10 tips for keeping your job search under wraps

If you don't want your current employer to know you're looking for a new job, you need to be stealthy. These precautions will help you avoid getting busted.

Having your job search become public knowledge always has been a risk of job changers. In this economy, that risk looms even larger. The last thing you want, and the worst possible outcome, is for your boss to discover your actions when you've been unsuccessful in your job search. Here are some things you can do to keep that search clandestine.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Avoid conspicuous changes in dress

Suppose that in your current job, you and your co-workers wear blue jeans and t-shirts. At the job you're interviewing for, however, you're expected to wear a suit. If you're coming to your regular job on interview day, don't show up dressed in that suit. Either set expectations with your prospective employer, explaining why you must come in "as you are," or (the more preferred approach) make provisions to change clothes. By the way, this situation might be a good reason for you to practice good grooming and neat dress at your current job.

2: Keep the change of clothes out of sight

If you must bring a change of clothes, keep it out of sight or out of the office. If you have no choice, at least keep it hidden inside a non-transparent dry cleaning or garment bag. The best option is to keep it in your car, if you drove to work.

3: Minimize the degree of clothes-changing required

The less you have to change, the easier it is for you and the less conspicuous you will be. Let's say you are a man and that your current dress code is business casual. Your interview location expects business attire: suit and tie. That morning, wear the following to your regular job:

  • The trousers of the suit you will wear to the interview
  • A long sleeve blue button down collar dress shirt
  • No tie

The blue button down shirt is great because it goes with either a suit or as-is. Unlike with a white shirt, it doesn't look as though you've simply taken off your tie while wearing a suit. Rather, you really do look like you're dressed business casual. Now, all you need to do is put on your tie and your jacket and possibly change your shoes.

4: Avoid office computer, phone, or voicemail

For obvious reasons, avoid using communications methods associated with your current employer. Such methods probably are monitored, and your job search could become public knowledge if you are not careful.

5: Use text messaging or Web-enabled smart phone

Even using your own cell phone isn't enough. Don't think you can get away with dropping your voice to the level of a conspiratorial whisper. As soon as you do, your co-workers will strain to hear what you are saying. Use text rather than voice if you're using your phone at your desk. Otherwise, find an empty conference room or office and close the door. If your phone is Web-enabled, that's even better, because you can use it to check email.

6: Develop and rehearse code words and situations

Despite your precautions, you one day might get a call from a recruiter while you're in your office. The worst thing you can do is to drop your voice and say, "Sorry, I can't talk now; can I call you back?" Your co-workers will think you are either having an affair or seeking a job, and neither conclusion helps you.

Think of a problem situation someone could call you about. If it really is a problem you're having right now, so much the better. For example:

  • Your computer crashes constantly.
  • Your home has a leaking pipe.
  • You hear the sound of metal rubbing on metal when you step on your car brakes.
  • Your child is having problems in school.

Now, when that call comes, visualize that the caller is actually the computer technician, plumber, mechanic, or teacher. Start talking about the "problem," then apologize for not being able to talk further and make arrangements to talk later. Do not drop your voice. Speak in a normal tone of voice, even when you make arrangements to talk later. Give a plausible reason if you can -- you don't have the computer manual, or you're not at your car, or you don't have your child's homework assignment.

Of course, it's good if you alert the company or recruiter beforehand that you might have to go into "James Bond mode."

7: Avoid office copiers

Besides the ethical issues of using your current employer's copier to help you find a job with a new employer, there are practical issues. One is the risk of leaving an original resume on the glass surface. The other is experiencing a copier jam and forgetting to remove the copy or copies that are inside.

If you do use your workplace copier, remember to remove your original(s). If the copier jams, take steps to resolve it and make sure your copies are removed.

8: Secure your documents

If you're using snail mail, don't use employer mail facilities. Send your mail from home or from a public mailbox that's outside your office. Don't leave your resume on your desk or even in your desk file. Keep it in your own briefcase and lock the briefcase if you can.

9: Schedule interviews with minimal work disruption

You might need to leave the office for interviews. If you do so during while you are at your current job, you have two issues. First, you have the practical issue of covering an absence. Second, you have an ethical issue of interviewing for that other job on your employer's dime.

The best alternative, though costly, is to use vacation time for your interviews. If you can take a day or a half day, you need not explain to anyone how you are spending your time. Or at most, you need say only that you have a number of things to take care of. The best option is to be able to attend several interviews on that one day or half day.

Otherwise, try to find a business reason to be near where you can have your interview. For example, you might need to visit a different location of your current company. Schedule your interview early in the morning, go to your employer's alternate location, then return to your own office. Or schedule that alternate location visit around 3:00 to 3:30 and when you're finished, head to your interview.

10: Be careful of nearby neutral sites

I'm not suggesting that you should engage in an affair, nor am I suggesting that doing so is right. However, someone who does engage in an affair and who wants to keep it secret is well advised to conduct that affair far away from those who know either person. The same thing goes for a job interview at a neutral site. Avoid sites that are close to your office or ones that your co-workers or boss frequent. If anyone from your office sees you, that person well could conclude that you are looking for a new job.