Never Hire Job Hoppers. Never. They Make Terrible Employees

Posted on Apr 22, 2010 | 616 comments


This is part of my startup advice series.  This post isn’t going to be popular.  I’m sure of that.  That’s OK.  It’s still important advice for startup founders and something that I’m passionate about.  And I care more about the debate than trying to be popular.  And it’s important because it’s true.

I never hire job hoppers.  Never.  They make terrible employees.  I can tell that the heat is going to fly from people on this post.  It all started yesterday when Jason Calacanis sent a Tweet telling GenY’ers / Millennials or whatever people under 30 want to be called these days that job hoppers look like “flakes.”  I simply sent a supporting Tweet saying that I agreed.  He specifically called them “trophy kids” a reference that this is the first generation in which everyone got a trophy as Bill Sledzik outlines in this posting, “Dear Millennials: Your Parents Lied to You.”  One simple Tweet and I started getting flack (Trev, if you’re a founder and have tried to build 3 companies you get a carve out) on Twitter (Sumit, your business school professor was wrong).

I’m not staying become a lifer.  If you want to understand my views from the employee’s point-of-view please read here.  James, 6 years is fine.  12 is getting long unless your company is totally rocking!

But this isn’t a post about Millennials – it’s about job hoppers of all ages and I know plenty of my fellow Gen X’ers who are running for the door at the first sign of trouble.  Look at some of the uber-successful icons of Silicon Valley / Technology: Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry/Sergey, Eric Schmidt, Andy Groves, John Doerr.  Not job hoppers.  I’m sure some job-hoppers have made it big (just to save your having to research to prove me wrong).

UPDATE:  Somehow the biggest criticism in the comments is that my arguments in this post are “lazy.”  I find this ironic since trying to apply a simple “label” to me rather than trying to debate the other side of my position is exactly that.  Hiring an employee has analogies to acquiring a customer.  It costs a lot to “acquire” so you want your LTV (lifetime value) to be as great as possibly given the upfront costs of acquisition.  If you have limited resources you want to put them against your potentially best long-term customers.  Hiring employees is no different.  Frankly, I’m astounded that this is so controversial.

People argue that somehow I need to hire this potentially great employee and give them a shot even though they’ve never committed to any job in their career.  Hogwash.  I’d rather more money and effort go up front to getting a larger potential employee pool than feeling forced to hire somebody who’s had 6 jobs in a row of 18 months or less.

As I’ve said now repeatedly in the comments – quitting 1-2 jobs early when you’re young is acceptable.  I get that when people are young they’re exploring life and work.  But 6 times is a pattern.  One person accuses me of “not trying to get to know the person but just judging them by their past.”  Um, yes.  Of course!  It’s like a woman who is dating a man who has had 6 wives and cheated on all of them before divorcing them but she somehow thinks SHE will be different.  Philanderers establish patterns that they don’t easily break.  Career job hoppers are no different.  They might perform well while they’re there but in the end they’re just not likely to stick around.  END UPDATE.

You won’t even get through my filter (unless I know you or you’re recommended).  No matter what your job hopping excuse isWhenever I recruit somebody on my own (e.g. without an agency) I take my big, fat pile of printed [yes, I print them] resumes and stack them on my desk.  In the last job I recruited for (our associate) I had more than 1,000 resumes.  I then really quickly race through looking for some minimum qualifications such as companies for which they worked, education, grades, etc.  With a stack of 1,000 resumes you have to filter.  Tools like Identified.com haven’t existed for me to do this in an automated way as they are starting to emerge.  Hopefully going forward we can all save trees.

This quickly gets me to a stack of 200 resumes.  The next quick thing I look for is how long people stayed at their jobs.  Here I can get rid of another 50-75 or so without even trying.  But even in a focused search through recruiters I’m always looking to eliminate the job hopper.  If I’m sent a stack of 10 resumes the first thing I look for is how long the person has been at their past 4-5 jobs.  If they’ve had 5 jobs of 2 years or less each – buh bye.  Yes, I will look to see whether you worked at some Dot Bombs that blew up and would give you a break for that.  But you know the routine.  And I’m not the only one who feels this way so you’re already at a disadvantage.

What is the definition of a job hopper?

It’s kind of like that famous saying about art, “you know it when you see it.”  If you’re 30 and have had 6 jobs since college you’re 98% likely to be a job hopper.  You’re probably disloyal.  You don’t have staying power.  You’re in it more for yourself than your company.  OR … you make bad decisions about which companies you join.  Yes, if you were a startup CEO I would probably cut you some slack.  Yes, 2% of you have legitimate reasons for having 5 jobs.  But in a competitive job market you’re less likely to get the chance to tell me your sob story.

Are you 25 and worked for 3 companies – each 18 months?  You’re on the borderline.  If they are Google, Facebook and then a startup – you’re fine.  That’s less than 1%.  If you’re 42 and the longest you’ve EVER worked at a company is 3  years – TOAST.  That means you’ve likely had 7 short-term jobs since college.

Why do job hoppers make such bad employees at startups?

You’re a startup founder.  You have tough choices to make about whom you hire on your team.  You’re going to have some great days when you hit it out of the ballpark.  Everyone loves you.  Your older sister saw you on TechCrunch.  You have Google guys sending you CVs.  Then your competitor launches better shit.  Google offers your product for free.  You start fighting with your co-founder whom you thought you understood.  Your revenues are “just around the corner.”  Your angel investors are nervous because the VCs aren’t moving that fast to fund your next round.  Their not committing quickly to that bridge.

Now is the time that you need “all hands on deck.”  That awesome gal you hired in engineering has job options and she knows it.  Your biz dev guy has a Rolodex and friends bugging him to join their startup.  And he has already vested 75% of his stock options at your company.  Job hoppers are the first people to the door.  They’re self centered.  They don’t have a sense of loyalty to you despite the risks you took with them.  They don’t understand the word commitment.  Believe me – you WILL have dark days.  And you will only have a handful of people you trust.  That person you’re thinking about hiring who’s 30 and had 5-6 jobs ins’t one of them about right now.

And as you know it is completely all consuming to find great new employees.  It is soul destroying to have to train “yet another head of QA.”  It is bad on team morale when good people quit.  The people who stay are often with you.  But sometimes it weakens their own resolve.  Especially when this job hopper has them out for drinks to talk about his cool new gig where the grass is currently greener.

And good VC’s feel the same way.  When my company hit the fan in 2001 I could have easily walked and gotten a better paying job.  Anyone around then knows that B2B stood for “back-to-banking” and B2C stood for “back-to-consulting.”  I took people’s money.  It was my job to stay and try and make things better.  When I’m looking to fund somebody I care about that loyalty and integrity.  I can never know for sure but as I’ve written about before I’m certainly looking for resiliency.

Why are independent consultants just as bad?

I also avoid hiring people who have been independent consultants for the past 5 years “advising” companies on the sideline.  I know, I know.  I just added a whole new slew of people to hate me, but while they might make good consultants or even full-time contractors, they seldom make great permanent employees.  They’ve already voted with their careers that they’re not “company people.”  Yes, they too have their excuses.  “It was a tough economy.  I had to do what I could to earn money.”  Cough.  If you want to hire them as contractors fine. They’re not bad people.  Just don’t give up one of your valuable full-time management positions.

Why?  Their fallback is too easy.  1) they know they can earn more money as a contractor and 2) they’re already not worried about what being a long-term contractor looks like on their career trajectory.  By definition!

Why are so many people angry when you speak the truth on this topic?

Simply because the last 20 years has produced two generations of job hoppers.  It started with GenXer’s.  Many of us cut our teeth at work in the early 90’s.  We came off many generations of people who stayed their whole careers at IBM, DEC or XEROX.  We all lost our jobs through downsizing in the early 90’s and we felt scarred.  We realized that there was no such thing as “corporate loyalty.”

So you combine my generation of cynics with the GenY generation of  “entitlement” (until 2008 – you only saw BOOM years other than a short dot-com blip).  And you saw a crazy amount of 20-somethings become millionaires and you confused that with yourself.  If you are a job hopper or semi-permanent contractor you’re angry with me – but regardless – I speak the truth.

What can you do if you think you have too many transitions in your career?

All is not lost.  Renounce your past sins.  Grab a seat at your current employer and prove you can stay committed.  Or if you need that next job here is some advice:

  • Try to merge jobs on your resume.  I’m not talking about lying.  Not at all.  But if your company was acquired after you were there for 15 months just merge it with the acquiring company.
  • If you worked somewhere for 6 months leave it out.  It’s not worth it.  Listing it is a negative and unless it was interning for Ted Kennedy  or Ronald Reagan it’s most likely a liability.  A resume does not require you to list absolutely everything you’ve ever done.  Do not lie.  If asked in an interview about the gap you can simple say, “I joined a company for 6 months that was a total mistake.  I regretted it.  I figured I didn’t accomplish enough to put it on my resume.  Trying to make what I did there sound good on a resume would have been false.
  • If a company went bankrupt – put that in big words right after the company and title
  • If you’re in a job interview own up to your mistakes.  Come right out with, “yeah, I probably rushed into those two jobs because I was young.  I now realize the importance of picking the right company and I’m looking for somewhere I can build my career.”
  • If you get to the interview deal with the Elephants in the Room.  Talk about your mistakes and emphasize why in your future you’re going to be so focused on longevity.

Or take this advice from Todd Defren at SHIFT communications

“My advice then — and you may see it as biased — is to stay put for a while.  I am talking 3 – 5 years, at least.  There is no such thing as a perfect fit.  You must create the perfect fit.  This is your apprenticeship period.  It is supposed to suck.  There are supposed to be crummy days when you feel under-appreciated.  Such days will occur no matter who signs your paycheck.

But there are rewards for loyalty, I promise.  When I look around the table of my senior staff meetings at SHIFT, for example, most of the people at the meeting have been with the Agency for 5 – 10 years.  Some of them started out as interns, and now they run million-dollar teams.  All of ‘em are under 40 (i.e., it doesn’t take forever).”

What are some key things to avoid saying in an interview?

1. “I was recruited away from that job.  The new company was willing to pay me more money / give me a title increase” – what I hear, “Three times?  You were recruited away three times?  You aren’t loyal.  The first company that offers you a higher check means you going to jump ship.  You’re only about the money and yourself.”  Believe me – people WILL offer you employees more money.  Job hoppers take it.

2. “I was working for a lame boss.  I had to get out of there.”  What I hear, “You’re difficult to work with.  You don’t have gravitas.  Anybody with any common sense would know not to talk badly about a prior boss.  What will you say about me after you’ve left?  What will you say about me to your peers in my company when I make difficult decisions?”

3. “My stock was already vested so it was time to move on.”  What I hear – “You’re in it for the money.  The day the carrot is gone so, too, are you.”  I’d rather fire you before I hire you.

OK.  Bring me the heat.  I can take it.  Especially since I’m right on this one ;-)