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 afterward, 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 isn't 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 human resources 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 it, but the offer never materializes. In the meantime, you've turned down interviews and stopped sending out résumés, 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 an 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.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.