Err on the Side of Discretion When Job Hunting at Work

by | March 10, 2009

Miserable at work? Ready to jump ship? Thanks to the improving job market, the likelihood that you will find something has increased.

But you may encounter an unanticipated problem: It's harder than ever to conceal a job hunt from colleagues and supervisors. Casual dress codes make your nice interview suit more conspicuous. Many employers are using monitoring software to track their employees' Web surfing, e-mails and instant messages. In addition, open-plan office layouts can complicate your efforts to conduct job-search phone calls discreetly.

Don't worry. There are still plenty of ways to keep your hunt off your boss's radar screen. And the proliferation of alternate workplace arrangements -- including companies' more relaxed attitudes toward telecommuting -- can actually help your covert job search.

Even if you work from home only part-time, you can take advantage of the extra privacy. Kamela Pancroft, a 40-year-old human-resources executive in Castle Rock, Colo., tried to schedule job interviews during the two days a week that she worked from home last year. After several months of searching, she got a new job in October as an HR vice president for a mortgage banker. Her old boss didn't have a clue that she had been looking.

Avoiding a common pitfall, Ms. Pancroft used her home computer and private America Online e-mail account to send risumis and conduct other aspects of her search. You should never depend on your company's equipment or e-mail account when you're aiming to job hop, career counselors warn.

Relatively inexpensive computer-monitoring software lets businesses track and review your office computer use. Your boss doesn't have to catch you job hunting. He can just ask the information-technology department to retrieve a record of your computer activities.

Company officials probably don't review your communication constantly, but it's likely they'll do so if they think you're doing something wrong, says Donald Harris, president of HR Privacy Solutions, an employee-privacy consulting firm in New York. "What people are allowed to do [at work] in the U.S. is pretty much set by the employer," Mr. Harris cautions. By contrast, workers in Europe have stronger privacy rights on the job.

When posting your risumi in a Web-site jobs database, keep your identity as secret as possible. Monster.com, for instance, allows you to hide your name and contact information. The popular Web site sends you an e-mail when someone shows interest in your risumi.

Describe your employer generically rather than divulging its actual name, advises Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a San Diego-based group that studies workplace privacy issues. If you work for Procter & Gamble, for example, you could refer to it as a "large consumer-products company" in your risumi.

Advance planning will solve the casual-dress dilemma. In pursuit of a horticulture research-associate position at a local university this past fall, Jonathan Ervin didn't want to don the work boots and khaki pants that he usually wore to work as a manager at a wholesale nursery. So the 31-year-old Stokesdale, N.C., resident left a suit in his car the morning of the university-job interview. At midday, he drove to a local farmers' market and hid behind a dumpster to change. He used his car's rear passenger door to "screen any areas that were not blocked" by the dumpster, he recalls. (He subsequently quit his job to conduct his search full time.)

Another approach is to alter your daily routine so that your job search attracts less attention. A 30-year-old book editor in New York grew anxious several weeks ago when a nosey secretary glanced at her unusually fancy outfit -- a nice suit for a job interview that day -- and chided, "People notice things."

The editor says she now wears a suit once or twice a week, hoping that when she does have an interview, the suit won't stand out as much. Despite the secretary's warning, she doesn't think her boss suspects that she's looking for a new job.

You can also lower your risk of exposure by using a cellphone to make job-search contacts from an isolated part of your workplace. Mr. Ervin, for instance, placed calls from a secluded area of the nursery. When co-workers walked past him, he shooed them away. They assumed that he was conducting an important business call and shouldn't be interrupted.

For the ultimate in privacy during a job search, splurge and book a hotel room near your office for the day. The unconventional arrangement makes sense if you can't work from home, dislike using a cellphone to call potential employers, and lack a private office at work. Lunchtime absences are less noticeable.

"You definitely want to err on the side of discretion," says Brad Karsh, president of JobBound, a Chicago career-counseling company.

-- Joanne Lublin is on vacation.

Filed Under: Job Search


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