Is short job tenure always bad? Picture this: you get an unexpected call from a recruiter for a very interesting job that you would normally jump at. However, you have been at your current job for just over a year. Your last job tenure was also pretty short – about two years — because you jumped to this current one opportunistically. Should you jump yet again?
Taking this new offer would mean three jobs in four years. How much do employers value job tenure (and specifically penalize short job tenure)? Does a short stint on the job (or more than one short job) really hurt your career?
This exact situation came up in a workshop I led for experienced professionals, and it’s not that uncommon. With business conditions changing so quickly and frequently, jobs are changing more quickly and frequently, and if you don’t specifically manage your career for job tenure, you might find that you have jumped around more than you planned to. How much jumping around is too much? Here are three cases where a short job tenure could be acceptable, and three cases where a short job tenure hurts your career:
Short job tenure is acceptable: When you’re starting out
Employers weigh the most recent jobs more heavily than the early ones, especially over a longer career. So if your short job tenure is early in your career and you have since settled into a longer tenure at your current employer, you may not hear any negative fallout from your earlier jumps (though you still might get asked about why you left). If you are early in your career and haven’t found that longer job yet, you’ll have to convince an employer your short stints don’t reflect a lack of commitment. If you’re able to explain why you left and if you have other areas in your life (e.g., a hobby or interest, a volunteer spot) where you have shown commitment, then the short tenures can be made to appear reasonable. Short job tenure is not insurmountable!
Acceptable: When it’s an exception
If you had staying power in earlier jobs, but your most stint shows the short job tenure, then you still can be marketable, since you can point to this recent job as an exception. Keep in mind that you want to be careful about your upcoming job choice because you want this next one to stick – that way, the recent short job tenure was really an exception. If you make two or more ill-fated choices in a row, then short job tenure becomes your new normal, not your earlier staying power. You can’t get complacent in managing your career!
Acceptable: When one short job tenure after another add up to a longer commitment
If you have only had a series of short stints (two years or less) but there is a pattern in your moves that points to commitment and progression, then each individual short job tenure may not matter. For example, you might have stayed in one place for less than two years, then followed your boss to another job, then followed him again to a third opportunity – three different jobs (each with short job tenure) but the same boss in all, which shows that you’re someone valuable to management. Or, you might have been at a company that was acquired or restructured multiple times and shows up as several employers when it really has been the same company in different iterations. In both of these cases, each short job tenure adds up to a longer commitment, as long as you can explain your transitions. Keep in mind that these transitions are not always evident in your resume chronology so you need to explain them in a summary or cover letter or certainly your interviews!
Short job tenure is unacceptable: When you need to show staying power
In all of the above examples where short stints on the job are ultimately okay, it’s because you are able to assure the employer of your staying power. Short job tenure is unacceptable when you cannot otherwise demonstrate staying power – i.e., that you are committed to your job and that management is committed to you. The more senior you get, the more important tenure on the job becomes because there are fewer management positions and every advantage, such as staying power, is that much more scrutinized. Employers don’t want to hire someone into a management position who might have a short job tenure, since it will be disruptive, not just to that hire, but also to the team, budget and whatever initiatives that manager oversees. If you’re in or aspiring to management, pay attention to staying power!
Unacceptable: When results take more time
The more senior you get, the more complex your responsibilities and projects become and the longer it will take to get results. So employers look for long tenure on the job really as a by-product of wanting to see substantive results. If you only stay on the job for two years or less, that won’t be long enough to push through an organizational design change, implement a new system or process, launch a new product, enter a new market, or turn around a struggling line of business. Even if your short stay happens to coincide with a launch of something new or different, you won’t be around to measure the results. To land big roles you need to have a big impact, which requires a longer stay on the job!
Unacceptable: When results over time matter
Staying for a launch and immediate results is still not enough because employers also look at results over time. How do you manage in both up and down markets? How do your results fare over time – is their consistency, even growth? How do you react to changes in the marketplace, competitive landscape, or technology? If your stay on the job is too short, you simply won’t have lived through enough changes to demonstrate that your results have staying power. The bigger the role, the more results over time matter!
As you can see, how much job tenure matters isn’t a one-dimensional answer. There are cases where a short stint on the job won’t hurt your career and cases where it absolutely matters. However, job tenure is just one factor in determining your value as a candidate. Employers look at functional skills, industry expertise, leadership qualities, relationship and communication skills, and overall experience, in addition to job tenure. This is what makes career management so agonizing – it’s not a simple if-you-do-this-then-that-will-follow proposition. However, this is also what makes career management so doable for everyone willing to put in the time – you can make up for a shortfall in one area, say job tenure, with other accomplishments and attributes. You are always in control of your career!
A version of this post appears in my leadership column on Forbes.com.