It's a conundrum faced by many, if not most, job seekers: You want to cultivate all the connections you can to maximize your chances of plugging into the best career opportunities. But the more word gets out about you, the more chance your exit strategy will get back to the boss.
Even professionals in industries rife with job hoppers are careful how they promote themselves. "I don't want to lose the job that I have, so I'm not giving my resume out to just anybody," says a junior staffer at a public relations firm in New York City.
And contrary to what some job seekers tell themselves, it's very difficult to keep the lid on a job search that grows organically out of networking activities. "You'd be surprised what I know about people -- that they don't know I know," says Carly Drum, managing director of Drum Associates, an executive search firm based in New York City.
How can you mount a robust networking effort to support a job search that must be kept under wraps? Develop your industry networking into a kind of camouflage for career-boosting activities.
Mask Your Search by Networking All the Time
"If you're smart, you will be networking just for the sake of networking all the time," says Karen Otazo, an executive coach based in Manchester, New Hampshire. "That way, what you're doing isn't noticed since it's a normal, day-to-day event for you."
Carefully developed contacts give you the ability to deal with people you have reason to trust. "While you're in any job, build relationships broadly and deeply," says Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone. "When you're searching, your contacts will be discreet, because they're friends."
The best cover for ambitious professionals may be "two-faced" networking -- the defensible kind. "Lots of networking activities can benefit the company as well as the professional," says Rolf Gruen, senior vice president and general manager at the Seattle office of career management firm Lee Hecht Harrison.
How Not to Get Caught Networking for a Job
A strategy for confidential networking is important, but you'll also need an array of tactics to keep your activities under the radar. Here are street tricks to keep you in communication with your network -- without getting busted by the boss.
- Don't conduct any job search networking activity using company property, whether it's the fax machine by your cubicle or the laptop you bring home on weekends.
- When networking, consistently circulate contact info that's not linked to your employer. Never use your work email address or phone number. Set up a Web-based email account dedicated to networking and job search; don't use your real name in the email address or alias.
- Remember that your resume's file name can betray your real name if you submit the resume as an attachment or upload. Also, the embedded data in a Microsoft Word document can give you away; learn how to remove it.
- Does your boss have access to your Outlook or other calendaring program? Avoid schedule entries that are falsehoods or cute euphemisms for job interviews; your boss may smell a rat.
- Use the masking features of any job boards that you post to, but be wary of coming off as paranoid. "Masking is a bit strange," says Ferrazzi.
- Stay in touch with your former bosses, and count on them for references and general networking help. Thanks to your extensive history with your managers, they're likely to take the confidentiality of your search very seriously.
- Be wary of recruiters unless they come to you through the most trustworthy of sources. "If you get a bad gut feeling about a recruiter, don't send your resume," says Drum. "Otherwise, set up a meeting with them in person." Her firm would fire any employee guilty of breaching a confidence, she says.
Finally, recognize that all your painstaking efforts to network confidentially may be in vain. "Apart from reminding employers that your job search is on the QT, there's not much you can do about it," says Liz Ryan, founder of WorldWIT, an online network for professional women. "You have to be willing to deal with this eventuality."