When Do I Tell My Boss That I’m Applying to Other Jobs?

by Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern

Job searching while you have a job is a tricky thing to navigate. While it doesn’t feel good to be dishonest with your coworkers, you also don’t want them to think you’ve checked out — especially if you end up being there a while! The sad and uncomfortable truth is that it’s quite normal to have a period of deception while you hunt for other jobs and fake doctors appointments while you interview.

During that potentially quite long period of uncertainty, how much should you reveal about your intentions? When do you tell your boss that you’re leaving? We received a question from “Josie” about just this:

I’m applying for another job — when should I tell my current boss? I am trying to think of how to ask for the time off for the interview without being dishonest, and the new place would like to talk to my supervisor as part of the background check. So she will know before I get an offer most likely, but I am very nervous about telling her in case I end up having to stay. Should I be upfront and tell her about the interview and reference when I ask for the afternoon off or wait until after I interview to tell her about the forthcoming reference call?

In our response to Josie, we gave her the helpful “it depends” advice.

In Josie’s case, it specifically depends on her relationship with the boss: If she thinks that her boss would be her ally, even if this job didn’t work out and Josie decided to stay at her current job (while continuing to apply for other positions), then we ok’d telling the boss sooner and being honest.

But, realistically, it is probably the rare boss where this approach is possible. We generally recommend waiting as long as possible before telling a boss that you are interviewing. Unless you know that you are the final candidate for a new job (e.g. typically not until you’ve received an offer), it’s a significant risk to let a supervisor know you are looking. If it doesn’t work out, they will know you have at least one foot out the door. They may be hurt, angry, and protective, which could easily lead to them treating you like you’re already gone. It can make staying quite uncomfortable.

There are certainly exceptions to this, of course. I have a colleague who decided to make a significant career shift. He decided he wanted support doing this, so he gave our company three months notice and has been very open with his intentions. It’s certainly paid off; many people have passed along referrals and job listings.

We know that it doesn’t feel good to sneak out of the office to interview somewhere else. But we do think that this is one area that it’s ok to be a little dishonest. If you don’t want to outright lie, take the time off to interview as a personal day. When you do get an offer, give your organization as much notice as possible and to share the news with your boss respectfully. Make the transition for both of you as smooth as you can. By being considerate of their position and needs before you leave, you can make it easier for them to support you in your move.

Readers: What’s your approach to interviewing for new jobs? Total honesty with your boss, or a LOT of fake doctors appointments?

“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).

Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at smallanswers.us.

Photo: Alan Cleaver

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