UX Job Tenures: Is Job Hopping Bad For Your Career?

"Hmm...I don't know about this candidate. 
His design skills are good... 
but he looks like a job hopper."

I looked at the resume again. Was management referring to the candidate’s last position, where he stayed for 9 months? It wasn’t an awfully long time, but to me I wouldn’t have labeled someone a job hopper just for staying somewhere under a year. So I began digging around.

This is one question that’s been coming up a lot lately in the UX Beginner community…how long should you stay at a job?

When you find yourself in a design or UX interview, you may be asked to explain your tenure – or how long you’ve worked somewhere.

If you’ve ever been concerned about the stigma of short employment histories, this post is chock full of tactics that will help you navigate this tricky interview situation.

First, some interesting stats:

Did you know that the average tenure of Google employees is 1.1 years? Amazon employees stay for even a shorter duration at just an average 1 year. This data comes from a Payscale study looking at employee loyalty.

The first thing to notice is that there’s a high correlation between average employee age and average employee tenure. It kinda makes sense – the younger you are in your career, the more you’re trying to learn and grow, which mostly happens through switching jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this correlation, as well as pointing out that the average tenure across the entire study (PDF) stood at ~4.5 years.

Yet it seems that we are approaching a new normal: 91% percent of Millennials (born between 1977-1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years (FutureWorkPlace).

That’s a lot of numbers, but what about the UX industry? That’s where things get hairy, because I couldn’t find solid data on this topic. Take the rest of the article with a grain of salt (as you should with any article), as this is based on my personal experience + anecdotes from fellow UX designers in the field.

What length of time do we define as job hopping in the UX industry? There really is no number, and it’s all about perception.

From what I’ve heard from recruiters, consistently staying at companies for under 1 year can raise red flags. There’s just a perception with time – there’s little difference between 10 months and 1 year, but the former just sounds much shorter.

Anecdotally, none of my friends (in their mid twenties) have ever gotten crap for staying at a place for  ~2 years. This is no magic number, but if you’re worried about being a hopper and you’re approaching your 2 years, just stick it out for a few months.

Unless… your job sucks the happiness out of your life, then let’s evaluate job hopping with a quick Pro/Con list:

Pros and Cons of Job Hopping
Find a better cultural fitCan be flagged as “job hopper” by recruiter, flight risk by management
Diversify your design experienceYou want to enter an industry/company that values long job tenures
Add more projects to your portfolioPotentially lose out on bonuses/retirement incentives if leaving too early
Higher Salary by switching jobs vs waiting for a promotionPotentially lose out on stock options / exit, especially at a promising startup

Notice that the most of the good reasons for switching jobs centers around growth of some short. Personal growth and financial growth are hugely important, especially for those early in their careers.

Conversely, most of the cons on switching jobs deals with other people’s perceptions and potentially losing out on financial incentives.

So here’s a quick heuristic: if the benefits of personal growth heavily outweigh the cost of switching jobs, don’t hesitate to move on.

Oh wait, but you still might get grilled on your job history in an interview. Let’s dig into that.

How to Handle Short Job Tenure(s)

As I mentioned earlier, the stigma behind a short job tenure is an issue of perception. Thus we can handle perception with a few strategies:

Positioning Yourself  

There are countless ways to position yourself, but the main strategy is to focus on the experience you bring to the table, and offer a solid explanation as to why the company you’re interviewing for interests you.

If asked about job tenures or why you’re switching jobs, the best answers center around personal growth. Some examples:

Affinity for a certain industry

“I’m a huge gamer and working as a UX designer in this industry would be the perfect intersection of my skills and interests” 

Desire to work in a new work environment

“I’ve worked in-house and at a startup before – and had a great experience – but I’m looking for the variety and intensity of working at an agency” 

For more on this topic, read How to evaluate UX jobs at Agencies vs Startups vs Big Companies

Interest in a specific types of projects

“At my last job, I designed a lot of responsive websites, and I particularly enjoyed designing for the mobile viewport. This job would allow me more opportunity to work on mobile apps, which I’m very passionate about”

Desire for a certain team structure

“I’ve typically worked in small teams or as a solo UX Designer, so I’m excited that your company has an entire team of interaction designers, UX researchers, and beyond.”

There are also many bad explanations. In general, avoid anything that comes off as a complaint about previous employers, such as…

  • Bad-mouthing your superiors or co-workers
  • Talking about Interpersonal issues
  • Complaining about the culture (this raises red flags…was it other people who were bad, or was it you who just didn’t fit in with anyone?)

Show Them You Care

Another way to position your experience is to do a lot of research on the company you’re interviewing for. When you show up to an interview with a lot of knowledge about the company and can even propose suggestions, you position yourself as a serious candidate.

Suddenly, how long  you were at your last job doesn’t matter as much because you’re that much more knowledgeable than other candidates.

Side Projects

Job hoppers can further position their experience by doing and talking about side projects. Imagine going for a UX role at company that only has a web (not mobile) presence. Let’s say another candidate has 5+ years on you, but is coming from another industry as well.

If you do a side project doing an exploration of what a mobile version of that website looks like, your experience could become much more relevant than the other candidate, regardless of your job tenure.

Some Contrary Food For Thought 

In this article we went in depth dealing with the potential stigma of short job tenures…but can it actually hurt you to stay somewhere too long?

Long story short: experience trumps everything. Someone who’s been working at a company for 5 years, but don’t have that much work to show, can actually be hurt by their long job tenure.

Here’s a quote from Jobvite CEO Dan Finnigan:

It used to be that when you were looking at someone’s resume and they changed jobs more frequently than every five to seven years, they’d be labeled as a job hopper, unstable, greedy or selfish, unable to hold a job. Whatever it was, it usually flagged them and pulled them out of the stack. Now, in some regards, I think it has flipped. Now when recruiters look at someone who has stayed in a role for more than three years, the question is why? What have they been doing? … The world is changing really fast. There’s this intuition that if you’re doing the same job for more than three years and your job didn’t change, that means either your company’s not that dynamic or you are not that dynamic. I’m not saying that’s always the case, I’m just saying there’s this increasing perception.

Can the tech industry solve the employee tenure problem?

  • Unless you work freelance, staying at jobs consistently for less than 1 year raises red flags, and staying somewhere for 2 years is a very safe zone
  • However, experience trumps job tenure. When evaluating the Pros/Cons of switching jobs, choose what provides the best experience, especially if early in your career
  • When interviewed about short job tenures, root your answers in personal growth

Survey Time: Give a little, Get a LOT

To get a better picture, I am putting together a short UX Job Tenures Google Survey