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3rd May 2023
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Fleas Vs. Slugs – Why we need to move away from the obsession with employment tenure.

3rd May 2023

There isn’t much more that strikes fear into the hearts of hiring managers than being presented the CV of a candidate with all the required skills and experience…but whose track record of committed relationships would make even Mick Hucknall blush.

We’re not talking about romantic relationships of course. No, we’re on about something much more important.

Stable employment history. Proven tenure. Stickability.

Call it what you will, it’s the one thing that almost all hiring managers value and consequently the one thing that, if missing, can stop a promising hire dead in its tracks.

Traditional thinking goes that the best predictor of future behaviour is previous behaviour. So, if someone has had a shifty employment-bottom, jumping from job to job like a flea in a cattery, then clearly they are best avoided as no one wants to hire someone only to have to rehire someone in 12-18 months time right?

And I myself have always stuck by this mantra, whether hiring for my own team or on behalf of my clients. Stable tenure has been right at the top of my ‘must haves’ whenever a CV has been pushed under my nose.

However, over time, as a recruitment company who first started recruiting for permanent candidates in the East Midlands tech market and then progressed to recruiting across the UK and Europe, I have had my eyes well and truly opened.

So, here comes the plot twist…stable tenure really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

There. I said it. Let your recruiters send you all the job hoppers! The less committed the better!

OK, maybe not quite, but bear with me on this one.

What’s the opposite of a flea? I am not entirely sure, but my guess is that a slug is pretty close.

Unlike fleas, slugs stick around (literally). They aren’t flighty; you really can’t startle a slug. Heck, you can even pour a line of salt in front of a slug and it’ll probably keep slugging away until it starts to turn into mush (I haven’t tried this btw, before anyone calls PETA).

Through the good times and the bad, the slug will keep going, slowly chugging away and doing what it has always done.

The flea? As soon as it senses danger or a better meal it’s off.

So when it comes to building a team, which one fares better? Is a slug better than a flea?

Well, I would argue that both are equally dangerous hires. Hire a flea, and you’ll never quite feel comfortable as the chances are as soon as things get tough or someone else flutters eyelashes they’ll Mick Hucknall their way onto a new payroll.

Hire a slug and you’re going to get someone who guarantees a lack of excitement. Why do they stick around for so long in previous jobs? Are they fearful of change? How dynamic are they? Do you really need another person who aims to be part of the furniture? How much are they actually going to add to your vision/team/business?

One of the most memorable hires I stayed with me less than 6 months…twice (yes, I was stupid enough to hire her again when she left us for someone else!). Why didn’t I regret hiring her? Well, firstly she was profitable as she was very good, but I also learnt a lot from her because she had worked at lots of different places and had varied experience to draw on. I, on the other hand, had only ever worked for two companies before starting my own, so when she joined and we were soon on the Eurostar to my first ever client meeting in Europe, I loved it. It was a fantastic experience for me…and our business.

Now, don’t get me wrong. You can have stable tenure and be something other than a slug. For example, I stayed for ten years with my last employer, but I most definitely wasn’t a slug.

How come? Well, firstly I was promoted every 18 months or so, and in that time I progressed from being a graduate to one of the most successful managers in the business. Secondly, I did consider leaving but decided to stay as there was usually something new I could achieve and I only left when I felt my potential had been reached.

So I definitely wasn’t a slug. I was more of a loyal, thoroughbred horse (some might say stallion even).

The point remains, however, that just because someone sticks it out doesn’t make them better than someone who jumps around. It all comes down to what you need.

So, ask yourself, do you need someone for a good time…or a long time?

For example, if you’re a start-up and need to hire a CTO to fix you up for the investor beauty parade, then hiring someone with previous experience drawn from the corporate and start-up world or even a contractor might be the best plan. In this situation, a flea might just be the ticket.

Similarly, if your employee onboarding and spin-up processes are very robust and largely pain-free, your recruitment costs are fixed (i.e. you pay monthly fees for a recruitment service such as RebelX or have an in-house team) and you work in a market where talent is readily available then being open to high-performing fleas might not be the worst option.

However, if you’re looking to build resilience into an existing team, lack of ambition isn’t really a problem and the cost of replacing people is very high, then a slug might be more the ticket.

It also changes things, of course, when hiring for ready-made professionals who need less training and investment (such as with most software developers), compared to junior/trainee roles where you may not make an ROI until year two or three.

However, a successful ecosystem is always balanced. Predators and prey. Plants and animals. Slugs and fleas. And I would argue the same is true in a successful company; too much of the same thing can have the opposite effect to what is really needed, and I’ve learnt this the hard way.

Naturally, apart from slugs and fleas there are horses, foxes, squirrels, monkeys, wolves, and many other creatures besides (one of the two reasons I always ask people what their spirit animal is in an interview – the second being because I’m childish when in a position of power). But hopefully by this point…you get the point.

Yes, I know there are bad fleas. In fact, most fleas are probably bad and worth avoiding. But, on the other hand, someone who you think is a jumpy flea could actually turn out to be a bouncy, resourceful, loveable rabbit…and I’ve now reached the point where I regret ever having used any kind of animal analogies in this article.

We’re in a brave new world of employment where someone who lives down the road has the opportunity to work for a company on the other side of the world, with all the insight and experience that brings. You’d be silly to stick to what you held true 20 years ago and not consider them because they tend to move around every 12-18 months.

Times are a-changin’, and whether you like it or not, increased employment choice is leading to lower levels of tenure…especially so in the still-buoyant tech sector.

I know I’d rather take someone who says with me for 12 months and adds a ton of value than someone who sticks around, plods along due to fear/lack of ambition/comfort and eventually bores me and everyone else around them to death.

So next time your recruiter pushes a candidate’s CV under your nose, fight the instinct to immediately count the time served in each role and instead look for the impact they have made in each position.

You may find you are able to build a more forward-thinking, successful team in the process…and could even learn a thing or two yourself along the way ✊

– Written by Azar Hussain

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