Setting the Record Straight on Switching Jobs
tay in a job for at least two years.” “Never leave a job until you have your next one lined up.” Everyone from your mother to your mentor has advice about the best way to switch jobs. But how can you know whom to trust? Especially since what was true in the job market 20 years ago — even two years ago — is not necessarily gospel now. And the market is constantly changing.
Consider the power dynamic between candidates and employers, for example. Though it differs across industries and regions, and is dependent on the health of the economy, in the past few years, experts have described the current labor market as “candidate-driven.” Job seekers hold more power than employers, a trend that seems to be deepening.
So does this mean when switching jobs, you’re in the driver’s seat? Not necessarily. But it does mean that you can’t rely on “age-old” guidance. We asked readers (and our own editors) what advice they hear most often about how to switch job and then talked with two experts to get their perspectives on whether the current wisdom holds up in practice and against research.
1. “Never tell your boss that you’re looking for another position.”
It may seem logical that you want to have a job in hand before you reveal to your manager that you’re leaving. After all, you don’t want your boss to be mad at you or stop investing in you. But things have changed. “It used to be when you left a job, you were seen as a traitor,” says John Sullivan, an HR expert, professor of management at San Francisco State University, and author of 1000 Ways to Recruit Top Talent. Companies have changed their tune and now make efforts to be sure people leave on good terms. They recognize that former employees are out there on social media, says Sullivan, and they don’t want to “risk being disparaged on Glassdoor, Yelp, Facebook, or Twitter.”
In fact, many companies now have programs that keep the door open in case employees want to return. The idea is that if you’re a valuable employee, the company wants to get as many years as they can out of your career — and those years may not all be in a row. Companies like Davita Healthcare, Yahoo, and KPMG are hiring large numbers of return employees. About 15% of Davita’s hires are people who have worked there before, says Sullivan.
Not only is there less risk in letting your manager know that you’re looking than there used to be, but there may be great upsides too, says Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a senior adviser at global executive search firm Egon Zehnder and author of It’s Not the How or the What but the Who: Succeed by Surrounding Yourself with the Best. First off, your boss may want to figure out how to keep you. When Fernández-Aráoz worked for McKinsey in Europe in the 1980s, he wanted to move back to Argentina so he let the office leader know that he’d be leaving the job. They offered to let him work from Argentina while he looked so that they could get as much time out of him as possible. “Being open actually improved my last year enormously, and helped me get a terrific job,” he explains. He got a great reference from his former boss at McKinsey who talked about his openness and loyalty to the firm.
And if staying with the company isn’t realistic, you may find ways to continue to work with the company. Fernández-Aráoz points to the advice in The Alliance by Reid Hoffman (the cofounder and chairman of LinkedIn) and his coauthors that life-long employment is no longer realistic but being a completely free agent isn’t perfect either. “The alternative is what they call a ‘transformational alliance,’” explains Fernández-Aráoz, “where through honest conversations you explicitly agree on a temporary alliance, clarifying expectations regarding your contribution to the organization and what the organization will provide you in return, which may well be the support to continue your career elsewhere.” This is popular in Silicon Valley now, and “is probably showing the way to talent and career management over the next decades.”
Even if you think your boss or company might be open to the idea of you leaving and possibly maintaining a relationship in some way, the conversation can be uncomfortable. And it will be far worse if you suspect your manager won’t be understanding. Sullivan says: “If your boss is a jerk, you may want to wait.”
2. “Stay at a job for at least a year or two — moving around too much looks bad on a resume.”
“This is a popular piece of conventional wisdom,” says Sullivan, and it’s simply not true anymore. First of all, it’s not always realistic. “There are many times when you really need to leave your job without anything else,” says Fernández-Aráoz. You may need to relocate because of your spouse’s job or quit to take care of a family member.
Second, short stints no longer hurt a resume. Sullivan says that employers have become more accepting of brief periods of employment. As many as 32% of employers expect job-jumping. “It’s become part of life,” says Sullivan. In fact, people are most likely to leave their jobs after their first, second, or third work anniversaries. Millennials are especially prone to short stays at jobs. Sullivan’s research shows that 70% quit their jobs within two years. So the advice to stick it out at a job for the sake of your resume is just no longer valid.
Gaps in job history aren’t the sticking points they once were either, says Sullivan. “No matter what the reason — you got laid off, you took time to write a book, care for a family member, travel — it’s no longer seen as problematic.” You just have to show that your time off wasn’t a waste of time. Employers, says Sullivan, just want to know that you made use of the time either to gain a new skill, have a life-changing experience, or learn something new.
Still, says Fernández-Aráoz, you should avoid jumping around if you can, not because of any potential damage to your future job prospects, but because of the emotional drain. “The real problem is starting again to find a new place, a new location, new friends, constantly reproving yourself,” he says. You can avoid a lot of switching by thoroughly assessing any potential jobs. Because many interviews are what he calls “a conversation between two liars,” it pays to get a sense of what the job will truly be like in other ways. Some companies will offer a realistic job preview that will give you an inside view of the company, not the sugarcoated perspective you get in a series of interviews. Ask for one when considering your next job, suggests Fernández-Aráoz, or do as much research as you possibly can before accepting the offer.
3. “Don’t quit your job before allowing your current employer to make a counter offer.”
If you’re a valuable employee, Sullivan says that smart companies will make an attempt to convince you to stay. “If you’re on their priority list, it would be considered ‘regrettable turnover’ for them and they’ll do what they can to keep you.” Counteroffers have become much more common especially in industries where there’s talent scarcity or for highly specialized roles, according to Fernández-Aráoz. “They usually come with some form of flattery, promises, and even better conditions,” he says.
But be careful, he warns: “In my three decades of experience, I’m genuinely convinced that most counteroffers are bad for all parties.” He gives two reasons you shouldn’t accept a counteroffer. First, there was a reason you started to look for another job and that’s unlikely to change despite your employer’s promises. “The rule of thumb among recruiters used to be that 80% of those accepting counteroffers leave, or are terminated, within six to 12 months, and that half of those who accept them re-initiate their job searches within 90 days.” Even if your manager is able to make good on the promises in a counteroffer, there is the issue of broken trust. “They may still consider you less loyal and therefore offer you lower chances of future development.” Second, Fernández-Aráoz says, “you’ve made a commitment to the new company and you should honor it.”
Of course, you should make a sound decision based on the unique situation you are in and analyze both alternatives. Fernández-Aráoz suggests looking at the long-term potential rather than the short-term benefits. Which opportunity will give you what you want in the future?
4. “Never make a lateral move — a new job is your only chance of making a big leap in title and compensation.”
“That’s so last year,” says Sullivan. “Yes, the old model was that you were Assistant VP, then VP, then Senior VP. But that’s GM in the 1980s, not today’s organizations.” He says given how flat companies are today, there’s often nowhere to go in your current job or in another one. You should focus on finding interesting work rather than worrying about lateral moves.
Fernández-Aráoz agrees: “If you are going for title and compensation, think again!” More money and a better title rarely are what make you happy in a job, he says. Instead, look for autonomy, mastery, and purpose (as Daniel Pink describes).
5. “You should always be looking for your next job.”
You want to be happy, not constantly searching, says Fernández-Aráoz. “Ideally, you should never be looking for your next job, simply because you love what you do.” He points to research Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done on the state of “flow,” describing it as “a neurological condition of our brain in which we achieve maximum productivity while our brain consumes very little energy. We are fully immersed in what we do, fully absorbed, even losing a sense of time, and we’re able to function at our best.” When you have found this in a job, looking for your next one is unnecessary.
But, even if you’ve found a role that keeps you happy, you should still be learning and growing, says Sullivan. He points out that this doesn’t have to be a new role with a new company, but can be a different role or challenge in your existing job. “The world is changing so rapidly that you have to be agile or adaptable. You should constantly look for projects that give you more skills, do things outside of your comfort zone, so that you have another skillset, not just the one you need for your current job.”
Over the course of your career, you’re likely to switch jobs multiple times. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics recently issued a report that the average person born between 1957-1964 held 11.7 jobs over their working years. And that’s Baby Boomers, not job-hopping Millennials. Ideally those moves will be in search of a more fulfilling, challenging, and satisfying job.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article, published on July 13, 2015, misstated the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figure in the last paragraph.