Caught in the Act!

One day in 2002, Neil Moodley was bored at work. To idle his curiosity, he decided to check out a few Web sites to see what other jobs were out there. The next thing he knew, his boss's voice was behind him asking if he was "off to sunnier climes."

"I panicked -- no doubt about it. First I swiveled my chair around to try and futilely hide my screen. Then I tried to cover up by claiming I was researching jobs for a friend," Moodley recalls. "The exit interview a few months later when I did actually find a new job was somewhat awkward."

Whether you're bored, underpaid, overworked or all of the above, it's not uncommon for workers like Moodley to want to search for greener pastures. The problem comes when you're doing it at work.

With respect to your current employer, it might be OK to conduct a job hunt at work if your employer is actively downsizing and you've been told your job is not secure, says Lori Mattison, of Mattison Resources. What is not OK is if your job is safe and you're just looking for a better deal.

"During these economic times, those with secure jobs should be grateful and give 150 percent when they are at work. If employers get wind of a trusted employee looking for a better deal, you might put your job in jeopardy," Mattison says. "Don't forget the current pool of qualified applicants is huge at the moment; almost anyone is replaceable."

What not to say

You know that job searching at work is a bad move -- yet, you do it anyway. So the question is not whether it's right or wrong, but what exactly should you do or sayif you're caught red-handed?

What you don't do is laugh or launch into a list of grievances about your job. This is what happened when Dwayne Schweppes, a manager at a professional services company, caught an employee not job searching but interviewing at a nearby coffee shop.

"My issue was not that [the employee] was looking for another job -- far from it. I advised everyone who worked for me that they should do whatever they felt was necessary to improve their careers as long as they did it on their own time and maintained some discretion," he says. "The fact that [the employee] took neither precaution made it clear he was either aiming to throw his dissatisfaction in my face, or perhaps simply that he lacked any shred of common sense."

When Schweppes confronted the worker, he laughed at having been busted.

"As the conversation wore on, it became clear that he couldn't see the problem with what he had done or that his actions were an affront to the company and to his teammates. Far from being contrite, he launched into a litany of frustrations with his job," Schweppes says. "That sealed it. Later that day, the company parted ways with [the employee] on the grounds that we would have never been able to trust him again with a client assignment."

Is honesty the best policy?

If you're caught job searching at work, the situation doesn't have to end as badly as it did for Schweppes' employee.

Several years after he had been caught job searching at work himself, Moodley was a senior project manager at a software company when he found a direct report researching job sites. He remembered his own story and played the situation differently.

"I saw this as an opportunity to perhaps discover a problem with the work, company or culture that needed fixing. I made it clear [to the job hunter] that I didn't want to lose him ... but I respected that he had career ambitions of his own that he wanted to fulfill," Moodley says. "I asked him how I could help do that, even it meant arranging an interview with the company recruitment consultancy to find him the best possible job in another company."

Understandably, the employee was shocked by Moodley's reaction, but as he put it, "if [the employee] wanted to leave there was no point in trying to convince him to stay." Ultimately, the employee left but when he did, it was as a friend and an employee, he says.

Similarly, Doug Johnson, president of G.R. Johnson and Son Consulting, says he understands that employees may get dissatisfied or want more opportunity in their careers. As such, he instituted an open job-search policy as a manager and business owner. Employees were free to look for other work under two conditions: They used company time for company business unless they'd completed their work; and those job searching needed talk to him or another manager and tell them why.

"I would rather have them be honest with me about it than lie and hide what they're doing," Johnson says. "Let us know so we can see if there's something we can do to change your situation with us to keep you."

Such a policy created a positive work environment where workers felt they could be open and that they were cared about and valued.

"We ended up with a win-win situation: happy employees, harder-working employees, loyal employees," Johnson says.

What should you say?

The fact is, most employees expect their bosses to lash out or start a confrontation if they're caught looking for work elsewhere; their first instinct is to be on the defensive. What many job seekers don't realize is that many managers aren't upset that you're looking for other work but they do want to know why.

In fact, getting caught job hunting at work could totally work to your advantage if you play your cards right. If you're unhappy with your pay, don't like the work you're doing, feel under-appreciated or whatever the circumstances, it's the perfect opportunity to talk openly with your boss.

Any lie you tell will come back to haunt you and ruin your existing work relationships. If you're honest with your boss and end up continuing to work there, it's more likely that your manager will be able to not only trust you, but want to help you reach your career goals.

So what should you say if your boss catches you job searching at work? Simple: The truth.

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