I Just Work Here

Psst: It's OK to cheat on your employer

It's probably better that you never stop looking for work, one expert says

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At work in a coffee shop

At work in a coffee shop (Tim Robberts / The Image Bank / Getty Images / October 9, 2011)

Brace yourselves. I'm about to come out in favor of infidelity.

Not marital infidelity, of course, or even brand infidelity. (I believe once you choose a type of coffee, you and that beverage must remain forever bound, as the gods of capitalism intended.)

But fidelity to your employer is another matter. Ambrose Bierce, a 19th century author and journalist, wrote that fidelity is "a virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed."

Never has that been more true than in today's workplace, where many of us are one bad earnings report or one lost client away from joining the swollen ranks of the unemployed. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that American workers are expressing near-record-high concerns about the stability of their jobs and income — 3 in 10 say they worry they could be laid off soon.

I've received several questions from readers — some worried about their jobs going away, others unsatisfied with their career paths — asking when to start looking elsewhere. Should I stay put given the state of the economy? Should I just be happy to have a job?

Answers came to me in a surprising setting: in the basement of a Catholic church on the South Side of Chicago, speaking to a support group for unemployed people. One of the group's organizers asked me to come, and I said I would, if I could bring someone who actually knows what she's talking about. That person was Karen Goins, a career coach and head of the consulting firm KS Goins & Associates.

As Goins spoke, it dawned on me that the advice she was giving to people looking for work could — and perhaps should — be followed by the employed as well.

Distilled to its essence, Goins said you should never stop looking for a job, even if you have one. You should always have your eyes open, always be networking and asking around about other opportunities, and never accept that you're stuck in a job for life.

"When you stop believing that you're a valuable person and that someone can benefit from having you, that's when hopelessness and fear and stress move in," she said. "And once they move in, they're hard to get out."

So if you're looking for work, you can't let yourself give up, or you're dead in the water. And if you have a job you're not crazy about, you can't stop believing you're worthy of something better.

Goins asked one woman in the group what kind of work she was looking for. The woman said: "I'm looking for a job, hopefully, in accounting or accounts receivable."

Goins stopped her and pointed out that she had used the word "hopefully."

"Is that what's really in your heart?" Goins asked.

"I don't know," the woman said. "I'm older and I know I can change, but I'm not really sure what I want."

It was a teachable moment.

Goins said everyone in the room needed to take some time — away from the computer, away from the day-to-day slog of a job search — and focus on what they truly want to do for a living. Identify the jobs that would bring them joy and fulfillment and make them feel excited.

"Don't look for what you've always done and have hated," she said. "You can spend as much time looking for something you hate as you can spend looking for something you love. It's up to you."

Again, this applies as much to the out-of-work folks at that meeting as it does to the person in the cubicle watching the clock tick away the days and wondering whether it might be time to make a career move. Even in a rotten job market, nobody needs to feel stuck. If you're lucky enough to be working, take advantage of the fact that you have a steady income and use your time to carefully consider a next step — and then chart a path to get there.

Goins' primary tactical message to job seekers is to network. In fact, she gave the people in that church basement an unusual assignment: Stay away from the computer for three full days.

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