How many times is too many? The definition of a “Job-Hopper” in Japan and why it may not matter.

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Job hopping – the idea of someone staying only very short times at each job and hopping on to the next quickly. We all know this concept, and the rough idea that employers don’t look favorably on people who job hop too much.

The issue is though, no one really has a definition of that fine line which brands someone a job hopper. And when we look at our resume, or whether it’s time to move to our next opportunity, many of us have worries – will my previous experiences affect my chances? Will me switching jobs now brand me a job-hopper? Clearly someone with 10 jobs in 6 years is a job-hopper but what about 3 in 5 years? Is switching jobs in the first year of my first job a death sentence?

Also, working culture in Japan add another layer of complexity into the equation. With Japan’s preference for long-term employment, is the definition of a job-hopper stricter than other countries? (Spoiler: the answer is yes)

This article takes a look at what the rough standards are here in Japan based on my experience in the field of recruitment and hopefully this will shed some light on the situation. I will be talking about exceptions where these rules are looser. However, at the end I also want to raise a different perspective because really, how many times you have switched jobs may not be important as people think.

The standard for being a “job-hopper” in Japan

“No more than 2 job switches if they are in their 20’s. No more than 3 job switches if they are in their 30’s. 4 in their 40s.”

This was what my superior previously told me when I was part of the scouting team at a Japanese company doing headhunting. Anybody with more was automatically dropped from selection and even people in their twenties with exactly 2 job switches and so on were seen less favorably than people with less job switches.

Now, this was not the standard which was applied to all job-searches which I had to do but it was for the majority of the job searches which I had to do. Clearly there’s a big contrast here compared to the more fluid way that for example Singaporeans switch jobs (ie. it being normal to switch every 3 years).

There were a few patterns which appeared though for when this standard was loosened or didn’t apply. I will be explaining them below – also to ensure that people reading this article don’t think that they’re doomed.

Exception 1 – Industries like Consulting, IT etc.

Some industries are far more liberal when it comes to job-hopping. The “Big 4 Merry Go Round” (ie. the situation where many consultants in the Big 4 consulting firms job-hop between them) applies to Japan as well and even Japanese consulting firms are more open to say, mid-career hires with an average of 3 year long job stints. This is probably connected with the project-based way that consulting works – as long as you can pull your weight and do not job-hunt to the extent that someone may worry you will quit a project halfway you’re likely to be safe.

Others like IT are more liberal because of the extreme shortage of labor. Even in the middle of a COVID-19 economic slump, we’re seeing 5 open jobs for each job-seeker in IT. This, combined with a more international and English-friendly environment in general makes IT more open to hiring what may be considered a “job-hoppers” in other fields.

Strangely, recruitment as an industry in Japan is itself is also very open to “job-hoppers”. Headhunting is a field with clearly set number goals – if you can show a potential employer that you have reached the numbers in another headhunting firm or in some form of sales goal, you prove that you can on balance bring a profit to this potential employer. This very numerical way that recruitment works, in addition to the high churn rate of recruiters, makes things also easier for people with short(er) work experiences to enter the field. For more info about the recruiting scene in Japan see this article.

Exception 2 – Sectors like startups and MNCs (gaishikei)

The number of stickers on company computers is inversely correlated to how much that company will care about previous short job experience.

If Japanese culture is what makes companies wary of hiring people who leave on average 3 years, then clearly it is the companies with less Japanese cultures which are more open to hiring mobile talent.

Obviously, we have the gaishikei (MNCs) as examples. One factor is the fact that many of them are in industries already listed in Exception 1. Another is the tendency to hire based on concrete job-descriptions which in a sense makes it easier for any potential employees to start contributing quickly.

Startups and smaller companies tend to be also much more willing to consider “job-hoppers” for hiring. Partially (for startups) because of a more dynamic / international culture. The other factor is that the shortage of labor in Japan means that SMEs in general are quite desperate for manpower and don’t get that many applicants in the first place. It doesn’t really serve these companies much good being particular about applicants’ job histories when there is a clear gap to be filled. In addition, many such these companies don’t have that many applicants to choose from in the first place.

Exception 3 – Switching from your first job (Daini-shinsotsu)

Switching from Japanese manufacturer to British marketing firm in 6 months
Switching from Japanese trading firm to Big 4 consulting in 1 year.

These are all clear cases from around me of people who have switched their jobs in their first 12 months of employment after graduating from university (or grad school).

Many employers, both personally and objectively, get that shock that happens after entering society. That students enter their first job only to quickly discover that things aren’t as they expected and doubting whether they’re on the correct path. Therefore, many employers are perfectly open to consider very early job-hops from recently graduated students – as long as you clearly state logically your motivations for moving.

The other factor is that competition for recruiting fresh graduates, especially the top and middle-top tier, has gotten so fierce that many companies have entirely given up on hiring fresh-fresh graduates. They have instead strategically decided to focus early-career hiring on people who are moving away from their first job early.

This segment of the hiring market is called “第2新卒” (daini-shinsotsu) in Japanese hiring – a keyword that can be useful to Google if you find yourself wanting to move out of your first job. Experience requirements are also relaxed for applicants using this – but do be aware that daini-shinsotsu treatment is usually only available up to 3 years after graduation.

But are we missing the point by focusing on not being “job-hoppers”?

You are the frog. Do you wait for the snail to get to the other side of the pond or leap yourself?

The above has been the “objective explanation” about what constitutes being a job-hunter in Japan. I personally feel that much of the focus on “job-hoppers” misses

If you see the explanations above, you may notice a pattern. The more Japanese the working culture, the more particular about previous job lengths. The pattern is that the market for talent in Japan works like any other market – where there is a shortage, requirements tend to be relaxed. Flip this around and it means that if you are in demand, you will not have a problem with career options.

The question is which damages peoples’ careers more? Having a profile with weak demand? Or having too many job-switches?

The answer is probably the former – having a non-marketable profile. This is because even if someone has too many job-switches, with an in-demand skillset there is always room to take on contract employment or freelance work. On the other hand, the person with a weak profile will have issues switching jobs even after waiting to avoid being a “job-hopper”. Side note: foreigners too can work in Japan as freelancers too with a work visa under certain conditions.

The other point is that many jobs do not build up your profile – due to factors such as a mundane repetitive work, outdated systems causing people to get out of touch with industry standards, slow promotion schedules etc.

Often therefore, the question is not whether switching jobs will damage your career. The question may be between short-term damage from switching jobs, with your next job hopefully paying off in the long run and long-term damaged prospects at a stagnant current job.

What I want to say in this article is …

That if you want to find whether your profile is deemed or teetering on the edge of being a “job-hopper”, well the definition is above for you to see.

But be aware that there are many exceptions which will accept an application from someone with relatively short working spans. But be even more aware that not hopping can come with its risks as well. In a sense if your career is stagnant on a sinking ship you should jump.

Therefore instead of just worrying just about whether you will become a “job-hopper” – I advise thinking about your career holistically in terms of risks and advantages. We can all understand the comfort in not changing one’s circumstances, but please be aware that not moving is also a choice.

In any case hope that this helps anyone worried and gives more perspective!

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