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Madness As Usual

Changing Jobs

  • Stefan Kühl
  • Thursday, 20. June 2024

The Imperative to Be Constantly Moving On

No employee should stay in a job for more than three or four years. This idea has become a dogma in the human resources policies of many businesses and public institutions. Thus, people change jobs not only because they fail and therefore are moved down the ladder, or because they are so excellent that they are pushed up the ladder; rather, a change of jobs after a few years is unavoidable because the organization’s HR policies say it is. 

Large developmental aid institutions, such as the World Bank, literally force their employees to take up a new job at least every three years. Newspapers proud of their modern HR policies ask their journalists every three years to write for another section of the paper. Major car makers have their high-fliers move from one position to the next rapidly. One day they may be responsible for the company’s strategy in Germany; the next they are credit business experts in South East Asia. 

The model for this professional merry-go-round is the fundamental rule of the diplomatic service: ‘Never stay in the same place for more than six years.’ This, the argument goes, is the only way to prevent diplomats from becoming entangled with local matters and as a consequence adopting a perspective that is severely limited by the peculiarities of the place where they are stationed. According to this view, regular job changes within an organization are meant to foster the learning not only of the employees but also ultimately of the organization: ‘If the world keeps changing we can’t let our employees stay on in the same place forever.’ But why should constantly shifting its employees around make an organization better able to adapt to its allegedly turbulent environment? 

From the perspective of organization studies, the professional merry-go-round is surprising, as businesses, public administrations, and professional associations at the same time follow the principle of ‘the right candidate for the right job’. And who is better suited for a position than the person who has gained several years of experience of doing exactly that job successfully? Conspiracy theorists might scent a secret desire for control behind all this. It is striking that the dogma of constantly changing jobs does not apply to the drivers of UPS delivery vans, employees at a McDonalds, or the assembly-line workers at Opel’s manufacturing plants. It seems rather to be specifically aimed at white-collar workers who are difficult to control with rules and orders. A boss has a problem if a project leader or manager is so knowledgeable about the subject matter that she can simply reject an order by pointing to her superior expertise. This problem can be avoided through a permanent reduction of qualified personnel. 

The overall effect of this strategy is that employees learn in the short term but lose sight of the long-term consequences of their actions. The employee of a developmental aid organization leaves her position before she can see whether the projects she initiated and oversaw come to fruition. A manager moves on to the next stage in her career before she is able to judge whether her business strategy only led to short-term savings or actually produced long-term success in the market. The postulate of ‘life-long learning through life-long job changes’ prevents learning. But perhaps this isn’t all that bad for an organization.

Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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