what do job ads mean by “progressively responsible experience”?

A reader writes:

Can you shed some light on the term “progressively responsible experience”?

I see it in jobs ads all the time: “Minimum of 5-10 years of progressively responsible professional experience is required.”

I get the idea that they want to see some sort of pattern of growth, but what does that actually need to look like?

Does it stop being “progressively responsible” if I take a lateral move sometime in that 5-10 year period? What if I have 8 years of experience in the same job, but then moved up for the last two? Does that count?

Basically, at what point does the proverbial clock reset?

I think you’re looking for more of a formula than exists for this.

There isn’t really a formula. It depends on the jobs and the context.

It basically means “we’re looking for someone who has continued to take on new challenges and responsibilities, and whose employers have trusted them to do that, and whose experience is therefore deeper than someone who’s been working at more or less the same level the whole time.”

What that actually looks like could be all sorts of different things. It could be the person who took on more and more people management or client management responsibilities in her department for several years, but didn’t get a title change until recently. It could be the person who steadily got promoted every two or three years for the last decade. It could be the person who took on increasingly difficult projects, meeting loftier and loftier goals over time.

If you think about it from the employer’s end of things, they’re saying, “We want someone whose work is good enough that employers have responded by trusting you with more and more, and you’ve spent the last 5-10 years expanding your skills and taking on increasingly important pieces of work. We don’t want someone who has tread water for the last 5-10 years — someone who basically repeated one year of experience 5-10 times.”

To answer your specific questions: No, a lateral move somewhere in the last decade doesn’t cancel out a pattern of progressively responsible experience. But eight years of experience in the same job and then moving up in the last two years is a little more grey. Did your role change at all during those eight years? Did you take on new responsibilities, ones that you wouldn’t have been capable of earlier on? Or was it basically the same job for all eight years? But — complicating this further — even if the answer to the last question is yes, it still might not be prohibitive, depending on what those two years of growth afterwards looked like. It’s really about the whole picture, and that’s going to be very specific to your particular job history — as well as the specifics of what the employer is looking for, which isn’t necessarily fully captured in “years of progressively responsible professional experience.”

Ultimately, most of the time this kind of thing is a guideline, not a rigid barrier to applying if you don’t perfectly match it. Most of the time (with a few exceptions), employers are trying to convey a basic idea of the general profile of person they’re seeking, and you should take it more as that than as a hard-line stance.

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. Jerzy*

    I feel like more and more I’m seeing things like this in job listings. I think employers are not as clear as they could be in exactly what they want (which is fine, because the traits they might be looking for may be a little intangible), so they put in language like this that makes jobseekers sit and scratch their heads for several minutes as they attempt to decipher its meaning. It’s not that it’s not useful, but jobseekers need to understand that often that language is a placeholder for some more “squishy” attribute they are seeking that they don’t quite have the language for.

    1. Graciosa*

      I won’t speak to other language you may be seeing in job ads, but “progressively responsible experience” seems to me to be quite specific enough.

      Putting in a formula (must have had 3 promotions no more than 30 months apart / must have managed at least 20% more people with each promotion / increase in revenue measurements for projects of more than 25% can be substituted for the first promotion only / etc.) would eliminate candidates unnecessarily.

      As a manager, I do try to express what I’m looking for – and I think this language does that – without making it so formulaic that the whole thing becomes a search for a purple unicorn or an exercise requiring complex math. And candidly – this is *not* meant as a slam against the OP at all – it’s usually either candidates for more junior positions or weaker candidates who are looking for very clear boxes to check, at least in my field.

      In the former case (junior), there may not be a good understanding of how this works, and the fact that this is an opportunity rather than a barrier. A candidate can make any pitch they want about why they meet this requirement. The more senior candidates are not the ones who are scratching their heads for several minutes over this.

      In dealing with weaker candidates, I have encountered many who feel they should have been more successful than they have been. These individuals often want a formula or a guarantee of the type that sometimes occurs in overly rigid government hiring (if you check X boxes, you will get to participate in a panel interview that asks only the designated questions which must be “objectively” scored to determine who gets an offer). They don’t seem to have the self-awareness to identify why they were not successful otherwise.

      I do have more sympathy for this than it probably seems, as I know it can be hard to distinguish when you, as a candidate did not do the best job you could from when there were simply better candidates available. However, I don’t think making job requirements “more specific” in cases like this one is the solution.

      1. OP*

        In my case, I am finally starting to hit what seems like the holy grail of experience- about ten years of what could be called progressively responsible experience.

        That said, I am considering some lateral moves for my next job and I don’t really want to “reset the clock” just as I’m starting to hit that sweet spot.

        1. jaxon*

          I feel like there is almost always a way you can portray yourself as having had “progressively responsible experience” even if you’ve had the same title and basic job duties for 10 years. Did you EVER take on new projects? Did you substantially improve ANY routines or processes? Did you literally just sit there and fill out the same TPS reports in the exact same manner day in and day out for ten years?

          1. ThursdaysGeek*

            I’ve been in essentially the same job position for my entire career, and I do something new every single day. I am always learning, always sharing what I learn, always trying to improve the things I’ve done before. I’ve never done the same thing as the day before.

            But my career probably looks like it’s stalled. And since there are always more workers than managers, here I sit at the same level. At least I’m not bored!

            1. Stranger than fiction*

              See I’m with you right there. I’ve always worked for smaller companies where there’s really no career track upwards and mostly workers and few managers. We have to be extra creative with our resumes to show increasing responsibility and accomplishment within the same role and it’s tough. But if I were the Op I’d just go for it since one can’t know the specific formula behind a particular company’s use of that statement. Nothing to lose by applying.

        2. overeducated and underemployed*

          I don’t see why a lateral move couldn’t fit into that narrative. “Transferring divisions, I took on new responsibilities for Y function after 10 years in X….” Big picture understanding! Growth into other areas! etc.

        3. hbc*

          I see what you mean about the lateral move, given that you probably didn’t take on more, you just exchanged responsibilities A & B for C & D. Or maybe even just C, if the lateral move is big enough that you essentially have to step down a bit in responsibility as you learn a completely new subject.

          But that’s being overly literal. You’re a person who takes on new challenges, and who can do a good chunk of the alphabet. As long as you’re not continually shifting to entry-level roles, lateral growth counts as progressive.

      2. jaxon*

        It’s alarming how often I see formulas kind of like the one you describe in job postings. (Not exactly the same, but similar.) They tend to be at enormous organizations (universities, government agencies). I always think to myself…. gee you’re making it awfully unlikely that you’ll find the best person for the job.

        1. pieces of flair*

          When I see something that specific, I have to assume they already have an internal candidate they’re going to hire and are only posting the opening because they have to get applications in order to “prove” their candidate best matches the requirements.

      3. Terra*

        Some of the confusion may stem from “5 years of progressively responsible experience” vs “5 years of experience”. It seems that unless you’re an insanely serial job hopper any job is going to involve progressive responsibilities. How many jobs really allow you to just do the same thing forever? So maybe people are over analyzing it because they assume there has to be more to the wording than there is.

        1. matcha123*

          “How many jobs really allow you to just do the same thing forever?”

          My workplace? While I have a limit on how many years I can work there, other coworkers of mine have been doing mostly the same thing for the past 15 or 20 years. Sure, they’ve had to use different computers, but for the most part, their job as X has not expanded beyond when they were initially hired. It has nothing to do with competency and everything to do with what’s considered OK in this country. It is possible, and while I’m not in the US now, I’m sure there are jobs like this there!

        2. aebhel*

          Mine does? I can definitely say I’ve gotten progressively *better* at my job over the years I’ve been there, but the responsibilities have not changed, nor–short of me utterly losing my mind and applying for a management position–are they likely to. The job is what it is. As technology, etc. changes, I’ll be expected to learn new things, but my level of authority isn’t going to change–nor do I want it to.

      4. Mando Diao*

        I wouldn’t say this is true across the board; higher executives aren’t applying to job listings on the Internet. We’ve gotten used to understanding what certain terms mean and what they say about the company using them (“rockstars” being one), but if “progressively responsible experience” is going to become one, it isn’t yet. It’s worth asking Alison (and the commenters) if it’s one of those phrases that’s really code for something else. It’s also important to know how to illustrate the progression on a one-page resume.

  2. Anonymous Educator*

    Ultimately, most of the time this kind of thing is a guideline, not a rigid barrier to applying if you don’t perfectly match it.

    Absolutely true in this case but also true for almost anything else in the job description.

    I know people have shared a lot of “My parents gave me horrible job-seeking advice” stories here, but my mom actually gave me great job-seeking advice when I was in my early 20s, and it’s served me well since. I was being a stickler for “I don’t have the exact qualifications that are in this job description,” and she was more like “Just apply for it anyway.” A lot of the jobs I’ve gotten since have been based on applications for jobs I wasn’t technically qualified for or for job descriptions I didn’t exactly match.

    Obviously, don’t just blindly apply to various jobs you aren’t actually qualified for (there’s a difference between not looking like you can do the job and not actually being able to do the job), but I think people get way too hung up on the language and “requirements” in job postings.

    1. Terra*

      True, but then you also have things like HR people asking Alison for advice because they’re getting too many applications that don’t fit the requirements. It’s all sort of relative, some jobs don’t have good descriptions of the duties so you may not know if you’d be able to do them or not. Some don’t have any description, just requirements. Some people aren’t good at making clear what is and is not flexible in a job posting. Some people are bad at understanding what is and is not flexible in a job posting. It’s one of those things that seems like it should be science but is actually much more art.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        I’ve received inappropriate résumés for positions I’ve been involved in hiring for. Do you know what I usually did with them? I glanced at them for one second and then put them in the trash. It’s really no skin off my back, and you really can’t prevent people from applying to your positions. Is it annoying to get 1000 résumés and then find the 20 that are actually potentially good candidates? Yes, but that’s just part of hiring. I’ve never seen hiring where only amazing candidates apply. Weeding out is part of the process.

        At the same time, if I’d applied to only jobs whose descriptions I fit exactly, I wouldn’t have gotten a lot of my jobs! To give a couple of examples:

        1. When I first started teaching, all the positions I was looking for wanted 3-5 years’ experience. I didn’t have that. I didn’t have any years. So would the logical thing to have been “Guess I’m not applying to any teaching jobs”? Nope. I applied to many and didn’t hear back from a lot of them. One place I applied to said they already had someone else in mind for the posted position, but they were possibly throwing together another position that would be a combo teaching/admin support position, and they asked if I’d be interested. I was. Eventually I got hired for that position. Eventually I became a full-fledged teacher there.

        2. When I got out of teaching, I applied to a lot of random jobs. One job I was absolutely 100% unqualified for (on paper, at least) had to do with databases. I knew nothing about databases, but just said “What the hell?” I didn’t get a callback for months (I’m assuming they were checking people first who did look good on paper), but then I got a call, and they eventually hired me (I had a steep learning curve ahead of me, but I ended up excelling at the position).

        So I just think those HR people you’re talking about are just going to have to deal. If hiring managers 100% (or even 90%) across the boards hire only the people who fit exactly what’s in job descriptions, I’ll stop telling people to ignore what’s posted. Otherwise, it’s worked for me, and I definitely recommend it to others.

  3. Red Rose*

    How do you show progressively responsible experience on a resume though? In my 5 years at current company, they have added more and higher responsibilities every year (usually because someone leaves and their job is divided up and doled out). But my title has changed only once (and I instigated that). Right now my job on my resume has all kinds of diverse tasks, but some I’ve been doing 5 years and some I just took over this summer. Is there a way to show that timeline?

    1. Snowglobe*

      That’s for the cover letter. Your resume can list your accomplishments, but your cover letter is where you can talk about how you have taken on more responsibilities over time.

    2. Sascha*

      My resume looks like that as well. A recruiter told me she was confused by what I did at my current job because I basically do everything IT related in my department, and until recently, my title didn’t match at all. So I am wondering the same thing of how to show that, and also highlight accomplishments.

    3. Biff*

      My company has the same thing — someone in the same job title as me may very well have significantly less experience and responsibility. Job title != responsibility. A cover letter is a great place to talk about how you’ve progressed in the role.

    4. Cici*

      I did this by listing my key accomplishments in reverse chronological order, so the pattern of bigger projects and greater impact emerged more clearly.

  4. Allison*

    Working on a recruiting team, it seems like recruiters and hiring managers want to see people who have been moving up over the years, rather than people who’ve been in their jobs for 5-10 years with no discernible advancement, because they want to hire someone who will grow into their new role here, who’s willing to take on new responsibilities, and eventually move up within the organization over time. Employers don’t want people who are going to demand a promotion in the first 6 months, but they don’t want someone who’s going to stagnate either.

    1. Brett*

      I have certainly run into that many times.
      It is a completely disastrous attitude though for people trying to move from public sector to private sector, where outward indicators of growth and advancement are completely different from what they are in private sector roles.

  5. Elder Dog*

    It’s common in my family to say someone doesn’t have eight years of experience, she has one, repeated eight times. I think this phrase is talking about the same thing.

  6. Grey*

    I’m more confused by “Minimum of 5-10 years”. I see that all the time in job postings and it makes no sense.

    Can I apply if I have 15 years experience? If not, the word “minimum” shouldn’t be there. If I can apply with 15 years experience, then what’s the point of “10”?

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      The language is imprecise, but I think it means “a minimum of five, ideally in the five-to-ten range, but obviously we’ll consider people who have more than ten years.” You won’t be excluded from the candidate pool if you have 15 years, but you may not be their ideal candidate for whatever reason (perhaps they think your salary requirements might be too high?).

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