Job Hoppers and Startups

Scott Francis
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Mark Suster (@msuster) makes a (somewhat) controversial argument that one should not hire job-hoppers.  Apparently what makes it controversial is the judgmental tone of the email, and the black-and-white nature of the initial statement.  The title of his piece? “Never Hire Job Hoppers. Never. They Make Terrible Employees” But, if you read it more carefully, and his comments below – he is quite clearly saying that some people develop a pattern of job-hopping.  If someone is a “job hopper” they will not make a good employee.  People take issues with both parts of his argument: First, that you can determine (pattern match) on job hopping.  They argue for circumstances and exceptional situations.  But Mark really was quite clear that 2 or 3 of something does not define a pattern.  its 6-10 data points that define a pattern.  I think even if you disagree with his exact definition, you can arrive at your own definition of what a job-hopper is, and match people to that pattern (or not). Second, that job-hoppers make for bad employees.  However, most of the arguments made on this point started by describing someone that would not meet Mark’s definition of a job hopper.  Moreover, Mark didn’t argue that these employees wouldn’t do good work, necessarily.  His argument is that you want to build a team that lasts – and these job hoppers can really undermine your company and your team’s morale when you are trying to get to exit velocity (and critical mass) at your firm. I think Mark’s right.  Building sustainable value requires hiring people who share your values (select to the best of your ability), and who are interested in building the enterprise at the same time that they are building themselves.  When you have shared values and commitment, it is easier for the the employer to compromise to enable employees to reach their aspirations as well as aiding the firm in achieving its collective aspirations. Some would argue that you can align long-term incentives that build with longevity – to encourage job hoppers to stick around.  But in my experience those incentives don’t work on someone in this job-hop mentality.  On the one hand, the rewards are too far in the future to motivate them. On the other, during any significant rough patch in the business, they may perceive those long-term incentives as being worthless or unattainable. Its hard enough to retain people through inevitable troughs when they’re not job hoppers.  And employees, like investors, often buy high and sell low – joining a firm when things are great, and leaving when things are tough, but often right before the firm rebounds again to a higher plateau. Having said all of that, I also feel that employment is not a blood pact, nor is it a marriage.  While you need people to stick around to grow your company, they also need the employer to give them enough leadership, financial reward, and emotional energy to be motivated to help you build it.  Its a working relationship based on mutual respect and trust. Of course, lots of people follow Mark, and Paul Dix took it upon himself to have a full-blown response about hiring job hoppers.  He does make some good points, but misses the mark.  The basic argument he makes is that you should hire people that won’t stick around for more than a year, two at the most.  The most undermining point in the whole post: “…while I’m currently bootstrapping my own [company] and haven’t hired anyone yet.”  So really, Paul needs to go through the experience of hiring employees and retaining them before he can speak well to both sides of this equation.  Having been on both sides of the equation myself, I can summarize a few things nicely:
  1. If you’re company is growing, it is easier to retain talent.  Sales fixes a lot of problems, because it creates opportunities for the people on your team.
  2. When people stay less than a year, the company tends to burn a lot of resources on that employee without earning the investment back in revenue (or product improvements that will drive such revenue).  As a result, it is natural for companies to hedge their risk of hiring someone who is likely to leave quickly.
  3. When you stay at a company longer, you definitely get the closed loop feedback of your own performance.  You can see if your customers are successful or unsuccessful.  You can see if your code performed well in production or failed miserably.  You can see if techniques you thought would scale, actually do.  You can see if organizational and hiring decisions you made actually work out – was that brilliant engineer you hired really a great employee, or just a great interviewee?  Sticking around gives you that data.
  4. None of this absolves the company of the responsibility of making the firm an attractive place to stay.
I think the spirit of what Paul is missing, is that you’re trying to build something bigger than yourself – and you want to attract people to that cause that share that desire.  If you find people that fit your definition of “job hoppers” – by all means contract them if they can tackle specific problems or have specific skills you need – but don’t hire them, because it isn’t what they really want anyway.  Their goals and your goals as the company hiring, are too misaligned for it to work out well.