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Taking your career to the next level is an exciting prospect. For those who serve in or aspire to executive-level positions in local government, that move up or onward brings a unique set of obligations, challenges, and quirks. For instance, unlike counterparts in the private and nonprofit sectors, they don’t have the luxury of competing for the next position quietly behind closed doors.

Expectations of transparency, especially in the selection of the individual who will lead the entire organization, have risen so high that in some states merely applying for the position is a matter of public record. Even absent that level of transparency, anyone successful enough to reach the finalist list should be prepared to have that information disclosed to the media and public. The public’s right to know and have confidence in the integrity of the process is certainly important. But every disclosure that someone is seeking a position elsewhere has the potential to burn some political capital at the home base.

Public processes by their very nature are not speedy ones—from application to interview can take months. Those actively searching for a new position can find themselves involved in multiple recruitments, each at varying stages of the process. Then there is the challenge that if you are offered the job, you end up negotiating terms and compensation with an individual who doesn’t have the legal authority to seal the deal. Hiring the manager and approving the employment agreement requires the vote of the full governing body.

Vying for a position as an assistant or deputy in another organization presents another unique set of issues to navigate. It won’t be subject to the same level of public scrutiny, but the issue of confidentiality, especially within a tight network of managers, is real. Seeing your application for the first time, will the manager in the organization where you’ve applied pick up the phone to chat with your current manager?

Given the importance of maintaining your reputation and the unique nature of the process, the profession has laid out some ground rules for your consideration.

Accurate Credentials and Resumes

Once you post your credentials online and then submit your resume for a position, you are creating a permanent record of your education and work history. A resume that doesn’t match a LinkedIn profile raises a red flag. Tailoring your resume for the position is fine, but the basic facts on all versions must be consistent. Your credibility with a recruiter is in question if you have multiple stories about your credentials. Misstating your credentials and employment history—yes, even omitting short tenures—can have serious repercussions for your reputation and future employment.

Complete Candor

At times there may be something in a candidate’s record that is best shared early in the process and by the candidate. Better to be forthcoming as a demonstration of honesty than to stay silent and have a matter disclosed in a background check.

Free Agency

Just like a professional sports athlete, a local government professional is a free agent. You can apply and interview with multiple organizations. You are not under any ethical obligation to inform your employer that you are looking elsewhere. But as with most things in life, timing is important. If you do not wish to burn any bridges, letting everyone know before the news leaks out works best. And of course, if you are relying on certain people for a reference, advance discussions are a must.

Participating in multiple recruitment processes gets challenging as you progress to the next level. You may find yourself a finalist in two or more recruitments. It’s fine to continue interviewing as long as you have a serious interest in the position. Don’t waste anyone’s time if after the first interview you can’t see yourself working in that organization. If you progress beyond the initial interview, you may want to consider informing the recruiter or organization of your status as a candidate in other places.

Due Diligence

Responsibility for thoroughly evaluating the position, organization, and community to determine whether it will be a good fit both personally and professionally rests with you. While the guideline on committing to a two-year tenure only applies to the appointed manager, short tenures because of a failure to do the homework should be avoided. They aren’t good for the individual or the organization.

Getting to Yes

The offer to join the organization as the next manager is just that—an offer. It’s entirely contingent upon both parties reaching agreement on the compensation and terms. The process of getting from offer to the finish line (i.e., governing body approval) is a tango. Both parties need to be moving in sync.

If you want to work for the organization, the appropriate response to the offer is “yes, contingent upon reaching agreement with the organization.” Regardless of how much ground was covered during the interview about your terms, do not be surprised if the governing body’s representative starts the negotiation from a different position or has an issue with a particular request that you make. That’s why it’s called a negotiation.

Your verbal acceptance starts the negotiation process and signals your willingness to get to yes. Never start the negotiation process with an organization if you do not intend to work there regardless of how much compensation they are willing to offer. At this point, you should pause your search. Taking an interview at this stage with another organization is like going out on a date after getting engaged to be married: it sends the wrong message about your level of commitment.

Once you give your verbal acceptance of the terms outlined in an employment agreement or offer letter, you are committed. Oral acceptance of an employment offer is considered binding unless the employer makes fundamental changes to the terms of employment. With your commitment in hand, it is up to the governing body to hold up its end of the bargain and approve the agreement.

Unlike the professional athlete who goes to the highest bidder, ICMA members should not entertain a counteroffer from their current employer. In a very public process, you have given your word. Withdrawing your acceptance to take more money is bad form and reflects poorly on the profession. Members who accept an appointment to a position should not fail to report for that position.

Integrity Matters

Taken at face value, the search for a promotion or position in a new organization is an assessment of your talent and qualifications. Taking a more expansive view though, it’s really an assessment of who you are as a person and your character. The adage about first impressions being lasting ones holds true as it relates to your conduct. As you wind your way through every element of this process, will a prospective employer conclude that you are a person of integrity who would be an asset to their organization or not?

 

MARTHA PEREGO, ICMA-CM, is director of member services and ethics director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (mperego@icma.org).

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