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How To Look For A Job, No Matter How Long It’s Been

Whether you haven’t looked for a job in a decade or are perilously fresh from your last job search, these tips can help you position yourself strategically.

How To Look For A Job, No Matter How Long It’s Been
[Photo: Flickr user Toomore Chiang]

Job hunting takes different forms at different times in your life. Did you take a new job six months ago that isn’t working out, and are you ready to fire up your search all over again? That’s fine, just don’t use the same resume and cover letter. Since you’re hitting the job market so soon after getting out of it, you’ll need to change up your approach.

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It cuts the other way, too; your job search will be different if you’ve spent a long time at one company and start looking again for the first time in years. How employers see you depends a lot on how long or short your job tenure has been.

That can be a good thing, though—as long as you get your strategy right. Here’s what it takes to position yourself effectively in the job market, no matter how long it’s been since you last waded into it.

When You’ve Been In Your Job For Less Than A Year

So-called “job hopping” is commonplace. Some wager that the average employee should plan on changing jobs at least every three years, and the recent rise of “passive job seekers”—those who’d consider a new gig even if they aren’t actively looking for one—has been deemed an opportunity by some and a sign of trouble by others.

But while you can’t control how a hiring manager might view your short tenure, you do have a chance to spin it. Veteran recruiter Jason Niad shared one piece of advice with Fast Company in 2015 that’s still worth heeding: Focus relentlessly on your accomplishments—in your resume, cover letter, and job interview. That’s something you’d be doing anyway, of course, but whenever a hiring manager tries to steer the conversation toward your short stints (and a good one will), you should steer it back to the impact you’ve made, even in a short time.

“Since one of the worries regarding job hopping is lack of loyalty to the company,” Niad points out, “this can help show that you were invested in your past employers enough to make a measurable difference.” Emphasis on measurable—come armed with anecdotes and a couple of key stats.

Katrina Spigner, a South Carolina–based executive coach, says job seekers often have more leverage than they think, even those with job hoppers’ resumes. Crunching U.S. government data last week, Pew researchers overturned one of many stereotypes about millennialsthe false notion that they change jobs more frequently than their elders did—but “rather than step away from how you show up generationally,” Spigner suggests, you should just “lean into it.”

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That narrative goes like this, she explains: “I’ve gained tremendous lessons from each one of those stopping points. Those lessons are now portable. I help an organization become a learning organization because I can deposit that [knowledge] into your company.” You don’t even need to be a millennial to turn this stereotype to your advantage. If a hiring manager thinks job hopping is something younger people do, let them: You bring the same fresh perspective, no matter how old you are.

When You’ve Been In Your Job For Two To Five Years

How do you stand out when you’re looking for a job after a pretty ordinary length of time? Spigner suggests going old school. “There’s a lost art of conversation,” she says. “There’s a lost art of developing a relationship.” So since you’re already researching employers you’d like to work for by checking out their Glassdoor rankings and hitting up past and current employees on LinkedIn, offer to take it offline. “I don’t mean being on the buddy system with them”—i.e., trying to get a referral from somebody you don’t know—”I mean having coffee,” Spigner explains.

When you pretty much look like the norm, it can be next to impossible to stand out as a job candidate, especially when you’re up against an army of applicant tracking systems. Companies may be straining to hire for emotional intelligence and other soft skills, says Spigner, but it’s hard to demonstrate those when “everything is so automated [and] everything’s online—your interview might even be online.” One solution? “This might sound a little elementary, but it works: Explore shadowing,” she suggests. “Spend a day.”

Get in touch and ask if there’s anyone in a department that interests you—regardless of whether there’s an opening—who wouldn’t mind if you looked over their shoulder for a few hours one day. It’s pretty low-stakes for a company to say yes to, even if they’re initially taken aback; Spigner says some of her clients have even landed jobs this way.

“There’s a lost art to even picking up the phone to make that request!” she adds.


Related: How Shadowing Coworkers Can Make You Better At Your Job

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When You’ve Been In Your Job For Over Five Years

Maybe you’re a little rusty when it comes to job searching. The longer it’s been, the more likely you’ll be to weigh your options broadly—to cast a wide net. This can be a mistake.

“The first thing is to get clear about what you want to do,” Spigner counsels. “Be very specific so that your search doesn’t take you all over the place because you don’t have a sense of direction.” The second thing is to double-check that your terminology is up to date. Since you last looked for a job, the names of titles and job functions may have changed, so do your research. Search sites like LinkedIn and PayScale to see how people at similar levels to you are being labeled, then update your resume and cover letter to reflect the current lingo.

On interviews, when you’re asked why you’re leaving after such a long time, emphasize your excitement to do something new, but don’t smear your current employer. One HR consultant Fast Company spoke with previously suggested phrasing it like this: “I feel like I can be doing more, and the next step for me there is too limiting or not really available.” Spigner also advises people who haven’t been in the job market for a while to come to interviews with “a set of questions that are deal breakers for you if a company can’t answer. Sometimes we put ourselves at the mercy of the company” when we’re out of practice as interviewees and worried about whether we’re still marketable.

In many cases, Spigner observes, “We’re allowing the structure and technology and systems to determine how we approach these opportunities,” making assumptions about how we’ll be perceived by employers. It’s not that our assumptions of their assumptions about us are wrong, she says, but we can probably influence them more than we think.

“We have forgotten our creativity and the power we have to not just abide by the rules we see, but to even create our own rules.”

About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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