I got a CV to review of a candidate who was previously a team lead and now he is applying for a developer role in our team.
I see it as downgrade of ones career but I don't want to make an uncomfortable situation during interview.
I think that's a totally natural question to ask. It's obviously a useful piece of information for the recruiter to assess - what are the motivations of the candidate. And the candidate shouldn't be surprised to get a question like this.
I was recently in the same situation. At a previous job I was a "Head of..." globally and have applied for "Software developer" position. And this very question I expect (and actually observed) to be the first and major question asked towards myself.
Not only is it a question you can ask; it's one you should ask!
The answer will reveal whether the candidate views it as a post-failure step-down or a happy return to core interests. Or something completely different.
Sometimes people become team leads 'by accident' because they as the most experienced feel they should volunteer. When another team lead candidate appears, they often undramatically step down, feeling their work is now done.
Yes, you should ask. Of course, because you want to understand where the candidate is coming from, what his ambitions and skills are, et cetera.
But keep an open mind, don't read too much in job titles. Especially terms like "lead" and "senior" can mean completely different things in different organisations. Ask what the actual responsibilities were, and compare to the actual responsibilities your job opening will entail.
It's not just okay to ask, you absolutely have to ask this question! What you're essentially talking about is an overqualified candidate. Whenever you have someone applying for a position that's below the level you'd expect of them and especially when it's below the level of their previous experience you need to figure out why.
There are a variety of reasons why a candidate would make such a move but the two major ones are that the decided that a management position is not (yet) for him, or that he's desperate for work. The former is positive, the latter obviously isn't. Someone who's working below his (former) level by necessity instead of choice is highly likely to be unmotivated, unhappy, concerned about his low salary and it's likely that he'll be looking to move on from the first day he starts. As a manager you want to hire people who actually want to do the job that you're hiring for and in most cases you want people to stick around for at least two years but ideally much more.
So you have to find out why your candidate is applying for this job. His explanation should be something like the advice given in this article that looks at it from the perspective of the candidate. Anything that signals that a candidate is only looking for a paycheck or benefits is an automatic red flag. It may be a bit heartless but as a manager your interests should align with that of the business and one of your responsibilities is ensuring that you build a team of high-performing employees who are happy with their job.
I'd recommend this article for more advice to consider when you've got an overqualified candidate.
I have been there, more than once.
First, you should take out your assumption that going from lead to developer is a downgrade. Even in the obsolete companies where bad leads make more money than good developers, it can be an upgrade for the person looking for work-life balance over money; on most serious software development companies, top developers make more than most leads.
Then, on the appropriateness, I personally don't think the question you suggest is wrong, but neither useful. I would rather go with a comparison, like I have been asked a lot of times:
"What do you prefer, leading or contributing as an individual, and where can you be good at one or the other? What percentage of your time did you spend coding on each of those roles, and what percentage are you looking for in this job?"
If you're going into interviewing trying to avoid uncomfortable questions, I would suggest you're doing it wrong.
Interviewing is all about finding red flags. Most of those come from somewhat uncomfortable situations as the candidate often knows about the red flag. Don't aim specifically to hurt the candidate, but it's not your job to protect them: it's your job to find out all of the information you can to protect your employer.
In this case: yes, you want to know. Maybe the leadership position wasn't a good fit - and maybe that is okay for the position you are hiring for - but find out why, and probe it some. Maybe the reason it wasn't a good fit is also a reason the candidate will not be a good fit for you.
And, are you hiring a developer who won't grow into a leadership position, and will stay as a developer? Or are you hiring one that you'd like to see grow to leadership positions over time? Both answers are fine but you should know which you are hiring.
I don't necessarily think it's disqualifying; heck, In am someone who wants to be a developer and while I don't mind some leadership role I don't want full on management because I like developing. But you should know which you are getting.
It is not necessarily a "downgrade". Moving from the development track to the management track (which, despite those who may claim otherwise, "team leader" is certainly a part of, if only slightly) may seem like a natural progression, but it's not. It's a jump sideways. Sure, you can only go so far along the development track before you run out of rope, but it's still a leap to go from pure development, to mentoring and some people management, to full blown project management.
So if someone decides that they miss the good old days and wish to go back to what they originally loved, although they'll likely be taking a pay cut I wouldn't see it as a career "downgrade"; I'd more see it as a career switch.
In that spirit, though, it's still perfectly reasonable to ask why. I wouldn't frame it as "why would you want to go backwards", but "why did you not like leadership?" or "why do you miss pure development?". Dollars to donuts you'll find the answer to be perfectly reasonable, and that will be that. But if you don't ask the question, you may not filter out that rare candidate for whom the answer is "because I realised I don't want any responsibility in my life whatsoever", or "because I'm lazy".
I've been in this exact scenario. I started off as a developer and somehow over the years I ended up being a team lead. I realised pretty quickly it wasn't for me as I was moving away from the technical aspect of my job and unfortunately the company I was at I couldn't moved back down so ended up having to change jobs.
I had a few interviews and at every one I was asked why I was applying for a job that to all intents and purposes was lower than my current one. I had to be honest and explain that I felt more suited to doing technical work and I don't believe this hindered me at all.
I genuinely believe that a lot of technical people either don't have the skills or the aptitude to be leaders and this shouldn't be held against them. I still interview in my role and wouldn't have any preconceptions about someone coming in who wanted to go back to being technical - it's a mindset being a techie and one that's hard to get away from.
It's a reasonable question to ask and one I've had to answer before. Managing people is hard work, and managing engineers is particularly hard. Don't assume that the candidate left their managerial role because they were bad at management. Some people find that management isn't to their tastes and return to direct contributor roles. It's also perfectly reasonable for a person who loves technical management to take a direct contributor role, either to avoid burnout or because it is much easier for a manager to gain the confidence of reports if they have worked as a direct contributor recently and have a fresh understanding of current technology. For these reasons, it isn't unusual to see a person alternate between lead or managerial roles and direct contributor roles in the software engineering industry.
I may be stereotyping but I think that in the US, we are far less concerned about status than Europeans. We see the team lead designation as a functional designation. If someone does not want to apply as a team lead, that's fine by us. If someone is applying as a senior developer with a calculation that they'll be promoted to team lead, that's fine by us.
By all means, ask your question to the candidate: this is what interviews are for. You're doing the candidate a favor if you're raising concerns and the candidate gives you satisfactory answers. You're not doing the candidate any favor if you're not raising concerns and you are evaluating someone's candidacy in the context of concerns you have and that are unresolved. I'd say, ask your question to the candidate and give them a chance to give YOU an answer that makes you comfortable. If the candidate has prepared themselves well, they have already anticipated that you will be asking and they will unleash their answer on you if you ask - that's exactly what you want from them: by the time the interview is over, you should have no unresolved doubts about the candidate.
Yes, ask the question. I hope the answer involves wanting to continue to focus on programming. We are losing good programmers to management positions or at least programming positions with management duties. Would someone ask a great author to consider being an editor? Many star athletes and other performers make more money than their managers.
I hope this person is able to convince you that he is passionate about programming and is willing to take less pay/responsibility for the opportunity to do more of it.
Depending on the two companies and the nature of the software development, the two positions may be more equal than you think.
I'm proposing a new career-track for programmers:
I think it would be rather meaningless question inspired by the past times when it was maybe easier to do the carrier. The correct (while of course unhelpful and not very polite) answer would be to counter-ask why would't you like to be the USA President instead of talking to him here. Trying to be polite the developer will likely forge some foggy theory for you. This hypothetical theory will be very far from reality.
Not all people who lose jobs are fired for incompetence. People need to leave if the company relocates and they want to stay. People need to relocate because of the family reasons. Companies, or divisions inside the company, merge reducing the number of high positions available. Companies fail. There are high but temporary positions in science. And many things the like.
It is much more difficult to get a leader or architect position because of the smaller number of such positions available. This is the true reason, rather obvious without wasting the interview time on that.
I think the fact that the developer has received the significant promotion in the past still should speak about him positively. The ability to do the carrier "downward" depends on the personality. Stronger characters can do this no problem if forced by life.
You don't have to ask this question directly. Unless candidate's resume explicitly states that it was a managerial role.
Can you tell me about work you did at company X?
It might actually turn out that the candidate had very few managerial duties and for most part was a developer.
As many people stated already don't read into the titles too much. I was a "Head of" at a very small company, but I for most part was the only person on the team with nobody under me.
You can ask, but what do you really expect the answer would give you? You are obviously looking for a developer, not for a team leader, and you have a candidate who believes he is a better developer than a team leader, and/or who prefers being a developer to being a team leader.
So if the answer is "I was made a team leader, but I didn't like it". That's the most likely answer. What exactly would that tell you other than what you knew before, that the guy is applying for a developer position?
Now if you had said "we want to hire a developer but we want someone who might become a teamleader in a year or two", by all means ask. But you are not in a situation like this. You just have your narrow-minded view of work life, and what people should want, and someone who doesn't conform with your narrow-minded view, but probably has very good reasons.
The question about why is less important than whether or not the person has prepared to be a full-time developer again. It is most important to find at least one area in which the person excels, whether that be implementation, communication, investigation, collaboration, etc. Being confident that the candidate is moving in a direction of strength and brings something lacking to the team is best for building a strong organization.