When You Can Get Fired for Looking for Another Job

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As unjust as it might seem, most employees in the United States 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 almost reason, or for no reason, with or without notice.

Can You Get Fired for Job Searching?

Termination of an at-will employee is legal in practically every state, except Montana, where employment law prevents termination for unspecified reasons after a six-month probationary period—after six months, termination in Montana must be "for cause." 

This means that in 49 states and the District of Columbia, your employer can fire you for looking for another job—or for any other reason, provided it isn’t discriminatory.

Discriminatory Termination Is Against the Law

Federal and state laws prohibit employers from terminating employees for discriminatory reasons such as race, religion, gender, or age (40 and older). 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 research shows you’re more likely to get a job offer. Economists at Columbia University and the Federal Reserve Banks of New York and Chicago found that employed workers who were looking for work were more likely to receive offers than unemployed workers. They were also offered higher starting salaries.

Why are you likely to get a higher offer while you’re employed? For one thing, 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.

Because most employers calculate raises and bonuses as a percentage of current earnings, failure to negotiate new job offers can lower your earnings well into the future. Over the course of your career, not negotiating could cost you up to $1 million.

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. 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. A Gartner survey showed that 22% of companies use employee-movement data, while 17% monitor work computer use, and 16% check email or calendar data.

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.

Be careful about which colleagues you ask for a reference. If your teammate is known for being indiscrete about office gossip, think twice about asking them to provide you with an employment reference. Focus on former co-workers, bosses, and contacts from outside the company whenever possible.

Choose interview times carefully. Choose an early or late interview time or take a personal day. Avoid interviewing on your lunch hour—you don’t want to have to cut things short because you need to be back at work for the 1 p.m. meeting.

And keep your excuses as honest as possible, without giving away the details, e.g., “I’m taking a personal day,” not “I have the flu, but I’ll be in tomorrow.” Remember the old saying: if you don’t lie, you never have to remember anything.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. 

Article Sources

  1. NCSL.org. "At-Will Employment - Overview," Accessed Sept. 19, 2020.

  2. Montana Code Annotated 2019. “Chapter 2. The Employment Relationship.” Accessed Sept. 19, 2020.

  3. EEOC.gov. “Discrimination by Type.” Accessed Sept. 19, 2020.

  4. EEOC.gov. “Fact Sheet: Retaliation Based on Exercise of Workplace Rights Is Unlawful.” Accessed Sept. 19, 2020.

  5. Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “How Do People Find Jobs?” Accessed Sept. 19, 2020.

  6. Business Insider. “The First Big Career Choice You Make Can Haunt You for Years — and Cost You $1 Million.” Accessed Sept. 19, 2020.

  7. CNBC. “Employee Privacy in The US is at Stake as Corporate Surveillance Technology Monitors Workers’ Every Move.” Sept. 19, 2020.