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Okay, but this answer is a little more personal than I wanted to tell
3000+ folks. Anon, I've been in a very similar situation.
First, do NOT tell your supervisor. Be punctual, polite, and work as
hard as you can, and that's it. There's already been one thread about
someone who got accused of stealing when they cleaned their office
prepatory to leaving. People have also been fired for saying they are
looking around. If you haven't found a new position, you don't want to
give the super ammunition for terminating (or harassing) you before you
are ready to leave.
As for keeping samples for your portfolio, take one of the three
standard options for those of us working on proprietary info:
1) Take anything unclassified you may have written, and tell a future
employer that the other work was proprietary.
2) Take a copy of what you have written, remove all specific references
to proprietary products/names/etc., and put that in your portfolio.
This MUST be cleared with the current super, or you could be accused of
theft. If necessary, show a sample chapter with the edits made to prove
that you are not compromising company security. (If you cannot discuss
this with the super, can you discuss it with the super's boss?)
3) Go home and write a similar document from scratch that does not
refer to the proprietary information, and tell future employers that
this accurately represents the sort of work you have done, but that
confidentiality does not allow you to show them the work you did for the
Option number 3 is usually the best, IMO.
The way to interview without the current employer knowing is to schedule
interviews after work, during lunch, etc. If you can take a day off,
schedule as many as possible for that day. Employed people are looking
for new jobs every hour of every day, for a thousand different reasons.
HR people know this, and don't particularly care about why you are
looking. Don't let the thought of difficulties/firing make you feel
As for describing the situation, be as professional and calm as
possible. You left because you were looking for a change, or wanted
something more challenging, or thought you'd be a better fit for the job
being offered. If they ask about the last job, or about references,
take a deep breath, look 'em in the eye and say "That is not going
well/did not end well. However, I would like to point out that I can
offer your company X year's experience as a writer, plus knowedge of Y
and Z which are applicable to this position."
Don't ask for sanctuary, or understanding, and I think it would be bad
to represent yourself as sadder-but-wiser. DO NOT UNDER ANY
CIRCUMSTANCES blame your last boss! At the same time, don't blame
yourself either - after all, you want a new employer to want you, not
wonder about you. An interview is not a confessional.
If you come across as polished, competent, and professional, and can
back up your claims with a solid portfolio, one missing reference won't
be held against you. (You do have other references? They are good?
Have a friend call them to check.) Just about everyone - including your
new employer - has had a difficult working situation, and will be
understanding if you can present yourself well.
I'm going to end up with a bit of advice given to me when I was in your
shoes. I thought it was trite at the time, but it turned out to be
true: This will work out all right. It may even be good for you. (I
lost a job and gained a career - that was the nudge that made me become
a technical writer.)