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Surreptitious Job Hunting

How to improve your future without jeopardizing your present

Dear Nan,
Ethically speaking, how does one look for a job while still on a job? I need my job and can’t afford to lose it in the current job market. However, it is not what I wish to do for the remainder of my career. Upon occasion, I become aware of opportunities I would like to pursue. I’m uncomfortable lying about time off for an interview and I certainly don’t want my current employer to know I am looking. (I might be shown the door prematurely.) How can I surreptitiously go about this job search?

Responses to this dilemma were overwhelming in number, which I attribute to these being tough times for employees. A few years ago, it was a job seekers' buffet. No one worried about jeopardizing their job while seeking a new one. But today's economic climate places current job security at the top of everyone's anxiety list. When employees are staring down possible layoffs, they don't want to give their employer an easy excuse for accelerating the process. However bad you may think your job is, you're probably glad to have it and reluctant to let go of it before you have the next job in hand.

Accordingly, the days of leaving a job to leisurely look for another one are over. Today's astute headhunters are wisely advising their candidates: "Don't quit your day job!"

Like other professionals, however, you need to be persistently moving forward in your career. It should be second nature for you to keep your grapevine tuned for advancement opportunities. "It is not disloyal to anyone to better yourself," writes Peggy Burdick of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. "Your career is your responsibility," concurs Helen Suarez of Pfizer Inc. in New York.

When exploring a new job opportunity, keep in mind my three "C's":
  1. Be careful in your search
  2. Keep the process confidential
  3. And, when successful, be considerate as you exit

Now, for some more specific advice:

Be Careful

Keep your personal business private.

Be selective about whom you tell your plans to. Keep in mind that even your best friend who would never intentionally hurt you may inadvertently let it slip that you are in the job market. Rumors run rampant when employees are worried about job security.

Do not use the time, equipment, or connections of your current employer without permission. Be fair. "In your job search, be sure you are not using your current employer's equipment," cautions Jenny Beidler. This is the only ethical thing to do (after all, you are an employee), and it is also prudent. If you are discovered doing otherwise, you will be remembered in a negative way. How many resumes have we all found on the company's copy machine, and what did we think of the people careless enough to leave them there?

Unless your boss is aware that you are looking for another job and has agreed to help you (use of the copy/fax machines, computer and phone time, postage, etc.), do not try to take advantage of her. Remember that your company has the right to monitor employee e-mail, and you risk compromising yourself during your exit interview if your soon-to-be former employer believes you conducted your job search from the company premisis.

Request that prospective employers only contact you at home.

"Be upfront with prospective interviewers and tell them you would prefer they call you on your personal cell phone and send any inquiries to your home e-mail address," advises Laura Steinbagh with Premera Blue Cross in Mountlake Terrace, Washington. "They will respect you and your conscience will be clear knowing you were honest and above-board in your job search." This means you should only provide your home and cell phone numbers for contact and only send out resumes from your home computer. You can provide prompt responses by periodically checking your personal voice-mail and e-mail messages.

Leave a professional voice-mail message on your home phone.

Prospective employers do not want to hear your latest jingle or Elvis impersonation. I once learned of a recruiter who called a candidate at home and decided not to pursue him any further due to the unprofessional message left on his machine. First, get your new job. Then you can go back to a personalized message.

Be discreet in returning phone calls from the office.

Lunch hours and breaks are appropriate times to return phone calls, but keep them to a minimum and always be sure you are in a private area that is beyond the earshot of others. "Remember, you are being paid to work, not job hunt," says Stacia Y. Stokes of All Saints Healthcare in Racine, Wisconsin.

Be careful not to lie to your current employer.

Ms. Ethics, of course, would never want you to lie about your reason for taking time off. It would clearly be unethical to be paid for time you are taking to seek a new position. "Tell your supervisor you need to take some personal time off (PTO). PTO is just that-personal-and does not require an explanation. Be sure to give your employer 24 hours' notice, however, as a courtesy," suggests Joyce Brown CPS of Maui, Hawaii.

"If explanations are required for taking PTO, I'd find the next opportunity and grab on with both hands," adds Katherine M. Astleford CPS/CAP of CELRP-EC-D in Pittsburgh. "If the time off becomes excessive, though, you may want to consider another alternative. Perhaps taking vacation time would solve the problem. Requesting a leave of absence would require an explanation, so this could possibly be used only as a last resort."

"Be creative: Look at holiday schedules. Perhaps your office is closed on President's Day, for example, but the prospective employer's is not," offers Diane Buzard CPS/CAP of Carillon Investments Inc. in Cincinatti. Or, consider tying an interview in with another requested time off. If you are already taking some time off for a medical appointment or school conference, schedule your interview for that same day and just add an extra hour or two."

All of the above approaches to scheduling interviews should keep you in good standing with your employer. We all know that lying about your reasons for time off can be perceived as the proverbial "dog ate my homework" excuse and may come back to bite you. For your own self respect (and conscience), remember that honesty always trumps dishonesty.

"My boss once interviewed a man for a high-level computer position," says Stacey Walker CPS/CAP of McKee Foods Corp. in Chattanooga. "During the first five minutes of the interview, the man revealed he had taken a sick day from work to come on the interview. How revealing! That man was definitely not to be trusted because of his poor work ethic. (He wasn't hired either.)"

Schedule interviews with discretion.

Employers and search firms are well aware of employed candidates' scheduling problems and should be amenable to interviews during a long lunch hour, after work hours, and even Saturdays.

Cherrill Mears of Community Transit in Everett, Washington, writes that, in her job search, she would "make every effort to schedule interviews at a time that least inconvenienced my current employer. I would also volunteer to work late or come in early before the personal appointment so that work in my current job was affected as little as possible."

"Potential employers [typically are] more than willing to interview either early in the morning (before 8 a.m.) or after the normal work day (5 p.m.)," adds Lynn Smith of VanSlyck & Associates Inc. in Phoenix. "I believe a potential employee would be respected for suggesting it."

Carol A. Marroquin of Han Kamer School of Business, Baylor University in Waco, Texas, concurs, "If the prospective employer doesn't understand your ethical stance (in not wanting to cheat your employer of your time on the job), then they probably are not the employer to work for anyhow. In other words, if they are not willing to admire ethical behavior, then how will they treat you?"

Be Confidential

Stress to your search firm everything must be kept confidential.

Working with a search firm/agency can be of tremendous benefit to you. By representing you (e.g. coordinating scheduling, reference follow-ups), they can save you considerable time and worry.

"I worked through a search firm agency in my job search (while on the job) 15 years ago, and the entire process was much easier for me," says L. Montanaro CPS of New Haven, Connecticut. Be sure, however, to do your due diligence beforehand and only work with search firms that respect and understand the confidentiality of your circumstance. Make certain your resume will never be shared without your knowledge and permission. This is key: You don't want your resume to be "shot-gunned" to all potential clients of the search firm. Reputable firms would never do such a thing; however, there are charlatans who may.

Guard your reference information.

Give potential employers (and your search firm) only the references that are safe to contact. Then, be sure those referenced individuals are aware of your confidential search. Prospective employers will understand why you cannot use your current employer as a reference.

Suggest a phone interview where possible.

At least in the initial interview, some potential employers are receptive to phone interviews. This process will have two positive results: 1) You may decide it is not a job you wish to pursue any further and/or (2) the potential employer may determine you are not a good fit. Either result will save you a lot of valuable time and effort in pursuing an undesirable position. "Phone interviews will allow you to use your cell phone during the lunch hour (for example) and sit in a conference room for privacy," says Eileen Holz of Kraft Foods in Glenview, Illinois.

Be Considerate

It is important that you exit gracefully.

When you've accepted a new position, let your current employer know immediately. It is simple courtesy to allow your employer to be the first to know-not the last. Update your job description and desk manual for your successor and leave an orderly desk and office surroundings. Your employer will appreciate (and remember) your professionalism.

Work hard to maintain a good relationship.

Give proper notice-two weeks is the usual expected time of departure. Keep in mind, however, that your company may have a policy of removing employees as soon as they give notice. These companies usually pay salary for the notice time (so they will not be liable for unemployment insurance).

Convey a positive and constructive manner.

You are not betraying the company or your boss; you are just departing for a career opportunity you can't refuse. If granted an exit interview, remain positive in your remarks and constructive in your criticism. Concentrate on your good experiences and all you have learned. Remember-you are leaving for an advancement opportunity.

"Offer to train your successor and/or offer telephone support for them after they start," recommends Patricia Tate CPS/CAP, secretary to the pastor of Leeds Presbyterian Church in Gardendale, Alabama. If you remain upbeat, positive, and helpful from the time you give notice, your boss and your peers will be happy for you. Moreover, just as we all know people are judged by their first appearances, so are they judged by their last appearances.

Remember we are all a part of our own experiences.

Your current job, your bosses, your subordinates, and peers are all a part of your work history from the day you walk out the door. You may need a reference some day, and it is important that you leave on good terms. "Depart in such a way that if you wanted to go back, you could," adds Tate.

Finally, get over your guilt of potential departure. Be proud of the job you have done for your boss and your company (and continue to do) and approach your new job search as another stepping stone in an ever-evolving professional career.

"We all have choices in our lives that we must make from time to time. These personal choices should promote our own happiness and fulfillment in our careers wherever we work. So, shed that uncomfortable feeling and get on with what you need to do," advises Sharon Forston of GKN Aerospace Chem-tronics Inc. in El Cajon, California.

It is certainly possible to look for a new job while on the job. Just be professional and ethical in your actions and enjoy the process besides.

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars