Can a Job Hopper Be a Good IT Talent Investment?

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    If you’re an IT hiring manager who routinely has to weed through a stack of resumes when you have a position to fill, you’ve probably come up with a list of red flags to help you screen out applicants you don’t want to waste your time with. If one of those red flags is an employment history that’s characterized by frequent job changes, you may want to think twice before you toss that flagged resume in the can.

    Recent research conducted by two members of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology suggests that having a history of job-hopping doesn’t necessarily mean that a candidate would be a bad hire. What’s important to consider, the research shows, are the reasons underlying the job-hopping.

    I recently had the opportunity to speak with one of the researchers who conducted the study to get a better sense of the significance of the findings. Christopher Lake, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, explained that previous research had highlighted the importance of distinguishing between two types of job-hoppers: those who are prone to change jobs to escape from an environment they dislike, and those whose motivation is career advancement. “So the key to our study was being able to identify the personality traits of those prone to be escapers and those who leave jobs to advance their employment,” Lake said.

    The research found that escape-motivated employees tend to be impulsive, lack persistence, have a negative attitude. Advancement-driven job-hoppers, on the other hand, tend to be self-directed, have a strong career drive, and are proactive about assuming increased responsibility and pursuing a variety of work experiences.

    “If the applicant seems to be directed to advance his or her career, that person, if hired, may very well be a highly-motivated and driven employee,” Lake said. “This research suggests that advancement-driven job-hoppers could bring many positive elements to an organization, because they are highly motivated, confident, and self-driven workers. They have many desirable qualities that could make them productive and effective at their job.”

    No doubt, the research is worthy of consideration in the IT profession, where job-hopping is notoriously common.

    “This seems to be a big issue in IT, from everything I’ve heard,” Lake said. “People tell me it’s the norm in the IT field—it’s what everyone does.”

    I mentioned to Lake that whenever there’s a discussion about millennials in the workforce, talk seems to invariably turn to frequent job-hopping as a key characteristic of that generation. So I asked him if he had any sense of whether that’s more of a stereotype than it is reflective of reality.

    “I think sometimes the conclusion that’s drawn is that there’s something unique about millennials that makes them job-hoppers,” Lake said. “But I think if you look at the numbers, like those from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it appears to be the case that people in general are holding more jobs, and are spending less time at any particular job these days. So from what I’ve seen, it seems to be a trend overall, not one that’s specific to millennials.”

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    I was curious how gender might fit into the equation, so I asked Lake if female job-hoppers are more likely than male job-hoppers to be more advancement-motivated than escape-motivated, or vice versa.

    “In the research that I did, I didn’t find any differences,” he said. “Whether you’re male or female, there appeared to be the same likelihood that you’d fall into either category.”

    Finally, I noted that there seems to be a Catch-22 inherent in the decision to hire an advancement-motivated job-hopper. You may be getting somebody who’s driven and self-directed, but you’re still less likely to get a return on your investment compared to people who don’t have a history of job-hopping. Lake said that’s true.

    “If I was an employer, I would consider that. On the one hand, he might be a great employee, but on the other, if he has a history of moving around a little bit, that’s certainly something that needs to be considered,” Lake said. “If I was an employer, and I saw what seemed to be a pattern of advancement-driven job-hopping, where someone seems to be moving along a nice career trajectory, I might be inclined to ask some questions about where that person wants to go, and determine whether I as the employer can meet those career goals for that employee, so I can get some sense of the likelihood that that employee will stick around in my company for a while.”

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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