Subtle Causes of Job Hopping, Part II


SISYPHUS/Image: Titian (Wikipedia)

(Part I of this analysis examined five of the reasons why a prospective employee might have a history of job-hopping. Here, in Part II, that analysis is continued.)

6. Job-psyche locus-of-control mismatch: An employee with a strong “internal locus of control” (ILC), i.e., self-reliance and self-validation, and need for autonomy of judgment is more likely to experience stress working for a boss than is someone with an “external locus of control” (ELC), since working for someone else usually entails a surrender of autonomy and independence in exchange for a paycheck—a circumstance that is likely to be more palatable to an ELC personality type who conceives of control as external to the self. Accordingly, it is reasonable to conjecture that many employees with an extremely internal-locus-of-control orientation may be likelier to leave a job once the degree of compromise between the desire for autonomy and the fact of submission becomes excessive and evident.

7. Anti-authoritarianism: Possibly closely correlated with a strong internal locus of control, anti-authoritarianism is far likelier to contribute to a history of job leaving than is comparative unconcern about authority. Again, since working for another means working under another, anyone with authority issues is likely to be at greater risk of being a short-term employee.

8. Harlowesque incapacity for bonding: Like the notoriously and experimentally mishandled monkeys in maternal deprivation experiments conducted by Professor Harry Harlow in the 1950s, who, in virtue of maternal and social deprivation, never bonded or imprinted within their primate groups, some people have Teflon souls: no matter how warm or hot they seem to get, they never stick. Professional, workplace loyalty seems likely to be harder to elicit from employees who, unlike the most devoted life-long valets, don’t bond—to groups, individuals or their proxies, e.g., organizations.

9. Psychological smorgasbord mentality: Feeding on and fueling other traits listed here, such as novelty hunger, anti-authoritarianism and learning-curve surfing, the “life’s-a-buffet” smorgasbord mentality doesn’t want to “miss anything”, preferring small samples of as many and much as possible to getting huge dollops of a mono-meal. A propensity to get bored very easily makes the smorgasbord attitude much likelier to manifest itself.

An additional factor is an abnormal sensitivity to perceived opportunity costs—brilliantly exploited in the now-classic V8 Juice slogan, “I could have had a V8!”, lamented by an actor who had just drunk something else. This sensitivity to opportunity costs can be triggered and supported by some temperamental or other inability to fully enjoy what one has—a condition easily created by inconsistent conditioning. For example, parents who push a grown-up child into a(n unwanted) career (which happened to my dentist) may create a personality burdened with a damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t dilemma: Guilt if I disobey; frustration and self-denial, if I don’t. Ditto for students, e.g., most Chinese I know, who will not allow themselves to stop studying, except by becoming ill. The parental inconsistency resides in trying to make their child happy by making him unhappy.

Extrapolating from this smorgasbord mind set and quitting correlation, it can only be speculated whether or not an employee who selects everything displayed in the company cafeteria food pots and bins is likely to quit sooner than the one who sticks to a basic and simpler meal of two or three dishes.

10. Extreme susceptibility to the law of diminishing returns: Analogous to an extreme sensitivity to opportunity costs, a subjective sense that additional effort in one area will yield unacceptably smaller or fewer “returns” than effort in new areas can underlie a predilection to change jobs more frequently than others.

11. Nihilistic rebelliousness: Call this “rebel without a job”, the belief that there is no moral or psychological need for or benefit from commitments—perhaps based on a belief that exclusive commitments to any one thing imply delusions and unwelcome constraints on anarchic personal freedom.

Hence, “take this job and shove it” tattoos on the arm, or, if not there, then on the mind. After years of compulsory, often seemingly pointless education, with its authoritarian/patriarchal overtones, passive-aggressive rebellion in the form of commitment resistance may be very tempting indeed, culminating with active-aggressive quitting, or at least job-burdening ambivalence.

12. Need to be a “special” and exempt generalist: This mind set involves distinguishing oneself as an unusual generalist rather than a common specialist as a priority; succeeding by breaking the rule that one has to work hard at one thing. This connection between being special without being a specialist and leaving jobs may seem paradoxical at first glance; however, the common denominator between the two is clear: not wanting to work hard or long at just one thing—which, of course, is evidence of being “special”, if you can pull it off.

This conjecture is easily tested: Just ask yourself who stays longer in the jobs you fill: the generalists or the specialists?—after canceling out the effect of head hunting by other recruiters, huge pay offers elsewhere. Just consider the cases without any of the “obvious” explanations.

13. Negative job role-model: If a candidate has negative images of lifetime employment, e.g., his or her parents did only one unpleasant kind of work, e.g., repetitive factory work, there may be a tendency to view lifetime employment negatively, depending on the pull—not the logic—of psychological work associations. Such associations will be all the more likely if, on balance, anxieties about work predominate over positive expectations of a career. Accordingly, there may be some pattern of short-term employment as compensation for fears of long-term, if not lifetime shackles. Such reluctance can subtly, yet crucially depend on such role models, as the reluctance of some with unhappy childhoods to marry attests.

14. Fear of “suffocation”: There are two diametrically opposite fears that, in some dimensions of their lives, seem to motivate most people: the fear of abandonment and the fear of suffocation, reflected in the difference between those who demand and those who fear “commitment”.

When marrying, two people must make sure that they have the same fear, namely, both fear abandonment, or both fear suffocation. Even if the fears are derivative, e.g., a fear of suffocation unconsciously motivated by a deeper fear of abandonment compelling someone to run before he or she is left, the parties involved should be on the same emotional page.

The same advice can apply to career matches: If an employee who is terrified of losing a job (abandonment) works for a company or boss that worries about carrying “dead weight” (suffocation), the match can be unstable, ironically resulting in the employee’s looking for a safer, less anxiety-provoking job. Conversely, if an employee hates being bossed around (fear of suffocation), but has a micro-managing supervisor (with a fear of losing control and becoming helpless and unhelped), that employee is also much likelier to quit than if the supervisor is happy to delegate responsibility and authority to the employee (from a fear of being suffocated by too many things to look after).

15. Over-generalization of an isolated short-term tendency/strategy: This means that one domain characterized by short-term interest or commitment got generalized as a universal pattern of response, e.g., childhood frustrations with complex, time-consuming jigsaw puzzles or failed romantic relationships create a predisposition to be wary of anything that takes “too much” time, “too much” being defined by the norms of each context, e.g., hours in the case of puzzles, months in the case of jobs.

16. Choosing companies likely to fail: There are many reasons why an employee might choose a company likely to fail not so long after being hired. In the extreme and unlikely case, the company is chosen precisely because the employee expects it to fail, e.g., either in anticipation of being able to collect unemployment benefits or to silence significant others pressuring him to get a job. In a subtler instance, the company may be an unstable, unproven start-up, chosen because more solid companies weren’t hiring. In this latter case, the short employment stint is a consequence of taking the job, not a goal.

The subtlest reasons of all include general susceptibility to the excitement and temptations of risk-taking; a desire to have the chance to play the hero who comes aboard to save a floundering, foundering company; and a risk analysis or hunch that suggests a very favorable reward-to-risk ratio, despite the high risk of failure. Although unlikely to evolve into a consistent pattern of short-term employment, this factor can easily account for various instances of it.

Sisyphus and Permanent Employment

In light of the sixteen factors proposed in this 2-part analysis, the question as to why anyone would have an erratic work history characterized by job hopping now has a variety of answers. That leaves the diametrically opposite question to pose: Why would anyone stick to one job forever?

The reason King Sisyphus would offer for eternally rolling his roll-back rock up his hill, viz., “The gods make me do it”, doesn’t apply so widely these days—not even in Greece,  which, although home of the Sisyphus myth, is now a place where permanent work is becoming increasingly scarce.

Were he job hunting in the kind of job market the modern Greek faces, King Sisyphus just might be content to stay put, rather than take on another equally futile task and become part of a new myth.

The myth of permanent employment.

in Selection]
Michael Moffa
Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers,The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).