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my employee is job-searching — should I tell my manager? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I was transferred to a new team a few months ago, along with a colleague who now reports to me, and given responsibility for the company’s capybara program (obviously, a fake name for anonymity). The team we’re now part of is great and supportive; our manager is great and has our backs. The overall organization means well, but can be … quite chaotic.

We’ve had some recent frustrations with repeated changes of direction and conflicting instructions from the layers of leadership above my manager. There’s some micromanagement, something that almost never happened on our previous team, where we were responsible for capybaras but also zebras, red pandas, hedgehogs, and sometimes even wombats. Some weeks feel like we spend so much time explaining why our capybara-tending work is important, persuading people that we do actually understand capybaras, and rearranging the capybara program to align with a new change in direction that there’s no time to actually tend the capybaras.

I’m middle-aged and unambitious, I’ve worked in genuinely toxic environments before, and for me all this is annoying but bearable. (Some days I contemplate looking for a new job, but it feels even more exhausting.) My direct report has a different perspective—totally understandable, more power to them!—and recently told me they’re job-searching, partly because of the above, partly because they would like to be making more money (and their current life circumstances make this very important). I’m bummed about this, but not super surprised. From my perspective, it’s great this person stuck around as long as they did, and training a new person will suck but is part of how work works. (They are very, very good at what we do, and if I were in charge of raises, I would give them a big one! But I’m not.)

Should I be giving my manager a heads-up about this? I like my manager a lot, but our relationship only dates back a few months. And I don’t know enough about this company yet to anticipate whether this is an “oh no an extremely competent person is looking around, let’s give them more money” place or an “oh well, stuff happens, lots of fish in the sea” place.

Nope, don’t give your manager a heads-up.

You don’t know your boss or the company well enough yet to judge how it would be received. There’s too much risk that your employee will end up pushed out earlier than they intended to leave, or denied projects in the meantime that could raise their profile (“since they’re leaving anyway”), or end up on a layoff list when they otherwise wouldn’t have (again, “since they’re leaving anyway”), or be pulled into an awkward conversation about their plans that they had no intention of having, or that your boss or others in leadership will just be weird to your employee in ways that limit their professional opportunities or just make work less pleasant for them.

There are times when it makes sense to give your own boss a heads-up that someone on your team is actively job-searching— like if you’re planning a major new initiative around their hard-to-replace skill or experience, or when you know with certainty that that’s what it’ll take to get them the promotion they’ve been after for a while, or something else where there’s a genuine and legitimate business need to share the information. Even then, though, you wouldn’t do it without your employee’s knowledge (after you explain why you want to share the info) — and ideally their explicit permission. Otherwise the risk to them is just too high, and you’d be sharing info that isn’t yours to share.

Let’s talk about that “isn’t yours to share” piece, though, because that’s what I think trips up a lot of managers. Often in this situation, managers think, “Obviously this is highly relevant info that affects our work, and as the person leading this team I have an obligation to keep the company in the loop about info that will affect them.” When that’s truly the case — as with my examples above — that’s one thing. But more often than not, it’s not really info the company needs, and it’s worth remembering that employees can plan on leaving without ever telling anyone about it, and that’s part of the risk employers take when they depend heavily on one person. Plus you have to factor in all the possible negative ramifications for them, as well as what message you’ll be sending the rest of the team if they hear you won’t keep things like that confidential (it’s likely to be the last time you get an advance heads-up, for one thing).

The other thing managers often think is, “But won’t it cause problems if I don’t say anything and then my boss finds out later that I knew?” And yes, if your own boss is unreasonable, you could be blamed for not sharing the info. The answer to that is, “They didn’t have definite plans so there wasn’t anything concrete to share, and they’d spoken to me in confidence.” You might add, “If we really want to invest in retaining people like Jane, let’s look at ways to do that before they’re at the point where they’re job searching.”


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