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A reader wrote to me, explaining that they were unhappy in their current job situation, and queried how they might be able look for a new job without raising any red flags with their existing employer. Tricky, but I have a few thoughts, having done this a time or two over my career.
This is a preface, and has nothing to do with red flag raising. At the risk of sounding too zen, most of us are unhappy with our jobs on some level. Yes, very deep…seriously, though. That’s something to keep in mind as you look for greener pastures. Greener doesn’t always (or even usually) equate to “happiness” in my experience. That doesn’t mean you should just suck it up and stay if things aren’t good where you are. I’m just pointing out that where you land might not meet your expectations, either.
If you can learn to be content, that’s a pretty big deal.
Stuck In A Silo
This is also a preface to the red flag thing. I’m getting to that bit, I promise. But another issue to grapple with first is the difficult situation of being trapped by a highly structured environment.
Let’s say you’re an ambitious IT engineer working in some rigid workplace. Everyone has titles like IT Manager 4 and Junior Storage Engineer 2, with very specific responsibilities to match that HR keeps on file and reviews regularly. Teams are ordered in a particular way. Managers might get “manager cubicles” while peons like you get stuffed into the standard sized cattle pen all the other peons get. Communication between teams is probably discouraged unless you go through proper channels. Popping out of your hole and volunteering to help with anything isn’t rewarded, at least not in a positive way.
That situation can be tough. The people above you with seniority doubtless have privileges that you don’t and they aren’t going to make room for you to join them anytime soon. If they choose to stay in your way, there’s not much you can do about it. The corporate structure locks you into a specific role that you might not be able to go outside of at all, depending on how draconian the policies and processes are.
If your situation really is this grim — I’ve been in situations pretty close to this — I’ve got one suggestion that might help. Seek a mentor. The big idea is to see what you can learn by having another team member take you under his or her wing. It could be that you can grow your skills and find opportunity in this way. That can help you move through the difficult corporate environment when otherwise you’d go unnoticed or ignored.
That said, even if that were all to work out, making progress can take years, especially at big corporations with lots of structure. You might not be that patient.
Not Raising Red Flags
1. Would raising a red flag be a bad thing?
Personally, I think it’s unlikely a company would fire someone simply for looking around at other opportunities. The employee’s rationale is that an outraged manager will fly off the handle and fire an employee because they have the thankless audacity to see what else might be out there. Probably not. Let me explain.
Companies struggle to attract and retain employees. In IT, it is especially hard to find folks (at least I think it is). There’s a dearth of STEM talent out there. Let’s assume you’re not only a skilled employee, but also reliable, easy to get along with, not a problem for the company, etc. In that case, it’s more likely that your manager or maybe HR would try everything in their power to retain you. Again, hiring people is really, really hard. It’s definitely preferable for your company to keep you than replace you.
For what it’s worth, I’m speculating that many of you reading this are introverts. If so, the thought of a confrontational conversation with your manager or HR about why you’re unhappy horrifies you. That might be the real root of your “raising a red flag” fear — as opposed to getting fired.
2. Word of mouth is a low-key friend, but only if you’re smart.
These days, your best chance at finding a new gig is word of mouth. Tell people you know about the sort of job you’re looking for, and see what comes up. If done quietly, that should avoid the red flags. Don’t tell people inside your current company that you’re looking, unless you really don’t mind when word gets around. No matter how much you trust someone at the workplace, if you tell them you’re looking, eventually, everyone else will know. Because people.
3. A quiet word to your VAR can turn up some opportunities.
Another strategy is to mention to a VAR or reseller you work with that you’re looking. Because of the nature of their business, they know lots of other companies in your area and may have heard about an opening. Play that one carefully if the VAR employee you’re speaking to is your boss’ best friend. But oftentimes, a quiet word to the right person will result in respectful treatment of your situation. A wink and a nod. Sometimes, the VAR themselves might have an internal engineering position open.
4. Use LinkedIn, but don’t advertise your seeker status there.
LinkedIn has become the social media platform of choice for job seekers and business networkers. Some use LI more than others, to be sure. From my perspective, I’m simply astonished at how much use LinkedIn gets from the people in my LI network. Clearly, LinkedIn is a tool job seekers should take advantage of. LinkedIn is right in the middle of the employment action, and you can get a lot of seeking done there for free.
Now, you don’t want to post to your profile, “HEY WORLD! I’M LOOKING!!” That said, I don’t think there’s harm in contacting recruiters when there’s a job posting that interests you. I have worked with many recruiters over the years. For the most part, recruiters are cognizant of red flags. They understand that moving between employers can be an awkward subject. This is one reason why many job applications ask, “Okay to contact?” when you list former employers. A good recruiter is not going to out you by checking your references without checking with you first.
Work It Out If You Can
Recognize that when you leave a company, it is often hard on your employer. Therefore, they have incentive to try to work things out with you. You, as the employee, are in the position of power, believe it or not. Sometimes, you have to do what you have to do. I get that. I’ve done that, in fact — left an employer because I couldn’t handle the situation any longer. But I’ve left two different ways. In my younger days, I’ve just found a new job, handed in my resignation to the old one, and walked out the door two weeks later. No warning. No discussion. Nothing. I was just gone. That’s a lousy thing to do, unless the employer has really, really done you wrong (lied to you, asked you to do dishonest things, missed payroll without telling you, etc.)
A far better, and dare I say more mature, approach is to try to work it out. Go through the proper channels. Raise the issues with your manager. If your manager is the problem (as you see it), get counsel from HR about how to handle the situation. In other words, make an attempt to improve the working situation. You still might end up leaving, but you can take comfort that at least you tried. And just maybe, things work out for the better. That’s a happy day for everyone.
Ethan Banks writes & podcasts about IT, new media, and personal tech.
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