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Should You Pay an Employee to Look for His Next Job?

Even in the best companies, employees will leave. Maybe for innocuous reasons, like relocating for a spouse, or maybe because they hate their jobs. Whatever the cause, in most cases, they will conduct at least some of their job hunt activities on your time and dime.

Is it OK that owners end up footing part of the job search bill (not to mention the lost productivity that goes along with it)? And, more importantly, is there anything you can do to prevent it?

I don't know any business owner who would answer yes to the first question. The second one is trickier.

There are only so many business hours in a week to contact prospective employers, go to interviews, and handle follow-ups. Perhaps some people will do this job search work before or after hours, or on lunch, but it's naïve to think that even the most decent and conscientious employee isn't using some paid time to line up his next gig. There are articles and even entire websites devoted to the "art" of looking for one job while being paid to do another.

So, on-the-job job hunting seems unavoidable (in fact, your best employees likely did the same thing at their previous companies to get their jobs with you). But is it one of those things that you have to shrug off and accept? I think that all depends on your work environment and your people. And managing it -- to the extent that it can be managed -- is a two-way street:

Employers, here's what you can do:
Create a culture of trust: If your work environment is political, oppressive, threatening, or back-stabbing, you should not only expect your people to have one foot out the door, but you should expect them to continue to cash your checks while they try to get the other foot out. But if your workplace is one of all-around trust and respect, it should engender openness and honesty. Make it clear that you prefer open discussions to surprises, and make sure your behavior backs it up unfailingly.

Good employees will talk to you if they trust you, and you should honor that trust with appropriate behavior in return.

Be realistic about human nature and aspirations: If the employee is one you really want to retain, and it's not too late, obviously try to retain him. But once it's clear that you'll be parting company, don't take it personally. Work with him. Don't marginalize him, as is so common in large, impersonal organizations where there is a "dead man walking" mentality. Ask him to keep giving you an honest day's work and then trust him to do it. In my experience, most employees will work even harder if they feel you are being reasonable and supportive, By helping the departing employee, you may well be helping yourself.

Employees, I have three pieces of advice for you:

  • Be decent to your employer if your employer has been decent to you. If you don't know the word "mensch," Google it -- to me it is the highest form of praise, and more times than not you'll be better off for being one.
  • Tell your boss sooner rather than later. Really. If you've been a valuable employee and you have a good relationship with a good boss, you're not going to get fired, because you need each other for the smoothest possible transition. You should not just be thinking about what may happen before you leave, but the terms of your departure and what may happen after. Big picture.
  • Do everything possible to conduct your search on your own time. In fact, if you tell your prospective new employer that you're trying not to do your job hunting on the clock, he will respect the hell out of it; I know I would. Besides, an attentive employer recognizes the signs of a stealth job search anyway. The less you do in secret, the better.
If you think I'm living in la-la land, I beg to differ. I am being as realistic as can be. Those who prefer to simply accept that job hunting is bound to be done on the sly are missing an opportunity to make the most of a difficult situation.

People will quit, and being defensive, passive-aggressive, or vindictive does no one any good. Bad employers and bad employees will always yield bad results. But a mature, professional, trusting relationship between a quality employer and quality employee can make a departure easier -- even constructive and helpful -- for all involved.

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