-hopping, someone will point out that they know someone who’s had 12 jobs in 15 years and who doesn’t have any trouble getting hired … to which I say, look at the jobs, look at the managers, and look at how happy that person was in each of those positions. Really good managers are likely to be skeptical of a history of job-hopping, and so the managers willing to hire you will increasingly be managers who you’re not going to love working for.

One of the benefits of becoming more senior in your career should be that you’re more able to pick and choose what roles you take and whom you work for. A pattern of job-hopping makes that harder. (Although again, remember the caveat I started with: This is true for most industries, but there are some exceptions. You need to know your own field.)

Reading all this, you might be thinking that it’s awfully unfair that employees are expected to show this kind of loyalty when it feels like employers are less loyal than ever — when you could be laid off without warning, or find yourself expected to do your own job plus the jobs of two laid-off colleagues without a raise, or have your benefits slashed, or suffer any number of other indignities from your employer. And it is! I’m not going to tell you that it’s fair. But it’s also all the more reason to manage your career in a way that puts you in the strongest position and with the best options for yourself.

Got something to Ask a Boss? Send your questions to askaboss@nymag.com.