Karla: Strictly speaking, you don’t owe the employer a detailed accounting of your plans, which could fall through next month for all you know. But you definitely shouldn’t squander a professional favor performed in good faith. Your existing connection outweighs any potential referral.
Inform your business associate that you’ve had an unexpected change of plans since applying for the job, and offer to withdraw your application, with many thanks for the opportunity. If your associate urges you to follow through with the interview anyway — maybe the job is portable? — you can do so with a clear conscience. Otherwise, a good-for-now job is a small sacrifice to make in exchange for a reference who can vouch for your integrity.
Reader 2: I have been with the same company for more than five years. I am hard-working and well-liked by my bosses.
I am now applying to grad school and will need a reference from my employer. I am concerned that if I ask one of my current bosses, they will treat me differently knowing I will probably be leaving. Or worse, they may let me go before it's time to start school. What do you recommend I do?
Karla: In an ideal world, your bosses would be delighted to help you win an opportunity like this; at worst, they would urge you to consider continuing to work for them while earning your degree part-time.
Again: “In an ideal world.” Here on planet earth, even in an ideal work environment, management hates to pay full price for someone with one foot out the door.
The approach I’d recommend depends on your field of study. If you’re a paralegal going for an MFA in metalworking, maybe seek a referral from a discreet senior colleague outside your chain of command who can confirm what you’re like to work with — and keep it confidential.
But if you’re pursuing an advanced degree related to your work, you probably want a referral from someone who can speak to your skills and subject-matter mastery — i.e., your supervisors.
If it’s early enough in the process — say, the referral deadline is months away — you could bring up grad school in casual conversation as a hypothetical you’ve been considering. The kind of response you get may tell you how open you can be about your application process and how likely your bosses are to terminate you prematurely.
If it’s too late to put out feelers, you’ll just have to cross your fingers, make the request, and hope they have the perspective not to punish you for it. After all, career paths have a way of converging unexpectedly; you never know when the junior colleague you help boost professionally will someday be in a position to return the favor.