When Is Short Tenure a Red Flag?
Here’s a question that comes up a lot. It goes something like: “I’ve only worked 10 months at this job, and it’s terrible. If I look for a new job now, will my short tenure be a red flag?” Or, from hiring managers: “I’m looking at a resume showing they’ve worked three jobs in the last four years. Is that something to be concerned about?”
So let’s talk about job tenure: when is short tenure a red flag? When you’re thinking of switching jobs, when and how should your tenure factor into the decision? For hiring managers, when is it reasonable to be concerned about job tenure, and what should we do when we become concerned?
If your job is terrible, you can leave
Once, I got a new job I was super excited about – company founders I respected, a fantastic CEO, and a job I was a great match for. But within weeks it became obvious that my new boss and I were a terrible match. We had fundamentally incompatible views of how my job should work. It was clear very quickly that getting aligned was going to be terrifically hard, if not impossible. Of the options available to me, leaving quickly was the least-bad one; I left after just 3-4 months.
The key point is: this has never been a problem. I’ve only been asked about it once, and then it was almost in passing. The rest of my resume shows much more typical job tenure (most roles in the 3-5 year range), so this single instance of short tenure is irrelevant.
This is typical. Sometimes, jobs just don’t work out for whatever reason. Often it’s this kind of lack of alignment that I experienced. Sometimes it’s worse – a toxic workplace, a job that turns out to be wildly different than what was described during the interview, a massive re-org that moves you somewhere you wouldn’t have signed up for in the first place, etc.
If your job is terrible, if it’s making you miserable, you can leave. Don’t let tenure be the reason you stay. Good hiring managers understand that these sorts of things happen and that sometimes there’s good reason to leave quickly. If there are one or two instances of short tenure over a career, a good hiring manager probably won’t even ask about it.
But even if this is the fifth or seventh bad job, it’s still fine to leave. If you have a pattern of short tenure you can expect to be asked about it (see below), but if you have good reasons for leaving it shouldn’t affect your candidacy1.
Patterns of short tenure raise red flags
While any single instance of short tenure shouldn’t be an issue for hiring managers, patterns might be. Repeated instances of short tenure, especially back-to-back, can be an issue.
For the sake of clarity – and for the hiring managers in the room – let me now define “short” and “repeated”. As with nearly everything I write: this applies to the norms in the tech industry, with a strong US bias. Other industries, and/or other countries, may have different norms.
What is “short” tenure?
- Under 1 year should be considered “short”.
- 2-3 years is normal and shouldn’t be considered “short”, except for very senior leadership roles – more on that below.
- Longer than 3 years: not short.
How many repeats constitute a “pattern”?
- 1 instance of short tenure: not a pattern2.
- 2 instances back to back, or 2-3 throughout a long (10+ years) career: not a pattern.
- 3 or more in a row, or 4-5 (or more) short jobs in around 5-7 years: here’s where it becomes a pattern, and where I recommend hiring managers start asking some questions.
- A long career (say, at least 10-15 years), with no job lasting much longer than 2 years: this might also be a pattern worth asking about, more on this below.
Why is a pattern of short tenure a potential problem?
Now that we’ve established what kinds of patterns we’re talking about: why might these patterns indicate a problem?
First off, you’ll sometimes see hiring managers and HR professionals suggesting that short tenure is a problem in and itself, i.e., context doesn’t matter and short tenure is always a red flag. I think the reasoning is some sort of unspoken value of “loyalty” – an expectation that there’s an implicit agreement to “stick it out” even if things get bad. This is hot garbage. If you want the people that you hire to stay, do it by building a great workplace and paying people well – not by finding staff who are too timid to leave bad situations.
Tenure in and of itself means nothing; it’s just some data. it’s the causes that we need to understand. Imagine, for example, looking at a resume that shows four jobs in the last two years, none lasting longer than nine months. That’s a pattern, but what’s the cause?
We can imagine some possibilities that aren’t problematic:
- the person was a contractor, and each contract was for a specific project
- the candidate had a run of bad luck and was laid off from each job (newly-hired employees are often the first to go in a layoff, so this isn’t as unlikely as it might seem)
- they were early in their career, still figuring out the best fit for them, and it took a few tries
- they were chronically underpaid and had to job-hop to get their salary up to a reasonable level
But we can also imagine some possibilities that are problematic:
- they have a pattern of behavior that’s inappropriate at work and were repeatedly fired or managed out because if it
- they’re difficult to get along with, and had a pattern of leaving jobs because of interpersonal conflicts
- they have a history of being unable to deliver: they interview well, but once hired for whatever reason they just can’t or won’t do the job
What should hiring managers do if they see a pattern of short tenure?
Importantly, you can’t determine the cause of job-hopping from the resume alone. It might indicate serious problems, and it might be totally understandable. You need to ask questions to find out.
You probably want to ask about a pattern of short tenure earlier in the interview process (i.e. during your initial screen, or in one of the first interviews). If there is a red flag, you want to find it quickly before you spend too much time on the candidate. If, on the other hand, it’s reasonable, you want to be able to dismiss your concerns early and not have them color the entire interview.
When asking, aim for the most open-ended style of question you can. Tell them what you see on their resume, and give them space to explain. When you ask, aim to sound friendly and curious1: you’re not accusing them of anything, but you’ve noticed something and want to ask them about it.
I might say things like:
- “I’ve noticed you’ve had three jobs in the last four years. Can you tell me about that?”
- “I see you’ve been at your current role for six months; can you tell me why you’re looking again?”
- “Your resume seems to show a pattern of staying at most jobs for around two years. Can you talk to me about that pattern?”
This can be an uncomfortable question for candidates: there’s a good possibility they’ve been anticipating the question and aren’t looking forward to it. Don’t be surprised if they’re initially flustered, and don’t pass judgment based on an initial emotional reaction. Listen carefully, and be kind. I find people relax a bit once they start talking and see that you’re genuinely curious.
You’re listening to find out if the pattern of short tenure has a cause you’re OK with, or not. But you’re also listening to see how the candidate responds overall. People who’ve job-hopped because they’re hard to work with or have a pattern of inappropriate behavior may show true colors here. The patterns of behavior when asked about tenure are similar to those I covered in my article on how to talk to a candidate about a poor reference, so see that article for more tips.
How should candidates respond if they get a question like this?
Lastly, let’s cover the other side of “table”: if you’re someone with a pattern of short tenure, how you should plan to address it if asked?
First, having read the above, you now have a good idea of what hiring managers are looking to understand. They (reasonable ones, anyway) aren’t looking to judge you, but to understand the underlying causes.
So, if there’s a reasonable explanation, it’s fine to just share it. If the answer is “bad luck and layoffs”, just say so.
A common reason for short tenure is a run of a bad managers. If you’ve had a few bad bosses in a row, you may have had to bounce around to find a boss who isn’t terrible. This is a bit more tricky: you generally want to try to avoid badmouthing anyone – even if they deserve it – during an interview. But if you leave it out entirely, it’ll potentially make it look like you’re the one with the problem. The solution here is to be honest, but not too specific. Say something like, “I unfortunately had a a series of managers who were hard to work with, and ended up needing to leave to find a better fit.” If your interviewer wants details – some will – I’d avoid talking about any specific manager, but instead talk about the general patterns (too much micromanagement? too little communication?) and what you’ll be looking for in a new manager to avoid repeating the situation.
Another common reason for job-hopping is to speed-run salary increases. Early in a career, job-hopping is often the quickest way to increase your salary over a short period. (I’ll have more to say about this in a future piece I’m working on, about the intersection of job tenure and seniority.)
This is another situation where you should be honest, but diplomatic. To be honest, I’d absolutely be delighted if a candidate said “oh yeah, I’m speed running my salary” – but some managers would find that off-putting. It’d be risky, so I’m not sure I can recommend it. Instead, you might try something a bit more neutral like “I kept finding that I was having trouble getting raises and promotions, and that often I had to move jobs to get to the next level.”
Finally: what if the explanation is actually something not all that great? What if you’ve been fired a few times for behavioral reasons, or because you’d been unable to do the job, or something that’s on the “red flags” list above?
You’ve got to start by figuring out and fixing the underlying problem. You’ll need to be brutally honest with yourself about the aspects of your behavior that are making you hard to work with. Why have you been behaving like this? What steps can you take to change that behavior? I strongly suggest working through this with a mentor, career coach, or therapist.
If you don’t do this, nothing you do in the interview will help. You might be able to lie or obfuscate your way into another job offer, but the long odds are that you’ll repeat your behavior at the new job, and end up getting fired there, too.
If you have done the work, though, you can address the behavior directly when asked. You have to be honest – if you lie and get found out, you’re screwed. The move is to straightforwardly acknowledge that you were the common thread, own your past behavior, and describe what you’ve done to fix it. This might sound something like:
I had a real problem with procrastination – I kept being super-late with my work, or not getting it done at all. That led to me getting fired a few times. Since then, I’ve worked with a therapist to identify what’s going on with that procrastination, and they’ve helped me come up with a couple of coping strategies that seem to be working. I’ve learned that when I break my work down into smaller chunks I can get started much more easily, and I’ve worked through my reluctance to ask for help when I get stuck. I’m confidant that with some continued support from this therapist I’ll be able to not fall into this pattern again.
This might not work: managers might be reasonably suspicious that you’re just talking a good game and haven’t actually made enough progress to fix the issue. But it’s your best shot.
Next up: the intersection of seniority and tenure
This article is written broadly, and mostly applies to any job and any candidate. But there are some differences when thinking about very senior roles – staff-plus engineers, directors, executives. I’ll cover those in a future article. Stay tuned!
That said: if you do find yourself repeatedly having to quit terrible jobs, it’s worth trying to work out if there’s a common factor. Sometimes people are just unlucky, but sometimes there’s something that is in your control. Perhaps there are questions that you could have asked before joining that would have revealed the mismatch. Perhaps there are external factors, like a commute or whatever, that you need to take into account. Maybe you are unhappy with your career, so any role is going to be something you hate? Working through common patterns with a therapist, friend, or coach might be helpful. ↩︎ ↩︎
That said: if it’s the job you’re currently at, and you’re leaving under a year, it’s not unreasonable for hiring managers to ask why you’re leaving so quickly. ↩︎