How to Search for a Fallback Job

Job security has gone the way of cheap credit. Tips on seeking the job you'll need if you lose this one

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The term "job security" sounds increasingly like an oxymoron, as the economy slows and payrolls get slashed. When it looks as if layoffs may take your job, it's probably time to start looking for a fallback. This kind of job search is different from the one you would undertake if you were unemployed or just looking to move up the ladder, and it carries its own risks and rewards.

Here are some tips to follow when searching for a job you're not sure you'll need:

Explore your options: There are many advantages to looking for a job when you've still got one. You're less desperate for work and freer to explore the industries or positions that may pique your interest.

Online job sites and services are "great for dipping your toe in the water," says John McKee, a business coach and author of Career Wisdom: 101 Proven Strategies to Ensure Workplace Success. You can research more stable markets or industries, and you're able to do it anonymously.

Make contact: Because you're still employed, discretion is key when you begin connecting with outside companies. Much depends on your employer's style, but if management finds out you're talking with competitors and your job is already in danger, that may be reason enough to let you go, says Brad Karsh, a former recruiter, now head of JobBound and JB Training Solutions.

It's pretty simple to preface a conversation by noting that confidentiality is important to you, McKee says. Most recruiter and hiring managers will understand this. Nevertheless, Bill Belknap, a career coach with the Five O'Clock Club, says he tells his clients to always be prepared for the word to get back to their employer.

Assess your level of interest: There are a couple of ways to handle your communication with potential employers. You can tackle a job opening just as you would if you were unemployed, or you can take a more passive approach—making contacts and passing along your résumé while explaining you're testing the waters. There are advantages and downsides to both approaches.

If you truly would be willing to move to a new job—given that your criteria were met or because the position seems more stable—then you can follow the process through to the thank-you notes.

But if you're happy in your current job, and you're not prepared to leave unless they kick you out the door, then it would be misleading to feign the interest of a true job seeker. "That could come back and bite you," McKee says. If a company puts the time into preparing an offer for you, and it becomes clear you weren't serious, then you've written off the chance for a future job opportunity.

Karsh agrees. "If they give you what you ask for, and it's a good job, and you turn it down, I don't think it looks that good," he says. "It's like, hey, have you just led us astray here?" If you're going to follow the full path of a job search, then you have to be prepared to leave your current job, he says.

Keep negotiations classy: Here's a big no-no: You're offered a new job, which you accept. You tell your boss that you're leaving, he/she counteroffers, and you then go back and turn down the outside offer. "To me, that's the cardinal sin of job seeking," Karsh says. "It is an absolute bridge burner." (He still remembers the name of a woman who did this.)

Instead, if you're offered a new job from outside, say "thanks" and tell them you need some time to think about it. Tell your employer about the offer and your plans to accept it—effectively resigning. If your boss then makes an effort to retain you, you have the freedom to choose between the two offers without breaking your word to either company.

Try something different: If you get a job offer outside your company, you may be able to negotiate for greater job security. Depending on your standing or confidence level, your employer might be willing to commit to an employment contract for a stipulated period of time.

When you have a job offer in hand, your ability to negotiate rises dramatically, but if the offer is for a job you don't want, use caution at the bargaining table, Karsh says. "You're playing a game of chicken with them, because they could call your bluff and say: Oh, go take it."