You’d think this would be a weird question but I actually get asked this question on a fairly regular basis. Thankfully, I mostly get asked it by employees rather than employers but, in saying that, I can recall two employers (at a past law firm) that asked me this exact question.
The answer? Quite simply: it depends. It depends on the circumstances but, theoretically, yes, an employee can be disciplined for job hunting. In practice, however, it would be a rare occasion where an employer could safely do so.
To explore the dividing line, let’s look at three examples.
Example 1 – An employee, Julie, is applying for jobs at home outside of her normal working hours. This includes chatting to a recruitment consultant at home. Julie gives the recruitment consultant her personal email address but, unfortunately, the recruitment person naively decides (without Julie’s consent) to ring reception at her current employer, identify themselves and ask for a call back from Julie ‘about a job vacancy’. The receptionist immediately informs Julie’s manager, who isn’t happy.
Can Julie’s manager discipline her? No. Put simply, Julie hasn’t breached her working terms or her Contract. She has handled the situation discreetly, done so outside of her working hours and only given personal contact details. Julie didn’t give the recruitment consultant permission to ring her at work and can’t be held at fault for the consultant’s mistake.
That being said, Julie’s manager is fine to have an informal chat with her about the situation and inquire about the nature of the call and Julie’s future plans. At best, Julie’s manager could find out about an unknown issue and seek to rectify it to keep Julie at the company. On the flipside, if Julie’s manager goes on the offensive and fires interrogatory questions at her, this is likely to be counterproductive and merely strengthen her resolve to leave.
Example 2 – An employee, Gary, is searching for jobs online on his work computer during working time. His employer has evidence of this by way of his internet history and due to Gary using his work email address to receive ‘job application updates’.
Gary could be subject to a formal disciplinary and/or formal poor performance process due to using working time for non-work related activities. Gary is also likely to have breached his employer’s IT Policy which, in itself, is also a disciplinary offence. In this case, it appears that Gary has spent significant time looking for alternative jobs during his working hours and, this being the case, the employer could safely start a formal disciplinary process. At the very least, Gary’s manager needs to have a firm word with him about company property being for work purposes only and that, in future, he must keep non-work related activities to his break periods or time outside the office.
Example 3 – E/ee, Suzanne, has just signed a 6 month fixed-term contract and is seen at her desk, on her personal phone, scrolling through a list of job vacancies 5 minutes into her lunchbreak.
Suzanne’s manager should have a quiet word with her about her actions in the office. Put plainly, it should be explained that the office isn’t the place to publicly look for other job opportunities, even within a lunch break. Suzanne’s manager can query why she is doing this so soon into her new contract and advise her to do so outside of work.
What about a disciplinary? After all, hasn’t Suzanne just committed to a 6 month contract and isn’t this evidence of her looking to break this? Not necessarily. On the contrary, Suzanne could be comparing wage or simply considering her options for after the 6 month period expires. Because she is doing it in her own time and on her own device (albeit in a slightly unprofessional manner), there is no real opportunity for a disciplinary here unless she is expressly doing so in bad faith.
So, what is the general advice for employers in similar situations? Well, by all means discuss knowledge of the job search with the employee concerned and, in doing so, assess the risk of them leaving and explore the potential reasons why.
However, in terms of considering formal disciplinary proceedings, it is usually best to not take situation too personally but accept that, in reality, employees come and go. In fact, if the situation is handled well by management, this could change a wavering employee’s mind. And if the employee still wishes to leave? Then, that’s their call for better or for worse. However, ironically enough, failing to handle these situations well can fuel departure rather than prevent it!