Question: “I’m currently employed, but feeling the time has come to make a change.  How can I search for a job confidentially without my current employer finding out?”

The short answer to this question is “you can’t.”  No matter how many precautions you take, the moment you start to discuss your availability with people or begin contacting other employers in response to published leads, there’s always the chance that this information might fall into the wrong hands and that your cover could potentially be blown.

At the same time, however, most people shouldn’t let a relatively small element of risk become a rationalization for staying put in a job that’s neither professionally or financially rewarding.  Managed properly, it’s entirely possible to run a serious job search campaign while simultaneously minimizing the chances of your current boss or employer finding out about your desire to seek greener pastures.

How does one go about this?   For starters, it’s important to carefully think through the worst case scenario and assess what would likely happen if word of your job search did, indeed, get out.  Do you have a sense of how your supervisor would react?  Does your company have a history of punishing people for perceived disloyalty — or of trying to entice them to stay through salary increases, promotions, and the like?  Once you have a good feel of the potential consequences of your decision, you can better assess how to go about your search and the degree of risk that you can likely absorb in terms of getting the word out to potential employers..

Along these lines, the least risky channel for locating employment is to enlist a small circle of trusted friends and business associates to keep their eyes open on your behalf — and make direct introductions to hiring managers and employers that they feel assured will keep your confidence.  If this doesn’t produce enough viable interviewing activity, however, you might have to ramp things up by responding to some appropriate published job opportunities from the Internet as well as by getting your resume out to a sampling of local recruiters who specialize in your occupational field.  In both cases, of course, you’re taking on a slightly higher level of risk, since there’s no guarantee of privacy and you never know when the hiring manager or recruiter you’re talking with might turn out to be the former college roommate of your person who currently signs your paycheck.

Realistically, though, there are thousands of job seekers and resumes swirling around out in the market, and many clandestine job hunters are overly paranoid about their chances of being found out.  In reality, we’ve found that all three of the above strategies are usually fairly safe as long as you practice a few basic common sense principles.  These include not job hunting at the office or listing your work number and e-mail address on any of the correspondence you send out.  Secondly, despite the temptation, don’t breathe a word of your search to any of your co-workers, as well, since it’s unwise to pit your career success against the insatiable human tendency to gossip — or the odds that a “private” conversation might be accidentally (or intentionally) overheard.  And lastly, you’ll want to be extra careful if you happen to be applying for jobs with direct competitors (non-compete clause, anyone?) or if you work in a highly incestuous industry where most people would recognize your name or know you on sight.

Long story short, by being smart about it and taking a few common sense precautions, the majority of employees today can run a viable under-the-radar job search without facing an inordinate risk of having their intentions discovered by their current employer.  Throughout our many years in this field, in fact, we’ve only seen a few cases where a “passive” job hunter got busted — and each time, it was because the job seeker themselves engaged in a series of rather unintelligent behaviors in terms of announcing their intentions a bit too loudly or wantonly to people in their current workplace.  Good luck!