Frequent job change is a reality of today’s workplace. The days are virtually gone when occupations were so stable that they not only determined a person’s last name (e.g., Potter, Carpenter) but were also passed down in a family from generation to generation. And equally obsolete is the assumption that a resumé showing too many company names or short-term positions automatically disqualifies the candidate as an undesirable “job hopper”.

One possible reason for the trend toward shorter job tenures is that downsizing by companies that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s permanently altered many people’s expectations of lifetime employment. Other contributing factors include portable 401(k) retirement plans in the U.S. that have replaced traditional pensions in many cases, thereby reducing some of the financial risk of frequent job change. Additionally, the Internet’s thousands of job postings make it easier than ever before for candidates to uncover new opportunities. And in recent years the personnel-recruiting industry has mushroomed, so executives are more likely than ever before to be lured away from their present employers by recruiters dangling attractive new offers. (Note: for both practical and ethical reasons, PrintLink never “headhunts”, but sadly we are among a small minority of personnel agencies who refrain from this practice.) Moreover, in today’s economy more employees, especially younger ones, view themselves as free agents who must actively manage their own careers, since their survival depends on continually updating their skills, and companies may lay them off any time a business slump or merger occurs. Under such circumstances, they don’t feel guilty about jumping ship to achieve better career growth or compensation.

Recent research confirms that, among Europe, Canada, and the United States, employees are most mobile in the U.S., where the average length of job tenure for workers 25 and older is four years. Current rates for Canadian and European workers are still at least double that figure. But everywhere, especially in certain industries such as IT and marketing, job hopping has become more commonplace--even necessary for keeping up with change--and is no longer regarded—even by conservative industries--as universally bad.

The implication is that hiring managers must continue to scrutinize the length of time a candidate has spent at one company or in one position, as they have always done. But the context and sheer complexity of today’s job market require that they spend more time and effort than ever before to reach an evidence-based assessment as to what job changes (of lack of them) imply about a particular candidate. Hiring managers who fail to do so may be doing their companies a tremendous disservice by discounting candidates who could become top producers.

Multiple short-term jobs may be a further warning signal that the candidate could be unstable, non-committal, disloyal, or incompetent.

How many jobs are too many?

Personnel specialists vary on which employment histories raise a red flag about the candidate’s inability to hold down a job. But most agree that a job tenure of less than one year up to two years could indicate a problem and therefore warrants detailed questioning about why the candidate’s term of employment was so short. And obviously, multiple short-term jobs may be a further warning signal that the candidate could be unstable, non-committal, disloyal, or incompetent.

On the other side of the coin, some hiring managers now question long tenure at one job as skeptically as they do short stints. The fact that candidates spent a long time in a single job used to attest to their competence and loyalty—and it may still. But these days you also have to question why they were happy there for so long. Did they complete whatever projects or commitments they undertook? Did they rise to a variety of challenges, acquire new skills, or receive a promotion? Or were they merely complacent with the status quo and invisible on the corporate radar? And if they were stagnant for so long, what are their chances of success now?

Probe for missing information

In trying to assess the validity of a candidate’s job changes, knowledge of circumstantial factors is critical. For instance, because short-term jobs are more common in certain industries and locales, you need to know clearly in what industry and geographic market the candidate was operating. You also need to understand his or her relative stage of career development. Below are some recent cases we have encountered that dramatize the need to seek detailed clarification from candidates about their history of job changes:

Case study # 1:

The candidate moved to North America a few years ago from Asia, where she held a good position with a sizeable printing company for many years. Since arrival in North America she has had only small-time, short-term jobs.

Mystery to be solved:

Is she an enterprising person, doing the best she can for her family while gaining North-American experience? Or did she just slip under the corporate radar for many years at a huge Asian company and can’t actually cut it in a new or unprotected environment?

Case study # 2

The candidate served with one local company for many years until, seeing no further advancement possibilities, he took a new job at another company. After he had been there for three years, management changed and implemented a fundamentally conflicting business style to his, so the candidate elected to leave. He joined a new division of yet another company, but eventually the company owner funneled the profits from the new division into the parent company and offered the candidate a less senior position with the parent company. Although initially the new position sounded appealing to the candidate, the requirements of the job turned out to be entirely contrary to his expectations, so he left.

Mystery to be solved:

Is this a worthy candidate, actively managing his own career by trying to expand his horizons and sure enough of his own objectives to pull out of situations that are not consistent with his career path? Or does this person have too narrow a comfort zone and cannot adapt to different or perhaps higher performance expectations?

Case study # 3

The candidate has worked for numerous companies on contract.

Mystery to be solved:

  • Is this an enterprising individual who has taken on contract work to earn an income while seeking a permanent position? Or was this person never permanently hired for reasons of poor performance? Or does this person’s preference for temporary contract positions make him a bad risk for long-term job commitment?
  • Not just for the above examples but for every instance of short job tenure, you need to probe the candidate for details concerning not only why but also exactly how the job change occurred. The reason is that many typical scenarios admit a variety of possible interpretations; for example:
  • Company layoffs. Layoffs occur more frequently now than ever before, sometimes on a last-in-first-out basis. Sometimes a service has become redundant and there is no other place within the company to move an employee to. Or sometimes companies use layoffs as an opportunity to clean house of staff who are underperforming or won’t accept a change of position or retraining.
  • Mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations. These can result in redundancies and functional overlaps, which means that someone has to go. And it is not always the best people who retain their position, nor those with longevity, since the acquiring company is most likely to retain their own people versus newly acquired staff. Sometimes the people who are asked to leave or choose to leave are those who cannot adapt to a new situation, and their inflexibility may or may not reflect badly on them, depending on the situation.
  • Automation. Often automation means that people can be retrained in another area within a company, but in small companies such transfers may not be available. Sometimes automation can mean that the same people can use the new tools to do more work, but sometimes not.
  • Maternity-leave replacement. People will often take on a contract position to replace an employee on maternity leave, hoping that a permanent position will eventually open up for them, but it doesn’t.
  • Company relocation. For personal or family reasons, an employee may elect not to relocate with the company.
  • Job function is eliminated. Subsequently an employee may be offered various options to stay with the company; but these options may be contrary to the person’s career goals, so the person will chose instead to decline and move on.
  • To move up, sometimes you need to move on. This is a reality in both small and large companies. Small companies don’t offer advancement potential, often because they are owner-operated with family members occupying key positions. And at larger companies, senior positions may be held by people young enough that it could take years before they retire and leave their position vacant.

Resumés should clarify not conceal

In one recent case of ours, a resumé made it look as if a candidate had worked with many companies, although the person had actually worked for the same company all along, because only the company’s name has changed through various mergers and acquisitions. Similarly, resumés can fudge a history of job hopping by resorting to a functional format rather than the traditional chronological format or by lumping several positions under one heading and time period (e.g., Sales Representative, ABC Company and XYZ Company, 2/94-4/96). To avoid negative impressions, the smartest candidates avoid any such ambiguities in their documentation. Some will even be foresighted enough to state a good reason for short tenures right on their resumé (for example, “offered a better position”, “no room for advancement”, or “company / facility closed”) or provide favorable references from companies where they were only employed a short while.

How candidates field verbal questions about their job changes can also do a great deal to dispel or aggravate your concerns. The best responses will be direct, unhesitating, and cite such positive reasons as career advancement, increasing challenge, or else circumstances outside the candidate’s control. Also, generally speaking, candidates’ honesty is commendable if they admit that a particular job turned out to be toxic, or things simply didn’t work out, or they left for personal reasons. But if these sorts of adverse circumstances have been repeated too many times, the candidate begins to look suspect. Also beware of candidates who site money as their main motivator, since they may only stick around until a better financial offer comes along. Other danger signals include frequent switching between industries, frequent lateral or backward moves, frequent episodes of being overqualified and underemployed, blaming the employer, burnt bridges, bad last impressions, and suggestions of impropriety. (One of the worst risks of employees who leave and take new jobs is theft of confidential data or intellectual property.)

Top candidates, on the other hand, will emphasize their accomplishments at each job and show evidence of high performance and significant contributions wherever they go. And once you have made the effort to obtain such evidence, you can feel confident about hiring them. Because achievement is a far more important measure of their success as employees than how long they have remained at a particular job or company.