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My main gig is as a web developer in a company that builds web applications for a niche market, and about 90% of the market is split between us and another, considerably larger company. Recently I was approached by our competitor and although I work full time and am quite happy with my company, I'm technically a freelancer and wouldn't want to miss what could be a great networking / job opportunity.

The competing company is the parent of a group of companies, and they've approached me via one of their companies that don't directly compete with us, so at this point I can't even be certain that they want me to work on their competing application, or something completely unrelated.

At which point should I inform management that I'm taking a meeting with them? Before, after, or when (and if) I have a solid offer in my hands?

I have no legal/contractual obligations to inform my current company of anything (at least that's what my lawyer said when we discussed my contract for unrelated reasons).

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Is there anything you've signed (such as your contract) with your current company that might make this problematic? –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 16 '12 at 17:18
    
@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Ah, forgot to put that in, edited the question... (answer is no). –  Yannis Apr 16 '12 at 17:30
    
Nothing that specifically says you can't go and work with their competitors? I've heard that sort of clause is very standard in some places, but if you're sure it doesn't apply... –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 16 '12 at 17:31
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@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner It doesn't apply here, and even if it did it, I'm more interested in answers from a professionalism / etiquette perspective. This might be my current main gig, but I am a partner in two companies, and everything I sign is thoroughly reviewed by my lawyer (before I sign it, obviously ;), as there might be conflicts with any of my other activities. –  Yannis Apr 16 '12 at 17:35
    
Would this be additional work to what you do now? You talk of your current job as your "main gig" which implies you have other jobs/sources of income already. –  ChrisF Apr 16 '12 at 18:24
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3 Answers 3

Good question. The issue is the purpose of the meeting. There are some companies that under the guise of a job interview perform debriefs of competitor's employees so let's assume that it's a genuine job interview for the moment.

The question on when to inform your management that a competitor is attempting to contact you is actually a problem on how good is your relationship is with the management. If you have good relationship and you want to stay with the company you could inform them immediately just to say you have no interest in the company. On the other hand if you genuinely have no interest in the competitor you could simply refuse the meeting and not tell management at all.

There is another possibility and that is you do want to make a move. In this case you do not tell management at all. The industry especially in a close geographic area usually tend to have same people cycling between companies or have people from one company that had worked with managers from another company and depending on how vindictive they could be they could simply kill your chances of getting a job at a competitor out of spite. (Yeah it's been known to happen).

There is a 3rd possibility: You can potentially use the job offer from a competitor as leverage on your current contract to get a better compensation. In this case I would suggest holding off telling anyone until you have a concrete job offer in hand with better pay then your current one.

So in summary you should first decide what you want to do and then your actions will become clearer.

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While I admire the honor you wish to comport yourself with, you are in a strictly business relationship with your current source of income. Because they have not committed to you for any specific amount of time, you have no professional obligation to advise them at any point prior to your decision to end your business relationship.

If I were going to have discussions (directly or indirectly) with my current contact's competition I would make sure there is no appearance of impropriety. I would do so as a natural breaking point is about to occur, such as before an extension is offered, or likely to be offered. If at any point the discussion veers towards the unsavory(prying for business intel) I would terminate the meeting. The company is not going to respect you if you give them the secrets of your former employer even if you not you are obliged to keep them. And any company attempting to get them from you has no real intent to do right by you.

Once you have made the decision to leave, I would inform your current company with in the terms of your contract. I would not advise them of your intentions for the future beyond that they will not be included in them. Going to work for the competition will not engender good will. I would make certain that I left with good form and that my work was above expectations.

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That really depends on what you want out of it:

  1. Just to reiterate: make absolutely sure you haven't signed a non-disclosure, non-compete, confidentiality, IP protection agreement. These is VERY common, so I'd recommend to triple check.
  2. Be clear about your goal: do you want better conditions at your current gig, new gig, just gauge your market value, find out what's happening on the other side of the fence, nothing, etc. The specific goal will trigger specific actions.
  3. There is no specific need or etiquette that would require you to inform your current employer.
  4. Personally as a manager I would like to know either and I would view it as a big plus if you'd tell me. I shows trust, gives a chance to restructure the current job in a way that works better for you and, if all else fails, I have more more time to prepare. Not all managers are the same though, so this requires a judgment call.
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