There's an old piece of conventional wisdom that says it's easier to get a new job if you already have one. Unfortunately, it's true.

"Employers tend to prefer to hire people who are already employed," says Alison Green, author of How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager.

It’s not that human resources departments are prejudiced against people without jobs, though that might be true sometimes. Even during economic downturns, when many good people are unemployed, those who are employed have an edge if they're seeking new positions.

Key Takeaways

  • If you're looking for work, it's often easier to find a job if you already have a job.
  • Being unemployed, especially for prolonged periods of time, sends a negative signal about your work ethic and hirability.
  • If you do find yourself out of work, try to minimize gaps in your resume and stay connected to your professional network.

What Joblessness Implies About You

One reason it might be easier to find a job when you’re already employed is that you’re not too eager to get a new position. Eagerness is a dead giveaway when job-hunting, says Job-Hunt.org. And it may be a turnoff to some employers, as harsh as that seems.

"Rightly or wrongly, employers tend to assume that people don’t quit jobs without another lined up unless (a) they were about to be fired, (b) they actually were fired and are just saying that they quit, or (c) they’re potentially someone who walks when things are frustrating, which is worrisome because of course every job will have frustrations at one point or another," said Green.

Having a job gives you more leverage, too. You’re in a better negotiating position if you don’t actually need the job you’re being offered. And employers know that all too well.

A Job Is Also a Network

In fact, when you have a job, you have some special things going for you, whether or not you're looking for a new one.

One important thing is your professional network. Forbes.com cites Andy Teach, a corporate veteran and author of From Graduation to Corporation: The Practical Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder One Rung at a Time, who points out that “when you’re working, you’re constantly interacting with your industry contacts … ”

When you’re not employed, you lose that advantage. "It puts you in a defensive position," Teach says.

The Gaping Hole Issue

Not having a job while you're looking for one raises the same problem as a gaping hole in your work history. "The issue of gaps in employment history is a thorny one," says Bronwen Hann, a Toronto-based recruiter. They can give "the wrong impression about your abilities and ambitions, imply that you're not capable ... or that you were 'dishonorably discharged' from your previous job and didn't know how to get back into a position. Worst of all," Hann says, "it can imply that you're lazy, or that you don't care about your career."

Keeping It Confidential

Looking for a job when you already have one carries its own risks. Your current employer might hear about your job search and look upon it as disloyal, or even a firing offense.

It can be a good idea to talk over your dissatisfactions with your current boss before starting to look elsewhere. There could be options like a transfer or a change in departments within your company. If those options don’t exist, it really is time to look further.

What to Do About References

It's best not to let your boss know you are looking. "Your manager may view your desire to depart as a betrayal," says Marie G. McIntyre of YourOfficeCoach.com.

That raises the prickly problem of references. When you interview for a new job, you should always be asked whether your present employer can be contacted. Assuming the answer is an emphatic "no," you will still need references.

Ask for references from previous employers and colleagues, or a supervisor who has recently left your company. If you must, choose someone you trust within your own company.

Searching for a new job takes time and energy. You must be careful not to slack off on your current job. Also never tell a prospective employer that you’re looking for a new position because you hate your boss. Candor, in this case, is not advised.

The Bottom Line

It is easier to get a job offer when you already have a job. But it can take some careful maneuvering and a lot of extra time to pull it off.