employer announced they’ll fire anyone who interviews for another job

A reader writes:

I work for a private college with multiple sites. Recently, the campus presidents at these sites have told employees that if they find out that a person is interviewed for another job, the person will be automatically terminated from employment. In some cases, emails have been sent to program chairs/deans requesting that they report employees that they know who are interviewing and move to terminate them. This has never been the policy or attitude of this organization. Now employees are threatening to leave, and given time, many will leave.

Is this appropriate? Although I am not planning to leave, I get inquiries from recruiters all the time and have conversations with them. Because I interview, that does not mean that I am resigning.

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Should I give my team advance warning about layoffs? (I’ve got to note that this was written and given to Inc. before the current crisis; it has a very different feel now.)
  • Employee barges straight into my office
  • I think my mentee is a bad person?
  • My manager thinks I accepted a job — but I didn’t and I don’t want it

{ 62 comments… read them below }

  1. Sans Serif*

    And of course saying they’ll fire anyone who interviews elsewhere will cause the better employees to immediately send out their resumes and get out of that insane asylum. Bet they feel they can fire you any day you want … they just want you to stick around until then.

    1. Artemesia*

      So this. I have worked at an unstable place and the smart people got out early and there was a huge outflow of the most talented.

    2. Pink Plantain*

      It could also create some unintended consequences. If an employee wants to quit without having another job lined up, they could simply let it slip that they are interviewing for another job. Once they get fired, they will be eligible for unemployment benefits that they wouldn’t have received if they had quit.

  2. Lena Clare*

    With these revisited letters, I’m dying to know if there are updates. That last one in particular! Did she end up doing a job she didn’t want because of a misunderstanding??

    1. Artemesia*

      Every cynical I don’t think it was a ‘misunderstanding’ — I think it was a crap job that they think they can push her into. I have had this happen a couple of times when I was young and they flattered me into taking on tasks no one in their right mind would want; I could have said ‘no’ but they weren’t asking so it would take standing up for myself, something I learned to do better as I matured in the workforce. I think women are particularly vulnerable to this.

      1. Candi*

        Agreed. We’ve seen it a few times on this site where someone’s getting pushed into something they don’t want, and one of the ways is for bad management to act like it is GOING to happen.

        In most of the cases where we got comment or letter updates, the LW bailed, usually for a better job, though occasionally to go back to school.

  3. Tink*

    When one works for an institution that fires upon learning of an interview does that mean no notice is required when accepting a job elsewhere?

    Inquiring minds want to know…

    1. Zona the Great*

      That’s how I interpreted it. As a matter of fact, I’d assume they would be fine if you silently walked out upon getting the Offer Letter.

    2. Clorinda*

      It’s a college, so I suppose most academics change jobs at fairly predictable seasons. I certainly wouldn’t give any notice at all if I worked there; I’d wait until the last paycheck for the contract period had cleared, and then I’d empty my desk and download all important files, and THEN I’d give notice.
      As for nonacademic staff, they’d be crazy naive if they gave any notice at all.

      1. Candi*

        After that notice came in, I’d be downloading all important files up to date and taking all personal items on my desk home, maybe replacing them with Dollar Tree kitsch I wouldn’t mind losing. Just in case I’d forget something trying to do it in a hurry.

        (My memory for the written word is amazing; my memory for “tasks I must do” requires a written list and lots of double-checking.)

        1. Candi*

          I should clarify: The notice from the campus presidents about “fire if you interview.” That’s a “get ready to run” if there ever was one.

    3. NerdyKris*

      Yup. Firing people for interviewing means they’re going to be firing anyone giving notice as well, which means nobody will give notice.

    4. Gazebo Slayer*

      Give them “notice” once you’re already at your new job. They’ve earned that.

      1. Clorinda*

        Dear Dean and Hiring Committee, you may have noticed that it is the second week of August and my office is empty. Cheerio!

  4. Pepper Potts*

    Can I just saw how soothing it is to read “regular” posts? It lets me pretend we’re in normal times.

    1. Count Boochie Flagrante*

      Same. I appreciate the reminders of a world outside of the current crisis.

      1. old curmudgeon*

        Oh, I know – I started clicking on some of the “You may also like” links yesterday evening, and it was like taking a mini-vacation to read about problems that did not involve any mention of a global pandemic. Crazy boss, crazy coworkers, crazy helicopter parents – bring ’em on, they’re a refreshing change from today’s reality!

          1. whingedrinking*

            My recollection of the swine flu, as someone who had just graduated from university at the time and was working a retail job, was “the government is providing free vaccines to everyone, please get one” and “wash your hands and don’t cough on people, you barbarians”. It was definitely nothing like the current situation.

    2. Bryce*

      There’s definitely a balancing act. I had to block some friends on Facebook because I was getting three people sharing 5 reworded articles about one opinion piece and it was just exhausting.

      1. Elizabeth Rochelle Dickson*

        OMG yes. I have a lot of politically savvy friends, but can I just tell you how VERY SICK I AM of Covid-19 stuff? Can we not? Can we just trade a meme or two?
        I literally refuse to watch the news right now for this reason. If I want to know something, I’m capable of looking it up. I have enough stress. I don’t need to read another article written so I will be mad.

        1. Candi*

          I’ve curated my news consumption for years. I got sick of the new age of yellow journalism -clicks first, facts and truth maybe, substance rare, inconvenient material buried or “accidentally” left out.

        2. Currently Looking*

          As long as you’re maintaining self-quarantine and not putting others at risk, turtle away!

  5. Elizabeth West*

    The college is really being short-sighted. Of course people are going to leave. Spouses get transferred, people get sick, career plans change trajectory. That doesn’t necessarily mean they hate the job or institution itself, and it’s not a sign of disloyalty, ffs.

    Word will get around, because complaints go farther than praise. Then they will have a very hard time attracting new employees.

    1. Curmudgeon in California*

      Hard agree. Someone in management is really insecure. It’s normal to change jobs.

      When the private university that I’m working at gets a normal resignation, they will say “X is leaving $institution”, and then tell a little about what they are moving on to. Fairly often people will leave for a while, get some different experience, then come back into a different position. The university is perfectly okay with that – it gains the benefit of industry experience while still being able to recover institutional knowledge.

      1. Tram*

        My first thought is that it’s a private college/university that has selected a prestigious law firm’s partner as its new president — someone who is used to a major law firm operating this way (which is an alarming practice but it makes more sense in the context of law firm partners who have invested financially and who have a financial stake in the firm interviewing at other firms).

  6. NoLongerStuckInRetailHell*

    So if they fire you immediately seems like you could collect unemployment and job hunt at your leisure. Neither the unemployment office nor prospective employers should hold it against you that you ran afoul of this cuckoo policy—you aren’t an indentured servant you are allowed to change jobs!

    1. MollyG*

      True, but the college could (dishonestly) challenge the unemployment, which would force you to jump though hoops, get witnesses, and go to a hearing. If you don’t do it right you could still lose.

      1. Candi*

        If this was sent out via email/etc., make sure to forward a copy to home. That, along with a few emails from interviewers -“yes, I was definitely interviewing at the time, here’s the invites”- would likely have the unemployment board giving the college the side eye.

  7. Alex*

    #5 reminds me of the time I once accidentally *quit* a job when I didn’t mean to. I told my boss I was going to be starting school. She took that as my notice. I guess I wasn’t clear that I was just telling her, one human to another human, that I got accepted to a program, and that it was a program that would allow me to continue working while studying!

    She then sent out an announcement to the rest of the staff “Congratulate Alex, who will be starting school. We’ll be sad to see her go!” And I had to run into her office and correct her…….awkward.

  8. La Triviata*

    Most people I know have been low key if they’re looking for another job. I don’t think most places will fire someone outright if they’re looking, but many will make it very uncomfortable for anyone who’s known to be looking. A friend once gave her notice and, being scheduled for her performance review the day after, was given the worst review of her career. She didn’t really care, since she was leaving anyway, but it was the sheer petty vindictiveness of it that bugged her.

    1. BRR*

      If this is for #1, in the US (and specific states and cities) there is the WARN Act but there are a few conditions that have to be met. Just going by the LW saying team, it’s possible the layoff would not affect a large enough number of employees to fall under the WARN Act.

    2. The IT Plebe*

      Unless they’re in Montana, I doubt it. Most states are at-will, so quitting and firing can be done for any reason that doesn’t violate anti-discrimination laws.

        1. AcademiaNut*

          That would likely be a limit, but on the other hand, tenured faculty don’t change jobs very often. It probably won’t affect adjunct instructors very much, because they’re hired on a term to term contract basis, often renewed at the last minute – they’re always looking for work. Plus, firing an instructor part way through the term would be a disaster for the course.

  9. MissDisplaced*

    Advance warning about layoffs
    Having been on both sides of this, the kindest thing to do for the people being let go is to do it as soon as possible, but with ample severance and unemployment. Aside from tying up loose ends, it’s really difficult to concentrate on anything and do a job when you know you’re out. I stayed on like this once, and I was really absolutely miserable the whole two months and had to go on medication due to the anxiety. A one-to-two week notice (just as when an employee quits) is generally sufficient to complete, document or turnover work. The quicker you let it go, the quicker to move on. You could also do this with no notice, and that is not uncommon for large downsized groups or security demands. However, I feel that is a bit rude on the company’s part unless absolutely warranted.

    Employer announced it will fire anyone who interviews for another job
    I don’t know what to say about this, but in the USA, I suppose it is legal. Under at-will employment you can be fired for most anything with zero reason, including interviewing. But it’s a terrible, horrible practice to threaten your employees this way. They are acting as though there is no free market for talent, when one of the few rights an employee in the US does have is to freely seek out a trade of their labor with other employers. It’s also trying to squash any salary comparisons in that free market, which is probably why they’re attempting to scare the crap out of people and actively prevent them from interviewing elsewhere.

    My manager thinks I accepted a job — but I didn’t and I don’t want it
    Just say that while you appreciate the offer, having learned more about the job, you don’t feel this is the right move for you. Be aware though, that if you do want to stay there on a contract basis, they may decide to end your contract. But it sounds like you maybe don’t care and/or were planning to leave the company anyway.

    1. Candi*

      Montana’s not at will, but it is legal elsewhere.

      But you’re correct. An employer can fire someone for, say, refusing to wear cat socks every day. But word will get around, and that employer will find themselves unable to get all but the most naive and ignorant of workers, and/or paying out the nose for a rotating staff of temps. (And if they exploit any of these types of workers, that also makes them the Slithery Dee of bosses.)

      It’s a case of culture vs law, and the culture says that if an employer fires for petty reasons and it gets around, that employer is going to suffer staff issues accordingly.

  10. hbc*

    It’s not even in the company’s selfish interest to fire people immediately for interviewing. The whole annoyance of having people leave is that you don’t have time to train their replacement, having extra workload to distribute around, etc.. I mean, I get that it’s meant to be a deterrent, but surely they can’t believe that they’ll never have to put it into practice? So then they lose their 2 week notice and have to pay unemployment.

    I guess it just goes to show that not all sociopaths are smart.

    1. Curmudgeon in California*

      I guess it just goes to show that not all sociopaths are smart.


      Oh, how true.

      This company will come to regret that, as people just *poof* vanish without even a clue that they were looking…

      1. Candi*

        Or turn notice in at the end of a vacation, “Hey, found another job, not coming back!” and then they notice how shiny clean and empty the worker’s desk is.

  11. Lifelong student*

    Letter writer with visible screen- you can get a security screen to put on your monitor. No one can read what is on your monitor unless they are directly in front of it. We used these in an place where confidential information was on screens and it was difficult to avoid close quarters.

    1. Magenta*

      That might solve one part of the problem, but doesn’t fix the other bad behaviours, there would still need to be a conversation even if they did get a screen protector. Frankly it should be unnecessary to put in place work arounds like this if the op has the conversation and manages the employee.

  12. Fikly*

    Wow, is this place also promising never to fire you, presuming you do not dream of interviewing elsewhere? Somehow I think not.

  13. Employment Lawyer*

    employer announced they’ll fire anyone who interviews for another job
    That is…. unusual, to say the least. Legal, but stupid.
    But to be more specific:

    Is this appropriate?
    Maybe? I suppose in theory it’s their call to make, so long as they’re willing to live with the downgrade in overall employee quality, and the loss of ordinary notice. (Once someone has said “you’ll be terminated if we know you’re leaving,” they have waived all moral rights to notice.) It is surely odd as hell.

    Although I am not planning to leave, I get inquiries from recruiters all the time and have conversations with them. Because I interview, that does not mean that I am resigning.
    Well, it DOES mean you’re likely to get fired if they find out, so watch your step.

  14. C*

    It is good to know the university higher ups that decided this and are enforcing it will never leave for another job and started their employment at that university. How amazing that in this time of job hopping there is a place where all of the higher ups in a university started their careers there and will never ever leave. Amazing! /S

    1. C*

      It also wonderful to know that grant-funded university staff will be supported even if something happens with their grants, they do not need to look for another job. How beautiful

    2. Curmudgeon in California*

      There are actually people who started at my university employer straight out of school, and have never worked anywhere else. Whereas my first job gave me my first layoff after two years, and I’ve lost count of layoffs, etc. since. Academia is a very different world.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        This is a relevant point – in an academic institute, it’s not unusual for people to work there for life. The faculty mostly does, once they’ve got tenure and for non teaching staff, there can be promotion opportunities, and often good benefits and job stability, and the ability to change departments. Plus, if your speciality is working in higher ed, there’s often only one employer per area – changing employers means changing fields or moving a significant distance.

        So I can see the upper management seeing that most people stay, so it’s the people who leave who are the problem, so they can threaten them into not leaving. It’s still daft, but less completely off the wall than it would be for something like tech, where changing jobs every few years is normal.

        1. Candi*

          It’s a really weird reasoning, though. “People in non-academic positions leave, there must be something wrong with them.”

          It also says that it’s a private college, so I wonder if that fuels a weird type of elitism and arrogance?

      2. nm*

        But people like that usually aren’t the chancellors, provosts, presidents, etc, who often hop from x million dollars at university A to y million dollars at university B like a kid playing hopscotch

  15. TootsNYC*

    with the advance warning about layoffs:

    I don’t think the letter writer should have done anything more.
    There have been talks about restructuring, and about his skills.
    It’s on him to put those things together.

    People are really responsible for reading the tea leaves (and the OP has certainly not hidden those tea leaves), and if they’re not savvy enough to figure it out, well, this is a learning experience.

    AFTERWARD, if the employee seems blindsided, I think a manager could say, in a mentoring framework, “There were clues. Here are the clues you missed. And in the future, look for the clues, because there are limits in what managers can tell you.”

    I think a manager has a moral obligation to try to dissuade someone from signing a mortgage or taking some other big risk (though…they’d still have to pay rent…), but even then you can do that without explicitly saying, “You’ll probably get laid off.” (there’s uncertainly; you know that restructuring is coming, and anything can happen–those are general things that are probably known)

    1. A*

      This!! As much as I wish there could always be as much advanced notice as possible, I know that is problematic for many reasons.

      I just kicked off a house hunt (first time single home buyer / relocated for this job) in early January, and my boss called me yesterday with updates on our facilities closures, essential status designations etc. and when I asked about job security she said she has no reason to believe we are in trouble….. but personally she recommends holding off on any large purchases for now.

      I had already decided on my own to put it on hold due everything going on, but I appreciated it so much. It perfectly conveyed the severity and unpredictability of the situation while still leaving it open ended. If I got laid off, had moved forward with purchasing a home, and found out that they knew there was trouble prior to that – I would be beyond livid. I would be singing like a canary and would make it my personal mission to become a PR problem.

  16. Candi*

    1. Ouch. I’m glad that manager cares for their people so much, though.

    2. I suspect that manager has their monitor that way due to comfort of use, and the office layout resulting in being able to see it when you come up to the desk is unfortunate.

    But sheesh, I was taught that unless you are expected, appointment expected, you knock on the door (or cubicle edge) even when it’s open. Who taught this worker it’s okay to walk in on someone who’s concentrating without at least trying to get their attention first?

    3. I suspect that if LW3 told this guy what a terrible person he’s coming across as, he’d blow them off. (Phrase it that way because “you are a terrible person” rarely gets listened to.)

    But the arrogance and negativity in a coworker, and the problems they cause, have been discussed in many a post and open thread on this site. It tends to create, at best, a small pool of toxicity.

    4. The campus presidents are so ridiculous, it’s not even funny on The Office. All they’re doing is assuring there will be no or little handoff between new and old holders of positions, that good managers and workers will cover each other as they all interview (“Yes, Gertrude has had lots of doctors’ appointments.” *fingers crossed behind back*), and those who were bailing because bad management and workers aren’t being handled are going to bail all the faster. (This kind of top-down toxicity tends to trickle heavily into all aspects of the workspace.)

    They likely lost all that training and institutional knowledge, and were probably scratching their heads a year later as to why that happened and why they’re so short-staffed.

    5. What kind of manager did LW5 have? We’ve seen a few toxic managers on here who discussed a position or event as if the submitter was GOING TO DO IT, even though they’d done everything but passively not agree to outright directly refuse. Could that have been the case, rather than a simple misunderstanding? (I hope it was just a misunderstanding.)

  17. CouldntPickAUsername*

    dear employers, the internet exists, we’re going to remember how you acted during this crisis, there will be a reckoning. remember that.

    1. CouldntPickAUsername*

      this was in reply to the fire people for looking for another job, I assumed it was related to the virus crisis but I should have read it first. sorry.

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