In the April 23, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a loyal employee wonders whether it’s honest to go to a job interview:

I’m working for a great tech company on the west coast in a job I enjoy, but I was approached by a recruiter from a large company in the midwest for an interesting job. It would be a significant move up in management in a bigger and more well-known company. My concerns are these:

  • I like my colleagues and current employer, so I’d feel bad about leaving this role after being here only a year.
  • There are budget cutbacks and delays in bonuses that worry me a bit.
  • I’m not sure whether there will be layoffs or more austerity in the future.
  • I’m not sure that I want to leave this job and move, or that the new job is any better than the one I have now.

My question is whether it is unethical for me let them fly me in to interview if I don’t feel 100% sure I’d take the job. They approached me and seem to think I’m a good candidate, so they’re moving a bit faster than I’d like.

Nick’s Reply

I admire your integrity, but exploring the unknown doesn’t subject you to a higher ethical standard.

This company is recruiting you. As long as you have a sincere curiosity and interest in exploring what they want you to do, I’d go. When we meet someone and ask them out, we don’t explain, “Well, I’d like to go out with you, but I’m not sure we’d ever get married.” Of course you’re not! The only question is, are you attracted enough that you’d like to get to know one another better?

ethical-choices-signThat’s where pleasant surprises come from.

Keep this big fact in mind: No one has asked you to marry them yet. I mean, no one has made you an offer.

Some companies (and people) move faster than others. Frankly, among employers that’s rare and it’s a good sign. If the new company seems to have good people, a good reputation, and exciting new products in its pipeline, then I think it’s a solid potential employer. But you’ll never know what might stimulate you to take it very seriously unless you show up.

In the end, if they make you an offer, it’s still all up to you. You’ll never figure out what weight to assign to each of your concerns until you have a real choice to make. It’s better to have a new choice than not to. Even if you say no, you can still be friends. And if you say yes, you can still be friends with your old company. Remember: People leave companies, and companies lay off people — it’s called business. How the personal and social sides of it play out is really up to you. And I get the sense you’d make it okay either way.

You might not be sure why you’re interviewing with this company, but I am. Your list of concerns tells me you don’t feel safe. That’s reason enough to explore other gigs, and there’s nothing unethical about it. The Wall Says It’s Time to Go may be a helpful map through your concerns.

What triggers you to consider another job? What stops you? Can you have an honest interview if you’re not sure you want the job?

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  1. Looking at opportunities is not disloyal or unethical. Either you have it really really good where you are (and talking to other companies will prove it) or there are opportunities that are waiting for you.

    On the company end, people are let go for a variety of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with how well an employee does their job. As Nick pointed out, it is business. The sames goes for the workers.

    One additional thought. If the new company is not a fit for you, help them find the right person.

    All the best in your talks with the new company

  2. The last lesson of the 3 week job search skills seminar I teach is ‘When you get your job, start looking for your next job’. That’s overstating it a bit, but the point is to get people’s attention and remind them that no one knows the future. For those that have been out of work for a while, there is a great sense of relief when they finally find employment. They never want to even think about job hunting ever again. That is a big mistake.

  3. Another good column this week.

    You really have nothing to lose. If the job turns out to be a dud, you’ll at least know and can sleep at night :-)

  4. @Greg: “One additional thought. If the new company is not a fit for you, help them find the right person.”

    This is something that escapes most people. Do this, and I can almost guarantee you will be asked back for another position later on. Managers remember good referrals, mainly because they’re not offered often!

    @Chris: My version of that is, when you ask me when you should start job hunting, the answer is “Two years ago.” Or, as you put it, start looking as soon as you start your new job! Same diff!

  5. It is all talk until the offer is made, accepted and you’re actually on the job. Always talk, but be discreet about it, especially if in a field related to your current company. Make sure they understand that you are currently employed and are not going to jeopardize your current job. Believe it or not there are recruiters/HR departments who DO NOT GET THIS simple fact because their internal juggling is more important, and the needs of the candidate comes last–they will schedule interviews at inconvenient times and places, which will tell you something. Finally, make sure you are not encumbered by a non-compete or non-solicit–yes, they DO matter and are enforceable in most states (CA being a big exception). I only wish I had this advice back when. Good luck!

  6. The best career advice anyone ever said to me was, “Always prepare your escape.”

    When driving, one doesn’t expect an accident but it’s good to keep an eye on whether there’s a car in that blind spot just in case you need to do some defensive driving. Likewise, layoffs are often a surprise and it’s better to be poised for that next step up the ladder. Some companies cut talent based not on value or contribution but on a simple, “Who makes the most in that department?”, or in contrast, “Who’s got seniority?” Such decisions are often imposed from several steps up the ladder by a manager or hired gun who knows nothing of the employees.

    It sounds like what the candidate is really saying is that he or she doesn’t yet feel confident in their own ability to read the soft information one receives between the lines during the interview process, or how to evoke such information. No interviewer will ever sit you down, look you in the eye and say, “Listen, this place is a toxic political stew where careers go to die and the reason the last guy left is that he got wind of the impending acquisition and jumped ship in time”.

    You need to ask, they won’t voluntarily tell you that this predecessor walked off the job. This dovetails with their question, “How do you deal with difficult personalities?” Their line of questioning may reveal reasons why others have left the company or that department. Their need to ask may indicate that for their part the problem has not been fixed. If the hiring manager shows signs of being the least bit ingracious on this first date, don’t expect things to be better once you’re on the other side of the front door.

    Think of a trivial negotiation or two, or a small request or two, that you can bring to the table. Something that won’t cost them anything and won’t greatly inconvenience them. Is the response is a smiling inflexibility? This will help you evoke whether employees are a valued part of a team, an investment in building the future, or line items in a cost center, interchangeable resources to be churned.

  7. Phil – “Always prepare your escape.” Indeed. Know what you want to get out of it and have your exit strategy in place before you even start.

    The worst thing you can do is “I’m kinda happy – I guess, it could be worse. Oh, wow, that was weird, wonder why they decided to do that, oh well I’ll just ignore that. I know my way around and the work is easier now so I’ll just keep..uh oh..oh sh*t!”

    The amount of time involved to appropriately research and interview is an investment that should not be taken lightly. But, if it’s part of your plan, pursue it and see where it goes. Think of it this way – what if you went through the whole process and they said “We really liked you but you were the runner-up.” Would you be upset? If not, than it wasn’t right. If you are upset than it telling you something.

  8. There is absolutely no ethical dilemma about meeting with a new prospect and learning more about what they need and how you can help them. Even if you turn down an offer, they will have gained something from the interview process.

    From the other end, leaving a company after a short time, I completely understand the ethical dilemma people feel about leaving good people behind. When you are with a good team, you feel needed and engaged and more committed. But the concern about budget cutbacks would ease my guilt because I would be doing the organization a favor by leaving for a new opportunity on good terms. Lay-offs are a business reality, but they are demoralizing and should be always be avoided.

  9. As Suzanne C. states, budget cuts and layoffs are a good reason to at least start looking.

    I would add a warning not to simply take what comes along – especially if you are currently employed.

  10. I started as temp in a big company. Since day one I insisted to go full time but for budgeting restrictions, they offered long temp until the end of the year. Accepted though insecure and turned down 2 other offers in the first days(which i deeply regret now).
    Until one day the boss tells me that “not for doing it on your back” but the job is going perm and it will be an open “race” and if you want to compete, here you go. I said, that’s what I wanted, here I am. But the answer was that she had changed her mind, because the pool of candidates differ from temp to perm and blah blah blah about talent. I talked with my team and understood that though by emails they would go “excellent, great” in all my tasks, truth was they didn’t like me, this operational part. Was like saying “you’re very tech, and we know it, but we are not”. in other words, i was taking frog steps, they wanted baby steps!
    I passed 2 rounds of interviews, phone interview(recruiter calling me in the conf room) and with HR dpt. Next week it will be my final and i think i do not have any chances, i passed for the techy guy and my communication skills seem evaporating and I’m not an IT either. I know my boss will shoot me with questions like “how do you communicate”, “how did you solve a difficult situation”. I don’t want to be seen only for technical skills I have but because in 3 months I prove to be a good fit and hire for the company.
    Nick, what do you suggest me to keep in mind during the final interview? Would it be a good idea to bring the “profitable employee for the company” preparation of the role on the table to the question “why should I hire you”? And in a situation like this, where the weakest point seems to be communication, how can I turn the situation in my favor during the interview

  11. Greg

    “One additional thought. If the new company is not a fit for you, help them find the right person.”


  12. There is never anything unethical about going on a job interview! I love Nick’s analogy to dating! A date doesn’t mean a second date, let alone marriage. Just because you go on this interview doesn’t mean that company or job is right. It also doesn’t mean that they would even offer you the job (though their interest in courting you means that they think you might be able to do the job/be profitable for them).

    And, as Nick and other posters have noted, you never know what will happen at your current job. You are happy now, but let’s say that your current boss leaves/gets fired/retires/transfers and his replacement makes Atila the Hun look like Santa Claus. Or it doesn’t even have to be a boss who leaves/is fired–the members of your team could change, making what was formerly a good, productive, pleasant working environment hell. Or the company could decide to make budget cuts you’re out. Or the company could get bought out by another company, which immediately fires all of the employees and replaces them with their own employees. Or your job could get outsourced to China or India.

    Talk is cheap and no guarantee of anything. I’d look at it as a way to make some connections and to learn about that company–maybe after the interview you’d decide that you don’t want to work there (something you wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t taken the interview). I’d take the interview.

  13. When is the best time to start looking for your next job?

    The week after you start your new job.

    It has to be a continuous process. You next job might be in the company you are presently working for, or perhaps not.

  14. Lots of good points in the comments. I found a job that I really liked and was told that I was “exceeding expectations”, but was laid off in a large workforce reduction after 6 months.

    I was so content that I ignored several red flags – replacement of the CEO, several VPs leaving to “pursue other opportunities”, and I somehow didn’t even take any notice of a statement in all-hands meeting that there would be cutbacks in the next quarter.

    Now, 6 months later, I’m still unemployed and will be grateful when I land my next position, but will always be keeping an eye out for something on the horizon no matter how much I like my job. It’s unfortunate, but loyalty (on either side of the equation) is so 20th century…