6 red flags in your job history

Long before you get to a job interview, hiring managers are forming opinions about you based on your resume and your job history. Here are six of the most common red flags they look for.

1. You have multiple short-term jobs. If you have a history of quickly moving from job to the next without staying very long, employers will wonder whether you get bored easily, or can’t keep a job, or don’t know how to identify the right fit for yourself. If you do have good reasons for the job changes (such as a spouse in the military), make sure to fill in your interviewer quickly so she doesn’t draw the wrong conclusions.

2. You quit your last job with nothing else lined up. Since most people line up a new job before quitting an old one, employers raise their eyebrows if you left without something new waiting. They wonder what the real story is: Did you blow up one day and walk off the job in a fit of anger? Do you get upset at work and make impulsive and rash decisions? Were you actually fired but trying to claim you left on your own?

3. You were laid off from your last job. While plenty of layoffs are about company cutbacks or restructuring, employers know that companies sometimes use them as an opportunity to get rid of lower performers. To combat this question, be sure to mention if your whole team or division was let go. If you were the only one laid off, that raises more questions that if you were part of a group that was laid off.

4. You’ve been unemployed for a while. Even in this economy, some hiring managers look at long-term unemployed candidates and wonder if there’s a reason that other employers haven’t them. Fortunately, many employers do understand that it can take time for even good candidates to find work in this market – but it’s important to show that you’ve been spending your time volunteering, building your skills, or something other than a year-long job search.

5. You have large gaps between jobs. When employers see gaps of unemployment, they wonder what happened during that time. Did you leave the previous job with nothing lined up, and if so, why? (See #2.) Were you working somewhere that you’ve deliberately left off your resume, and if so, what are you hiding? Gaps raise questions that you don’t want on a hiring manager’s mind.

6. None of your past managers are on your reference list. If you only offer peers as references, or other people who didn’t directly supervise your work, hiring managers are going to wonder why. Managers are usually best able to speak to the quality of your work and your strengths and weaknesses, and steering reference-checkers away from those conversations can be a red flag. Plus, employers will usually ask to be put in touch with your past managers anyway.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 72 comments… read them below }

  1. Craig*

    What constitutes a “short-term job”? I’ve known several people that spend 2-3 years in a position then search for something new. I thought the days of working for a company for 10-25 years was over.

    Don’t studys say you’ll change jobs multiple times in your career?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It varies by industry/context, but in general, if you’re 30+ and have never stayed anywhere longer than 2 years, that’s alarming to most hiring managers. You don’t need to stay 10 years, but most hiring managers for mid-level to senior jobs are looking for at least a couple stays of 5+ years.

      There’s a pretty lengthy discussion of this in the comments on this post:

      1. moss*

        I’ve never stayed somewhere longer than 5 years. Laid off twice, once at 3 years and once at 4 years. :( Sad that this might be held against me.

        1. Long Time Admin*

          I was with my first company for 23 years, was laid off, then worked a few years as a temp. I had a couple of long-term temp assignments (close to a year each), and this was held against me. I guess they didn’t understand what “temp” meant. I’ve been with my current employer 6 years, 11 months, and 17 days. It feels like forever…

    2. twentymilehike*

      Craig … that’s what I thought, too! I think now “short-term” is probably a year or less? I realized the truth in this when I had a couple of friends in college who would do retail or restaurant stints for a few months, or even weeks! Later I worked at a large retail chain and told my friend to come in and apply. My manager said they didn’t hire her specifically because she “job-hopped” (she had like five jobs in one year). My trick with part time work was to always keep one “decent” job going, and then do my “job-hopping” with stuff I could leave off my resume. I don’t know if that’s always the best, but I need to work as much as I could because I need the money, but I knew having a consistent job would help me later.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        There might be some jobs where that’s the case, but for every job I’ve ever hired for (except junior level positions), multiple stays of 2 years is going to look like job hopping too. Think of it this way: If I’m hiring for a job where I’m hoping the right person will stay for more than 2 years, a resume that shows no history of doing that will make me assume they’ll repeat their pattern with the job I’m hiring for.

    3. AnotherAlison*

      I think some people would be surprised by the number of people who do work for the same company for over 10 years. It’s normal in my company and among many other people I know.

      — People with kids don’t tend to hop around the country, unless they have to due to layoff or otherwise really bad situation.
      — There aren’t that many places to go. Contrary to the popular business press that makes you think start-ups and small businesses are where it’s at, it’s still pretty good working at a Fortune 500 company. Why would I cut my benefits in half to go to a small company? In most mid-sized cities, the number of great companies in your industry is limited.
      — People you work with matter a lot. If you are on a good team, you will want to stay put, because at a certain point in your career you realize job happiness is hard to find and worth hanging on to.
      — It takes time to learn complex knowledge worker type jobs, and a lot of times, your greatest value is to your current company. You don’t really add value until you’ve been in the job a few years.
      — The time between 5 and 10 years goes really quickly, and that increases exponentially with each passing decade.

      1. Blinx*

        It’s the “golden handcuffs” syndrome. You MAY want to leave for various reasons, but the company is paying you a really good salary, benefits, time off, etc. They know what they’re doing – retaining good people. I worked 10+ years for my last employer and wasn’t too happy in my last year, but it would have been crazy to leave. Although I was laid off, I left with a good severance/benefits package. No way would I have quit without that!

  2. De Minimis*

    What would you advise for someone who has all or nearly all of the above? It is a pretty safe assumption if a person has enough of those, they will probably not be selected ahead of others who have a more stable job history.

    It’s useful to know what can be a red flag to employers, but I think it would also be good to have an idea on what to do if for whatever reason, you have a spotty work history. How can someone rehabilitate a resume that mainly shows poor choices or bad luck? [and no, that isn’t a rhetorical question.]

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You’ll need to have something that will make employers overlook that, and the most likely candidate for what that “something” could be is a personal connection. In other words, networking will be even more important for someone in this position than for other people, because it may take personal connections/recommendations to get an employer to overlook what would otherwise be red flags.

      1. ChristineH*

        I have pretty much the same concerns as De Minimis. The last 4 years has been pretty rough for me, particularly last year. I definitely have things to fill the gaps, but it’s extremely spotty (I think). My situation is a little weird, but I don’t want to get into it…I don’t want people to think I’m making excuses, because I’m not. I brought this all on myself.

        1. A Bug!*

          Could you do contract work through a recruiting firm, perhaps? If you’re competent and reliable, you might able to build a good reputation within a recruiting firm and then they might recommend you for a permanent placement.

          1. ChristineH*

            I’ve thought about that, but don’t want to get into a pinch where I’m called to an assignment on short notice due to my transportation issues. I have applied to a couple of temporary agencies, including one within my university, but haven’t had any bites.

  3. Sabrina*

    Re: the manager as references thing, what if your previous managers are flakes? I’ve used two as references in the past and they don’t always call people back. It seems like managers come in two flavors: Flighty but easy to work with or Jerks.

    1. KellyK*

      Can you talk to those managers specifically beforehand and find out the best times to reach them? You could also let the hiring company know that they might be hard to reach, though I wouldn’t say flaky. Maybe, “I know they have a lot of responsibilities and aren’t always able to return calls as promptly as they like to.” Maybe you could offer to give them a heads-up to expect a call once a given company has moved you to a “checking references” stage of things.

    2. Long Time Admin*

      My former manager made the news several months for bizarre behavior, endangering the public safety, and terroristic threats. She’s still in the mental health ward, but she was really nice to work for. (Makes me think of “City Slickers” – “Lord, we give you Curly. Try not to piss him off.”)

      The last several before her were temp agencies (1 or 2 are not in business any longer) and the rest are nowhere to be found (and probably dead). My current manager doesn’t even know what I do, but I’m sure he’d give me a good reference.

  4. Andie*

    What do you do if you your past managers are not allowed to give references? At my past two places of employment, both companies didnt allow managers to give references they had to forward them to HR. I happened the be in the office of a past manager once when a company called for a reference for a former employee and she told them she could not give a reference and forwarded them to HR. This person had not worked there in 3 years. When I asked why she would not give her a reference (because I knew she liked this person) she said it was company policy.

    1. Sandy*

      I worry about this all the time because all of my past managers are in HR. My direct manager at my last position was the VP HR and my current manager is the HR Manager. I can never put my manager on my reference list because the policy is no references, and they of all people aren’t going to break that policy. I have asked more senior members of my team (Senior Recruiter, etc) to be my references, is that a good compromise?

    2. AnotherAlison*

      Usually, references are after an interview. In your situation, I would give the past managers’s names and contact information, which shows the interviewer/HM that you aren’t hiding anything. I’d also tell the HM that it is your understanding that management will only verify dates of employment, so you are also providing names of some coworkers as references, too. In those situations, more senior coworkers are better than your direct peer.

  5. Ali*

    I don’t really have any managers as references right now except for one I still keep in touch with from time to time. This is because I’ve found out on my own research and from former coworkers that pretty much all of my other past managers have moved on from my old companies. I only know where one went to work. One took time off to have a baby, and I’m not sure where the others are. Should I try to get new contact information for my old manager at his new job even though I don’t talk to him anymore just so I have that reference?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, you’re still expected to use people as references even when they’ve moved on to new jobs. That’s why you need to keep in touch with them, using LinkedIn or whatever.

      1. Suzanne*

        My last two managers were fired and escorted from the building, one when I wasn’t even at work. Neither one is on LinkedIn and I have no idea where they are now. Sad that this would be a red flag when I have no control at all over this.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think you’re looking at this slightly wrong — hiring isn’t about being fair to candidates; it’s about hiring the person the company judges best for them, part of which is about managing risk. So it’s helpful for you as a candidate to understand how hiring managers will view this stuff so that you can manage your candidacy accordingly, whether that means finding other references, tracking these down, or simply understanding that this may be a problem for some.

  6. Anonymous*

    What about recent grads? It’s not uncommon for recent graduates to have little experience other than a summer internship or a couple part time jobs. I have friends who have recently graduated, have close to zero work experience, and are getting close to 6 months of unemployment.

    1. Kelly*

      I asked one of my professors to be a reference for me after college. She was more than happy to do it, and I think it was one of the deciding factors for the company when I got an offer. I removed her as a reference after my first job though since I didn’t want to give off the impression I was still fresh out of school.

  7. Harryv*

    I don’t agree with “2. You quit your last job with nothing else lined up. ” I know of people who are absolutely gifted with talent and with loads of experience in their field and pretty much know they will find a job at will.

    1. Bridgette*

      It’s a big gamble though. Lots of experience and talent don’t make up for changing markets. What got them jobs instantly in the past may not work now depending on the area, industry, etc.

    2. fposte*

      That doesn’t mean that it’s not a red flag to hiring managers, though. People can overcome any or all of these, but it’s worth being aware that they’re something you need to overcome.

    3. Blinx*

      “…pretty much know they will find a job at will.” Not anymore. Not in this economy, where they will be competing with MANY gifted, talented, and experienced people. I’ve never had trouble finding work before, but it’s extremely tough out there.

      It USED to be that companies were able to create positions to hire top talent away from the competition, but their hands are tied. Even if companies aren’t laying off, many have hiring freezes.

  8. Cassandra*

    How are hiring managers supposed to know why you were laid off? Even though it varies, it seems that it’s pretty widely recommended to leave being laid off of cover letters, resumes, and applications, even if it was by no fault of your own/the result of a mass layoff.

    If these decisions are being made, “long before you even get an interview”, exactly how is your reason for being laid off supposed to be communicated?

    Actually, how would they even know why you left a job, period? This article makes it seem like a lot of inaccurate speculation goes on by hiring managers.

    1. KellyK*

      There probably is a lot of inaccurate speculation just because a hiring manager has to have *some* way to whittle down their list of resumes to a reasonable level. So it’s not so much assuming it’s something bad, but rather not wanting to give an interview slot to someone with a potential issue if you have someone equally or better qualified with no red flags.

    2. fposte*

      It’s not about the speculation, it’s risk management. Think of it as like insurance rates–it could be that you’re an extremely careful seventeen-year-old driver, but people like you are likelier to get into an accident, so your insurance rates are going to reflect that likelihood rather than your individual tendency. The category of “people laid off from jobs” probably includes a higher percentage of poor performers than the category of “people looking while still hired,” so that makes hiring from the first category slightly riskier, and hiring managers are likely to have people in both categories to choose from. You can therefore improve your chances by giving context that removes the likelihood of performance being an issue or by demonstrating that you’ve got value that makes that slightly raised risk worth taking.

    3. Joey*

      They do speculate. But it’s based on factual information (your job history).

      Sometimes it’s inaccurate, but can you blame them for basing your future on your past. There are always going to be exceptions but its pretty safe to say if your job history doesn’t reflect logical and steady progression with some stability they can reasonably predict its not going to change anytime soon. It’s like your credit. Have a good credit history and your credit score communicates that you’re a good bet. Same thing. Neither care much about reasons, just outcomes.

    4. AnotherAlison*

      Many industries are tight-knit, as well. I would know if competitors had mass layoffs in the time period shown on your resume, and I’d also have a pretty good idea if it was a cut-the-deadwood layoff or a business/industry climate layoff.

      I once interviewed a guy who had worked at my previous company at the same time as me. He was offsite and though we had worked on a project together and talked on the phone a lot, he apparently didn’t recognize my name. He lied about how & why his employment ended there. The HM might know more about your situation than you think!

    5. Blinx*

      This whole post just makes me sad. In the past 22 years, I’ve had exactly 3 jobs. But because my last company merged, they had to eliminate thousands of positions/people in their latest rounds of layoffs. So now I’m stuck with the stigma of being laid off as well as having a 10 month gap. And really, IS there any way of letting a hiring manager know in the cover letter that I wasn’t fired or targeted, but one of thousands let go? Yeah, it was in the news at the time, but that was eons ago!

      1. fposte*

        I think “stigma” is probably too strong–it’s more like an overcomeable presumption, and I’d think your job history would pretty much overcome it right there. You don’t get that kind of job stability if people perceive you as a liability.

    6. LL*

      “How are hiring managers supposed to know why you were laid off? … Actually, how would they even know why you left a job, period?”

      That may depend on the application process. In my husband’s recent job search, he wasn’t asked why he left a previous job until the interview, at which time he could explain the situation. In his case, it helped that his previous manager gave a glowing recommendation. Also, he had picked up some crappy contract work in the interim just to avoid the employment gap.

  9. Maggie*

    What about the person who left their old job intending to retire early but realized after a year or so they should return to work? If they tell a prospective new employer this, will the employer then be concerned this person may leave their company as well?

    1. Omne*

      I recently hired someone in this situation, I specifically asked them about it and their explanation made sense to me. They had a logical reason for coming back to the job market and I had a good basis to believe they would be in it for several more years. Without that I would have been reluctant to hire them.

  10. Anonymous*

    How about someone who’s almost a year out of college, but can only get short-term jobs within the company? This past summer, I jumped from one internship in judicial support to another internship in personnel and to my current short-term job in voter registration. I have a good reason why I jumped so much in the span of 4 months (they needed someone in personnel to work the front desk, so I left my internship at judicial support, but they had an opening in voter registration that I could do after the term at personnel ended), but will that concern hiring managers? I had to do it because I needed a job to help with a major financial crisis and I managed to get the internship with help of a family friend. But will they, the hiring managers, think I’m flaky?

    1. Anonymous*

      This sound like multiple roles in the same (government?) organization. Maybe it’s better to emphasize that you were at one place for four months and adapted to a variety of positions.

  11. Anonymous*

    Regarding short-term stays at jobs, I was about to write in and ask if the opposite is true when you take a retail/food job to pay the bills. That’s what I did a little over a year ago so I could have money and no gap in employment. But I eased off on the job search after a while because the store manager really liked me and said he was going to train me to replace a manager who was leaving in June. Then the store manager quit in July before that could happen and the DM brought in new managers from another store.

    I’m worried that hiring managers will see me here for this long and assume I was frantically searching and couldn’t find anything better for over a year. (Obviously I have a reason if they ask, but only if I’m even interviewed). Am I being too paranoid?

  12. Work It*

    I find posts like this disheartening. Basically, unless you’re a model employee who never makes a bad decision or has the bad luck to get fired/laid off/have trouble getting a job you’re at a disadvantage. Oh well. Maybe I’ll become a madam.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s not really the way to look at this. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses to their candidacies, and often red flags too. A red flag doesn’t mean “this person will never be hired.” It means an employer will have questions or concerns in that area, which you’ll need to address, either explicitly or implicitly.

      It’s useful if you know what your red flags might be, so that you can use that insight to figure out how to present yourself to employers.

  13. Troy*

    For 8 years, I taught at a private European school. Each year I had to wait until September to know for sure if I’d be teaching the coming school year and at what pay. This of course was very stressful and the reason most teachers lasted no more than 2 years. The last year I was there, I managed to negotiate my return and pay–or so I thought–before returning to the states for the summer. Lo and behold once I landed in the states, I received the usual email from the director/owner effusively praising my work and my impact on the students and school but with a note of regret that the negotiated pay was not possible, but I was certianly welcomed to return at the prior salary. Angry and really fed up with the same old, same old shenanigans for 8 years, I refused it vehemently, particularly as the school charges close to $100,000 per year per student and the owner had just bought a new plane. We quarrelled back and forth and he threatened to terminate the contract. I told him go ahead and he did. How should I handle this in my interviews? Do I show prospective employers the email? I am working now, though in admin in the private sector, and have no desire to teach again. I wish to work in admin at a uni.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No, showing them the email is way too much detail. Just say that school wasn’t able to stick to its agreement on pay and so you’re looking for other work. Say it calmly and cheerfully — don’t sound angry.

  14. Kou*

    Re: References, I have a somewhat related question. I’m a recent grad so, even though both of the supervisors I’ve had are references, I still need a third, and the coworker I used to give has moved overseas this month and can’t easily be contacted. Is it bad form to give a classmate from my department as a reference? I know personal references are frowned upon, but originally we became friends because we studied together, helped each other with research, and proofed each others papers (some of his were later published, though none of mine were). Is that at all better than a personal reference?

      1. Kou*

        I could try asking a professor, though at this point I haven’t seen any of them for at least a year and a half (the end of my time at uni was a research project, not classes) and they have a lot of students so I wonder if it’s fair to ask them to do this?

        The two places I’ve worked were both very small organizations, so giving my supervisors from each plus that one coworker are the only people I worked with regularly enough for them to have anything to say about me one way or the other.

  15. Troy*

    Another question, if you don’t mind. I recently applied for a position at a Uni, completing the online application and sending my details to the Dean herself. I almost immediately received a reply from the Dean stating that she would make sure the search committee received my resume. Almost contemporaneously with the email, I also received an automated reply from HR stating that I did not meet the minimum requirements for the position. Should i even bother following up on this position?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No. The dean was basically saying “I don’t handle this, so I’m forwarding it to the people who do,” and those people ended up rejecting you.

    2. Ellie H.*

      I slightly disagree. I had this exact same thing (I work for a dean) happen to me. Caveat that the difference, which is a big difference, is that I worked in the same office as the dean previously (just not directly for her) and she personally requested I apply for the job. I got the autoresponse when I replied but that was irrelevant and I was offered the job. There are all kinds of reasons for minimum requirements that may not be set in stone, particularly in academic administration – their not being set in stone is the rule I have observed at the university I work at.

      I think it is certainly possible and likely that the Dean simply meant that she was not the appropriate person to review your resume and that she would forward your details to the search committee (not knowing that you had also used the online application). But there is also a possibility that she was interested by your details. I don’t think there’s any point in *not* following up, unless you are applying to a ton of jobs at this university and have a special reason to seem extra-decorous. If you didn’t reply to the Dean’s email when she sent it you could write, “Thank you for your response and for forwarding my details to the search committee. An automated response from HR let me know that I did not meet the minimum requirements, which I understand, but if you found my application compelling I would like to emphasize that I am still interested in the position.” That’s what I would do if I were in your position, but I’m not the expert.

    1. Naomi*

      Not technically, but unless you were working during the time you got the degree, you’ll have trouble explaining the gap.

  16. Rana*

    Well, this confirms my instinct that applying to work for someone is going to be an uphill battle for me. All of my jobs for the last fifteen years have been term positions in academia, meaning each one lasted no more than a year or two; that they ended when the contract was up, not because I had something new online; etc.

    How does one even begin to explain something like that to a hiring manager who is unfamiliar with how academic job markets work?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think we covered this in the last post about job-hunting (linked above), so you might check the discussion there — but jobs that are designed from the start to be short-term are exempt from this guideline.

  17. Zee*

    While I was in college, I had on-campus jobs that had specific time frames and happened only during specific times of the academic year. One interviewer did not understand this and accused me of job hopping. Yes, they were short term jobs, but I would have thought that since I repeated them every year until I graduated (and in my senior I was “promoted”), it would not be seen as such.

    1. Bb*

      I would have listed that as years “X to Y (Term time only)” so it looks like continuous employment.

    2. Piper*

      Ugh. I had this happen when I was just out of college as well. Except the interviewing was complaining that my internships were “job hopping” since they only lasted 3-4 months each (for the duration of the semester). This person just could not get past this fact. It was insane.

  18. not a job hopper*

    So what about those who just have had lots of temp jobs? some had a start and end date, and others had contracts taht ended prematurely.

    My last 3 positions were in the field I want to get into (but still as temp positions) and they all have like months-long gaps… from my last long term/unrelated (16 months in college) position to the first “career-related” position, there would be a <2 year gap…..so what's worse? a 2 year gap or 2 years of irrelevant crappy temp jobs where I have no single reference and, quite honestly, didn't do a great job?

    and can I list it on my resume that they were all temp jobs?

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