10 tips for job hunting while you’re still employed

Finding a new job while you’re still employed is a tricky prospect. On one hand, you’re more attractive to potential employers if you already have a job. On the other, one false move and you could end up being fired or, at the very least, sully your reputation in the marketplace. Here’s how to best conduct a job search while you’re still employed. 

1. Explore options where you are

First, consider why you’re thinking of leaving, and explore options for improving your situation where you are, says Jayne Mattson, senior vice president of Keystone Associates. 

Doing so will depend on the level of trust that exists between you and your manager; don’t go overboard and start telling everyone at the office, she adds.

“You can initiate these conversations with people inside your company, but it has to be people you really, truly trust. It has to be someone whose integrity you’re sure of, who can help you navigate a lateral or an upward move while keeping it close to the vest,” Mattson says.  

"Talk about what may be frustrating you at work, and determine if there are things that can be changed to make your issues better,” says Chad Lilly, director of recruiting at Maestro Health.

“If you want to move locations, it may be better to talk about that with your boss, as the company may want to discuss remote working options,” he says. The bottom line is: Make sure your current role can't be salvaged before you jump ship entirely. Could you transfer? Change departments or work remotely? Is there something you can do to make your current work situation more enjoyable and rewarding? 

If the answer is no, then by all means go, says Roy West, CEO of The Roy West Companies and senior scientist at Gallup. “You should go quietly, gracefully, swiftly and never look back,” West says. “If you are not currently working for someone who clearly understands that your growth and their growth [boss/organization] is an implied contract and common goal, then you are compelled to find one that does and will," says West.

2. Consider being a boomerang

If you left a previous job on good terms, it’s definitely worth getting in touch with former coworkers to see whether there are new opportunities available. You won't need as much time for onboarding, are already familiar with the company's technology and culture and can often contribute much more quickly, says Vicki Salemi, author, consultant and careers expert for Monster.com.

"Companies are now a revolving door — and that's a good thing. Rehiring boomerangs decreases time to fill and our time to onboard. Companies already have 'intel' on former employees, so they can look back and say, 'Oh, this person was wonderful; maybe now they're more senior, or they have new skills or better experience they can contribute here,'" Salemi says.

You also can “boomerang” with companies that didn’t hire you, says Mattson. If you’d interviewed with an organization in the past, or received an offer and turned it down, it’s worth revisiting those connections.

“Go back and say, ‘I’m actually exploring other options now, and I was really impressed with you and your organization. I’d love to catch up and see what’s been going on since we last spoke,’” Mattson says.

3. Time is on your side

If you’re trying to land a job while you’re still employed, you need to minimize the competition for available roles; that means getting the timing of your job search exactly right, says Doug Schade, principal consultant in the software technology search division of WinterWyman. Late summer is a great time to launch your search, he says, as the number of available roles stays pretty constant, but the number of active job seekers drops. 

“August, in particular, is a great time to begin looking,” Schade says. “Many people wait until September to get searching in earnest; they wait until their summer vacations are over and their kids are back in school. So, August is the perfect time to get a jumpstart on a new job,” Schade says.

4. Keep your job hunt on the down low

It's never smart to lie to your boss, but it may be a necessary evil if you want to hold onto your current job. Some companies’ policy is to let go of people who are actively searching for a new job. So keep your job hunt on a need-to-know basis.

"In general, it is good practice to keep your job search quiet. You really have to trust the relationship you have with your boss to divulge this information," says Lilly. In fact, Lilly says, it's probably not wise to share your intentions with anyone you work with. One misstep from a friendly coworker could mean a pink slip or damage your reputation with the company.

Donald Burns, executive career strategist and coach, agrees: "Absolutely do not tell your boss — doing so will compromise your most valuable asset, namely, your current employment. As soon as the company discovers you're looking, they will start looking for your replacement. Your job is probably toast. You've 'crossed the Rubicon' and there's no going back," says Burns. Knowing the company culture on this matter will help make a decision on which path to take.

If your boss asks you if you are looking, don't lie. "It may be best to be straightforward with your employer. You are at risk of being let go in this situation, depending on your past performance and standing with the company," says Lilly.

That said, there are some ways to spin it, according to the experts: "One way to handle it is by saying, ‘Lots of changes are happening here lately. I don't want to leave, but I'm a little nervous and just thinking about Plan B,’" Burns says.

5. Don't use company resources

Conducting your job search on your current company’s time or dime is never a good idea. During office hours, your current job should be your primary focus. Underperforming will surely tip off your boss and colleagues that something is going on. It's unethical and disrespectful, and not likely to garner a great recommendation from your present company when the time comes.  

It’s also a good way to get caught, or at least get the rumor mill grinding, says Lilly. "If your employer finds out, then they can start looking for your replacement and fire you before you are ready to go. It also hurts your productivity, and that of the rest of your team; you start holding back on committing to new work because you don’t want to leave in the middle of a project," says Lilly.

Recruiters understand discretion is often part of the process, and are willing to do what they can to keep things discreet. "If you are upfront with the recruiter, they will do what they can to help, including setting up meetings or calls during off-hours or over lunch,” Lilly says. One tip he offers: List specific times when it’s best to reach you on your resume.

That includes not using company email addresses or your current work phone number. One inopportune phone call or email can jeopardize your current role. Plus, using a work email address for your social media accounts can get you locked out of your profiles when you do leave and your old email address gets shut down or redirected.

6. Be social

Social media can be a job seeker’s best friend, if you know how to leverage it correctly, Schade says. LinkedIn should be your first stop, but don’t make the mistake of updating your professional profile only when you’re looking for a new role — that’s a dead giveaway.

“Ideally, you should be updating LinkedIn constantly; it’s a living, breathing document that shows potential employers what you’ve been working on and what your value is,” Schade says. “Unlike other social media and social networking sites, it has the added advantage of being viewed positively by your employer. They want you to be updating it and adding to it, because it can reflect positively on them,” Schade says.

But remember, if you’re updating your LinkedIn profile substantially in hopes of finding a new job at a different company, you need to take some precautions, says Mattson, as it can tip off your current employer.

“Turn off your public notifications. That way, your current employer won’t see if you’ve changed your status to ‘open to new job possibilities,’ or notice that you’re doing a major overhaul, which can signal to them that you’re thinking of jumping ship,” Mattson says.

7. Network

Network, network, network. The majority of employers feel that referrals from their current employees make the best hires, so reach out frequently to friends, family and former colleagues to find out what roles are available at their companies, Mattson says.

While networking can be tough if you’re currently juggling a full-time job, there are ways to make it work, she says. “Try scheduling early morning coffee dates, either in person or via Skype or FaceTime, for instance. Or meet for lunch, dinner or drinks to talk about opportunities,” she says.

You also should research to see if professional organizations or companies are holding networking events or career fairs in your area, Schade says.

8. Don’t be careless with your resume

Be selective about who you give your resume to, and explain to those recipients that your job search is confidential. "Spamming your resume at any time is bad business,” West says, but especially when you’re currently employed. “It does not work, and if you are currently employed, you are easily ferreted out when you respond to online inquiries. Even providing your resume to be privately circulated is a risk. There are no secrets," says West, so be incredibly selective.

9. Don't get negative

Regardless of your situation, bad-mouthing your company or superior isn't going to get you a new job — it’s a major red flag for hiring managers and recruiters. It's important in the interview to remain positive and focused on what you bring to the table.

"Tell them the truth," says Burns, but put a positive — or at least neutral — spin on things. "Something changed at the company, or you've reached a point where you've gone as far as you can go and can't spend years waiting for a promotion. Make sure you never even hint at anything negative about your current employer. I've met people who claim to understand this rule, but let negative things slip during interviews," says Burns.

"You should avoid bashing at all costs even if your boss is the reason for your leaving. Interviewees should think of something positive to say, or keep comments very general and shift the conversation to a positive about your performance," says Lilly.

10. How to handle references

Accidentally using your current boss or supervisor as a reference likely won't sit well with them if they get blind-sided by a potential employer’s phone call. References should be given upon request only, according to West, and even then, done with the express caveat that your job search is confidential for the time being.

"You should have three solid references from different employers," Lilly says. “Use someone from your current place of employment if you trust them not to leak, or if they have left the organization recently."

For whatever psychological or analytic reason, employers prefer to hire someone who is currently working. "You are perceived as more desirable by potential employers and you are in a stronger negotiating position. In fact, some employers harbor a 'secret' bias against hiring unemployed people," says Burns.

"The advantage is the perception that someone wants [that candidate],” Lilly says. “An unemployed candidate will only have an advantage if the position really needs to be filled immediately and he/she has the right skills." So, if you're currently working but thinking about moving on, make sure you've done all your homework and are putting yourself in the best position to get the job you want before leaving.