I've been leaving it frozen on a plate in my kitchen before I leave for work, so when I get home, it's thawed out. I have the distinct feeling that there's a better way. Help!
Generally the safest is whatever way keeps it coldest, which also means whatever way takes longest (usually in the fridge, overnight).
But much faster and still hasn't made me ill is thawing in cold (never hot) water. Running water is best, but wastes a lot of water. You can get away with submerging the chicken in water, and changing it out every so often.
Leaving it on the counter while you're at work is not the best plan, because if they temperature of the chicken falls between 40F-140F for too long, you could get sick. How much time will you have between when you get home and when you will start cooking? If you have an hour, I suggest sealing the chicken in a plastic bag, and then submerging it in a bowl of lukewarm water. You could also leave the chicken in the fridge while you're at work (so it partially thaws) and then finish defrosting it with the water method when you get home.
The USDA prefers the overnight in the fridge method or submerged in cold, preferably running, water. Food needs to pass through the temperature danger zone of 41-135 degrees (the temperature range in which bacteria can begin to grow and thrive) as quickly as possible. I also tend to avoid running water because I have to buy the water from the city and pay to run it into the sewer, so I change it over frequently. The best idea is to plan ahead. A completely frozen whole chicken can take a good 2 days to thaw under refrigeration. Use cold water as a follow-up. Then be sure to adequately sanitize your sink.
I tend to take out my chicken before I go to bed and put it in the fridge before I go to work. When I get home it's thawed out.
I plan on at least two days in the fridge. Overnight is not long enough in my experience. For a faster thaw, the microwave on the lowest setting. Turn the pieces often to avoid cooked edges.
If it's a bird still in the package. I put it in a bucket and put the bucket in the shower with cool water and let the running water defrost it...don't do this in a drought area. (g).