A client, David, asked recently why I thought it is a trap to answer how long you plan to stay at a particular company. Good question.
A trap is a setup, a deception, possibly a ruse. It is a trap if you are not sure whether the answer you give will help you or hurt you.
Interviewers are human. They come fully equipped with opinions and biases that they do not reveal, or perhaps even understand themselves. But you can tank an interview by stepping in a personal bias trap. I have lots of examples of interviewers with biases.
Philip was a finance executive I worked with once. He rejected candidates who said they were looking for a home with a company they could work for a long time. He could not understand why someone would want to work for the same company for a long time.
Philip also believed that only defective people got laid off. He believed that people can and should move from company to company periodically to advance their careers. Philip had never been laid off and had changed companies several times to get ahead quickly.
If Philip asked you in an interview how long you planned to stay if you were hired, what would you say? You do not know about his point of view. You just met him.
If you say you are looking for a place you could work for a long time, where you could really make a contribution, Philip would reject you. He wants someone who values career advancement over long term contributions. You fell into a trap. You are out.
Another interviewer might insist on hiring only people who want to work for one company for a long time. You never know exactly what the interviewer wants to hear. That is what makes an answer a trap. The same answer can be right or wrong depending on the interviewer. This makes it risky for the candidate.
It is ok to adjust your answers to some questions to be a little vague until you know what you are facing.
At least until you can judge the interviewer’s biases and point of view, or decide whether you will fit in that workplace.
Here are some interview questions that could be traps. Structure your answers in advance to be a little cagey, preserving your flexibility to share honestly or covertly depending on the circumstances:
- How long to you plan to stay?
- Why did you leave your last assignment? Be vague to avoid discussions about past employers and sticky departures. Use the least amount of words to tell the truth and change the subject.
- What kind of salary are you looking for? Too low or too high and you are out. Defer response as long as you can with answers like, “I am sure you pay competitively.” “My salary needs are competitive with the marketplace.”
- What other companies are you speaking with about jobs? The interviewer will judge you based on your answer. If you are not talking with other companies you might lower your value to this company. Drop too many names and you look unsteady. Go for a vague, “I have several other opportunities. Tell me about…” Change the subject to something about this company.
- What do you like to do in your spare time? If the interviewer is a big active sports fan and you say you like to watch TV, you might trigger some bias. Adjust your answer to move the conversation towards something you see in the interviewer’s office. See lots of golf stuff, give a vague answer and ask about his golf game.
- Why haven’t you obtained a job so far? Beware of biases against those without a job. Do not talk about how frustrated you are. Talk about volunteer work, research you are doing, people you are meeting, networking, or how you are moving your job search forward.
Think about your answers in advance and evaluate whether the answer can get you in trouble. Avoid controversy that could exclude you until you are able to evaluate the company to make your own decision.
Have you ever felt an answer you gave during an interview got you eliminated from consideration? What was the question? What did you do about it? Twitter your answer or let me know in the comment section below. We want to learn from your experience!