Career strategist or job hopper?

Job hopping: career planning or terminal unreliability?

In the past two weeks I have come across a number of polarised attitudes to career movement. One person’s creative attempts to acquire transferable skills by gaining experience and seizing opportunities in a variety of different sectors, functions or geographic areas, can be perceived by others as opportunistic job hopping and a sure sign of fickleness and lack of commitment.

On the other hand, some see a loyal and conscientious employee, who has spent many years with the same organisation, as stagnating and complacent, fearful of moving out of their comfort zone. Additionally, any individuals attempting to use career moves for salary leverage, can be perceived equally as either brazenly money grabbing, or simply smart and strategic by both current and future employers.

So where does the truth lie?

There was a time two generations ago when individuals entered the workplace and joined a company for life. Those days are gone. Today many people by the time they are 30, could have as many as 8 jobs, if that includes vacation work and internships. Gen Y we are told, when they find one, will see each job as a project and will be looking for change every 18 months. I have clients who struggle at the slightest hint of “job hopping” and perceive this to be a sure sign of terminal unreliability.

The answer is that regular changes of jobs can be viewed in a number of ways and this is what makes it difficult to assess. It can indeed be creative career planning. It can truthfully also be a sign of what my old economics teacher used to call lack of ” stickability”. It could also simply indicate an unstable or volatile economy, when last in, is first out. Just as equally loyalty to a company could indeed be perceived as lack of vision and an inability to handle change.

But what seems to be going on, on both sides of the hiring divide, is a change in attitude to the way “human capital” makes a contribution in a modern industrial and business world. That still seems to leave some unanswered questions.

How many jobs are too many? How many jobs are enough?

So perhaps what we should be considering is not the length of service, but the results achieved in different positions and the value added and acquired. What is better for a referee to say – “He/she was with me 2 years, did an excellent job and made a valuable contribution” or ” He/she was with me for 10 years and performed satisfactorily” With Baby Boomers occupying many senior management and hiring level positions, their perceptions and cultural norms at the moment tend to carry more weight, so their thoughts naturally dominate some areas of corporate thinking. Over the next few years that dominance will gradually disappear as they head towards retirement. However , as a result of this perception, currently candidates are generally more likely to be asked to account for why they left a company or job, than why they stayed.

Good reasons for leaving or staying

So perhaps what needs to be examined are the reasons for leaving (or staying in) a job and the contribution an individual made while in post. Candidates need to be prepared to explain their career choices, backed up by metrics and employers need to keep an open mind and ask the right questions. How do we assess what the optimum time to spend in a job really is – if indeed there is one? There will probably be no standard answer and the time period will always vary from one industry, employer or job to another.

For candidates who exhibit job movement I would always look for ( and advocate for) a candidate who had acquired transferable or new skills in a variety of jobs, was strategically trying to find what they were good at or enjoyed, especially if they gained some sort of positive experience in the process: international, cross sector or cultural. This can be achieved in a number of different companies, just as equally as in the same one.

Red flags

Red flags for me would be candidates who were fired repeatedly over an extended period of time (although Ted Turner says ” There’s nothing wrong with being fired” ), who complained about the work they did, emerged with no demonstrable results or additional skills, bad mouthed their companies, bosses or colleagues and who professed to being bored with every move they made.

Moving around early in a career can even be advantageous, but at a certain point some focus especially mid – career from a corporate point of view would currently be expected. In these turbulent times it’s hard to know exactly when that might be. Many successful business gurus would suggest that not getting fired, is also about not getting fired up.

Changing business environments

Loyalty benefits such as additional vacation days , pension plans and other perks were designed to reward employees, but also to tie them into a company long-term. We are moving towards times when these traditional benefits perhaps are becoming less relevant or even non-existent. The traditional workplace structure is changing. As the cost of office space soars, we have seen the introduction of “hot desking” and modern communication methods making home and virtual offices feasible. Short term contracts are being introduced to reduce salary bills. Companies no longer provide pension schemes in the same way and corporations outsource many functions on a project management basis anyway. Employees now want to take self financed “gap breaks” and reduce their commuting times. So it seems that there is a natural evolution going on in terms of expectation from both the hiring company and the job seeker. It suggests that assessment methods by hiring and recruitment managers will also need change in response to these new circumstances.

So could we envisage a situation arising when all generations move through the labour market with greater frequency without negative connotations and the use of the pejorative term job hopping?

Do current economic imperatives mean that we are all destined to become career movers? Would that even be a bad thing?
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What do you think?

11 responses to “Career strategist or job hopper?

  1. Dorothy, you have eloquently captured the questions asked and dilemmas faced by those seeking satisfaction in their careers. I agree with you about the red flags; I would be much more concerned with those who bad mouth previous companies or who had no positive impact on the company during the time they stayed (be it short or long).

    I believe that more of us will become career or job changers, and not just because of economic imperatives. Many baby boomers, of which I’m one, are seeking second careers that provide greater satisfaction at the same time that younger generations are looking for more than money in their first jobs and beyond.

    The old “contracts” that encouraged loyalty and longevity are all but gone. I worked for a large company for 17 years; about 10 years after I left, it declared bankruptcy. I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t lose anything in the process.

    • Mary – thanks for your thoughts. It’s an interesting time and perhaps one where currently “old guard” values prevail in certain sectors. I’m keeping a watchful eye on these developments!

  2. I have been on my own for so long I think I have lost touch with how people perceive job changes! So I appreciate you really getting me to think about this because it affects so many of my clients these days.

    The rules are certainly changing. I think how people perceive job changes have a lot to do with the story we tell. Picking up on some of your points, if it is a story of growth, discovery, learning and contribution then wouldn’t that be what people would focus on more than the number of changes?

    In 1994 William Bridges published a book called Job Shift. He talked about the “job” as an artifact of the industrial revolution. I think the very notion of what work looks like is changing rapidly and that will likely affect our perceptions going forward.

  3. Just watched a video from Eben Pagan and he shared a statistic that is really relevant to your conversation here…

    US Department of Labor Statistic: Today’s college grad will have 3-5 career changes and 13 job changes by age 38…WOW!

  4. Susan – thanks for your comments. That figure from Eben Pagan is in line with the stats I have seen. As corporations change their employment conditions to reduce costs ( outsourcing and short term contracts) there will clearly be spin offs in the market place. Combine this with a change in career and job expectation of Gen Y, then assessemnt methods used by hiring managers and recruiters will need to shift too , simply to identify the best talent for their openings. It really will be how many jobs are too many and how many jobs are enough? Interesting times!

  5. Hi Dorothy,
    You have very well summarized the new trends on how meaning and purpose at work has changed dramatically. The financial crisis was a big eye opener. After massive Lay-offs people started to understand that loyalty is a one-way value, companies have no respect for loyal employees especially if they are around 50. Leaders with people skills ? Who cares ?

    • Anne – thanks for your input. Yes I think there are a numbe of changes going on simultaneously and recent cut backs tarnishing corporate images is definitely one of them. For a while I think as “old school” norms prevail we will see some mis-matched expectations about longevity in post. My own feeling is that within the next 5 years or so maybe even sooner, this will balance out and value rather than length of service will be the stronger consideration.

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