WWYD — Applying to a New Job From a Job You Still Kinda Like

So I am two years into my first real, official, post-college big kid job. I like the job, and have learned a lot from it, but advancement potential is limited so the search has begun for job number 2. I am casually looking, seeing what is out there and only really applying to potential perfect/dream job. The problem is that a lot of these places require references, and my references that apply to relevant job experience are all at my current job. I don’t know what to do! I know using references without informing them is obviously not a great call, but it is awkward to inform supervisors and coworkers that I am using them as a reference … and am therefore thinking about leaving. If I was seriously looking, with a distinct timeline and real reason beyond “I’m ready to move on! Kind of. Eventually.” I might be more comfortable doing it. To be honest, more money would keep me here longer, though I have asked for a raise and been denied due to vague “financial issues.” (The raise request was legitimate — I permanently took on a departing coworkers duties in addition to my own, and my supervisor advocated for me. Some shady HR business went down involving fudging my job duties to prevent me from getting a title change or raise — not great). I don’t want threatening to leave to be seen as a ploy to get more money, and I don’t think of it that way! I just need a change.

To complicate things further, there have been several dramatic departures from my place of employment (6 people, a quarter of our staff) in the past few months. Everyone is stretched thin, and if I was to leave, that would stretch everyone further. I doubt that any of my references would sabotage me, but I’m sure that they aren’t in the mood to provide me with a glowing reference. And if I do stay, it is awkward for people to know that I might not want to be there. The departures also makes a raise seem more likely — fewer staff to pay and we are all doing more work for at least 6 months until the jobs are filled. What do I do? Ask for another raise first? Do I apply to the jobs and tell them to contact me for references, so I’ll know if they are serious or not? Do I just use my previous references-from college and nannying jobs? Or should I just bite the bullet and tell my references that I am casually looking? Help!

Dear Casually Looking,

First of all, you’ve done a lot of things right, so CONGRATULATIONS and take a deep breath. You’ve gotten a job out of college. Yay! You’ve stayed in it about two years. Amazing! Two years for a Millennial is like five for a member of Generation X. You’ve taken on more work and asked for a raise when you felt you deserved it. That is some pro-level stuff. Now, you’re looking to move on, in part because your legitimate request for a raise was declined. That’s fair and — considering the fact that it seems like your place of employment is in a state of disarray — even wise. But who do you list as a reference?

You’re correct that you shouldn’t give contact info for anyone unless you’ve spoken to them in advance, secured permission, and ideally gotten a sense of what they plan to say about you. The same advice is underlined here. Also, try to make sure they’re reliable. I had a professor in college I loved; she was smart, passionate, and knew me and my work better than anyone. But she was flakier than a head full of dandruff, and for my own peace of mind I should have bypassed her charm for someone else’s reliability.

Speaking of professors, if you’re only a couple of years out of college, consider getting in touch with one of the instructors you were close to. Perhaps they could serve as a character reference. Old employers, like the person you nannied for, are also good options. Be creative. Do you volunteer anywhere? Have you taken any classes? All “references” really need to be are well-spoken people who have insight into your abilities and can describe you as a strong potential employee.

Then offer to provide a list of current references at your place of employment upon request. Usually when HR gets ready to check references, it is because your odds are 1:2 or 1:3 of landing the gig. Sometimes it’s even merely a formality. If you get to that point, then you can sit down with your direct boss and explain that you are exploring your options.

The key thing here is that there is nothing wrong with what you are doing. Believe me, I know what it’s like to feel loyal to an office. In my four years at my last job, I watched so many people come and go that I kept a list. I felt proud for sticking it out — and even more proud for becoming somewhat invaluable as a repository of institutional memory and all that. BUT. But! Have you really not gotten a raise or a title bump in two years, even though you have taken on more responsibility? Though of course every situation is different, it sounds a bit like this office might be taking advantage of your youth and inexperience.

Even if you were being treated royally, though, you would still be absolutely within your rights to keep looking around. It’s even advisable to keep your eyes and smartphone apps open and your resume up to date. (Always! Be prepared!) Your coworkers and supervisors will expect it. Also normal and expected: if you do get an offer, bring the offer to your current supervisors to see if they can match it. Maybe they will, in which case, mazel tov! You can stay if that’s worth it to you.

If you still want to go, though, feel free to go. You’re young! It can be useful to try different work environments while you’re still footloose and fancy-free. Yes, we’re in a recession; you shouldn’t flit around just for the sake of it. But you seem like a very stable and responsible person. Give yourself the liberty to experiment. Later on, when you have more encumbrances — a mortgage, a baby, a sick parent — you can settle and/or settle down. For now, give yourself a new mantra, like a Corleone: it’s not personal. It’s business.

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