How to Find a Fallback Job

Secrets of a discreet search when you're already employed.

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When layoffs loom, employees are often tempted to hide out until the tempest passes. Bad move. The private sector has shed nearly 900,000 jobs since January, and the unemployment rate is at a five-year high of 6.1 percent—in part, because companies need cash and consumers aren't spending. The job shedding has become increasingly democratic—affecting a broad swath of business sectors, according to the September jobs report. "The U.S. economy is shrinking, and there will be many more awful reports like this," says Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

So, what if you suspect your job is next? To safeguard your income, you may need to stick your head up—discreetly—and start looking for a backup. Here are tips for searching out a job you're not sure you'll need:

Be careful. You're still employed, so 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 simple enough to preface a conversation by noting that confidentiality is important to you. Most recruiters and hiring managers will understand. Nevertheless, Bill Belknap, a career coach with the Five O'Clock Club, says he tells his clients to always be prepared for word to get back to their employer.

Assess your level of interest. 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 that you're testing the waters.

If you would be willing to take a new job—because it meets your criteria or offers more stability—then you can follow the process through to the thank-you notes. But if you're so happy in your current job that you're not leaving until they kick you out the door, it's misleading to feign the interest of a true job seeker. "That could come back and bite you," says John McKee, a business coach and author of Career Wisdom: 101 Proven Strategies to Ensure Workplace Success. If a company puts time into preparing an offer, it expects that you're prepared to leave your current job if you get what you asked for.

Keep negotiations classy. Here's what not to do: You're offered a new job, which you accept (!). You tell your boss you're leaving; he or she counteroffers, so you go back and kiss off the outside bid. "To me, that's the cardinal sin of job seeking," Karsh says. "It is an absolute bridge burner."

Instead, if you get an outside offer, say "thanks" and ask for some time to think about it. Tell your boss the news and your plans to take the job—effectively resigning. If you get a counteroffer, you're free to choose between the two without breaking your word to either company.

Ask for security. An outside offer might give top performers some leverage. Despite rising joblessness, nearly 60 percent of hiring managers say their biggest challenge is finding qualified workers, according to a survey by Robert Half International and CareerBuilder.com. If your company values you, it might be willing to offer you an employment contract for a fixed period of time.

One note: Be careful bargaining for security with an outside offer you're not interested in, Karsh says. "You're playing a game of chicken with them, because they could call your bluff and say: 'Oh, go take it.'"

Know your employer. Understand your company's culture. Some companies won't negotiate unless employees have another suitor. Others will have you escorted to the door if they hear you've been interviewing with a competitor. "Some truly will say: 'Hey, enjoy the interview, and don't forget to pull your stuff out of your office on the way out, because you've just been fired,'" Karsh says. "Others may say: 'Oh, my gosh, we can't lose [her]—she's too valuable.'" But it's pretty risky to bet you'll be the valuable one.