Are you a bit of a job hopper? It’s okay! Here are some tips to help you ace that question during your job interview.

Any job candidate can reasonably expect a question or two on his employment history. Most are prepared to speak about both their previous job responsibilities and successes. However, what should you do if you’re worried that your track record might raise a few eyebrows?

How do you define a job hopper?

Before we jump into how to answer this tough interview question, let us agree on some definitions. “Job hopping” is a term that is used when a candidate has held several short-term positions that are not traditionally meant to be short-term (i.e. not seasonal positions, time-limited contracts, or internships).

What does that mean, exactly? The answer depends on who you are talking to. Some hiring managers frown upon candidates who have less than a year each in two or more jobs in a row. Others draw the line at less than two years with any one employer. Historically, job hopping has been viewed as an indication of flightiness, unwillingness to make a long-term commitment, or lack of interest in developing deep expertise. Those opinions are slowly changing, but there are still many HR managers who will use apparent job hopping as a cutting filter.

Are short-term gigs a deal breaker?

Not necessarily. The stigma associated with frequent job changes is fading because the days of retiring with a gold watch after a 30-year career in one place are gone. Changing jobs has become a normal part of professional growth. Recent research by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the average tenure with one employer is 4.2 years. Interestingly, that number is higher for older employees, where the median tenure for workers aged 55 to 64 is over ten years, and lower for the younger group, where 25-34 year-old employees had a median tenure of only 2.8 years.

Those numbers are echoed by Gallup. 21 percent of Millennials say that they have changed jobs within the past year, and only half of those surveyed expect to remain with the same employer a year from now. As a result, companies have to find ways to make peace with shorter stints on resumes, lest they disqualify the bulk of otherwise well-suited job applicants.

This does not mean that you should waltz into the interview and blow off the employment history question as irrelevant. Chances are, the hiring manager will want to understand your reasons for leaving a job, and it certainly pays to be prepared. Here are some things to consider.

Acknowledge and alleviate concerns about your job hopping

Your employment history could be triggering some concerns for the hiring manager. Here is a short sample of what might be going through her mind:

  • “Is the candidate likely to give up easily when he encounters challenges?”

  • “Does the candidate have a history of not getting along or fitting into a professional team?”

  • “Will my department have to spend months training this candidate just to watch him quit a year later?”

  • “Is the employment history an indication that the candidate is disloyal?”

  • “Is this candidate so money-driven that he would switch jobs just to make a little more elsewhere?”

Remember that the hiring manager does not know the true story behind your list of employment dates and positions. As such, these questions are perfectly understandable and valid. Do not take them personally, as that can cause you to come across as defensive. Do not feel the need to apologize or explain away the short employment stretches, or you risk sounding like you are making excuses. Instead, opt for strategic transparency.

Tell your story

You cannot tell your story effectively without giving it some thought in advance. Be honest with yourself: What caused you to change jobs? It is best to write your responses down and reflect on them privately first.

Some job hops are easy to explain, and have plenty of acceptable reasons for leaving a job. For example, you may have taken a chance on a scrappy startup that set out to disrupt the industry, only to have it run out of funding ten months later. Perhaps your previous employer moved the office location, which caused you to endure a 90-minute commute in each direction, cutting into your productivity.

Other situations can get tricky and require a good dose of contemplation and tact. Perhaps you felt that the old position did not allow you opportunities for advancement, had a less-than-optimal working environment, or was simply not a good fit. Maybe the truth is that you did not get along with your boss or that the sheer amount of workplace politics involved in getting anything done got too frustrating. Your response should tell the truth in a way that does not drag your previous employer through the mud or put you in a negative light.

The key to addressing any circumstances is to be honest and concise. Here are some examples on how to best explain why you left in the first place:

  • “I loved the opportunity to work at [high-tech startup] and was disappointed to see it close.”

  • “I am grateful for the chance to work with a great team at [company], but after their recent move I found it difficult to maximize my productivity given the longer commute.”

  • “I was ready to take on more responsibilities. Unfortunately, the structure and funding of the company did not allow for upwards growth or a lateral move.”

  • “I was offered an opportunity to lead an amazing professional team at [next company], and I knew that I could make a real difference there.”

  • “I wanted to join a team that was empowered to make positive changes.”

The recipe is to express gratitude, own the experience, and move on.

Turn your job hopping into a hidden advantage

Beyond using honesty and transparency to explain your employment history, you may be able to turn your multi-job record into a hidden advantage. Professionals with experience that encompasses many companies and industries bring with them unique insights, best practices, and fresh ideas that cannot be cultivated in any one place. They also tend to be quick learners and fantastic relationship-builders. Reflect on why the hiring manager should choose you because of your employment history, not despite it!

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • “At [large company], I had an invaluable experience of managing international projects with up to five teams in different regions.”

  • “At [small start-up], I discovered new tools and built superb skills for multitasking.”

  • “At [small consulting firm], I gained an appreciation for the intricacies of building relationships with prospects. Since I have experienced the whole client acquisition cycle, I now create better proposals and deliver better service.”

Be sure to align what you learned with the key requirements of the position you are interviewing for. Your goal is to illustrate how your employment history has shaped you to be the perfect candidate for this job.

If your specific skills don’t exactly align, focus on meta-skills (or super-skills that transcend functions and job descriptions). For example:

  • Your ability to understand different perspectives makes you invaluable for any job that requires you to anticipate other people’s objections, concerns, and reactions.

  • Quick learning can be a phenomenal asset for anyone entering a fast-changing industry.

  • Your skill in noticing risks, problems, or pain points means that you have what it takes to make everything you touch better.

  • Finally, storytelling is critical for converting prospects into clients, inspiring buy-in and commitment from your team, and selling an idea to top management.  

The bottom line is, job hopping does not have to be a handicap. With some advance preparation and reflection, you can turn your multi-step professional history into an advantage!

Need more interview help? Learn more about our interview coaching services.

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