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Hide and Seek

How to search for a new job without the old one catching on.

By Corey Pein - August 4, 2004

The ability to look for a job on company time is one of many luxuries enjoyed by the professional class, right up there with expense accounts and not getting black lung. In this regard, media people are the professionals' professionals, salaries notwithstanding. Indeed, you're probably looking for another job right now, considering the website you're reading.

But there's a catch: How do you engage in on-the-job job-hunting without getting caught? Most lawbreakers get caught because their crimes are committed thoughtlessly, in a fit of passion, greed, or withdrawal. Successful criminals, from cat burglars to bank robbers to murderers, always have a plan, and they stick to it. You, too, must have a plan.

We all know that if the corporate overlords had their way, your paycheck would take a cut whenever you dared think about anything other than your job. Every idle daydream would cost you dollars (or pennies, if you're in the media biz). So some people—among them, most likely, your boss—would accuse you and your web-surfing, ad-browsing, job-hunting compatriots of stealing. And those people may be right. But think about it this way: Unless your name is on the masthead of The Atlantic, pretty much everybody in your office is spending at least part of the workday scouting out the next move. (And if everyone is doing it, it can't be bad, right?) Indeed, several media drones approached for comment admitted to spending most if not all of their day looking for a new job—though, fearing omniscient bosses and burned bridges, they universally declined to be quoted.

First, case the joint. Map out the office in your head. Know how much time it takes to walk from your boss's door to your desk. Learn to recognize the sound of his or her footsteps. Get to know the regular routines of your coworkers—who stays late, how often the smokers take breaks, and, most importantly, who you can trust to keep their mouths shut.

Once you're an expert on your office, you must become the lord and master of your personal workspace. Your domain must deter snoops and divert prying eyes from the stacks of resumes, clips, and want ads. Count yourself lucky if your cubicle's walls are more than chest-high. But if your desk is designed so that anyone can pass by and see what you're doing, your task is harder. It may seem that there's not much you can do about this. But how do you expect to get a new job with that kind of defeatist attitude?

When in doubt, distract. Plaster your walls with eye-catching pictures, the more outrageous the better. Who's going to notice the fancy portfolio you left on your chair if there's a Maxim pullout or a Bush-Cheney 2004 sticker plastered onto your file cabinet? The limit is your imagination (as well as laws governing sexual harassment and hate crimes). On horizontal surfaces, there is only one rule: the more clutter, the better. You want really intimidating clutter. I mean fire-hazard clutter. Make your desk look like a federal agency died on it.

Advanced Compu-jitsu

Most of the ads you'll want to read are posted online, so reliable Internet access is a must. If the computer takes more than one second to respond when you tell it to switch windows, you're asking for trouble. Stuck with a sluggish machine? Try disabling your virus scanner, as these programs tend to slow things down. (Might this cause problems down the road? Sure. But it's not your computer.)

You may have heard tech people use seemingly nonsensical verbs in the imperative, such as "controlaltdelete it," or "hit commandqueue." This gibberish actually describes the most important job-hunting-on-the-job technique there is—the keyboard shortcut. The keyboard shortcut is power to the people. If a ninja had to browse online classifieds while his boss lurked only feet away, the ninja would certainly use keyboard shortcuts. Prepare yourself!

Shortcuts are executed by holding down the first key, then, while still holding it, pressing the second key. A simple procedure—yet I've heard one too many job-seekers tell me about the time they quickly clicked a window closed. In a pinch, the click will never beat the keyboard shortcut.

Take alt-tab, for example. It takes only a moment to appreciate the glory of this miraculous command. Open a new window in your web browser. Now press alt-tab. See that!? You just switched windows without wasting precious time fumbling with the mouse, hunting for that little corner of the next window, and clicking furiously as your supervisor looks disdainfully over your shoulder. Practice this from the normal typing position, as you will use it often.

While alt-tab is good for most situations, paranoiacs may not be satisfied. Prying colleagues can still see what pages you have open by looking at the taskbar on the bottom of the screen. This is where control-W comes in handy. Control-W makes the current window disappear into the digital ether, leaving no obvious evidence behind. But this can be a bitch if you've just come across some job you really like, because you'll have to go find it again.

Specific shortcuts vary from program to program. On Macs, "control" can usually be replaced by holding down the Apple key. Check the Help menu to learn more. It's worth the effort, and if your boss catches you, you can always say you're trying to learn how to work more efficiently.

Monitoring Software

Many tyrannical governments use sophisticated computer programs to monitor the electronic communications of their subjects. So do many companies. The American Management Association (hereinafter, "The Enemy") surveyed 840 businesses and found that 60 percent screen their employees' outgoing email, while one-quarter have fired an employee for violating email policy (which presumably includes spending hours scanning job ads). But there's hope: The Enemy's research revealed that only 10 percent of companies screen what employees say in instant-messaging conversations. (Important IM note: Turn the sound OFF, or the bleeps will give you away for sure.)

Unfortunately, electronic surveillance in the workplace is growing more common. There seems little we can do to slow the cold digital march to the end of freedom. But for now, you can ignore it and get on OK: If you have a laptop, bring it in to the office and say you've got to transfer some files you were working on at home, over the weekend.

Once your computer is tamed, it's time to start browsing those ads. Remember your shortcuts, keep lots of important-looking files open, and leave your desk as messy as possible. You're ready to go.

Finding Good Jobs

This is a tough one. People seem to speak highly of "networking." Good luck!

Resume Printing

This is a crucial moment, one in which all your skills will come into play. You can't get a job without a resume, and you certainly don't want to go to Kinko's when there's a perfectly good printer in your office. But how to take advantage of all that free paper and glistening toner without being seen?

As with all your other stealthy endeavors, timing is key. Do a dry run by printing several blank pages. How long does it take for you to finish the job and return to your desk? Before you print, check the network "printer queue" on your computer. Notice how you can see the file name on what's printing, as well as who's printing it. This is yet another good reason to never, ever save your resume as a file called "RESUME.doc."

At times when the office is particularly crowded or your application packet is conspicuously large, it's smart to give yourself additional cover. Once again, criminals know best; this time, take your cues from drug dealers. Have a friend stand guard while you finish the print job. Promise to help them escape once you arrive on the outside. If you don't have friends, try this little trick: Begin printing a very large document, at least 30 pages. Immediately send your resume followed by another sizable file to the printer. Your colleagues will be annoyed, but they probably won't notice your sandwiched contraband.

A final note: Unlike your common hoodlum, you will want to return to the scene of the crime. Too many covert job-hunters have been unmasked by carelessly leaving evidence in the printer tray. If you print a resume with errors, don't just recycle it. Tear it to pieces or discreetly shred it.

Scheduling the Interview

I'm often asked: "Will using a cell phone at work cause suspicion, or allay it?" Well, it depends on your current job. But, typically, when it comes to job hunting, the cell phone is your friend.

Leaving the room to take a call always inspires curiosity. And whispering is just creepy. The best advice? Another lie. In a voice loud enough for those around you to hear, say, "Can you hold on? You're breaking up. Let me step outside where the reception is better."

Those lucky souls whose duties entail reporting of any sort can pass off cell-phone conversations as interviews with a "source." (Be sure to "take notes.") This is the very definition of plausible deniability. Brush off follow-ups (Who? For what story?) with a confident, "Wouldn't you like to know?" and a wry smile.

Interview Day

This is it. You've come this far. After so much deception, the interview itself should be easy. Still, you are bound to be nervous. Just remember that any deviation from normal behavior—including the mere act of cleaning yourself up—will attract unwelcome attention. If you're a particularly slovenly sort, avoid being the subject of office gossip by changing clothes at a coffee shop or public library on your way to and from the interview. (Starbucks, for once, is an ideal choice because the bathrooms tend to be spacious and private.) But time and chance wreck even the best plans, which is why you should always have an excuse. Nice clothes are easy to explain away. If someone says, "Hey, you look sharp today," you can choose from any number of believable covers: a funeral, a date, a publicity party—anything but the truth.

A Few Things to Remember

The lower down on the ladder you are, the easier on-the-job job-hunting is. If you're an intern, nobody expects you to do much but surf the Internet anyway. Also, on your resume, it's a good idea to omit your "objective." That way, if your resume is seen at work, you can say you were applying for a weeklong fellowship or a professional conference. (Professional conferences, by the way, offer the perfect cover for job-hunting.) Finally, if you can, get keys to your office. Come in on the weekends and use office equipment with relative impunity. But never let your guard down. Someone is always watching. And once you get that next job, remember: It's never too early to start looking.

Corey Pein is a journalist in New York who is perfectly happy with his full-time job. His work has appeared in The American Prospect, Folio:, and the Columbia Journalism Review.

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