Career Q&A: Tips for Job Hunting Confidentially

“Matt: I took a new job a few weeks ago, but can already tell I made a mistake and that this organization isn’t going to be a good fit for me in the long run.  I don’t want to quit, however, until I have my next opportunity lined up.  What tips would you have for running a confidential job search when one is working full-time?”

Without question, looking for work while employed presents a number of different challenges from the typical job search scenario of somebody searching while between positions.  And while most people would still consider this to be a nicer problem to have than having to deal with the unemployment spectre, there are definitely some important guidelines to follow when you’re searching on the “down low” without your current employer being aware of it.

For starters, one should recognize that many employers will consider such a search by an employee grounds for instant dismissal, should they discover that one of their team members has a wandering eye.  This reaction is often based on the belief that looking for a new job constitutes “disloyalty” on the part of the employee and that the person is not giving 110% to their current assignment.  It might also raise concerns about intellectual property, trade secrets, non-compete agreements, and other issues if the employee appears to be looking for another position within the same industry.

Now granted, most companies seem to have little moral compunction when the tables are turned.  In other words, I don’t see a lot of organizations losing sleep when they decide to keep the news of a pending layoff secret from their employees, which is sort of the exact same issue, in reverse.  But that’s just life — and anybody who chooses to spend time pondering the relative fairness, unfairness, or irony of such behavior is going to get rapidly steamrolled by reality.

So long story short, unless you have an extra-special relationship with your current boss, it’s a very wise idea to keep the news of your job search under wraps and to do whatever it takes to minimize the risk of your employer finding out about your search efforts.  Several steps that will help in this regard include:

Be extremely selective about whom you network with.  As opposed to a normal job search, when it makes sense to spread the word to the ends of the Earth about your availability, confidential job seekers should be very cautious about whom they entrust with the news of their attempt to line up a new assignment.  People are generally prone to gossip and word can get around if you’re not careful, especially if you divulge your secret to colleagues within your own office.  Even if your co-workers are trustworthy, a lurking manager could easily overhear some water cooler chatter and realize that you’re a “short-timer” whose future with the organization is suspect.

Leverage your employment status.  When contacting employers, may sure to let them know that you are currently employed with another organization and running a clandestine search, since that puts a “psychological premium” on you as a candidate.  Companies pay big bucks for recruiters to hire away folks who are currently working at other places, after all, under the assumption that if somebody is drawing a paycheck at present, that says a lot about that person’s talent and marketability.  So milk this angle for all its worth, even if you don’t (or can’t) disclose the exact specifics of where you are now.

Don’t job hunt from your workplace.  You’d think this was common sense, but I’ve come across numerous cases where people have used a company phone or work computer to engage in job hunting activities, without realizing that their employer may be monitoring their transmissions.  As a case in point, the IT Manager at the school where my wife works recently pulled her aside and asked her, out of concern, why she wasn’t happy in her job and was looking for a new position.  My wife initially had no idea what he was talking about.  After a quick chat, however, it turned out that this IT Manager had noticed she was sending numerous e-mails each day to a “career-horizons.com” e-mail address (my own, of course) and assumed this meant she was in conversations with a staffing agency and looking to jump ship!

Tweak your LinkedIn settings.  If you have a profile on the LinkedIn networking website, and are searching for work confidentially, it’s advisable to go into the “Account & Settings” page of the system and turn off your “Connections Browse” and “Profile & Status Updates” options.  This will prevent people from monitoring what you’re doing on the system and who you’re connecting with, in case such activities could arouse suspicion.  There may be similar features on other networking sites (Facebook, etc.) you’d want to tweak in similar fashion, as well.

Use the phone instead of e-mail, when possible.  To avoid having a “paper trail” associated with your job hunt, and minimize the odds of the wrong eyes coming across a resume you’ve sent out, try calling the hiring manager directly whenever you can to pitch yourself or respond to a published opportunity.  This will give you plausible deniability should a compromising situation arise.  By immediately stating your confidential search status when calling, too, you can usually pique their interest based on tip #2 shared above.

Don’t post your resume out there, even anonymously.  Lastly, when job hunting in secret, you’d be well-advised to avoid posting your resume out on sites like Monster.com, CareerBuilder, and TheLadders — even if these sites offer an “anonymous” option that purports to hide your identity.  While such a feature might block your name and camoflouge your current or most recent place of employment, there are usually enough contextual clues in the rest of a person’s resume for companies to put two-and-two together.  Such a move is therefore not usually worth the risk, especially if you know your company’s HR department uses these kinds of sites on a regular basis to source hiring prospects.

Granted, there are probably many other suggestions (readers, feel free to post comments!) that would apply to people who are trying to conduct a “stealth” job search, but the above list represents the first wave of ideas that comes to my mind, judging from my clients who have attempted such searches in the past.  Ultimately, one’s hands are pretty tied in these cases and you won’t get the same results you’d get if you could job hunt on a full-time basis, and shout your availability from the rooftops, but at the same time you’re at least still drawing a paycheck — which is nothing to sneeze at!

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