How bad is it really to “bounce around” from job to job?
I’ve been practicing in my field for five years and have had three jobs in that time — the first for roughly five months, the next for two and a half years, and my current one for about a year and a half. Recently, I’ve been starting to feel unfulfilled here, partly because of the pandemic (my workload has been really inconsistent), but also because the workplace in general is a lot more antisocial and older-skewing than I was originally expecting. I came from an organization where there were a lot of people around my age, frequent group lunches/happy hours, etc. Here, while everyone I work with is super nice and lovely, most of them could be my parents and everyone simply sits in their office alone, not really interacting (the only plus was that this made the transition to working from home very easy for everyone).
I’ve also been thinking about my long-term goals and have concluded that staying where I currently am may not help me reach those objectives. I’m an associate at a law firm doing niche work that isn’t typically valued outside of a specific field, and I know that I want to eventually work in-house with a company rather than become a law-firm partner.
All of this seems to point toward searching for a new job. However, I have heard time and time again that it looks bad on a résumé to have bounced around a lot; I was advised by someone I used to work with that I really need to stay at my current job for at least two years before moving again (as a hiring manager, I know I have negatively judged candidates’ frequent job moves when evaluating applications). But is this true? Will I really be hamstrung in a potential job search by not hitting an arbitrary mark of time at a job I don’t like? Should I just wait it out?
So, the deal with job-hopping is this: It’s not necessarily an absolute résumé killer, but in many fields it can make it a lot harder to get the jobs you want.
The reason for that is employers may assume that if you have a pattern of leaving jobs relatively quickly, you’ll leave them relatively quickly too. And most employers would rather not hire, train, and invest in someone who might leave before long, particularly when they could instead select a candidate whose résumé shows a pattern of sticking around for a while.
But first let’s talk about what job-hopping even is, because people have a lot of confusion about that. Job-hopping is a pattern of leaving jobs quickly — like multiple stays of one to two years each time.
People are sometimes surprised to hear that, because there’s a myth out there that if you make it to the one-year mark at a job, you can leave without any worries about job-hopping. But there’s nothing magical about the one-year mark! If you leave four jobs in a row after 18 months each, you’re going to look pretty job-hopper-ish. So, frankly, if you’re miserable in a job, there’s no reason to stick it out for a year if you’re going to leave right after that; on a resume, there’s no real difference between ten months and, say, 14 months. It looks fairly brief either way.
Now, some caveats. It’s not a big deal to have a series of short-term jobs that were designed to be short-term, like contract roles. Job-hopping is about a pattern of quickly leaving jobs that weren’t supposed to be so short-term. It’s also not job-hopping if you’re moving around within your company — like a series of quick promotions.
What counts as job-hopping can also change as you move along in your career. Earlier in your career, it might be completely unremarkable to have, say, three jobs in five years. But when you’re more senior, moving that frequently will often look off.
And importantly, some fields are exceptions to this. There are industries (like some parts of IT) where it’s normal to move around frequently and where staying for seven years will be more unusual than always leaving after two. But those industries are rare; for most people in most fields, a pattern of moving from company to company every year or two will raise questions.
That’s largely because interviewers will wonder why you’ve moved around so often. Is it because you get bored quickly, and if so, will you get bored with the job they’re trying to fill too? Do you get asked to leave because of performance or conduct issues? Do you have unrealistic expectations about employment in general — are you a prima donna who quits over stuff that’s pretty routine or unavoidable?
And to be clear, it’s not that interviewers don’t understand that people can hit a run of bad luck. They do! For example, maybe you left a bad job after eight months because your boss was a tyrant, then got laid off from your next job after a year, then took a job that turned out to be a bait and switch so you left after a few months … none of which is your fault, but now you have a work history that raises questions. That doesn’t mean you can’t overcome it — you’re not doomed if that happens — but it does mean you’ll need to be prepared to explain the circumstances to interviewers and convince them that you’re looking for something stable now.
A pattern of short-term stays can hurt you in another way, though: In a lot of jobs, it takes time to master the role — it could be six months before you really know what you’re doing, and it could be a year or more before you’re contributing at a high level. If you leave soon after that, not only has the employer’s investment in you not paid off, but you’re unlikely to have the sort of achievements and depth of experience that help make your résumé attractive to future employers.
However, all that said, what we’re talking about here are patterns. A single short-term stay at a job isn’t a big deal. It becomes a concern when you have multiple short-term stays stacking up against each other. So … where does that leave you? I can’t speak to law specifically, and you should run this question by someone who works in law and whose judgment you trust. But as general advice, I’d say your pattern so far (five months, two and a half years, and now one and a half years) isn’t the worst, but it’s not ideal. We’ll call it borderline. Would it be better if you stayed two full years? Yes. Would three years be even better? Yes. But while this kind of stability matters, it’s not the only consideration to weigh. Other things matter too, like your quality of life and overall happiness, and whether more time doing this specific work will help with your longer-term goals or not. You’ve got to look at all these factors together and decide what trade-offs you’re willing to make and how much risk and benefit there is to each option.
And if you do end up with what looks like a pattern of job-hopping on your résumé, you’ll still find work; it’s not like you’ll never get hired again! But what happens is that it can increasingly limit your options. The best and most competitive jobs have so many people applying for them that employers often won’t choose to take a risk on someone without a stable job history — which means it can get harder over time to land the jobs you want. You’ll land something! But it’ll impact your options.
One thing to be very aware of, though: If you do move on from this job before, say, three years, you should be really, really confident that you’ll stay at the next job for a few years. If you end up leaving that one after a relatively short time, at that point you’ll pretty definitely have set a pattern that makes you more likely to have trouble the next time you’re searching. So vet the next job well and make sure you’re comfortable committing to stay there for a while.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.