The best time to look for a job, goes the conventional wisdom, is when you already have one. Simple logistics support the idea. In a nine-to-five business world, you need to conduct a good portion of your job hunt while at work.
Conventional wisdom also says to keep your job hunt quiet. Tipping off your boss that you're looking to leave is a sure way to label yourself a quitter.
As Diane Casola, a labor and employment lawyer for Woods Rogers in Roanoke, Va., pointed out, "Most employees employed in Virginia are employed at will." So, yes, you could be fired for looking for a job.
"They can be fired for any reason or no reason at all -- if it's not an illegal reason," Casola said.
Awareness in the work force of employee vulnerability is widespread. Employers and employees both realize that the halcyon days of lifetime employment are over. In this era of downsizing, mass layoffs and reduced retirement benefits, worker loyalty is greatly diminished -- their future, they realize, is in their own hands.
Although many employers have rules about searching for work while on the job, some express a desire to know when an employee is looking for a way out.
Two high-profile cases this year -- one concerning the Roanoke city school system and one concerning Downtown Roanoke Inc. -- have shown that conventional wisdom isn't so conventional anymore.
In the case of the Roanoke schools, a hubbub erupted when it was discovered that then-Superintendent Marvin Thompson had applied for a job in Indian River County, Fla. Thompson's behind-the-back approach rubbed some the wrong way -- they thought a public official should be more, well, public.Soon after, Downtown Roanoke Inc.'s hired president, David Diaz, announced that he had accepted a $110,000 per year job in Raleigh, N.C. -- a job he had sought in secret. Bob Fetzer, the organization's chairman, expressed surprise and disappointment at the news -- he had hired and mentored Diaz."When he told me about it just before it was to be announced in Raleigh, I was disappointed ... the lack of openness and trust," said Fetzer. "He said he was afraid if he told us he was looking for a job he'd be fired. That wouldn't have happened. I would have been supportive to help him get what he wanted for his next career step."Diaz declined to comment.Company Policies Vary So what is the proper etiquette for employees going after that greener pasture and not informing those in whose field they currently graze?Even if employers say they would support a job hunt, it might be hard to persuade the job-hunter to confide in his boss. If nothing else, there's the fear it conveys the message, "I may not be giving you 100 percent."
There's also the issue of company policy. In some cases, employees are specifically prohibited from seeking work elsewhere while on company time, especially if that job hunt involves a competitor.Employer policies vary greatly. And if you think an official company policy is vague, the real-world attitudes on job hunting while already on a payroll can be even less clear."Nothing is hard and fast," said Todd Burns, a spokesman at Appalachian Power Co. "Every situation is different," he added, after checking with executives at his company.Asked for more specifics, such as whether employees are allowed to use company phones, computers and of course -- work time -- to look for a job, Burns responded: "We want to make sure that employees don't spend all their time at work looking for a job somewhere else."That's a view held by many companies, at least unofficially: Look, but don't take too much time away from your current job.And many people are looking. In fact, surveys by the U.S. Department of Labor have found that roughly 6 percent of the nation's work force are looking for work at any given time. That's more than 9 million people who are in the hunt while already on a payroll.In some categories, the percentage of working job seekers is far higher: 13 percent among service workers with bachelor's degrees, for example.
Workers who contacted a career counselor were probably given the same advice: Employers generally don't encourage such behavior -- especially by those who are viewed as worth keeping."I don't recommend that job seekers tell their current employers that they're in the job market for precisely what happened to the local school superintendent," said Wendy Enelow, a career counselor in Lynchburg, Va., referring to Thompson.Like Thompson, she said, "The vast majority of job seekers want to keep their search confidential until such time as they receive an offer. Once the offer is received, then it's time to tell their current employer that they'll be leaving for a better opportunity."But Enelow's logic might not be quite as logical as it once was. Employers, too, realize that people often look to change jobs. In some cases, it's an opportunity -- a chance to try to keep a valued staff member before she gets a better offer, or a chance to get a running start on making transition plans.Besides, as coy as you might think you are, don't count on your co-workers being entirely in the dark.Noticing Changes in Behavior Employees at Downtown Roanoke Inc., for example, had noticed an absence from work earlier this year. If Diaz was taking time off to interview, that's a widely accepted strategy, according to Randall Hansen, a career adviser in DeLand, Fla.
"It's common practice for job seekers who are employed to [interview elsewhere] on the sly. They interview before or after hours and take personal days to go on longer interviews or out-of-town interviews."That kind of change in behavior gets noticed. So why not level with your boss while you look?"The problem here is that some bosses and organizations will immediately label you as disloyal, and even if you end up staying, you may be a marked person, or at least someone who may not get that next promotion," said Hansen.That said, if the boss seems sincerely supportive, as in the case of Fetzer, "the job seeker may wish to confide in him or her at a point where the opportunity is serious enough where an offer may come," Hansen said. "The boss might even help seal the deal with a recommendation."Indeed, Fetzer said he would have done so gladly. "For our man to land a bigger job in Raleigh, a market three times our size, speaks well of us. It's prestigious."Other area employers aren't so upfront about the subject. At Advance Auto Parts for example, Roanoke's only Fortune 500 company, spokeswoman Shelly Whitaker declined to discuss the subject at all. "If there's another story we can help you with, please call us," she said.SunTrust Bank spokeswoman Patti Dickerson passed along this written comment from the company's human relations department: "While we don't have anything in writing specific to this, our overall position is that we expect employees to continue to do their jobs in a professional manner for the entire time they are employed by our company. We do state in writing that Sun Trust computers and phones, as well as work time should be dedicated to performing SunTrust work."
That blanket policy covering the use of company phones and computers is widely utilized and many employers seem to hope that's enough said. Yet the official-use-only mandate is something of an anachronism.With Internet access and even long-distance phone calls too cheap to meter, the "costing the company money" argument doesn't hold up as well, especially when so many people carry cellphones and can walk to the nearest coffee shop to check their e-mail with a laptop.That makes it possible to do an initial job query and even send a resume while on a coffee break or at lunch.When Employers Are Hiring And what about the other end -- the employer considering hiring someone? Which sells a potential employee more, discretion or honesty?Tina Rolen, director of Hollins University's Career Assessment and Counseling Service, said that when she's hiring, loyalty to the previous employer isn't expected. "I just hired an associate director. There were two candidates, one had told her boss she was looking and one hadn't." Rolen ended up hiring the candidate who had kept the job hunt a secret.Is she at all concerned that her new employee might look for a job without telling her? "No," she said. "I think it's up to the employer to create an atmosphere of mentoring and trust, and foster a culture in which it's clear that you want valued workers to go as far as possible with their careers, wherever that takes them."
In fact, Rolen said, she's well aware that job hunting while on the job can carry a stigma in many workplaces. "It could put a little 'x' on your forehead," she said. "They might say, 'She's not happy with us or her job. She could be a little bit subversive.'"As for Thompson, the erstwhile Roanoke school superintendent, "We don't know what kind of dynamics were going on behind the scene that could have driven him to look elsewhere," Rolen said. "Part of the problem there was that he had time left on his contract, and that was a factor."Employment ContractsShould an employment contract prevent someone from job hunting? Rolen said that would depend on the specifics of the contract, and whether it contains language that allows either side to break it under certain circumstances, such as time on the job, or the accomplishment of certain agreed-upon goals.In Thompson's case, his unpopularity with some in the school system became apparent after news surfaced that he had applied elsewhere. Rolen said, "If there's a negative relationship going on, no one in their right mind would [disclose] that they're looking."Rob Johnson contributed to this report. Source: The Roanoke Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Powered by Yellowbrix.