Job hopping and what you can do about it

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Growth

The jobs they are a-changin’

When my father retired from his role as a civil servant ten years ago, he had been in his current role for eighteen years. That wasn’t necessarily eighteen years of solid growth and progression, either. It was just eighteen years of grafting the same old, day in, day out, in order to make sure that he provided for our family. Granted, my father was not working in technology, and also granted – and I am sure he wouldn’t mind me saying – he was not as career driven as many of us working in technology are. Yet, the generation that are beginning to retire are leaving behind a work landscape that is radically different from the one that they entered. Jobs for life, secure tenure and final salary pensions are pretty much a thing of the past. The new workforce must be more entrepreneurial, and as a result, they are less loyal to the companies they work for.

The tenure of my father’s last job is almost unheard of in technology. The average time spent in one role has been trending dramatically downward with time. When Travis Kalanick stepped down from his role as CEO of Uber in 2017, he had been in the job for 6.5 years. This was 5 times longer than the average Uber employee at 1.32 years. According to Business Insider, the average tenure at Facebook was 2.02 years, Google 1.9 years, Apple 1.85 years and Snap 1.62. Job hopping has nearly doubled in the last 20 years. The fact is inescapable: it is the world we now live in.

If you are a manager who thinks that your staff are going to stay loyal to you for many years, then you are only setting yourself up for disappointment. But there are ways that you can increase the chance that staff are going to stay longer than average in your organization. Before we look at some techniques that can help retain staff, let’s have a look into why people are motivated to move around.

Why are people changing jobs so much?

There are many reasons why people in the technology industry find themselves with itchy feet. These reasons are not necessarily mutually exclusive, either. They compound to create even more compelling reasons to keep changing role. Job hopping is more prevalent in the younger members of the workforce, but the following reasons are also applicable to staff of all ages.

  • Economic and social instability. For those that are just graduating from university, economic and personal situations are challenging. The increasingly high cost of housing, especially in metropolitan areas where jobs are, and mounting debt from education mean that being able to purchase a home and find a stable job that pays well is tough. Given that there is less to lose, many use their twenties and early thirties as a time to not settle, and instead let their career pull them towards new experiences and locations.
  • Wanting to experience the broadest possible work. Technology moves exceptionally fast. Many companies do not allow enough opportunity for their staff to experience a varying range of challenges and technologies on a regular basis, so leaving to work elsewhere is often less effort than waiting for the latest open source projects to gain traction from within or for a more interesting role to open up in another team.
  • Pay. As disappointing as the situation in, in general, the easiest time to negotiate a big pay rise is when you are changing to a new job. Given how much saving is required to put down a deposit on a first property, it’s no wonder that many people, as they gain experience, find that changing job rather than fighting for an internal promotion is the easiest way of increasing their salary and thus making steps towards securing their financial future. Engineering skills, especially in big data and AI, are in exceptionally high demand and there are many more jobs than there are qualified applicants.
  • Embracing challenge and risk. Changing jobs frequently means that people don’t have to live with long-term consequences. Large, complex, draining projects can create epic amounts of technical debt and maintenance, and changing jobs is a way of always being involved in the exciting stages of projects rather than having to pick up the pieces at the end.
  • Frustration. After the honeymoon period is over and the realities of a new role have settled in, frustration can begin to build. That colleague who is an absolute pain to work with. That manager who won’t allow for any career progression. That death march project that won’t ever end. That old legacy part of the system that keeps blowing up. It’s much harder to negotiate sweeping change from within, and it is often highly political. Sometimes it’s just easier to quit and move elsewhere.
  • Reduced stigma. While thirty years ago a CV listing five roles in six years may have been read with a furrowed brow, our attitude to frequent job switching has changed. If the average tenure at the top technology companies is so low, and they attract the most talented people, then others will feel less worried about the impressions of others when considering to look elsewhere.

I would advise staying neutral on whether changing jobs frequently is inherently bad or good since, as shown in the list above, there are many factors outside of your control that contribute to people wanting to move around. I am not one to judge the lives of others.

Similarly, if you are reviewing CVs, try to remain unbiased about applicants who have frequently changed job; there may be perfectly good reasons. The inverse is also true: people who have been in the same role for a long time aren’t necessarily stale, either. They may just be happy and settled. We’re all different.

Working with it

Yet, with all of the above factors working against you when it comes to retaining your staff, what can you do? Let’s see.

I chose the heading “working with it” very deliberately. If you think that you’re able to prevent people from leaving then you’re only going to feel extra bad when they eventually do. However, there are strategies that you can employ to increase the likelihood that people are going to stay for longer. Staff who have been at your organization the longest have domain knowledge that cannot be brought in easily from elsewhere. It’s invaluable.

So, what can we do?

  • Map out career tracks. What does progression look like in your organization? What are all of the roles that you have available? What is expected at the levels of seniority in different roles? If you already have this documented, then that’s fantastic. If you don’t, it’s never too late to start. Career tracks can help staff orient themselves with their current position and provide plenty of fuel for conversations about how they can progress to the next level. The simple act of mapping out different career paths is a radical act of showing that your organization cares about retaining and growing its staff.
  • Create opportunities to learn, no matter how small. Make sure that growth is part of the regular conversations that you are having with your staff. Growth doesn’t have to mean constant promotion and pay rises, although those definitely help! Creating opportunities to try new projects, to work on different parts of the application, to mentor junior staff, to try out new technologies and work with different colleagues are all much simpler ways of giving your staff variety and learning opportunities.
  • Encourage side-stepping. Enabling growth isn’t necessarily all about growing upwards and becoming ever more senior in one discipline. Sometimes people leave jobs because they think they might want to change from frontend to backend development. Or perhaps a technical support engineer wants to retrain as a delivery manager. Rather than losing your staff, why not allow this to happen at your own organization? Long tenured staff have a wealth of organizational domain knowledge that is a real shame to lose. Don’t be afraid of dipping into net-negative productivity for a temporary period if it means retaining some talented people.
  • Treat those born in captivity the same as those raised in the wild. Because of the severe talent shortage in technology, companies offer extremely compelling compensation packages to get candidates in the door. Your company may also do the same, but make sure that your existing staff are also able to grow to achieve the same levels of compensation as those that come in from outside. Allow loyalty to your company to be rewarded.
  • Be open about pay. Don’t make pay a taboo subject. Encourage your staff to discuss it whenever they want to; nobody works for free, after all. Convince your organization to do salary benchmarking for each role so that discussions around pay have real context through data. There are a number of services that can help you do this. If a member of your staff feels that they are underpaid despite the data telling you otherwise, turn the conversation towards how they can set growth goals to work towards increasing their pay over the coming year. Use pay as leverage to encourage growth.

In summary

You can’t prevent people from job hopping, especially in their early careers where they have fewer commitments and increased opportunity to explore themselves and the world around them. However, there are many things that you can do to make it more likely that your staff will stay for longer, and these changes will also benefit those that are happily tenured.

 

* My father’s job was a much less important part of his life than mine is to me, but that doesn’t make me any less grateful for the effort that he put in to make sure that I had a good upbringing. Thank you, Dad!

6 Comments

  1. Dave Jones says

    James – excellent stuff, and I especially like the section on side-stepping and dipping into net-negative productivity for a temporary period if it means retaining some talented people.

    I would add the obvious but important elements covered in some of your other blogs:
    – Create an great environment where people enjoy being at work.
    – Recognise the efforts of your staff (thank you’s, team rewards etc)
    – Listen to your staff – they are individuals and have different needs.
    – Support your staff during their difficult times – we are not all at our best all of the time.
    – Make the tough decisions on maintaining low levels of technical debt. The codebase is part of the environment, it’s where our staff live.
    – Try as much as possible to stand in the way of any unfair criticism and pressure aimed at your staff. It’s one of the responsibilities of leadership. Yes – give people accountability and let them grow, but shield them from the unreasonable.

  2. Alastair Lockie says

    Wise words James.

    One last option I’d also suggest: if someone has itchy feet despite best efforts, find and pitch a significant challenge to them which will take some 6-12 months to complete. Come to an agreement about what the rewards will be for successful completion of the challenge, and agree to fresh negotiations after.

    If somebody you manage already has one foot out the door, this gives her a clearly defined chunk of work to sink her teeth into with an end goal always in sight. If, after the challenge, you cannot reach an agreement for a new challenge, then it’s time to amicably part ways.

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