Ask Annie

The pros and cons of job hopping

March 7, 2013: 11:55 AM ET

Changing jobs every couple of years used to be a red flag to prospective employers. It's less so now, as long as your resume tells a clear story.

Businessman Playing Hopscotch --- Image by © Images.com/Corbis

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: Please settle a bet. I am a software developer with 11 years of experience -- six of them at one company, and the last five in three different places. I've moved around a lot since 2008 because, first, I got laid off and then, when I found another job, I left it because a former colleague offered me a bigger challenge. That turned into an interesting opportunity with a client, which I took. Now, I have a couple of new certifications and am thinking of going someplace where I could use all my different skills and get paid for them, which isn't happening here.

The only reason I'm hesitating is that a coworker (who is also a friend) tells me that, with not quite two years in my current position, I'll be seen as a "job hopper." But is that necessarily a bad thing? What do you say? Whoever is wrong has to buy lunch. — Greener Pastures

Dear G.P.: Maybe you should split the check. Here's why: On the one hand, changing jobs every couple of years carries far less stigma than it did before the Great Recession. "Partly because of all the economic instability lately, and partly due to the entry of Gen Y into the workforce, people increasingly see themselves as free agents," notes Nancy Friedberg, president of New York City executive coaching firm Career Leverage. "It's all about the portfolio of skills you bring, not loyalty or security. Moving around has become the new norm."

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That's especially true in your business. "Some companies may still be suspicious of anyone with too many short stints of a year or less," says Tracy Cashman a partner in the IT search division at WinterWyman, a Boston-based recruiting and staffing company. "But I would say more employers are reluctant to hire people who have been at one place for several years, or for their whole work history. Interviewers may feel that those people are not ambitious enough, or are so ingrained in a particular culture or way of thinking that they won't be able to adapt to a new environment."

In your case, the fact that a former colleague tapped you for a challenging position is a definite plus. "Often, those who do move frequently are being recruited by people they previously worked for, or with," Cashman says. "It's a positive sign when people who know you want to work with you again."

Even so, one important caveat: In this as in so much else, how you tell your story matters. "Job hopping is only a problem if it seems to be random. The danger is that you'll come across as flaky or unreliable," says Friedberg. "But if you have a good reason for each of the moves you made -- whether it was increased responsibility, a deepening of a specialization, or to pick up new skills that make you more marketable -- then you'll most likely be seen as a fast-tracker, not a job hopper."

To encourage that perception, she adds, make sure your resume shows a coherent career path: "Your resume should tell a story, rather than just being a chronological laundry list of all the jobs you've held, which is very boring anyway."

Friedberg counsels her clients to put their longest-held job (in your case, that six-year stint) in the summary paragraph that goes at the top of the first page, "especially if the company has a recognizable name." Next, briefly list your skills and areas of expertise. A third section should concisely list the highlights of your career so far -- those significant achievements that are relevant to the job you're trying to get now.

"Think of those three sections on the first page as the Cliff Notes version of your career," Friedberg says. "In the 20 seconds an employer will spend to skim that page, you want what he or she sees there to be clear, seamless, and relevant." Only after that should you list your experience chronologically, using years only, not months. Friedberg notes that people often hesitate to leave out anything they did, "but a very short stint somewhere -- especially if it isn't relevant to the job you're seeking -- is just a distraction. It's perfectly okay to delete it."

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Tracy Cashman offers three other suggestions to frequent job changers. First, keep detailed notes on your work. She has interviewed people who have moved so often that "they've gotten confused about dates and accomplishments," she says. "That can really dilute your credibility."

Similarly, she advises, "Each time you leave a job -- even if you don't need to update your resume because you're being recruited by a former boss or coworker -- take the time to add some information about your most recent position. That way, you won't have to think about it two years from now when you're ready to move again."

And third, don't walk out the door without lining up references. "Make sure you have one or two references from each of the last three or four places you've worked," Cashman says. A job that appears on your resume, but from which you don't have a reference, can cause concern, she says, since "employers may think you were asked to leave, rather than choosing to go after the next great opportunity."

Good luck.

Talkback: If you've changed jobs often in the past few years, have you found that interviewers held it against you? If you're a hiring manager, do you think job-hopping has become more acceptable? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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