my boss got involved in my conversations with another employer

A reader writes:

The person I used to work for called me from her current job and asked me to submit my resume for an opening. Unbeknownst to me, her boss called my boss and told him and that they were interested in having me come in for an interview and that I was probably the top candidate for the job. I only found this out when my boss came in and told me of the conversation and said that I was free to do what I want, but he personally thought it wasn’t the right move for me. (I work for a private high school, and this is one of our sister schools and my boss sits on the board of trustees there, so the two bosses know each other.)

I went on the first interview and second interviews and everything seemed to be going in the right direction. But then the boss at the new place called me and said that after “extended” conversations with my boss, he wasn’t comfortable bringing me in and asked that I voluntarily withdraw myself from the process. After that, the hiring manager at the new place called and asked me to reconsider because I was still the top candidate…?

First off, I’m not sure if there are any ethical or even legal implications in two bosses talking to one another about me and colluding to keep me in my current position, and secondly, should I confront my own boss about the incident or just gloss over it like nothing has happened?

There are a lot of separate issues here, so I’m going to separate them out into separate questions.

Is it okay that the two bosses talked to each other?

It’s very normal (and perfectly legal) that the two bosses talked, since they know each other. First, people frequently reach out to their contacts when they see that a job candidate worked for someone they know. It makes sense to get impressions from someone you know and trust when the opportunity is available, and it happens all the time. Second, in this case, there’s a good chance that he was concerned about preserving his relationship with your current manager and didn’t want your manager to think that they’d been going behind his back to recruit one of his employees away from him. That’s also normal.

What about the fact that they talked without checking to see if it was okay with you?

If you no longer worked for your current employer, and this was a prospective employer reaching out to a past employer, it’s 100% okay for them to do that without checking with you first. But in your case, you were still working there, and that does make it more of an issue — since alerting someone’s manager that they’re job-searching can in many cases jeopardize their current job. So ideally, he should have said to you, “We’re really interested in you but we feel we need to be transparent with your manager about the fact that we’re talking. Is it okay for us to talk to him about this?” There’s no legal requirement to do this; it’s just courtesy. (But it’s also a courtesy that isn’t always followed; it’s not that unusual that the other employer reached out to your boss without a heads-up to you.)

Is it okay for them to jointly decide that you should stay in your current job?

Well, we don’t know that that’s what happened. The manager at the other company told you that, based on conversations with your boss, he wasn’t comfortable hiring you. That probably doesn’t mean that they jointly reached a decision — it’s more likely to mean that he got the sense from your boss that it would strain their relationship if they hired you, which is his call to make.

Alternately, it could also mean that after talking to your boss, you felt that you weren’t the right fit for the job. The only way there’s anything wrong with that is if your boss was intentionally dishonest with him. But we have no evidence that that happened.

But isn’t it wrong that this all happened without you being part of the conversation?

Actually, none of this is too unusual: Someone considering you for a job happened to know your current manager, and talked with him about you. After that talk, he concluded that it wasn’t in his best interests to hire you (either to avoid tension with your current manager, or because he didn’t think you’re right for the job). So far, pretty normal — although really frustrating when you’re on the job-seeker side of it. You’re understandably thinking, “What the hell? I should be the one controlling my career decisions, and I don’t want people colluding behind my back to make them for me.” But on the prospective employer’s side, his hiring decisions have consequences in his own work life and on his own relationships, and it’s legitimate for him to factor in those consequences.

(However, two things are strange about all this: First, that the boss at the other company asked you to “voluntarily withdraw” from their hiring process. That’s weird. All he had to say was that they weren’t moving you forward in their process. He doesn’t need you to withdraw. Second, that the hiring manager there — who reports to him — asked you to reconsider. It sounds like they’re not communicating with each other at all.)

Should you confront your boss?

I don’t know that there’s anything to be gained from you talking to your boss about what happened. If he gave you a dishonest reference, you’d have a legitimate complaint, but we have no reason to think that happened. You could accuse him of standing in the way of you getting this job, but we don’t know that that happened either. It’s far more likely that the other guy simply determined he didn’t want to poach you from a colleague — and that happens all the time.

{ 63 comments… read them below }

  1. AnotherAlison*

    “It’s far more likely that the other guy simply determined he didn’t want to poach you from a colleague.”

    And, what happens next is that you go to a third, totally unrelated option and they lose you from their school system all together. (Or at least in a better job market that would happen.) To me, this is a lot like the counteroffering discussion. The OP was ready to go to this new opportunity and the bosses made her stay, so how thrilled to do her job is she going to be? Even if there were other reasons in play, if I were the OP, I’d surmise this was a case of boss blocking me from an opportunity.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it’s more likely that the boss at the new place picked up on discomfort from the current boss — in other words, that it wasn’t a case of “please don’t hire Bob” but rather “hmmm, it would be a really bad time to lose Bob.” And the boss at the new place isn’t going to risk his relationship with the other guy, which is probably more important to him than whether one particular person stays in the school system or not.

    2. some1*

      that’s the impression I got as well. Did the boss give reasons why this wouldn’t be a good career move?

    3. Michael C*

      If this was the case (where they don’t want to “poach” you from a colleague) and somehow proven to be the case, shouldn’t OP be compensated somewhat to stay in her current position? It seems a bit unfair to stunt OP’s ability to move up the work-ladder just because the employer would have a hard time with someone leaving.

  2. some1*

    The “voluntarily withdraw” request is pretty shady if you ask me, for all the reasons Allison mentioned.

    1. fposte*

      Either that or just weird–I’m not sure what advantage that really gets him. It doesn’t sound like the OP’s boss is under any illusions about what happened, so who’s being protected from the facts?

      1. Jamie*

        My gut feeling is that there are more decision makers in play and that the people in question don’t have the authority to take her out of contention alone, so if she withdraws the problem is solved.

        Pure conjecture.

    2. Anonymous*

      I was wondering if they asked the OP to withdraw to protect the OP; if school #2 passes on OP, that would look bad if OP ever wanted to re-apply. If OP removes him/herself from consideration, then he/she can re-apply at will with no ‘we turned this candidate down before’ history.

  3. Malissa*

    I’d talk to the current boss and find out what’s going on. It’s probably that he doesn’t want to lose you. It could be that he has other plans for you in the near future that he considers to be better for you.
    I’d frame the conversation around the fact that you are trying to expand in your career but this situation is full of mixed signals from him and not everybody seems to be on the same page, but you’d really like to get his honest take on the situation for clarification.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is good advice. My one caution would be that the OP needs to be conversational and not confrontational about it, and prepared to have a larger discussion about whether he’s unhappy and job-searching in general.

  4. Mike C.*

    This situation reminds me of a case a few years back. In a nutshell a bunch of large Silicon Valley firms made an agreement not to hire people from each others firms. This sort of collusion was considered a violation of federal anti-trust laws.

    I’m not saying this case fits that example perfectly or that what happened was illegal, but it feels quite similar to me.

          1. anon-2*

            I’m not an attorney – but any attempt to make a back room deal to restrain an employee’s mobility might be illegal.

            Especially while an interview cycle is in progress. I think the term is “tortious interference”.

            Any employment attorney specialists in here?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              It’s not. People talk all the time and share info about an employee’s performance/work habits/fit and/or how that person’s leaving would affect them. It’s normal, and it’s legal. They’re not restraining his mobility; he’s not being hired for one job.

            2. fposte*

              I think you have to have economic damages for a tortious interference claim, but I’m not a lawyer.

            3. Anonymosaurus*

              So anon-2, you’re yet another person asserting with total confidence that something is illegal just because it seems unfair? It’s one thing to ask if something is illegal, it’s another thing to announce that it is when you don’t actually know.

          2. Any*

            Yes. It’s called Hart-Scott-Rodino. It’s the Federal anti-trust statute. It’s absolutely illegal for two employers to agree not to hire, and there’s no requirement than it be more than two people talking.

            1. Mark*

              Hart-Scott-Rodino doesn’t apply to two individual actors acting on their own behalf. It regulates the actions of corporations. No judge would find this to be in violation, if indeed there was any such agreement here which as Allison has pointed out there likely was not.

              – a lawyer

              1. Ivy*

                Lawyered! (Marshal from HIMYM anyone?)

                Mark you should consider starting your own blog where you answer people’s “is this legal” questions…

            2. CarDen*

              I’m pretty sure Hart Scott Rodino would have no bearing on this situation, as the Federal Trade Commission and the Dept of Justice are unlikely to give their approval or disapproval for the hiring of a school employee. Hart Scott Rodino is aimed at mergers, acquisitions, etc that have the potential to negatively effect US free trade. No offense to the OP, but I doubt transferring jobs would have any affect on the stock market.

    1. Lisa*

      I remember this, it wasn’t that you couldn’t apply to the other companies, it was that their internal / external recruiters could not try to poach current employees to go to the other. If you contacting the other company’s recruiter or directly, then you could be considered.

  5. Victoria*

    I wonder why the current boss told the OP that she didn’t think the new job was the right move. Did she think it wouldn’t serve the OP’s career trajectory? Thought the OP wouldn’t excel in the role, given what the boss knew about the OP’s strengths and abilities? Did the current boss have some background on the other organization that suggested that it wouldn’t be a good cultural fit?

    The current boss told the OP upfront that she didn’t think the new job was the right move and then communicated something to the new boss that convinced her that the OP wasn’t a good fit. There’s something there that might be worth exploring. Might be worth a conversation – without rancor – about why Current Boss didn’t think OP & New Job was a good match.

  6. Mike C.*

    Actually, none of this is too unusual: Someone considering you for a job happened to know your current manager, and talked with him about you. After that talk, he concluded that it wasn’t in his best interests to hire you (either to avoid tension with your current manager, or because he didn’t think you’re right for the job).

    AaM, are you really comfortable(*) with the ramifications of the bolded part? I could easily see a large company telling competitors “if you hire someone from my firm I will do everything in my power to bankrupt you”. This would kill labor mobility and depress wages and benefits for employees. Do you think employers should have this sort of power?

    (*)I don’t care what is legal or not, since I’m no lawyer. I’m more interested in seeing how you feel about this particular practice.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ethically, not at all. But I think that’s very different than one guy sensing that it might strain his relationship with another guy (not bankrupt him, just strain a relationship). It’s human nature to care about that kind of thing, and I don’t think there’s any reasonable measure that can be taken against against it.

      1. Mike C.*

        You make a good point here, and I do recognize issues of practicality, magnitude and human nature.

        What gets my goat here is that the way labor works in this country is that if you don’t like your job, you’re free to leave it and find another. With practices like these, it starts to break that social contract (for lack of a better term).

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          No, I hear you on that. It does suck when you’re the one caught in the middle on something like this. I tend to think the possible cures are worse than the disease, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still suck when it happens.

    2. some1*

      In fairness, the LW mentioned private high schools that are sister schools. They aren’t competitors in that sense of the word.

      1. Yup*

        Respectfully disagree. A competitor might serve a particular market function that also benefits me (R&D frontrunner, loss leader, etc). Competition doesn’t necessarily mean trying to slash and burn the other guy into non existence.

      2. Anonymous*

        Also, in the world of private schools, it serves no purpose to drive other schools out of business as one school can’t accomodate every potential student.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I really hate that type of statement. You’re in control of your own career. Sure, this guy can’t have this job, but if he’s good at what he does, he has other options that he can exercise.

  7. LL*

    If I were the OP, I’d be tempted to talk to my boss about the incident. Not necessarily to “confront” or accuse them of blocking a job opportunity, but at least to smooth some things over. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this whole thing caused some waves in the OP’s working relationship with the boss.

  8. Your Boss*

    Almost exactly same thing happened to me a very long time ago. I did not get a position because my then boss decided that he needed me to stay. So he talked to the hiring manager, and since they were friends, I did not get the position. I was so mad that almost immediately I started looking for another job. It still upsets me when I think about it.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, this. Worse case scenario, neither boss looks very good here. One boss is trying to prevent her from leaving and Boss 2 seems to be kind of questionable in his dealings.
      I cannot picture why a good employee would inspire “extended conversations”. How many hours/calls does it take to say “she’s a good worker”? Whatever they were talking about had very little to do with OP. More than likely there are other parallel stories running in the background that influence OPs setting.
      I think that the advice here is right- talk to the boss you have. Use caution before agreeing to work for Boss 2, he is already showing you what it is like working for him.
      If it were me, I would not withdraw my application. You can always say “no, thanks” later on, if you chose. This will give you more time to get an idea of which direction you want to go as you collect up more info.

    2. Long Time Admin*

      Same here. I was a good worker, did the work of 2-3 people, met deadlines, etc. and worked myself into a wreck with health issues and depresssion.

      It would be nice to be treated as an employee with value instead of someone to be used, abused, and then kicked out the door (although that door is looking mighty tempting right about now).

  9. anon-2*

    Yeah, this is called restraint of trade. Suppresion of the free labor market. Collusion.

    Stinks to high heaven. OP, get the heck outa there, if someone wants to hire you for a position that’s better suited for you, but you’re being held back in a back-room deal, GET THE HELL OUT. You have no future dealing with these two people.

    1. Jamie*

      Actually, it’s not. People use “restraint of trade” erroneously all the time, similar to how people misunderstand ‘freedom of speech.’

      I’m not trying to be nitpicky, but as this is a common error and people do pick things up from here I just wanted to clarify.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Um, that’s really hyperbolic. There’s no evidence at all that that happened. The boss might have given feedback that led the other guy to conclude the fit wasn’t right. Or he decided not to risk his relationship with the current boss. We don’t know — it’s really unwarranted to jump to conclusions like this.

  10. Dom*

    Okay, I’m going to assume that Allison is correct in why the Bosses are talking to each other, and I’m going to also assume that the job is still offered to the OP given that the HR wants OP to reconsider, and given that Other Boss wants her to withdraw (maybe because he/HR/the hiring committee has already selected her as the best candidate, or maybe its not his call – not important why, unless he’s asking OP to withdraw so that when he tells the HR no it doesn’t reflect badly on OP)

    The question then for me is should the OP withdraw her application in order to lessen tensions between the bosses? IMO, Other Boss should not have asked OP to withdraw – if its not his decision for some reason, its not his place to make the call. Asking OP to step down so that he is less awkward with a colleague seems strange to me…Alison, would you recommend that the OP withdraw from the competition, if indeed the Boss at the sister place doesn’t have the final word? (I understand that this could make things weird with Other Boss, having not stepped down from the competition upon request, but given that OP has no real responsibility to keep the boss-boss relationships happy, it seems it is at least a reasonable option.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The OP could certainly ask the hiring manager (who asked him to reconsider) what’s going on, and can tell her about his conversation with the hiring manager’s boss. But I wouldn’t think that taking a job where your boss’s boss doesn’t want you would be a good idea.

  11. Brenda*

    OP, if I were in your situation, I’d talk to my boss. I don’t think you have to be confrontational about it, however. Your boss came to you and said you were free to do what you want, but that he didn’t think it was the right move for you. It sounds like you should be able to discuss with him what’s going on. You were originally approached by them, your boss was in the loop, and you’re still being recruited — if you’re interested, say so, and assert yourself (pleasantly and nonconfrontationally! don’t assume there is “collusion” going on).

  12. Am I working for the mafia?*

    Alison, I have a related question – do you have any advice on preventing a situation like this from happening, or making it less awkward? I work somewhere where everyone in my industry and many outside of it know my boss – several times I’ve flat out been told from people while networking or even interviewing that they are afraid of my boss being mad at them if they were to hire me away from her, but otherwise they love me, I’m the perfect candidate, they wish they could work with me, if I need a reference from them just ask, etc.

    What I’ve been doing is trying to hunt on the down low and be discreet to begin with but of course that’s hard to control. As for the poaching question, I answer by stating that I am definitely going to leave the company sooner or later due to reaching the top of where I can advance, and then I try to spin it that I think Boss would be happy to see me thriving with this company since she knows and respects you, wonderful person who I am interviewing with, blah blah blah, now let me tell you more about why I’m the candidate for you.

    The truth is, my boss probably would be mad, as she acts like everyone should continue to work at her company forever, without any additional advancement or pay, until we die. So the interviewers concerns are potentially valid, but in the past she’s also come to terms with people leaving and then taken credit for their grand success at their new companies since she allegedly taught them everything they know – so, she does get over it.

    For the record, my job and this company are not anything particularly crucial to the stability of the country or anything like that where any of us are irreplaceable – boss is just very possessive. Do you have any other advice on how to handle this?

        1. Anonymous*

          You’re already doing what I did: networking. Meet other people in your field, locally, outside of work. I lived in terror of sending in my resume, the recruiter/hiring mgr seeing where I worked, and just picking up the phone to call my boss to see if she’d recommend.

          I don’t think we worked for the same boss, now that I think about it. No one was scared enough of her not to hire me after I networked my way into their radar.

          I guess the best thing to do is remind anyone who tells you how great you are, wish we could hire you, that your boss seems to take pleasure in sending her folks out into the world, as opposed to being upset.

          Good luck with that!

    1. Emily*

      The ideal option would be to save as much money as you can that you could carry yourself without income for a while, and then at some point tell your boss directly that you’re interested in progressing and since the opportunity isn’t there you’re looking elsewhere. With any luck, she’ll support your decision and serve as a reference for you, but if not, you’ll have your savings to fall back on and you can tell your prospective employers that you’ve already notified your boss of your intention to leave, so they can at least feel like your boss wouldn’t blame them in particular for making you leave, since you’d already decided to leave before speaking to them.

  13. Jen @ Modernhypatia*

    Private schools are really an odd little segment – you have one part regular employment, but each school (even if they’re fairly closely linked, like these sound like they are) also has its own culture, customs, etc.

    I know when I was working in one (10 years) we were pretty aware of what was going on at peer schools in our area – not the obvious stuff that hit the news, but people would know about culture shifts (new department head, new hire in whatever subject), and often plans for new directions/programs/focus/whatever.

    OP – based on my own experience, I’d think it’s probably worth talking to your current boss. Not defensive, just a “Hey, I’m wondering if there’s something I’m missing here.” Maybe there’s a project they really don’t want to lose you from, maybe your boss knows something about the new position that would not be a great fit for you, etc.

    There’s a chance he knows something he can’t share if he’s on the board (i.e. that there’s a chance that position might end up getting cut or something?) but you might also find out something that’d make it make more sense. It’d also give you a chance to say “I really like working here, but I admit things A and B about other position are really attractive to me: any chance we could find a way for me to do a bit more of it?” or whatever the situation is.

  14. Yup*

    Nothing helpful to add, just wanted to say that I sympathize with the OP about the mixed messages. “Please apply. We think you’re great.” “Oh wait, never mind. Please withdraw.” What the heck? It leaves the OP in a pretty weird situation with the current boss. Even if there are no hard feelings either way, it’s like sooooo… that happened.

  15. And if*

    I am amazed that I seem to be the only one bothered by this part: “I work for a private high school, and this is one of our sister schools and my boss sits on the board of trustees there, so the two bosses know each other.” Am I the only paranoid person who wonders if maybe the current boss put pressure on the prospective bosses job at the school if he hired away the employee? As a board trustee, that is quite possible.

    Bottom line, I think that it is time for OP to find a job far from those schools!

  16. Anonymous*

    These people are treating you like property instead of like a person – like a serf. I can understand AAM’s argument that Boss 1 doesn’t want to strain the relationship with Boss 2. I can truly understand that as motivation.

    However, it is ethically completely wrong. The employee decided to look for a new job, with absolutely no input from Boss 1 or Boss 2 (a different person asked the OP to apply). Boss 2 didn’t do anything to slight Boss 1. End of story. The employee applied for a different job of his own accord! Boss 1 being irrational about it doesn’t make it right, ethical, or acceptable.

    This stinks of high-school dating politics. Jenny broke up with Bobby, but now that Bobby can’t have her, he thinks no one else should either.

    I’d refuse to withdraw the application and start sending out more resumes. This boss is limiting you on purpose and views you as his serf. If he can’t treat you as an adult with your own plan for your life, then he isn’t someone you want to work for.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think we can conclude that here. As I’ve written above, Boss 1 might have said nothing of the sort to Boss 2, and Boss 2 just concluded on his own that it might strain the relationship. There are a lot of assumptions here that aren’t backed up by facts.

  17. Jeb-Ray Gumpeater*

    Apparently, the potential new boss doesn’t care that alerting the current boss that the OP has applied may have negative repercussions (for the OP).

    Does anyone really want to work for this guy?

  18. Rachel*

    My tuppence worth: you should tell the boss at the place you applied to that they’re free to turn you down if they choose to, but you’re not going to withdraw your application. Don’t explain why, you owe them no explanation whatsoever – they haven’t had the courtesy to explain to you why they’re asking you to withdraw, have they?

    If the new employer turns you down at that point, so be it. If they offer you the job, if it were me I’d turn them down at that point, because it sounds like they’re more interested in keeping your boss sweet than in hiring the best staff for their open positions, which bodes badly for anyone they may recruit.

    Shortly after the situation played out however it was going to play out, I’d be looking for a new position working for neither your old boss nor these weak clowns, if I were you. Let it be both their losses that they weren’t intelligent enough not to let departmental politics get in the way of treating their (prospective) employees fairly.

  19. MikeC*

    Sadly it is common that leadership can be unethical and unprofessional. This is excruciatingly frustrating to those with integrity and ethics. Moreover, it deteriorates the basics trust necessary for organizations to be successful.

    As someone who has been burned three times, (significantly financially harmed) by unethical management, I have learned that all I can control is my attitude and my actions.

    And as a manger myself for many years, I have a rule to never interfere in someone’s career and to always support my staff in their career growth. I am genuine and my teams know it.

    As a result, there maybe be around a dozen unethical people I would not work for again. And I have hundreds of people who would come work on my team in a heartbeat.

    As the “harmed” person, there’s a saying “Living well is best revenge”.
    As someone mentioned, they still get angry to this day. It’s a very real feeling, and you always will be. The best thing for you to do start building relationships with recruiting firms and creating new opportunities. A busy mind doesn’t have time to ruminate on the past.

    There are lots more options out there than people realize. The best analogy is relationship; you lose the “love of your life” and think there is no one else as good – believe me, there are millions of people (and jobs) out there. You just have to “meet” a lot of them and you will find something better. It sounds cliche, but it is completely true.

    As hard as it is, move forward, and don’t look back. You’ll be better off somewhere else.

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