Management Tools - Career Counselor Interviewing

Find out the real reason a candidate is leaving his company and how your job fits in with his career progression.

By Paul Falcone Jan 1, 2006

HR Magazine, January 2006Getting to know candidates in the pre-employment process gets trickier and trickier these days, thanks to job-finding guides and online career strategy resources. There are simply so many resources available that advise candidates on what they’re supposed to say and how they’re supposed to answer tricky interview questions that it is becoming ever more difficult to know the real person behind the interviewing façade.

Similarly, employers have their own arsenal of interview questioning books and HR courses that help them gain the upper hand. In essence, the interviewing game is stepped up on both sides, revealing more sophistication and strategic discovery. And maybe that’s the way it should be in a world where workers are considered “intellectual capital” and your employees are the only profit lever that can significantly increase revenues and grow your business.

But what is it that business managers and human resource professionals are really looking for in the candidates they interview? And what should job candidates come to expect from the stewards and guardians of the companies where they’d like to work? Maybe it’s time to simplify the interviewing equation on both sides so that the interview itself becomes an exercise of value rather than a game of wits, strategies and defenses that simply provides gateway access into a company.

The key to this kind of simpler, more open interviewing style lies in engaging candidates’ hearts as well as their minds. And you’ll know that you’ve reached their hearts when they comment, “Well, I normally wouldn’t say this in an interview, but I feel comfortable telling you ...” (within legal guidelines, of course).

Here’s a road map for turning your current interviewing style—as sophisticated as it may be—into a more open and honest dialogue that focuses just as much on the candidate’s needs as on the needs of your company.

The Real Reason For Leaving

The reasons for leaving past positions provide the links in an individual’s career progression. More than anything, these reasons give you an understanding of the candidate’s values, motivations and career goals. Each reason for leaving a prior company should be fulfilled by the next company on the individual’s resume. That’s how people build careers and justify the chain of jobs they’ve held: They look for greater responsibilities, title changes, new technical skills, lateral experience and, sometimes, simply more money.

Candidates who successfully articulate how these various factors have led to this point in their career add a contextual and historical framework to what you see on their resume.

What’s critical now is the individual’s reason for leaving his or her present job. Can that reason be fulfilled by your company? Does your opportunity fill a short-term need and also make sense for the individual over the long haul? If not, the candidate may be pursuing a strategy of “change for change’s sake,” which will typically lead to premature turnover.

Simply stated, you need to know where a candidate is coming from. It’s your responsibility during the interview and through reference checks to really understand the individual’s motivation for joining your team and leaving his current company.

To gain a better understanding of where a candidate’s head is during an initial interview, ask, “What’s your primary reason for leaving your current company, and how would joining us fill that need?” Likewise, you could ask, “What would joining our firm do for you in terms of adding new skills and building your resume?” As an alternative, try this: “If you were to accept this position with us today, how would you explain that to a prospective employer five years from now? How would this job provide a link in your future career progression?”

In the same way, be sure to challenge the two most overused excuses in a candidate’s arsenal: “There is no room for growth” and “I was laid off.”

“No room for growth” may be a legitimate reason for leaving the candidate’s current company, but qualify the real meaning behind that superficial response by asking, “What does growth mean to you? Is it a vertical climb up the corporate ladder, a lateral move that broadens your overall skills, or is money more of a motivator for you at this point? And it’s OK to be very straightforward in your response; there’s no right or wrong answer here.”

Similarly, being laid off may be a legitimate reason for leaving a past position as well, but be sure to qualify the layoff. Too many people out there are “individually laid off,” which may mean that the company chose to eliminate the position rather than proceed down the path of progressive discipline due to poor performance. You can qualify the layoff by asking questions such as, “How many people were laid off at the same time as you? How many waves of layoffs did you survive before you were cut? Did the company ever backfill your position after you left? What criteria did the company use in selecting individuals for layoff? How many people survived the downsizing?”

Challenging the layoff response may provide interesting insights into the individual that you may not have thought of. For example, if she was individually laid off on more than one occasion and you can’t get any references from prior employers, that may be a sign that the individual has ongoing performance problems. On the other hand, if she was the individual asked to “turn off the lights” as the last person standing at the time of the company’s liquidation, then that could tell you a lot about her trustworthiness and loyalty.

The Next Career Move

For those employed candidates who may be considering a lateral move into your company, be sure to ask, “What would have to change at your current company for you to consider staying?”

Remember that, as a rule, people join companies and leave managers, meaning the initial appeal to join a firm is derived from an individual’s perception of a company—its brand-name reputation, culture and the like. On the other hand, the difference between an active job seeker and a passive job seeker may be one bad day in the office. The mental break that triggers a job search typically comes from frustrations with a manager’s leadership style or from lack of promotional opportunities.

To get beyond those frustrations, follow up with this question: “What would be your next move in career progression if you stayed put?”

Here’s how it works: A senior financial analyst from a competitor is interviewing for the same position in your company. He has been at his current company for five years and has a total of eight years of experience as a senior financial analyst and senior staff accountant. You’re wondering why he would want another senior analyst role right now, why he isn’t looking for a manager-level position, and what’s blocking his progression at this current company.

The candidate responds to your question: “Well, my next move in career progression would be a manager of financial reporting at my firm.” You then ask the follow-up question, “How long would it take you to get that promotion?” And you get one of the following responses:

“My boss has been there for eight years and isn’t going anywhere, and it’s a small group of only seven people, so if I want to progress in my career, I’m afraid I’ll have to look elsewhere at this point.”

Or, “Oh, I’d probably get that manager title within six months or so.”

Clearly the first answer makes sense. However, the second response should throw up some major red flags for you: “You mean that you’ll get promoted to manager in six months at your current company, but you’re interviewing for a senior analyst role with me now? I guess I’m a bit confused by why you’re here today.”

And voila, your career counseling skills thrust the interview into a whole new light, allowing you to get to the real reason behind the candidate’s job search. Is there some other reason why the person needs to leave his current firm, or is he possibly just fishing for a counteroffer to speed up his promotion back at his office?

Candidates Criteria

To get behind the candidate’s reasons for pursuing a change, ask him to detail three or four criteria he is using to select his next job or company. People are typically interested in changing jobs for one of three reasons: the company in terms of its image and reputation; the position they’re applying for in terms of its uniqueness, variety and interest level; and the people they’d work with as far as the camaraderie, teamwork and open communication.

After that opening question, ask, “What are the top five companies that you would pursue right now if you could?” Similarly, say, “Tell me the titles of the positions you would plan on pursuing in these companies.” Also, you might ask, “Are there any pending offers on the table or late-stage interviewing discussions that are in play?”

You will find that most candidates will be a little thrown off by your self-assessment questions because they may have never had to articulate those details to a prospective employer in an interview, but it will open the door to the bonding relationship you’re looking to develop. That’s because candidates will walk away thinking, “Wow, I’ve never interviewed with a company that took such a strong interest in me and my own needs before. They really forced me to think this move through, and if they put candidates’ needs first, they probably do that for their employees as well.”

Offering Career Advice

When you’ve been looking for a hard-to-find candidate and you haven’t come across anyone with the right combination of skills whom you really like, and this senior financial analyst seems to be the answer to your prayers, don’t rush to extend the offer if it’s not a good move for the individual from a career-building standpoint.

Many times employers look at candidates strictly in terms of those candidates’ abilities to fill an immediate need within the organization. But the truth is, if you hire someone who’s caught up in the excitement of the offer but who’s making a lateral move with regard to title, skill or salary, you will only end up having to fill that position again six months later.

Instead, think out loud and share your opinions up front. Your conversation might sound like this: “John, I really like you, and I think you’ve got the perfect skill combination for this job, which has been so hard to find, believe me. You’ve been in a senior financial analyst role with your current company for the past five years, and you’ve got three years of senior staff accountant experience right behind it. Yes, you could certainly do this job. But it looks to me like your next step in progression should be at a manager level: Your skills are in demand, you’ve got nice longevity, and it would make more sense to see a manager title on your resume at this point. If I had a manager opening, you’d be my finalist candidate, no doubt. But you might have a hard time explaining to a future employer three to five years from now why you left XYZ Company for another senior analyst role at our firm. Do you see my concern for you?”

I know. It’s so tempting to hire the individual and let him worry about his own career progression. Truth be told, though, you want all the pieces to fit together for both the company and the candidate. If your position offers a learning curve, new skill sets, broader responsibilities and more money, then everyone will be happy and the hire will stick. If it only makes sense for your company, though, and you see that the position may be to the longer-term detriment of the candidate, become the mentor and coach that you were meant to be and steer the candidate in the right direction.

You will not only have helped a junior member of the workforce gain new insights into how he should be looking at his own career, but you will also develop a reputation as a skillful and selfless leader and developer of people.

In essence, you will have shifted the “employee development” paradigm to the pre-employment stage. And maybe candidates deserve those few extra minutes of your time to benefit from your expertise. You may just find that a little short-term sacrifice and career counseling on your part will lead to greater stability in your staff and a lot of good will in your own career.

Paul Falcone is a human resource executive and a best-selling author of five AMACOM books, including 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews, The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, and 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination.


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