In tough economic times, best to look for a new job quietly

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 22, 2010

When Cheryl Palmer was looking for a new job a few years ago, she did not want her boss to know. Her employer had a very casual dress code, so "it would have been a big red flag to come in dressed in an interview suit," she recalled.

So Palmer carried her professional suit in her car and when she went to an interview, she changed clothes, often by ducking into a building at a nearby university.

These days, Palmer works as an executive career coach in Silver Spring. Her advice to job hunters: Be very cautious about sharing your plans to find new work, unless you're part of a wide downsizing or a whole department that is being eliminated. "Err on the side of caution. . . . Some things are better kept under wraps," she said.

Secret job searches are not uncommon. Almost four in 10 professionals say the recession has made them more likely to look for a new job, and 55 percent of job seekers in their 20s say they are likely to look for a new position or another career, according to a Robert Half International survey of 1,400 college graduates.

Employers know it; two-thirds say they're concerned about losing good managers, partly because it costs so much to hire and train successors, according to research by the Miles LeHane Cos.-OI Partners.

One tool for job seekers is a robust LinkedIn profile, which shows not only work history but recommendations and can highlight professional projects.

Many recruiters and hiring managers use LinkedIn as their candidate pool, and individuals use it as their professional calling card and connecting point. So it's crucial that your profile stands out and is impressive, crisp and engaging, Palmer said. Post a video showing you making a presentation at a convention. List the industry awards you have won. Give links to articles that showcase your successes.

Review others' profiles, especially those who might compete with you for jobs, and consider how they draw attention to their achievements and share their ways of thinking about their work.

LinkedIn has become so important to job searches that there are many classes and seminars offered on using it effectively. Check LinkedIn for webinars or study its Answers section.

While you step up your LinkedIn presence, scale back personal missives on Twitter or other social media. Refrain from sharing pain about your job or your life while you are job hunting. If you must talk about how bored you are in your current job, make a phone call to a trusted friend instead mentioning it on Facebook, Palmer said. Your current or future boss might see your venting posts -- and decide you're not worthwhile.

Be careful, too, who you tell at the office about your interviews and search. Sometimes they will use the information against you. Palmer tells of a good friend of hers, a dental hygienist, who told a co-worker about her search for new work. A couple of months later, a new woman was hired at their office. On her first or second day, she told Palmer's friend: "I'm supposed to be taking your job." When confronted, the boss told her he knew she was looking for a new job so he had already replaced her.

Unless you have an employment contract or a union contract, you generally have little recourse if that happens.

"With the economic climate, it makes it more critical that people be discreet about their job search," Palmer said. D.C. career coach Barbara Herzog says job seekers could be looking for a while so they need to also work on developing their reputation with regular blog posts on a focused subject of interest in their profession or by contributing insights to the Answers section of LinkedIn.

With such a large percentage of people saying they're looking for another assignment, you might not run into trouble if you bump into the HR manager at a job fair. If your boss asks you about an interview with another employer, Herzog suggests answering: "Yes, from time to time I do look at ads, and talk to my contacts about what's available. It's not that I am planning to leave right now, but I have found it's good to stay on top of what the trends are in the market, what new skills are being asked for, and what the opportunities are."

If you mention things you like about your current job, that will help, Herzog said. She tells clients to be discreet in their searches and to never flaunt them -- but they don't have to be completely secretive.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company