interviewer was offended when I asked why the job was open

A reader writes:

Any advice on how to “save” an interview when the hiring manager indicates your question is offensive?

Case in point: at a recent interview, I was asked if I had any questions about the position and I responded with, “Why is this position available? Is is because of company growth? Someone left or was fired? Restructuring?”

I thought it a logical question but the the hiring manager frowned at me and told me quite firmly that she found the question inappropriate and she was not going to answer it, as it wasn’t any of my concern.  I was stunned into silence and felt the interview, which had started out great, was doomed to end on a bad note. What is the best way to handle a situation where an interviewer indicates that you have offended them (and particularly when you haven’t said anything offensive)?

The best way to handle it is to run. You do not want that job, and you certainly don’t want that boss.

I’ll tell you what’s offensive: hiring managers who act as if you should be grateful they’re even talking to you and who have the arrogance to respond so rudely to a perfectly reasonable question. And hiring managers who forget that this is a business discussion about a potential business arrangement, not some one-way transaction where they pass judgment while you bow and scrape in front of them.

Seriously. I don’t care how much you thought you wanted the job up until then — a manager who not only doesn’t see why you might want to know why the position is open but who also goes so far as to chastise you for asking is a manager who is going to be a nightmare to work with. That is a manager who doesn’t know how to manage, who doesn’t understand the first thing about attracting and keeping great employees, and whose default posture is apparently not only to deny you reasonable information but also to imply there’s something wrong with you for wanting it.

Red flags do not get any redder than this one.

(As a side note, this reminds me of a friend who had the audacity to ask what salary would accompany the job offer he was receiving, and in response, the manager making the offer muttered “vulgar” under his breath. Guess what that dude was like to work for?  Bad. In fact, this was the manager who inspired the towel story — okay, towel fantasy — here.)

Anyway, this woman is an ass. Run.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    More than likely, OP, the answer and the manner it was given to you is the reason why the position is available.

    1. Anonymous

      Another thought from me (I am the Anonymous at 7:53): OP, how did the interview end besides you being “stunned into silence?” Obviously this is a “what should have I done” question rather than “what if.”

  2. Karen

    Agreed. Her defensiveness indicates to me that she has something to hide, like perhaps a high turnaround in this position.

  3. JC

    Totally agree with AAM on this as well. I’d run for the hills. You have every right to ask why the position is available – if a person was fired, it gives you a good idea of why that person didn’t work out and what you can do to NOT be that person; if the company is growing, and it’s a new position, it will tell you that your position will be around (hopefully) for a while; etc…She was out of line and be thankful you got such a red flag now and not later!

  4. Clobbered

    Agreed. Terrible response by the interviewer to what is an excellent question. As to how to handle it at the time? I would go for the classic non-apology apology: “I am sorry you found the question innapropriate”.

  5. Brian

    I always ask this question regardless of the position. Much like employees, jobs with a lot of turnover should be approached cautiously. On the other hand, jobs where previous candidates were promoted get bonus points. I figure if the person who just left this job was promoted the hiring manager would brag about it, not get snappy.

  6. mouse

    This is one of my go to interview questions for “do you have any questions” and that type of response is pretty much what I always get. How sad.

  7. Ask a Manager Post author

    You know, I’m hiring for a job right now in a department where there’s been a lot of turnover, and I WANT to talk to candidates about it. I’m bringing it up before they even ask, because there’s no way it’s good for a manager to have a new employee start and feel blindsided by something like that — you’ve got to practice truth-in-advertising when you’re hiring or you end up with someone who might not be the right fit or might feel misled. I’m pushing the info on them — because I want to make sure they’re comfortable with the history they’d be walking into. I don’t know what interviewers are thinking when they don’t do this.

    1. Elaine

      >>I don’t know what interviewers are thinking when they don’t do this.<<

      They're thinking, "I hope this person is desperate enough to just be thankful for a paycheck. I wonder why no one stays in this job?"

      I've been that person, and I left the minute I found another job.

    2. Revanche

      Amen to truth in advertising!!

      I repeat the possible cons of any new position, phrased politely but fairly bluntly, at least three to five times to make sure there’s no chance that my new hires are unclear on what they’re going to face when they come in. Of course I don’t want to actually scare all my candidates off but it can be a rough job at times and I want them to be prepared and up for the task, not blindsided and shocked that they were promised cush and kittens!

      One of my SEVEN interviewers did the same with me and you know what? I accepted the job anyway and I’m glad that it was done that way. At least I was prepared for it.

      There’s no upside to acting like your candidate doesn’t deserve the ungilded truth – not if you want to find a keeper. Both parties should be doing due diligence.

  8. Anonymous

    I once asked the same question to a recruiter during an interview. She too sounded a bit offended when I asked and she gave a very vague, short answer. After more research into this company and talking with others who works there, I found out the position had an extrememly high turnover which she did not tell me about. I am glad that I asked that question.

  9. Hannah

    This woman obviously had the idea that this was nosy, like you were asking her to dish the dirt on what happened to the last employee. If that was actually what you meant, I could see her point. I would have at least tried to keep things from getting tense, and clarify “I’m sorry, let me rephrase that. What I am wondering is if I would be stepping in to take over a well defined set of duties, or if part of this position will be in defining what duties are required. I certainly don’t expect you to share any private information.” I agree that this is a red flag, but I wouldn’t storm out of the interview or anything. If you’ve been unemployed, a job with a crazy boss sounds better than no paycheck at all.

  10. Anonymous

    Ms. Manager
    Would you mind making your opinion a little clearer? I’m not sure exactly how you feel about this situation.
    Unfortunately, I am also leery of the response to this which follows along the lines of the classic politician’s response concerning leaving to “spend more time with family”. As with everything else in this process, a little honesty, empathy and clarity are the best ways to assure that good decisions are made on both sides.

  11. A. R.

    I agree with Hannah; while this may well end up being a reason you don’t want the job in the end, you still want to try to recover the interview and keep your options open. I think you might be able to diffuse the situation by explaining to her why you asked the question. I would say something like, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t intending to ask for any personal details, but I’d like to know if it’s a position where people tend to stay for a long time, or if there’s a lot of turnover, or if it’s a difficult position to find a good match for and people have been let go before, or if they are often promoted from the position….” hopefully that would make it clear why it’s a totally reasonable question.

  12. Rachel - Former HR Blogger

    Everyone has made the obvious point that the interviewer was an idiot. I would just tell candidates to be careful to remember that just because you ask doesn’t mean they have to give an honest answer. I have used the excuse of retiring rather than talking about a firing in certain situations.

    However, I also think it can be a great thing to discuss. We recently had quite a bit of turnover in a particular department due to employees breaching ethics. I discussed very upfront with the main candidate that the individuals were terminated and why (without getting in to details). It was the obvious thing to do because that person would find out once hired anyways and it also makes it very clear to the candidate up front that this behavior will not be tolerated.

  13. Charles

    Okay, so THIS interviewer is a jerk. But, what if this was an HR person or someone else whom you will NOT be working with? It doesn’t mean that the person you will be working with is a jerk. Many times you have to get past the gatekeeper jerk to get to the folks you will be working with.

    So, you still want to “salvage” that interview, right? Just because the recruiter or HR person is a jerk doesn’t mean that the job seeker should always RUN! If that were the case then I wouldn’t want to work at most US companies (sorry HR folks, but many of your colleagues do come across as jerks. Too many HR folks think that being a jerk is a part of their job description).

    I think the best response would be to apologize stating that you didn’t mean to offend and try to explain why you asked that questions (i.e, “I want to make sure that I don’t fail as well”, etc.)

    As Hannah above stated “a job with a crazy boss sounds better than no paycheck at all.” Amen.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Definitely agree that the interviewer might not be someone you’d be working with or who represents the culture, but in this case it was the hiring manager — so I stand by “run away!”

  14. Suzanne Lucas

    Absolutely agree, 100%, with Alison’s assessment. I always ask this question and it’s one I tell other people to ask.

    That manager is hiding something.

  15. Anonn

    I don’t tend to ask this for permanent positions unless I get a vibe of weirdness during the interview. I still wouldn’t expect the attitude that the OP got in a reply.

    I do however ask this for temporary placements since there is obviously a pressing need for the candidate beyond usual operating parameters.

    One employer did once say to me that the opening had originally been for six months (and was now four) because the candidate who had taken it had left for a permanent job part way through. They were annoyed about this and it did give me the opportunity to note that I would not do that and consider once I have taken a temporary contract with a fixed expected length that I commit to that length and would not leave them in that situation again. Unfortunately I still didn’t get the role.

  16. Stephen

    We always always always tell folks we interview that the number one reason that we end up firing people is because they don’t show up for work on time, or call in sick to often.

    That lets them know we don’t tolerate that, we still end up with folks that test us, but we do follow through.

    (this is for an entry level call-center job FYI)

  17. TM

    I once went to work for a big name contracting company. My interview with my former management was AWESOME! However my interview with the Division Manager was horrible. He deflected the answers to my questions. Despite that I took the job because I didn’t want to let one person (who didn’t manage me) ruin a viable opportunity.

    OP…run don’t walk. Turns out the position I had was filled 4 times in 2 years. My direct management was great, but let the DM behave like a monster to everyone. I managed to stay 2 years and watched my health deteriorate due to stress. It was NOT worth it. I left with no job lined up.

    Now I have a job I love and my health is excellent. In this new position I asked the same question the OP asked. I was given an honest frank answer about the recent turnover and lack of true clarity regarding the position (newly merged 2 jobs into 1). Sure it is different than what I’m used to but I walked in with open eyes. Their honesty speaks volumes about the integrity of my new company.

  18. What the?

    Perhaps when posing this question, the interviewee can just ask why is this position available? Without taking it further asking if someone was fired. maybe the hiring manager found that offensive? But I agree, refusing to answer is somewhat unprofessional.

  19. anonymous

    Perhaps it was the tone — if you just asked “Why is this position vacant?” — it’s reasonable. To add “Was someone fired?” might hit a flat key there…

    Of course, two of the things you MUST know ….

    – Are internal candidates being passed over for this position? If that’s the case — you will have to know that. But don’t be direct about the question. Filling a position that could have been taken by someone inside — ESPECIALLY if that person is qualified for it and everyone thinks that, can put you behind the 8-ball from day 1.

    – If the prior candidate didn’t work out — then they’ll likely tell you that. In fact, that can be to your advantage, because if they jettisoned someone for not doing the job, coming in you will find the attitude that “YOU CAN DO NO WRONG!”

    1. KL

      I agree that the OP might have phrased the question a bit too aggressively (assuming the post accurately reflected the actual words used). While it certainly doesn’t excuse the interviewer’s rude reply, I do think the OP may want to consider framing the question more diplomatically next time.

      1. Blinx

        I agree, it may have just been semantics that upset the hiring manager (but again, that’s no excuse). I ALWAYS ask why is the position available. The answer can tell you a lot, and many times, the news is positive.

        The position might be newly created, which indicates that the department/company is growing. I just had an interview where the person who had held the position took a promotion within the company. That’s great! They promote from within! Another time, the person was moving on to another company, but they would be interviewing me. Also great — everyone was on good terms with this employee’s leaving.

  20. Anonymous

    I was in an office when the department mgr interviewed a student about to graduate from a rival university. When he asked the student if he felt silly cheering for the football team and the student said not as dumb as the ones on the opposite side of the field. The interview was over. I caught up to the guy in the lobby and asked him to reconsider. He said why would you want someone that stupid to work with you, and left.

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