4 job search nightmares that could happen to you

Job seekers often prepare for tough situations like not getting any call-backs or rude and hostile interviewers. But it can get even worse than that – like having your current employer find out that you’re actively job-searching or having an offer fall through after you’ve already resigned your current job.

Here are four potential job search disasters that will hopefully never happen to you. (Warning: If you’re currently job-seeking, this may cause nightmares.)

1. Your current employer finds out you’re looking, before you’re ready to give notice. While there are some reasonable managers who will take the news that you’re looking for a new job in stride, there are many more who won’t take it well at all. Many managers will see you as disloyal or a short-timer, and as a result will stop giving you plum assignments, curtail any investment in your development, and in some cases may even fire you. (To be clear, not every employer responds this way – but enough do that it’s really important to know what kind of manager you’re dealing with.)

If your manager finds out that you’re looking before you’re ready to leave, your best bet of salvaging the situation is not to lie. Your boss will likely see through it, and if you do end up getting a new job and leaving shortly afterwards, your lie will be obvious and can end up burning the bridge. Instead, you’re better off explaining that you’re looking at options to advance in your career, or that you’re concerned about the company’s stability in this economy – and then demonstrate through your work that your commitment to your job as long as you’re there is as strong as ever.

2. You know you won’t get a good reference from your most recent manager. If your former boss will give you a negative review, simply not listing them is enough; reference-checkers can call anyone you’ve worked for, or who might know you, even if they aren’t on the list you provide. Instead, your best bet is to call your old boss and ask if she would be willing to reach an agreement with you on what she’ll say to future reference calls. If that fails, you might have better luck with your former company’s HR department, which might be willing to speak to your old boss on your behalf.

Or, if all else fails, you may need to simply warn prospective new employers that the reference won’t be a good one, which will allow you to provide context and framing for what they might be about to hear. For instance, if your relationship with your boss soured after a particular event, you could say something like, “By the way, I had glowing reviews from my boss at that job, but our relationship became strained toward the end and I worry that it could color that reference.” (Be prepared for questions about what caused the strain!)

3. A company tells you that an offer is coming, so you put your job search on hold – but the offer never comes. This happens more than you might think: You hear that an offer is coming your way and the company is just getting paperwork together and then … silence. If you check in, you might be told they’re still working on, but the offer never materializes. In the meantime, you’ve turned down interviews and stopped sending out resumes, because you thought your search was over.

This one is easily avoided by remembering that you never really have an offer until you have a formal offer, in writing. Don’t let up on your search, no matter how close you think that job offer is. Besides, even if you do get the offer, you might not be able to come to terms on salary or other points – so keep up the search.

4. You accept a job offer, resign your current job, and then the offer gets revoked. At that point, you’ve already given notice at your job, and could be left with no job at all. While this doesn’t happen a lot, it’s not unheard of – and it’s generally legal unless the employer operated with deliberate fraudulent intent.

If this happens, try to negotiate a severance payment from the new employer, by pointing out that you quit your job based on their promise to you. You can also check with your old employer to see if they’ll let you stay – but it’s a awful situation to be stuck in.

The good news? Most job searches don’t end in these disasters. They might be tough for other reasons (competitive market, tough interviewers, and so forth), but hopefully you’ll never land in one of these nightmares.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. nyxalinth

    I had somewhat #4 happen to me. I wasn’t already working, and it wasn’t a really good job just a fill in the blanks I need work now sort of thing doing telemarketing for 1-800-flowers or somesuch. We would have been contacting florists to get them to use the service. Anyway. Guy interviews me and hires me, tells me to report to Lady on Monday.

    I come in on Monday, and Lady has no idea who I am or why I’m there. When I tell her, she says, “Oh no, Guy had no authority to actually hire anyone…” and told me she’d call if he was interested after interviews were done. I didn’t get a call.

    Not having a job already makes this somewhat not as bad, because all I was leaving was being unemployed, but still.

  2. Rebecca

    #1 happened to me. My manager flipped when she found out I had gone to a job interview. She stormed around her office, screamed at me, told me we were a family and how dare I look elsewhere. When I tried to calmly explain that this is a business, we get paid to do jobs and we’re not a family, and that I was simply exploring other opportunities because we hadn’t received any raises in years, she simply didn’t care.

    Nearly a year later, it’s clear I am persona non gratis in our office. She makes my life miserable every chance she gets, whether it’s stupid assignments that take my time away from my work (that I get behind on, and she won’t assign help at the same time), giving me a hard time about every time off request, or just being rude to me. And I have to take it. I haven’t been able to find an advertised job with similar pay and full time benefits, let alone land another interview.

    I’m afraid situations like this will continue unless the employment situation swings back the other way. It’s currently totally an employer’s market.

    1. Brton3

      Something similar happened to me too, except it wasn’t my manager who went nuts – she knew I was looking, and she was looking herself – but it was HER manager who lost it when she found out I was looking. Luckily I had an offer in hand that very day (and my manager left about a month later).

    2. Kelly O

      Totally relate – I went on an interview last spring with an agency, just to test waters and see what I could find, and when my new boss found out about it, I got quite the lecture.

      Over the last year, I’ve seen that her reaction is fairly typical for her regarding things that do not Go Her Way, but it’s made for a rather difficult year of work.

      1. IronMaiden

        I interviewed recently and my manager found out. She sent me a rather hurt email asking if I wasn’t going to be moving to the new building, so I just sent her one back saying I didn’t know, I’d been interested in the position I interviewed for for a long time and it had only become available recently. At least she said she was happy to porvide a reference.

  3. Lora

    For #2, what if you weren’t there very long (on account of Evil Boss)–can you say something like, “Oh, I was only under Evil Boss for a few months, I don’t know if he’d be able to give you a good idea of my work since he didn’t see much of it. But here are Awesome Bosses 1,2,3 and 4, whom I worked under for 2,000 years.” Would that help at all?

    I’m in exactly this situation–short-timing in a job on account of my boss and I have an icy relationship of mutual hatred about pretty much everything. He’s never going to say anything nice about me, I will never say anything nice about him. Lord willing and if’n the creek don’t rise, I’ll be here less than a year, while my other positions have been held a minimum of two years, usually more like 6 with increasing responsibility, promotions, etc. I didn’t even work for him the first three months, I worked for another guy who was great–but again, only 3 months. Wish I would have started job hunting sooner, then I could have left it completely off my resume.

  4. Maggie

    I had an interview a few months ago, was told I would be called within a few days to schedule a 2nd interview. It sure sounded like they were interested in me. But my theory was until someone said “I do” then the search would go on. I was hired somewhere else and then the first place finally did call to schedule that 2nd interview. Had to tell them I was no longer available.

    1. Anonymous

      Same thing happened to me. And it was soooo satisfying to tell the first place that I had already accepted another offer (especially since it was through a recruiter that really played “hurry up and wait”).

  5. Holly

    Maybe a number five – there is only 1-2 job openings for your field within 50 miles of you, and you’re too early in your career to look out of state successfully. Eeek.

    1. Brton3

      If your job is that rare (and perhaps that means good candidates are in-demand and hard to find) it may be that out-of-state positions would consider you. I got a job across the country after barely 2 years experience, purely because the job is in demand and hard to fill, and they even paid all my interview and moving expenses. You know better than I about your career, but don’t sell yourself short….

  6. MovingRightAlong

    After reading through the discussion on Sunday, I’m worried about fraudulent job posters trying to steal my identity! Particularly because I’m looking at a post for an entry level job that sounds almost too good to be true (by my standards, which are low). Data entry? 40 wpm? 9-5? Tell me more! The weirdness comes from the very specific details they want from me without providing any details about the company/type of business.

      1. MovingRightAlong

        Travel time to zip code #####, last/current compensation and desired compensation, and confirmation of willingness to undergo a credit check and background check through DMV. I already don’t like applying for jobs without knowing the company. Now you want my consent to take a look at my finances? I wouldn’t even be considering it if I didn’t really need full time work.

        1. JaxBM

          Background checks through the DMV? That makes no sense to me. I went to nursing school and we had to have them, but they were conducted by law enforcement, and we paid for the
          m out of pocket. Ditto every single local or state agency where we did clinical rotations. Every single time. DMV never involved.

    1. JoJo

      Be very careful. I had a phone call allegedly from a temp agency for a job in my East Coast city, the ‘recruiter’ spoke broken English, but he wouldn’t give my any particulars. Then he sent me an email requesting my DOB, citizenship status, and last 4 digits of my SS#. To top it off, their address was for Livonia, Michigan, with the road name misspelled. I grew up in Oakland County, and I know damn well that it’s ‘Seven Mile Road’, not ‘Seven Miles Road’, and why would a local company use an out-of-state recruiter for an admin position?

      I figured it was a phishing scam and deleted it. I’ve heard several similar stories, so there are obviously a lot of scammers out there.

  7. Aram

    Let’s remember that the updated advice is “wait to give notice until you have an offer in writing and it has a start date”. *wink*

    1. RedStateBlues

      Don’t forget the corollary to the updated advice: “Don’t talk $##t about nearly everybody you work with/for during your 2 week notice”. Actually had a former co-worker do this, and job offer was rescinded (for unrelated reasons) 2 days before his last day. Might be the only time I’ve ever seen Karma in action.

      1. Jessa

        Absolutely. Karma will get you something will go wrong or one of those people will be called for a reference.

  8. Grace

    An employee hired by my company accepted the offer, relocated his family to the other side of the country and bought a house only to have the contract fall through at last minute. It was so awful :(

    1. nyxalinth

      This makes me what to feel like I’m on eggshells even past the updated version and into “You don’t have the job until you’ve been there at least 90 days!”

    2. Windchime

      We had something kind of similar happen where I work. A guy was hired, moved his family here, and after just a month or two is was apparent that he did NOT fit the company culture at all and he was let go. He was a jerk, but I still felt bad for him being in that situation.

  9. Chris80

    Regarding #2, what is meant by coming to an agreement on what kind of reference you’ll get? Wouldn’t a former employee have very little bargaining power to convince the employer to alter their reference? I’m just not sure how this conversation would potentially go and what would be considered a good outcome.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Sometimes employers are surprisingly willing to come to an agreement like this, because they don’t want the hassle of dealing with you if you don’t drop it.

  10. Anony1234

    My bosses know the job I have is not my field. They know the day is coming for when I leave. But I still don’t trust the thought they would be pleasant if they found out I was job searching. I see two sides now on some issues that come about. I’m taking some extra time off – no paycheck (retail) – this summer, and while my boss had granted that permission back a year ago, he is now making snide comments about it, like saying I’m taking a lot of time. He isn’t telling me no; I guess I’m inconveniencing. So I can only imagine what he’ll be like if he found out I was searching or what will be said once I land another job (*fingers crossed*).

  11. Snufkin

    I’ve had #3 happen to me enough times in the recent past that I no longer believe anything is a done deal until I have it firmly in writing. At least in one case, the company decided to table the position because of their annual budget. Thankfully the recruiter was nice enough to call me and explain that decision, thank me for my time, and say that she’d like to keep in touch for future openings. However the other two times this has happened, I went through multiple interviews and then when I was told it was in the bag, they suddenly fell off of the face of the Earth. Again, the downside is that I’m now pretty slow to trust in any interview situation because I’ve been burned enough times.

  12. Elizabeth West

    For #3, don’t stop looking, being on unemployment actually helps with this. You have to keep looking as long as you’re getting those checks, because they can ask you for that little tally sheet with all the employers on it at any time.

    I had a feeling I was going to get my new job, but I kept up the search, as I was still on the dole. It gave me great satisfaction when I got two calls my first week to say, “Thank you and I’m sorry, but I’ve already accepted another offer.” :D

  13. TychaBrahe

    I was a victim of #4. I was working at a cosmetic medical office not doing the computer work I was hired for when I got an offer to go work for an amazing non-profit in a low-level management position.

    The non-profit was in the process of moving. They couldn’t complete my paperwork. I quit my job, showed up for two days to help pack and move, and was then told that they had a change of plans.

    *sigh* I was young and stupid, and it was a place I had volunteered for in the past. I still loathe the woman who treated me so shabbily. She’s a nationally known minor political pundit these days, and I am always happy when we’re on opposite sides of an opinion, as it confirms to me that I’ve made the right decision.

  14. EA Edmonton

    I have been with a professional services company for 15 years and after some reorganization, I was overlooked for a promotion. A friend from a competitor company told me about an opportunity and so I met with a new employer HC manager. Now I suspect the CEO of the competitor called my boss and told him I applied. In Canada can I get fired for looking at an opportunity? How can I protect my current job while viewing opportunities?

    Do I tell my present boss I was just looking at an opportunity as it was brought to me?

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