In today’s August 10, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, I riff on a question that seems so general that it’s not worth talking about… Why do people wind up losing their jobs every few years?

A reader asks:

I’m  a dedicated, loyal employee, and I would do anything for my employer. Why,  then, do I lose my job every few years and have a hard time landing a new one?

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

Your problem raises a bigger question that’s relevant to everyone: Why do people take a job, only to find themselves job hunting again so soon?

Some people take a job because it’s offered, not because it’s right. Others take jobs because employers flatter them, not because they’re particularly interested in the company or the job. Lost in the joy of being judged worthy, they forget to judge the job and the company, and to think about whether a job is really the kind of long-term investment they want to make. Relieved to be “off the street” (or impressed at being recruited), they will rationalize a poor choice and accept work that does not satisfy them. Gradually, their morale drops and their performance suffers. The effect is cumulative, and eventually the mismatch becomes glaring. They get fired, laid off, or they quit, and the cycle starts again.

The real question is, Will you choose your next job, or will it choose you?

We all know that people lose their jobs due to the economy. What I’m interested in is the other reasons. The economy will improve, somehow, sometime. But I think today’s question will continue to plague people. So let’s talk about other reasons people lose their jobs and have a hard time finding new ones. It’s not always the economy.


  1. Here’s another reason: age.

    The corporate world will start to show you the door once you are north of 50. Especially if you are an individual contributor and not climbing up the ladder.

    Another reason: if the company has an “up or out” culture. If you are there for 4-5 years and haven’t promoted, or have promoted only once, you can expect to see the hatchet falling eventually.

    • My husband is 55 and has been 0-35 jobs over the last six months of job hunting. He was a VP with a 30 year track record and successive increases in responsibility. His position was eliminated during a re-org. He doesn’t even get called back for jobs he is obviously qualified for with the exact same job title that he had before. This has been the most nerve-racking experience for us and left us scratching our heads. We didn’t want to assume there was bias involved, but when he checks back on LinkedIn to see who ended up getting the position, it is always someone younger with less experience. My husband’s morale is pretty low at this point. He didn’t see the ageism coming.

  2. What Maggie said with the addition that corporations with defined benefit pension plans are more prone to behave this way when the economy slows. I know from experience in the GWB rescession of 2001. I was told by an insider that my former employer made lists of employees to lay off based on cutting future pension benfits. It had very little to do with performance, just accounting. The managers were told to let people go based on the cumulative pension savings.
    When the economy improved two years later, they dropped the defined benefit pensions and started recruiting much younger people to fill the positions that were “eliminated”. However, the residual bad feelings of the survivors are eventually transferred to the newcomers who are much more apt to job hop when opportunities arise, and the turnover notches up.

  3. You answered the question perfectly. Went through the exact scenario 3 years ago after having been terminated from a position I held for 9 years (they brought someone in for less money). Took a job because I was in a hurry to get back to work and was impressed with the interviewer and the offer, not because the job was right. Left the company after 3 months (along with the person who hired me). Now, I am being very selective as to what companies to target.

  4. Stop worrying about the employer and start worrying about yourself. Most of us were raised to be extremely loyal to an employer, when we would be better off showing some loyalty to ourselves and our own best interests.

    If a layoff is coming, there are signs. If a person is continually surprised by being laid off, they need to learn to read these cues much better. And they need to be in the informal communication network, which is why it is a good idea to go out for a drink with the team after work when you’d rather go home or to the gym.

    If people didn’t “need” so much and learned to live simply they wouldn’t need to desperately latch onto whatever job comes their way. There is a lot of power in being debt-free and saving money vs having a bunch of status symbol items.

    I know I’ve made many points and they may seem disconnected, but they come down to differences in expectations, failure to read cues, and lack of negotiating power and ability to “hold out” for the right job due to excessive debt and spending habits.

    As far as being laid off due to age, I don’t agree, unless the age is correlated with high earnings. Employers are arbitraging everyone out of jobs, and rehiring them back cheaper in every industry. When we are young we are told that we can’t receive proper pay because we haven’t paid our dues. When we are older we can’t receive it because someone will do the job for less. That is short-sighted and common corporate thinking. Welcome to America!

  5. I don’t think the age and pension prone scenarios fit this scenario. This person’s not around long enough to invoke them. Perhaps there’s a clue to the comment “will do anything” & difficulty finding the next job, and the points about taking any job.
    The person likely has gotten into a vicious cycle of taking anything and trying to make it a winning choice via loyalty & dedication. As Erika said forget that stuff.
    He/she sounds like they’ve could have turned themselves into a professional floater. Regardless of what the interviewer and job descriptions say, reality often bites. So like a good loyal trooper this person likely pitches in, takes on anything to help, believing this will be noticed and appreciated. It may be but probably not where it counts in downsizing land.
    I’ve put myself in this situation where my immediate boss knew I helped her a great deal and made her life easier. I’d go as far as saying in her view I was filling an important need. I’d just intuitively do what our team knew needed to be done, never mind job descriptions etc. (we called it glue). But when downsizing loomed she couldn’t really explain it in terms of filling some essential need. This person may not have figured out that in today’s business world it’s no longer just making your boss happy, it’s making the oveall business happy. Business happiness comes from doing something upper management clearly sees as essential, that is, without you, THEY now have a problem.
    Sometime in this person’s cycle they got caught up by the halo effect of corporate courtship, they didn’t interview the interviewers, research the company and reason test the job’s value add or potential growth into an essential value add. Then they accomodated and tried to make it work. they floated about making themselves useful.
    They didn’t ask an important question. “What’s this stuff I’m doing going to look on my resume?” If you find it hard to write it down and explain it in terms of adding value with meaty’ve got a problem.
    Trying to explain why floating around making yourself useful everyday should be interesting to another company is heavy lifting.
    Then as the person said, it’s very hard to find another job.

  6. I was terminated from 2 positions, both as a marketing communications writer, for vague reasons–in both instances they said my writing was fine.

    In both instances, a woman with more power was jealous of my writing ability and my potential for handling writing and other assignments directly for the higher-up (male) boss.

    In both instances, I hung on for 3 years by kissing a**. The women in question hated my creativity, my ideas, my competence, my growing product knowledge, and my ability to meet deadlines without making a big show about how busy we were and how overworked I was.

    I could not have known in advance. In one instance, my immediate supervisor was hired after I was on the job. Not only did she get me terminated, but she also did in the woman who hired both her and me.

    The second time, the female executive assistant to the president (who had started with the company back when it consisted of only 4 individuals; also she didn’t have a college degree) had told the president not to hire me but he did it anyway. After I was on the job, she told me several times that she had told him not to hire me.

    I’m answering this question because I feel just like the person who submitted it.

    In both instances, I interviewed somewhat like you would recommend–I researched, identified areas where I could contribute, offered ideas and showed enthusiasm. Since I was offered jobs, I mistakenly thought they valued these traits. How wrong I was.

  7. The reader says “I would do anything for my employer…” That sends up an alarm. I would prefer to hear “I would do anything to make myself more valuable to my employer.”

    See the difference? They can take away your job, but they can’t take away what you’ve learned from it or your ability to build a future on what you learned. It is not good to invest everything in your employer and nothing in yourself. And it’s unwise to work for a company with a culture that expects you to do that.

  8. Maggie hit on two issues I’ve encountered.

    Lost one job after a year because their policy was ‘promote or fire’ and they knew I was not long-term because I was planning on returning to college eventually. (My boss felt so guilty he deliberately tried to lose money to me in a poker game. Nice guy, but he had his orders from above.)

    My current job is going away soon because the computer system I run is being replaced by a totally different system. Younger colleagues are being retrained, but I’m considered too old to be worth the expense.

  9. We are a disposable society and jobs have become one of the most disposable things of all. I have witnessed leadership eliminate roles that they knew they would need to replace within two years. The result? Years of expertise out the window to make the short term bottom line look good. Then, when the job re-opens, the same leaders lament their inability to find someone with the necessary skills and experience.

    Unfortunately, employees and candidates have caught on and a lot of highly talented people don’t feel a need to be loyal to companies who are not loyal in return. I don’t think this bodes well for our business community.

    Of course, we’ve been reading articles for years that say we shouldn’t make decisions for short term profit over long term strategy. Apparently those articles were right. Go figure. (Said tongue-in-cheek).

  10. How about a variation of “he’s just not that into you?” That is, maybe this guy is just not that competent, and it takes a couple of years for employers who hire him to figure that out.

    That said, another reason to leave a job—you are just ready to move on for any variety of reasons, such as no longer a challenge, new boss, etc. Granted, if you are moving from job to job every few years and have a long history of that, then there is something else going on, but sometimes people need to try something different after several years or a decade in a job.

    I, for one, have stopped looking for a job because it was not productive. I have hung out my shingle, offering non-profit and political management services, and am encouraged by the initial interest I am getting from potential clients (ask me in 3 months if it pans out).

    It gives me the opportunity to grow a business, but also gives me options—now, if the “perfect” job opportunity comes along, I can chase it, but I don’t need to chase jobs because I need the money (I hope!).

  11. Government surveys show that although corporate profits are up (in some cases due merely to downsizing and cost shedding), companies are not spending the money to hire back to old levels.

    I think what’s going on is companies have realized they just don’t “need” the numbers of employees they’ve had over the past decade or two. Their hiring is not going to ramp back up.

    If you think about it, this is a natural and smart reaction to economic realities. Rather than solve their problems with more people, they’ve found other, less costly ways to get the job done. This is an evolution of business; a new form of efficiency.

    On the other side of the coin, we have folks like Larry Kaplan who have taken the complementary approach. “If you don’t want to hire me, I’ll go do my own work for myself and start my own business.”

    I don’t say this as a cynic or a skeptic. I say it because it seems to be the simplest explanation for what’s going on. It may truly be a jobless recovery. Companies aren’t going to ramp up their hiring because they’ve figured out how to “recover” without more employees.

    I have no idea how this will play out or what the consequences will be, either for those companies or for the people work for them and who have worked for them.

    The one thing I really believe is that if you want a job, you no longer “go find one,” because they aren’t there in the way they used to be. If you want a job, you either create your own and run your own business, or you “create” one for a company and show why they should pay you to do it.

  12. Sometimes you can be very good in a technical perspective, very good with customers, but if you break political rules, bothering managers, soon you loose your power and…ops… job terminated

  13. Thank you, Nick

    I kind of knew that’s where I was heading, but you confirmed what I was trying to avoid-making my own way.

    I’ve been out of work for a year and a half, and “crash landed” a position midway through. Each week I get stronger, and braver to talk to people who might help me make something of my own, or join them in what they’re working on.

    Oddly, I didn’t get depressed when I lost that position. Shortly after, one of your columns said, don’t tell ’em what they want to hear, tell ’em what they need to hear. I wasn’t brave enough to tell them what they needed to hear. The downside is that I was fired. The upside is that six months later, I regained the confidence that I was what they needed, but not who they wanted.

    Not an easy journey by any means, but I’m told that the rewards are beyond imagination if you hold the course. And I have quite an imagination.

  14. I forfeited a number of job offers because I felt they were not “right”. At the time, I did not realize the economy would get as bad as it did, that I would go through my entire savings. Now I have to settle. And I have to “kiss butt” to keep my settled job, proving I go above & beyond for the company goals. My eyes & ears are ALWAYS opened for better opportunities, but since times have changed, one has to do what one has to do.

    Attitude is everything. Maybe this person does everything for her boss but her attitude may stink doing it. Does she go over & above “everything?” Happily & sincerely? Does she squawk to other employees about she “does everything”? Maybe she comes across as very annoying. There is nothing worse than that person who seems to try too hard to please.

    We are all too easily replaceable these days so we must show our genuine value to the employer (kiss butt but not be annoying).

  15. To Nick’s point, I’ve read the same survey and can add that not only are corporations keeping their cash and building war chests, they are buying capital assets. There’s another survey out there (I think also govmt) that shows productivity has been steadily dropping. One conclusion being that people are burning out, because although people were laid off, the work they were doing didn’t…it was redistributed to those left behind, who trudge onward for a variety of reasons, the predominant one to remain employed at all cost.
    I can attest to this. I worked for a company I won’t name whose CEO was just canned for playing footsie with a consultant on the company dime..and padding expense reports..the real sin. Oh! did I just tell you the company name..sorry. He was a Wall St darling due to great financial performance. Which he delivered primarily via cost cutting, which translates into cutting out a lot of people, cutting pay, demotions, outsourcing etc. But the work didn’t go away. So the work environment is awful, particularly for managers. Burnout is rampant and given the economy they are trapped…or let go.
    To Flavio’s point, years ago I read of a survey conducted in the UK. It specifically was a study of unemployed managers. The goal was to understand why? They expected to find a lot of dead wood types, but to their surprise, by whatever measure they devised to measure competence, they found for the most part it was 180 degrees the other way. These managers were very bright, accomplished, and competent people. Then why would they be fired? The conclusion was they were what they called “oyster grit”. Oyster grit is a piece of sand that lodges in an oyster around which a pearl is formed. An irritant. In other words these managers were the types who told the powers-to-be what they needed to hear, instead of what they wanted to hear, which apparently was very irritating. and the irritation was removed before pearls could form.

  16. I am fine…. I find jobs all over the country…
    I pick artichokes, do weeding, no problemo.. Come join me.. My employer always looking for more people…

  17. I could be the poster child for this phenomenon. For 20 years, I’ve been adversely affected by multiple plant closings and multiple mass layoffs after less than two years’ employment. As a result, on at least the one occasion that I know about, I’ve been labeled a “job hopper” (Well, what was I supposed to do under these circumstances — retire extremely early, die, what exactly?) and summarily “executed” (i.e., denied a job interview). I’ve also had hiring authorities scratch their heads (in a figurative sense, as if to say, “There must be SOMETHING wrong with this guy!”), bring me on as a temp, and subsequently hire me. Then sales take a nose dive, and you know the rest. The many people — hiring authorities excluded — who had expressed incredulity about my inability to get job offers were merely annoying. Each of the hiring authorities who did this is better referred to as a “no-hiring” authority.

    Nick, in spite of having an engineering degree and a related technology degree, my problem must be that I’m terminally stupid. I’ve had time to ponder why I’m seemingly at fault for events beyond my control and — nothing. I just don’t get it.

  18. Yeah Omar I can relate to some degree. My wife says I have that sixth sense…I see dead companies. I stick around around a decade or so but each of the 3 major companies I worked for no longer exist.
    She says it’s me. They don’t know it when they hire me, but no matter how high they are flying ,I’m their doom. Fortunately no one connected the dots

  19. Your post and your comments hit home with me, but you overlooked a structural factor.

    Here is why I cannot keep a good job:

    I work in Public Relations. When the economy goes whoops, my employers (or their clients) decide to cut their budgets; the first place they cut is PR.

    This is the way of life in the profession.

    My supervisors know perfectly well that I have outperformed, trained members of the team hired after me, and brought in new business — and I can prove it all. Still, they let me go and do not hire me back as a consultant.

    I’m now a consultant, while looking for a full-time job, even though it seems less likely to materialize.

  20. It has taken me a while to figure out what I don’t like about the assumptions here. First some of us blame the person who wrote this letter and read into the words about loyalty a certain naiveté and slavishness. Then some of us seem to have the assumption that we can fix this entire problem somehow but applying true networking.

    True networking takes time and we all probably have to pay the bills in the community we live in. It isn’t easy to find a job in some of these communities.

    How about this explanation: It’s the economy. The economy for the last 10 years has stunk and after 10 years of trying to pedal our way through this quagmire we are stuck. We can’t do it on our own anymore. So we can ask for some societal help in the form of government or networking, but they all take time.

    I’d rather not blame the writer of this letter.

  21. Lucille I did read any of the feedback as blame but trying to help the writer. He/she’s asking why what they have typically have done isn’t working for them.
    The person’s relying on one approach, the tried and mostly true work hard, do what’s ask and then some & you’ll succeed.
    But there’s a definition of insanity one needs to heed in careers and jobs..which is doing the same thing over & over and expecting different results. So something is happening with this person. And they need to assess it.
    The approach has been as he/she described. But a B/Backup plan is needed. And you are exactly right. The economy stinks and it’s likely impacting this person’s work style apparently more than others. It’s for that reason that he/she should be networking to have a warm start waiting, and to position themselves to be proactive in increasing their value while they work and where they work, and preparing their next move if they have to.
    As a recruiter and a networker I’d say most people meaning over 90% drop the networking option as soon as they land a job. Meaning they say they’re networking but they aren’t really they are just bouncing around with transactional connections and if they luck out go back into the woodwork. You are right..networking based on building relationships takes time.
    You didn’t mention it, but the writer provided very little information as to context. I’ve met a lot of people like him/her who’ve gone through a string of economically driven downsizings effecting them through no fault of their own.
    So in sum I think people are trying to tell the writer, make sure you aren’t in a rut with on approach to your work life, don’t rely on loyalty, and realize that in this day & age, you aren’t looking for a’re looking for 2, the one you get next and the one after that. If all goes right, you won’t need the 2nd one, but no harm done if you’re prepared.

  22. “…each of the 3 major companies I worked for no longer exist. She (my wife) says it’s me. They don’t know it when they hire me, but no matter how high they are flying, I’m their doom. Fortunately no one connected the dots”

    LOL Don.

    I think it’s much more complicated than any one pat answer “well, its the OP’s fault” or “well, if you do x & y, then employers will love you”

    It just ain’t that simple. I’d love to start my own business, and am thinking about it seriously, because the type of business I’m thinking of could start small, very small, and if demand ramps up.. then I could ramp up…

    But no one really knows for sure, and it is a changing economy, I think one of the commenters on here is right, it’s a new economy, and you have to find a way to make it work or… or… well, gee I don’t know. Move to a tiny island? drop out of society? there’s choices to be made :->

  23. Maggie, I might add the companies were all bought out and I took risks. Two were high flyers who flamed out and I took risks inside them. Risks being projects that fell outside their traditional core business.

    You are right. It is complicated and definitely not logical. People want logic to prevail as to where a company places it priorities, who they reward, who they lay off. Often one ends up doing the right thing for the wrong company

    I’ve seen sizable projects lauded as THE place to be, with Mgmt continuious letting them know members of X project were the creme de creme. Mere mortals couldn’t become part of it, etc. The budget and project portfolio had them as #1, right up to the day they called 100 people into a cafeteria and gave them pink slips. And the irony was as if they purposed went through R&D skimming the best people. to then lay them off. There was no logical step that inteceded that said if 100 people have to go let’s think of the company’s interest and do something to try and see if they are lesser valued, lesser performers. nope the easy way is if you’re in project X & project X is shot, you’re shot.
    That wasn’t my project…they got us later

    Best you can do with new rules of engagement in the new economy is do what networkers have done for a couple of decades..take seriously that homily about being “You Inc.” and treat each place you are as a base of operations from which you can add value to yourself while adding value to the company and perhaps even your profession. Just being loyal and working hard doesn’t get it

  24. It really is about “You, Inc.” And it’s in every industry and sector of our economy today. An acquaintance is a professor of journalism at a large university in town. He told me that they are no longer training students to go into one particular track of journalism (ie: print, TV), and are training them how to be entrepreneurs as well as journalists—because that is their future.

  25. Nick says:
    If you want a job, you either create your own and run your own business, or you “create” one for a company and show why they should pay you to do it.

    To start a business you have to develop either a business sense. To convince a company they need you, you have to develop a sales/marketing sense.

    That’s an important though unpleasant takeaway for technical workers likes accountants, programmers and so forth …

  26. Diane & Depressed:

    Thanks for writing what I no longer can – I’m hemorraging to death from so much of the same.

    With each “failure”, my empathy for those who are homeless deepens: a competent, honest, decent human being can get fired/let go/rejected/refused a place at the table only so many times; eventually, you will reach the end of the line.

    Faith and hope in simply being able to provide for yourself as the credible and competent member of society you are sputters and eventually dies out from so many betrayals/beatings. We are not gods with superhuman hearts, minds and spirits.

    This is like a holocaust – with many more small H hitlers participating, at many more levels – the social media version, in slow motion, of an extermination campaign.

    What will become of our society?

    Buenos dias, Jose! Donde esta los dandelions; muero de hambre!

  27. I think that this issue is simpler, but not easier, than most people imagine. Here is my advice:
    1 – If your job feels like a vocation, you dont worry so much about having a bad day as it will all add experience.
    2 – If you dont enjoy the area of work then as long as you know which area of work you would like then go for another job but with an element of that enjoyment in it.
    3 – Learning from books is very under-rated. For example you can become a programmer just simply by doing some online tutorials and passing exams. For a few hundred dollars you could do that or accountancy if either interest you.
    4 – never give up. Once you have a dream exclude all alternatives. Sure take the next job as you have to pay the bills but focus on the next 5 years. Work out where you need to be in 1 year to get to the 5 year goal.
    5 – dont blame others. It is all about taking control, taking responsibility and making gradual and continual changes. This wont happen overnight but if you set lots of small goals you will be impressed on how quickly you get the first one.
    6 – spend the energy you use feeling bad in studying, unemployed? Ok you now have the time to study for that new job you always wanted.

  28. I have los every job I have gotten, It is so routine, my goal used to be to quit before I got fired until I got married and my husband feels we need insurances. I never had the time to try and figure out why I lose them, I have raised 2 children by myself for along time, until recently, and providing was more important. I am a perfectionist and a nurse. I always do my job and do it to meet deadlines. I follow every corporate rule there is. Most the time other nurses are cutting corners, socializing, and just not doing the patient care at all…I get fired for the same reason every time…attitude…and it usually from my patients or family members. The people I work with don’t normally love me either, cause I focus on my job. There is so much to do in a shift, there isn’t any extra time to do anything else, with a smile, I don’t see cutting corners or ignoring medical orders as an option to making friends or helping someone put a sock on…I don’t usually have time to eat or drink or use the bathroom in 8 hours…I don’t know what to do, I love my career,kind of. Maybe my problem is bigger than this posting area, but I need to search all avenues. God bless you all…

  29. I think am in the same situation Victoria.
    Every job I loose get let go or forced out. Job after job and seems people don’t even care even if they seemed to have the same problem. Just a bunch of people whom are in a classification and then divided from the haves vs have nots. NO matter how good I did (it could be the bottom of a barrell job) get crapped on. Then finding some sort of emotional balance is challenging too. It’s a nightmare for those of us needing some love and compassion. God help us!

  30. I have been working for this company for 3 months, one day my boss came to me to asked to work in another thing where I can learn more. I saw it was more work which I think was doing very good always asked for more to do. I saw he hired some else he was paying the new person way more than me.
    I asked for riase he said he will think about it, then after a week I asked him again he said that he has to talk with his father, this Friday he fired me because I am slow. I don’t know what to think. I feel very bad. ??

    • @Maria: Please read your own words. If this were someone else, and you had to give advice, what would you say? Your boss gave you a new job and more work. He refused to pay you as much as others, then he fired you.

      Did you do anything wrong or inappropriate? What do you think?

      I don’t think so. I think you’re lucky to leave this employer behind and to find a better one that respects you and your work. I wish you the best. Don’t feel bad for you. Feel bad for your old employer, who is still the same man. He must live with that. You do not. Move on, work with good people.

      • Thank you very much Nick,
        No, i did not do anything bad just asked for a raise, wich I thought was fair.
        I am very depress he make me feel like is my fault to got fired. I am looking for a job now and saw he posted an add the second day I asked for a rise. so he prefer hire another person pay more but not me?? it is something wrong with my job? if that was the case why he didn’t fired me the first time when I asked him?