The Lonely Decision

In an executive search, when is the right time to tell your employer you’re a candidate elsewhere?

Christophe Vorlet for the Chronicle

April 14, 2014

Issues of openness always arise in executive searches in higher education, pitting individual privacy rights against the rights of various groups to know how their institutions are being managed. The issues are debated often in legislatures and faculty lounges.

A more subtle decision faces the individual candidate, however, even when the search is not (or not yet) at the public stage: When is it appropriate to tell your employer that you are considering another job?

Every candidate in every search reaches that crossroad, and the answer is seldom simple or straightforward. I can think of any number of grounds on which to make that decision: ethics, strategy, loyalty, dedication, personal affection, self-interest, confidence, insecurity, and even, once in a while, common sense. To further complicate matters, the circumstances vary greatly from institution to institution, from boss to boss, and even from moment to moment, making the mental calculus complicated enough to muddle even the clearest thinker with the very best intentions.

And the stakes are high. A few weeks ago, I received an email from a candidate who had been a finalist, but not the candidate of choice, in a recent search on which I consulted. She wrote to tell me that her president and provost had fired her from her job as dean, at least in part because she had told them about her candidacy. Because I had done extensive referencing on this candidate, it seemed likely to me that she was not fired for performance reasons. She had voluntarily told them of her interest in another job, even before the final round of interviews, which in this case were public. Now she was out of a job.

I always find such harsh reactions baffling. That president’s institution runs searches; I see them advertised. Clearly that college expects people to express interest in leaving their current employers in order to take its advertised positions. How is it that this president and provost, then, find it appropriate to punish one of their own for doing what they themselves encourage others to do? But that simply underscores the sensitive nature of these decisions.

So, when do you tell? It depends on whom you ask. Your boss will surely give you one answer. In my role as a search consultant, I will give you another. Your partner, your children, your colleagues, your mentor, your spiritual guide, your self-help book, your therapist, and your own conscience will all weigh in as well. All of us want to be helpful; few of us will succeed.

At the end of the day, this is a lonely decision.

A simple cost-benefit analysis
would appear to be in order. What might happen if you tell? Well, obviously, your employer might fire you; the story above is but one of many. Your bosses may also pre-empt your opportunity and offer you inducements to stay. They may encourage and support you, a response that might have a wide range of meanings. They may shrug and ask you to tell them how it turns out. They may thank you for your honesty and offer kudos, references, guilt, money, a promotion, or your walking papers.

And why are you telling your employer in the first place? Most often candidates feel a duty to do so, whether out of loyalty to or personal affection for the institution or the supervisor, a sense of ethical responsibility, or just a desire to do the right thing. Happily, most candidates who are qualified for institutional leadership are sufficiently insightful about their environment to guess correctly whether they should speak up or not.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though. Sometimes candidates inform their employers for strategic reasons. They hope to leverage the candidacy into a better gig, at either their current or their future employer. Sometimes it works, but it’s always a dangerous game to play.

In a recent search, I learned that one of the semifinalists had told his boss that he intended to interview with my client’s search committee. Whether he did so strategically or, as he maintained, because he was just trying to do the right thing is a matter of conjecture. The candidate did well in the interview, and the search committee, knowing of his disclosure, moved immediately to treat him as a finalist. So far, so good.

Unfortunately for the candidate, he was not the only finalist, and even at breakneck speed it takes time to vet candidates properly and credibly. Meanwhile, this candidate was in no man’s land, caught between a boss who knew he was job-hunting and a potential employer who needed to make the right appointment in a credible way. When the job went to someone else, this candidate was faced with returning to his home institution to a very different relationship with his boss.

Now, I am not asserting that the candidate told his boss in order to leverage a counteroffer. That happens a lot less often than my institutional clients, at least, seem to think. But it does happen. As a result, informing your current supervisor that you are seeking another job opportunity, especially early in the hiring process, actually makes potential employers more suspicious of your motives. It makes the decision to tell even more confounding for candidates because your doing the right thing could be perceived as a negative by the search committee.

Is my point that you should never tell your boss? Not at all. In fact, when I was a campus administrator, I usually opted to tell my bosses early in any search process in which I was a candidate. That was the character of most of the people with whom I served, and of my relationship with them. Also, I was more righteous than insightful in those days.

There were bosses, however, whom I did not trust or respect, and whose retribution I feared. Those people I informed with my resignation letter.

That brings us back to the central question here: When should you tell?

I can only offer the search consultant’s view. Preliminary interviews—whether they are with the search consultant or a member of the hiring committee—are just that, preliminary. You don’t know if they want you; more important, you don’t know if you want them. You are doing no more than testing the water. Your employer’s chances of having to replace you are still remote. I see little to be gained, and potentially much to lose, by informing your boss at this point.

The final-interview stage seems the appropriate moment to bring people into the tent. (If those interviews are public in any way, doing so is mandatory. The secret won’t keep.) Even then, if there is any option at all, I recommend caution. Just what does "final" mean? When will a decision be made? How confident are you in that timing? How do you judge your odds of both getting an offer and accepting it?

If you are not hired, you may have to live for a long time with your boss’s knowing that you looked for another job. Waiting for a search to be resolved amplifies the tension. The unknown is bad for most people; the longer that unknown lasts, the greater its corrosive power.

In the end, then, this decision is based on conditions on the ground. There are no right answers, but there are surely wrong ones. Choose badly, and the penalties can be harsh.

Dennis M. Barden is a senior partner at Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm, based in Chicago, specializing in searches for academic and administrative leaders in higher education, health care, and nonprofit organizations.