When is the right time to leave a long-term job?

If we become disenchanted with our current workplace, it can be damaging to our reputation to remain there.

Those who remain in the same role for many years run several risks, including being seen as lacking in ambition. When is the right time to call it quits?

By Jessica Mudditt

There are many excellent reasons to stay in the same job for a number of years – becoming an expert on the business and industry, developing a high level of proficiency in everyday tasks and cultivating long-term relationships with colleagues and clients.

David Simpson, Melbourne HR.There are also many good reasons to stay with the same organisation – especially a large one – where it is possible to hold a variety of roles and take on more senior responsibilities over time.

The danger is when a person holds the exact same job for an overly extended period. When the time eventually comes to find a new job, this may raise a red flag among prospective employers about a lack of ambition or adaptability to change.

Getting too comfortable can also flatline career progression, says David Simpson, managing director at Melbourne HR.

“People think that their careers are really long, but when you work it all out, after university…you probably only have 13 or 14 years at boutique firms, or 16 to 20 years at the ‘Big Four’ to go from a junior position to a senior role, reporting to the C-suite or equivalent. That’s actually not a lot of time.”

Comfort vs letting go

If we become disenchanted with our current workplace, it can be damaging to our reputation to remain there.

Rachel Service, Happiness Concierge.“When we’re unhappy, we don’t do our best work, and sometimes we can even get into a negative mindset,” says Rachel Service, CEO of workplace culture consultancy Happiness Concierge. “Then, when it comes to resigning, it’s hard to get a positive reference if you were unhappy and unfocused.”

It is also important to be clear about your career goals, reminds Michelle Gibbings, founder and managing director at leadership consultancy Change Meridian.

“There are times in life when you may want a role where it’s comfortable,” she says. “You know your work back to front and inside out, you’re happy with your salary and you like the people you work with. There are other things that you’re focusing on in your life, which are the priority. There is nothing wrong with that.”

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How long is too long?

There is no simple answer when it comes to how long is too long in the same role. Much depends on the role itself, says Simpson.

Kathryn MacMillan, CIRCLE Recruitment & HR.“Excluding senior leadership roles, I think people shouldn’t spend any more than four years in a particular role. Saying that, spending four years in every role in the junior and middle sectors would be too long. There is nothing wrong with spending four years in one role, but in the next role you probably need to spend only two or three years to get where you need to go.”

On the other hand, if it is a senior leadership role, time is far less important, he adds. “You could spend 10 or 15 years in a single role. It doesn’t really matter. Once you’ve been made a partner of a boutique financial services firm, you may want to sit in that role for quite some time.”

Kathryn MacMillan, managing director of CIRCLE Recruitment & HR, takes a more generous view.

“If someone has stayed in a role for about five to seven years, that could be seen as excellent tenure, particularly if it’s a more senior role. When you start looking at those really long-term roles – which are more than 20 years – someone may then start to question why somebody stayed so long. Was it a lack of ambition?”

Gibbings believes there is no hard and fast rule. “If you’re continuing to learn and you like the work and the environment, then you shouldn’t feel pressured to leave just because someone has given an arbitrary number on how long you should stay.”

Warning signs

Michelle Gibbings, Change Meridian.A number of warning signs herald the need to get a fresh start, say experts. If your performance is dropping, you feel bored and no aspect of your work gives you a buzz, it may be worth considering your next move. Or perhaps you have become the office cynic and fire off multiple cross emails to your manager about trifling issues.

Gibbings says that a disconnect in values is a strong indicator that it is time to call time. “If you feel like you’re coming into the work environment and can’t be yourself, that causes an unhealthy psychological disconnect.”

Service adds, “If you are having to give yourself a pep talk every morning and are getting the Sunday blues, you are clearly no longer happy.”

Read next: Can job hopping damage your career?

Can you overstay your welcome?

When some of the more insidious hallmarks of unhappiness take root, it is likely that you have overstayed your welcome at your organisation. 

“You see it quite often,” says Simpson. “It doesn’t make someone a bad person – it just means that there is friction between them and the organisation’s culture and leadership.”

Service says that the last person to realise what is happening is often the person whose time is up.

“If you are unhappy, everybody knows about it already. You have to take ownership of it. When people are disengaged but haven’t yet taken any steps to do something about it, that’s where really unhelpful behaviour influences workplace culture.”

She acknowledges that taking the leap can be daunting, and suggests calling a recruiter to have an off-the-record discussion, or investing in a personal coach. Try to remember that a change can be enriching, Service says.


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November 2021
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