Double Dip: Why MBAs Shouldn’t Panic

Darden Dean Bob Bruner chaired the globalization task force.

“You’re sick of the game” Well now, that’s a shame.

You’re young and you’re brave and you’re bright.

“You’ve had a raw deal.” I know-but don’t squeal.

Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.

It’s the plugging away that will win you the day.

So don’t be a piker old pard!

Just draw on your grit. It’s so easy to quit.

It’s the keeping-your-chin-up that’s hard.

– Excerpt from Robert Service, “The Quitter.”

I’ve just returned from Alaska, where I was hiking around fjords and glacier fields. I got to reflecting on the economic booms that advanced the 49th state, such as the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-1899). The stories of Jack London and poems of Robert Service shed a great deal of light on the erratic behavior fostered by the boom and the subsequent bust. Among these, Robert Service was especially critical of the dilettante prospector, the person who gave up too easily in the face of harsh climate, hard work, and uncertain results. Service’s critique is as relevant today as then-especially so for MBA summer interns and recent MBA graduates.

The economic climate right now feels like one of those turning points from prosperity to adversity. Most astute observers of this summer’s economic bailout of Greece by the European Union doubt that it did much more than defer a major reckoning for all of Europe. In the U.S., it is hard to find many enthusiasts for the deal in favor of Congress’s debt ceiling deal. Standard & Poor’s just downgraded the creditworthiness of U.S. debt. Economic growth is anemic. Equity market indexes are down materially in a short space of time. Unemployment remains stubbornly high. I recite all of this as prelude to an admonition to current MBA students and recent graduates: now is no time to play the dilettante. The job market for your skills may be softening. Be earnest about what you do. Make a commitment to a company and trust that such commitment will be repaid.

For summer interns, this means finishing the summer on a high. I’ve written about the need to be very intentional if you want to get an offer of permanent employment and this for summer interns. The dilettante will be coy with the summer employer, waiting to be wooed. Or the dilettante may feel a modicum of disappointment: the city, the employer, or the jobs aren’t so cool after all. There’s nothing specifically wrong. It’s just that the high expectations weren’t fulfilled. The perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Imagining how one might say “yes” to an offer of employment becomes very hard. Saying ‘no’ to possibilities amounts to what Robert Service would call a “quitter.”

Similarly the recent MBA graduate may have become intoxicated by the nascent recovery of 2010 to believe that job-hopping is back in fashion. Top B-schools are observing a rise in reneging by their grads on job offers and a cavalier attitude toward employers. I have advised MBA graduates to take the long view and avoid the job-hopping that gives CEOs and Chief Talent Officers the fits. Most graduates do hang in there. Data from our surveys of Darden graduates show that about half of our grads remain with their first employer at the four-year mark after graduation. Among the half who changed, a minority were motivated by extenuating circumstances (got married; didn’t get a visa; industry-wide layoffs, etc.) The majority who changed did so for better “fit,” better situation, or more compensation. I am in favor of talent going where it is wanted and rewarded. But a recovering economy and certain booming industries (such as health care, energy, and high technology) make it easy to gain an inflated sense of self-worth. Especially in today’s worsening environment, I am concerned about the job-hopping that is motivated by the same dilettantism that Robert Service condemned.

Here’s a hypothetical example. A company successfully woos an MBA and moves this person a very long distance to the headquarters. MBA shows up for work, registers as an employee, and begins the settling-in process. Then, MBA abruptly quits, a matter of days or weeks into the job. No apology. No repayment of expenses. No extenuating circumstances. No particular empathy for the company; the company’s talent development plans are interrupted and may necessitate a re-entry into the job market. Perhaps all along, MBA had been angling for a job offer from another company in the same industry in the same city and finally got the nod.

Reneging on an employment agreement reflects very bad judgment. This MBA negotiated in bad faith with the employer and defaulted on an implicit contract to provide labor in return for salary, benefits, moving expenses, and a range of other set-up costs. In the long run, most markets are reasonably efficient. What goes around comes around. This person will face a reckoning sooner or later and it won’t be pretty. The MBA assumes that markets and firms have no memory (but they do!) And the MBA’s new position (granting a minor pay raise or better title) may be gained with a loss of seniority only to find himself 3-6 months later dealing with a LIFO situation – yes, “last in first out” – when layoffs occur. In this very uncertain labor market, we’ve been encouraging people to make a move only after careful consideration of the prospect and comparison of all their fit factors.

Alaska affords distance and great perspective on big headlines and errant behavior. Boom-bust cycles draw in the opportunists and dilettantes during the booms and wash them away in the busts. Those left standing had staying power derived from a very different attitude about careers, service to employers, and ultimate purpose. The economy that is emerging now will reward the earnest people and penalize the dilettantes. Plot your career steps accordingly.

Robert Bruner is the Dean of the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia and co-author of the report, “Globalization of Management Education,” AACSB International, 2011. Read his blog posts on education and other topics.

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