Question: I've just been offered a job by my company's No. 1 competitor.
It's with a firm that's been operating mostly out of the Midwest and they want to open a West Coast state office, make me the manager and give me the chance to hire a staff of my own.
I am a top performer at my company, but have gone as high in rank as I can here and confess I'm intrigued by the opportunity. Also, I'm only in my 30s and while I like working here as the sales manager, I can't see working for my present company for 20 more years. Luckily, I've never signed a noncompete agreement, so nothing bars me from leaving and using what I've learned on behalf on my next employer.
Although many of my biggest customers move from employer to employer themselves and don't show a lot of product loyalty to their vendors, I worry they will lose respect for me if I take a job with my current employer's strongest competitor. Will they laugh when I tell them my new company's products are the best when I've given them my word that my potentially former company's products are "the very best?"
The competitor has made it clear he wants to pull mutual vendors as well as customers away from my current employer. If I accept this offer, I'd thus have to aggressively fight my current employer.
Also, my current company is like a family and I'd lose many relationships because they would consider me a traitor. Is this a reason to turn down a job offer?
If I don't accept the job offer, should I tell my current employer I was recruited by the competition? Can I use the offer as leverage to ask for a raise?
Finally, just taking the first several recruiting phone calls leaves me holding information about my competitor's intentions. I realize I should ethically share the information with my current employer.
I hesitate to do that until I learn more about the offer. If I stay with my current employer, could I be reprimanded for not sharing information about our competition's plans sooner?
Answer: Currently, you hold a lot of cards. Your present employer considers you a top performer and treats you well.
A competing company wants you. You have the right to listen to their offer. At the same time, and like a player in any card game, you take a risk when you gamble. As a result, many employees facing similar circumstances say "no thanks, I'm flattered but happy where I am" when prospective employers lure them.
Others, driven by curiosity or career ambition do as you have and open the door to learning more. As you've hit a career plateau and this dangled position represents a growth opportunity, you owe it to yourself to hear what they offer.
As you wisely realize, your current employer may view this as disloyalty. You can mitigate this risk by maintaining clear ethical boundaries.
First, when you listen to the competing company's offer, ask that they not tell you anything they wouldn't want you to have learned if you continue working for your current employer. This warning prevents you from burning a bridge and increases their respect for your professionalism.
Second, before you accept a competitor's offer, give your current employer the chance to make a competing offer.
Third, if you leave your current company, play fair with them. Even though you didn't sign a noncompete agreement, ethics require that you not walk out the door with proprietary information.
Fourth, kindly speak of your current employer, admitting you simply took a promotional opportunity and you'll ease the concerns of the customers who negatively view employees who switch between competing companies. Other than that, you have less to fear from many of your customers then you may think. When you promoted your potentially former employer's products as the best, your customers knew you were in selling mode. If you describe your next company's products as even better, they'll make you explain why. If you can do that, you make a sale.
Next, in weighing your two options, ask yourself which you might regret more a year from now -- taking a risk and moving from a job you like or losing a potentially good opportunity. With that in mind, either call your competitor and say "no thanks" or hear them out.
You can also use the competitor's offer to leverage a raise. Before you do so and as you suspect, realize that some employers may consider it problematic that you allowed a competitor to woo you and that their sales manager didn't quickly let them know.
-- Lynne Curry is a management trainer, consultant and president of Alaska's The Growth Company Inc. in Anchorage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org