How often should you change jobs?

How long is too long or short to stay in the one role if you want to move your career along?

Are you a “lifer” at the firm which took you on as a fresh faced graduate, or a serial collector of “goodbye and good luck” cards with a CV too thick to staple?

Which strategy is better if you want to get on in your career? How often – or how rarely – should you move on if you want to move up?

Not too often if you want a look-in for senior roles, says Heather Linaker, an executive coach and former managing director of publishing house John Wiley and Sons.

Of the 11.5 million Australians in work in February this year, 9 per cent had changed jobs in the previous 12 months, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Labour Mobility survey. There were 9.4 million people who had been with the same employer for a year or longer.

While workers may be able to get away with a bit of job-hopping in their 20s as they transition from study to work, those who aspire to the upper echelons should dig in and knuckle down for longer stretches, Linaker believes.

“Do I think there's a rule of thumb? To some extent I do,” she says.

“I would be looking at senior hires who've stayed places for three to five years, and possibly longer.”

It takes this long to get across a role and make your mark, she says. Candidates who have changed jobs more frequently may need to explain why, to be considered for shortlisting.

“If they've done it several times, I'd be concerned, I'd want to hear the reasons,” Linaker says.

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“If they appeared to have what I was looking for, I would still talk to them. But I would want to ask several questions.”

Russell Evans, the CEO of Wolters Kluwer Tax and Accounting, Asia Pacific, shares her conservatism. Although job-for-lifers are an endangered species and trying multiple roles helps some folk find their passion, ambitious types in their 30s, 40s or 50s fare best if they show some sticking power, he says.

“No one gives you a road map when you start in a job so the first year is typically spent getting your head around the role, forming relationships with customers, understanding how the business works,” Evans says.

It's not until years two and three that an executive can start adding serious value, and those who've packed up their pens and paperweights by this point may find it hard to demonstrate how they've done so, he believes.

“I struggle to see how people can immerse themselves in an organisation in one to two years,” Evans says.

Serial job-hopping can point to the self-centred attitude of “someone who wants the learning and the role to be all about them”, he adds.

“Do they have an appetite to learn, or do they already think they know it all?”

They may also find themselves passed over on economic grounds, says Tudor Marsden-Huggins, the managing director of recruitment agency Employment Office.

“Having one or two short tenures in your work history is fine; however, when a series of short-lived positions start to look like a pattern in your CV, it can present a problem,” he says.

“Hiring managers are becoming increasingly wary of candidates who have moved around a lot. It's easy to see why when the cost of replacing a staff member comes in at roughly 25 per cent of their annual salary – and that's a conservative estimate.”

But volatile conditions globally have made involuntary job hoppers of many people. Those who've found themselves in multiple roles in recent years shouldn't be judged for it, Sydney executive headhunter Ben Derwent says.

Post-GFC, thousands of professionals found themselves displaced or sent home from overseas postings and the jobs market is still awash with self-employed 'consultants', he says.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's a shrinking pool of employees who have managed to spend two or three decades or longer with the one organisation, economic vicissitudes notwithstanding.

Do such stayers throw up a red flag for recruiters concerned at their reluctance to embrace change or challenge themselves? Not necessarily, Derwent says.

International behemoths such as IBM can offer employees the chance to perform in a multitude of roles across different countries and divisions. Providing you're not warming the same seat for years on end, a long stretch at a large employer won't harm your prospects, he says.

Should I stay or should I go?

Pondering your next move? Unless you're desperately unhappy or answering to a David Brent type, ask yourself these questions before you fire off the resignation email, advises Marsden-Huggins:

  • Are you leaving for the right reasons – better job, more money, more flexibility?
  • Are you prepared to assure prospective employers you're not a high-risk hire?
  • Is there anything you can do to improve the situation in your current job if the timing isn't right?
  • Is this the best time to move on, for both personal and professional reasons?
  • Will changing jobs now impact your chances of securing a new job later on?