Aug 10, 2023
How long do you have to do a job for it to count for you, and not against you?
Recently a seasoned startup executive shared a piece of advice for tech employees — don’t be jumpy. The gist: employees should aspire to stay in each job for 3-5 years.
Why? The argument is 1) it takes that long to have true impact and 2) employers don't look favorably on a record of shorter-term roles.
I respect the honesty about how tenure is judged, but I disagree with the advice — it's biased, outdated, and creates negative consequences in the broader talent ecosystem. In fact, I think more people should do the opposite — be jumpy.
Why “Don’t Be Jumpy” is Biased
Employers expect multi-year commitments even when the circumstances are unreasonable. The challenge is that companies don't benefit from acknowledging it. This is amplified at startups of any size but especially at the early stage:
They’re pre-PMF (Product-Market Fit) (or it’s fleeting).
Most startups have yet to find product-market fit (even ones that have raised money, maybe even multiple rounds). Some startups think they have it, but it's shaky; they could lose it as fast as they found it. So long-term commitments might make sense for mature companies in stable sectors, but not for early-stage startups. It's impossible to forecast if the company will be alive in X years, let alone what roles will be needed.
Equity cliffs already bake in “minimum viable” tenure.
I think of an equity vesting cliff, usually set at 1 year, as a "hard cliff." It's effectively an earnout probation period — employees who leave before hitting their cliff forfeit their earned options. "Don’t be jumpy” advice effectively saddles employees with a "soft cliff" of 1-2 more years by threatening added scrutiny about loyalty and impact.
How they sell themselves isn’t the full story.
In the interview process, companies put their best self forward, not their full self. It's hard for employees to truly understand the role, manager, and team, let alone company trajectory, org structure, firm culture, etc. So it's especially easy for private companies (i.e. all startups) to oversell without immediate recourse. Why? Employees are bound by the equity cliff, quitting is a pain, and of course they risk being labeled "jumpy."
Loyalty isn't entirely a two-way street.
If a company likes you, it wants you to commit, but it doesn't guarantee the same. Management is often told fire faster. They hesitate due to inexperience, fear of confrontation, or signaling concerns, but rarely just loyalty. Beyond the known asymmetric upside of startups, founders get special privileges (e.g. accelerated vesting, secondary share sales) that employees don't and these too are rarely discussed.
Everyone will agree that some companies have these characteristics, but almost nobody will tell you it's their company. We need more companies saying it's me, hi, i'm the problem. Until they do, the "don't be jumpy" advice will remain a biased standard that favors employers.
The Consequences of “Don’t Be Jumpy”
The advice is aimed at individuals, but it has broad implications for a whole industry of workers and companies:
Management isn't held accountable for retention.
If employees are likely to stay put, employers are enabled to underdeliver on employee experience and professional growth without it reflecting poorly on the company. Employers don't have to reconcile rightful expectation mismatches and actively work to retain employees. The downstream effect is that retention is viewed as a measure of company strategy, trajectory, and performance, and not management quality.
Impact is by default measured by tenure.
Tenure has become a default benchmark for employee impact and professionalism, but it's a lazy measure. We take "big company" tenure with a grain of salt (i.e. it takes forever to get things done), but we don't quite do the opposite for high-intensity startups where learning and impact are accelerated. In 1 year you can effectively do 2-3 years of work (e.g. I was in my last role for 2 years but it felt like 4, at least).
Employers and employees enter a holding pattern.
When employers measure by tenure, employees chase it, and everyone ends up playing the waiting game. Employees that otherwise might quit feel the pressure to stay longer so they don't seem "jumpy." Similarly, companies assume an employee will stay 2+ years by default, so they get complacent about hiring, firing, and retention.
Talent chases the same few, high-profile jobs.
When people feel the need to commit 3-5 years to each job, they chase safer bets. This makes it hard for early-stage startups that aren't yet de-risked (e.g. venture-backed by a top tier VC firm, high growth, profitable) to recruit full-time employees. But many "underdog" companies are led by talented teams with worthwhile missions. If "don't be jumpy" advice weren't so prevalent, talent could more comfortably try on short-term stints at higher risk startups too — a win for the whole ecosystem.
The sum total of all of these consequences is effectively that efficient labor market dynamics are blocked. Employees feel pressure to stay in roles longer than they may want to — perhaps at the expense of their own impact, development, and earning potential. And many would-be employers lose out on the opporunity to work with them, in particular with their complete buy-in.
Embrace "Being Jumpy"
"Be jumpy" isn't just a rally cry for employees, it's a kind of philosophy that has lessons for employers and industry at large too:
For employees— Have agency in your career.
I didn't focus on it much, but there are plenty of good reasons to jump: to prioritize rate of learning and growth, overcome role and compensation stagnation, escape a bad manager or environment, or just pursue a new path. Be reasonable and considerate of your employer, but not beholden to them or a phantom future judgment. If it helps, calibrate your job longevity against the stability of the company, the sector, and the market. The more fickle any of these, the more you should be aware of your market value and opportunities.
For employers — Be accountable for retention.
When an employee choses to leave, don't view it as just a reflection of them, but also of you, your practices, your culture, your company. Remember that switching jobs is not easy at all, so there's something strong compelling most people who do it — either something deeply intrinsic (e.g. passion, learning) or meaningful and extrinsic (e.g. environment, compensation). "Jumpy" employees are usually made, not hired. This applies to big companies in tech and otherwise, early- and late-stage startups, and even to founder-led teams.
For the industry — Embrace non-formulaic paths.
Let go of tenure as the benchmark. It's not just principled, it's also pragmatic in light of white collar workers' changing relationship to work — both in-office vs. remote and full-time vs. part-time vs. gig work and the like. The "new normal" needs to be more open-minded to shorter tenure (e.g. 12 months) and even contract work (e.g. 3 months). And hence It's worth rethinking how we approach compensation and equity vesting too. Tl;dr — let employees choose where and how long they work by the merits of the job, not by the hard or soft constraints placed upon them.
Ultimately, an employer's goal isn't to lock employees in, it's to create a compelling enough opportunity for an employee to be excited to stay. And an employee's goal isn't to seem like they'll never leave, it's to provide enough value for an employer to fight to retain them.