This question is, um, a little disingenuous... but effective nonetheless.
The answer can provide greater insight into a candidate's work ethic, overall sense of responsibility, and loyalty to an employer.
Here's how it works. Assuming the candidate is currently employed (which you already know), as you are wrapping up the interview say:
"One last question. We are eager to fill this position as soon as possible, so timing will be an important factor in our decision. How soon could you start if we do decide to offer you the job?"
Answers fall into two main categories:
- "I could start tomorrow!" Eager is great. Enthusiastic is great. Can-do attitudes are great. But if nothing else, any candidate willing to immediately jump ship -- even if his current employer is horrible -- is way more likely to someday jump your ship, too.
- "While I understand the position you're in, I owe it to my current employer to give reasonable notice. I really want this job but I could never leave them in a bind." (That's basically what I said, to which the interviewer replied, "Good. That's what I was hoping you would say... I hope you'll forgive me for making sure that's how you felt.)
It's like the "character is what you do when no one is looking" standard. When you ask the question the previous employer isn't in the room; the candidate doesn't even know if he or she will actually be put to the test. It's almost a throw-away answer since agreeing to start immediately is visible only to you and could even be taken back later. With that in mind, how much damage does saying, "I'll start tomorrow!" really do?
A lot, especially to a candidate with a strong sense of responsibility. A candidate who does the right thing even though they risk potentially losing out on an opportunity is a person with a strong sense of loyalty and dedication.
Whether you decide to use this question is up to you. But if you do, make sure you ultimately do the right thing. Never expect a new hire to give less than two weeks notice, or more if that is common in your profession or industry.
After all, doing the right thing extends to you, too.
- 7 Ways to Ruin a New Employee
- How to Determine What a Job Candidate is Really Thinking
- 4 Essential Job Interview Questions to Ask
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