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Workplace much different than yesterday

November 20, 2012 

When I began my career as a business psychologist 30 years ago, there were certain accepted adages. In particular, anyone who stayed at a job less than five years was a job-hopper and a gap in a person’s resume of more than six months, or worse a year, clearly spelled trouble.

The reasons were simple: companies prized employee loyalty, and throughout much of the 20th century, it was the norm for a person to be hired into an organization either right out of high school or college and then remain for the next 25, 30 or more years. Jokes were made about gold watches being awarded at retirement parties, and the unwritten social contract between employer and employee was hard and fast. Work hard, be loyal, don’t complain and the company will provide all the rest – full-time employment; generous benefits, to include healthcare and reimbursement for tuition should the employee seek further his or her education; and of course, a rich pension at age 65 or occasionally younger, where the person with a steady social security check for good measure would never have a major financial worry for the remainder of his or her life.

Meanwhile, employment gaps were telling. If a job-seeker was unemployed for longer than six months, or heaven forbid a year or more, there was something seriously wrong with that candidate. With full-time employment near capacity with the exception of the deep recessions in 1974-1975 and 1980-1981, why would any worthwhile worker not be able to find a job right way? Therefore, when people presented themselves with significant gaps in their resumes, it was the job of the business psychologist on the other side of the desk to dig deep to uncover the reasons for this discrepancy. Surely, there was something flawed with these applicants. The only exceptions to this hard and fast rule of thumb were for women re-entering the workforce after raising a family.

This was accepted wisdom in my business 30 years ago, and you could take these so-called truisms to the bank when it came to evaluating the suitability of potential job candidates.

Today, anyone seeking to use these outdated observations as guidelines would be in for a rude awakening to say the least. Imagine ruling out job-seekers who have had multiple jobs of five years or less. How many of today’s out-of-work job applicants would qualify for hire if the gaps on their resume were restricted to three months, or even six months? Hint: not many.

Unfortunately, a new reality paints a different picture. Most people would be considered stable employees if they could consistently string together four or five employers where they stayed for four or five years. With mergers and acquisitions to say nothing of failed businesses due to a bad economy or marketplace conditions, like foreign competition or outsourcing, it takes nearly nothing for a good employee to be without a job as their employer is adversely impacted by one of these common factors in today’s business world. In fact, the number of people I have evaluated for my clients who have job histories reflecting 12 to 15 years of steady employment with their most recent company can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Now, let’s talk about gaps in employment. Thirty years ago, if a person had a sizeable gap on his or her resume, it meant one of several things – and none of them boded well for the individual. For example, lengthy gaps often meant the person was an undesirable candidate who could not land a job despite the multitude of position openings, especially during relatively good economic times. In short, the applicant might be likened to a perennial bridesmaid, but never a bride. In other instances an employment gap might augur something more dire. Perhaps, the person was out of the workforce because they were hospitalized for a nervous condition. Many years ago we had a client who presented a candidate with a five-year gap in his employment record. In actuality the person was “employed,” but in his case the job involved making license plates in the state penitentiary. You get my drift; employment gaps generally predicted for serious red flags.

Of course, in today’s down economy in spite of improving unemployment numbers, there are four or five people – depending on whose employment statistics you care to believe - chasing every posted job opening. This means there will be lots of bridesmaids and runner-ups. As companies are slow to replenish the ranks of their workforces it will take longer for people to become re-employed. It is no coincidence that the Congress extended the length of time for an unemployed individual to collect unemployment benefits. At present a person can collect up to 99 weeks of unemployment - that’s just short of two years – and the debate continues in Congress (so what else is new) about possibly shortening the payment period by a third. Nevertheless, the recognition on the national level that unemployment is a long-term experience only serves to reinforce the old model of ruling somebody out for a job based on a lengthy gap in his or her resume is clearly out of date, highly unrealistic, and no doubt grossly unfair.

So, in this new economy employers have to adjust to these new paradigms. Job tenure totaling three to five years is not necessarily a sign of career instability. Meanwhile having extended gaps on your employment record does not mean you’ve been incarcerated or institutionalized. From the job-seeker’s perspective, being defensive about shorter stays with companies or anxious about a lengthy bout of unemployment certainly will not serve you very well. The fact is all of us have to get used to a new world of unemployment where people no longer stay with one or two companies over the course of their careers. Moreover, during those difficult periods of unemployment it will not be unusual to be without steady employment for periods of 18 to 24 months.

The best advice is to consider unemployment a full-time job and prepare for a period of prolonged unemployment. Meanwhile, if possible fill those inevitable gaps with one, two or three part-time roles, which can at least put food on the table and meet some of the expenses, which despite an adjustment in one’s lifestyle, must still be honored. Welcome to our new world of adjusted attitudes and expectations.

Stephen A. Laser, PhD has more than 30 years of experience as a business psychologist and is the author of “Out-of-Work and Over-40: Practical Advice for Surviving Unemployment and Finding a Job.” For more information, visit laserassociates.net.

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