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See a job change in your future? It's never too early to plan

Being ready for a job change is smart planning, and it's never too early to start. Here are things to consider if you're planning a move (or a move is being planned for you).

Nothing lasts forever—least of all a job. In 2018, the median tenure of workers was 4.2 years, with millennials tending toward the shortest length of time in their jobs, according to employee tenure data reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are many reasons why you might be planning to leave your current employer. An interesting opportunity exists elsewhere, or you may be at risk of losing your job due to, say, a corporate merger or acquisition. No matter the reason, taking steps toward protecting your re-employability as well as your rights is just good planning.  

First, let’s get the legalese out of the way: This article is for informational, educational, and/or entertainment purposes only. Neither this nor other articles here constitute legal advice or the creation, implication, or confirmation of an attorney-client relationship. For actual legal advice, consult with an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

That said, depending on the circumstances, here are a handful of key things to do when a job change is in your future:

Keep a work diary

Imagine my sadness on behalf of a friend when she told me she was potentially eligible for mucho dinero in a class action suit against her employer for gross wage and work hours abuses over the course of several years—and then told me that she had no actual records or other meaningful evidence of her uncompensated hours.

Indeed, employees and ex-employees sometimes find themselves in a legal quandary and need records to refresh their memories and back up their claims. Therefore, it may not be a bad idea to keep regular, truthful notes, as contemporaneously taken as possible and to the extent that doing so doesn’t violate any applicable laws, regulations, or lawful employment policies in effect. It probably should be in the form of a work diary in a paper notebook or on a personal mobile device, with entries concerning any particularly adverse events transpiring in the workplace.

and to the extent that doing so doesn’t violate any applicable laws, regulations, or lawful employment policies in effect.

Are you witnessing or experiencing sexual harassment or protected-class discrimination? Are you getting "asked" to work extra uncompensated hours when you're not an overtime-exempt employee? Are you overhearing offensive and inappropriate remarks that the company wouldn't want being read aloud in court or, for that matter, repeated in the press? Are you witnessing talk of unlawful company behavior (if not actual unlawful behavior itself)? These are all things potentially worth making written and dated notes about as they occur, unless otherwise legally barred from doing so.
Best practice, however, is that every single such note is addressed to the employee's attorney. That way, they may remain attorney-client privileged and, as such, not subject to discovery absent a waiver of attorney-client privilege (see below for more on that topic).

A more serious danger lies in using employer-owned or employer-controlled devices to compose, save, or send an attorney correspondence. Some courts have held that by virtue of using an employer-owned or employer-controlled device or network for attorney-client communications, the subject employee effectively waived their attorney-client privilege to keep those communications private. State laws and employer policies vary here, but it is a good idea to keep your personal correspondence "personal" in how it is composed, maintained, and sent. When in doubt, keep personal activities off company-owned devices.

The same goes for holding onto copies of employee handbooks and signed employee agreements, pertinent company memos, and other such documentation.

This way, someone who loses their job under lawfully questionable circumstances, needs to back up a workers' comp claim, or simply needs to prove eligibility for unemployment benefits will have a record of potential evidence.

Of course, as with everything in life, discretion is the better part of valor. Keep it all to yourself. If you whip out your pen and notebook with a blatant and public flourish every time something you don't like happens, don't be surprised when HR and your bosses put a target on your back—in the form of their own paper trail, documenting every single thing you do wrong.

Keep in mind, personal notes and private correspondences are best made and kept in privately controlled, personally owned media. Employers may well legitimately access notes and correspondence kept on their storage devices (or, for that matter, handwritten in their notepads from the supply closet to the extent that they remain company property)—and, in some cases, cause problems for an employee's future access to such notes if the employee gets terminated.

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Always be updating

Some personal documentation surrounding work life—such as social media—isn't exactly private. And someday, whether it's because they're ready to leave or it's because they sense that they're about to be let go, employees often find themselves needing to update their LinkedIn profiles or similar online professional profiles. It might look fishy to a boss or HR worker, though, to see such a major update happen out of the blue.

So why not make it a habit? Spend lots of personal, at-home time on LinkedIn and your other professional networking sites. Update your profile(s) a minimum of once a month, regularly. That way, in addition to boosting your professional visibility—a career benefit even if you do stay with your company forever—it looks like normal activity to your employer, up to and including when you actually are preparing to jump ship (or walk the plank).

Of course, you can adjust your LinkedIn settings to never update your contacts about your profile edits (Go to the "Me" pulldown, choose Settings & Privacy and then Sharing profile edits, and toggle to "No.") Just the same, a co-worker who checks your profile occasionally might take note of some glaring differences. Better the truth be that you're frequently updating incrementally instead of in large chunks when you're fielding the market.

Even if you're not that paranoid, think about how much easier you're making your life when you do need an updated resume. You won't need to spend an entire weekend racking your brain to identify all of your accomplishments over the past few years.

Up-skill as much as feasible

Of course, you're going to need some material worth adding to your LinkedIn profile, including certifications, training, coursework, and skills acquired on the job.

According to an oft-cited axiom, the education gathered from an engineering degree typically obsolesces within five years. Woe unto the longtime faithful yet recently terminated worker who has done little to nothing to stay updated on the latest and greatest networking technologies, programming languages, enterprise software, and other tech trends and developments. This is a particularly large re-employment burden for older workers and job seekers who face age discrimination. (Sure, discriminating against workers over 40 is unlawful, but that doesn't keep HR departments from doing it.) Moreover, some certifications, such as the CISSP, and other skills take years to obtain.

So talk to your boss about what training programs, coursework costs, and tuition reimbursements the company offers. Even if no formal program exists, it's not necessarily a hard sell to your boss if you can demonstrate the extra value you'll bring to the company for pennies on the dollar, compared with hiring a new employee.

Don't quit without reviewing your benefits terms

That said, when employers do subsidize an employee's training or other education, they generally prefer that the employee stick around for a while. Consequently, if part of your benefits package has included reimbursement for college tuition or other coursework, make sure you don't quit without reviewing (or having your attorney review) the terms of that reimbursement. When this benefit is offered, employment agreements commonly include a clause stating that the employee must pay part or all of this money back if the employee voluntarily leaves employment with the company within a certain time period—which could be as long as a few years. (The same general principle often applies for certain other benefits, such as signing bonuses.)

The corollary here is that employees should know what they are getting into before they take advantage of such benefits. If you hate your company but want to go back to school, weigh the pros and cons carefully of what it might mean to choose between remaining at your company for a given number of years or committing yourself to potentially paying full tuition. (Note that these programs may therefore incentivize an employer, especially if it is a smaller organization, to keep the employee's salary artificially low over that time period, knowing the tuition-reimbursed employee is "stuck" until such and such a date.)

This usually doesn't apply if the company terminates employees through no fault of their own (for example, by way of layoffs or a reduction in force). The emphasis here is on "no fault." If an employee is fired for cause, that employee may still be on the hook for tuition reimbursement or similar benefits—so getting oneself fired on purpose probably isn't a good workaround.

Again, though, these are generalizations; all of this ultimately comes down to what an individual's employment contract actually says, along with relevant local-jurisdiction law.

Negotiate your employment agreement

Salary may be the most commonly negotiated item when it comes to accepting a new job, but it's not the only negotiable thing. Vacation days, signing bonuses, annual bonuses, performance review periods, tuition reimbursement, and a plethora of other benefits and gotchas are fair game once a candidate and hiring manager are talking about an offer.

"Negotiate" is a scary word to many people. Some folks even think it's rude or otherwise unseemly to talk about contract terms at all.

But contracts are adversarial only when approached in an adversarial fashion. Better to think of them from an IT perspective. An employment contract is similar to a business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR) plan or even a cloud service-level agreement: If something unexpected comes up, all you have to do is refer to the document to know how to handle it—because it's right there in black and white.

So, when preparing to accept a new job offer, don't be shy about hammering out all of the what-ifs you can think of. Just like the terms of a BC/DR plan, you'll be glad you thought to address them should the day come when something bad or unexpected happens.

In this way, employment arrangements are a lot like the IT profession. Bad and unexpected things happen all the time. Be prepared; stay prepared.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.