April 02, 2013, 1:58 PM — Times have changed in the IT job market. It used to be that being labeled a "job hopper" could have serious effect on your career potential, but in today's economy with corporate downsizings, big business bankruptcies and startup failures even some of the best employees have had the rug pulled out from under them. And it's not unusual for it to happen more than once to good IT workers.
Gone are the days where you work for one employer for an entire career. "You rarely have guys on your programming team with 5-plus years with the company and it's becoming less and less. People are moving around and it's not necessarily frowned upon anymore," says Iman Jalali, president of TrainSignal.
"If you are fortunate enough to move often but not too often, you probably can point to experience in a number of different industries and exposure to a variety of challenges, which can lead companies to believe you are flexible and a quick learner," says Tracy Cashman, partner and general manager in the IT division of staffing agency Winter, Wyman.
That said, some companies are still suspicious of people who have too many stints of one year or shorter. They either feel that the prospective employee gets bored easily or perhaps they get laid off frequently because they are not a top-tier employee. Others still, wonder if the prospective employee has more of a contractor mentality.
However, Cashman says that in her experience more companies are reluctant to hire people who have been at one place for several years for their whole career. "Companies may feel that those people are not motivated enough in their career progression or are so ingrained in a particular culture or way of thinking that they won't be able to adapt to a new environment," says Cashman.
Jayne Mattson, senior vice president of Keystone Associates says that while it is more acceptable in today's IT to have some shorter stints, it still raises concerns with some employers. "Job hopping is a red flag for employers. What type of decision did you make going into the job? Did you do your due diligence to make sure that job was the right fit? Unfortunately, a lot of job seekers, when they get an offer, are excited and they think, 'It's a job and I can do it,' but in reality they don't fit into the culture. That's many times what I see as the reason for these shorter-term employments," says Mattson.
While thoughts on the matter vary from business to business, there are things you can to mitigate the risks in your quest for employment. To help light the way, CIO.com spoke to hiring managers and career coaches to help define how to best handle this delicate topic.
Job Hopping Exceptions
In many situations, according to Jalali, IT pros could be job hopping through no fault of their own. It could be a case of outsourcing, downsizing or a failed startup. These are situations prospective employees have no control over. "We definitely don't screen them out for that reason. When we look at resumes we spend a lot less time looking at how long they spent at a job. We definitely look at it and if it's questionable we'll bring it up in the interview."
"What we typically find is that companies are hiring tech guys or developers to come in and work on some big projects that may last 18 months or so, but after that they have to move on. You can't treat that the same way you would other positions at a company," says Jalali.
Handling Interview Questions
What Mattson, in her role as a career coach, tells clients to do in interview situations is to answer this question before it's asked. "When you take control over telling your story, you're not as apprehensive about waiting to be asked. Sometimes people get nervous, but I encourage them to take control, give the business reason as to why they are no longer there," says Mattson.
She also encourages clients to admit what they would have done differently. She offers this as an example, "As I look at the last five years of my career, early on I made great career decisions staying longer and working my way up through the ranks, but the past few years I perhaps didn't do enough due diligence to make sure it was the right fit to do my best work. What I'm doing moving forward is to make sure I ask the right questions to make sure it's a good fit for you and a good fit for me."
What Interviewers Don't Want to Hear
There are a few reasons an employer definitely doesn't want to hear, according to experts.
Boredom is seldom a compelling reason for leaving, for example. Another bad reason is financial gain, employers don't like to see someone who is simply job-hopping to get more money. "It is frowned upon when someone is clearly doing it for financial or monetary reasons," says Jalali. He goes on to point out, however, that it happens regularly and many times people are able to increase their salary by as much as 10-15%.
They also don't want to hear that an employee has left more than one position because they didn't get along with their boss or coworkers. It's never a good idea to bad mouth your boss or your last employer In the end, they'll likely think that you are the common denominator in those situations.
Adjusting your resume is a great way to draw attention somewhere else--for example, to your skills or accomplishments. Below are two tips Mattson offers to do just that:
Refocus your resume: For example, highlight your achievements. "It's really about your work history and so sometimes you need to refocus your resume, you may need to provide a little explanation, like 'start-up company acquired,' something that tells a little bit more about the story," notes Mattson. Create a strong social presence that highlights achievements: For example: Build out your LinkedIn and Google+ pages making sure to highlight all your relevant achievements. "Honestly, if we are looking at someone who has a history of job hopping we definitely look more closely at all angles. We go so far as to look for recommendations on their LinkedIn profile," says Jalali. Having a strong social presence is more important than ever, get out there and start and start building your brand.
Tell Your Story
"Job hopping used to be the kiss of death on your resume and the candidate who only stayed at his or her companies for one or two years was considered to be potentially unstable," says Cashman.
However, with the economic instability and more workers coming to the realization that the days of working for one company for your career are essentially over, there seems to be a new norm where companies and recruiters are beginning to have a different view of the job hopper--seeing them [job hoppers] "as someone who is young but wants to gain experience rapidly, someone who is also flexible, resourceful and learns fast," says Mattson.
"Your resume should tell the reader why you were important to the success of some project or company and should show that you have grown over time gaining increased responsibility, scope and success. Probably the most important thing is to be able to demonstrate that no matter where you worked, or for how long, that you were someone who was critical to the success of a project or the company as a whole," says Steve Kasmouski, President of the Search Divisions at WinterWyman.
The bottom-line is you have to know what value you bring to the table, keep a record of your accomplishments and be prepared to explain your logic. Employees who know how to handle the situation and have prepared can turn that red flag into an offer letter.
Hiring Managers Take Heed
"As a hiring manager, your radar goes off when you notice this [job hopping] and you have to poke around a little more. If it's something that was out of their hands, it's always good to really spend more time on their references. Try to get references that validate or support their statement. Validate the fact of why someone was job hopping," says Jalali. Here are some additional tips for IT employers:
Know the facts before discounting a prospective employee for job hopping. Give the prospective employee an opportunity to explain the situation.
Look at their achievements more than the date ranges on their resume.
Follow up on references to verify the reasons they left a previous position.
"You have to truly understand why that person made those moves and what factors are behind them," says Jalali.