(Bleeping) Jobs, how do they work?
March 1, 2014 3:49 AM   Subscribe

I have a history of fairly short stints at jobs. 6 months, 9 months, a year, 18 months... this has been going on since I finished professional school over a decade ago. I know that this isn't typical and is standing in the way of me having a real "career." I'm curious how the people out there with more solid track records than mine experience their work. What makes you able to stay with companies for years at a time? Are you just lucky or is there a secret sauce?

Individually, there were always good reasons for my movement. When I graduated from professional school, there were very few good jobs open in my field, and the one I got was pretty terrible (I learned later the place was notorious for associate turnover, close to 100% per year) and the location made it impossible for me to live with my then-fiance. I had solid logistical reasons for leaving, but the recession was still ongoing and my next job was even worse. (Again - this is objectively true - the guy I went to work for has since been written up by the local appeals court as an example of How Not To Be.) The next job, I left because I wasn't making enough money to pay for childcare when my kid was born. In fact, taken individually, each of my decisions to leave a job has been reasonable and well thought out. But taken collectively they paint a picture of someone who just can't be bothered to stick with it. And it's kind of true. I hated all those jobs and was grateful for the various excuses to leave.

Now I have a job that started off really bad, but I've ramped up some, am finding my stride, am a valued team member and have been asked to "go full time." The tools are still terrible though, and if I am full time I won't get compensated for the constant overtime anymore. There are one or two other downsides as well.

I guess my question is, to all you people out there with good, stable job histories: what upsides to the stability of full-time work are worth the downsides? Does your long-term employee status make you more comfortable and confident? Did you dislike your job in the beginning, or was it always a love match? Has being at your company a long time helped you feel less stressed, because you know the ins and outs? Have you considered leaving or does it just not occur to you? Do you ever feel trapped? Is staying just better than job-hunting, or does it feel really good to grow with a company over time? Do you ever feel hard done by, and how do you process that feeling without wanting to leave the job?

Thanks for your insight, worker bees of the Green!
posted by fingersandtoes to Work & Money (18 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
So, a few thoughts, but I want to start with two things:

In fact, taken individually, each of my decisions to leave a job has been reasonable and well thought out.

I'd actually make the argument that they weren't. If they had been well thought out, you would have ended up in the jobs to begin with. Part of what you have to do when you apply for a job is to determine what type of workplace environment it is, what type of boss you'll be working for, and if the compensation is enough to met your needs and to offset any of the downsides of the job. It sounds like in each of these cases, you didn't figure that out until you were well into the job. You're not going to be successful in the long run if you don't do your homework ahead of time.

Thanks for your insight, worker bees of the Green!

I'd bet that most successful professionals would never call themselves "worker bees." They go into a workplace and look to build a sense of ownership, and to bring about positive change in their offices, and strive to make their organization more successful than when they arrived.

So in addition to (1) doing your homework to get the fit right, and (2) taking on a sense of ownership:

3. Define what you want to get out of the position. Is it to learn X, Y, or Z skill? To get A, B, or C experience on your resume? Figure out what you're there to do, besides just doing your job. Pick things that will take you a while to accomplish, so you have a longer term objective to motivate you.

4. It's fine to keep an eye on the job market, but you can't constantly be thinking about leaving for someone else. You can't have one foot out the door and be successful in your job.

5. Recognize that the first year is always the worst in any role. You don't know what you're doing, you don't know people, you don't know the organization that well. After that, things get easier, relationships get established, and you're the one answering more questions than asking them.

6. Recognize that if you can't deal with difficult situations, you'll always be a failure. There's no perfect, ideal, stress-free job that gives you all the tools you want and overtime, too. There's a downside to everything, and if you don't have grit and can't work through those things, then you'll never succeed anywhere.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:28 AM on March 1, 2014 [16 favorites]

Response by poster: I should clarify that I used the phrase "worker bees" because it is a cute image and to indicate that this question is specifically aimed at people here who have long term, professional jobs and would like to share their experience in that context. Not because I call myself, or anyone else, a worker bee.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:47 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I should clarify that I used the phrase "worker bees" because it is a cute image and to indicate that this question is specifically aimed at people here who have long term, professional jobs and would like to share their experience in that context. Not because I call myself, or anyone else, a worker bee.

NMSRN probably got that. Still, it is not an image the people NMSRN is talking about would use.

Your story does sound like a series of jobs you stumbled into, found you disliked, found an excuse to leave and repeated the cycle at the next job. You're reacting, not acting.

If you were acting you'd work out what your medium and long term goals are, what steps you need to take to get there. Then you find a position that allows you to take the next step. You only apply for jobs that should provide the needed opportunities. You research a lot, you use the application process to confirm what the role entails (i.e. make sure it allows you to take the next step) and to work out how good a fit the organisation will be for you. You only change jobs if you are reasonably certain that the new jobs ticks the right boxes. That is what people do who are targeted in their job search.

So work out what your goal is and what steps you need to take to get there. How do you identify the steps? You work out what is preventing you from achieving that goal right now. That could be lack of experience, lacking a specific skill set etc.

These people with clear goals may still leave jobs every so often. But their reasons would be 'I needed to have the opportunity to xyz in a role to achieve my medium/long-term goals and I did not have that opportunity in the old job'. It would not be the reasons you're leaving jobs for.

If you think this only applies to people described as high flyers that's wrong. If your goal is to earn no less than x because that's what you need to live and support your family, while working no more than y hrs and commuting no more than z hrs/week the same process applies.

From your post is is not clear what else may be going on but not thinking things through as well as you think you are appears to be some of the problem.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:31 AM on March 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

You've framed this question in a way where you might be mocking people who enjoy their career. I'm hesitant to type up a long reply, but my satisfaction has nothing to do with stability or no-stress or knowing where the lunchroom is or accumulating vacation time. I just really enjoy what I do. Maybe not every minute or every outcome or every individual person, but it's an ongoing process that I find challenging and meaningful and collaborative. I feel pretty fortunate...I'm honestly overpaid for what I do. My work is well-matched to who I am, how I am inclined to behave, and what my interests are. I'm not dressing up like an actor to recite the lines I am expected to say. What you see at work is how I am in my free time.

I struggled with professionalism right out of university due to my own immaturity, and financially I had a rough patch when my first marriage ended, but I have always felt comfortable on my career path. You are more than ten years past your terminal degree. If your worklife (1) does not engage you and (2) does not reliably pay the bills, then you might be overdue to rethink everything from scratch. Good luck!
posted by 99percentfake at 5:44 AM on March 1, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: What makes you able to stay with companies for years at a time?
Good co-workers. Liking the people you work with can make up for a lot of other deficiencies in the work environment. You should be able to get a general sense of the culture of the place at the interview stage, but there's a bit of luck to finding a place where you really gel with most of your co-workers on a work and personal level. This may also take some effort on your part as you'll need to socialise, get to know people, adapt, fit in etc. But you shouldn't be feeling like you're changing who you are just to get along.

what upsides to the stability of full-time work are worth the downsides?
Stability is already an upside. And if you want to progress, then you need experience you'll get this more quickly when working full time. Also, I'm not sure what industry you're in, but you may not get some of the more complex/high profile "juicier" work unless you're on board full time. In my experience you can't have a professional career without putting in a certain number of hours and enduring a certain amount of stress. Whether this is worth it to you is your call.

Does your long-term employee status make you more comfortable and confident?
Yes. For a few reasons. You know where things are. You know how things work. You know that in X situation, Y is the expected response. You know that manager A likes things written this way and manager B likes things written that way and you can adjust your style to suit. You know *ahem* what you can get away with (not that you or I would ever do this) and where you must absolutely toe the line. This saves you on stressing about every single thing. You'll have built up trust (which can also give you a bit of leeway when you need it) and a pool of favours you can call on (and give). You'll have a shared history with other long serving employees. Again, good relationships = nicer time at work.

Did you dislike your job in the beginning, or was it always a love match?
I worked for over 8 years at a job I considered quitting within the first 3 months.

Do you ever feel trapped?
One person's trapped is another person's comfortable. It depends on what you want eg career progression vs easy familiarity. You can always leave, unless you have literally developed no skills usable outside of that particular role. If you are going for the career though, I would leave as soon as you've learnt all you can from that place.

Is staying just better than job-hunting, or does it feel really good to grow with a company over time? Do you ever feel hard done by, and how do you process that feeling without wanting to leave the job?
Is your actual question "should I leave my job?" The answer (absent other info) is no. You're just getting into it, they've given you a vote of confidence, do you really want to start the job search and new job acclimatisation process again already?
posted by pianissimo at 5:52 AM on March 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I somewhat agree with NotMyselfRightNow. The way you hold on to a job for longer than the token year is by finding the right job. That means being very selective in job interviews and putting work/life balance, advancement opportunities, and the workplace environment at the forefront of your job search. There are good companies that want to hold on to an employee for five years or more, and there are companies that expect the constant turnover, the never-ending late nights, the burn-outs. It is your responsibility to find a position at a company that will match what you're looking for.

After three years in a somewhat dull position at a great company, I got bored and took a job at a supposedly glamorous, young, growing company. All my work friends tried to warn me, but I just didn't get it. After three months at the new job, I realized I had made a big mistake. From day one, I was thrown on a huge, impossible project with little to no support and expected to immediately deliver. Many people at this company were hired and left within six months. It was a pressure cooker, and they offered no support at all for the people stuck doing the grunt work. That was the worst year of my life in recent memory.

In retrospect, I know that I should have asked some very specific questions during my interview, and walked away when the response was not what I expected. Practical questions like: a) What does your onboarding process look like for new employees? Will I be assigned to a mentor for the first N weeks? Is there training? b) Who will I be working with directly if I accept this position? Who will I report to? Who will my boss report to? c) How will my performance be evaluated? d) How much vacation time am I guaranteed, and how do I go about requesting it? e) Plus some questions specific to my field that would have revealed a lot of the problems that I ended up running into in this particular organization.

All of the warning signs were there, I just didn't look for them. I brushed aside my hesitation, figuring that it was hindering me from moving forward.

It's funny because, in my first job, the dull position that I had for three years, I was miserable toward the end, but now I look back on my experience there fondly. I was just so bored. I had reached a point where I either had to change careers completely or move to a company that demanded something more of me. The mistake I made was adopting this "grass is greener" mentality and jumping at whoever would offer me a position. My eagerness blinded me to other options.

I realize now that I probably should have tried to maneuver within that company to another position in a different department. I should have applied for some internal transfers or something, at least to see what would happen before I gave up on that company entirely. Because for all my angst in that position, I never hated the company. It was just temporary circumstances that could have been improved. I could have stayed there, and been happy, if I'd tried.

There were people at that company who had been there for six or seven years. That seemed unfathomable to me when I was 25, but now that I'm a little older, I realize that there are some benefits to staying in one place for that long and growing within the company. You develop relationships with people in the organization. You learn the quirks of how the business runs, and you learn to filter out the noise. You make a lot of friends in your department. If what you want is a stable, 40-hour work week, a foundation on which to have a real life full of friends and hobbies and family, I think you'd do better to put your efforts into making it work at a company that you like rather than jumping every year to another struggling firm where you're just a number and nobody could care less about your career.
posted by deathpanels at 6:28 AM on March 1, 2014 [16 favorites]

Jobs are hard. I say that because I feel like you may think that those of us that love our jobs seem to not encounter problems in them every day. We do. We just don't let every little bad/annoying thing send us immediately to the help wanted section.

Having a new job has a cycle, The first phase is you don't know what you don't know. It is new and strange and exciting to be in a new place and you have so much to learn yay! The second phase is you do know what you don't know. This phase is HARD all of a sudden you see the vast amounts of information / people / processes / technologies that you are going to need to figure out and it is incredibly overwhelming. It is really hard to get out of phase 2 but then there is the third phase. You know what you know. This is the phase when you start to gain confidence about your job and how you can make an impact, the third phase is key. It kind of feels like you are jumping out before you ever hit phase 3.

I do agree with the above that you need to be better about screening new positions and stop taking every job that has that one thing better that makes you hate your current job. There are days that I hate my job, hell this whole week was a nightmare (mostly because I'm in the middle phase 2 again with some new responsibilities) but I love my company, and I love my co-workers and I know phase three is out there.
posted by magnetsphere at 6:30 AM on March 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm not a huge Penelope Trunk fan but she does have one post that I've really enjoyed about what it means to have a "good job." It was something like: a sense of autonomy, one really good work friend and …. I can't remember the third. But honestly, I think the first two have been really critical for me in choosing to stay somewhere (I have also been mostly a short timer … 3 years and under, but am approaching my fourth year at my current company.)

Here's what worked for me this time around:

1. I genuinely believe in what my company is trying to do. I work in an industry not loved by many but I believe in my company CEO's vision, his work ethic and his focus on the customer.

2. I feel like my role here is important. I have a good deal of autonomy in decision-making but am definitely a part of a team.

3. I have the proverbial work/life balance. I have a standard work week with occasional weekend work if things are especially busy but I have plenty of time for myself.

4. I have a few co-workers who I know are really in my corner and whose company I enjoy.

The last one makes up for a lot of other things that might be lacking. It's work. It is never going to be perfect unless you're Beyonce and Jay-Z. Write down your complete list of non-negotiables, do your homework before choosing the company, and learn to live with the rest.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 7:17 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

So, I went through a series of jobs I didn't like but I stayed at all of them for years. I took them even though I had misgivings at the interview stage because I didn't have better options for work in my field. Eventually I realized that if I stayed on that career path I was going to keep taking jobs that didn't work for me, because there just weren't enough of the kinds of jobs I wanted in the kinds of workplaces I was a good fit for in the places I was willing to live. Could that be your problem?

I don't think you should leave this job. I DO think you should find another job that you will really like better. And none of this "I learned later the place was notorious for associate turnover, close to 100% per year" - I know you were in a pinch, and I know what it's like to be just out of professional school and desperate to be working in your field, but you can't keep doing that. Do your homework. Don't just wave your hands and hope things will work out better at the new place when, deep down, you know it's a bad choice (I say this as a hopefully-reforming handwaver myself).

Here's my advice to you: resolve to not start any new shitty jobs. If that means staying in your current non-optimal job, so be it. If that means a career change, so be it. (That's what I ended up doing, and it hasn't been long but so far I'm very glad I made the decision.)
posted by mskyle at 7:18 AM on March 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

The replies above are great, so I’d like to take a different direction.

But first I’ll echo the point that when you change a job, you should feel that it is an improvement for you and not just a way to escape an old job. If you want to change jobs, keep your current one and look until you find one that seem to be a good fit for what you want to do – don’t just take the first option out. An “improvement” could actually be less money or responsibility if it means a better work/life balance, depending on your goals. So if you’re unhappy, look for jobs, but only take a job if (as far as you can tell) the next job is actually a better fit for your goals.

Now the new direction: some people just don’t value stability, or certain kinds of stability – I’m one of those people. Stability is just not a priority in some ways for me. I don’t care who I’m working for/with as long as I am working and getting a paycheck. And honestly, the first part of a job (where you’re meeting new people and learning all kinds of new things) is my favorite part. What gets to me is the grind of attending the same meetings over and over again for more than a year, seeing the same crises arise repeatedly, writing the same useless documents, etc. So I joined a consulting company and now I work with a new client every 6-12 months. I’m lucky that my industry has demand for consulting and staff augmentation right now, but basically I've spent the last few years jumping from place to place. The difference is it’s considered normal for me because I have consultant in my job title and I do have some continuity with the consultancy I’m working with so I can claim stability, even if I was jumping from thing to thing. Plus, moving from company to company means you avoid the dreaded effect of your boss piling on more and more tasks when the tasks they gave you 18 months ago never really went away. So if you don’t value stability and don’t mind bouncing around, maybe you can get into some kind of consulting or staff augmentation? Also, I really like that consulting keeps me hourly – if the client wants to overload me with requests, they have to consider whether it’s worth the expense.

Finally, if you have disliked or been unmotivated in every job you've had for a decade, are you sure you’re in the right job or the right industry? Maybe you should consider staying in your industry but moving towards a job role that fits you better? Or maybe you would be happier doing your current job in another industry? It’s hard to make recommendations since you didn't give any details, but I’m wondering if your current path just isn’t a good fit for you. The best thing I ever learned about my career was “there’s nothing wrong with me, and there’s nothing wrong with this company. There’s just something wrong with me being in this environment.” So I made a move to an environment where I am happier (consulting). Maybe you need to change your environment more than just moving from company to company.
posted by Tehhund at 7:23 AM on March 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Also, after reading your other AskMe post, I think you should consider talking to a counselor about developing stress coping techniques. One of the most useful skills in the working world (and in life, in general) is learning to stop worrying about things you can't change and focusing your efforts on things you can change. There's going to be some amount of pressure in any job, even if you're just making sandwiches. You have to learn to ignore the facts of the job and concentrate your efforts on the places where you can actually make a difference in your day-to-day. I think if you sit down and think about it, you will realize there are dozens of things you could be doing proactively to make your workplace less miserable.

For example, I've gotten a lot better at communicating what I'm working on to my manager and other higher ups, casting that in terms of the business objectives, and documenting it somewhere everyone can see. That reduces the amount of micromanaging that I get from my manager, which lets me focus on the part of my job that I actually like! When you start to develop a sense of ownership in your work and how it is done, you're well on your way to a happy day job.
posted by deathpanels at 7:25 AM on March 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

The company I work for now is great. I get frustrated in my current position sometimes and it makes me want to leave, but I look at the big picture. Many of the co-workers that I work with have been with this company for 20+ years. So I look at how my frustrations are temporary. Objectively the company is great. I am a contractor for 6 months and if I stay long term I know that I will have lots of opportunities.

Benefits of full time for me. More pay, insurance, pto, pension (maybe), 401k. Less likely to be fired. To me there is no benefit to being a contractor. Since everything is better. It depends on the situation, but you should look at the full package and if you work lots of overtime, then negotiate a salary that fits.
posted by Jaelma24 at 7:47 AM on March 1, 2014

At the risk of sounding rude, the adage about "if everyone around you is a jerk, the problem is you" may well apply.

I certainly applied to me. I bounced around like that, and then once I got on the therapy & meds bandwagon, staying for years and years suddenly became much easier.

As others have mentioned, you do need to learn how to interview the companies you're talking to. Learn what didn't work for you at other jobs, and figure out how to incorporate those questions into future interviews.

Also, learn not to take work stuff personally. It's just work, and the rewards of sticking through difficult situations may in many circumstances outweigh the current unpleasantness.
posted by colin_l at 7:50 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

The best thing I ever learned about my career was “there’s nothing wrong with me, and there’s nothing wrong with this company. There’s just something wrong with me being in this environment.”

I'm not sure this relates to your situation, but my own series of different-but-related-and-quickly-boring positions led to my creating my own consulting company, then acquiring another, similar company in my field, where I'm still happy 10 years later.

At one point while working as an employee, I had the eye-opening realization that the insight and honesty I was displaying would be welcomed and well-paid if the company had hired me as a consultant, but it was viewed as disloyalty coming from an employee when it differed from the upper level beliefs and attitudes (at least among the companies I had been working for). I also realized that I really like finishing a project, which didn't often happen when I was an employee. Once I figured those two things out and acted on what I'd learned about myself by becoming the person in charge of my own company, everything changed.

That's not to say that owning your own company has been without stress - being solely responsible for your own income and the livelihood of others can definitely be stressful - but it's stress that: 1) I've chosen and 2) I have a large amount of control over. It's made me happy, and it's caused me to turn down several lucrative offers that would have turned me back into an employee.
posted by summerstorm at 8:25 AM on March 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just wanted to say that it sounds to me like your decisions have not been irrational, just that they were driven more by personal priorities and obligations - relationship, childcare - not at all atypical for women, and I can relate to that. And it sounds like you’ve generally felt, and probably were, disempowered (by market forces and bad work environments) in terms of your sense of self as a professional. So, maybe it is time to prioritize that self now. I think the strategies and approaches people are sharing make a lot of sense. (My response to a similar history to yours has been to retrain.)

(Just to clarify - the practical decision you’re now faced with is deciding whether to accept the offer to go full-time, in a kind of stressful environment, and you’re wondering how to cope with it given you don’t love this job? And the thing about ‘worker bees’ is that maybe that you think you’ll feel that way if you go full-time? I agree with others - think about professional fit & review long-term goals. Ask yourself “how, practically, will this experience serve me now and later?”)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:46 AM on March 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I feel like you're getting a lot of harsh judgment for taking bad jobs in the first place, and I'm not sure it's fair. Yes, in a perfect world, we'd all be hyperselective about jobs and never take a bad fit out of the gate. In the actual world, we get ONE job offer in 400 applications, and you better goddamn believe we take it because living with mom and dad and being uninsured and having no retirement plan isn't viable for a real long time.

In our new Gilded Age of Bullshit economy, a lot of jobs are frankly going to be pretty terrible because there's no incentive to make them better. Most young workers are going to end up in at least one of these terrible jobs.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to adopt a more forward-thinking plan when you can, and now it looks like you can. You now have a job, and they like you, and are going to make you full time. NOW you have the stable footing that will allow you to make good future decisions. So when you're trying to frame why you're staying, think of it as building a secure platform. You build this platform for a couple of years. It consists of:
-A network
-A solid block on a resume
-More developed skills

Then if, after a couple of years, you find you still don't like the fit of the place, THEN you can go and interview and be super-picky, because you won't be hunting in a panic, you'll be hunting like a seasoned professional. You've been operating on low-level panic for so long that it's become the way you're used to being. It's gonna feel weird to operate on a level of calm and reasonable planning. But you'll get there! Give it a shot.

When you feel momentarily trapped and panicky, hard done-by, what have you, remember that this is temporary and you are working on A Plan. This is just the necessary step in The Plan. You will have to build a tolerance for nonsense, that's just adult life. But you can do it!
posted by like_a_friend at 9:26 AM on March 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

I'm perhaps not really your target respondent, but I wanted to chime in. I have come to feel that there are three things that make a job "good," and you need two out of three to make you want to stay. In no particular order:
1) you like the work
2) you like the people you work with
3) you like the pay/benefits

I have quit two jobs (one just under a year, the other just under two years) without a backup because I didn't have any of the three and no amount of stability and being good at my job was going to change the fact that I'd wake up five+ days a week depressed or anxious to go there, and I spent my days off stressed out about my days in.

I also want to tell you that I have worked with many long-timers and some of them would absolutely describe themselves as worker bees. There are people who are content to work a job, even one they don't particularly enjoy, long-term who would not call it a career or vocation. In some part because of this, the idea that I should be on an distinct career path or be doing something I really enjoy or care about is something I've struggled with quite a bit the past few years.
posted by sm1tten at 10:08 PM on March 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just reached the 2-year milestone at my current job, and I don't have plans to leave anytime soon. I was at my prior job for 12 years and only left because I survived five rounds of layoffs and it was time to move on.

I'm hard-wired to stay at jobs a long time, because my parents both did and because I was fortunate enough to finish college before the huge "follow your bliss" movement kicked in. I work so that I have the security and money to follow my bliss on my own time. Don't get me wrong, "go boldly into the direction of your dreams" works for a tiny sliver of the population, the dreamers and creators who are also doers, and also have a head for running their own business. That is not me.

I like the stability of being at a job long-term. To me, it's a relationship. I get out of it what I put into it, and sometimes I have to deal with bad days/weeks/months and changes in responsibility and new managers. I deal with that by coming home and living the rest of my life. But if that relationship turns toxic and I can't adjust myself to make it work, I plan my exit.
posted by kimberussell at 8:47 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

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