A company where I know at least 5 people just went through a massive, and mostly botched, reorganization. Details are useless here, but I’m struck by the number of high-functioning people who developed physical and mental health ailments (at least four that I know of, and probably tens that I don’t) in the chaos. It got me thinking: why? Now, I understand why an individual would fear job change or loss, because it’s a big deal to be jobless when the rent is too damn high. What I mean is: why do we, as a society, care enough about work to make ourselves sick? We wouldn’t even have to do less work to avoid sickness, because most of the stuff that makes people ill is socioeconomic chatter and anxiety that’s not productive; we could do have just as much stuff (or much more) just by working efficiently. That’s a big economic problem and a bit beyond the scope I can tackle here. I’m going to focus on our biggest grunt-level issue (the “job hopper” stigma) and one that’s holding us back morally, industrially and technically.
I’m completely on board with people wanting to do their jobs well (eustress) and be recognized, because ambition and a work ethic are admirable and I don’t have much in common with those who lack them, but how on earth is anything we do in white-collar work remotely important enough to deserve a sacrifice of health? I can’t come up with a good answer, because I don’t think there is one. Except when lives are at stake (e.g. medicine, war) there’s simply no job that’s worth giving up one’s mental or physical well-being. Does the typical private-sector project ever merit the risk of developing a long-term condition like panic disorder or depression? “Fuck no, sir” is the only right answer.
To be fair to the executives involved, it’s probably impossible to carry out any corporate action, good or bad, without the stress having some effect on peoples’ health. You can’t expect a CEO of a large company not to do something he considers necessary because it might stress someone out. That’d be a ludicrous demand. Some people get stressed out by the tiniest things. Most of the blame (for peoples’ health issues, at least) doesn’t go to the top. An executive’s perspective is that jobs change or end and that people should just deal with it. I don’t disagree with that at all! I believe fully that society should implement a basic income and I think it’s utterly criminal how this country has tied health insurance to employment for so long– I think people should suffer far less from job volatility than they do, in other words– but I think that this volatility is essential to economic progress. Sometimes, the cuts are going to be initiated by the employer (preferably with a generous severance and continuing career support). Other times, the employee is quick enough to see the dead end ahead and leaves on her own. There is, unfortunately, a problem. There’s something that makes job changes a million times more stressful, and it’s the creepy realization that, after a certain number of employment changes, a person is branded as a hot mess and, at least for the top positions, untouchable. That’s the dreaded job hopper stigma, and it needs to die. I’m here to slaughter it, because God works through people. It won’t be pretty.
In the case that inspired this essay, I don’t even know if those four people (who became sick due to reorg-induced stress) wanted to leave their company. One of them seemed quite happy there. What made them ill, in my mind, is not that they work for a bad company (they don’t) but the feeling of being trapped: the knowledge that, for the first 18 months on a job, one pretty much cannot leave it no matter what happens. One could be severely demoted in the first month of a new job and it would still be suicidal to leave.
Why is there a job hopper stigma? In part, it’s because HR offices need some objective way to “stack rank” external candidates, and dates of employment are the hardest to fudge. Titles get tweaked or bought (“exit promotions” for the employee to go gently with a meager or no severance, or inflated titles in lieu of raises, and then there are the self-assigned ones) and accomplishments get embellished (or just plain made up) and people can claim whatever they want in salary and performance bonus (and sue an employer who contradicts them, for misappropriating confidential information). Dates of employment, however, are objective and readily furnished by even the most risk-averse HR offices. So the duration of the job becomes the measure of how successful it was. Under 6 months? That person was probably completely useless and fired for performance, and certainly didn’t accomplish anything. (Some of us are “10x” players who can achieve a lot in 6 months, but HR judgments are based on the mediocre, and not on us.) 6 to 17 months? Needs explanation, and the candidate will have to sell herself hard just to get back to par. 18 to 47 months? Probably a middle-of-the-pack performer, passed-over for promotion but still worth talking to… if there aren’t other candidates. (I’ve heard that long job tenures, beyond 6 years without rapid promotion, can also be damaging, but that has never been a problem for me. I’m not one to stick around and stagnate.)
One short-term job (under 15 months) is seen as forgivable, but two becomes “a pattern” (note: “a pattern”, in HR-speak, means “lather my frenulum, bitch”). At three, you’ll spend 30% of your time on job interviews explaining away your past, leaving you at 70% capacity to convince them of your fit and potential in the future. (In other words, you’ll spend so much energy proving that you’re not bad that you’re enervated when it comes to what should actually matter: showing that you’re good.) At four, you’re branded a total fuckup and many HR departments won’t even return your calls, the smug cockbags. The “job hopper” stigma is real and it needs to die, now. Any dinosaurs who cling to it can, for all I care, go along with it. White-collar employment world’s obsession with shame and embarrassment and social position, instead of excellence and progress and positive-sum collective efforts, is the single thing most responsible for holding us back as a society.
Here we go…
I’m 30 years old and I’ve had a ridiculous number of short-term jobs. I’ve stopped being ashamed of my past, because I’ve done little wrong and what wrong I have done has already been over-punished. I’ve paid my fucking debts. I’ll go over my past, just to show how common it can be for a good person to just be unlucky. Nothing I’m about to talk about is atypical in volatile industries like finance and tech. Jobs end, people leave, turnover happens, and often it’s no one’s fault.
Job hop #1 was a small company that just didn’t have much need for high-power work, and I wasn’t interested in the regular, day-to-day stuff once I’d met their R&D needs, so I left (a few R&D projects completed, stellar quality) when my work was done. #2 was health related; the real-time nature of the work mandated an open-plan office– a rare case where that layout was beneficial and necessary– and my panic issues weren’t nearly as manageable then as they are now. (These days, 20 minutes after a panic attack I am fine and back to work.) No one’s at fault, and I still recommend that firm highly when asked about it, but I chose to leave. #3 was Google, a good company I’ve made my peace with, but where I had a manager so awful that the company formally apologized. #4 (which I’ve taken off my resume) was an absolutely shitty startup that hired three people (of whom I was one) for the same “informal VP/Eng” role, which was bad enough, but then asked me to commit felony perjury (at 3.5 months) against 10 colleagues with “too much” equity, and fired me when I refused. #5 was a large-scale layoff in a terrible year for that company, and sad because I know I management liked me (I got top performance reviews, but my project was cut) and I liked them. They treated me well while I was there and afterward. That’s 5 jobs that ended before the 18-month mark, and while three (#1, 2, 5) involved no managerial or corporate malfeasance, only one of them (#1, the most innocuous) could be legitimately called my fault.
Needless to say, that stuff gets asked about during job interviews. It’s annoying, because it has me starting from a disadvantaged position. After all, I broke that corporate commandment: thou shalt not leave a job before being in it for 18 months. Even in 2014, the same senile Tea Partiers who want “government hands off my Medicare!” insist on upholding their archaic “job hopper” stigma and write uninformed, syphilitic blog rants about how one should never hire a “job hopper”.
The image of a job hopper is of a mercenary, young executive born in the Millennial generation (1982-2004) and hustling his way up the corporate ladder by exploiting the winner’s curse. Because the Boomers did such a good job of raising this generation (ha!) these suburban-bred “trophy kids” have never known adversity (ha!) and they have a keen ability to exploit favorable (again, ha!) market conditions. Instead of “paying dues” and suffering like they’re goddamn s’posed to, “kids these days” jump for a better opportunity at another firm. (In reality, job hops reset the clock and mean that one will have pay dues and prove oneself again, but most Boomers don’t realize that, because they never had to live the way we do.) On a side note, in no way did the Boomers steal the future from the Xers and Millennials. That stuff about housing prices and college tuition costs and non-dischargeable student debt and health insurance premiums and adjustable-rate mortgages and the death of private-sector basic research pushing PhDs into formerly BA-level jobs is Soviet propaganda designed to make capitalism look bad. It’s all lies, I tell you, lies!
Job volatility is more of an issue for young people now than it was 30 years ago. Layoffs happen, positions change, redundancies emerge, and projects get cancelled. It happens, and it’s not even a bad thing. Economic progress virtually requires change that ends jobs. The failure is more in the fact that our society is failing to manage this volatility, by trading up (or, thanks to outsourcing, cheap) instead of training up. This has all been discussed ad nauseum, so let me get into a (possibly generational) subjective factor that hasn’t been discussed: increasing boredom. If I’m right, this would make it especially difficult for those who should be high-performers.
I suspect that, today, low-level jobs white-collar jobs are more boring. We’ve achieved a level of boredom in white-collar work so impressive that many people prefer fucking Farmville. Now, that must be some boring work! People will disagree and point quickly to new technology that is supposed to automate all the grunt work away. I agree that this is a possibility of technology. I don’t know if it’s actually being used that way. The social expectation of 40 hours’ work per week, minimum, to stay in the organizations that employ most of the middle class is actually generating a lot of work that is pointless and boring. Work expanding to fill the allotted time (which may be 50 to 70 hours per week in organizations claiming to have “performance-oriented” cultures) seems to be having some pretty serious consequences for peoples’ mental health.
I’m a technologist, so I love what computers can do, but much of what they are actually used to do is, to be frank, pretty fucking dismal. Computers make excellence possible in new ways, but most executives just want to make mediocrity cheaper (often externalizing costs, which is fancy speak for “robbing people”) to get a quick bonus. Information technology has been used as a centrifuge of work, enabling organizations to separate the labor they management thinks it needs (work without executive sanction, no matter how important, gets ignored in a closed-allocation company) into strata and specialties and keep people, as much as possible, working on the same goddamn thing every day. The monoculture and the restraining permissions systems are supposed to limit operational risk, but it actually introduces a long-term and subtle but existential risk: mediocrity, which sets in as people get bored (on the aggregate scale) and check the fuck out.
Most people I know want heterogeneity in their work: a mix of collaboration and isolation, a portfolio with high-risk creative projects but also low-risk (but still fulfilling) “grunt work” that is reliably useful, and enough variety in projects to build a unique personal understanding of what they’re doing. Modern project management doesn’t respect that. The work gets chewed down into boxy little quanta (Jira tickets! user stories!) and the individual worker ends up mired in a psychological monoculture. This happened with physical labor about 200 years ago, but the combination of information technology and upper-management psychopathy has been, over the past 30 years, doing the same to much mental work. We’re seeing an epidemic of a mental-health issue that, until recently, was pretty rare: extreme, soul-crushing boredom. I’m not talking about spending two hours in a traffic jam. That sucks but it’s a one-off. Nor am I talking about mundane, “unsexy” subtasks in more interesting long-term project, because even the best jobs are 90% mundane, hour by hour– even the best software projects involve lots of debugging– and we’re fine with that. Nor am I referring to the nagging “I might be wasting my life” sensation that people get sometimes but can ignore when work needs to be done. That’s not what I’m talking about when I talk about boredom. I’m talking about a psychiatric “brick wall” that is probably neurological (connected to a miserable disengagement response that, when it fires without a known context or too often, is called clinical depression) in nature.
If you’ve never experienced it, here’s a task that might bring on the “brick wall”. You must draw (by hand) a 56-by-56 grid of squares, 0.5 inches (1.25 cm) on each side with a 1% side-length tolerance (if you fail, scrap the drawing and start over) in side lengths and a 2-degree angle tolerance. Each box must be drawn individually (i.e. it’s not legal to draw 57 horizontal lines and 57 vertical lines) but no duplicated edges. Each segment connecting grid points must have no more arc length than 1.005 times that of a perfectly straight line (“straightness” requirement). You may use a ruler for measurement but not as a straight-edge: the segments must be free-drawn. Finally, boxes must be drawn in order from the upper left, left to right, then top to bottom. As they are completed, the boxes must then be filled with the numbers 1, 2, …, 3136 in that order. (If any work is done out of order, you must redo the entire task.) The digits must be legible, they must fit inside their box, they must be aesthetically pleasing (vague requirement) and reasonably close in size as well as centered within the box. As a last criterion, the large 56-by-56 square must meet a 0.02% side-length tolerance (on the 28-inch total size) and a 0.5-degree angle tolerance. (If this is not met, discard it and start over.) You will be in a noisy environment, you will be yelled at from time to time– and you are expected to smile and say “Hello, sir”, make eye contact for at least 1 but no more than 4 seconds– and you will be periodically interrupted (context switch) and asked to solve simple math and spelling questions. (If you get any wrong, discard your progress on the grid and start again.) People will be eating, drinking, playing sports, and possibly having sex in front of you, and you are not to interact with or even look at them. (If you do, discard your progress on the grid and start again.) Finally, if you give up or fail to complete the task after 6 hours, your punishment (humiliation) is to call ten random people on your contact list and make “oink” sounds for 15 seconds, then say, “I am an incompetent fuckup and I failed at the most basic task”, and then you must ask them for money (simulating being fired on bad terms). You can never explain, to them, the context in which you humiliated yourself thus.
I would guess that the percentage of people who could bring themselves to do this for a reward of, say, $10,000 is very small. I’m not sure that I’d do it for 100 thousand dollars. The task sounds easy. It is, physically and mentally, within the ability of almost anyone, but it’s psychiatric torture. For me, it was an anxious experience just to write this paragraph.
Where I believe surprisingly many people would fail (or, at least, be tempted to do so) is on the “in-order” requirement on the completion of the boxes and digits. Ever notice how, when performing a tedious task, there’s a tendency to inject some creativity into the process by, say, filling the boxes in, or completing the form, out of order? That requirement may seem stringent, but that kind of conformity is not uncommon in corporate environments where any display of individuality is taken as self-indulgent and arrogation of rank. (That’s where I put it there.) Few employers would force a worker to do the whole project over such a small departure from expectations, but the “why did you do it that way?” wolf-snap (microaggression) that some people direct at any expression of individuality is more than enough punishment to cancel out any psychological reward from doing the task.
If you’re a Boomer executive who thinks boredom is an attitude problem and not an involuntary, neurological brick wall (and one that especially affects the most capable) then get out a pen and draw me a fucking 56-by-56 grid.
So, on boredom, I’m talking about a vicious cycle of involuntary and escalating anxiety that emerges from the cognitive dissonance of a mind forced to contend with an unending slew of work it finds pointless. This is something that most white-collar Boomers haven’t experienced, because the IT-fueled work centrifuge hadn’t been perfected yet, and because their corporate ladder game was (to be frank) just a lot less competitive, but that most Millennials will. That cycle starts with the low-level social anxiety that everyone experiences at work. (People would be “on edge” to find two strangers in their car, much less a hundred in their career.) Even in great companies, that low-level anxiety is there; it’s just that the work offsets it. Novelty can offset, but under psychological monoculture, the reward and novelty stop and the only place to go from the anxious state is into boredom. Anxiety and boredom reduce performance, which causes further anxiety, and so forth, until frank depressive symptoms set in, it’s blamed on the employee, and the employee is let go, usually with a dishonestly-named “performance improvement plan” (PIP) because most companies, these days, are too cheap to pay severance. (Side note: even when performance problems do exist, prefer severance over PIPs. Three months’ pay is astronomically cheaper than having a “walking dead” employee ruining morale for 30 days.) Even if that person has normal mental health in general (“neurotypical”) an employee who’s been through the stress and humiliation of a PIP is probably suffering from diagnosable clinical depression and, if evaluated based on his at-then state, will have enough of a health story to sue (it’s not a good idea; he may not win and it will be terrible for him regardless, but it fucks the company) or push for severance. That’s a whole lot of ugliness that just shouldn’t have to happen.
That system– the typical corporate war of attrition based on social polish and boredom tolerance– doesn’t even work on its own terms, because this malignant nonsense generates no profit. Just as obesity is (in my opinion) only 10% personal fault and 90% the result of systemic issues with our food supply and culture, I tend to think the same of work boredom. Ninety percent of it, at least, is the fault of employers. They could structure themselves in a way that gets more value delivered, has employees happier, and doesn’t induce boredom. And don’t get me started on defective workspaces such as open-plan offices. People subjected to intermittent distraction and unreasonable anxiety, at less-than-liminal levels, will often experience work as “boring” even if the material itself is not the problem. Plenty of studies have shown that when people are subjected to the chronic, low-level stresses of a typically defective work environment (ringing phones, people shifting in their seats, personal space under 200 square feet, intense conversations nearby) they are aware of their underperformance but often attribute it to “boring” material, even when groups in better settings described the same work or reading as interesting.
Boomers see boredom as an attitude problem. “If you’re bored, read a book or go outside!” (“But stay off my damn lawn!”) The stereotype of a bored, “entitled” Millennial is of a mid-20s weakling who just refuses to give up on his adolescent fantasy of an easy job where high pay and recognition, “just for being awesome”, come without sacrifice, and whose rejection of even the slightest compromise with “the real world” leads to parasitism or underperformance. Certainly, those weaklings exist. They’re great anecdotes for shitty human-interest news stories using parentally-funded fuckups with impractical advanced degrees as exemplars of youth unemployment. They’re not common. They’re certainly not the norm. The boredom I’m talking about isn’t, “They won’t give me a corner office so, fuck ‘em, I’ll slack” boredom. It is an involuntary neurological response that occurs because mind rebels against being used in a way that it finds perniciously inefficient and insultingly pointless. And here’s why it’s such an issue for business: the smartest and most creative people are the ones who will fail first. The deeply unethical people who will actually kill your company are psychopaths and they, because they can allay their boredom by manipulating others, shifting blame, and causing destructive drama, get the least bored and fail last (i.e. win the corporate war of attrition).
Here’s the truth about job hopping, as a person who’s had a lot of bad luck and therefore plenty of “hops”. It fucking sucks. It’s not a fun life. I’ve done it enough and I’m a goddamn authority on this topic. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of cases where it’s better than the alternative (stagnation) to “hop”. But I don’t think anyone goes in to a job with an attitude of, “I’m going to work here for 291 days, waste half a year learning some terrible closed-source codebase, accomplish very little of note, burn bridges by leaving in the middle of an important project, get a pathetic lateral move for my next gig, and do the same thing all over again.” People go into jobs wanting 5-year-fits. Often, employers don’t realize how much people would prefer not to move around. If they just gave a little bit of a shit about their people, they’d be paid handsomely in loyalty. Take Valve’s culture of open allocation. Why do people work so hard in an open-allocation regime when they could “more easily” (I’m not actually sure this is true) get away with slacking? The organization is defensible. The workers give a shit, because they know they’ll be at risk of ending up in crappy closed-allocation jobs if the company fails or has to let them go. Most organizations rot because there’s a bilateral not-giving-a-shit that between management and labor, but defensible organizations like Valve, however, are capable of organic self-repair. The people don’t just want to succeed “at” the organization but they have a genuine commitment to keeping the principles it represents alive. Organizations like that, alas, are very uncommon. Most businesses exist only for one reason (shareholder enrichment) that barely includes the employees, and are worth leaving when they cease to suit the individual’s ambition.
As I said before, job hoppers get stuck paying more dues (even at executive levels, everyone has to pay dues to gain credibility in a new firm, because explicit authority doesn’t go very far) and, in general, see less advancement than they’d have had if they’d been able to stay put. Trust me that every sane person would rather do a little grunt work (appreciated grunt work with mentorship, at least) than be unemployed, interview for jobs at various (mostly shitty) companies, or spend 8 hours per day in the incoherent, tactical socialization process called “networking”. People want to work, to be challenged, and (in general) to stay put for a while and recover their energies. Work, if appreciated and meaningful, is energizing. Moving around is draining. Watching others accomplish more because they get the elusive “5-year fit” (not just a 5-year job, because it’s easy not to get fired, but a genuine 5-year stream of better projects) and not having that, is demoralizing. People don’t want to have to prove themselves to a new set of people every 14 damn months: that’s just hell.
Why’s there so much hopping? Because most jobs are terrible, that’s why. Let’s just get that out there. There are managers who take their reports’ career goals and advancement seriously, but most don’t. There are companies dedicated toward excellence rather than executive ego-stroking, but most aren’t. There are open allocation companies where people have a real say in what they work on and are trusted to “vote with their feet”, but most are closed-allocation shops where they’re just “assigned” to tasks. Most jobs are dead-end endeavors that become pointless after 12 months, and most organizations are not (in the meaning of the word used above) defensible. Sturgeon’s Law (“90 percent of everything is crap”) is utterly true in the corporate world. I’ll spare the reader any pompousness I could put here about Poisson distributions and get to the fucking point: statistics back me up that good people can just be unlucky and have a string of 3 or 4 or many more short-term jobs and have it not be their fault.
This role of bad luck in the “job hopper” death spiral is enhanced by autocorrelation. (Failures that are perceived as independent and indicative of personal shortfall might be subtly connected.) First, short job tenures tend to erode an applicant’s desirability and beget low-quality jobs (that are more likely to be short-term) in the future, a case of that job-hopping dynamic perpetuating itself. Second, there’s the Welch Effect, named for Jack Welch’s popularization of “rank-and-yank” (in technology, stack ranking). The Welch Effect is that, in a large layoff or in stack-ranking (which is just a dishonest, continual layoff dressed as being “performance-related” to save on severance) the first people to be fired are new or junior members of underperforming teams (who had the least to do with the team’s underperformance). Since stack-ranking (and, less so, layoffs) tend to have a “no infanticide” rule, people in their first 6 months are usually fine, but months 7 to 18 are extremely dangerous, and it’s not good to spend much time in them. The Welch Effect also enhances the “job hopper” stigma, because people with damaged resumes are more likely to end up on teams and projects that can’t be filled internally, and have carry a high probability of them being Welch Effected.
The “job hopper” stigma doesn’t always keep people from being able to find new gigs. What it does is shuttles them into second-tier jobs, long-shot companies, and teams that companies have trouble staffing internally. The only way out that seems to work is to accept that job searches will be very long (6+ months, as most first-rate jobs aren’t available to a “job hopper”) and “reverse interview” companies aggressively. Then, you’ve got a good chance of eventually (how are your finances? can you hold out for a few months?) getting a job and a company that are good, at least at the time you take the offer. Whether it stays good for 18 months and frees you, that’s another matter.
Background, but I’ll spare you the shitty teenaged poetry.
Now, I didn’t go to Stanford. When I was 17, I wanted to be a poet. Math was my backup plan. Computer programming? I grew up in Central Pennsylvania and for someone to make even $75,000 in software was unheard-of. A “programmer” was a guy who wrote cash-register interfaces in COBOL. Doctors, lawyers, executives, and these far-off and vaguely disliked people called “investment bankers” in New York made the money, and it wasn’t until 2007 (age 24) that I realized one could be a full-time coder (that’s what quants are) and be paid decently. My parents pushed me to major in math (I’m very glad I listened to them, because I’m a lot better with artificial neural networks than at slam poetry) but my first love was creative writing. Later, I did some (tabletop) game design and created Ambition, a great card game that will never make me a cent. Anyway, on the writing, I resisted (to my career detriment) early specialization and so, even though I had Ivy options– I didn’t get Harvard, but was offered in by a brand-name professor to another Ivy, and very likely would’ve gotten MIT or Stanford– I went to a liberal arts college in the Midwest (Carleton) because I figured that the experience (and rural setting) would be more conducive to the reflective mind a writer needs.
I got a fantastic education, but the exposure to the machinery of the working world (i.e. how very rich people think, how the gigantic machines they create tend to operate, and how to exploit those for personal benefit) was just not on the out-of-course curriculum as it would have been at, say, a Stanford or Harvard. Those skills turn out to be very important even in the “meritocracy” of software. There is no reason for me to be bitter about this now, and I have no regrets about the choices I’ve made, but there are “job hops” I could have avoided if I’d learned, much younger, how to spot warning signs. I had to learn how to fight (and I did so, in the best place for it, which is New York) on my own, and I got fucking good at it too– that’s why I help other people fight, costing malignant executives whom I’ve never met to the tune of millions per year– but it took years of trial and error, because I had to learn all of those skills by myself. I became the mentor I wish I’d had.
I’ve been in the private sector for almost 8 years, and I can count 39 months that I wouldn’t trade for that time back in youth. The rest was junk. No career value, nothing learned, just shitty grunt work I did because I actually would have suffered more if without an income. What’s amazing, though, is that my ratio (41.5 percent) is extremely good by the standards of people from middle-class backgrounds. The typical state-school kid from Iowa (let’s say he is of comparable talent to me, though talent doesn’t really have much to do with it) might have had 15 months of real work by my age. If he was actually poor and couldn’t go to college, I don’t know that he’d have any real work, in the software world, by age 30. If you’re from a well-connected family, you’ve got a decent chance of getting the “Why are you wasting your time on bullshit?” intervention/mentor that everyone hopes for, the sort of thing that 5-year-fits are made of, on the first gig out of school. Everyone else has to job hop, roll the dice, self-mentor and keep trying.
I’ve said before that open-plan offices are backdoor health/age discrimination, and the “job hopper” stigma is backdoor class discrimination. People from wealthy families (I’m not talking about Pennsylvania upper-middle-class like me, but the well-connected “1%”, and it’s more like 0.2 percent) can relax a bit and wait for opportunities to come to them. They’ll probably get some grunt work, but if they perform poorly at it while networking and building side projects, they’ll get the benefit of the doubt (“it’s OK, they had other things in their lives”) and fail up. They can stay in one place for 5 years, because others will come to them whereever they are. Everyone else, on the other hand, has to hustle and play the game. The most important aspect of that game is recognizing a dead end and cutting losses. Often the most ethical thing (I’ll get to ethics, shortly) a person can do when at a dead end is, for the benefit of both sides, to extricate herself from the situation. (It’s possible to exploit dysfunction for personal benefit, but it’s a shitty thing to do. Leave compassionately and move on.)
This where I perceive an inconsistency. Why is job hopping really so despised? Is it because, as claimed, the job hoppers are showing the flippant disloyalty that comes from the high status afforded to in-demand professionals? Or is the real (yet unmentioned, because it’s socially unacceptable) reason for the stigma, as I suspect, that this tentative attitude toward work, and hard-nosed realism about the value of what one is doing, is a cultural and social mark of The Poors, for whom useless work historically had devastating consequences? Are job hoppers high-flying mercenary yuppies enjoying undeserved success, or are they ill-bred uppity serfs who lack the blue-blooded couth to get upper management invested in their careers and merit a 5-year job? Which one is it: are they high-status assholes or low-status assholes? The people who still believe in this antiquated stigma have to pick a damn side!
Ethics of job hopping
One thing that is said about job hoppers is that they’re “disloyal”. I don’t agree. There’s a difference between being loyal or not loyal to someone (loyalty must be earned) and being constitutionally disloyal. I will not harm a stranger but I have no loyalty to him, and that’s not a character flaw on my part. To me, there’s just no use in being loyal to a company. A person can earn loyalty, for sure, but a company is just a pile of other peoples’ money. On whether job hoppers are constitutionally disloyal, I think that the latter is very uncommon, in in fact. It’s a brutal charge, because a constitutionally disloyal person is likely to be unethical. Is job hopping unethical? Absolutely not. Second to masturbating, it’s one of the most honest things people do: walking away from a relationship that has begun to fail, before it hurts both sides.
An unethical person has no qualms about drawing a salary while producing no useful work (due to mismanagement, boredom, or poor fit) while ethical people go insane in such circumstances. Ethical people worry, when that starts to happen, about getting fired and the shame and embarrassment. (This ties in to the boredom-anxiety loop I discussed above.) Unethical people figure out who’s politically weakest in the organization and who they should blame, should they either underperform or be unable (due to advanced environmental dysfunction) to perform. Ethical people leave jobs when they find themselves becoming useless. Unethical people ingratiate themselves to upper management and acquire power, turning organizational dysfunction toward their own benefit. Ethical people focus on skill growth and leave jobs if they risk stagnation. Unethical people realize that connections are more powerful than skills and focus on the players, not the cards. In general, unethical people are far more likely to climb one ladder instead of “hopping”, because unethical people generally understand social dynamics far better than average people (this may be survivor bias, with unethical and socially unskilled people getting incarcerated, leaving only the smooth scumbags in play) and that trust is acquired over time. Ethical, ambitious people want universal knowledge so they can add more value to the world. Unethical people want to learn the people so they can exploit their weaknesses. That’s how it actually works.
To a middle manager, job hoppers can be irritating. Middle management isn’t a fun job because there is pressure from above and below, and unexpected personnel changes can be very disruptive. Moreover, that effect is quite visible, the action (of leaving for another job) is wholly initiated by one person and, once she has left the organization, she can be blamed without consequence (she’s not there to hear it, and her job’s not in danger). I know for sure that, in many of my “hops”, people were disappointed that I left. This is just standard business friction, though. No one’s doing anything wrong. That people leave companies is not an ethics problem.
The nature of social stigma in general
I would argue that for most social stigmas, the reason they exist is that people tend to correlate (falsely and uselessly) things that are irritating or socially unacceptable with the unethical. They want to believe in a world where the villains look like villains (instead of like regular people, as they actually do). The small betrays the large, they presume. The guy who shows up 15 minutes later than everyone else is a slacker. The guy who complains about minor things is probably subversively and intentionally undermining morale. The woman who doesn’t return small talk because she’s fucking coding is a frigid bitch. In reality, nothing works that way at all, but many people (and this is more true of people in groups) are stupid and shallow and in their desire to believe in a world where villains look like villains, they lash out at those who slightly annoy them.
In actuality, most people who do bad things get away with them, at least in the short term. I believe in the Eastern concept of karma– each action leaves an imprint on the mind, and the fact that we have no idea what our minds do after death requires humility– so I might argue from the other side, over the very long term. However, in the social theater where humans seeking short-term gains operate and where the punishments are coarse rather than subtle, most people who do bad shit get away with all of it. By the time people with the power and desire to punish them know what these unethical scoundrels have done, they’ve moved away and usually “up”. My pointing this isn’t to encourage bad behavior, because the gains of most unethical acts (again, counted in raw numbers) are petty while the risks are substantial. A 99% chance of not getting caught in stealing a candy bar doesn’t make it worth it, given the penalties.
I mentioned the self-healing properties of defensible organizations like Valve, which operates under open allocation and gives the rank-and-file a legitimate reason (projects they enjoy, and not wanting to work for crappy closed-allocation companies) to participate in its upkeep. Those companies fix themselves faster than they rot, but they’re also rare because most executive teams lack the coherence, vision, and (frankly) the interest to commit to a self-repairing organization. So, most organizations are not going to commit to employee well-being any more than they have to, and won’t be defensible. They’ll rot, and that’s accepted (because executives will enrich themselves along the way) but they’d prefer it to rot slowly. This requires targeted aggression toward the causes of organizational rot, which are (and I agree with them on this) ambitious, disloyal, and unethical people.
Now, unethical people can beat (or, quite often, use as a personal weapon) the social immune system of any organization. They can pass reference checks, establish social proof, and avoid having their bad behavior catch up with them for a long time. Some (the less capable) may be shut down, but other psychopaths will evolve faster, just like cancer cells or harmful bacteria, and go effectively undetected. The organization will rot, but no one will be able to say why it is rotting because the people doing the damage will be sure that they only people who know are either powerless or complicit. What everyone sees, as the edifice starts to shake and crumble, is the exodus of talented people. That’s the visible rot. It’s all those damn job hoppers jumping ship when things get “difficult” (which usually means “hopeless”). Waves of departures (“job hoppers”) may be the visible proximate cause of corporate collapse– and that’s why they are blamed for things falling apart– but they’re rarely the ultimate cause.
Let’s ask ourselves if these “job hoppers” fit the bill of the toxic person (ambitious, disloyal, and unethical). Are job hoppers ambitious? Some are, some are just fed-up. That’s irrelevant, however, because a functioning organization can make a home for ambitious people. Are they disloyal? I would say they’re simply “not loyal”. Disloyalty suggests a moral shortfall. Not-loyalty should be the default afforded a large organization that wouldn’t reciprocate any loyalty given to it. Like religious faith, “loyalty” is not a virtue when unqualified. It is fine to have religious faith, and it is fine not to have it. The same goes, in my mind, for organizational loyalty. Are these “job hoppers” unethical? That’s the only of these three questions that actually matters, and I’ve established the answer to be “no”. Among the discontents (and, in a dysfunctional organization, that’s over 75% of the people) they’re some of the most ethical ones. They’ve realized that there is no place for them, and left. The real anger should be at the things that happened (and the people who caused them) 3 or 6 or 12 months ago that caused so many good people to leave.