“How can I convince an employer to hire me who believes it would be too risky?”

Question: I’ve applied for a consulting job in one of the “Big 4” accounting firms. After three rounds of interviews, I was advised by their HR team that they can’t proceed because they are now providing auditing services to my current employer, and they fear it could damage the relationship.

I replied saying my current role has nothing to do with the auditing practice, and furthermore the position I’ve applied for is in consulting, which is a different service line than auditing.

How can I make them change their minds?

Irvine, California

Answer: Dear Randy, Your question is a new one to me, and for this reason I hope my answer will be especially interesting to blog visitors. Here’s my best:  

1. First thought: What exactly do they see as “risky?” Knowing how to “navigate or negotiate” at work requires that you do all you can to understand the motivation of the person or persons you seek to motivate to do (or not do) something. From what you have written, I cannot tell what you believe is the reason your prospective employer views hiring you to be “risky.” Is it that your prospective employer fears a potential conflict of interest? Is it that your prospective employer fears a potential problem that you might accidentally share confidential information about your present employer? Is it that your prospective employer fears that, if they hire you, your present employer will see it as “employee poaching,” and thus might lose your present employer as a client? What you say about it is that “they fear it could damage the relationship.” That is key, but you don’t seem to be focusing on that.

If you want to successfully address a problem, then Rule #1 is this: You need to understand that problem. I suggest you ask your prospective employer’s Hiring Manager or Recruiter “What exactly is seen as the ‘risk’ in hiring me?” That surely would be step number one.   

2. If your prospective employer’s concern is over a potential “conflict of interest” – that is, that they are competing with their own client, or acting against their client’s interests – then (a) full disclosure and (b) express waiver, are the two ways to address that concern. Some might believe that your hoped-for prospective employer is acting against the interests of its own auditing client if it hires you, and that would be improper. The way to address that would be to (a) disclose that concern to your present employer, and (b) ask them to say, in effect, “We understand that concern, but if there is any conflict of interest in your being hired by our auditing firm, we hereby waive it.”

You might say, “But Al, it is risky to my continued employment and possible future here to tell my present employer that I am looking elsewhere.” My response would be “Yes, but there are risks in everything you do; that said, I am a  pretty strong believer that open, honest communication is almost always a rather low-risk activity, and it is a risk you may need to take.” I would, of course, highly recommend that you first ask your prospective employer to confirm that it will definitely hire you if the potential conflict of interest is waived, because it would be imprudent, and almost reckless, to tell your present employer you would like to leave if your prospective employer is not definite that it will hire you if and when you do become available.

3. If your prospective employer’s concern is that your present employer might believe you might take or unknowingly divulge confidential information if you were hired, you might best address that perceived risk by offering to voluntarily sign and honor a strict confidentiality agreement.  It would not be unreasonable for an employer to be concerned that one of its employees is going to go to work for its auditors, and in his or her new job might share information or intentions that the auditing firm has no right to know. Examples of these might be if your present employer had plans to replace the auditing firm, or negotiate a lower auditing fee. If it is that concern of your prospective employer – that your present employer might fear accidental or intentional transfer of confidential matters, it would be best addressed by you proactively offering to sign and deliver to your present employer a broad and strict confidentiality agreement.

4. I believe it is most likely that the real “risk” they are concerned about is “relational risk,” that is, that your present employer fears upsetting its auditing client by taking one of its employees, and on that basis it may lose your present employer as a valued client. No services firm wants to lose a client, especially if it a significant client. This concern – if it is the real reason your prospective employer hesitates to hire you – is truly understandable, and may be difficult to allay. Everyone wants more business, and no one wants to lose any business; business conditions are difficult enough already. And, too, that is what they mentioned: “damage the relationship.”

I would offer this thought: consider just for a moment advising your Manager that, (a) for purely personal reasons that are not a criticism of your present employer, (b) you are considering seeking a new job, and (c) would like his or her “blessing” in your doing so, and (d) in doing so, you will do all you can to assist in any transition. Besides being an employee advocate, I  am also an employer, and I sure would prefer to hear that then “I am leaving today” or “I am leaving next week.” If your Manager sees your approach – which includes assisting in any transition –as a positive, professional and helpful way to announce an intention to leave, he or she just might “bless” your leaving.

If either (i) you raise this thought simultaneously with your Manager and the Managing Partner (or equivalent) of your firm, or (ii) if you ask your Manager if you might present this same thought to the Managing Partner (or equivalent) of your firm, the “blessing” or “buy-in” of the firm’s Managing Partner might easily enable you to (iii) ask, “Would you be all right with me seeking a new position with our firm’s Auditor?” In this thoughtful way, you just might end up with a second, higher-level “blessing” or “buy-in” for your leaving and joining your prospective employer, and you can then present this “risk-freedom” to your prospective employer.

Who knows? The Managing Partner of your present employer might just be happy to see one of his folks working for the firm’s auditors. He or she might just make a helpful phone call to the auditors suggesting they hire you.    

A second approach would be to suggest to the Hiring Manager or Recruiter that they approach your present employer and advise them that you have asked them to “take the temperature” of your present employer regarding its view of them taking you in as an employee. While this takes some anxiety off you, it is a less respected approach, and while done not that uncommonly, it is not the personal and proactive way I suggest.

5. Artful and sophisticated “navigation” is the best way to turn “perception of risk” into “perception of value.” As those who read my blog regularly know well, “negotiation (or navigation) is a matter of motivating another person to do something they were not inclined to do.” What my suggestion to you represents is a “navigation” of your circumstances to change the “perception of risk” to a “perception of value” in the minds of your prospective hirers. Sure, there are risks in the process, but there is also a potential for great reward. And, truth be told, I think it is your best way forward over the hurdle you face in achieving your goal.

Randy, I hope this proves helpful. Even if you decided not to follow all of my suggestions, I hope you might take value from at least some of what I have expressed.

My Best,
Al Sklover

P.S.: Don’t forget: we offer Model Letters, Memos, Checklists and Form Agreements for almost every workplace issue, concern and problem. They show you “What to Say, How to Say It.™” Want to see our Entire List? Just [click here.] Delivered by Email – Instantly!

P.P.S.: If you would like to speak with me directly about this or other workplace-related subjects, I am available for 30-minute, 60-minute, or 120-minute telephone consultations. (Even 5-minute “Just One Question” calls). Just [click here.] Evenings and weekends can be accommodated.


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