Can You Get Fired for Job Searching?

When You Can Get Fired for Looking for Another Job

Co-worker looking at employee computer
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As unjust as it might seem, most employees can be fired for looking for another job. Why? Because the majority of U.S. workers are at-will employees. At-will employment means that you or the employer has the right to end the employment relationship for any reason, or for no reason, with or without notice.

Termination of an at-will employee is legal is practically every state, except Montana, where the employment laws prevent termination for unspecified reasons after a six-month probationary period -- after six months, termination in Montana must be "for cause." This means that your employer can fire you for looking for another job -- or for any other reason.

Discriminatory Termination Is Against the Law

Federal and state laws -- including Montana -- prohibit employers from terminating employees for discriminatory reasons such as age, race, religion or gender. Nor can employers terminate workers for reporting illegal actions by their employer or asserting their rights as a worker.

Employment Agreement Protections

In some cases, employees who are covered by individual or union employment contracts may be protected against such a firing, depending on the stipulations in their agreements. If your employer has language in the employee manual indicating the circumstances under which staff can be terminated, then you might have recourse to appeal a termination.

How to Job Search When You’re Employed

Looking for a job when you have a job? The good news is that you’re more likely to be hired. “I have talked with HR leaders whose organizations routinely screen out job applications and resumes from unemployed job-seekers,” writes Liz Ryan, founder and CEO of Human Workplace, at LinkedIn.

Why? Because it’s a fast way to screen out applicants. Never mind that if we learned one thing during the Great Recession, it’s that even the best workers can find themselves between jobs.

You’re also in a better position to negotiate a higher starting salary when you’re looking for work while employed. Hiring managers don’t know that you’re eager to make the leap, so you can ask for more than you would if you were unemployed. (And for the most part, you should negotiate. Failure to negotiate new job offers can cost you up to $1 million over the course of your career.)

The bad news, of course, is that you’ll have to be a little sneaky. The best strategy to avoid a firing is to carry out a discreet job search. Here’s how:

  • Be a low-key job seeker: don't browse job sites at work, refrain from sharing your job search efforts with fellow employees, and avoid taking any phone calls or sending any emails about your job search while in the office. For example, don't boast about interviewing with employers, don't project the job-seeker image by dressing conservatively if your workplace has a casual dress code, and avoid listing your current supervisor as a reference that prospective employers can call for a reference.
  • Don’t post your resume online where your employer might be able to discover your status as a job seeker. Update your LinkedIn and other social media profiles, but don’t make your job search obvious in headlines or status updates.
  • Use your personal phone number and email address. Don’t use your office phone or corporate email for job-search related communications.
  • Don’t use your company computer or cellphone to job search. Clearing your browser history might not be enough to keep your activities under wraps. In one survey, 45 percent of companies reported tracking keystrokes and content viewed by employees. Your boss may be able to see which sites you’re looking at, what you type, and a lot more.
  • Be candid with the hiring manager if you’re notified that you're a final candidate for selection. Explain that your current employer doesn't know that you're looking for another job. If at all possible, ask prospective employers to hold off calling your current employer until they're certain an employment offer is imminent. 
  • Don’t job search on the company time. Do your online job searching after hours, and return phone calls from prospective employers either during non-work hours or on your break – and on your personal phone.
  • Choose interview times carefully. Choose an early or late interview time, or take a personal day.