can staying at the same job too long hurt you?

A reader writes:

I’ve been at the same company for nearly 12 years, and during that time, the company has nearly tripled in sales and number of employees. I started as basically a clerk and as the company grew, I eventually worked my way into a manager’s position with 6 employees in my department. My level of responsibility has steadily increased and I’ve continued my education and have obtained specific certifications for my field, raising the sophistication in the operation of my department. I feel that within a few years, I may be ready to move on beyond what the company can provide in terms of challenge and opportunity.

I have recently had some conversations with recruiters and other hiring types, and have been told that while longevity was once a good thing to have, these days potential employers could look at my length of time at the same company as a strike against me. They’re saying that someone could look at me and think that I’m either locked into my present company’s way of thinking and that could be hard to break, or that I’ve simply become stale, stuck in a rut, and will always be there. I think I’ve gotten to where I am in part because I’ve always challenged the current way of thinking, including my own sometimes, so this is definitely not the case with me. Is this a trend in hiring? If so, how would I address this when I do start searching?

It’s true that there’s a point where staying too long at one place can raise questions about how you’ll adapt to new environments. I can’t pinpoint exactly when that is — it’s somewhere more than 8 years but well before 20.

The worry is that you’ll be stuck in one company’s way of doing things, won’t have been exposed to a wider variety of practices and cultures, and thus won’t adapt easily. So anything you can do to demonstrate that’s not the case is helpful. Certainly being able to show a progression in responsibilities and job titles — as you can — is helpful, and you should think about what else you can use to demonstrate that you’re flexible, open to change, and don’t have an insular viewpoint.

And for anyone who’s now worrying about what this means for them, this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker and it certainly doesn’t mean that you should leave a job you love before you want to … but you should be aware that it could be a potential concern for future employers, and balance it against other factors.

And this is not a license to engage in job-hopping, which is far, far more harmful to your ability to get the future jobs you want.

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. MR*

    Are there industries where “too long” has a different timeline? I’m in IT and have been in my current position for 7 years (though it has changed over time), and I’m getting those questions you mention about practices and cultures in interviews.

    1. Jamie*

      IT is such a broad category and I think some areas have a much shorter timeline than others. JMO but programming or software development may have a longer shelf life than people like me with system/network admin type roles. Especially in smaller companies where they expect you to keep old technology alive. I am lucky in that I have the budget to update properly, but I’d have to stress that if I were on the market lest people think I’ve just been babysitting some old SBS 2003 for the last several years.

      My problem is that while that part of my job has a short shelf life, the managerial/accounting/and QC parts of my job need a longer stay lest I look like I implement and then cut and run before I have to live with my own policies/procedures/processes.

      So long story less long – I would love to see a career expiration date stamped on the bottom of my foot because I have no freaking idea how long is too long.

    2. Scott M*

      I wonder about that too. I think it’s that annoying phrase of “it depends”.
      I work in I.T. and I’ve been at my company for 22 years. I haven’t shown any progression in job titles, because the only progression would put me in leadership roles, which I’m not well suited for.
      But as far as being stuck in a rut, I.T. professionals are lucky that our technology changes every year. I started working with COBOL on a mainframe with VSAM files (Does anyone remember those?) Now I work on the latest ERP systems and using multidimensional databases, using business intelligence tools. And I’ve accumulated tons of skills and programming languages along the way.
      In I.T., as long as you are current on your skills, I don’t think it matters how long you’ve been at one company.

      1. Anonymous*

        “In I.T., as long as you are current on your skills, I don’t think it matters how long you’ve been at one company.”

        I tend to switch jobs every 2-3 years and the one pattern I notice repeatedly is that progress is usually held back by the long-term employees. They can’t appreciate the fact that they don’t know the best way to do everything because they haven’t been exposed to different environments. The Fortune 500 company where I work now is ridiculously behind the times but they think they’re cutting edge. They are huge proponents of promoting from within so most of the IT staff started in the helpdesk here and worked their way up to developer or sys admin over the past decade. They’re all solid skill-wise but their processes, monitoring, after hours support, change control and project management are a joke. Of course, you can’t tell them that because they have no points of reference from other jobs. They get so defensive when any of the newly hired (but very experienced) people make suggestions that we just keep our mouths shut now. My mindset is that I will absorb every ounce of knowledge I can from this job, add it to the things I’ve learned at past jobs and hopefully use it to benefit my next company.

        The longest I’ve stayed anywhere is almost 7 years and I can’t imagine doing that again. In hindsight, I should have left that job around year 4 or 5. However, if I already had 22 years in like you, was generally happy and my job outlook was bright, I would probably just ride it out until retirement.

        1. Sharon*

          Agree with you, and I’ve seen that too. I think I’m a bit different, though, because even though I was one of those legacy people for a long time, I always wanted to learn new things and get assigned to new projects. In my experience, it was my management who pigeon-holed me: they hired me as a Cobol programmer and they needed me for that. All new projects that needed new technology were assigned to newly hired (or worse, contractors) employees. I even did some hobby projects with web and object oriented programming, but my companies were never interested in me doing that for them, so those things I tried to learn eventually rusted away.

        2. Scott M*

          I guess I’m lucky that my company is constantly updating their systems, so I get the chance to learn new things every few years. I probably shouldn’t have made a blanket statement about the I.T. profession as a whole, precisely because I’ve been at the same company for so long.

        3. Ron*

          I don’t work in IT, but I’ve definitely seen this as well. The managers at my previous company had been there for 30 years and were totally closed off to new ideas of any kind, even though they told us repeatedly that they were looking for the next big thing. You could tell many of the standard practices had been formed when typewriters were the tools of the trade (such as editing all copy by hand, printing out text and physically cutting and pasting blocks of text in a proof rather than doing it electronically, etc). It was a sad atmosphere to be in. The OP doesn’t sound like this at all, but I think it can be a danger sign when someone has been in the same role for a very long time. It can be a sign that they are uncomfortable with change and are basically unmotivated and or fearful about trying something new.

        4. Elizabeth*

          The flip side of that is the disgust I feel, after nearly 20 years, at the newbie who walks in the door and wants to change everything without asking why something might be done a certain way.

          I know why we’ve made many of the decisions that we have. I know from a technical standpoint that many of our decisions don’t make sense without context, and that outsider looking in won’t have the context. Yet each time I have to yell loudly and for long periods of time to get them to stop long enough to listen to the background on why certain things are the way they are.

          I’ve got another 20 years before I can contemplate retirement. I am reasonably sure I will still be at the same place I am now, short of an economic cataclysm in my community that closes my employer. I’ve made it a point to stay on top of the trends in my field because I know that part of being a valuable employee is to always be aware of what is coming. But just as valuable is being able to integrate that knowledge with the knowledge of what has happened in the past, so that we don’t make serious errors based on incomplete information.

            1. Original Dan*

              Additionally, I remember being the newbie that came in here with experience from other companies. I thought it was amazing that these guys were doing things as they were.

              With time, I realized that many of the things I thought were goofy were actually the best way to go. And to my surprise, some of the changes that I wanted to see have come to be.

              So as more than a couple of people have said recently, be careful when painting everyone with the same brush.

      2. Camellia*

        Looking back on a long career which spans 28 years at one company and then three contract positions (2 1/2 years and counting on this third one), I now counsel friends and family to change jobs every 4 to 6 years, for a couple of reasons.

        Every job is a learning opportunity, so you can go in, make your mistakes, hone your skills, and get solid ground under your feet. Then you can use that solid ground to move yourself up the next step with a new company and a higher salary/better title/new challenges/whatever is your goal.

        As we see all the time in this forum, too often the salary of a long term employee is far less than someone with comparable skills who has changed jobs. And promotions may not be as forthcoming. And new roles/experiences/challenges may not be offered.

        And never, never underestimate the value in ‘starting fresh’ with people who don’t know your past mistakes and will instead worship at the feet of your awesome-ness.

  2. Sascha*

    I would think staying in the same position – but not the same company – for too long would indicate staleness. OP, you sound like a great candidate to me – you began as a clerk and worked your way up. I don’t see staleness there. Now if you had stayed a clerk for 12 years, that might be a little different. So I would make sure my resume indicated that I had moved up in the company, and during interviews, describe that journey as well.

    Then again it depends on the industry. It’s acceptable that doctors remain at their practices or hospitals for the duration of their careers. And I don’t see many college professors moving around once they receive tenure.

  3. The Editor*

    My point of view–and I emphasize _mine_–is that steady progression in a job can help balance that out. It is one thing to be a clerk for 12 years, but you’ve shown steady progression and growth. That doesn’t mitigate all the “bad,” but I think it helps.

  4. anon*

    This is kind of timely for me – I have been with my current company for 11 years. My company is likely to be sold soon and the owner has said (many times) that he will give the other long-term employee and me a little money and part of the deal is that our jobs will be safe for a year. You never know but I do believe him. I had an interview today with a larger company for a job focusing on just one part of what I do now – which I like doing but it’s not my favorite part of the job and it’s not what I’d like to do going forward. It’s also a significant pay cut. (I would of course try to negotiate them up but they’re not going to meet my current salary. It’s a little more junior level position). My commute would go from 1.5 hrs to 20 min. (But no gas savings, I’m taking transit.) It’s really tough to find a job in my industry right now so I am trying to decide if I should just take the job and one of my big considerations is that I’ve been in my current position too long and I really need to make a change just to add some momentum to my career. I was offered a job with them years ago and turned it down so I don’t want to proceed further in the process if I’m not serious about the job. Also, the new company is for sale (it’s a volatile industry) so I could make the move and then be out of a job immediately anyway – companies are being absorbed into others left and right at the moment. How much does it matter that I’ve been here that long or in this situation is it a good thing because I’ve got some security? It’s obviously not my only consideration but it’s a big one. Tough decision.

    1. AB*

      I think there are too many “cons” and too few “pros” in this job offer to justify you taking it.

      In your place, considering you still have a job, I’d start aggressively searching, using my contacts in LinkedIn and doing anything in my power to widen the net to see if I could find a job that would represent a new challenge, not going back to a more junior position with lower salary.

      Good luck!

    2. CoffeeLover*

      I agree that this doesn’t seem like it would be the right move for you. The only benefit you’re getting is that you’re moving to a new company, which really isn’t a significant benefit. The cons are that your moving into a situation with even less job security, your basically accepting a demotion both in the position itself and in your pay, and you won’t even be doing what you want to do. The only reason I can see that you should accept is if you really like the company and want to work for them (but even then they’re being sold off). As AB said, take the time you get from your current employer to really look for something that would fit.

    3. anon*

      Thanks everyone! I’ve been already looking for about 2 years. With my commute and long hours in the office I don’t have much time to job search and I essentially have to move to a new industry (since there are so few in mine) so it’s proving to be a long process. But the cons are big cons! I appreciate just having the chance to write it down and hear others’ thoughts.

  5. AB*

    I agree with the other comments, and to me the main questions the OP should be asking her/himself are:

    Is there still space for your career to grow in your current organization? Do you feel you are still learning enough new things in your current role to justify staying in this position for longer?

    If the answer to these questions is no, you still wouldn’t have to leave right away, but I’d recommend starting to network with people in other companies that might find your profile valuable, so you are able to jump into a challenging new role when the right opportunity comes along.

  6. Julie*

    I think it would also help to have volunteer experience that augments your professional experience. I’ve been with my company for 1o years, but I’ve had a progression of different positions. At the same time, I was a volunteer stage manager for a non-profit theater, and I learned and used skills there that have helped me in my career.

    After I received my 10-year-anniversary plaque, I did start to worry a little about being in one place too long, but I really enjoy my job, and there are a couple of goals I’m working on that make it continue to be interesting to me. I’ll probably re-evaluate in the next year or two and decide whether to stay or move on to something new.

  7. Joey*

    There are plenty of companies, even plenty of very progressive ones that value longevity. I think a lot of it depends on the hiring manager. Managers tend to think that work history that mirrors their own is ideal.

  8. Just a Reader*

    I was at my last job in a creative agency for 8 years, and that was about a year too long. The last year there was nothing new to learn and I started to feel like my skills were getting stale, as my team was doing the hands-on work and I was managing.

    I’m a year into a corporate role and learning new things every day.

    Companies whose scopes are limited, particularly service organizations, are going to see employees who stagnate faster than those in more flexible companies.

  9. Scott M*

    Here’s a question I always wondered: If you don’t show ‘progression’ but are looking for essentially the same job at a different company, then is that lack of progression really a problem?

    I can see that there might be an issue with salary. If you were paid a higher salary simply because of the length of your tenure, then starting at a new company might require you to settle for less money.

    But if they need a ‘chocolate teapot handle fabricator’, and that’s what you’ve done for the past 10-20 years, does it matter that you’ve never moved up into “Chocolate Teapot Team Lead”?

    1. anonymous_J*

      This is a good question, because in my case, I started looking for a new job at Year 6, but I have had no luck, so I’m still stuck here.

      There has been no progression, because at my company, admins are not valued. We are treated like non-persons, and there IS no career progression. (A big part of the reason I’ve been wanting to leave!)

      So what do you do in that case? I DO try and keep my skills up to date, and I have no problem with change or with keeping up with technology. I actually LOVE technology and am always interested in checking out new tech.

      Quite a conundrum. :(

  10. Mike C.*

    I think it really depends on the industry. I work with folks who have been with this company for 20 to 30 years. They aren’t stale or “stuck in their ways”, they’re incredibly experienced at all aspects of manufacturing an airplane, and they have incredible networks of people in different areas to help facilitate special projects. We need more folks like that, not less.

    And let’s face it – I love the work and the pay and benefits are amazing. Why would I trade that just because some hiring manager is afraid to ask, “so tell me a time you had to deal with a new business culture that was alien to what you were accustomed to”.

    1. AB*

      I agree it depends on the industry.

      For example, in healthcare, a nurse chief who developed her career for 15 years in a hospital and decides to move on to a larger facility will likely be seen as an attractive candidate if she can prove she understands the new layers of complexity a larger hospital poses.

      Compare now to an IT project manager who worked for 15 years in the exact same department of a Fortune 50 IT company. I’d have concerns about the ability of this person to adapt — even to another Fortune 50 IT company, because their practices vary, and if the person didn’t get exposed to different departments of her original company, it would be hard to convince me that it would be easy for her to adapt to new circumstances.

      I’d definitely probe during the interviews, and might be convinced that the person would be flexible enough to fit into a new culture and way of doing things, but it would definitely make me investigate more than with a person who held project management jobs in 3 different companies during the same 15 years.

      1. Mike C.*

        If you’re talking about something as large as a Fortune 50 company, isn’t the challenge and variety of dealing with huge, ever-changing needs overshadow the risk of someone who might be “stuck in a rut”?

        1. Henning Makholm*

          I don’t care much for this train of thought in any context, but at least a large company would be an environment where it is possible to stagnate.

          On the other hand, at least in my corner of IT, the fact that a smallish company has stayed in business for long enough to employ anyone for 15 years would be proof positive that the people they employ in key tech positions cope with change just fine.

  11. Mike C.*

    One other thing:

    The concept that someone has been at a single employer for “too long” feels a bit sketchy to me. Let me come right out and say it – it feels like, in some places, this is being used as a way to weed out older workers. I say this because the concerns I see about “those who have been somewhere too long” are the same concerns I hear when someone doesn’t want to hire an older worker – “they’re stuck in their ways”, “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and so on.

    The language is the same, and I fear in some cases the intent is the same as well.

    A good hiring manager can simply address these issues in an interview. Ask questions about progressive advancement, different projects worked, continuing education and training, that sort of thing. Legitimate concerns would be easily addressed in this situation. Candidates could address these issues in cover letters as well. But to eliminate otherwise good candidates outright is dumb, and if I’m correct, also illegal.

    1. AB*

      After working for two large companies where I learned the expression “quit and stay” (which is what employees with more than 15 years of work where doing, in hopes they would be left quiet in their offices until it was time to get their pensions), I can understand why some hiring managers may raise an eyebrow while looking at a resume of a person with a long tenure in the same company.

      But again, I agree that a good manager can effectively address any concerns in an interview, and eliminating otherwise good candidates outright for this reason is dumb.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      I agree.

      I’m sick of hearing this. I’m sick of this job-hopping *and that’s what it is* that everyone has to do. If you are happy and doing well, and the company is happy with you and there are new things to learn there (it does depend on the industry), then why should you not stay?

      My company says to new hires: “We want this to be the last job interview you ever have.” Well, it’s a software company, and it’s been going since 1976. If the job I’m doing doesn’t thrill me after a while, there are other areas to move into. Only if there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to learn there, then it will be time to move on.

      Not one job I’ve ever had (until this one) even made use of things I’m good at. I learned to do the work, but it was just a bunch of boring crap I didn’t care about. At least this job isn’t totally boring. The things I really care about are outside of work, not in it, even if I don’t have them. Since nothing ever changes in my life no matter how hard I bang my head against the wall, pray, try new things, etc., I might as well stay. At least it pays well. Maybe I won’t end up eating cat food in a rooming house when I’m old after all.

      1. anonymous_J*

        …And THAT’S where I’m stuck now: “Not one job I’ve ever had even made use of things I’m good at. I learned to do the work, but it was just a bunch of boring crap I didn’t care about.”

        :( I HAVE skills I’ve picked up OUTSIDE of work, and I WANT to apply those skills, but I do not have that opportunity where I am now.

  12. Wilton Businessman*

    “can staying at the same job too long hurt you?”
    I hope not. Working on year #14….

  13. Marina*

    Opposite question, and sorry if this has been addressed elsewhere, but I’m starting to worry my string of 2 year jobs makes me look like a job hopper. That said, I am relatively early career, hoping to made the jump to midlevel with my next job. Is there more leeway for shorter term jobs in early career?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Agreed — I’d make sure your next stay is a much longer one. If you do that, you should be fine. But if the next one is short-term too, I’d be worried!

  14. EM*

    I can’t help but feel damned if you damned if you don’t. The advice is don’t stay at a company too long, but don’t job hop either!! :/ I know that’s not the intent, but maybe people would feel happier if they stayed in a job for as long as it felt right. Maybe I can think that because I have an in-demand degree and experience, and I know I’m a top candidate.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, to be fair, that’s not out of line with what I wrote in the post: “And for anyone who’s now worrying about what this means for them, this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker and it certainly doesn’t mean that you should leave a job you love before you want to … but you should be aware that it could be a potential concern for future employers, and balance it against other factors.”

  15. Henning Makholm*

    But “being aware that it could be a potential concern” isn’t much of an action item, right?

    I’m wondering whether these considerations should lead me to ask for a fancier job title (in a small company that doesn’t otherwise care much for titles) if I can do it without sounding like I’m trying to bling myself up because I’m looking elsewhere. “But, boss, you see, if my title keep staying the same for much longer, I will have to start looking soon before my CV goes stale — on the other hand, if we can make it look more like I’m making progress, I’ll be able to stay here without that worry, which is what we both want.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it’s extremely useful for people to understand how various facets of their candidacy are likely to be perceived by future employers. What they do with that understanding is up to them.

  16. Corporate Cowgirl*

    Last year I left a job after 15 years, and during my interviews for a new job I found the long tenure was viewed positively. It may have been because I made it a positive thing – the company changed so much during that time and I was able to change with it, I am a loyal and dedicated employee, I had over 10 different bosses in 15 years but was able to work with each personality and work style. And I was able to say that in my next job I was looking for a company I could work for for the next 15 years. I did not see it as a problem, at least for me.

  17. Jennifer*

    Well, I did the same job for 10 years (at a university, where job-hopping isn’t really a thing anyone does very much), I only switched jobs–though I’m still in the same office–less than a year ago.

    Why was I doing that one for ten years? Well, I didn’t get any other jobs I applied for…as someone said in another letter, I made green widgets and everyone else wanted brown widgets, and I literally have not counted as qualifying for any other jobs that weren’t in my current office. Meanwhile, current office liked me so much that they had me fill in in 2 different half time temporary positions when my job was on the decline, and after they decided to eliminate my job due to reasons beyond my control, transferred me into another position. So go figure there.

    I also don’t give a shit about becoming management, which makes me wonder how judge-y anyone will be at me for not wanting to be management.

  18. Karowen*

    Here’s hoping that someone is still following this post and has input to give! Is there any point where it makes sense to proactively address the issue of longevity? I wouldn’t do it in a cover letter, but on a portfolio that is written relatively informally, or if in an interview I’m asked if there’s anything I would like to clarify, would it be appropriate to say “I’ve been with this company for 5+ years, but x, y and z kept me from stagnating”? I’m trying to decide if that would just call attention to the issue.

    1. Marina*

      Well, I think you’ll want to NOT focus on what “kept you from stagnating”, and instead focus on what you did to increase your value as an employee. If you can demonstrate increasing responsibilities, being with the same company shouldn’t be an issue. I think what you would want to address proactively is what questions a potential employer might have, so rather than drawing their attention to your longevity at your current company, draw their attention to the ways you’ve demonstrated growth and change during that time.

    2. Ash_81*

      Instead of putting it in words, I would try and convey it in my CV and work I did – it should come across that you didnt stagnate (ex – bigger responsibilities/ bigger team / change in reporting/ structure etc which made the role more exciting etc)

  19. Ash_81*

    My first job lasted for 1 year 6 months, second one 3 months, the third one 5 years and the current one 5 years + as of now. I am amused thinking of how worried I used to be in my early days about how bad my CV looks! I think as long as we have a good reason, employers are ready to give a chance. and btw, in both my 5 year+ jobs my profile has changed every 2 years, so I joke that my CV looks like a mixed up chameleon (ref – Eric carle)!!

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