how to discreetly job search when you have a nosy boss

A reader writes:

How do I manage a job search with a nosy boss?

My boss sits 15 feet away from me in a semi-open floor plan. I have no privacy. So, if I get a call on my cell phone during business hours it will likely be noticed whether I answer and leave to deal with it. (It’s a casual enough workplace that this isn’t frowned upon, but a serious job search might make my cell distraction more frequent and observable.) Is it frowned upon to ask in cover letters that initial correspondence go through email? How do I word such a request?

Also, my boss is observant and will ask if I disappear to take calls or go to interviews. I currently have a “cover” of sorts in that I volunteer with a nonprofit and once in a while take a minute to take care of small tasks that needs done during business hours. But a prime example is that one day I had to go to a brief meeting for the NPO, and I dressed accordingly (business casual, when my current job is very casual). When I came back from the meeting, my boss asked me straight-up where I went in a very “I’m trying to play this cool like a casual convo but obviously you’re dressed up and left for an hour-meeting in the middle of the day.” My straight-faced lying skills are spotty at best. While I generally feel I could handle straight inquiries as “NPO business,” the boss is a wily man and if he gets suspicious will try to trip people up and catch the lie.

If reading that makes you think that maybe my workplace isn’t the healthiest – you’re reading right. On one hand, I’m a good worker and it is recognized (but I can’t ask for more compensation – this is a small company, my boss is the owner, and he decides that an employee is worth precisely $X at the yearly review and anyone’s attempt to negotiate ends poorly). He is borderline abusive and expert at reading people. He finds the line that keeps people just complacent enough to stay and toes it, with an occasional beratement/apology test to see if/how that line has shifted. If he picks up this shift in me, I cannot see a way for it to end well.

Extra confounding factor: My spouse works in the same company. So, ultimately, I have to figure out how to be super-sneaky and extra-diplomatic about the departure. (I’m not worried about the diplomacy. The boss likes me enough to make this part easy if I get through the job search without suspicion.) The spouse is also a highly valued employee and there is precedent (previous married couples working here) that if I handle this well, my departure won’t be taken out on them.

Your boss sounds delightful. I can’t imagine why you’re job searching.

You can indeed say something in cover letters like, “During the day, it’s easiest to reach me by email if you’d like to schedule a time to talk.” That said, some employers will call anyway — either because they overlook that line (because they’re not usually calling right after reading your materials, so they’ve forgotten you said that, or the person calling isn’t the same person who read your cover letter) or because they have a system and they prefer to stick to it. But you don’t have to answer the call as soon as it comes in; it’s fine to let it go to voicemail and then call back when it’s more convenient for you.

As for your boss’s attempt to bore into your very soul if he suspects you’re taking time off for interviews or taking calls from other employers in the stairwell or the parking lot — I think you’re going to have practice breezily saying “I had a dentist appointment,” “I had a meeting for my volunteer job,” “I had a personal call to take,” and so forth. In fact, it might be convenient to mention now that you’re starting a series of dental treatments. (If that feels shady, that’s on him for making it impossible for you to be vague without getting inappropriately questioned by him. Ideally you should just be able to say you have an appointment. If he won’t allow that, he’s basically forcing you to use this strategy.)

Also, change some of your habits now so that it stands out less when you deviate from your normal routine for job search activities. Start dressing up more on some days when you’re going to be in the office the whole day, so that nicer clothes become just the way you dress sometimes, rather than something your boss can latch on to as the sign of an interview. And if you don’t currently leave the office for lunch, start doing that regularly so that if you duck out to do a phone interview mid-day, it’ll be less noticeable.

Read an update to this letter here

{ 177 comments… read them below }

  1. Dawn*

    “Start dressing up more on some days when you’re going to be in the office the whole day”

    I’ve found a great way to pull this off is to wear the bottom half of a pants suit with whatever blouse you’d wear underneath the jacket and flats/more casual shoes. Then when you go for the interview you put the jacket on top, change into heels, and add a necklace. So if you start making this outfit part of your normal rotation now, no one will bat an eye when you wear it in on interview day.

    1. Dawn*

      Although if you’re a dude who regularly wears khakis and polo shirts… can’t help you there.

      1. Joseph*

        In most offices, it’s the dress shirt and tie that moves men up from “casual” to “dressy” far more so than the difference between khakis and dress pants. Wear dress pants with your normal polo, then keep a spare tie, dress shirt and jacket in your car (in your trunk if you’re really paranoid your boss might look into the windows).

        Stop somewhere in a parking lot to quickly change your shirt.

        1. TheLazyB*

          My DH isn’t job hunting but has recently decided to smarten himself up at work, started wearing a waistcoat and stuff. Everyone thought it was weird at first as before he didn’t even wear a tie but now they’ve just accepted it’s him and just occasionally take the mick.

          1. Nunya*

            Just curious if the phrase “take the mick” has anything to do with the perjorative for an Irish person or originates elsewhere.

            1. A. Nonny Mouse*

              “Taking the mick” is (most likely) a Cockney Rhyming Slang variant of the phrase “taking the piss”: “taking the mickey bliss.”

            2. Meg*

              It’s actually based on Cockney rhyming slang – ‘Taking the Micky Bliss’ = ‘taking the p*ss’

            3. Lily in NYC*

              Most people think it originated with rhyming slang and refers to a character named Mickey Bliss. I suggest googling if you want more info because I am feeling too lazy to type more.

            4. Ginny*

              I’ve always understood that it derived from Cockney rhyming slang. Take the Mick/Mickey from Take the Mickey Bliss (= piss). I also once saw somewhere that Mickey in this context was believed to be derived from “micturition” but I’ve no idea if that’s accurate.

              1. Artemesia*

                Sounds likely. AS a kid we were taught to say ‘mic’ for what everyone else called ‘pee’ — my mother was a nurse.

                1. Red*

                  “Frequency of micturition” = “she has to get up and pee a lot more often than usual” in medical speak.

              1. Merry and Bright*

                Me too! I also remember people including journalists using this about the politician Michael Heseltine when they disagreed with him (to put it politely).

              2. Just Write*

                My favourite is “taking the Archangel.” It doesn’t seem to even exist online, so it might have been a product of my nerdy uni friends group, but it still finds its way into my speech sometimes.

            5. FiveWheels*

              Just as an observation, I’m Irish and it’s a common phrase here that nobody finds offensive.

            1. Unegen*

              It’s the 3rd piece of a 3-piece suit: the vest. It’s chiefly British English, because in British English a “vest” is an undershirt.

              1. Unegen*

                And as for “why not call it a vest, this is ‘Murica”, well, not all vests are alike. A suit vest (waistcoat) is not the same as a sweater vest. Saying “waistcoat” defines what type of vest.

        2. Cobol*

          Opposite in my field. I wear button ups with jeans on the reg. I’d suggest that. It’s a lot easier to (carefully) roll up a pair of dress pants and a tie. A dress shirt in a backpack can get wrinkled very easily and look unprofessional in an interview.

          1. Pwyll*

            +1 to this. No one ever raised an eyebrow to my wearing a button-down shirt with jeans, and it’s far easier (and discrete) to slip into dress pants in the car or the bathroom than it is to swap shirts.

          2. MaggiePi*

            That makes sense if you need to have it in a backpack because of public transit or walking/biking or something. I think many people here are assuming the extra clothes would be in your car.

            1. TootsNYC*

              but Pwyll’s point is that you can change your bottoms in the car w/ nobody really seeing bare skin, but if you pull your shirt off and put on another one, that body motion and briefly-bare skin is visible. (You can drive off and change in some random parking lot, of course, but it’s still a self-conscious-making thing.) And for women, it’s a really bad thing to bare your top as you change shirts, but no one will really see you changing your pants to a skirt.

          3. Momjeans*

            This works for women too – nice bouse and the jacket from an interview-worthy suit look plausibly casual when you swap the suit pants (or skirt) for a pair of jeans and change shoes. And pants can be rolled up and stored in your bag fairly easily. This was my M.O. when job hunting from a casual office. No one sees jeans and thinks “you just went to a job interview!”

          4. Tomato Frog*

            Oh man I’m a woman but this is brilliant and I don’t know why I never thought of it. As someone in a casual office, it would be totally normal for me to wear jeans with a nice top and a blazer. As someone who doesn’t have a car, it’s much easier for me to carry a pencil skirt in my bag. And jeans just scream “This person could not possibly have a job interview.” Thank you for your wisdom!

          5. Doctor Russe*

            My favorite excuse, which my mom has used in parental notes since I was in elementary school, is the “personal business” or “some personal issues came up last minute”. Sounds legit, zero information content.

            For hiding interview clothes – women’s dressy tops now come in lovely non-wrinkle filmy polyester that can be folded. For men, I agree with others and think the shirt should stay on. ( Or make a point always having miscellaneous dry-cleaned shirts hanging in your car visibly.) You can also hide your clothes in a gym duffel, a reusable shopping bag, or similar container.

            1. TootsNYC*

              Though, in many workplaces, if you generally share stuff like going to physical therapy, or the dentist, or the bank, if you suddenly give no info whatsoever, it’s very suspicious.

              1. OhNo*

                Or everyone is going to assume it’s very private and/or very personal. That’s been my experience in gossipy workplaces – if you usually share and then suddenly you don’t, everyone just assumed it was either a lady-parts issue or a butt problem.

                1. KH*

                  Yeah, this. If I don’t give details and take time off, I’ll sometimes get well-meaning “Is everything ok?” emails from co-workers. Of course, you can brush those off by just responding “yes, just some personal stuff – nothing big, thanks for asking”

    2. themmases*

      I also highly recommend modular outfits. At this time of year, many people are wearing them anyway to deal with hot commute/freezing office.

      An outfit like those recommended to the OP worried about sweating would probably work great. At places I’ve worked, it’s pretty acceptable to sit at your desk in a sleeveless blouse especially if there is a cardigan or jacket right there that you would clearly put on for a meeting. It just looks like a casual warm weather outfit that you’re prepared to cover up if needed.

    3. K.*

      I’ve also done this with dresses – worn a dress and kept stuff to dress it up (jacket, dressier shoes, etc.). I wear dresses to work really often, especially in warm weather, so people aren’t suspicious when I do.

    4. Noah*

      Yup, I have an interview today. I’m (a man) wearing a suit, but I don’t have my jacket or tie on yet, so I just look business casual like everyone else in my office.

    5. Nosy Boss OP*

      OP here. I’m definitely going to try to kick this up a notch (I’ve made attempts at it in the past), but I guess I failed to define that “very casual” sometimes means “I’m working in a warehouse.” It’s not everyday, but it is a couple times a week and it’s never scheduled, either. Trying to not muss up nicer clothes in a warehouse is frustrating, and so is packing a closet to have “just in case” is, too…I’ll just have to suck it up and deal if I want to get out of here.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Well, yes, in the same way that “Oh, I’m sorry, I couldn’t possibly go to your child’s violin recital, I’ve got a knitting club meeting that night” is more acceptable than “I couldn’t possibly, I’m going to be eloping that same day.”

      Little white lies need to stay little.

      1. Bwmn*

        Exactly – I also think that bad bosses and bad policies end up in such results.

        I used to work somewhere that did not allow for half days off be it for the doctor, vacation, or an interview. However, the policy (due to bizarre recording of hours) would allow you to show up for three hours, say you were feeling very sick and then be allowed to go home and not use a sick day or other PTO. It was a silly policy and I also worked for a boss who terrified me of interviewing – so that summer I got a few more headcolds.

      2. Rmric0*

        They should also be relatively banal and not invite much further inquiry/attention. Basically you have to be able to set it and forget it.

    2. Wonder*

      That caught my eye. I don’t see how it is okay to lie about a string of future appointments… that is something my boss would want a note for (rather than 1-2 here and there with little notice). I would hate to see someone get fired for setting up a fake story like this.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        Ok in what way? From a moral standpoint or from an employer’s standpoint? As If you using a little white lie to avoid explaining something you shouldn’t have to explain in the first place, that’s radically different from creating a huge lie that serves no legitimate purpose. Here, the OP basically has to lie to avoid being fired for something that she shouldn’t be fired for. It’s normal for employees to look for new jobs. It’s normal for them to want to leave for any number of reasons. Employers who make that difficult are the problem, not the employee.

        But an employee blatantly lying about having a cancer diagnosis, about being on cancer meds, about having already seen an oncologist, all for no good reason, that’s not the same thing at all as saying you have dentist appointment so you can go to an interview and not get fired.

        1. Wonder*

          I see it this way. Saying you have a string of appointments upcoming is a blatant lie to get time off of work, it is even worse if she is paid sick time. A white lie to me is saying you have an personal appt/meeting with short notice. This too is crafting a medical condition. What happens if a note is requested for these appointments? Is she is the right to forge a note making up a reason? Will it not look bad if she is caught lying?

          For a string of dentist appts the most likely treatments are painful (fillings, root canals, etc.) so you can’t just ‘pop out’ and then come back and fake a filling repeatedly. You’re looking at 1/2 to whole day things on a potential frequent basis.

          When I was job hunting I’d tell my boss that I had an appt at the bank, at the insurance office, or that I had a single dental cleaning. Things that require minimal details and no proof.

          With the whole cancer thing, I did not catch where the employee was trying to take advantage or get time off. She had a note for an actual appointment but chose to lie for some unknown reason.

          I can see lying about a single appt but not a string of them and that is where I’d draw a line.

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            It’s up to you to make up a lie that you are comfortable risk or, if you work for a boss like the OP’s, get fired for having an interview. If you feel that saying you have a string of dental appointments is crossing a line (and nobody was suggesting it has to always be a dental appointment, although I usually return to work after getting fillings, of which I’ve had many), then nobody is saying you have to say it was a dental appointment. Just stick to something small that is totally normal for a person to miss a short period of work for.

            On the other hand, if you are the manager in this situation and you think that lying about dental appointments is a big deal (but other white lies aren’t?), then you can avoid having that happen by being the kind of manager who doesn’t punish people for going on interviews. Problem solved.

            If you don’t think lying about having cancer and making up doctor’s notes and appointments with oncologists and having chemo is a big deal if the employee isn’t asking for time off, we’ll just have to disagree on that.

    3. Kasia*

      People don’t generally die from a series of dental appointments like they might from cancer. Lying about having cancer in any situation (especially this one) would be too big of a lie and would cause the people around you to worry

      1. Laurel Gray*

        Right. People worry and go into action in support. People will host a variety of charitable events to support and raise money for a colleague with cancer. Cancer is a BIG. DEAL. No one is putting together a charity 5k for the colleague that announces having 3 crowns and a root canal.

    4. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      I missed this yesterday and read some of the comments today, and I’m mystified at the number of commenters who seem to be on the side of the lying employee.

      She lied about having cancer, gave lots of (untruthful) details, and later admitted it; she’s also someone who had lied and harassed other employees previously.

      What the what?

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        I too am really, really surprised by this as well.

        I do not understand this vehement support of someone who lied about having cancer.

      2. Lily in NYC*

        Yeah me too. There were some very unrealistic scenarios people were coming up with to defend her, even after OP updated with the info that she definitely lied.

      3. Bwmn*

        While I don’t approve the lying – I think this is far more a case of “two wrongs” which drove some of the sympathy.

        For better or worse there are a number of medical ailments that are seen as blameless and appropriate to discuss and those that do not. Whether it’s because they are “gross” or are attached to some moralities. So if someone felt uncomfortable in giving details and under pressure gave a “bad” lie (having cancer) as opposed to a “good” lie (needing dental work) – the concern is in the appropriateness of the lie, not the issue of not wanting to fully disclose medical issues and feeling pressured to do so.

        My father has a lot of skin cancer – and without knowing anything about his life, medical history, family history – so many people feel happy to jump in with their thoughts and comments about wearing sunblock, tanning beds, etc. Lots of medical issues get tied up in people’s thoughts on what people should or shouldn’t do, so lots of people are uncomfortable with either discussing the issues or providing appropriate work arounds.

        If this employee has lied in the past and harassed other employees – she should have been fired for those reasons. For this however, I don’t think anyone comes out looking great. Employee and employer.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          Yeah, but people feel free to jump in with comments and thoughts on any subject, medical or otherwise. I feel for people who feel pressured to disclose more than they need to or want to–which is the excuse that some people were giving for the employee–I’ve been there. Sometimes I’m still there. But in life you are always going to have to deal with this. You have to learn to either push back or come up with a bland lie. Saying you have cancer, have already met with an oncologist, and are starting chemo because you don’t want to disclose something else? That’s a big nope. It’s just not ok.

          1. Bwmn*

            As an American having worked overseas and in the US, I’ve found that in the US as we get far fewer sick days (if any), that’s there’s a huge impulse to provide a real or serious reason to be sick. All of the horrible posts from people who have worked on reality tv or in restaurants along the lines of “I was running a 101 degree fever, throwing up on my coworkers, missing a finger, pregnant and still showed up to work” do more to make people prove their “genuinely” ill than ensure that people have access to adequate sick days.

            When it comes to lying to an employer both directly and indirectly, as there are often many very good reasons to do so – the issue here is truly one of degree. Now had the lie been something like E. Coli or Zika instead of stomach cancer is that better or worse – I don’t know. But I think the pushback was coming from a place where this specific lie told in this specific way was not believed to be a terminable offense. It doesn’t shine a positive light on the OP, but I do think that it’s part of a larger conversation on illness in the American workplace.

    5. Tea*

      Lying about needing dental work (hopefully) has little impact on your coworker’s lives and your own. Lying about cancer… is a whole ‘nother story. Sort of like if you were trying to get out of some obligation, you would say, “Oh no, I can’t, I’m meeting my sister today,” instead of “Oh no, I can’t, my sister was killed and I’m attending the funeral.” Both are lies, but one is 100x greater in magnitude.

    6. AnotherAlison*

      I would just hate to lie to anyone as nosy as the boss. Not because of ethical reasons, but I might crack under the follow up questions. Root canal? Who is your surgeon? Is he the one over off 101th street?

      I guess if I was in the situation and pressed with questions, I’d say, “You know, I don’t remember his name. It’s a guy my regular dentist referred me to. I have the address written down in my car.”

    7. Connie-Lynne*

      So, while I do agree with all the other commenters about white lies vs big ones, I’ll note that I was never comfortable lying like this to employers — even nosy, awful ones likely to take retribution. I worried not only about the lack of personal integrity, but also that I would forget my lies!

      So in these situations, I just say “I have a personal appointment.” “I’d really rather not talk about it.” Any further agitation when pressed just gives credence to the very personal nature of things, as does the sticking to “I’m sorry, I have to leave, I really really can’t discuss it.” “Please respect my privacy.” …and so on.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Isn’t it funny how, with bosses like this, it’s like a self-fulfilling phrophecy?

  2. 2 Cents*

    Yes to all of Alison’s advice. What helped me:
    –lots of dental and medical appointments (I didn’t get too specific, other than my appointments always seem to bunch up on each other — physical, upset stomach, yearly obgyn appt, etc.)
    –always, always, always went out for lunch, even if it was just 30 minutes. That way, no one expected me to be at my desk during that time.
    –Took half a day for interviews when I could
    –Dressed up more and made it more random on which days I dressed up (it was a “casual Friday” office, but I could get away with jeans midweek. Also, made the “ugh, need to do laundry” excuse when I came in fancy)
    –Mentioned I was dealing with a personal issue that required some during-the-day phone calls. Was fortunate enough to work across the street from a large, but quiet cafe I could duck into

    1. Joseph*

      Seconding the lunch thing. Even if you like saving money via leftovers or brown-bag, you should still go eat in a park or run errands or something.

    2. Meg Murry*

      Yes, if you usually eat lunch at your desk, switching it up to going out at least occasionally (1-2x a week) can help, and if your job allows it occasionally taking lunch early or late. If you don’t want to actually go out to lunch, eating quickly at your desk and then going for a walk is also a way to get people used to seeing you away from your desk.

      Since your husband works with you, make sure you are on the same page. If you say you will be late due to an appointment, you don’t want him to say you are at the dentist and then you come in and say you were the optometrist.

      Home repairs are also a good reason to have lots of phone calls and take random days off to meet with contractors to get a quote for a new roof or to deal with a hot water heater on the fritz – although that might not work as well in OPs case, since her boss might ask why she always has to be the one to deal with it and never her husband.

    3. AdAgencyChick*

      Oh, OP, I feel for you. Sometimes I wonder whether part of the reason employers go to open offices is that it makes it harder for employees to leave!

      I used to:
      * Email to schedule calls (if they called without warning, I let it go to voicemail, sent an email asking whether X time was OK, and called back then)
      * Tell recruiters the first time I spoke on the phone with them that I’m dealing with an open office and therefore I’d need to plan ahead for phone calls
      * Wear interview-worthy clothes to work on a regular basis (fortunately, in my industry, you can interview in a summer dress or khakis)
      * Ask for early-morning interviews so I could get into work only a few minutes late

      Good luck!

      1. AnotherHRPro*

        Talk to any recruiters that you are working with. They are generally used to scheduling calls either before or after normal working hours. And sometimes interviews can even be scheduled during these non-traditional hours. For the right candidate, companies are willing to be flexible. Afterall, they know you currently have a job and that can make your availability limited.

        And I completely support the idea of generally starting to dress up. You will be surprised how quickly your new dress will be accepted and not seem unusual. Even in the most causal offices some folks elect to dress nicer than required on a daily basis.

    4. Not me*

      Ooooh, someone here at work frequently says that she needs to do laundry so she is wearing a “church outfit” sometimes. Now I’m wondering about her frequent “doctor appointments”!

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        She definitely could be interviewing. But I have tons of medical appointments and dress up sometimes because I run out of laundry. So it really could be that. Or both! It has occurred to me that I’ve built up quite the plausible excuse through my years of appointments and random dressing up.

    5. TootsNYC*

      When I used to dress up suddenly, the reason was often (genuinely), “I saw this in the closet and realized I never get to wear it!”

    6. Nosy Boss OP*

      I’ll have to start leaving for my lunches, for sure. I always leave my desk, but rarely leave the building. And I’ve never thought of dressing up as a “laundry day” thing! (Always thought the reverse – the worst of the closet, like granny-panties, as laundry day)

  3. Midge*

    OP, if you’re a woman, may I suggest appointments with your gynecologist as a go-to excuse? I’m guessing (hoping!) your jerk boss wouldn’t be bold enough to ask for too many details about those appointments.

      1. Laurel Gray*

        If I heard someone shout this in my workplace I would try to normalize the situation by shouting back “right on!” or fist pumping, or high-fiving anyone in my vicinity who was not completely mortified. Then again I am a huge proponent to one word responses to intrusiveness.

    1. Bwmn*

      This is excellent – and if he does get too specific, I recommend using the “mid-cycle bleeding” excuse. It’s essentially the IBS of the OB/GYN world. It can take a number of appointments to check out different things and the end result is that it can go away on its own and have no reason for starting or stopping.

      1. Nosy Boss OP*

        I like this one. I’m hoping to be more vague about “doctor appointments,” but this is going in my playbook as a hail mary.

    2. Lefty*

      One quick caution with this… if your nosy boss is at all difficult about any sort of pregnancy/maternity issue… it may cause EXTRA inquiries from him. (I’ve had to remind a manager that asking employees to NOT get pregnant “on his watch” is completely inappropriate and extremely gross… and patronizing… and sexist.)

      1. AnonEMoose*


        Although, I’ll admit, part of me would be tempted to respond, totally deadpan “I promise not to get pregnant while you’re watching.” Then walk away, and see how long it takes the penny to drop. If it ever does. (Of course, I’m well over 40 and had that taken care of years ago, but that would be too ripe a guilt-free snark opportunity to pass up. Besides a manager saying that being sexist, patronizing, and awful.)

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Not only that, when she finally does give notice, he’s gonna be like “wow how’d you manage to find a job while juggling all these vagina appointments” or more likely “guess all those vagina appointments were fake”,

      3. Midge*

        Ugh. That is gross, but a valid point. Especially because the OP’s spouse also works there, I can see the boss getting weird and inappropriate fast. :(

    3. AnotherHRPro*

      Whenever I interview I find that just saying I have an appointment works. As long as you aren’t a normal abuser of time off, the typical manager will be fine with that and assume that is it a doctor/dentist appointment.

    4. Nosy Boss OP*

      It would probably depend on his mood. I’m hoping to keep to really general “doctor appointments” as opposed to specialists like gynos – don’t want him to think I’m in the family planning way.

  4. Meg Murry*

    If OP uses a Google Voice number instead of her regular cell number, she can let calls go to voicemail and then read the transcript of the message in her email rather than have to listen to the voicemail. Most employers understand people aren’t necessarily answering their cell phones during the work day and won’t be put off by having to leave a voicemail for an unscheduled call.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        How accurate is it? My cell phone service provider has that service, and it regularly comes up with something not even close to what was said. I love that. I can usually figure out what was said and I get a good laugh out of it.

        As an example, here’s a message my sister left me recently, as transcribed by the service:
        “Hey it’s me. We’re at the right kind of hair but I got two nation-here(?). Anyway and then red pair. Just because I know you probably won’t like it but it’s rude. So anyway that’s all. Talk to you later when I get some better and I’m about to head to check on mine. everything(?) you need to call me back quickly.”

        1. Whattaman*

          It’s pretty fantastic. I used it while apartment hunting so realtors didn’t have my phone number. Example from that time:

          Yes, Hi Whattaman This is TheRealtor giving you a call again. Just want to go over the link that I sent you if it’s possible to give me a call at 123-555-5555 again My number is 123-555-5555 Just wanted to go over the the link and if you know you had any questions or you know any other available neighborhoods that you wanted me to look at it so once again, give me a call on my name is TheRealtor 123-555-5555. Thank you bye bye.

            1. Whattaman*

              It was pretty useful; I created a disposable gmail account, too. I wound up having a totally insane realtor text spam me verbal abuse so I was grateful she didn’t have access to my real accounts.

        2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          My experience has been that my name is the only thing that regularly gives it conniptions, but everything else is pretty accurate, and I can deal with Google calling me Booger!

    1. TootsNYC*

      I did that!

      And the transcription isn’t that accurate, but I can usually figure it out. At the very least, I know that I got the call, and I can listen to it on headphones.

    2. Nosy Boss OP*

      In writing to the column/reading replies, I’m realizing I have this missed-call fear based on an experience I had at much lower-level job searching (in college, working minimum wage jobs). An employer left a job offer in my voicemail while I was in class. When I was finally able to call back 2 hours later, the job already went to someone else. I’m realizing now that hiring at the professional level allows for a little bit more response time.

  5. Important Moi*

    You need excuses say something like

    * “I need to go help my relative/neighbor. He needs a ride”
    * “I need to go help my relative/neighbor. He needs a to pick up something from the store.”
    * “I’m having gastrointestinal issues and would be more comfortable dealing with this at home.”

    1. Important Moi*

      Apologies for the typo

      “I need help my relative/neighbor. He needs me to pick up something from the store for him.”

    2. 2 Cents*

      Stomach / gastrointestinal issues are my go-to illness. So hard to prove (and you usually look better pretty quickly after), plus rarely does someone want to hear the details!

      1. Kate M*

        Haha for me it’s bad allergies. The last thing I want my coworkers/managers to be thinking about is me having stomach problems and all the things that go along with that.

    3. Bevina del Rey*

      How about something that seems specific but is actually vague? (That way you’re not actually lying.)

      Take sick time, and say/e-mail something to the effect of:

      “I’m taking PTO today–I need to take the day and need to lay low and take care of myself.”

      This makes you sound like you could be sick, but you’re not saying you are. And you ARE taking care of a personal need–which is to interview somewhere. And you’re being covered by your benefits of PTO, which should be there for you to take time when you need to.

      1. Kyrielle*

        “I’m not feeling well today. I’m going to take care of myself and hope that helps.”

        – I’m not feeling well (I’m worried you’re going to make this A Thing and quiz me! plus misleading you stresses me out a little!)

        -I’m going to take care of myself (by searching for a job elsewhere!)

        -and hope that helps (me land a job I want elsewhere!)

  6. animaniactoo*

    If you do answer the calls because you answer all cell phone calls because they’re likely to be something connected to your NPO work or otherwise, you can also simply say “Hi, this isn’t a great time to talk, can I call you back in a half hour?” – exactly the same as you might for any other call that wasn’t convenient right then.

    That should be easily understood and accepted, and if it’s not, that’s a flag about the company you’re applying to.

    1. Bevina del Rey*

      I’m not sure if I agree about doing this if it were a potential future employer–If I were calling someone to set up an interview and they answered only to say it was a bad time to talk, I’d wonder why the candidate even answered in the first place. Just a thought. Maybe that’s just me.

    1. Nosy Boss OP*

      My phone is always on vibrate or silent. But my boss can see when I’m looking at my phone.

  7. Alli525*

    Do what I’ve done in the past – bring a change of clothes! Sneak into the bathroom and change there. I typically work in pretty casual offices and it is definitely tough to justify “doctor’s appointments” when I’m wearing a dress and heels, so I just avoid the whole issue and act like a teenager sneaking out of the house ;)

    1. Meg Murry*

      Yup, I’ve definitely changed in and out of interview clothes in fast food restaurants’ bathrooms and in my car in the far corner of out of the way parking lots. I’ve also stopped to scrub off my makeup when I realized that since I don’t typically wear it everyday, it would be noticeable that I wore a full face of makeup to my “dentist appointment” that morning.

      1. Alli525*

        I have said to people who have inquired about my makeup/clothing: “You never know when the doctor’s going to be cute and single!” Wouldn’t work in OP’s case, as she’s married, but… ;)

    2. Sara*

      I’ve had to do this too. I’ll also add that if your office is small and there’s no easy way to get out without someone noticing you’ve changed clothes (I worked at an office where the one bathroom was at the opposite side from the entrance and I had to walk by everyone to get out), map out somewhere else with a public bathroom to change and leave yourself time on the way to the interview to stop and change. Libraries, fast food restaurants, rest stops, grocery stores, etc.

      1. KTB*

        Starbucks are excellent for this. They are everywhere, and they have tend to have large, private bathrooms!

      2. Alli525*

        I once contemplated changing clothes in my Uber back to the office. I didn’t, but I could have. Luckily there was a bathroom outside the office I was interviewing at, so I just snuck in afterward and changed right there.

      3. Skye*

        Definitely map it out beforehand though; the library local to me doesn’t allow people to use its bathrooms to change clothes. (I haven’t tried so I haven’t noticed them enforcing it, but its apparently been enough of a problem in the past that there’s a policy for it now.)

        1. Snork Maiden*

          …How do they enforce this? “Hey, you in the new outfit! We saw you go in there with jeans on!”

    3. Cheesehead*

      My ow awful, toxic job years ago had a very casual office. We dressed up when visiting clients, but not in the office. So when I was itching to leave and had interviews, I’d take a suit with me in the back of my car and schedule interviews for as late in the day as I possibly could. There was a big hotel and convention center a couple of blocks away, so I would stop there and change in their bathrooms. Sure, I had to allow a little extra time, but it worked really well b/c the bathrooms were decently clean and spacious, and it was not an unusual thing to see someone walk into a hotel with a garment bag. So, OP, if there are any hotels nearby, consider them as a possibility.

  8. Anna*

    I’m am fortunate in this that I have to dress up most days because of where I work, so wearing a suitish outfit would not seem odd, but definitely you might start dressing nicer on random days to throw your boss off the scent.

  9. Paige Turner*

    I actually am in the middle of a bunch of dental appointments right now (and it’s been a disaster but that’s another story), while also starting to look around…not sure what my cover will be if/when I need it since I’ve already used this one :/

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      The appointments are continuing? That’d be what I’d go for. “Yeah, they got the crown on, but my bite’s all weird, I need to go back to have it refitted….”

    2. EJ*

      Yeah I just had dental surgery with 2 months of follow up appointments. Luckily it was the truth and stitches/swelling were visible enough for everyone to see. Otherwise it would seem pretty fishy! But saying you’ve had “pain” recently in the area could help fudge a story for some bogus hours off for “appointments”!

    3. BRR*

      Did your dental appointments perhaps uncover something that will need a series of appointments or the dental issue requires more attention that initially thought? Maybe this dental issue requires that you space out the two sets of appointments.

    4. Partly Cloudy*

      Me too. I’ve been recovering from an injury so I’ve legit been to the doctor a million times over the past several weeks. I guess at this point, what’s another “doctor’s appointment”….

  10. EJ*

    Instead of wearing nice clothes to work, can you stop at a store with a bathroom and change there? Wear half of a dressed-up outfit to work (i.e. dress pants with casual shoes and casual shirt) so it doesn’t raise issues, then change the shoes/shirt off-site. You can keep a nice tank top on underneath for easy shirt changing. Either keep your clothes in the car or if you use public transportation bring a larger bag (like a “gym bag”) so if the big bag raises an issue, say you’re going to the gym after work.

    1. Wheezy Weasel*

      I’ve also used hotels as a go-to changing spot. Stroll in the front door with a suit bag and nod hello to the desk staff, find the lobby restrooms (usually quite spacious) and then go out the side door back to your car…which you parked between the side door and the front!

  11. Master Bean Counter*

    This kind of a situation is why I never give details of any appointment. If you don’t give details in the beginning, they stop asking after a while.

    1. anonnymoose*

      Yeah I kind of screwed up in that regard. I tend to share personal details with my closest co-worker (close because we are the only 2 people on our team) and have done my best to start saying “an appointment” with no other context. It helps that I have frequent doctor’s appointments for some recurring issues anyway. I am also doing the random dress-up days. Someone straight up asked if I was going for an interview, so I gave a partial truth and said that I am going through my closet and figuring out what I like wearing/want to keep.

      1. PolarBearGirl*

        Ooo, that “closet review” answer is outstanding! Filing that one away, just in case!

      2. Lily Rowan*

        That is a good one!

        And totally agree with Master Bean Counter, but know that sometimes it is hard! But honestly, when my actual doctor’s appointments were following up on my mammogram, it got real easy not to get into the details at work.

      3. Bevina del Rey*

        Ooh, I love this. One thing that’s worked for me too, if you work in a business casual, or casual casual office (non-profits, anyone? stains on my pants today…no one cares, though…) is that if you have someone in the office who looks particularly sharp and better dressed than others, it’s nice to say something like, “You know, Francesca has me bringing my A-game this week because she always looks so put together.” You can see if it feels normal/natural to say things like that, but I’ve often credited others’ slickness for me getting a handle on always wearing a ‘Tuesday Outfit’, and this helps when interviews roll around. Another thing to consider is that even before you start getting offered interviews, start wearing a blazer or something nicer on certain days to up your own confidence. Wear your clothes (and attitude) with confidence and no one will notice the switch up if you happen to step out to an interview.

    2. Clever Name*

      My office mate has absolutely no boundaries, so she thinks nothing of asking where I’m going/where I’ve been if I happen to be out of the office for any amount of time. :/ And I have a job where I could be at an offsite, meeting, doing fieldwork, visiting a site, doing offsite research, so it’s not weird to not be in the office but still be working. I’m usually pretty open and I don’t mind saying, “Working from home for the cable guy” or whatever with other coworkers, but I’d really rather not share even vague details with my office mate (don’t want to set a precedent where I share all the time because sometimes I just don’t want to). She just doesn’t need to know where I am at all times- we don’t work together at all. I haven’t come up with a good way to handle this without feeling like a jerk.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I might just start always saying something ridiculous every time. You’re going to lunch and she asks, so you say, “Off to picket the state senator’s office.”

        Or, the other option is to always ask, “Is there a reason you’re asking?” and then when she gives you an answer, any answer, you say, “Oh, OK,” and just keep leaving.

  12. voyager1*

    If you have personal/vacationdays, use them.

    Set your phone to silent and call the company back during your lunch.

    Those are the two things I did when I was in a similar situation.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      I was going to recommend this as well, though sparingly for important interviews—you can’t take too many days off.

  13. Jubilance*

    I was just coming to say that you should start dressing up on random days, but Alison beat me to it! Seriously though, it’s a great strategy.

    Also I wouldn’t worry too much about answering calls in the moment when they arrive. Let them go to VM and return them on your break/lunch hour. Hiring managers and recruiters know that people have full-time jobs and aren’t sitting by the phone. I’ve never had a problem returning a phone call a few hours later or the next day.

  14. Cobol*

    You can use your spouse as a coworker to your advantage. Start regularly going on lunch dates just the two of you. It will look a lot less suspicious because you’re both leaving and returning together. On days you have an interview your spouse can have lunch by themselves, and bonus when you don’t have an interview you can enjoy a mid-day date.

    1. Cath in Canada*

      Yes, having someone to run interference for you is incredibly helpful in this kind of situation, and you have the ideal person in your spouse!

      When I was looking to leave a toxic job a few years ago, I had a friendly colleague who helped to cover for me when I had a series of “doctor appointments” (they were appointments! With doctors! Some of them were even physicians!). She did a great job of communicating an air of “nothing to worry about, just something that she has to take care of” while giving away zero details. She was one of my references, too. I got the job, and was then able to help her when she left toxic job a couple of years ago. We now work together again!

  15. BRR*

    You don’t have to answer. It’s not breaking any job search rule. You can tell your boss, “it’s not a number I know” and silence the call if that’s how you need to handle your boss. Happens a couple times and say “I think someone gave out my number by mistake. They’re all asking for Wakeen.”

    I’m very thankful that we have a poor rollover policy and with an interview I possibly have coming up I can say “I need to burn some time so there’s not an issue at the end of the year.” I’ve hit a different issue now of I don’t want to burn time because I can cash it out and my boss is asking when I’m going to take off.

    1. Sunflower*

      I’m not job searching or anything and I get at least one- usually two- calls a day on my cell from a number I don’t know- it’s pretty common now that people use their cells for everything. I VERY RARELY receive a phone call from a number I know! I don’t forsee how anyone could think it’s strange to silence calls.

    2. Amy Farrah Fowler*

      This is a legitimate issue for me! I live in a major metropolitan area with multiple area codes and my cell phone number with one of the other area codes zoned to my city is a concrete company (like driveways and paving). I get calls on the regular asking when their project is going to be finished :-(

  16. Important Moi*

    If your boss asks you about looking nicer than usual say something like

    * “Thanks, I really like this shirt/dress I’m wearing.”
    * “Thanks, I wanted to do something different today.”

    And then move on to another subject or if appropriate, leave.

    1. Bevina del Rey*

      Brilliant! Making it seem like you’re agreeing rather than being defensive, secretive, or otherwise weird. Love it.

  17. Christina*

    Ugh, getting those kind of questions is like the nail in the coffin at job. I had to schedule some actual planned sick time recently, told my manager, got “as long as it’s for a doctor’s appointment, ok” and a week later in my bi-weekly meeting with her, after I reminded her I was going to be out the next day, was told “well, I need more details when you make these kinds of requests. Is it for a dr appointment? A procedure? I don’t need to know what it’s for, but I need more details. You know, not every manager here lets staff use planned sick time for dr. appointments, they have to use personal time. And you should really plan these things for less busy times.” Which, incidentally, is all BS. Her comment about sick/personal time is blatantly against policy–sick time can and should be used for planned medical stuff according to our staff handbook. And I had no conflicts on my schedule for the appointment, the only reason we’re “so busy” is because we’re down half our staff and she hasn’t hired replacements yet. And hell no I’m not telling her what the appointment was for–doctor should be sufficient.

    …sorry, I had to get that off my chest.

    1. Important Moi*

      My supervisor once told me that since I don’t have children my co-workers would be given preference if we needed to take time off at the same time. I’ve never forgotten that and conduct myself accordingly.

    2. Rusty Shackelford*

      “Oh, I’m sorry. I was just going by what the handbook says to do. I didn’t realize we had a different policy. Can you send me a copy of it?” <- said with the most wide, innocent eyes you can muster

  18. Meg Murry*

    I also noticed that OP didn’t tell her boss about the NPO meeting until after she returned and he was suspicious. Telling him something vague in advance – like “I have an appointment tomorrow morning, so I’m taking a half day, I’ll be in at 1” or “I’m taking a late lunch today, I’ll be out from 1-2”

  19. Arielle*

    I had a coworker do the ‘series of dentist appointments’ thing recently (she had to ‘get a bunch of fillings’) and I have to say it was pretty obvious when she showed up in the afternoons with a full face of makeup and no residual numbness. Not that it’s a problem – everyone’s entitled to go on interviews – but if you fear retaliation you might want to be a bit more discreet than my coworker managed to be.

  20. Freckles McGee*

    Yes. Yes. Yes. I had a terribly nosy boss, and the entire office was one large room. There was zero privacy — Boss would look over people’s shoulders to see what was on their screen, and I would discover semi-important documents were taken from my desk. What helped me during my job search was scheduling interviews super early in the morning (so that I would only be a half hour or hour late for work) and during lunch breaks. I always ate out for lunch, so that helped my “shift” as you say.

    Other good phone excuses that worked for me: My mom called (or other close family member) and it was important (and you can decline to give details since it entails someone else’s privacy), Something happened with the apartment/house/car, and I second the gynecologist excuse.

    In my personal experience, I was very stressed out about breaking the news to Boss that I was leaving because he has a history of becoming verbally abusive (he told a previous employee he “made” her who she was and she was “ungrateful” for what this job gave her… And another employee broke out into a screaming match with him). However, since the turnover rate was so high, I felt that Boss had an expectation this was about to happen and took it as best he could, all things considered. OP, I wish you the best on your job search!

  21. Katie F*

    I was in a similar situation and got very lucky, in that my job had me have my off-day on Monday and not go in until later on Thursdays – but I ended up having to explain to a lot of prospective employers that it was essential that I interview only on Thursday morning or sometime on Monday. And luckily, a coworker was able to cover for me when it came to taking phone calls. I have a small child, so we had a LOT of “Oh, Katie had to take a phone call from daycare” lies bandied about for a couple of months.

    I wouldn’t go with dental appointments, personally, but definitely doctor’s appointments. If the boss asks for more info, you just say, “I’d rather not go into it.”

  22. Danae*

    This is timely for me–not because I have a suspicious boss, but because I’m both job searching -and- having an issue with robo-callers, so I don’t answer any phone calls I’m not expecting or coming from numbers I don’t know. I really need to add a line to my cover letters asking people to contact me via email initially to set up a time to call.

    (Also, I am not at my best when dealing with phone calls I’m not expecting. It takes a few minutes to switch from “work” mode to “awesome person on the phone” mode.)

  23. Marzipan*

    OP, as a really good liar*, my pro-tip to you is that people generally assume that two sentences placed next to one another are connected. It’s therefore perfectly possible to create the impression that you’re saying one thing, without ever actually saying it, which may come in handy if you aren’t comfortable (or good at) outright lying about where you’re going/who’s calling.

    For example, I once said to a former boss “I still have so much packing to do for my house move,” followed by “Is it OK if I have Wednesday off?”. I did indeed have lots of packing to do for my house move, so that was true – and she naturally assumed that was why I wanted the day off. I just didn’t mention I had an interview that day…

    (*It’s a skill, dammit! And not one I get to put on my CV…)

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      I just look at it as its own version of LARPing. I’m roleplaying as someone who is telling the truth…

    2. AnonEMoose*

      The best lies are more misdirection than actual lies. You’re being truthful, you’re just not telling the entire truth.

      1. Bevina del Rey*

        +1 to AnonEMoose. Lying doesn’t feel good for a lot of folks, so saying, “Oh, I have to step out for an appointment” is fine. I also recommend that if you’re in an office where the culture is that you and your team typically overshare, stop doing that (e.g., “I’m going to the gyno” or “I’m getting my car fixed on my lunch break”) so that saying more vague things don’t seem out of character.

  24. F.*

    When I am recruiting, I always contact the candidate via email and ask them to call me at their earliest convenience, while providing my work hours. This gives them the ability to find an appropriate time and place to talk without being put on the spot.

  25. Ghost Town*

    Helpful advice. My boss isn’t nosy; in fact, I don’t think he’ll notice that I duck out for an hour for an interview later this week. But the clothing advice is great. Having heard the “dress up with regularity” advice before, I started doing this a few months ago, so hopefully my clothes on Friday won’t give me away!

    Good luck, OP!

  26. AshleyH*

    My husband and I both worked for the same company at Last Job and I was actively looking for a new job so that we could relocate so we had to be super hush-hush (he was (surprisingly) able to transfer to a different role when we turned in notice).

    I had a lot of doctor appointments (“oh, my yearly exams always fall in the summer – I really need to space these out better!”) a couple sudden good deals on flights so I could go home for my dad’s birthday/cousin’s wedding (since I was traveling for interviews), and of course, “our internet went out/we have a bug problem/need the landlord to come by” for some skype interviews. I also sat RIGHT next to by boss and just told her my BFF was going through a messy break up, hence the frequent calls. My husband’s department was thankfully one that was more demanding and frequently had last minute meetings so it made sense I was the one taking care of things.

    As far as dress, my office was SUPER casual, but again, I was mostly interviewing remotely. The few times I had local interviews (back when I wasn’t looking to relocate) I just changed at the gas station around the corner.

    When I finally turned in notice, my boss was shocked.

  27. Bevina del Rey*

    So, what’s the prob with letting a call go to voicemail during the day? I’m assuming you get to use the bathroom without suspicion–can you check voicemail then? You may be overthinking the calls thing. If you portray confidence that you’re doing nothing wrong by taking a telephone call on your cell phone (which you’re not, by the way–receiving calls, related to job searching or otherwise, during a work day is normal, as is being involved in a job search, as long as you’re not applying during work hours at your desk or using work resources) you’re set.

    If your boss really is great at reading people, there’s nothing you can really do to prevent it. No matter how careful I’ve been in the past with clothing, calls, etc., bosses always knew when people were ready to go, myself included. Maybe start thinking about it less as a way to pull one over on your boss, and be confident that you deserve to work hard, make your own decisions with integrity, and search for new opportunities, too.

    1. Hurri*

      Phones in bathrooms are no-no’s for me. Once I went ‘pee’ to text and didn’t realize my DND only blocked sounds when my phone locked…. so a loud blast of embarrassing ringtone could be heard throughout the office and I got in crap for using my phone during work hours.

      I say it is always best to just have them leave a voicemail and call back at your own convenience.

      Once I took a call to schedule an interview on my break… in the breakroom… when someone walked in. I interrupted them with “sorry if I am patchy, I am at work”, they took the hint and were very brief so I could make it sound like I was scheduling an appt.

  28. Anon Accountant*

    Especially if you have nosy, busybody coworkers that love to loop the boss in how they think someone is interviewing. This advice works for them too.

  29. RB*

    I have a similar situation – casual workplace, nosy boss. I try to schedule my interviews for the mornings and tell my boss I have a doctor appointment and will be in a little late. If the interview is close to home, I run home to change. If it isn’t, I use a gas station restroom.

    I also changed clothes after internal interviews in order to avoid questions from nosy coworkers, because even wearing dress pants in the office raises eyebrows.

  30. CQ*

    There’s a great German concept called the Notlüge (emergency lie). It means that if an employer (or anyone, really) asks you a question that they don’t really have the right to ask, then you tell a lie to protect yourself. I think in some cases it’s even a legally protected activity. This is the perfect example of that. Please don’t feel guilty about lying, OP. Your boss really isn’t giving you any other choice.

      1. CQ*

        Thanks Alison ^-^ That means a lot coming from you. I would love to send you more information about it, but all the sites I can find are in German!

        1. Jason R.*

          Check out this book–specifically at p. 220, in the paragraph that starts “Can you lie about your age?” and the sentence that begins “When someone at a social gathering asks how old you are…”

          TL;DR version: it’s not lying if the person demanding the information is not morally entitled to receive a truthful answer.

  31. Ksheets*

    I don’t know if this approach would work with your boss, but when someone in my office inappropriately comments on my appearance or my comings and goings, I have taken to flippantly saying “Oh, I had job interview.” I give the pregnant pause, grin, and then laugh as if I am making a joke. I do this pretty consistently with everyone (from the CEO to the woman at the front desk). It fits with my personality and sense of humor, but I find that it’s a gentle way of pointing out that the person is being inappropriately intrusive. Bonus: I don’t ever have to lie if I go to a job interview.

  32. charisma*

    Change in the car! I have done this more times than I’d like to admit. Secluded location near the interview site, and I have never had a problem. :)

  33. Freckles McGee*

    Also, you can never go wrong with black! My go-to interview top (when I was job searching in the winter) was a nice black boatneck sweater and change it up with different necklaces/earrings. I hope this is helpful for you, OP, if you identify female.

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