Your Career Q&A: Owning up to Bad Reasons for Job Hopping

By Martin Yate Dec 13, 2016
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Four jobs in four years is a lot to explain to a hiring manager. How can you explain you wanted to get lots of different experiences to a potential employer who may be worried you're a flight risk? Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your HR career. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.  

Hello Martin,

I want to thank you for your response to another letter writer in "How to Explain Frequent Job Changes to Employers." I have a similar situation and would like to hear your recommendation. 

How should I explain to potential employers my reasons for job hopping if I've changed jobs about once a year for the past four years? I've changed jobs so often because I wanted to learn about different types of organizations and how they operate. I also wanted to see how different managers behave and react to certain situations. Generally, I wanted to learn as much as I could from each organization and manager to improve my knowledge and skills and prepare myself for a lifelong career.  

When the time comes to land the job that will lead to that lifelong career, how do I approach potential employers and explain all of this to them? Will they be worried that I will quit within a year and, if they are, how do I address that? 

Anonymous 

It is not a good idea to job hop for these reasons. You gain professional experience in your first jobs by paying your dues, working hard, learning the skills of your profession and doing whatever it takes to start building the right reputation. When someone says, "Jump!" all you ever say is, "How high?" Two or three years at a first job showcases your commitment and a firm foundation in your career. 

I am going to say more about what is wrong with your approach, not to demean you in any way, but so that you can use the advice to get yourself out of this jam. 

You said that you wanted to learn as much as you could from each organization and manager. As a fresh graduate, it is unlikely that you could understand the complexities of any corporate operation in just 12 months on the job, if only because your position at the bottom of the ladder denies you the insider knowledge needed to make informed judgments. Instead, at your first job, you should listen, learn and try to find a mentor who can interpret for you. 

Coming out of school you are a blank slate; you don't know what you don't know. My response to your goal of learning "how different managers behave and react to certain situations" in 12 months is the same as above. Please don't ever say this at an interview. The hiring manager may think you are judgmental and will be hard to work with. 

You are smart to face the facts and correctly identify yourself as a "job hopper." This is not an image of a reliable and committed employee. Managers look bad to their supervisors when their staff leaves unexpectedly, so they won't willingly put themselves in a situation where a new hire is likely to leave quickly. 

Unless you can tell a story that justifies holding four jobs in four years—perhaps you developed specific in-demand skills in each job or you were caught in multiple downsizings—you need to display humility and self-awareness during your interviews for your next position. 

I promised that there would be the foundations of an answer in all of this, but only if you understand the rationale behind what I have been saying. If not, your career is likely to continue lurching forward in the same fashion and 10 years from now, you'll start wondering, "What happened to my career? I've just had a string of identical jobs." 

Your best chance of acing the job hopping question is to prepare for it and rehearse your answer so that it is honest, direct and succinct. Use the essence of the above commentary, saying that you were wrong to job hop but that you have learned from your mistakes and there are even one or two benefits that have accrued from your experience: 

"Well, I came out of school and didn't know what I didn't know. To my ill-informed mind, working in quick succession for a couple of different employers seemed a good way to learn how businesses operate. It never occurred to me just how much I had to learn. In hindsight, I needed to develop the skills of my profession, learn to work effectively with others in solving the complex problems that challenge us in [your industry here] and see things through over the long-term.

"But the last four years have also been a learning experience because I developed [in-demand skills relevant to the target job].

"Nevertheless, I have realized that the only way I am going to learn and grow is by dedication and hard work that produces consistent results. So if you are looking for someone who will [fill in the essence of the job you seek], I am the one who will take on any task at any time and deliver quality work. And I'll do my utmost to exceed the personal goals you set for me, just as I will do everything I can to support the overall goals of the department.

"I made some questionable choices, but I've learned from them, and now I know what I want and what it will take to get it. If you're looking for someone like this, then I'm your candidate." 

Then live up to your commitments. 

Have a question for Martin? E-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know. We look forward to hearing from you!

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