Your Role at Work, and “Job-Hopping”

2009 July 14
by Kate O'Neill

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Creative Commons License photo credit: tm_lv

My dad worked 38 years with the same employer. I know there were times he thought about going elsewhere, but since he didn’t have a college degree, he always felt limited by what he thought wouldn’t be available to him.

I, on the other hand, have held a lot of jobs, and most of them were for less than a full year. Some were even 6 months or less. (A few have even been 3 or 4 weeks, but those were generally contracts or really bad fits.) In the earlier years of my professional life, my dad regarded my “job-hopping” with some anxiety and counseled me to stick it out longer with each employer. After a while, though, he began to recognize that I was doing good work and not leaving my employers in a lurch,  that I had a different role in most of these companies than the one he had with his, and that I was more comfortable with change than most people seem to be.

I bring this up to ask this question: do you know what your role is at your workplace? Are you a long-term fit, or are you there to fulfill a more short-term mission?

It’s an important question to ask yourself occasionally, as it may change from time to time. Company cultures do evolve as their leadership and the markets they serve evolve. Subtle changes in management two or three levels up can have ripple effects on your surroundings. And what might have started out seeming like a perfect long-term fit can, over time, become ill-suited to your goals and ideals.

In much of the marketplace, moving from job to job after a year or more is rarely considered suspect anymore. Under a year in each job, though, and you’re at risk of being labeled a “job-hopper.” If you don’t think that’s a weird bias for corporate America to have, ask yourself this: do we have even a quasi-derogative term in corporate parlance for someone who stays in an ill-fitting work environment far longer than they should? Why not?

It’s certainly true that hiring employees can be an expensive process, and training them even more costly. Some estimates put the cost at 1.5x to 3x the cost of the employee’s salary. So when employees leave after only a short tenure, it can adversely affect a company’s bottom line. But employees who make themselves too comfortable after years of service, consider themselves too senior to downsize, and become locked into an outdated view of “the way things are done” come with a cost as well. (It’s a cost that’s more difficult to quantify, and more difficult to find studies about, but the discussion is out there.)

Recently, I’ve had a series of phone interviews as a job candidate. I hadn’t been pursuing a new job (I’d already started a company of my own doing web marketing strategy and services) but I was gladly entertaining the conversations because it’s a company I really respect and, truly, you just never know. But I was struck by the fact that every interviewer asked me about why I had a history of “job hopping.”

As I explained to the folks I was interviewing with, my role in most of my previous jobs was, whether explicitly or implicitly, that of a change agent. And a change agent, by nature, doesn’t generally hold a long-term role inside a company. And in most cases, by the time I left each company, even after some of the shortest tenures, I felt that I had achieved what I was there to do. (By the way, as a side interviewing tip: the tie-in with the job I was interviewing for was that it was a consultant position, and my frequent role as change agent makes pretty good sense in that context. I wasn’t lying or rationalizing at all, but having a way to align your story with the story of the job you’re interviewing for really helps overcome anti-job-hopper biases.)

Could I have articulated at the outset of each of those jobs what I was there to do? Probably not. But that doesn’t change the fact that those companies and I each met at times when we needed each other. And I have, as a result, developed a skill for sizing up a company’s situation and helping it improve.

We each have a purpose in our professional lives, and our roles at work should reflect that, even if it becomes inconvenient to explain to future employers. As Penelope Trunk pointed out when she wrote about job hopping a few years ago:

A resume is not a laundry list of job and duties. It’s a document about a story. Your resume needs to show the story of a person who contributes in large ways wherever you go.

No one chooses at the outset to take on a role as a mindless cog in a machine, yet some of the compromises we are asked to make in the name of seniority require selectively ignoring parts of our life goals or ideals. We all owe it to ourselves to perform periodic checks of how well our roles suit us, and answer ourselves honestly.

What are your thoughts on knowing your role within your company? Thoughts on job-hopping or on seniority? Leave them in the comments.

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One Response leave one →
  1. 2009 July 15

    I think this post raises some crucial and often painful questions. I’ve known several people who are exceedingly intelligent who don’t stay in one place for long, and it does become an issue for other people’s sense of “how committed/reliable/clear on purpose is this person?”

    I do think some of us are just not meant to be in one place for long, but I also think it is important to demonstrate a pattern of some kind of commitment. Maybe one has had 10 jobs in 10 years, but it might show a decade-long commitment to child welfare, or the environment, or organizational development. Employers invest big time when they hire, as you so clearly point out; it is certainly reasonable that they have some sense of what they are investing IN.

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