Resumes and Your Previous Job Tenures

Posted: December 12, 2013 in Careers
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EmploymentWhile walking back to the office from lunch earlier this week with some colleagues, the subject came up of how long we have worked at various jobs. The tenures ranged from a couple of years to more than a decade and anywhere in between. Short tenures are more normal now than for earlier generations which tended to have much longer tenures and fewer jobs in their lifetime than today’s workforce.

I’ve certainly had my share of short tenures in 40 years of employment, but I must say it is far more satisfying to be in my 11th year with my current company than to job hop between companies every couple of years. I hope to stay here until retirement another decade or so away.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m doing the same thing all of these years at my company. I’m in my third very different role as I’ve developed new interests and tried to create new roles that benefit both the company and my own professional development. I’ve had some great managers along the way who encouraged such growth and made the transitions not only possible but easy.

So when I look at tenures, I don’t categorize them as merely short or long. There is an in-between category where we may take on different responsibilities with the same company over time, adding to our accumulated knowledge and value to the company from the multiple roles with which we are familiar.

In many years of looking at resumes and making hiring decisions or recommendations, length of employment at a company is something I take seriously. Even though I’m not a hiring manager in my current role, I still take part in the process and follow the same guidelines I did when I was a hiring manager at a previous company with 20+ employees reporting to me.

So let’s take a look at how I interpret job tenures when evaluating a resume. You may or may not agree, and that’s OK. The point is that each hiring manager has his/her own point of view on what is appealing and what causes concern, and for me, length of employment is a big deal on one’s resume.

Short tenures at different companies. I consider any stay at a company of two years or less to be short. If a resume has a series of such job hopping, that is a huge turnoff to me and the person must have a very good explanation of it to be considered. Otherwise, my fear is that by the time we’ve brought him on board, trained him and finally have him up to speed, he’ll be out the door for his next gig. I’m not interested in such short-timers.

I expect to see short tenures on the resumes of very young adults and those fresh out of college, but if someone middle-aged or older has a history like that, red flags are flying high and their resume probably won’t make it to the “maybe” stack to ever be interviewed. Someone with 20 years of work in an industry split into ten two-year jobs doesn’t, in my opinion, have 20 years of experience. He has two years of experience repeated ten times. That won’t interest me.

Multiple tenures of varying lengths at the same company. It’s common and healthy for people to change roles over a long period of employment within a company. That doesn’t alarm me unless each role is extremely short in its duration (less than two years). Staying several years in each role may indicate that the person is moving up the ladder, discovering good fits in other areas of the business, or intentionally learning as much about the business as possible. On the resume, the longer total length of time at a company – even if it spans multiple roles – will generally impress me compared to the person who job hops between companies.

On the flip side, multiple roles in the same company can mean that people were shuffled from one place to the next by others too timid or afraid to fire them – pawning them off to some poor, unsuspecting sucker in another area as soon as possible. Believe me, I’ve seen that happen more often than I care to discuss. It can also indicate a lack of stability and reliability on the part of the employee if he/she is the one initiating frequent moves. So my default instinct will be to appreciate a series of roles with the same company, but I’m not blind to the possible negative explanations, either.

Long tenures in the same role. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll define “long” as anything three years or longer (which probably sounds odd to anyone who has spent 10 or 20 years or more in the same role). Overall, I like to see this in a candidate. It implies stability and mutual satisfaction between employer and employee. While it may mean that someone settled and did the same old thing merely because it was a job, or that they failed to grow or seek new and expanded opportunities, I will give the person the benefit of the doubt unless I learn otherwise. Such a person is less likely to be a flight risk after a year or two and that’s very important to the hiring manager.

The purpose of a resume is to get you to the next step in the interview process. As someone who has reviewed countless resumes the past couple of decades, I assume I’m not the only one to take seriously into consideration an applicant’s previous tenures when making the cut. It either looks acceptable and encouraging to the hiring manager or it raises a red flag. So keep that in mind – especially those of you on the earlier end of your careers – as you consider moving from place to place. A series of small gains over shorter periods may be the very reason you aren’t considered for that one major leap you’re hoping for down the road.

There is a lot to be said for long tenures at a company, even if they are split up into a variety of roles over that duration. If I’m the one evaluating your resume, it may be what keeps you in or removes you from the running for an open position.

[Edited 12-12-2013 to add:
I’ve received several comments asking about short tenures with extenuating circumstances such as being the victim of layoffs or short tenures necessitated by being in a military family. In these cases, I suggest that either the resume itself or a cover letter proactively explain the short tenure so that the hiring manager does not jump to the wrong conclusion.]

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