Maybe your co-worker accidentally let the cat out of the bag. (It happens.) Maybe your interviewer happens to be your boss’ brother. (It’s a small world.) Maybe you left your resume in the office printer. (Wait, seriously?)
In any case, your boss has gotten wind that your last few “doctor’s appointments” have actually been interviews. And now you’ve found yourself face-to-face with her in a closed-door meeting, being asked, “So, I hear you’re looking for a new job. Is that true?”
Now, while this sounds like an expletive-inducing situation, let me assure you that many an employee has walked out of these meetings unscathed (and with employment in tact). In fact, I am one of them. And while those meetings certainly weren’t fun (yes, this happened to me twice), they both ended far better than you might think. Here’s my advice when you’re caught red-handed.
Repeat after me: Do not lie. Yes, you can sugar-coat the truth (more on that later), and you can certainly laugh the question off during water cooler chats with your nosy co-workers, but if you’re in a one-on-one situation with your boss, don’t even attempt some version of “What are you talking about? I would never consider leaving the company!”
For one, you’re not as sly as you think you are (sorry), especially if your boss has any kind of intel that you’ve been job hunting. Plus, the truth is you are considering leaving the company, and you probably will—soon. And you probably still want your boss to be a reference.
That said, I don’t advocate sharing the whole truth, either. (There’s something about “Yes, I’ve been looking for six months and will throw a party the day I get out of here” that just doesn’t sit well with people.)
Whether you’ve just been updating your resume or you’re on interview #3 with your dream company, a broad, simple statement like, “To be honest, I have been looking around a bit…” works best. But it’s the next step that’s most important—which, ideally, you’ll get to before pausing to let your boss get a word in.
Follow Up With the “Why”
Now, after you’ve dropped the bomb that your boss isn’t the person you want to spend the rest of your career with, it’s important to qualify that statement. Not only to cover your ass, but to open up a conversation. Here are a few options:
“… because I'm moving (or changing careers).”
The first time I had this conversation with my boss, this was my scenario. I was planning to move across the country for a relationship, so I was looking for a new job, but I hadn’t broken the news to my boss yet. But, when she confronted me (after I had apparently taken one too many long weekends), I told her the truth. And you know what? She was happy for me—and she gave me a job lead and an offer to serve as a reference.
Along similar lines, if you want to work in a different field entirely, share that with your boss. It’s the “It’s not you, it’s me” line for your career—except that it often works. Saying, “I’ve learned so much from this job, and I love working with you, but I’ve decided I want to transition from finance to marketing” will definitely soften the blow to your boss.
“... because I’m worried about my job security.”
I’ve used this line, too—because it was (mostly) true. Our division was going through a major restructuring, and wasn’t sure quite what my job would look like (or who I would be working for) when things shook out.
If you’re looking for a new job because your company or department is going through any kind of hard times, restructuring, or other turmoil, be honest with your boss. Elaborate that you know what’s been going on, and that while you love your job, it makes you nervous that you may be unemployed. Hence, you’re putting your feelers out there.
Hopefully, your boss will then take the opportunity to open up to you, too—and either assure you that you’re not going to lose your job, or give you some inside scoop that makes you really glad you’re looking. Either way, you’re covering your bases.
“… because I want to advance my career.”
A friend of mine used this line once, and it actually earned her a promotion. She had been told that the company didn’t have the resources to promote her or give her a raise, so she started looking for her next move (obviously). A few months later, her boss asked her if she was job hunting, and she was honest—she was ready to move up, and if she couldn’t do it at her current company, she needed to go elsewhere. Turns out, her company didn’t want to lose her—so they gave her a new project, a new title, and a $10,000 raise. (Funny how they found that money somewhere.)
Assuming you would be open to staying at your current job, having this conversation is actually a great way to ask your current boss for more responsibility (and money). Try, “I’m looking for a role where I’d have the opportunity to manage a team, and if that opportunity was available here, I would be thrilled.” Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t, but you’ve explained that you’re job hunting for a reason no one could fault you for.
“… because I had an interesting opportunity come up.”
Alright, so, what if you’re not moving or changing careers—you’re simply looking for a new job that doesn’t include working for your horrible boss? That’s tougher, but you can try something to the effect of, “You know, a friend recommended me for a position, and I thought it would be interesting to learn more.” Then add, “but it’s not quite a fit” to avoid follow-up questions—no need to let your boss know you’re secretly hoping for a second interview. And if it turns out you get the job? As you put in your two weeks notice, just say it was an offer you couldn’t refuse.
Make Your Commitment Clear
Now, hopefully the conversation has gone well, but the wrap-up will inevitably be a little awkward—after all, your boss now knows you’ve got one foot out the door. The best thing you can do at this point is to thank your boss for allowing you to be open, then assure her that you’re fully committed to your role and to doing the best job possible. More importantly, prove it. Come in early or stay late. Make sure your work is primo quality. Don’t check out. And cool it on the interviews for a couple weeks (or at least schedule them for after hours).
Now, I do realize that this approach won’t work for everyone. Namely, if you’re in a situation where you’ve gone against company policy (again, no resumes on the printer) or you have a competitive, bullying, or otherwise terrible boss. In either case, being open and honest could definitely backfire and make your 9-to-5 pretty miserable. But then again—maybe that’s just the push you need to really get out of there.