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Is it confidential?

Q. A friend of mine was placed at our firm through an employment agency. She decided she wanted to look for a new job, and she contacted the same agency to see if they can help her find a new job once more. This employment agency called our office manager and told her that my friend wanted to look for a new job. This seems to be unprofessional, completely inappropriate and somehow illegal. Is there anything that can be done?

A. Job search activity is most often considered confidential, especially if conducted in partnership with any kind of recruiting or placement agency. I am sure your friend is disappointed and angry that her career plans were shared with her manager by another party. I would guess that the manager is also not happy with your friend, which may influence her ability to stay at her current job while looking for a new opportunity.

You didn't say how long your friend has been on the job, and this may have influenced the agency employee to have a conversation with the office manager. Remember, agency fees are paid by the employer, not the employee, so the agency person may have acted out of loyalty to the client, the person who paid the fee.

Most agencies have a 90 day guarantee clause, meaning the company will get the placement fee they paid back, or a new placement completed at no charge, if the person doesn't stay 90 days. If your friend was going to leave within that time frame, the agency may have been concerned about filling the job again, for no fee.

Agencies also have "hands off" policies, which say that they agree not to solicit employees to leave a company where they have placed people. Again, the agency person may have been concerned that the office manager would think the agency approached your friend to try and get her to leave the company, fill a job they had, and earn another fee.

I am not trying to justify the actions taken by the agency. I am trying to make sure you, your friend, and other job seekers recognize how these things may happen, and how to develop ways to prevent issues negatively affecting your candidacy or your career.

Confidentiality is vital in the business world, and it is often taken for granted or in some instances not taken seriously. If you are currently in a job, you most likely do not want your current employer to know you are actively seeking a new opportunity. In any meeting with a placement professional, or a networking meeting, you can let people know you are conducting a "confidential search". This means that information about you in general can be disclosed, but not so much that you could be easily identified, and have your current role jeopardized.

It would be considered reasonable for you to ask any agency professional if they can work within the bounds of confidentiality. Listen carefully to the answer. If they feel they cannot keep information about you confidential and work with you as a candidate, you can make the decision to end any potential placement activity, or agree to avoid certain organizations or companies, or to take the risk. As much as you might like to expect confidentiality, don't - unless you bring up the topic.

At this point your friend can let the placement professional know how disappointed she is with the lack of confidentiality in her interaction, and her understanding that her employer would not be contacted. She may or may not get a reason for the inappropriate behavior. The legalities would be open to debate.

I would encourage your friend to have a conversation with the office manager to see how much the working relationship has been damaged, and how it can be repaired. Perhaps there are ways to improve the job, her role, and her current opportunities. If not, I'd recommend a new agency and starting off with a question about confidentiality.

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