One of the traits of the business world that I’d love to see die, even if it were to take people with it, is the stigma against “job hopping”. I don’t see how people can not see that this is oppression, plain and simple. The stigma exists to deny employees of the one bit of leverage they have, which is to leave a job and get a better one.
The argument made in favor of the stigma is that (a) companies put a lot of effort into training people, and (b) very few employees earn back their salary in the first year. Let me address both of these. For the first, about the huge amount of effort put into training new hires, that’s not true. It may have been the case in 1987, but not anymore. There might be an orientation lasting a week or two, or an assigned mentor who sometimes does a great job and is sometimes absentee, but the idea that companies still invest significant resources into new hires as a general policy is outdated. They don’t. Sink or swim is “the new normal”. The companies that are exceptions to this will sometimes lose a good person, but they don’t have the systemic retention problems that leave them wringing their hands about “job hoppers”. For the second, this is true in some cases and not in others, but I would generally blame this (at least in technology) on the employer. If someone who is basically competent and diligent spends 6 months at a company and doesn’t contribute something– perhaps a time-saving script, a new system, or a design insight– that is worth that person’s total employment costs (salary, plus taxes, plus overhead) then there is something wrong with the corporate environment. Perhaps he’s been loaded up with fourth quadrant work of minimal importance. People should be able to start making useful contributions right away, and if they can’t, then the company needs to improve the feedback cycle. That will make everyone happier.
The claimed corporate perspective of “job hoppers” is that they’re a money leak, because they cost more than they are worth in the early years. However, that’s not true. I’d call it an out-and-out lie. Plenty of companies can pay young programmers market salaries and turn a profit. In fact, companies doing low-end work (which may still be profitable) often fire older programmers to replace them with young ones. What this means is that the fiction of new hires being worth less than a market salary holds no water. Actually, employing decent programmers (young or old, novice or expert) at market compensation is an enormous position of profit. (I’d call it an “arbitrage”, but having done real arbitrage I prefer to avoid this colloquialism.)
The first reason why companies don’t like “job hoppers” is not that new hires are incapable of doing useful work, but that companies intentionally prevent new people from doing useful work. The “dues paying” period is evaluative. The people who fare poorly or make their dislike of the low-end work obvious are the failures who are either fired or, more likely, given the indication that they won’t graduate to better things, which compels them to leave– but on the company’s terms. The dues-paying period leaks at the top. In actuality, it always did. It just leaks in a different way now. In the past, the smartest people would become impatient and bored with the low-yield, evaluative nonsense, just as they do now, but be less able to change companies. They’d lose motivation, and start to underperform, leaving the employer feeling comfortable with the loss. (“Not a team player; we didn’t want him anyway.”) In the “job hopping” era, they leave before they have the motivational crash and there is something to be missed.
The second problem that companies have with “job hoppers” is that they keep the market fluid and, additionally, transmit information. Job hoppers are the ones who tell their friends at the old company that a new startup is paying 30% better salaries and runs open allocation. They not only grab external promotions for themselves when they “hop”, but they learn and disseminate industry information that transfers power to engineers.
I’ve recently learned first-hand about the fear that companies have of talent leaks. For a few months last winter, I worked at a startup with crappy management, but excellent engineers, and I left when I was asked to commit perjury against some of my colleagues. (No, this wasn’t Google. First, Google is not a startup. Second, Google is a great company with outdated and ineffective HR but well-intended upper management. This, on the other hand, was a company with evil management.) There’s a lot of rumor surrounding what happened and, honestly, the story was so bizarre that even I am not sure what really went on. I won the good faith of the engineers by exposing unethical management practices, and became somewhat of a folk hero. I introduced a number of their best engineers to recruiters and helped them get out of that awful place. Then I moved on, or so I thought. Toward the end of 2012, I discovered that their Head of Marketing was working to destroy my reputation (I don’t know if he succeeded, but I’ve seen the attempts) inside that company by generating a bunch of spammy Internet activity, and attempting to make it look like it was me doing it. He wanted to make damn sure I couldn’t continue the talent bleed, even though my only interaction was to introduce a few people (who already wanted to leave) to recruiters. These are the extents to which a crappy company will go to plug a talent hole (when those efforts would be better spent fixing the company).
Finally, “job hopping” is a slight to a manager’s ego. Bosses like to dump on their own terms. After a few experiences with the “It’s not you, it’s me” talk, after which the reports often go to better jobs than the boss’s, managers develop a general distaste for these “job hoppers”.
These are the real reasons why there is so much dislike for people who leave jobs. The “job hopper” isn’t stealing from the company. If a company can employ a highly talented technical person for 6 months and not profit from the person’s work, the company is stealing from itself.
All this said, I wouldn’t be a fan of someone who joined companies with the intention of “hopping”, but I think very few people intend to run their careers that way. I have the resume of a “job hopper”, but when I take a job, I have no idea whether I’ll be there for 8 months or 8 years. I’d prefer the 8 years, to be honest. I’m sick of having to change employers every year, but I’m not one to suffer stagnation either.
My observation has been that most “job hoppers” are people who learn rapidly, and become competent at their jobs quickly. In fact, they enter jobs with a pre-existing and often uncommon skill set. Most of the job hoppers I know would be profitable to hire as consultants at twice their salary. Because they’re smart, they learn fast and quickly outgrow the roles that their companies expect them to fill. They’re ready to move beyond the years-long dues-paying period at two months, but often can’t. Because they leave once they hit this political wall, they become extremely competent.
The idea that the “job hopper” is an archetype of Millennial “entitlement” is one I find ridiculous. Actually, we should blame this epidemic of job hopping on efficient education. How so? Fifty years ago, education was much more uniform and, for the smartest people, a lot slower than it is today. Honors courses were rare, and for gifted students to be given extra challenges was uncommon. This was true within as well as between schools. Ivy League mathematics majors would encounter calculus around the third year of college, and the subjects that are now undergraduate staples (real analysis, abstract algebra) were solidly graduate-level. There were a few high-profile exceptions who could start college at age 14 but, for most people, being smart didn’t result in a faster track. You progressed at the same pace as everyone else. This broke down for two reasons. First, smart people get bored on the pokey track, and in a world that’s increasingly full of distractions, that boredom becomes crippling. Second, the frontiers of disciplines like mathematics are now so far out and specialized that society can’t afford to have the smartest people dicking around at quarter-speed until graduate school.
So we now have a world with honors and AP courses, and with the best students taking real college courses by the time they’re in high school. College is even more open. A freshman who is intellectually qualified to take graduate-level courses can do it. That’s not seen as a sign of “entitlement”. It’s encouraged.
This is the opposite of the corporate system, which has failed to keep up with modernity. A high-potential hire who outgrows starter projects and low-yield, dues-paying grunt work after 3 months does not get to skip the typical 1-2 years of it just because she’s not learning anything from it. People who make that move, either explicitly by expressing their boredom, or simply by losing motivation and grinding to a halt, often end up getting fired. You don’t get to skip grades in the corporate world.
Unfortunately, companies can’t easily promote people fast, because there are political problems. Rapid promotion, even of a person whose skill and quick learning merit it, becomes a morale problem. Companies additionally have a stronger need to emphasize “the team” (as in, “team player”, as much as I hate that phrase) than schools. In school, cheating is well-defined and uncommon, so individualism works. At work, where the ethical rules are often undefined, group cohesion is often prioritized over individual morale, as individualism is viewed as dangerous. This makes rapid promotion of high-potential people such a political liability that most companies don’t even want to get involved. Job hoppers are the people who rely on external promotion because they often grow faster than it is politically feasible for a typical corporation to advance them.
For all that is said to the negative about job hoppers, I know few who intentionally wish to “hop”. Most people will stay with a job for 5 years, if they continue to grow at a reasonable pace. The reason they move around so much is that they rarely do. So is it worth it to hire job hoppers, given the flight risk associated with top talent? I would say, without hesitation, “yes”. Their average tenures “of record” are short, but they tend to be the high-power contributors who get a lot done in a short period of time. Also, given that one might become a long-term employee if treated well, delivering both top talent and longevity, I’d say there’s a serious call option here.
“Job hopping” shouldn’t be stigmatized because it’s the corporate system that’s broken. Most corporate denizens spend most of their time on low-yield make-work that isn’t important, but largely exists because of managerial problems or is evaluative in purpose. The smart people who figure out quickly that they’re wasting their time tend to want to move on to something better. Closed-allocation companies make this extremely difficult and as politically rickety as a promotion system, so often they decide to move on. Without the “job hopping” stigma, they’d be able to quit and leave when this happens, but that reputation risk encourages them, instead, to quit and stay. For companies, this is much worse.