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Your Internal Job Search

Tread carefully, but don't let fear prevent you from pursuing your goals.

So you have a job. Shouldn’t you just be thankful?

Roughly speaking, we all know the unemployment statistics: More than 10 percent of workers are without jobs, and another 8 to 10 percent have given up the search or have had to settle for part-time work paying far less than they earned in the past.

A sustained economic recovery is the only thing that will remedy this terrible situation.

But what about the 80 percent or so of workers who still have jobs? By comparison, you would think that these people should be pleased just to be employed. The truth is that many employed people feel stuck in a rut, and the economic situation doesn’t make it easy to find a new employer. Pay is often flat or declining, and while health and retirement benefits are becoming more expensive, they often provide less protection and security than they used to offer.

If you’re not able to leave your current situation and find a new job, the chance to grow and advance within your current employer may be the only way to remain challenged, gain marketable new skills, and possibly get a raise. In your workplace, you’ve probably seen others in jobs you know you could do well, or you’ve heard about people in other departments getting promoted.

So how do you explore opportunities where you already work?

There’s a big part of us that says, “Job security is important, and I don’t dare aggravate my boss or get a reputation as being ungrateful. Still, I’ve done my job well, and I’d really like to look around for a better position.”

Believing that our boss will be angry if we want to do something different has been pretty well ingrained in us from the first day we began working. Our first job is to make the boss happy. The harsh truth is that in some organizations, this may be true; in those cases, you need to tread carefully. (By the way, an employer that knowingly “locks people in” to jobs probably doesn’t understand how to motivate and retain employees. Working in that kind of environment may not be a good long-term career choice.)

Preferred employers balance employees’ need for growth and development with the company’s need to be more productive by having proficient workers stay in jobs long enough to make a substantial contribution. So your first priority is to evaluate your situation: What are the risks and possible rewards of seeking growth?

Where Do You Stand?
I’d start by checking out your employer’s development, training, promotion, and transfer policies. Begin your fact-finding mission in a way that doesn’t require that you involve your boss. This may be as simple as checking the employment policy posted on your employer’s Web site or in your employee handbook.

You may also want to schedule an informational interview with the human resources department. Often, you can do this without informing your boss. Ask HR what the preferred way is to pursue job changes. Try speaking privately with a trusted co-worker who is widely respected or with someone who has successfully changed departments within the organization.

You may also benefit by confidentially soliciting feedback from colleagues or previous supervisors about your strengths, weaknesses, and reputation. This can be tricky, because people don’t always feel comfortable giving negative feedback. So reassure them that this will be done in confidence.

Remember to consider your performance reviews. While many people don’t put much stock in these assessments, they may provide the data you can use to speak directly to your boss about your readiness for development, advancement, or transfer. If your performance-review process factors in a career-development conversation, that’s your cue for speaking to the boss about your professional growth.

Finally, ask yourself if you’re truly qualified for advancement and transfer. Sure, you may feel you’re in a rut, but are you really giving your best? Are you taking advantage of training and development opportunities already available to you? Could you be part of the problem? Or is your boss part of the problem? Studies show that a majority of employees report that a negative relationship with their boss is a major reason they look for another job.

So, When and How Do I Involve My Boss?

If you conclude that your employer would permit you to look internally for a new job without notifying your current boss, you’ve got to make a choice: Tell the boss or don’t.

Even if your employer doesn’t require you to notify your boss, you may still want to consider telling him or her. You’ll eventually need some support from your boss. However, should you decide to tell your boss, don’t spring it on him or her during a stressful or busy time. It’s better to wait for a time when things are going well and you’ve had some significant successes. Make your announcement in a scheduled meeting that you identify in advance as a conversation about your career. The meeting may be in conjunction with your performance review, or you might schedule a special discussion.

If you conclude you don’t need or don’t yet want to notify your boss, do everything possible to keep your search confidential. No supervisor wants to learn about an employee’s job searches secondhand. In fact, this is one of the big risks of not involving your boss. If your employer has a clear process for internally posting and applying for jobs, it’s best to follow that.

In most circumstances, I advise employees to inform their bosses in advance of their desire to pursue transfer or advancement. Much depends on how you inform the boss. Establish and maintain a professional relationship based on mutual respect, and your boss should support you in most cases. If the boss believes he or she can’t afford to lose you, which is a good thing right now, that fact would open the door to talking about a planned job-search effort, with his or her support.

Explain that you’ve enjoyed your current job and appreciated the opportunities you’ve had. But also mention you have a desire to grow, learn, and advance. Not many decent bosses should object to those goals.

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