We’re all familiar with the phrase, “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” In the business I’m in- executive search- that could just as easily be “Loose Lips Sink Careers.” As a headhunter, nothing matters more than keeping your job search confidential. The stakes are enormous. Candidates and employers confide in me all day long. I hold reputations, careers and closely guarded business information in my hands. As you might imagine, the things I hear could be the stuff of a Stephen King novel. Clients and candidates open up because they explicitly trust me, and I hold that trust very sacred. In fact, many of the searches I’ve conducted over the years were highly confidential replacements; someone’s life was about to be turned upside down, and I knew about it before they and their families did. That’s heavy stuff. In my day to day practice, keeping every job search confidential is my First Commandment. I would never, ever break it.
I only wish all of my clients would think the same way.
Case in point: Recently, a client of mine who had conducted an initial phone screen with my candidate wanted to bring him in for a face-to-face interview. I reported back to my candidate, who told me he very much liked what he heard and was looking forward to continuing the discussions. That is, until he found out that my hiring manager did some snooping around to gather some advance intel. Turns out there was someone on the hiring manager’s staff- we’ll call them person A- who had a close relationship with an individual who used to work at my candidate’s current company- we’ll call them person B. At one time in the past, person B had reported to someone who had reported to my candidate. It also turns out “that someone” had been fired from my candidate’s current company and apparently still had an axe to grind. Long story short: Word got back to my candidate, in the form of a cryptic text message from someone he didn’t even know, that the rumor mill was buzzing that he was interviewing with my client. He immediately withdrew his candidacy. Further, he was also able to trace the source of the leak back to my client, and in an extremely terse email read him the riot act. For me, one month’s worth of recruiting work down the drain. Serious egg on the face of my client who committed a serious Bozo no-no. Had my candidate lost his job over this, it could have very well wound up in court. A bitter lesson in keeping the job search confidential.
I don’t know what it is about human nature, but it’s been my experience that when I conduct highly confidential searches and I implore everyone I contact to keep a tight lid on everything we discuss or there could be “dire consequences”, it’s only a matter of time before word gets out. You may think you can trust someone to keep their lips sealed, but people talk not because they’re purposely trying to break your trust, they talk because… well, they’re people. The research on this topic is actually pretty fascinating. A study published several years ago by the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that when we know and keep a secret, we actually perceive ourselves as being physically burdened. Sigmund Freud was said to have stated: “No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” Little could Freud have imagined that those chattering finger-tips would someday be tapping away on modern day keyboards and touchpads, connected to an internet that dispatches rumors and gossip faster than you can say, “guess what I heard?” Information comes loose and it goes out fast.
At the executive level, keeping your job search confidential is etched in stone. It is deeply engrained into the search process. But I treat ALL searches that way, and employers should too. I know what some hiring authorities are thinking right now: “If I have a friend who knows something about a candidate I’m interviewing, you better believe I’m going to talk with them.” I’m not suggesting you don’t. But what I AM suggesting is that you do it outside the context of a job search. In the example above, the hiring manager never should have revealed to a subordinate that my candidate was coming in for an interview. Very bad idea.
As a candidate, you’d be amazed at how fast stuff can spread, and how it can sometimes come back to bite you in ways you can’t even imagine. If keeping your job search confidential is important to you, be sure to remind the hiring manager, HR and any third party recruiter by stating, “Thank you for keeping this job search strictly confidential. This must not, under any circumstances, get out.” Whenever a candidate tells me that, I make a point of reminding my client that with this particular individual, everything we discuss must be kept strictly cloaked. No exceptions.
When you’re job hunting, my rule is simple: If someone doesn’t need to know, don’t tell them.