Can you stay in a job for too long?

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Some workers stay put at a single company for several years – even decades. Is this a signal of loyalty or laziness?

Tenure at a job is vital for appealing to future employers – that's the prevailing narrative in the workforce, even though many workers frequently change jobs and have for years. Still, some employees worry about leaving a job before they’ve put in at least a year or even more, in fear that recruiters will admonish them for not sticking with a role, or even judge them as someone who can’t hold down a position. 

In ways, it makes sense that the stalwart ‘company man’ – someone who knuckles down at a single organisation for years, if not their entire career – remains on a pedestal. After all, they’re revered for staying power and focus, loyalty and commitment. These are all desirable qualities in a potential hire.

But some experts say there actually can be such a thing as too much staying power. “There are a lot of positive connotations about longevity in a role, but there is a fair degree of negativity as well,” says Jamie McLaughlin, CEO of New York-based recruiting company Monday Talent.

Although there’s plenty to be said for having extended experience – and lots of benefits that can come from digging in your heels with one employer – spending too long in one role may work against people in some cases. Some recruiters feel there’s a ‘tipping point’ at which loyalty can potentially signal complacency. And even for those not applying for jobs, there may be other reasons to start looking around after a while.

The tipping point

There is plenty of truth to the idea that a long stay at a company is generally looked upon favourably. It’s an indication of expertise, says McLaughlin – a safe bet that someone who’s been successful in a position for a long time really knows their stuff – and of company loyalty.  It also shows workers have figured out what they want out of a role, he adds.

Some recruiters say they worry that an employee who spends too much time in a position may be too comfortable and unable to learn new cultures (Credit: Getty Images)

Some recruiters say they worry that an employee who spends too much time in a position may be too comfortable and unable to learn new cultures (Credit: Getty Images)

For some employers, however, there is a point at which staying in one place can start to reflect poorly on a worker. “Eight, nine, 10 years, that's fantastic,” he says. “But 15, 17, 19 years... there's a big difference there. I think there is a window where the balance kind of tips a little bit.” For instance, being in one position for that long can signal that professional development has stalled, or that workers have a smaller network.

“If you’ve only been in one industry, in one business, it can make you a little bit one-dimensional,” says McLaughlin. “From a hiring manager's perspective, I’d question how diverse is their learning and development style? Are they willing to take risks or are they risk averse? Are they dynamic enough? You might look at that and go, how motivated is this person? Why haven’t they wanted to move?”

Claudia B Kropf, vice president of human resources at the US-based National Automobile Dealers Association, and founder of HR consultancy Monday’s Row, agrees lengthy tenure can make hiring managers wonder if a worker lacks ambition. She believes “the biggest drawback of remaining in a position too long, is getting comfortable with the status quo”, which could make a prospective employer worry someone might be too entrenched in one company’s culture to quicky adapt to another.    

“Someone's been somewhere 15, 20 years, and you have to wonder, are they institutionalised?” says McLaughlin. “Are they just part of the furniture? How adaptable can they really be?” These questions, combined with existing biases about the inadaptability of older workers, has the potential to be damaging.

Of course, notes Kropf, these judgements are entirely subjective – there’s no universal answer to how all hiring managers will judge long-tenured employees. “One person may see loyalty in 15-plus years of service,” she says, “whereas another may see apathy.” It may be up to the applicant, then, to paint that long tenure as a strength, rather than a weakness.

Exceptions to the rule

Although there may be red flags around longevity, there are also nuances buried within the number of years on a CV. 

For instance, lots of movement within a single company can mitigate some of the negatives associated with staying put. “If you're somewhere 15 years, but you've moved up levels every couple of years, that's like changing jobs,” says McLaughlin. That makes a lot of time spent at the same company much more palatable, because it implies you’ve gotten lots of varied experience over those years, he says. On the other hand, he adds, “if you've been somewhere 15-plus years, and you've had one job title, that can be a worry, unless you’re at the very top of your game with nowhere else to climb”.

If you've been somewhere 15-plus years, and you've had one job title, that can be a worry, unless you’re at the very top of your game with nowhere else to climb – Jamie McLaughlin

A worker’s industry can make a difference, too. Some career paths do call for staying put for a decade or more to accrue necessary tenure for a new job title. “If you’re an accountant or a lawyer,” says McLaughlin, “I don't think there's as much negative connotation if you've been somewhere 10 or 15 years, moved up and made partner. In those professions, that's pretty much the route you take.”

That stands in stark contrast to, say, creative professions, where he argues moving around is often the best way to further skills and open career options. “When you move from one agency or team to another, your network changes, your client base changes, your boss changes, your learning and development changes. You're exposed to new challenges, new people, new ideas.”

Plus, says Kropf, the world is constantly changing – and employees must keep up with new technology to stay competitive. Workers whose jobs evolve and offer them new skills don’t can get left behind. 

The compensation factor

Beyond the opinions of hiring managers, staying put too long can also have adverse effects on workers, particularly regarding salary.

For many employees, there are plenty of opportunities to gain bumps in pay while staying within a single organisation, as long as there’s a culture of upward mobility – people don’t necessarily have to change employers to see their pay progress at least somewhat. Yet staying in a job too long can potentially hurt earning potential, even if it doesn’t hamper job-title growth.

Workers who move up in a company and succeed during a long tenure can more easily combat stigma against staying too long (Credit: Getty Images)

Workers who move up in a company and succeed during a long tenure can more easily combat stigma against staying too long (Credit: Getty Images)

Regular promotion within the same organisation can mean employees climb the job title ladder just as rapidly as someone who jumps from job to job, says McLaughlin. Yet even if they receive regular raises, staying put can mean less money. A 2022 US survey conducted by the payroll company ADP show people who switched jobs saw, on average, close to 2% more annual wage growth than their former colleagues who stuck around.

This is especially the case amid the current tight labour market, as employers are offer big incentives to bring talent into their organisations. A 2022 survey of more than 2,600 workers in the US by research organisation The Conference Board showed 20% of people who changed jobs during the pandemic saw a 10% to 20% pay increase, and nearly a third of those surveyed got an even bigger bump – over 30% more than they previously made. The pattern is similar in the UK, where job switchers also reaped wage benefits.

These salary incentives are among the reasons many people in countries including the US and UK – especially young workers – are currently changing jobs instead of sticking with a single employer.

To stay or to go?

Even with all this in mind, however, workers shouldn’t necessarily go running from their long-standing jobs. While there are valid considerations as to whether sticking it out in a position is the best idea, it’s also important that employees are happy.

“If you found somewhere you love,” says McLaughlin, “and you're comfortable there, you feel you're looked after there, and you're paid well and respected, you don't need to move just for the sake of it.”

But keeping eyes forward at the same time can be a good idea. McLaughlin says if you’re nearing the five-year mark, it’s worth it to assess where you are, and look at what else may be out there. 

“You want to make sure your role has evolved with your life; that’s really the benchmark,” he says. “And every five years or so you should be opening the door, just to see what your options might be. Just because you're having conversations with people doesn't mean you're unhappy or you're changing jobs. You're just doing due diligence on your career.”