Career Advice, Interviews

What To Do If You’re Caught Interviewing at the Competition

It’s every currently-employed job seeker’s worst nightmare — getting caught red-handed seeking a job at a competitor. Try as you might to keep it on the down low, it can be difficult to avoid suspicion.

“When I was an in-house HR Manager, I could always tell when someone, especially of a manager level or higher, was interviewing or considering leaving the company. ‘Doctors and dentist appointments’ occur more frequently, a long lunch or two takes a few hours, or the need to arrive late or leave early begins to pop up,” says Christy Hopkins, Human Resources Consultant and Staff Writer at Fit Small Business.

Or maybe it’s simply in your demeanor.

“I could also tell in [employees’] work though,” Hopkins adds. “Employees who were normally passionate and engaged seemed quiet in meetings and lackluster in their work. Whenever I noticed the signs, I always pointed it out to their manager and left it up to them to bring it up or not. 9 times out of 10, I was right.”

But don’t worry — even though being caught might feel like the end of the world, it really isn’t. Hopkins shared a handful of steps that job seekers can take to mitigate the damage of being outed as an active job seeker. Here’s what you should do if you’re caught interviewing at the competition:

1. Breathe — It May Not Be As Bad As You Think

Sure, it seems bad now. But oftentimes, we get more worked up in stress-inducing situations than we need to — the reactions and consequences we imagine are often much worse in our heads than what actually end up occurring.

“From an HR standpoint, I never wanted someone to get in trouble,” Hopkins says. “The reason for pointing it out was to decide if hours on my side called for looking for candidates to potentially replace the person and preparing a job posting.”

So take some time to decompress — go for a walk, head home a little bit early to collect yourself, or even try to do some breathing exercises or meditation techniques. Above all, stay calm and know that this isn’t the end.

2. Have an Honest Discussion

Don’t feel like getting caught means you have to immediately bolt, Hopkins says. But it does mean that you should address it in some way — otherwise, it’ll be an uncomfortable elephant in the room for all parties involved. Ask to chat with your manager or HR to acknowledge why you’re seeking other opportunities. Are you unhappy with your current pay? Do you want to eembark on a different career path? Do you feel like you just need a change of pace? Depending on your circumstance, your current employer may be willing to accommodate certain requests if it means you staying.

“[It] might sound a bit crazy, [but] your openness and honesty will be appreciated and could even lead to a raise or promotion if that is why you are thinking of leaving,” Hopkins shares.

3. Consider Creating an Exit Plan

On the other hand, if you’re determined to move onto bigger and better things, don’t be afraid to let your employer know that. You can still come up with a plan together that’s mutually beneficial — they get a smoother transition between employees, and you get to leave on good terms (something that’s critical in securing future references).

“Perhaps you could create an exit strategy of 30, 60, or 90 days and leave without burning a bridge. Or you could help recruit your replacement and stay until your new job is lined up. I’ve seen many situations where then a monetary incentive is added onto the exit plan for the person to stay the full time,” Hopkins says.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Leave if It Gets Hostile

Unfortunately, though, you can’t always guarantee that an employer will take the news of your departure with grace — especially if you’ll be working with their direct competitor. If an environment becomes hostile, don’t feel pressured to stay longer than necessary. Your well-being should come first.

“I saw this once when I was working at a marketing firm as their HR Manager. The management team there was 6 people and they had learned one of their superstar account executives was interviewing with a competitor by hearing it through the grapevine. While they did not take action, they did hold [it] against this person and created a very hostile work environment. I felt that they would have been better off parting ways with the employee than the solution they came up with,” Hopkins shares.

Finding yourself out of work before you’re ready is certainly less than ideal, but there are ways you can reduce the financial strain. Consider picking up a side gig, working with a staffing agency, or negotiating a severance package as a starting point.

5. Be Careful of What You Share at Your New Role

If you decide to take a job at the competition, be careful — you may have insider knowledge of sensitive information and, depending on what you originally agreed to in the offer letter with your former company, you may not be allowed to divulge it.

Review your original offer letter to see what their policy is on non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements — it may state that you have to keep certain proprietary information (such as financial reports, communications, product design, etc.) private at the risk of facing legal action if it’s violated.

Starting a job is stressful enough. The last thing you need is concerns about a lawsuit hanging over your head, so read carefully!

6. Learn From Your Missteps

Once you’re finally through the thick of it, you can use your experience as a learning moment so that it doesn’t happen again. One of the best ways to ensure this, Hopkins says, is to leverage your vacation time.

“To the active job seekers who still currently have a job, remember to use your PTO leave for interviews as best as possible to avoid raising flags,” she says.

Beyond helping you keep your job search in stealth mode, it’s also the courteous thing to do for your colleagues. “When someone continually leaves early, arrives late, etc. because they are interviewing, they are usually stressing out their teammates and their manager. If you at least try to use PTO and plan accordingly, you won’t stress out the people that you probably are friends with and care about,” she concludes.

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