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How do you diplomatically ask for what career paths there are to take from the current position you are interviewing for without putting off the interviewers?

  • Are you asking specifically for that company? in which case they dont know what the company will look like in 5-10 years time and wont be able to answer, or are you asking in general for someone in your career line? – Rhys Sep 9 '13 at 13:48
  • Yes specifically for that company, and the interviewers are usually the managers...so I would assume they are knowledgeable about paths in their department? – Louise Sep 9 '13 at 14:00
  • Usually probably differs by company, HR are sometimes the interviewers, or fellow team mates, it might be hard to answer for someone not versed in the plans of the company. Other than that, Good question! – Rhys Sep 9 '13 at 14:01
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While there should be thought put into the correct phrasing of any question you plan on asking during the interview, this does not seem to be controversial topic

At some point in the interview they will ask you if you have any questions. If they haven't already discussed this with you this is the perfect opportunity to ask this sort of question.

Other related topics that should be covered by one party or the other include:

  • Long term prospects for the position/contract.
  • Makeup of the team and your vertical position within that structure.
  • Opportunities to move from a junior position to a senior position within x years
  • Opportunities to move to a leadership/management role.
  • Other opportunities withing the same building/town with that company.
  • Maybe I can ask whereabouts the previous person in this position has moved on to? – Louise Sep 9 '13 at 14:02
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    @Louise: Actually, I'd avoid asking that. They may have been fired, or quit for a number of reasons, and maybe the interviewer will think that if they tell you, then you won't want the job. Also, if the team is growing, there might not have been someone in that position before, because it's a new position. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Sep 9 '13 at 15:03
  • +1 on Joe Stazzere's comment. You might find out that the person in the previous position got promoted :). But even if they were fired, talking about this might be a good opportunity for both parties to help establish the expectations (e.g. the previous person couldn't get along with our clients would mean that you will be expected to really get along with clients). – MrFox Sep 9 '13 at 18:28
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It's definitely OK to ask. It's generally wise to be aware that you don't want to imply that you think the position is so beneath you that you will expect a promotion in a set amount of time. More that you want a sense that the company is growing and changing enough that you'll be able to grow along with the business. It's fair to expect that as you become a greater asset to the work, the work should be prepared to help you grow your career accordingly.

Some things I'd look into in this area are...

Company Growth

What's going on in this business? What's the model and how are they making (or planning to make...) money with the stuff you'll be working on? How fast do they think the work will ramp up, and what's the plan in place to grow the business?

That'll tell you a lot about job opportunities. There's all sorts of ways to grow a business. Some may involve promotion of internal staff, but others may involve acquisition of other organizations, or outsourcing or other sorts of growth ideas. For great staff, there's almost always a way to stay with the company, but not every opportunity will be something you yourself want.

Career Paths

"What are some career paths in this company?" is a perfectly valid question. A large, mature company may have a very well defined set of patterns for how people grow and get promoted in various "tracks". But a younger, newer, less well defined organization may not be able to answer this so easily, which is why the company growth question may be a first place to start.

Volunteer Ideas

Only you know how much a given type of opportunity will matter to you. I know that when I was fresh out of school, I only wanted to know that there was room to grow, and opportunity to learn - I didn't know enough about my chosen field to have a strong sense of what I would want to do in 3-5 years. 10-15 years later, many folks who've worked in a given field for a long time likely have a collection of different job experiences, and are likely to have a fairly specific idea of what growth opportunities are most appealing.

The counterpoint is that only you know how much you want the job. If you've got a fine job and you're looking to grow, you're likely to be a LOT choosier than someone who was laid off last year and hasn't worked in 6 months.

But - if you know that certain types of work and opportunities are a drop-dead, "won't the take job without them" sort of deal breaker - then don't leave them guessing. Saying "I want X, is there an opportunity to go that way when I've proved myself?" is a fine approach. When you're very certain of what you want, and in a position to say "no", then be clear, don't waste the other group's time trying to guess.

Be aware, though, that when "having a job" takes precedence over "having the right set of opportunities" - that you may want to stay with the vaguer questions above. If you're too aggressive, you can give the impression that you'll leave in a short time frame if you don't get what you want.

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My suggestion would be to backup for a moment and consider asking how well do they have a formal review and professional development plans for employees. If they don't, then asking about career plans is likely to put off the interviewer as if you're inquiring in a start-up that is only a handful of months old, there isn't going to be a career path for your position as the company is still forming itself so do consider that there is something to be said for what assumptions do you have in asking this question. On the other hand, established companies with an HR department may be more likely to have these and thus it becomes where you could follow-up the question with whether they have career paths and where could you be in 2-3 years and in 5-7 years with the company as ways to see the career paths at a high level.

While it is a fair question to ask, there is something to be said for understanding how well can a company answer that as this could be similar to asking parents of a 1 year old, "What major do you think your child will have in college?" that is just way too far in the future to predict with any degree of accuracy.

  • I've found it almost worthless to ask these sorts of questions. I mean, they're great questions to know the answers to but any company that does a poor job of this (e.g. most companies) aren't going to admit to it even if they know it to be true. My last employer had an annual review policy but I only got one every 18 months and they didn't have much in the way of concrete actionable steps. Other companies had regular reviews but were box-checking-for-HR-compliance and similarly useless (outside of the fantastic raises I got!). – dash-tom-bang Sep 10 '13 at 6:00

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