Ask Vault: Is It Ethical to Take a Job While Searching for Another One?

by Phil Stott | January 10, 2018

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In our Ask Vault feature, Vault's editors answer career-related questions and conundrums that we receive from readers. This question, which we have anonymized to protect the correspondent, reached us via Vault's Instagram feed. If you have a question you'd like us to answer, find us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn  or by emailing


Hi Vault,

I have been working as a defense contractor for the Navy in Washington, D.C. for the past two and a half years. I have been unhappy, mostly due to the late hours (I've been in the office until midnight some nights), inability to plan vacations, and constant dealing with "emergencies." I really want to get out of the defense contracting industry. I have been applying to jobs, but it can take months to hear back!!

My question is, would it be ethical for me to just take a little admin job while continuing to look for jobs in the career field that I actually want? I want some relief from my current job. I've literally looked at my bank account to ensure that I have at least six months of money in my emergency fund, and seriously contemplated quitting my job and living off my savings while job hunting.

[Name redacted]


Hi Redacted,

Reading your query, it seems that you have a picture of how all of this is going to play out: You'll quit the job you don't like, maybe take a temp job or maybe not, and then land the kind of job you do want sometime in the not-too distant future.

But the best laid plans, as the poet Robert Burns noted a couple of hundred years ago, often go awry. And the thing you should be focused on isn't the ethics piece—which we'll deal with shortly—but rather the idea of what you'll do if your plans don't come to fruition on the timescale you're imagining.

The ethical question

Here's the good news: There is no ethical issue, as far as taking an admin job with the intention of leaving it soon. When you sign a contract with an employer, you're creating an agreement to trade your services, time, and attention for a stipulated salary for as long as the agreement is mutually acceptable. As long as you’re an at-will employee, you're entitled to walk away from your employer whenever you feel like it (subject to contractual obligations such as agreed-upon notice periods and the like).

As such, while it might not feel right to take a job that you've got no intention of keeping long-term, there's no ethical barrier to doing so—and it's not an uncommon thing at all, especially in positions in which people's skills are essentially interchangeable.

With that in mind, the only place where we suspect the ethical conundrum may still come into play for you is in the interview process. It's going to be difficult to get hired if your honest answer to "where do you see yourself in one/three/five years" is "in my dream job in a different industry, which I'm hoping will come along in the next three to six months."

At this point, then, some reframing might be in order.

Do what you have to do

It's clear from your query that you've spent a lot of time thinking through your next steps. You have a clear sense of what you don't like about your current career path, and seem to have a vision of where you want to go. But you're hung up on the details of how you're going to do that.

While you're fortunate to be in a position in which you don't necessarily need to take a temp job (and kudos to you for achieving that level of security), we'd invite you to think about how your calculations would shift if you decide to deplete your savings but can't find the kind of role you're seeking. Would you still be hung up on taking an admin job if you needed it to pay the bills?

The bottom line here is that people make these kinds of calculations all the time—almost everyone who has ever had to work to pay for basic necessities has taken a job knowing that they'll drop it like a hot potato the second a better option comes along. Including the person who interviews you for the admin job, and most likely the person who left that job to create the vacancy you'll be applying for.

In fact, given your work history, the biggest obstacle you’ll likely face is that employers will take one look at your résumé, realize that you're over-educated and over-qualified for the role (especially in a market with sub-five percent unemployment) and know exactly what's on your mind. If they choose to give you the job anyway—well, that's on them.

Other considerations

Leaving all that aside, there are a couple other points that are worth considering as you think about the future:

First, there's the fact that finding a job can be like a job in itself. If you do decide to take a new, temporary role, keep in mind that you might not have as much flexibility as you'd like for attending interviews and the like. Typically, you don't start a new role with any time off at your disposal, and most employers take a dim view of new hires using personal/sick days early in their tenure.

Second, there's the risk that you don't land the kind of role you're looking for in the time frame you're picturing. If you do step into an admin role or similar, consider how long you'd be prepared to do it for—including how well the salary would meet your needs—before it started to feel less like "temporary stopgap" and more like "role I'm trapped in." 

None of this is written to dissuade you from making the change—life is much too short to be miserable at work—but rather to ensure that you're focusing on the elements of the transition that are most likely to prove problematic if things don't go exactly to plan.

With all that in mind, one final possibility to consider is an approach where you quit your current job and give yourself a hard deadline of, say, three months to land a new role before you start focusing on temp opportunities in addition to your main search. Taking this approach would have the benefit of solving your current problem (overwork), pushing off any lingering doubts about temp work, and would also put a realistic checkpoint in place so that you don't run out of savings before you can start earning again.

Whatever you choose—whether you continue in your current role, take a temp position, or just quit and go full tilt at the job hunt—it's vital to have some wiggle room so that you don't wind up trapped in another position that you can't wait to leave.

We wish you all the best in your search, and hope you'll keep us updated as it progresses!


Filed Under: Interviewing | Job Search | Salary & Benefits | Workplace Issues

Tags: Ask Vault | ethics

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