The possibility of being labeled a job hopper is still a concern for many in the technology world. This fear is often unreasonable and is primarily a function of traditional and antiquated employment concepts being extended into an economy where they likely don’t belong. In other words, don’t take career advice from your parents.
When I first started recruiting software engineers during the late 90’s dot-com boom, I was advised by more senior coworkers to avoid wasting time speaking with job hoppers. People who frequently switched employers were perceived as high risk for companies who needed to invest significant time and money into making new hires effective, only to lose them shortly thereafter. Recruiters were afraid a placement might not even reach their guarantee period.
The economy and workforce as a whole were undergoing rapid and dramatic changes, but long-established preconceptions about employment were somewhat slower to adapt. Linear career paths were the expectation, and the prevailing practice was still to promote our best engineers into management without regard for their leadership potential or soft skills. Company loyalty was still a strong emotional factor that resulted in long tenures.
This new well-funded software startup ecosystem siphoned talent from large and established companies, with engineers leaving behind stability and pensions for modest salaries and stock options that provided get-rich-quick possibilities. Once the big firm pool dried up, they cannibalized and created a class that appeared to many as mercenary startup engineers. This was a class of job hoppers, but their motivations (and subsequently their character) were often misrepresented or misunderstood.
Were they mercenaries?
There were (and still are) a fair share of individuals that chase short-term gains by making job decisions based almost exclusively on numbers. Accepting offers from the highest bidder every time will work for some, but to maximize lifetime earnings (ignoring job satisfaction here) the top offer may not always be the best path. Was this new class of startup job hoppers driven primarily by financial gain?
For most, I believe the answer was no.
Due to the competitive nature of the industry and basic economic principles of supply and demand, most job changes result in at least some small increase in compensation. It would be easy to assume that engineers accepted these offers based on the higher package, but for most the desire for change was probably attributed to the need to build new things.
It’s no coincidence that we find many of the startup job hoppers went on to become independent consultants and contractors, where there is no stigma attached to short stints. We could again make the argument that they were driven to consulting by high rates, and some certainly were, but many point to their preference to finish projects and then move along.
Engineers left many of their startup jobs after a year or two because they had built what they were hired to build, were drawn to the job based on the opportunity to create something, and were much less enthusiastic about maintaining it. This desire to build is a characteristic valued by managers who emphasize getting things done, so they can hardly fault them for leaving when there is little left to do.
Job hopping vs the alternative
Of course, the opposite of job hoppers are employees who remain in the same job for inordinate tenures. Most industries have historically interpreted a long stay with the same employer as a positive sign and an asset for one’s candidacy. In technology this is typically no longer the case. In recent years the adage “Do you have ten years of experience or one year of experience ten times?” has been applied to those who seem more driven by company loyalty and stability than career self-interest.
There was a time when it was more difficult to find new work without a highly stable work history. In today’s technology market, I would make the argument that a career characterized by one or two lengthy employment stints is actually less marketable to the majority of tech employers than your standard job hopper. Discrimination against those with long tenures is often wrongfully attributed to ageism or an overqualified candidate, where the root of the discrimination is a belief that work variety produces better engineers. As a recruiter, removing the appearance of dust or stagnation is a major challenge when working with candidates coming off a long tenure.
Positive vs negative hopping
It’s important to note that there are different kinds of job hoppers, and the picture painted thus far has been mostly of those viewed favorably by the industry. These are people who make self-interested decisions to move once they have maximized their career gain from an opportunity. Usually this meant the ability to gain a new experience, such as learning a skill or building a product. To lose any potential negative stigma associated with job hopping, one should have a list of accomplishments and projects that were seen to completion. That doesn’t mean there can’t be failings along the way, but successful job hoppers have a track record of being hired for a purpose and meeting or exceeding the expectations of the employer. They should also be able to explain the motivations behind each move and why it was right for their career at that time.
The job hoppers that are likely viewed in a negative light often lack both accomplishments and justifications for their transitions, and can often have résumé gaps that aren’t easily explained. They may have a history of abandoning efforts before completion, or are consistently wooed by new employers regardless of current project status. Unemployed job hoppers with these backgrounds eventually have a difficult time in job search.
Attitudes towards those that frequently change jobs have transitioned as the economy has changed, and companies have more realistic expectations about their employees acting in their own self-interests. The stigma around job hopping in technology has almost been eliminated at smaller companies, particularly for candidates who have a solid list of accomplishments and are able to articulate a history of positive career choices.
I first wrote about the topic of job hopping back in 2007 and I feel the advice I gave then is still relevant in 2013, although the perceptions and attitudes of most hiring managers have evolved significantly. The post in 2007 was partly inspired by a past client (financial trading firm) that would only accept résumés of software engineers that were employed at their current company for a minimum of seven years. Today, it seems more likely that my clients would discourage me from submitting candidates that have had too long a tenure. Times have changed.
As a refresher, the term job hopping is used to describe a history of somewhat frequent moves from one employer to another after spending little time working for a company. Some use the one year mark as the measure of a hop, but multiple moves before a second or third anniversary should also earn you the label with most traditionally-minded recruiters and managers. However, being tagged a job hopper in the tech industry is not nearly as troublesome as many would want you to believe.
A survey of 1500 recruiters and hiring managers last year had the following results:
“According to 39% of recruiters, the single biggest obstacle for an unemployed candidate in regaining employment is having a history of ‘hopping jobs’, or leaving a company before one year of tenure. 31% consider being out of work for more than a year as the greatest challenge in regaining employment, followed by having gaps in your employment history (28%).” – Bullhorn survey
Unfortunately, this result was misinterpreted by an article on job hopping that appeared in Forbes earlier this year. Let’s see if you can spot the subtle difference.
“Nearly 40% of recruiters and hiring managers say that a history of hopping is the single biggest obstacle for job-seekers, according to a recent survey conducted by recruiting software company Bullhorn.” – Forbes.com
Did you catch the difference? The Forbes article calls job hopping the biggest obstacle for job seekers, while the Bullhorn survey clarifies that job hopping is the biggest obstacle for unemployed candidates. One could agree that having a job hopper reputation while being unemployed is a tough combination, but anecdotally I’ve found that employed job hoppers have a much easier time. After all, job hoppers are clearly skilled at getting hired.
Why is it necessary to make this distinction between job seekers and unemployed job seekers? Because unemployment acts as a sort of multiplier or catalyst towards the “unemployability” of the job hopper, which explains why almost 40% of managers and recruiters would essentially call unemployed job hoppers the least attractive group. It is also useful to point out that in high-demand labor markets with relatively low unemployment rates such as the market for software engineering, the job hoppers almost always have a job.
The data also seems flawed for another reason. 39% cite job hopping as the biggest issue, while 31% point to lengthy unemployment. One would think that the gap between these two numbers should be much greater. In my experience, a candidate that has been unable to get a job for over a year probably has more serious marketability issues than someone who was able to get hired twice in a year. There could be countless extenuating circumstances to either situation, of course.
A few thoughts on job hopping and the alternative.
Extreme longevity at one company can be viewed as a detriment in a job search (worse than job hopping)
20th century hiring managers viewed your 15 years at COMPANY as a sign of employee loyalty, while 21st century managers feel that if you were any good another company would have hired you away by now. I typically consider extended stays (>10 years perhaps) with one employer as a potential challenge to overcome for a job seeker in today’s tech market. Making a series of moves that allowed you to progress your career and skills will often be viewed more positively than stagnating in one role for an extended period.
Don’t get fired
Job hoppers that lost jobs due to a documented and significant reduction in force or company closing shouldn’t have too many problems, as they aren’t viewed as true job hoppers (rather victims of circumstance). Those that made multiple moves to pursue better opportunities will only be negatively impacted if they are not staying in jobs long enough to improve their skills and to accomplish something valuable. Having a pattern of being fired, even only twice, is where the major employability problem lies for job hoppers.
If your performance is a known issue and you resemble a job hopper, find a new job before they have a chance to fire you.
Have at least one or two stints worthy of highlighting
One of the problems with making quick moves is that you often don’t have enough time to do anything worth putting on a résumé. As an exercise for writing this post, I looked back at the résumés of the candidates I’ve placed in the past two years. The results were telling.
Only about 5% of the candidates I placed had been in their current job for more than three years at the time of placement, and most had been in their past two jobs for less than two years each. Almost all of them, however, had an impressive stint of three to six years at a company within the last decade with obvious accomplishments. The sample size isn’t significant enough to call this a study, and my client base tends to be small companies that are probably less likely to exclude candidates solely based on some jobs per year metric.
It appears that candidates who have had two or three jobs over a short period of time will be forgiven for job hopping if they had at least one stable stretch in the recent past. Just as a former league MVP should be able to find a spot on a team’s roster even after a couple sub-par seasons, candidates that have somewhat recent success stories will overcome the stigma of job hopping.
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