Caught Looking for a Job

Should you jump through hoops to keep your job search a secret, or will the prospect you’ll leave provide you new leverage in the workplace?


Part 1: Most job seekers take to the job search while still employed and most conduct their search in the shadows, worried that their current employer will discover their disloyal pursuit and react punitively. Over the course of several stories Ladders will explore the consequences of being discovered, how to conduct a secret job search and how to respond should you be caught looking for a job.

You’ve decided to look for a new position, but there’s a problem: You haven’t left your old one yet. In fact, you’re not even sure if you want to leave. You might simply be “testing the waters” to see if there are indeed better offers to be had.

How concerned must you be that your employer might catch you looking for a new job? What if you don’t initiate a search but are instead scouted or called by a recruiter? Is that something to hide from your boss?

Legally, your job might be protected if you’re caught searching, as long as you don’t search on company time, said Linda Duffy, president of Leadership Habitude, a staffing consultancy. Several states have laws that specifically protect such behavior, and most employers (at least officially) are benign about employees weighing their options, she said.

“I don’t know of any company who would have a policy prohibiting people from job searching while they’re employed,” she said. “In fact, I believe that such a policy would be considered illegal in many states. In California, for example, (the) Labor Code allows employees to file claims for loss of wages as the results of ‘demotion, suspension, or discharge from employment for lawful conduct occurring during nonworking hours away from the employer’s premises.’ Companies may, of course, have policies that prohibit employees from using company equipment or working hours to conduct a job search because that would be considered ‘for personal use.’ ”

But, legal protection aside, managers and bosses can still find ways to penalize the job seekers among their staff.

“I know of hiring managers who take inappropriate, retaliatory action against employees who they believe to be job searching,” Duffy said. “It certainly is bad for someone politically to let it be known that he/she is looking for a new job while they’re still employed. Unless someone is in a specialized, niche position for which no one else is qualified, that person should be worried about loss of job, loss of future advancement opportunities and other forms for retribution.”

Broken trust

Whether you’re legally protected or not, there’s a risk in advertising your job search too much, said Mitch Feldman, president of executive placement firm A.E. Feldman. Even if your boss isn’t acting maliciously, he might have to be proactive about thinking about your replacement.

“If an executive is in a company and he or she is caught looking in a job, anything goes,” he said. “If the firm finds out, then they start looking for somebody else so they don’t have a void for that long of a time. Then they let the person go. If you’re not doing it with 100 percent discretion on your part, you should not be surprised if you get fired.”

The one exception is when you are aware that your job is likely to be eliminated. If that’s the case, it might help to be honest with your employer. Your supervisor may accept or outright encourage your job hunting.

“There’s a trust factor between the employee and the employer, or between the boss and the subordinate, and when that trust is broken, it’s over. It’s not friendly,” he said. “There are other occasions where it is friendly and it could be that that job is going to be eliminated in a year or two and they have a flexible agreement where the firm is telling the employee you better start looking, because in two years your job’s going to be up. If a company is relocating three years from now from one city to another, then it’s apparent. Everything is fair game.”

Marilyn Santiesteban, director of career services at management consulting firm King & Bishop, concurs that getting caught looking for a new position can damage your relationship with your employer.

“If you initiate the process, it’s a clear signal that you feel whatever issues you have at work cannot be fixed,” Santiesteban said. “Employment is like any other relationship — your employer will feel rejected and hurt. They may get angry or defensive. When you give your notice, they may opt to have you leave right away (instead of two weeks). This is very common in jobs where employees have access to sensitive data. You have to be ready for all alternatives.”


Even if you don’t openly look for jobs, you need to be very careful when scouted. Using an offer as leverage for better compensation at your current position can be a crapshoot.

“If you are happy where you are, you might choose to let your employer know about the offer and use it as leverage to get an increase in pay or other benefits,” Santiesteban said. “This happened to me once. I loved my current position, but the offer was substantially better. I brought it to my boss, and he immediately countered it. In my case it worked out, but some employers will just wish you well and not counter.”

There are always exceptions to the rule, and in some cases you might even be legally protected from retribution if you’re caught looking for a new position. In general, however, it’s wisest to play your search very close to the vest.