26 September 2023

Should you ever stay in a job ‘for your resume’?

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Meg Watson* discusses whether leaving a job quickly looks bad on a resume.

Have you ever started a job and almost immediately realised it’s not for you?

The boss is a nightmare.

The work is stressful.

You can’t stop reading stories about people quitting their corporate jobs, changing careers and switching things up due to burnout.

It can be hard to know when to cut and run, and when to stay — even if just ‘for your resume’s sake’.

But with a labour shortage in many sectors and the ongoing speculation of a Great Resignation, do employers still care about the ins and outs of your job history? And what is the ‘ideal’ time to stay in a job anyway?

We went to the experts for answers.

Does leaving look bad on your resume?

Not necessarily.

Kate Richardson, a career coach from Melbourne, says it can depend on how much turnover is generally in your industry and how many times this has happened before.

“Leaving one job after a short time is completely reasonable.

Maybe you had a bad experience, or got an incredible offer you couldn’t turn down,” she says.

“But if you’re leaving every job after a short time, that can really prompt questions about your ability to stick it out or your performance.”

A “short time”, Ms Richardson says, is generally a year or less — but it depends on where you are in your career.

If you’re a young worker, she says two years is generally a good milestone to shoot for in any job.

(The average job tenure for Australians aged 25–35 is 2 years and 8 months).

But Susan Ainsworth, a professor of organisational studies at The University of Melbourne, prefers to think of it more abstractly.

“I don’t think there is an ‘ideal’ time to stay in a job,” she says.

And though it’s true employers used to be pretty “prescriptive” about your job history, Professor Ainsworth says this is changing.

“Job change isn’t necessarily viewed negatively anymore.

“In fact, it can be the opposite,” she says.

“If people have stayed in one organisation for a very long time, they might be seen as enculturated — too used to a particular way of doing things.

“I think [you should consider moving on] when you hit a plateau or you’re not getting out what you’re putting in … but that doesn’t equate to a particular length of time.”

Good reasons to leave in a hurry

Ms Richardson says there are some reasons to leave a job quickly — even if you are a bit worried about what your resume looks like.

These include:

  • If you’re in a toxic work environment and/or your mental or physical health is at risk;
  • If the job is completely different from what was sold to you (although it’s worth discussing that with your boss first);
  • If an amazing opportunity comes up somewhere else.

But she says, whenever possible, it’s best to avoid knee-jerk decisions.

“You might feel miserable when you wake up on Monday and think ‘I’ve got to get out of here’.

“But it’s better to actually [think] it through.”

Are you in a position where it’s financially feasible to leave this job? Has this experience made you realise you need something different from work entirely? Is this the first time this has happened?

“If you notice that [you’ve actually felt this way] in the last three or four jobs you’ve had, you might not be in the right career,” Ms Richardson says.

How to explain early exits

First thing’s first: if you leave a job very quickly after starting, you might not need to put it on your resume at all.

But if you were there a bit longer and you’re nervous about what your next employers might think, Professor Ainsworth says you can still frame things in a way that makes sense for your overall career trajectory.

That might sound like:

  • “The culture/work environment wasn’t a good fit for me.”
  • “I felt I wasn’t being challenged in this role.”
  • “There weren’t sufficient opportunities for me to broaden my experience.”
  • “I wanted to vary my experiences and try something different.”

You could briefly touch on this in your cover letter, and then explain a little further if asked in an interview.

But both experts agree it’s best to stay generally positive and focused on the future.

“Your new boss doesn’t want to hear you slagging off your old boss,” Ms Richardson says.

*Meg Watson is a Journalist at ABC Everyday.

This article first appeared at abc.net.au.

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