How to Approach a Competitor About a Job

The bottom-line on non-competes and the ethics of employers who want your insider knowledge.

Imagine you’re an account executive working an important trade show. A top competitor approaches you about a job opportunity and the next morning, over breakfast, you’re offered a chance to double your money and earn a fast-track promotion to the executive ranks. Next step, “Just send us your resume.”

Can you legally and ethically jump to the other side? What should you — and shouldn’t you — put on your resume and cover letter? How do you make this type of move without burning bridges?

Your No. 1 issue is “CNC”

If you’re thinking about changing sides, your No. 1 issue is a non-compete clause or covenant-not-to-compete (CNC).

If you have not signed a CNC, then you’re probably free and clear.

Otherwise, to avoid a potential lawsuit against you and your new employer, you must get advice from a lawyer who specializes in employment law. Companies can and do enforce these agreements (except in California, where they’re generally illegal).

Sometimes the CNC or non-compete clause is a separate document, and sometimes it’s buried in a job application. You might have signed one and forgotten all about it! (Important point: These agreements usually apply to your company’s clients as well as its competitors.)

Non-compete agreements are especially common with technology jobs because competition among companies is fierce and potential employees are usually willing to sign anything in a weak job market. So before a competitor considers hiring you, they’ll demand your full disclosure.

What to put — and leave off — of your resume and cover letter

Be very discreet. Show utmost respect for your current (or former) employer in the resume and during the interview. Never disclose any insider tidbits because any negative information reflects badly on your own character and loyalty. Rehearse your story in great detail, and don’t let the interviewer lure you into this trap.

  • Tweaking your resume for a competitor is easy. Just remove any items — direct or indirect — that might involve the competitor. If you’re in sales, for example, don’t highlight any competitive wins you’ve made against this particular employer.
  • Never use personal pronouns (“we, our, or their,” for example). This rule applies to all resume writing, and it’s especially important when you’re sending it to a competitor.
  • If you are making the first move, use the cover letter to reveal that you are (or were) working for a direct competitor. Option: Replace your company’s actual name with “COMPANY CONFIDENTIAL” and just note it’s in the same marketplace.
  • If you’re sure that you have not signed a non-compete agreement with your current employer, definitely mention that in a postscript (P.S.) at the end of your e-mail or cover letter.
  • Absolutely mention a mutual, trusted referral in the first line of your e-mail or cover letter, for example: “Our mutual colleague, Mary Smith, suggested that I contact you regarding the ABC position at Company XYZ.”

The ” cheating-spouse” syndrome

Working for a competitor can catapult your career to the next level because outsiders value you more highly (especially if the management of your own company has come to take you for granted). And the competitor that hires you benefits because you’re ready to hit the ground running and start producing.

But be sensitive to the emotions a move may provoke in the company you left behind. As you make your move, be prepared for some angry emotions and accusations of betrayal from former colleagues. Remember, they’re still with the company, and you’ve suddenly redefined yourself as a competitor.

Be respectful of their feelings, and brace yourself for some blowback as you advance confidently towards your career goals.