What are the ethics in accepting a permanent position when knowing that you will be there temporarily?
Q: Recently, I gave notice without having another job in place. I found that my position had become untenable and I needed to quit for my sanity and the sanity of my family.
The problem is that I plan to leave the country in about seven months, so any job I can find now will be temporary. As a former hiring manager, I know the time, dedication and effort that goes into bringing on a new employee, and I know how frustrating it is when that person quits soon after. What are the ethics in accepting a permanent position when knowing that you will be there temporarily? — MARIA
A: Clearly there are just two choices here. The most advantageous to you — at least in the short run — is to keep your plans to yourself. Find a new job, stay mum about leaving the country, and when the time comes, quit. Can you rationalize that? Sure. After all, companies often continue hiring even when top management may know that, say, a merger is in the works, layoffs will most likely follow and the “last hired, first fired” tradition will kick in. So you could convince yourself that it’s OK to follow a more cynical variation of the Golden Rule: Do unto your employer as you suspect an employer might do unto you.
But just because you can rationalize a decision doesn’t make it right, or even smart. When it becomes apparent to your new employer that your entire application and training process was essentially a ruse, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you will never be able to use the company as a reference. In fact, you are establishing a negative data point that could affect your professional reputation in unpredictable ways. Everyone involved will remember you, for all the wrong reasons.
And worst of all, you know this negative impression would be at least somewhat deserved: As you concede, you would have willfully wasted others’ time and resources. I suspect that even if you experienced no tangible consequences, the situation would still bother you.
Readers may wonder why you couldn’t have just stuck it out at your earlier gig for a few more months, knowing that your “untenable” situation had a firm expiration date. “You should have done X” advice isn’t helpful, and I’ll take your word for it that you had to get out.
Part of the fallout, however, is that this decision has put some limits on your short-term options. So you are stuck with the second of the two obvious choices: Seek temporary or shorter-term contract work, or be honest with potential employers about your plans.
That said, I’ll add one caveat: The calculus may change if there is any uncertainty about your plans. In the past, I have urged caution about giving excessive notice, for instance, because life can be unpredictable, and a manager who learns that you intend to move on in six months may prefer to replace you immediately. (That cynical version of the Golden Rule is not totally without merit.)
If there’s ambiguity about your future, it’s fair to pursue a position that may turn out to be a short stint. But that is something only you can sort out. Before you can be honest with a potential employer, be honest with yourself.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Submit questions to Rob Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.