Can Staying With a Company Too Long Hurt Your Career?

business people in office
••• Portra Images / Taxi Getty Images

There are job seekers who unexpectedly become unemployed after spending ten years or more at the same job with the same company. On the flip side, there are people who have had a lot of jobs in a short period of time. In both cases, job seekers were worried about whether the time they spent on the job would impact their chances of getting hired, and it could.

How long is too long to stay at a job? How long should you stick around if you hate your job and can't wait to move on? There isn't a simple answer, other than it depends.

Can Staying With a Company Too Long Hurt Your Career?

There’s a fine line between establishing tenure at a company to show that you’re not a job hopper and staying so long that employers are hesitant to hire you. For many jobs, employers seek both some tenure and career progression, so it can be a balancing act to decide when you need to move on. For example, some companies are now posting tenure requirements in job ads:

  • Good tenure with no more than two jobs in five years unless progressive growth in the same company.
  • Must have five years tenure at each of two prior companies.

However, there is such a thing as too much tenure. If you work at the same job for too long, prospective employers may assume that you are not motivated or driven to achieve. Other employers might think that you are most comfortable with the familiar and would have difficulty adapting to a new job, leadership style, or corporate culture

In addition, if you remain in the same job for too long, employers might think you have a less diverse and evolved set of skills than a candidate who has mastered a broader range of jobs. Employees gain perspective about best practices and a new skill set as they move from one employer to another.

What About When You Have Been Promoted?

If you’re getting promoted and moving up the career ladder at your current employer, a long tenure is less likely to impact your chances of getting hired. In fact, promotions show prospective employers that you’re willing and able to take on new responsibilities and new challenges. However, if you have been doing the same thing at work for many years, it can be a red flag to a potential employer.

How Long Should You Stay at a Job?

Of course, everyone's career path is different, but you can get a sense of the typical amount of time employees spend at a job. Median tenure at a job varies by occupation, industry, age, and gender. Tech company have the shortest average tenure, while the public sector has the highest.

  • Workers in management, professional, and related occupations had the highest median tenure (5.1 years)
  • Workers in service occupations had the lowest median tenure (2.9 years)
  • 21% of workers had less than one year, and 29% had more than ten years with their current employer
  • Public sector workers had median tenure of 7.7 years, compared with 3.7 years for those employed in the private sector
  • Median tenure was 4.3 years for men and 4.0 years for women
  • Median tenure for employees aged 55 to 64 (10.1 years) was more than three times that of workers aged 25 to 34 (2.8 years)
  • Median tenure for men and women with less than a high school diploma was 4.8 years and 4.4 years, respectively
  • Men and women with at least a college degree had median tenure of 5.2 years and 5.1 years, respectively

The tenure at tech companies is even shorter - averaging under two years. Business Insider reports that the top tech company with the longest tenured employees is Facebook at 2.02 years. That's followed by Google at 1.90 years, Oracle at 1.89 years, Apple at 1.85 years, and Amazon at 1.84 years.

In general, three to five years in a job without a promotion is the optimal tenure to establish a track record of success without suffering the negative consequences of job stagnation. That, of course, depends on the job, the level you are at, and the organization you work for.  

It's also important to consider the circumstances. If you're working at a job you hate or one where you're really stressed, you may be able to learn to like it or adjust to it, or you may need to decide whether it's time to move on.

Personal vs. Professional Reasons for Moving On

Moving up the career ladder isn’t the only reason to think about starting a job search. There are factors other than the length of tenure that might indicate you have spent too long in your current job:

Have you stopped learning new things on the job? This may be an indicator that you are bored with your work. If you have trouble setting goals on the job or are no longer enthusiastic about going to work it may be time to consider a move to a job that’s more engaging.

Are you complaining more about work? Can’t think of anything positive to say about your job or employer? If so, notice whether the gripes relate to temporary or solvable problems or more enduring systemic issues. If it’s not an issue that can be addressed, think about moving on.

Are you tired of working? Decreased productivity is often an indicator that a job has gotten old. Are you spending more time on social media than working? Notice if you are accomplishing less during the typical day or putting off tasks. If you have trouble identifying ongoing accomplishments, it can be dangerous to your career progression to let the situation last too long. 

Has your income stagnated? If your organization limits pay increases even for strong performers, you might boost your income by switching jobs. You will be more likely to garner a major increase if you can clearly document the value you have added in your current and past jobs.

Get Started on a Job Search

If you have decided that it’s time to move on, don’t immediately quit your job and start looking for a new one. It’s essential to plan your departure carefully and, if at all possible, have a new position lined up before you quit your current job.

Job searching is a process, and you can take it a step at a time. Here are ten things you can do this week to get started with your job search.

Addressing Tenure at Job Interviews

If you have spent more than five years in one job, you will need to counteract potential negative perceptions during job interviews. Be prepared to explain why you stayed as long as you did:

  • Be ready to reference how your job may have changed and evolved over time. Emphasize new responsibilities and projects you have undertaken. 
  • Discuss new skills you have acquired. 
  • Share your goals for the future through a viable professional development plan. Make sure you can share evidence of recent accomplishments to convince employers that you are continuing to add value to your current employer. 
  • Secure and share references, if possible, that attest to your motivation, striving for excellence, and dedication to developing new skills and knowledge.

    Tips for Responding to Interview Questions

    Here are some of the most common interview questions about leaving your job, along with suggestions on how best to answer: