by Amy Gallo
Looking for a job while you already have one can be stressful, especially in the age of social media when privacy is scarce. You don’t want to rock the boat at your current company but you want to find the next great opportunity. Should you tell your boss you’re looking? How do you handle references? If you get an offer, is two weeks notice really enough? Since how you leave your current job can be as important to your career as how you perform in the next one, you need to know the answers to these questions.
What the Experts Say
The job market may be bleak, but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck. If you’ve heard rumors of layoffs or you’ve simply outgrown your current job, it’s ok to look. Priscilla Claman, president of Career Strategies, Inc., a Boston-based firm offering career coaching and management services, says the job market is more active than most people think. “For some people it’s truly terrible but I know plenty of people who are leaving jobs and finding jobs.” Of course, searching for a job while trying to stay employed is tricky. But if you manage it skillfully, you’ll be able to move on without burning bridges, strengthening your professional relationships in the process, says Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a senior adviser at Egon Zehnder International and the author of Great People Decisions. Just follow these principles:
Do your homework
Fernández-Aráoz says that the first step to any job search is a thorough analysis of what you’re good at and what you love to do. Get clear on what you’re looking for in your next position. Then reality-check that with the market. Are there jobs out there that have the characteristics you’re searching for? Do you have the right qualifications? To help you assess, turn to trusted advisors such as friends in your field or search consultants.
Consider internal options first
Once you know what you want, start your search inside your company. “In my experience, all too often people don’t work enough on trying to redefine their job and career prospects with their current employer, and prematurely decide to start looking elsewhere,” says Fernández-Aráoz. There may be internal opportunities that will satisfy your needs, such as reshaping your job, moving to another team, or taking on a special project. If opportunities are limited or you’re certain you want out of the company, then take your search outside.
Keep it secret if necessary
Many people have to keep their search quiet. Perhaps you don’t have a strong relationship with your boss, or you worry about retribution from colleagues, or you fear you won’t find another position and don’t want to risk the embarrassment. In these cases, it’s prudent not to let anyone at your current employer know you’re looking. “If you do the secret job search, you have to be religious about not letting things out in your social media or using your office email,” says Claman. “It can be distracting to have everyone know that you are looking for something new,” says Fernández-Aráoz.
If there is a colleague you trust, however, consider sharing the news. Divulging your search to another person can help build momentum and make contacts. “This disclosure will clearly commit you to actually and properly look for a new opportunity,” says Fernández-Aráoz. It may also help with networking (the key to any successful job hunt). You can also casually mention your search to people not associated with your company — so long as you do it carefully. You don’t have to say, “Hi, I’m Amy Gallo and I’m looking for a job.” When you speak with potential employers or contacts, you can say something like, “I’m doing well at my current position and I’m always entertaining options for what’s next.” Don’t act desperate. “Never say I’m dying to get out of here. People don’t want people who are dying to get out of somewhere,” says Claman.
When to tell your boss
No boss likes to find out from someone else that one of her direct reports is looking for a new job. You should therefore tell your manager as soon as you’re comfortable doing so. There are risks: She may try to make it difficult for you to interview or give you a poor reference. She may treat you differently knowing you want to leave. But both Claman and Fernández-Aráoz note that there are several upsides to having a frank discussion with your boss. First, she may be able to help you identify opportunities inside or outside your organization. Second, the disclosure may facilitate the search process. “The right boss may make it easier for you to look for the right new job, and eventually may refer you to some attractive opportunities,” says Fernández-Aráoz. Third, you will build good will. Your boss will appreciate your honesty and the opportunity to plan ahead for your departure. All that said, if you know your manager will have a negative reaction, and is unlikely to support you, it’s best to wait until after you have an offer to inform her.
Interview on your own time
Most employers will want to interview you during normal business hours. Don’t sneak off for fake meetings or feign being sick. Fit the interviews into your schedule without cheating your current employer. If your boss tracks your every move, take vacation or personal time. If your manager is suspicious, explain that you have a personal issue you need to tend to.
Provide the right references
If your current manager doesn’t know you’re job-hunting, you obviously can’t use him as a reference. Provide the names of previous employers or give the name of a trusted colleague at your present company who is aware of your search and can speak to your performance. If a hiring manager insists on a reference directly from your boss, explain that you can provide one at the point of offer. Claman says that many organizations will make you an offer contingent on good references. This means you need to get in front of your boss as soon as possible after you’ve received the good news. And you need to persuade him to give you a positive recommendation despite his possible irritation at your departure.
Don’t accept the counteroffer
Some employers will counteroffer when you announce you are leaving. Fernández-Aráoz urges caution when contemplating these offers: “In my experience, these are usually vague promises about more money and more responsibility.” He says that in most cases when people accept the counteroffer, they end up leaving, or even being fired, shortly thereafter. “Once you’ve accepted an offer, it is not only questionable to turn it down for a counteroffer from your current employer, but also a poor career decision.”
Leave on good terms
Claman points out that the convention for giving notice is still two weeks. However some people, especially those in senior positions or who are in the midst of a big project, will need to give more. Fernández-Aráoz provides this rule of thumb: “It is mostly a matter or relevance and responsibility. If you are irrelevant, you can leave fast, of course. If you are relevant and have significant responsibility, your new employer will highly respect you for not leaving your current job overnight. One month is usually enough once you have really made up your mind.”
No matter how bad things are, don’t just walk out the door. Leaving on bad terms can be dangerous for future prospects. “You don’t want to walk off a job. It stays with you forever,” says Claman.
Principles to Remember
- Consider internal opportunities before looking elsewhere
- Be careful about who you tell you’re on the job market
- Give a minimum of two weeks notice and more if you are senior or involved in an important project
- Tell your boss that you’re looking for another job unless you have a good relationship
- Make up fake appointments to go on interviews — use vacation or personal time instead
- Consider the counteroffer — it’s usually an unsubstantiated promise
Case Study #1: Wait until you have the offer
When Kristina Ferry* was laid off from her job at a biopharmaceutical company in Connecticut, she quickly found another position in Massachusetts. The trouble was that her husband and daughter needed to stay behind in Connecticut. She knew it wasn’t an ideal situation but she thought she could make the travel back and forth work. And she did for the first year or so. Then her new employer announced that the company would be restructuring and everyone assumed there would be lay offs.
Kristina started actively looking for another job. She didn’t tell her boss, with whom she had a tenuous relationship, but she did discreetly talk about her search with the colleagues in her group. “Pretty much everyone in my group was looking because people weren’t happy,” she says. She took vacation days to go on interviews.
Throughout this time, she was talking with Robert*, her previous boss from the company in Connecticut. He now worked at a large pharmaceutical company in New York (not too far from where Kristina’s husband and daughter were) and he wanted her to come work with him again. Over several months, she interviewed with the company while continuing her search. Eventually, Robert offered her a job. She didn’t tell her boss until she had that offer in hand. When she gave her two weeks notice, her boss took her out to lunch and asked if there was anything he did that made her want to leave. “I was very tempted to say something but then I figured you never know who is going to be your next boss. So I said, ‘No, this just works better for me and my family.”
Case Study #2: Look internally, and leave on good terms
Soon after starting his new job at a public sector consulting firm, Ray Garmin* realized the job was not right for him. “It was too slow for me. I wanted something much more fast-paced,” he says. Since he liked the organization and believed in its work, he looked for ways to make it a better fit. He applied for a position one level up but didn’t get it. He tried to get involved in a special project producing marketing material but the firm was hesitant about publishing.
Frustrated, he began entertaining other options and was soon contacted by a headhunter about a position in a nearby city. It was a clear promotion for Ray and an opportunity to join a more fast-paced organization. He started interviewing, taking flextime to travel to the meetings. And he kept the process to himself. “I felt awkward leaving so soon and I didn’t trust my boss enough,” he says. When he was offered the new job, he still wasn’t 100% sure he wanted it so he sought the input of a few clients who worked in the field. When they advised him to take it, he then told his boss. Ray gave two weeks notice but offered to stay longer if need be. “I didn’t have much to do which was part of the problem,” he says. Set on making it a smooth transition for the company and his clients, he made sure to wrap up his projects and even accelerated one so that he could finish before he left. His commitment to leaving on good terms paid off: when the start date of his new job was delayed, his former employer asked him back to do freelance work.
*Names have been changed
This post is part of the special section The New Rules of Getting a Job.
Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review.