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Took a Short-Term Contract: Keep Job Hunting?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Liz,

Although the issues I want to raise here are not in play right now, I'm thinking ahead in case that changes. The instability of the job market makes these decisions difficult.

I've been out of work for quite a while, and am encouraged by a new opportunity that has come my way through an employment agency. It is for a very desirable, short-term contract job (4 or 5 months) to fill in for someone who will be out on maternity leave. It's extremely unlikely that this will ever turn into a full time job, but I would be very glad to have it.

One of the first questions the agency person asked was if I had any conflicts that would prevent me from completing the contract to the end, such as another imminent job offer. I answered truthfully that I do not. However, if I get this job, I don't think it would be wise to stop looking for a better, full time career position with benefits.

So the question is, what are my obligations to the agency in case something better does come along before the end of the contract? I don't want to burn bridges with the agency because I like them and may need them again, but I doubt they'd want to work with me again if I bailed early, putting them and the employer in a bind.

I know I need to look out for myself first, but my personal life and business philosophy is to try do the right things for everyone involved. Your thoughts?

Maria

Dear Maria,

For me your question is a variation on the theme "If I take a new job, how long must I stay there before considering another job opportunity?" If you bail on the assignment, you will burn a bridge. Therefore, you wouldn't want to leave unless the grass were much, much greener on the other side of the fence.

You don't have any obligation to the agency. After all, at the end of the assignment, you're out of work again, and they aren't guaranteeing you another minute of work (or pay) after that day. It's a Door Number One/Door Number Two situation. If you stay throughout the assignment and do a good job, you retain the ability to get a call if the agency has another assignment and sees you as a good fit for it (two big Ifs). If you take Door Number Two and bail on the assignment, you won't have the same opportunity to get more work from the agency, but presumably you wouldn't be leaving anyway unless you had something full-time and reasonably secure to go to.

The Right Thing is what's right for you and the people who depend on you, Maria. You answered the question "Do you have any known conflicts?" truthfully. If a great opportunity comes up while you're on the assignment and you have to leave it, that's business. You won't have committed any ethical lapse in that case. The agency is used to it, believe me.

Every contract and every business agreement is a risk-sharing affair. The agency's implied message is "Do you really want to take the risk of leaving our four-month gig to take a new job? What if your new job falls through, but you burned the bridge, so that you can't come back and work for us?" Your counter-message is "Can I take the risk that, just to stay on your agency roster, I turn down a full-time job offer, and then after this temporary assignment you have no more work for me?"

The agency person was doing her job by asking you whether you had any known conflicts. Take the temporary assignment, Maria, and keep your job-search engine running. Hiring processes take so long these days that it could well take an employer three months to extend an offer to you, even if you sent a resume today. Add two weeks' notice and you're right at the end of the temporary deal. Wouldn't that be the perfect scenario?

Best of luck,

Liz