When Twitter announced Parag Agrawal as its new CEO, netizens began a frantic search for him on social-media platforms. His profile on professional networking site LinkedIn showed him to have had short stints with global tech giants such as Microsoft, Yahoo and AT&T – but as a researcher while pursuing his doctoral studies in Computer Science at America’s Stanford University. But what if he had made these frequent switches, not as a research scholar, but as a job candidate? What does job-hopping say about a candidate and how do recruiters look at this phenomenon? Answers to these vexed questions are often layered, and can often vary vastly according to company, industry, and region.
Job changes may be natural when we look at the complex environment in which we live and work. However, instead of being accepted or normalised, these are generally looked at unfavourably, as most recruiters equate this phenomenon with stability, or the lack of it, and fear that such candidates could leave them as well before long.
Sandeep Kochhar, Storyteller & Founder, Blew Minds Consulting, says a rolling stone gathers no moss, and the job-hopper is one such stone in the Indian job market. “The recruitment process in Indian companies is one of elimination, as the recruiter is looking for reasons to reject a candidate rather than to select one. For frequent job-hoppers, this becomes a major problem because their profiles get rejected due to a seeming lack of consistency and stability in their career decisions. Here, the past is taken as an indicator of the future,” he adds.
Kochhar says job hoppers have a direct impact on the business, its reputation and credibility. Many are unable to adjust well or may have undeclared performance issues. So, the recruiter has no option but to reject job hoppers outright. Therefore, “It is best for employees to think 100 times before changing a job quickly, thoughtlessly, impulsively. Like they say, you can’t run away from the past. It will come back to haunt you,” he advises.
But there are others who believe that HR leaders need to get over their presumptions, and look at cases of job-hopping with greater openness and understanding. Outrightly rejecting such candidates is not only unfair, but the recruiting company could potentially lose out on hiring a great talent who can make an impact.
“If the stints are short or there are gaps, they need to be understood with reason and not looked down upon. More often than not, it is not about the employee but the environment an organisation offers that determines the tenure of employees,” Amit Avasthi, a senior HR professional, contends. “If the organisation offers an inclusive environment where every person has a voice and offers an environment that challenges employees to deliver their best with autonomy, the engagement would be higher and attrition lower. It is also a function of personal issues (getting married, childbirth, and family or health problems) or professional (poor culture, manager, work environment etc)”.
Post pandemic, it has become even more important to shed this bias, as employees come out of breaks – forced due to layoffs or pandemic-related tragedies in their families. Hence, recruiters need to adopt a more empathetic view.
For far too long, we have correlated stability with loyalty and impact. However, nothing can be further from the truth, as impact is determined by an employee’s level of engagement in the organisation and its culture, not the tenure.
Why do frequent job changes raise red flags?
Organisations are anxious to minimise risks in hiring decisions, and, therefore, look closely for potential red flags. The cost of making an Alpha error in hiring (hiring the wrong candidate) can be far higher than that of a Beta error (letting go of a suitable candidate). So, recruiters are more focused on avoiding the former. Being critical or suspicious of employment gaps stems from here.
“Two important areas that hirers are interested in de-risking are tenure and performance of the incumbent. While the hiring process should take care of checking for skills (as an indicator of future performance) and career path, job fit etc (as indicators or future tenure or stability), they also look for any giveaway signs or red flags in the candidate's career history. Here is where gaps come in,” says executive and career coach Neha Parashar. “An experienced recruiter, however, should not broad-brush any career gap as a negative but try to get answers to relevant questions like 'has this person left many jobs fairly quickly, is there a pattern to this, could this mean that he/she has trouble settling into a team repeatedly?”
It’s worth remembering that the above questions are more applicable in early career, while an added nuance in senior roles is that performance cycles become longer - not in terms of annual reviews, but in terms of impact.
“In senior roles, one is required to take decisions that may show results over a longer time frame. In an ideal tenure, the incumbent would have stayed on to see the results of his/her decisions, course-correct where required, and see the initiative or decision to its logical conclusion. A candidate who has been moving too quickly may be leaving behind a trail of poor decisions or not taking the responsibility to see them to a conclusion,” says Parashar.
Lakshminarayanan KV, Senior Principal, Organisation Development, at Bengaluru-based software exporter Infosys, says frequent job changes can indicate an unstable/undependable resource unless there are very good reasons for the same.
“If anybody leaves a company before 2-3 years, it should be probed in detail before concluding anything. While it is fine to leave a company due to culture fit or managerial style divergence etc after giving reasonable duration and effort to align, it is also true that rolling stones who jump due to mere compensation or location-related issues are not dependable resources. This can be gauged from a detailed interview,” he says.
Career breaks taken positively
Industry experts say career breaks can be taken positively and work in your favour if you are candid about your choice - whether it was a voluntary break or a forced one.
“Under normal circumstances in India, people don't take breaks in their career unless there is a compelling reason related to family support, health, higher studies, etc... All these are fine. In the case of seniors with 15-20 years of experience, if they take a break - just to be at home or to do some social activity or to pursue a hobby, it should also be viewed positively. After all, there is more to life than work. The stigma attached to this and the queries around it are absolutely parochial and not suited for the new age,” says Lakshminarayanan of Infosys.
Besides, downsizing and layoffs are a business decision, not a judgment on the person. Most recruiters understand this and a career break should not come in the way of hiring an otherwise well-qualified, skilled professional who checks all the other boxes.
“A gap year for travelling, or quitting a job to do some volunteer work, or deciding to start out on one's own is acceptable, sometimes even glamorous/adventurous choices!” says Parashar.