A reader writes:
You’ve said before that no one can “steal” a job. But what about when you apply for an opening that you only know about because a colleague told you that he applied for it?
I just finished a graduate program. I was older than most of my classmates by 10+ years. With a several-year absence from the workforce before the program, I’m being considered for roles more junior than my last one. I am willing to take a step back in order to work again. But a few months ago I didn’t expect I’d be going after the same jobs as younger classmates. Though there are many with my degree, I chose to specialize in a narrow area, so I would be competing against classmates I knew well except that I am a December graduate. Most are spring graduates, so almost everyone I know is employed now. It’s not a field where jobs open up at any particular time of year.
A school friend who graduated in May has not found work and has been frustrated. He told me about finally getting a phone interview, and said the company will tell him if he’ll move on based on how the other interviews go. I looked at the listing to see what I could suggest to him. This job really calls for more experience than he has, but it’s a good match for me. I really only looked at it to give him some resume suggestions. The job calls for a lot of the skills I developed over my career, which are likely for someone with a degree in Vanilla Teapots, but aren’t typically associated with our degree in Chocolate Teapots. Training others on using vanilla teapots is also a big part of the job, and I have lots of training experience too (ironically, including teaching him how to make a basic one, but also in paid positions). I imagine it comes across in an interview that his only experience with vanilla teapots is for a class project. It’s not my degree, but I designed, created, and managed vanilla teapots for my jobs. That’s not something I can say to him, of course. There’s no guarantee that I’ll get an interview, but this Chocolate/Vanilla Teapots combo position sounds like it’s a fit for me right now.
I applied for it today and am feeling guilty, but probably not quite bad enough that I’ll decline an interview if offered. I would feel slightly better if he had been turned down outright, but he is being put on hold until they see if they have better candidates, so my applying could mean that he gets bumped from the in-person interviews. And worse, it probably wouldn’t be my first choice job as I have an interview coming up for one I think I’d like better, but who knows if I’ll get that. I’m unemployed too with loans coming due and I also really need the work.
How do you handle it when you find out about something this way? I really do admire his confidence and drive, and I don’t want to be disrespectful of someone who has been a school friend and might be a colleague someday in our small industry. We don’t socialize but are still friendly enough to share news.
Ooof. It’s true that you can’t steal a job from someone, but it’s also true that this probably isn’t going to feel great to him.
In particular, the fact that the company told him they’re waiting to see if someone better comes along makes it more likely that he’ll feel like your application (if it results in you getting an interview, while he doesn’t) did indeed bump him out of consideration. That’s of course how all hiring works, even if they hadn’t spelled it out for him quite like that; a stronger candidate can always bump someone else out of contention. But it’s still going to sting.
He also might feel like you only knew about the job because he told you about it and think that you therefore should have considered it off-limits. That’s not entirely reasonable — you’re both in need of work, and you’re in the same field, and there’s a finite number of job openings — but it’s also not entirely unreasonable for him to feel like there’s something kind of unseemly about it anyway.
But here’s the thing: It’s going to feel a lot more underhanded if you don’t tell him now and then you get offered and accept the job and need to tell him then. Because of that, I think the best thing you can do is come clean now, or at least at the point that you get an interview. It’s going to be awkward, but it’s better to say “Hey, I feel awkward about this, but I want to let you know that I threw my hat in the ring for the X job” than to have to say later on “Um, that job that you’ve been hoping to hear about? I’ve been secretly talking with them for the last month, and now they’ve offered it to me.”
Of course, no matter when you tell him, he might be bitter, resentful, or even think you screwed him over, and there might not be anything that you can do about that if so. But it’ll be a more principled stand — and more likely to get you a better outcome — if you’re honest with him now than if you wait. Telling him now says “I know this isn’t great, but as new grads in this field, we are competing for the same jobs” (which he might take issue with, but reasonable people could at least argue it either way), whereas waiting says “I hid this from you as long as I could because I felt like I was doing something shady” (and that makes it shady).