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by Perri Capell | March 10, 2009

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Question:

At my last company, I found out that a co-worker was job hunting and he accepted an offer. Subsequently, I was laid off from the company. I then learned that management believed I had a duty to inform them that my co-worker was job hunting. This person was a peer and a friend, not a subordinate. Did I have a duty to rat out my friend?

Answer:

Suppose you had a duty to tell your supervisors that a co-worker was looking for a new job. This policy wouldn't inspire much trust among company employees. They would start hiding their activities and staying away from co-workers.

"At the moment you tell employees that it's their responsibility to tell you about someone who's job hunting, you will create a culture of mistrust," says Mark Horstman, a management consultant in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Managers often get angry when a subordinate leaves, but their reaction is typically unjustified, says Mr. Horstman, also co-founder ofManager Tools, a management-development organization. Managers should be more aware of their employees' feelings, so they aren't surprised if someone leaves, he says. "From a management perspective, if it surprises you that someone leaves, it's because you weren't in touch with them," Mr. Horstman says.

Patrick Dailey, human-resources director for cellphone maker Nokia Corp.'s North American sales and marketing channel, says employees have no responsibility to snitch on co-workers who are job hunting. Instead, their primary responsibility is to their careers. When a co-worker leaves, employees might want to talk to their bosses about why their colleagues made their decisions to quit. "The real question you need to ask your bosses is, 'What's causing people to look outside the organization?' " says Mr. Dailey, who is based in Irving, Texas.

Senior executives may be obligated to tell higher-ups if they know a management-team member or division head is looking for a new role, says Mr. Horstman. This is because of the impact created at many companies by the resignation of top leaders. "But at the manager, low-level director or employee level, there's no responsibility," Mr. Horstman says.

Research on the reasons employees resign now indicates that most workers quit their bosses, not their companies, says Mr. Dailey. It also shows that the best relationships between employers and employees are like those in a good marriage; to not look elsewhere, employees need to be highly satisfied, committed and engaged with their companies, he says. Employees often become high performers when both sides work to maintain a strong relationship, Mr. Dailey adds.

Dissatisfaction with a company may start long before employees start listening to outside offers, says Mr. Dailey. This leads to less commitment and engagement, which can result in job hunting. Often the strongest performers are the first to leave, and, he adds, once an employee interviews elsewhere, studies show he or she usually will resign within a year.

Managers need to constantly monitor their direct reports to ensure that the relationship remains mutually beneficial. "It means doing that day-to-day boring management task of staying in touch with people," says Mr. Horstman.

Mr. Dailey says if an employee told him a co-worker was job hunting, he couldn't do much with the information. The company would have no reason to fire a good performer suspected of talking with other employers, and offering a bonus or a counteroffer sends a poor message to other employees, who might want the same treatment, he notes.

That employees consider outside opportunities is healthy because it means they are taking responsibility for their careers. It also forces companies to ensure that employees remain fully engaged in their jobs, he says.

Employees who approach their managers with information about co-workers who are looking also may be revealing their true colors. "If you think you'll curry favor, you are mistaken," says Mr. Horstman. "The boss now knows what kind of character you have."

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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