can I accept a job knowing I plan to leave it in a few months?

A reader writes:

I have recently been offered a job with a company locally and have accepted it. However the hiring process a extensive background investigation is needed and will not be able to start this position until the January of 2011. I have more recently been offered a another job a couple of hours away. I would prefer to accept the position locally but I need an income that I could get from the other job a couple hours away. Is it acceptable to use this job until the other job and background investigation on done?

I get versions of this question all the time, all ultimately wanting to know:  When is it okay to take a job knowing you’re likely to leave it quickly as soon as something better comes along?

First, two situations where I’ll give you an immediate pass:  (1) If you’re being honest with the first employer about your intent and they hire you knowing that, go for it, and (2) if this is a job or industry where high turnover is typical and routine, such as retail, call centers, and so forth, fine.

But aside from that, here are some principles that you should apply to any question along these lines:

* If you’re not being candid with the employer, what will the impact be on them? In many businesses, an employee leaving after just a few months means that time, money, and other resources were wasted on training; they have to go through the time and expense of a new hiring process; and often the area your role was responsible for suffers setbacks, either minor or major. Is this a large business that can more easily absorb the impact, or a small business that will feel it much more? Is it a nonprofit that will have to divert resources away from a valuable mission to respond? Different organizations are impacted to different degrees by this, and you want to think about what the impact will be in your case.

* Are you willing to accept a possible hit to your own reputation?  It’s likely that you will always be “the guy who left after we spent two months training him.” You won’t just burn bridges with the first organization; it may impact you other places too, because the world is fairly small. Are you willing to accept the possibility that you might be going after a job you really want some day and find that your interviewer was the co-worker who picked up the slack after you disappeared — or knows one of those co-workers? (I know this sounds like a loaded question, but it’s a genuine one. You might weigh everything and decide that, yes, you are willing to accept this. That’s fine; I just want you to think it through first.)

Speaking of reputation, it’s also worth asking yourself what your new employer will make of this. They may assume you’re willing to do the same thing to them.

* This one is hard to quantify, but you should at least be aware that there were probably other people who really wanted that first job and would have been thrilled to get it … and might have gotten if it the employer had known that you had secret plans to leave after a few months. Again, your call to make, but this should be part of the ethical landscape that you think about.

Now, whenever this topic comes up, someone points out that you don’t owe employers any loyalty because they may fire or lay you off without notice, etc. But it’s a rare employer who will hire someone planning to fire her in a couple of months, or who will hire you and then rescind the job offer when a better applicant shows up. And yes, plenty of employers treat employees badly, but it’s far from true of everyone, so at least make sure you know who you’re dealing with before you paint everyone with the same brush.

All that said, it’s certainly true that employers make decisions based on what’s in their own best interests. But the reason they don’t, for instance, hire someone planning to fire her in two months, is because that’s not in their best interests. It’s not in their best interests to become known as an employer who does that kind of thing, or to make their current employees worry they’ll do it to them. And it’s not in their interests to become known as a company that treats people unfairly or callously, because they want to be able to attract and keep good people. And something similar is true for you: It’s not in your own interests to get a reputation as someone who doesn’t keep commitments, who cuts and runs, or who acts without integrity or concern for others — because you want to to be able to work with good people too.

So just as employers will act in their own best interests, you should too. But you should make sure you have a really comprehensive picture of what those interests are — and for all the reasons above, it’s not as simple as “Job A is better than Job B.”

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    In my opinion you have to do what is right for you even if it deceiving an employer. Do it!

    1. Slaten*

      ABSOLUTELY! You do what you need to do. Any company would ditch you in a heartbeat if they needed to so don’t ever get in a situation where you feel loyal to a company because believe me….they don’t feel loyal to you.

  2. TisDone*

    What about making arrangements with the 2nd employer to consider the arrangement on a short-term contract basis, including the option to extend the relationship if the 1st position falls through? This way – everyone knows each other's expectations, the bills gets paid, and there is no hit to anyone's reputation.

  3. Anonymous*

    I am also struggling with a similar issue and am curious to see what others think about situations like this (especially in the current economy). In my case, I came out of graduate school into the recession, was unable to find a job in the profession I am trained for, and wound up taking a job in the field I have been trying to get out of. I think there are many, many people out there in this situation.

    In my case, I am planning to stay for a total of one year and then move on as the economy improves. I do not feel bad about this for the following reasons: 1) I am underemployed and working outside of my profession and my employer knew that when they hired me. 2) The field I am trying to leave is already high-stress/low-reward/high-turnover. Most people do not stay more than 2 or 3 years anyway. 3) I am easily outperforming more than 80% of my coworkers because, even though I do not plan to stay, I do want to provide a lot of value for the organization while I am there. 4) I work for a state-funded organization and have already been informed (after I was hired) that there will be virtually no opportunities for advancement, or even a cost of living raise, for the foreseeable future.

    It seems that what the OP is really asking about is the ethics of taking a survival job. When so many of us have been forced into survival jobs over the last couple of years, it seems to me that the moral calculus on this matter has changed a bit. Can anybody really expect well-educated, high-caliber employees to remain underemployed/misemployed when better opportunities arise?

  4. Anonymous*

    You spend at least 35-40 hours per week on a job and probably more. So getting it right is an absolute essential. It's your life. It's your working life. You have the right to make it a happy one.

    If you accept a job and something better paid or more suited to your strengths comes along a few months later, go for it. But accept that you've probably burnt your bridges with that company and you just should not include it on your resume.

    It is a risk when hiring any new employee and if the company felt things were not working out, they doubtless would not hesitate the address the situation and fire an employee during their probation period. Any organised hiring manager should keep a file of candidates to call back should things not work out with the new hire. It's a two way street. There's absolutely nothing wrong with learning a job isn't right for you and leaving for a better one.

    With this crappy economy, the rule book should be thrown out of the window. Jobseekers and employees should be looking after themselves as their top priority. Companies should be realistic. People come. People go. It is the nature of the beast.

  5. JC*

    The new job doesn't start until 2-3 months correct? That's an awfully short time to be with this other employer. You won't be able to even settle into this job before you leave it for the other one. It seems like the employer is going to spend more time and money training you than you will be providing to them. Ethically, it just seems to me like it's not worth it. Not to mention it will burn bridges with this company and may hurt your reputation for awhile.

    I understand your need to pay the bills and survive before this next job starts, but are there other things you can do? Take out loans? Borrow from someone? Any savings you could dip into and then replenish later? Re-do your budget to cut costs? It just seems like a waste of time and energy to me that you would take this very short term job…unless it pays so well that it IS worth it.

    I am currently hearing back from this job (from the question AAM answered for me last week). I am a finalist for the position and right now they are doing background and reference checks. It's not my ideal job career wise (very entry level and not related to my specialty interest) but it will pay the bills and it comes with other perks. I was told up front that they expected the position to be held for 1-2 years at least. I made a verbal "promise" to them that I would stay for at least that long and I plan on sticking to that. Integrity is very important to me and I will just have to find other ways to work on my career goals outside my job.

    Good luck!

  6. Anonymous*

    Aside from the ethics of the situation, I think AAM has provided some important points to think about, since your actions here might affect things later in your career.

    I always feel a lot of job loyalty because I usually enjoy the places that I work and like my coworkers. In the past, this has stopped me from pursuing better opportunities when I probably should have. I think it's important to think about how much you'd actually set the company back if you left. Maybe they'd lose a few weeks of training and some money, but a job change will have a significant impact on your life. I think job seekers have to do what's best for them. Chances are, it won't make as big a difference to the company as it will make to your life. I think that's also true for just taking a job for a few months to make money. You have to look out for yourself.

  7. Anonymous*

    IMO, six months maybe. A year, sure, go ahead and accept it and quit later. But two months?? No way. You won't even have the training wheels off.

    I think too often, people underestimate how small the world is, and how easy it is to burn a bridge. This temporary job doesn't have to be in the same industry or the same city, for your actions to come back and bite you. And even if you leave the company off your resume and don't use them as a reference–future employers may still have 'inside' connections and make a call anyway, and find out about your dishonesty.

    I say, be upfront with them and let them decide if they will take you as a temp. Or find another temp gig.

  8. Anonymous*

    I agree with Sharon completely – that employer has no loyalty to you or you to them. If they thought it would save them a couple of bucks they would lay you off just as quickly as they hired you.

    And, don't try to second-guess what might or might not happen; you don't have a crystal ball.

    Just do what you need to do.

  9. Anonymous*

    I am in a similar situation right now. I interned with a company during college and they told me that they would love to hire me, but due to the current economic situation, they couldn't yet. They gave me a vague range of time that they could be getting back to me. Since it wouldn't be smart to sit back and wait for this job to hire me, which might not have even happened, I took another job. 2 months into that job, I was contacted by the company that I interned with. I had developed very close relationships with this company and decided that I wanted to take the job.

    My justification is this… You can not plan your life on an uncertainty or a maybe. Sometimes you need to take what you can get and then if something else comes along, make a decision then. While it may be a pain to a company, you should not sacrifice what is best for you based on a guilt factor or burnt bridge. If I turned down the job offer from the company that I interned with, I would have regreted it forever. That was enough for me to make my decision.

  10. Anonymous*

    Gimme a break. Is it really realistic to worry that you're taking a job away from the 2nd pick? Ive never met anyone who's done that. And I think the whole burned bridges thing is way overblown unless you work in a small industry or smaller city.

  11. Anonymous*

    Personally, I have accepted jobs unrelated to my field of study and it ruined my reputation in the job marketplace. I have left jobs due no advancement and that move ruined my reputation as well. I think HR need to revise some of their standards because people run businesses and not robots and certain situation must be evaluated according to the individual's experience. Just think about it most corporations, small businesses, mom and pop shops will move on and hire someone else, however, someone like me is looked down upon as an unreliable worker and that was not my intent. I was simply trying to better myself and avoid gaps in my resume. I created more confusion by doing that and since my last job in 2008, I have been very unsuccessful obtaining employment in my field of study that is in Higher Education or the Criminal Justice field. Meanwhile, my bills are piling up, student loans must be repaid for the BS in Criminal Justice I obtain in 2004, Masters in Education 2009, Post Masters cert in Enrollment Management for higher education 2009, and associations fees and personal growth training in Customer Service, Group Dynamics, Leadership skills and Management through RockHurst University.

    It is a shame how HR/employers judge professionals based on their last place of employment and not their accomplishments nor achievements. To think about it, I have worked in the manufacturing industry, fast food (while in high school), Government (as an Independent Contractor with no benefits and I had to pay my own taxes), Architectural firm(entry level, Receptionist), Medical (Hospital, HR office, I had a rude awaken while I was there), Retail (Sales Associate), Laboratory (Processor), Assistant Campaign Associate (Received training in Campaign Management), Call Center (temp position through an employment agency), Higher education (Admissions), and other service related industries. I accepted positions in order to avoid gaps in my resume.

  12. Anonymous*

    I vote for "look out for numero uno, 'cause nobody else will." You gotta do what you gotta do, taking all known information into account.

    If you really feel that taking this job for two months is the best thing for you, then do it. If you're really going to be out in less than 90 days, you can exercise your option to say that it isn't working out, a better opportunity came along, or whatever.

    But is it worth it though? I'd feel extremely weird taking a job that I *knew* I would be at for two months without the employer knowing about it. Only you can make that call.

  13. Anonymous*

    It's strange that so many people are missing AAM's point, which is that it's not just a question of do what you feel like doing but instead has ramifications and consequences that might affect you in ways you're not predicting. In other words, putting yourself first still might mean that taking the job planning to leave soon is a bad move.

  14. Anonymous*

    Anon 10:46,
    I'd be skeptical too about hiring you. You're all over the place and I'd assume those jobs don't span very many years.

  15. Anonymous*

    The ethical thing to do is to say to Job #2, I have accepted another position and will begin within 2-3 months. However if you have not had any success in locating another candidate, I'd be willing to do the job duties as a consultant in the interim until you locate another candidate and my other position begins.

    You'd be surprised how well this could go over. You may find your background investigation takes longer than month. My most recent one (and I've had a high clearance before) took over 3 months. Not only that, but you might also find you like that position/company better.

    I've done this before and the result was a very lucrative 6 month contract. I didn't feel guilty building relationships or that I was going to let the team down because I was honest up front. Also, they'd have me back in a heart-beat because they valued my integrity. Not to mention my resume looks good because I have consulting experience.

  16. Anonymous*

    AS someone who hires people, trains people, and contacts references and previous jobs when doing so – I say think long and hard about the choice you make. We're smaller and it does have an impact when someone leaves. When I accept someone for a position, I do call the other candidates and let them know so they can focus their attention elsewhere.

    I'm also actively involved in several professional organizations that allow me to interact with recruiters in a variety of other industries, and we do compare notes. If you worked in a company with someone I know, I will absolutely contact that person and ask for their feedback. I know and trust their opinion and I'm staking a little of my professional credibility and personal workload on the fact that you are, in fact, the type of person you represent yourself to be.

    That doesn't mean stave – but if it's a short term commitment, be upfront or find a job that may not be as cool, but since you'll only be doing it for a few months, doesn't matter. Especially this time of year – tons of opportunities for short-term, retail work which would probably fit right into your time-line anyway.

  17. Anonymous*

    I think the best way would be to negotiate with Job #2 that you'd prefer this to be a temp to perm assignment, that could benefit both you and the company to have a trial period. Although you know you will eventually leave to take Job #1.If you tell job #2 that you already have another job waiting for you, I don't think they'd be interested in you at all.

    I wouldn't worry about burning bridges, as long as you don't do anything illegal or commit a crime. Both employers and employees have needs, so yours should come first for you. I worked for a company for 9 years as a top performer and left in very good terms. But when there was a position opened up (my old position with my old boss), they refused to take me back after initially said they were interested in having me back. Not sure for what reason, but it's just an example that you don't know what could happen in the future, so don't need to worry much.

  18. Anonymous*

    This comment is directed at ocotber 25@11:53am.
    Don't judge me for improving myself and putting forth effort at everything that I set my mind to accomplish. I refuse to sit around and do nothing.
    While working for the government, I learned something very valuable that education is a profound tool that can transform a person to not settle for less. I used to work with professionals who dedicated 30 years plus in one department and when their services were no longer needed they didn't know what to do.
    Have you read the BIO's of most 500 Inc. executives you will find they worked in many different industries before arriving at their final destination.
    Most graduates don't work in their field of study.

  19. Anonymous*

    I think the biggest issue is the hit to your own resume – I've been accused of being a "job-hopper" and "not worth the investment" after staying at a job for _3 years_. Imagine if I'd only been there 3 months.

    But, then again, taking the "temp" job will at least get you in the door with those increasingly numerous companies that say "no unemployed candidates" in their ad…

  20. Anonymous*

    I am a similar concern. My husband’s job is moving us to another state and his position (in the medical field) is a 2 year fellowship. I have to leave my current position and enter the job market again. I know we will be in this new city for at least 2 years, but its very likely that we will move elsewhere after his two years of training. I do not think two years is a small amount of time, but its also not enough time to really ‘grow with’ a company. I dont want to have a two year gap in my resume, and therefore plan to pursue full time employment in my current field. I am interviewing and not revealing this probable two year time table. I am hesitant, but I truly feel like this is the best option. Life can throw a curveball at any time and in this situation, I have no way of knowing the future. Any opinions?

      1. Jamie*

        Apropos of nothing, but sometimes I wish jobs came with a finite end date. Come in and sign on for 3-5 years and then when your time is up you can either be coaxed into another tour, or you move on to the next challenge having met your obligations.

        I know it’s just a fantasy – but that’s how it is in my fictional and perfect world and it works just beautifully there.

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