can staying at the same job too long hurt you?

A reader writes:

I’ve been at the same company for nearly 12 years, and during that time, the company has nearly tripled in sales and number of employees. I started as basically a clerk and as the company grew, I eventually worked my way into a manager’s position with 6 employees in my department. My level of responsibility has steadily increased and I’ve continued my education and have obtained specific certifications for my field, raising the sophistication in the operation of my department. I feel that within a few years, I may be ready to move on beyond what the company can provide in terms of challenge and opportunity.

I have recently had some conversations with recruiters and other hiring types, and have been told that while longevity was once a good thing to have, these days potential employers could look at my length of time at the same company as a strike against me. They’re saying that someone could look at me and think that I’m either locked into my present company’s way of thinking and that could be hard to break, or that I’ve simply become stale, stuck in a rut, and will always be there. I think I’ve gotten to where I am in part because I’ve always challenged the current way of thinking, including my own sometimes, so this is definitely not the case with me. Is this a trend in hiring? If so, how would I address this when I do start searching?

It’s true that there’s a point where staying too long at one place can raise questions about how you’ll adapt to new environments. I can’t pinpoint exactly when that is — it’s somewhere more than 8 years but well before 20.

The worry is that you’ll be stuck in one company’s way of doing things, won’t have been exposed to a wider variety of practices and cultures, and thus won’t adapt easily. So anything you can do to demonstrate that’s not the case is helpful. Certainly being able to show a progression in responsibilities and job titles — as you can — is helpful, and you should think about what else you can use to demonstrate that you’re flexible, open to change, and don’t have an insular viewpoint.

And for anyone who’s now worrying about what this means for them, this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker and it certainly doesn’t mean that you should leave a job you love before you want to … but you should be aware that it could be a potential concern for future employers, and balance it against other factors.

And this is not a license to engage in job-hopping, which is far, far more harmful to your ability to get the future jobs you want.

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