my boss got involved in my conversations with another employer

A reader writes:

The person I used to work for called me from her current job and asked me to submit my resume for an opening. Unbeknownst to me, her boss called my boss and told him and that they were interested in having me come in for an interview and that I was probably the top candidate for the job. I only found this out when my boss came in and told me of the conversation and said that I was free to do what I want, but he personally thought it wasn’t the right move for me. (I work for a private high school, and this is one of our sister schools and my boss sits on the board of trustees there, so the two bosses know each other.)

I went on the first interview and second interviews and everything seemed to be going in the right direction. But then the boss at the new place called me and said that after “extended” conversations with my boss, he wasn’t comfortable bringing me in and asked that I voluntarily withdraw myself from the process. After that, the hiring manager at the new place called and asked me to reconsider because I was still the top candidate…?

First off, I’m not sure if there are any ethical or even legal implications in two bosses talking to one another about me and colluding to keep me in my current position, and secondly, should I confront my own boss about the incident or just gloss over it like nothing has happened?

There are a lot of separate issues here, so I’m going to separate them out into separate questions.

Is it okay that the two bosses talked to each other?

It’s very normal (and perfectly legal) that the two bosses talked, since they know each other. First, people frequently reach out to their contacts when they see that a job candidate worked for someone they know. It makes sense to get impressions from someone you know and trust when the opportunity is available, and it happens all the time. Second, in this case, there’s a good chance that he was concerned about preserving his relationship with your current manager and didn’t want your manager to think that they’d been going behind his back to recruit one of his employees away from him. That’s also normal.

What about the fact that they talked without checking to see if it was okay with you?

If you no longer worked for your current employer, and this was a prospective employer reaching out to a past employer, it’s 100% okay for them to do that without checking with you first. But in your case, you were still working there, and that does make it more of an issue — since alerting someone’s manager that they’re job-searching can in many cases jeopardize their current job. So ideally, he should have said to you, “We’re really interested in you but we feel we need to be transparent with your manager about the fact that we’re talking. Is it okay for us to talk to him about this?” There’s no legal requirement to do this; it’s just courtesy. (But it’s also a courtesy that isn’t always followed; it’s not that unusual that the other employer reached out to your boss without a heads-up to you.)

Is it okay for them to jointly decide that you should stay in your current job?

Well, we don’t know that that’s what happened. The manager at the other company told you that, based on conversations with your boss, he wasn’t comfortable hiring you. That probably doesn’t mean that they jointly reached a decision — it’s more likely to mean that he got the sense from your boss that it would strain their relationship if they hired you, which is his call to make.

Alternately, it could also mean that after talking to your boss, you felt that you weren’t the right fit for the job. The only way there’s anything wrong with that is if your boss was intentionally dishonest with him. But we have no evidence that that happened.

But isn’t it wrong that this all happened without you being part of the conversation?

Actually, none of this is too unusual: Someone considering you for a job happened to know your current manager, and talked with him about you. After that talk, he concluded that it wasn’t in his best interests to hire you (either to avoid tension with your current manager, or because he didn’t think you’re right for the job). So far, pretty normal — although really frustrating when you’re on the job-seeker side of it. You’re understandably thinking, “What the hell? I should be the one controlling my career decisions, and I don’t want people colluding behind my back to make them for me.” But on the prospective employer’s side, his hiring decisions have consequences in his own work life and on his own relationships, and it’s legitimate for him to factor in those consequences.

(However, two things are strange about all this: First, that the boss at the other company asked you to “voluntarily withdraw” from their hiring process. That’s weird. All he had to say was that they weren’t moving you forward in their process. He doesn’t need you to withdraw. Second, that the hiring manager there — who reports to him — asked you to reconsider. It sounds like they’re not communicating with each other at all.)

Should you confront your boss?

I don’t know that there’s anything to be gained from you talking to your boss about what happened. If he gave you a dishonest reference, you’d have a legitimate complaint, but we have no reason to think that happened. You could accuse him of standing in the way of you getting this job, but we don’t know that that happened either. It’s far more likely that the other guy simply determined he didn’t want to poach you from a colleague — and that happens all the time.

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