Discover the Links in a Candidate’s Career Progression

By Paul Falcone April 6, 2021
Discover the Links in a Candidate’s Career Progression

Getting to really know job candidates gets trickier and trickier these days, thanks to job-finding guides and online career strategy resources that encourage applicants to tailor their resumes and responses to each employer. Similarly, managers have their own arsenal of interview questioning books and courses that help them try to gain the upper hand. In essence, the interviewing game is stepped up on both sides—but it's not clear that anyone benefits. Maybe it's time to simplify interviewing on both sides so that the interview itself becomes an exercise of value rather than a game of wits, strategies and defenses. By turning your current interviewing style—as sophisticated as it may be—into a more open and honest dialogue, you can focus as much on the candidate's needs as on the needs of your company. Key to this strategy is to discover the links in a candidate's career progression.

The reasons for leaving past positions provide 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 current 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. To gain a better understanding of a candidate's motivation, 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 for leaving a former position. "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 yourself were cut? Did they ever back-fill your position after you left?"

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

When it comes to 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?" 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?"

To get behind the candidate's criteria for selecting a company, 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 they seek to join 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 other pending offers on the table or late-stage interviewing discussions that are in play?" Most candidates will be a little thrown off by your self-assessment questions because they may have never had to articulate these details to a prospective employer on an interview, but it will open the door to the bonding relationship you're seeking to develop.


Paul Falcone ( is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif., and author of 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees: A Manager's Guide to Addressing Performance, Conduct, and Discipline Challenges (HarperCollins Leadership, 2019).




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