Job offers and your current boss

Employees can’t speak honestly about their career goals with their managers. Why? Because of the reasonable belief that doing so is risky and career-limiting if the employee’s aspirations do not perfectly match up with the manager’s existing views and time horizons.

It seems safer to wait until another job offer is in hand, so that if employees’ managers react badly to their ideas, there’s no danger of being passed over for ongoing professional development, or worse, left unemployed. Once employees have gone far down the road with another potential employer, it’s hard for them to maintain a positive relationship with their current company.

If you want to forge a high-trust alliance with your workforce, take a page from a popular clause in founder employment agreements – the right of first refusal, ROFR. When a founder wants to sell stock in the company and has an offer to purchase some or all of the shares, the company has the right to exercise its ROFR and buy the stock at the offered price.

We believe that an equivalent compromise can help improve the employer-employee relationship: the right of first conversation, ROFC. If employees decide they want to explore other career options, they commit to talking with their current manager first, so that the company, if it so desires, has the opportunity to define a more appealing job or role.

Employees should initiate a conversation when they are seriously considering alternate job offers or career paths. Similarly, employees should approach the manager if they feel strongly that their current tour of duty no longer fits, and that without a change, they would feel obligated to start looking for another employer.

As with other aspects of the employer-employee alliance, the ROFC isn’t a binding legal contract. It’s an understanding between manager and employee that carries moral weight if violated.

Because the employer typically holds the power in the relationship, it’s up to the company to take the first step toward building the necessary trust. Managers need to say, “We don’t fire people for talking honestly about their career goals,” and truly mean it. Once employees believe that the company will live up to those words, managers can point out the benefits to the employee of granting them the ROFC.

First, an employee can benefit from frank career advice from a manager on specific industry opportunities. Second, perhaps the current company can upgrade the quality of the employee’s existing tour of duty. An employee who provides advance notice allows the company the time necessary to explore and develop more possible options and offers. Finally, even if the company can’t present a compelling counter or the employee chooses to switch firms, the ROFC helps preserve the long-term relationship.

As a manager, would you rather manage a planned separation from employees who have completed their final tour of duty, or would you rather scramble to perform damage control on a sudden departure?

As an employee, would you rather depart amicably and become a valued member of the company’s alumni network, or would you prefer to depart under a cloud of acrimony?

The right of first conversation represents a major departure from business as usual, but that’s precisely the point. Adopting the ROFC helps both parties build trust and a longer, more fruitful relationship.

(Reid Hoffman is cofounder and executive chairman of LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network, and partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock. Other contributors include Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh. Ben is an award-winning entrepreneur and bestselling co-author, with Hoffman, of “The Start-up of You.” Yeh is an entrepreneur, writer and mentor.)

© 2014 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate