Question: I have been with the same company for 15 years. I have always gotten good performance reviews and get promoted about every 5 years. Our company has been experiencing some cutbacks but not as much as other companies in the area.

The other day, I was in my boss’s office going over a new project I was assigned a few weeks ago. After we were done, out of the blue, my boss suggests I should start researching my options!

Now,  I have been around the block a bit, so I knew that probably meant that when the project was done, I needed to find another one. Someone else told me it might have meant I was being terminated. Can you help me make sense of this?

Future job seeker?

Answer: There are at least three possible interpretations. The classic phrase, “maybe you should start looking at your options” is one that employers will say to employees before they are going to be terminated.

The termination is usually involuntary as a result of a reduction in force and not for cause.

Managers view this conversation as giving someone a “heads up” – get your house in order and start looking for a job. Your manager may be well intentioned by giving you some advance notice – looking for a job while you have one is usually a preferred approach.

There are some companies who use this comment as a strategy to avoid making the difficult decision to let someone go or pay severance. It is their hope that the threat of unemployment will motivate the employee to leave on their own before they have do something. Depending on the severance package, employees may opt to wait it out forcing the employer to lay them off.

I would not rule out your initial reaction about finding another project in your company. Some organizations use projects to define their structure. When resources on a project are done, they disband and are reassigned to a new project. If you are actively managing your career then seeking out your next landing spot shows initiative and is a great career move.

The third interpretation may be your boss is giving you a strong indicator that your current company is not the place for you to move up. Your job may not be in jeopardy, but your career is stagnating. It becomes more difficult for people to leave after 10 years in a company. They get comfortable and naively think that the company will take care of them.

If you want to know the answer to your question, the best way to find out is to ask your boss.

Set up a private meeting in their office. Tell them you were not sure how to take their comment and could they expand on it for you. The conversation should not be uncomfortable for them because if it was, they would never have made the comment in the first place.