ask a boss

‘How Soon Is Too Soon to Leave a Stopgap Job?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I took an “any port in a storm”–type job four months ago due to the pandemic and am wondering what comes next.

The background: After suddenly losing my job last year, I was thrown into an urgent hunt. Four months ago, I landed a position with a decent salary, doing much the same work I’d done previously but in a sector that I wouldn’t have chosen if I wasn’t desperate. It was definitely an “I’m taking the job because it’s the first I’ve been offered” situation, but I was grateful to get it.

The people here are nice, and they’ve put a lot of time into training me. They are evidently expecting me to stay for many years, as has been the pattern for most former employees in my role. I would like to work for myself in the future and am even thinking about completely changing fields, but that will take a long time to achieve and I need to stay employed until then. I figured this would be a good setup for, say, the next five years.

But I’ve realized that I just don’t enjoy the job at all. I’m used to working on projects that don’t set my soul on fire, but this has been the most stressful job I’ve ever had by far. Part of that is due to inefficient working practices, which I should be able to influence over time, but I don’t think they’ll completely go away. My department — and therefore me — also shoulders a huge workload that has nothing to do with our roles and should be done by a totally different team. It really interferes with my ability to get my main job done, and I’m working very long hours during busy weeks. I’ve been told that won’t change for the foreseeable future because of pressures from the pandemic. I’ve also encountered some ethical concerns with the company’s work that I didn’t expect. 

I’d been telling myself that my unhappiness was just part of the adjustment to a new job, that I should focus on feeling grateful for the paycheck, and it would get better once I’d settled in more. Maybe that will be the case to some degree. But I’m getting that “dreading going to work” feeling on Sunday nights that I haven’t had for years and it really unsettles me. So I’m wondering whether it’s okay to just conclude that although it’s been a lifeline, it isn’t a job for me in the long term.

If I decide that, how long do I have to stay? I know I’ve got to do at least a year for the sake of my résumé and job hunting could take ages anyway. But I think my employer would be really disappointed if I left so quickly, and I don’t want to look flaky to recruiters and harm my ability to get work that I’d enjoy more. However, life feels too short to be unhappy with my work and I’m sad at the thought of dreading Mondays for the next five years.

You don’t need to stay a year for your résumé’s sake.

Somehow a lot of people have gotten the idea that you’re always supposed to stick it out for a year at a job even if you’re miserable, but it’s not true. There’s nothing magical about the one-year mark!

If your concern is that you don’t want to look like a job hopper, a single short-term stay isn’t going to be a problem. Job hopping is about a pattern where you repeatedly leave jobs after only a short time; it’s not about one short tenure. Also, when it is a concern, staying for a year won’t counteract it anyway! A bunch of one-year stays will raise the same concern as a bunch of eight-month stays. In most fields, you generally need a track record of staying at companies at least two or three years to avoid looking like a job hopper. So staying somewhere that makes you miserable so that you can reach an arbitrary one-year mark will just make you suffer more without getting much benefit out of it.

If your résumé is already full of short-term stays, you do have more reason to stick things out at this job so that you can counteract that flaky impression. But to do that, you’d need to stay for at least two years, and three would be better. That’s a long time to stay when you’re this unhappy, and I’d question whether it’s worth it. Frankly, if you already have a job-hopper-ish résumé, one more short-term job probably isn’t going to be the deciding factor in whether an employer hires you or not. I’d rather you find a job you like and that you can commit to staying at for a while.

Plus, there’s a lot of job-switching happening right now, so leaving quickly isn’t going to stand out as much as it might in more normal times. A lot of people are in situations similar to yours, where they took any job they could get (or could do safely) during the pandemic, but now are starting to look around at what else is available. And a ton of people are switching jobs because it’s finally an employee’s market (in a lot of fields, at least, though not in all), or because they put planned moves on hold last year and hunkered down where they were, but are venturing out now. There’s just a lot of churn going on at this particular moment, and that’s good for you.

Moreover, if an interviewer asks why you’re leaving this job so quickly, you have a perfectly understandable explanation. You took a job outside your sector because you needed a job during the pandemic, but you’ve realized it’s not the right fit. Interviewers will get that. It doesn’t sound flaky.

The other important thing is, none of these are hard-and-fast rules! Yes, it’s true that if you have a résumé full of short-term stays, it will be a concern for some interviewers and could make your job search harder than it would otherwise be. But that’s not a guaranteed outcome (especially if you’re not an extreme case), and it’s very unlikely to prevent you from ever being employed again. It’s useful to be aware of how job hopping can be perceived, but the world won’t end if you do it (and neither will your career). The idea isn’t for you to adhere to rigid rules about how to manage your career, but rather for you to understand the potential trade-offs so you can make good decisions for yourself accordingly.

As for your employer being disappointed if you leave soon, they might be! But people leave jobs, often at not-ideal times, and employers survive. And sure, managers generally hope that when you accept a job you’re planning to stick around for a while — but good managers understand that things don’t always work out, and they won’t want you to feel obligated to stay in a job where you’re dreading coming to work.

So if you’ve realized that this job isn’t one you want to stay in the long term (or even in the medium- or short term), you don’t need to! You can start looking right now if you want to. It’ll be okay.

That said, make sure you really do your due diligence on the next place; don’t leap at the first thing that comes along, or you could find yourself back in this same position six months from now. But if you want to leave … you can leave. Good luck!

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 Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘How Soon Is Too Soon to Leave a Stopgap Job?’