my employer heard I was interviewing and confronted me

A reader writes:

I was approached by HR and my new supervisor last week during my lunch hour. She acknowledged that I have been doing excellent work for the last year and a half. HR explained to me that she received word that I went on an interview with another company and for that reason they have decided to post my position to eventually hire someone else. I was floored that they found out, but I did not deny the fact that I did indeed interview with another company. During the application process with this company, I did in fact request that my current employer NOT be contacted, but now that is all hindsight. What is even more troubling is that the company had no plans to hire me anyway, nor did I really consider leaving just yet.

HR also added other irksome statements to me saying that I “broke their trust,” “I failed to let them know I was unhappy,” “you’re calling off sick to interview,” and “I am requesting a two-week notice.” I defended my position by stating that I was actually quite happy with my role and that I haven’t made plans to go anywhere. I also defended my time off by stating that what I do on my days off is my business. When I call off sick – which is rare, it is because I am actually sick. The truth is that I used a vacation day to interview and it was approved in advance.

This conversation really got out of hand as they were both grilling me on specifics like “so what made you go to an interview?,” “did you use time off to go?,” and “how did the interview go?” Again, I reiterated my point: I do not have plans on leaving anywhere or anytime soon. I understand your concern but I will not be questioned on the specifics of my time off from here. If you post my position, I will consider this a direct threat and will make plans to leave.” I also asked was this the only single reason why they are considering posting my position – no answer. With that being said, they stated that they will let me know their final decision next week. I am pissed.

I understand that I work for an at-will employer, but this situation is clearly large assumption by them and they are reacting rather preemptively. I requested to speak to the CEO (who gave the directive). He told me that he will talk with me later. What’s your take on this? How would you handle this and come out a winner?

Ouch. This might not be salvageable, actually — that conversation sounds way too adversarial.

This is an area where your interests as an employee and their interests as your employer are in direct conflict. It’s (often) in your best interests to be able to look for another job without your employer knowing about it, but it’s in their best interests not to be blindsided when you leave and to be able to hire a replacement before you do.

Smart employers handle this by making it safe for employees to give generous notice periods. They create an environment where employees can speak up when they’re starting to think about moving on, because they know that they won’t be badgered or pushed out early — and as a result, those employers often get months of notice, which allows them to structure the hiring of the replacement so that the new person starts with a week or two of overlap with the exiting person, which both helps with training and eliminates the vacancy period they’d otherwise have. But more typically, employers don’t do that and so instead end up with just the standard few weeks of notice, which leaves them scrambling to cover the vacancy and rushing to hire. And that creates a situation where their interests and yours are at odds: You want to keep your job search secret, because you’ll be penalized for it, and they want to know about it in order to keep their business running as smoothy as possible.

Anyway, back to you. Your company didn’t handle this well — but, well, neither did you.

Let’s tackle them first: Accusing you of breaking their trust is over the top, and the whole interrogation was silly. They could have sat you down and said, “here’s what we heard, and we want to talk to you about what’s going on. Is there anything that’s driving you to search that we can address? And if not but you are thinking about leaving, we need to start planning for that.” Or they could have not mentioned what they heard at all, but still looked at ways to retain you (if you’re someone they care about retaining, which you may or may not be) and/or started planning for the possibility of you leaving sometime soon. (The last part isn’t necessarily great for you, but it’s certainly their prerogative to do and sometimes necessary.)

But you missed an opportunity to smooth things over. Saying things like “what I do on my days off is my business” and “if you post my position, I will consider this a direct threat” didn’t help the situation. That’s an adversarial posture, and while you may have been perfectly right on principle, you lost on politics. A response more likely to get an outcome in your favor would have been something like: “You know, I did interview. It fell in my lap and I figured there was nothing wrong with hearing them out. But I’m very happy working here, which I told them, and I’m not planning to leave.” (And I’d couple this with an understanding of why they might be concerned that you’re job searching after only a year and a half in the position.)

Once you’re at the point that you’re saying things to your manager like “if you do X, I will consider a direct threat,” the war has pretty much been lost.

Again, they were out of line. Not in bringing it up with you at all, and not in wanting to begin searching for your replacement if you’re about to leave, but in the way they talked to you about it. But your stance escalated things rather than defusing the situation.

As for what to do now, well, you can’t go back in time. You could initiate another conversation where you try to backtrack a bit — perhaps saying something like, “I was taken aback the other day and reacted more strongly than I should have. The reality is that I’m not actively searching and I’m very happy here and have no plans to leave.” However, I’d only say that if it’s basically true. If you say this and then leave in the next few months, it won’t reflect well on you (and will harm the relationship, possibly even burning the bridge somewhat — or at least charring it).

However this goes, though, I’m not sure your tenure there looks great. It’s going to depend a lot on the feel of your next conversations, so if you do want to stay there, I think your best bet is to be fairly conciliatory (whether or not you feel you should have to).

Some related posts:
what to do when you overhear an employee job-searching
can a prospective employer tip off my boss that I’m job-searching?
how much notice should you give when you resign?

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