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I've been in meetings all week with my small company's owners, planning a big project for which I am a critical resource. However, meanwhile I'm looking for a job.

My company has pretty low turnover and has a hard time hiring people so I know when I leave this will put them in a lurch. But I don't know how long it will take to find the right new place, so in the meantime I don't want it to be awkward.

Do I need to tell them about my job search given what's at stake for them?

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Are you worried that you will get a bad reference, that you will cause harm to your current company, or that you will not have a place to come back to if the new job does not work out? –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Feb 7 '13 at 21:54
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Like in a game of poker, never reveal your hand. –  DA. Feb 7 '13 at 22:04
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All but the lowest stratum of employees always have an eye out for a new opportunity! Just as every employer always is always considering ways to do more work with fewer employees. Both are being perfectly reasonable. –  Jim In Texas Feb 7 '13 at 23:16
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@Chad some people actually DO care about what happens to employers even if they're no longer working for them. –  Amy Blankenship Feb 8 '13 at 4:46

11 Answers 11

Please don't tell them about your job search. I have witnessed this backfire. Just a few years ago, a person I knew worked for a small organization which had grand plans for her future. She let them know that she was looking into another job, and they promptly fired her and hired a replacement.

Their rationale makes perfect sense from a business standpoint: they needed someone they could depend on to run the project, and that person would need some time to be brought up to speed beforehand, so moving quickly was in their best interests.

The person they fired, however, ended up not getting the new job and was completely screwed by her attempt to be nice. Don't put the needs of the business before your own.

ETA: Maybe I should specify that by organization I actually mean a non-profit. So it was a group you might expect to be extra nice towards their employees. However they still had to consider their mission and what they needed to fulfill it, so...

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I think this story could just as easy happen at a for-profit company as well. –  Andy Feb 8 '13 at 0:50
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Don't put the needs of the business before your own.. +1 –  Matthew Azkimov Feb 8 '13 at 1:01
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"Their rationale makes perfect sense from a business standpoint" <- no it doesn't. If you crunch the numbers, sure you are maximising the profit. But get this. You f*** over your employees, they will f*** you over. What goes around comes around. –  Sleeper Smith Feb 8 '13 at 1:40
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I suspect the answer may depend on the legislation of the country. Some countries have much stronger protection against being fired than others. –  gerrit Feb 8 '13 at 9:03
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In the UK or EU this would be easy grounds for unfair dismissal - you could take them to the cleaners in count. However they will still sideline you until there's a defensible reason to make you redundant, which often takes years. –  Keith Feb 8 '13 at 13:30

No. It's the responsibility of the company to take whatever steps they deem necessary to ensure that one person doesn't become so critical that the company can't function without him.

That said, if you are a critical resource, have you had a conversation with your boss about whatever is causing you to look for another position to determine whether there is something they can do to make you happier in your current position? From a negotiating standpoint, your leverage probably won't ever be higher than it is now. And from the company's standpoint, it is likely to be far more efficient to give you whatever you need to be happy rather than trying to replace you in the middle of the project.

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yes, we have conversed many times over years. the thing is the only thing that would make me stay at this point is if the company started making more money and doing more exciting things, so that i had room to grow. sadly they are headed exactly the opposite direction, in ways i have no control or influence in apparently, despite years of trying.... –  zipquincy Feb 7 '13 at 23:29
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Years?. Stop wasting your time. It's not your company. Own your life and future. Be polite and let the things flow. –  Matthew Azkimov Feb 8 '13 at 0:59

No.

Look at it the other way round. If they knew that you were planning a big life change (marriage, children), would that stop them making you redundant or reduce your hours if they needed to cut back to keep the company afloat?

I'm pretty sure the answer would be that they wouldn't. The first you would hear about it would be when they called you in to tell you that starting next month you were only on 20 hours a week (or whatever).

Keep working as though you are going to stay with the company - after all you might have to if you can't find another job. When you do find another job give as much notice as you can, but don't jeopardise the new job by trying to "be kind" to your current employer.

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Don't tell them that you're looking for a new job.

Tell them the reasons why you feel the need to look.

Tell them what you're unhappy with, what could be better and what you would really like to see change.

Set up a meeting specifically about this or put it in writing. Make sure that they can't ignore that you're unhappy with the status quo.

This makes the discussion about the things that might actually keep you, and avoids getting into ultimatums (which you never want to make in work) or battles of egos. You want to give them a way to 'win' without losing face.

Then if they don't fix what you asked them to then when you find a new job you're not "leaving them in the lurch" because you already told them what needed to do better.

Note that all that's assuming that they could make changes that will keep you. If you're emigrating or something (though many companies could cope with very remote workers better than they realise) then just tell them and offer to help succession planning - most replacements take significantly longer to find and train than most notice periods.

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Good Idea to focus on the REASON why you are looking for a new job, and try to get those reasons fixed in your current job. Then at least if you still decide to change to a new job, your reasons will be familiar to the team, and it will be their responsibility to rationalize any awkward feelings should they come up. –  Rafael Cichocki Jan 29 at 12:52

If this were a larger company, the "it's their problem, not yours" approach would be reasonable; it's their responsibility to plan for things like this. But in a small company, particularly a close-knit one, this can be hard -- you protect yourself and then surprise them with your resignation, they feel blindsided, you burn bridges... awkward.

But telling them you're looking also isn't good; you don't know what your timeline is, things could change and you end up staying, but they'll always be suspicious.

There are two things that seem reasonble to me (from the perspective of someone who's worked at several small companies and seen the close-knit dynamic at play):

  1. As Justin said, you should be discussing with them the things that are making you want to look elsewhere. Maybe you can address that and not have to leave.

  2. Approach the general problem: "Boss, with all the exciting work we're doing that seems to depend on specific people, I'm worried about what would happen if any of us got hit by a bus. What can we do about that?" Sure, if it's later revealed that you knew that bus's trajectory they may be unhappy, but you'll have at least tried to plan for it. That'll count for something if any of them are ever asked about you -- and if you work in a small professional circle, that's something to be mindful of.

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Wow. As a business owner I'm surprised at the apparent absence of a sense of personal integrity in these answers. Should the OP tell his employer he's on his way out the door? Probably not. Should he have a "not my problem" attitude toward the company that has fed his family for the past however many years? Absolutely not.

Small businesses don't have the luxury of abundant resources that allow for backups to key employees. We rely on the loyalty and integrity of our employees to conduct themselves in a manner that balances the interest of the company with their personal interests. That means that if you're unhappy and considering leaving, talk to your employer about your concerns.

It also means that if you end up leaving, especially if it's not due to problems in the workplace (i.e. you got the proverbial offer you couldn't refuse), you structure your departure in such a way as not to leave your employer in a lurch. Maybe that's a transition out over four to six weeks, maybe it's offering your services after hours as a contractor for a period of time. In either case, the right thing to do is to offer everything in your power to minimize the disruption of your departure.

You should consider that if this is indeed a small company that has challenges finding talent, your abrupt departure could endanger the organization and your current colleagues.

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Telling them now, invites them to worry about your commitment. That means that they will start thinking of you as a short timer.

When a decent offer comes in then decide if you want to switch or not. That decent offer could be in a day. a month or a year. If it a perfect offer take it, if not you can reject it if the situation with your current company is good.

Now would be the time to discuss your future with the company. Ask what happens in a year if the project is a success. Ask what success means. Ask if success will result in raise, promotion, or some other benefit. Though they generally won't put this in writing it will let you know what they are willing to discuss, and it will let them know that you are expecting some reward.

As you move forward you can add into your calculus the promise of the reward for a job well done.

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No. As long as you are doing the job you are paid to do, and don't have something else lined up, you don't have any obligation to tell them about the possibility of your departure.

While it is great that you want to do what is best for them, always remember that the employer/employee relationship is primarily a business relationship, not a personal relationship. You are not obligated to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of your employer.

When the time comes to leave, be as helpful as you can be, and don't feel guilty. If your employers express any outrage or feelings of betrayal, that would be unprofessional of them.

FWIW, when I quit my first job, I thought I was critical to their success and that they would have a hard time without me. Somehow, they survived.

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TLDR; they should already know that you are probably looking without you having to explicitly state it.

If you're unhappy with your current job then they should know that by now. If you've already expressed what you are looking for in a job, and how you feel your current position doesn't fulfill that need, then they know you are dissatisfied with your current position. If you feel you are not progressing towards what you would like out of your job they should know that by now.

If they don't know that by now, then you haven't communicated clearly enough with your employers to try to make the most of your current employment. Instead of simply moving on to try to "fix it" yourself, you need to make it clear what the issue is first. If they don't know the problem, they can't solve it (or even try).

If they DO know the issues you have with your current employment, and they haven't been able to address it, then they know (at least in the back of their minds) that they are at risk of losing you.

By explicitly stating that you are looking for another job in essence expresses to them, that you've completely given up on reaching your goals at their company. As a result, they will give up on you and you then have no other choice but to find another job.

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What about approaching it from a different direction? Fulfill both your own need to protect your interests and look out for your current employers future operations without you by suggesting that such a large project should not be so dependent on a single person. Someone commented on the 'bus factor'....this is along those lines.

Suggest that another person be hired/contracted for that project to help with engineering problems, share workload, maybe ship the new product faster? Unless it's a /really/ small company or in a hard financial situation, I would assume they could afford to find a part time contractor (this sort of describes what I do) who could devote enough time to be familiar with the project, that when you leave, you could comfortably turn the work over to them without having to train someone from scratch in the 2 weeks/1 month/whatever you notice was for.

Another possibility, are you in an area where you could find an intern who might just want the experience and to be involved in a meaningful project? This would help your company with potentially lower financial investment, and if the intern worked out, they could have potentially already found their "new hire" after you leave, and it helps the intern gain experience.

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This is a relationship question, so those of us who don't know you or your management personally can only give general suggestions.

I have had one boss who had the kind of relationship where he wanted to know if I was looking, and even asked how my interview went before I ultimately left. He also took my request for a raise up with the VP, and told me honestly that I probably wouldn't get it, because (during the recession) the top management thought we should just be grateful to have a job.

If you have an honest trusting relationship, you might even be able to work something out where you agree to stay through the end of the project, or long enough to bring your replacement up to speed, or agree to work a few hours a week as a contractor after you leave...

Sadly, many companies and many managers are not that way. The advice to keep it to yourself is probably the best advice if you don't completely trust them. You may look for a long time before you find what you want, or even ultimately decide to stay where you are.

My last piece of advice is to put your personal integrity first (Yes, even if it costs you your job). If you feel like you are being pushed to make commitments that you feel are not quite honest, find a way to make things right. You will be glad you did in the long run.

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