should you listen to your gut when job-searching?

A reader writes:

I am being laid off at the end of February. It’s a single-role redundancy, not a mass layoff, and as much as something like this can ever be positive, it is. My managers have gone out of their way to make it clear that they hate to see me go and have been very proactive in putting me in touch with contacts for further opportunities.

Today I met with a hiring manager who is looking for a specific area of experience that I have. I was excited about the role before the meeting, but now that we’ve talked — and even though she seemed very nice and capable — I feel like I should run screaming in the other direction. I can identify a few concrete reasons, such as upheaval in their staffing arrangements, but my reasons don’t seem like they’re good enough to justify how strongly I feel about it — and it would otherwise be great in terms of hours and pay. It would also likely only be a 6-8 month contract, so a part of me thinks I should just go for it and stick it out if it’s bad.

I have always tended to listen to my instincts when I have such a strong response to situations, even if I can’t entirely work out why — but I feel like there is more at stake here. I’m afraid it’s a huge mistake to turn down the opportunity to go straight into new employment with no gap, and that it would make me look bad to the hiring manager and also to the person who recommended me. Obviously I can’t count on an offer being made — maybe they had the same reaction to me! — but my impression is that they’re likely to want to go ahead with it. Should I be trying to work past my strong negative reaction, or go with my gut?

I’m a big, big believer in listening to your gut, if your gut has a good track record.

Gut reactions are often based on real things that you’re picking up subconsciously. Here’s an example of how this can work: You go to an interview, and on the surface everything seems fine. However, what you didn’t consciously notice was that everyone you passed on the way to your interviewer’s office looked miserable and the interviewer kept looking nervously at her door when she spoke out of fear of being overheard saying things she didn’t want your future coworkers to hear. Plus, she avoided some of your direct questions a few times and never answered what you’d asked about. You didn’t notice these things on a conscious level, but your subconscious did — and filed them away. As a result, you now have a bad gut feeling, but since you can’t place your finger on why, you’re tempted to dismiss the worries because you can’t justify them on a logical level.

Now, this isn’t always how gut feelings work. Sometimes they’re not rooted in real external things at all. Sometimes they’re rooted in anxiety, or fear of change, or something else entirely. So it’s important to be honest with yourself about all your feelings about a situation, so that you can try to separate that stuff out.

And it’s also true that some people are really bad at reading situations. If you know from past experience that your gut isn’t calibrated that well — that you have a history of misreading situations and thinking they’ll be bad when they turn out fine — then you want to approach your gut feelings with some skepticism.

But if your gut has generally led you well, I’d listen to it.

Bringing this back to the specifics of your situation, that might mean that you turn down the job if it’s offered to you. Or it might mean that you take you take it only if it’s a short-term contract (as it sounds like it will be), and continue your job search during that time. You should also factor in how marketable your skills are, what the job market is like in your field and in your geographic area, and how much other interest you’ve had from other employers. Or it might mean that you take it and hope for the best — realizing, though, that you’ve seen some danger signs, so that you’re not blindsided if things don’t work out well.

And if you decide not to take it at all, you don’t need to worry that it will make you look bad to the hiring manager or the person who recommended you. People turn down jobs all the time if they judge it best for them. You can simply explain that you didn’t feel it was quite the right fit for you. That’s enough for most people — and if it turns out it’s not enough for these two, they’re in the wrong, not you.

But what I wouldn’t do is ignore your gut simply because you can’t quite figure out what it’s reacting to. Assuming, again, that it doesn’t have a history of overreacting, assume that it’s reacting that way for a reason.

{ 105 comments… read them below }

  1. B

    Take your gut to heart. When I interviewed and was offered a position, my gut told me it was not going to be good. There were many concious and sub-concious cues. However, I needed the money and benefits, so I went into it wide open knowing this would probably not be a life-long type of position and I would need to move from it. My gut has proven to be quite correct on this, which is why I am glad I never stopped applying for positions. As long as you do not sign an iron-clad contract you could do the same. Accept it, fully knowing this may not be wonderful and keep applying for positions.

  2. Wilton Businessman

    I’m a big, big believer in listening to your gut, if your gut has a good track record.

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. The gut is right more than he is wrong. That being said, you have to decide if your gut is telling you it’s a bad situation or you are afraid of the change.

    In your situation, how bad could it be for six months? Seems like a decent opportunity to continue looking for a job while getting paid to do something.

  3. Liz in the City

    The power of your gut cannot be underplayed (unless it’s got bad instincts, as Allison pointed out). When I was interviewing for positions, there was one that, on paper, seemed ideal: great company, location, coworkers, industry contacts, etc. Except, I knew if I was offered it, it wouldn’t be right. The hours weren’t quite right. And there was just something I couldn’t put my finger on. 10 months later, the entire division was downsized, and I would have been out of a job — something the people who interviewed me knew about at the time (I knew one of my interviewers outside the office).

    That said, could you stick this out for 6-8 months? That’s up to you. Plus, having a steady paycheck is always a nice thing. And if you can keep yourself sane during that period, it might be worth it.

    1. Anon

      Liz, I know someone this happened to. They were hired by a big firm right out of graduate school, sat around for a month begging for work and then a month later, massive layoffs. Any insight as to why companies do this? It puzzles me!

      And yes, listen to your gut. I just applied to a position at a company I sent an application to four years ago – and had an unprofessional interaction with one of their recruiters or HR. Not sure which. Saw another position posted recently and figured what the hey. That was four years ago. I need to let it go. I had ANOTHER bad interaction with a recruiter/hr – in which they called me for a phone screen, I called them back to schedule and they just dropped off the face of the earth. No response, no email, nothing. Like the call was never made. I took this as a sign, even four years later, that something is going on over there and I won’t be sending them ANY more resumes!

  4. Joey

    I have a hard time making decisions purely on gut. I’ve always used the bad gut feeling as sort of a sign to ask more questions or do more research. I’ve just always felt that figuring out the why makes it that much easier to make better decisions in the future.

    1. Sascha

      As do I. I have only had a few situations in my life where my gut told me to run for the hills, and those were very, VERY strong reactions – like I wanted to vomit (and I had ruled out food poisoning or something like that). Other times, my gut tells me to be alert, so I take that into consideration of the overall decision. So in this instance, I would probably take the job, knowing that I might encounter some badness, but I wouldn’t just toss it out the window.

  5. fposte

    Just a note from the other side: my gut is stupid. My gut hates just about everything but can be temporarily won over with irrelevancies. If I can’t translate my gut reaction into language (which I will then assess), I shouldn’t listen to it.

    It sounds like many people’s guts are more reliable, but it’s good to be aware of whether yours are or not.

    1. Mike

      As Jerry Seinfeld told George, “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

      1. fposte

        I don’t like to be George Costanza, but I’m afraid that’s probably true; maybe I’m what George would be if he had known that already.

    2. Not So NewReader

      For years I thought I had a stupid gut, too.
      In my case, I let everything in life be priority level ONE. This lead to lots of complexity as doing the laundry, my broken thumb, dirty dishes and sick dog were all on the same level priority. (Just using examples- you get the idea.)
      Slowly, I decided what types of issues were important to me and what wasn’t that important. After a bit, my gut’s knowledge would nudge me- “better take care of X first.” And, yep, that turned out to be a good choice.

      My point is that sometimes we can kind of help ourselves become more and more in tune to what our gut is saying. But it does take time- it’s not instant, unfortunately.

      If you aren’t sure about your gut on this one, OP, do you have friends/mentors/someone whose opinion you trust/respect that you can review the situation in detail with? I have found this works well when my gut is out to lunch or on vacation….

    3. Nichole

      “My gut hates just about everything but can be temporarily won over with irrelevancies.”

      Get out of my head, fposte.

      I think this may be related to what us sociology types call the “tyranny of choice” or something like that (long day, you get the jist).

    4. Anonymous

      As John Cusack says in High Fidelity, “Well, I’ve been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”

    5. OP

      I’ve learned that there’s one very specific area where I have to do the opposite of what my instinct is telling me – which is any situation where I find myself thinking “If I just did X (quit my job, moved house, won the lottery, etc) I would not feel depressed.” That is my cue to get me to a doctor, a therapist, and my support network, because quitting my job or whatever absolutely will not help.

      Other than that, in Major Life Decisions – jobs, houses, etc – I’ve never regretted following my instinct. Of course, I can’t drop in on parallel universe me and find out what would have happened – but in several cases I’ve found myself thinking in the years since that I am so glad I did listen.

      The big clue for me here in whether or not to listen is that I was really excited for this opportunity. I wanted it to be great. I went into the meeting thinking that I would absolutely take it if offered, and I’ve spent the whole day since trying to find a way to make it work in my head – and failing. That sort of turnaround is really unusual for me.

  6. Corporate Cowgirl

    Listen to your gut. I had a gut reaction for two jobs – one was a bad reaction, but I took the job, and HATED it (as my gut said “told you so!”). I should not have taken that job in the first place.

    The second time my gut told me what to do, I was called to interview for a job I had applied for 5 months before (yes, 5 months), and I had forgotten about the company since so much time had passed, plus I had come to terms with not leaving my current job (not the job I mention above). But, I figured what the heck, interviewing is always good practice, I might as well go. Well, I was there not even an hour and my gut said “I can work here; I want this job!”. I was offered the job, took it, and stayed at that company 15 years!

      1. Corporate Cowgirl

        Believe me, I have had self fulfilling prophecies, and these were not them! How do I know? What Alison said below; “from ignoring it when I shouldn’t have”.

        As far as how to explain your gut feeling to a CEO, I agree you can’t just say “trust me”, so I find what works for me is proof that my prior decisions/recommendations/etc. were correct. That gets them trusting you and your instincts.

      2. Anon

        Yes ! I have also had experiences where I went to interview and even before I got there, I had a great sense of peace and ease. It was like I could see into the future and felt like: I could stay here and be successful! In all cases, when I got the job they were really outstanding experiences.

        Having recently had some opposite experiences, and took the jobs anyway because I have bills to pay, I would second the comments in this terrific post. We do the best we can with what we are given, and sometimes it means taking a job that we are uncomfortable with in order to progress in paying bills, feeding kids and gaining experience. Sometimes, the best thing we can learn is that we can still survive in a less than perfect environment and still get what we need and be ok.

        To the OP, I might take the position if offered in order to keep favor with your supervisors, keep money coming in and also because you never know what this experience will provide for you. Good things can come from difficult situations, but only you can decide what is right for yourself.

      3. Not So NewReader

        I don’t think you ever know for sure about any of this. Was the gut reaction the best option? Or did I just “adjust” my own future out comes though positive thinking (therefore self fulfilling prophecy)?

        No way to know.

        I think reality is a mixed of these things. You walk into a place and like it- that makes you want to do well- which means you end up staying with the job.

        1. fposte

          And the thing is, even if it *is* a self-fulfilling prophecy, it worked. So if you tend to self-fulfill on gut reactions, they’re still a reliable predictor.

          1. Joey

            I know a lot of people who tell themselves they are “lucky” to have a crappy job. It’s still a crappy job.

            1. fposte

              That’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy, though. It’s when you don’t think it’s a crappy job, you think it’s a great job because you felt good about it when you took it, even though you might not if your friend had it or you were looking at it now.

              Or–and I think we all know people like this–you think it’s a crappy job for reasons that wouldn’t bother most people. It doesn’t make you less miserable that it’s objectively not a crappy job.

                1. fposte

                  There are certainly plenty of people of whom that’s true, but that’s still not what I’m describing–I’m talking about the person who doesn’t stop loving the job/spouse/whatever; once they decided it was right, nothing was going to change that for them.

            2. Jennifer

              Well, they’re lucky to at least be getting paid even if it’s crap pay/work. I think that’s the thinking behind that…

  7. Joey

    Alison,
    How do you know if your gut has generally led you to make good decisions? Yes, you may have gotten a good outcome, but how do you know another choice wouldn’t have resulted in an even better outcome?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      From ignoring it when I shouldn’t have :)

      I’ve actually been pretty astounded about how accurate my gut has been, both when I’ve listened to it and when I haven’t.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I generally haven’t had to with those sorts of decisions. But if I needed to, I wouldn’t say “trust me.” I’d lay out the facts, the pros and cons of whatever the decision was, and I’d say, “All that said, my gut is sending off alarm bells about X, and I can’t explain why.”

          1. Elizabeth

            I’d say, “All that said, my gut is sending off alarm bells about X, and I can’t explain why.”

            I’ve said that many times, along with “something feels off about this and I don’t know what that is.” That is many times enough to cause others to say “Yeah, I’ve got that feeling, too!” and we start trying to figure out why.

            It came up late last week with regard to a vendor and an possible alternate method of completing a project. I flat out said “You pay me money for due diligence. Part of that is research, and you’re not giving me time to research. My gut says that we don’t know enough about {alternate method} to say that this will be an appropriate choice, and you’re not giving me the time & space to verify that my gut is wrong or right. I can’t support going forward without that research.”

            So far, my boss & his boss are backing me that we would be making a mistake by taking the alternate method.

      1. Not So NewReader

        Yep. That is true, KayDay. And some times we assume that if we had chose company B life would have been so much better than it is with company A.
        That is more magical thinking stuff. There is no way to prove it.

      2. Dan

        I don’t *know* that a choice would have resulted in a *better* outcome, but when I go through the lists of choices I’ve made relative to school and jobs, I’m fairly certain that different choices would have lead to worse outcomes.

        For instance, when I accepted my current white collar position, I had a competing offer from a similar company, and the base pay was more or less the same. I evaluated the work (similar), fit (similar) but there were two things weighing in favor of the job I selected: The work was slightly more in line with what I wanted to do (and I mean just slightly) and that this job pays by the hour — although “overtime” is never guaranteed. Over the last four years, I’ve made about $80k in overtime.

        If I took the other job, maybe I would have gotten promotions faster, but there is no conceivable way that I could have brought in that kind of extra cash. If I would have taken that job and not this one, and not been on a fast track with salary increases, I’d always be left wondering how much extra I could have made.

        I’ve been lucky — never in my life have I been left wishing I made a different choice than I did. The only thing that comes close is my undergraduate education, where I borrowed a lot of money to go to an expensive private school. On paper, it wasn’t worth what I paid for it. In reality, had I made different choices, I wouldn’t be where I am now, where I’m pretty darn happy. So it’s not clear that the other choice would have been better, and therefore, I don’t lose sleep over it.

  8. JLL

    I am a big fan of going with your gut- I found personally, that when you ignore that feeling of “unease” about a company or a position, even if it’s vague, it never ends well, and the first thing you think is “I KNEW something was wrong!”

    1. Anonymous

      Totally! I had a temp position last year that when I interviewed with the client, my gut was telling me to turn it down if I got it. The team I interviewed with was fine. In fact the interview seemed pretty neutral; nothing particularly stood out in my mind. Later that afternoon I got the call from the agency saying the client chose me to fill the position. The entire situation didn’t feel right but I went against my better judgement and took the job anyway. Three weeks later I was let go due to bad fit. I had to take it because I was on unemployment and I would have lost that if I did not.

      Since then, I’ve gone with my gut when it comes to jobs. The company I work for now is wonderful. The position is a great fit for my skills and I never had any trepidation about anything related to the job. I lucked out.

      1. Limon

        Wow, that is such an awesome example. I have been there, and it is almost impossible sometimes to articulate just what feels ‘wrong,’ but it is. And they fired you, too!

        I guess companies might also struggle with these inkling feelings too and then just hire the person, only to let them go. It’s so amazing.

        1. Anonymous

          It was such a strange interview. The clients I interviewed with were so poker faced I didn’t even know how I did! I was really surprised when I was told I got the position. It turned out to a massive cluster*&^%. The entire recruitment team had been there 8 months or less, I only met 2/3 of the team when I interviewed and the guy I didn’t meet at the interview turned out to be a massive, petty jerk. They also hired a part time recruiter to help out the jerk guy (who was in and out of the office with health issues) and he was let go in just over two weeks because they “didn’t need him.” (Which was a MASSIVE mistake.) I think they had been through a few people before me in the position, just going though agencies and seeing who would stick. I don’t think a person lasted more than a month. Is it really possible to see how well a person will work out in just a few weeks time? More often than not, no.

          You know the situation is bad when you’re at work and you’re thinking you’re wasting your time while at work!

  9. Jamie

    This may just be my bone deep need for security – but unless I was very sure I could find something better super quickly I’d put up with just about anything (legal) for 6-8 months just to have something while I was on the market.

    1. some1

      +1

      As long as the LW is still employed, s/he can turn work down and not have to worry that it will disqualify them from Unemployment (I assume). However, it all depends on the LW’s financial situation.

      1. Jen in RO

        OP said s/he is getting laid off in a week. In that situation, I’d go for the job, gut feeling or not. Feelings don’t pay the bills.

        1. Lynn

          Eh, even in that case, it depends on your personal situation. If you are beating recruiters off with a stick and you have a lot of savings, that’s one thing. If you have no savings and you know you’re in a struggling field, that’s entirely different.

    2. FormerManager

      My only caveat would be if the OP’s gut is telling him he’d be entering a position where he would be setup to fail (as happened to me and I did fail and I still kick myself for not listening to my gut).

  10. Ask a Manager Post author

    One other thing I’ll add — I’ve noticed that my gut is sometimes wrong when it gives me a positive feeling, but it’s never been wrong when it gives me a negative feeling. So I now take the negative feelings much more seriously than the positive ones.

    1. Not So NewReader

      Funny how that goes, isn’t it?

      I am beginning to notice that when my gut has a good feeling that is right on the money I am calm. I can just go about the steps to accomplish the goal.
      When my gut feeling makes me almost jittery or edgey then the gut feeling is not accurate at all.

      There seems to be a parallel with negative feelings. When my gut is right in saying “RUN”, at the same time I feel a “push” that says “do this! GO!”
      The false negative feels do not feel as deep or push me as hard.

      When the negative or positive gut feeling are accurate it involves a “knowing” a feeling of “yep, this is how this one is going to play out.”

    2. Joey

      This is part of what I’m talking about. I think a lot of people can rely on gut to weed out the bad decisions, but its much harder to select the best decision based on gut. You’re essentially guessing on what could very well be flawed reasoning. And to repeat that without analyzing why is a lost opportunity.

      If you think about it in terms of hiring are you really comfortable choosing what looks like the equally qualified white guy over the black girl without knowing exactly why?

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Nope, I wouldn’t be. And in that type of situation, you really shouldn’t be going on gut; there’s too much research showing how unconscious biases can influence that type of thing.

      2. Jamie

        This comes up a lot and I’m curious – has anyone ever really run across two equally qualified candidates?

        I mean sure, I’ve seen people where multiple people would have been qualified enough to do a good job – but I’ve never compared candidates or resumes where someone didn’t have the edge in either skill or experience.

        I don’t have the quantity of experience that others here do, so maybe I’m wrong but I’ve never seen it.

        To be fair it may be more common in entry level positions?

        1. Joey

          Exactly equally qualified? Rare. But if you had to pick who you’d want on your team between Kobe and Lebron? That happens all the time except the names tend to be more like Jane and Wakeen.

          1. Victoria Nonprofit

            I dunno… There have only been a couple of times that I’ve gotten to the end of a hiring process and not had a clear favorite.

            It’s hard to compare skills and experience in such a way as to be able to measure “equal qualifications” (do the six years Jane spent working as a policy analyst with he Department of Ed “count” the same as the six years Wakeen spent at Mass Insight? Does Wakeen’s degree from Georgetown have the same weight as Jane’s degree from Syracuse?)

            But beyond the specific set of skills and experiences a candidate brings, there’s all the other stuff: how they think through a problem, what their writing looks like, their ease of communication and personal presentation, how twir references speak about them.

            The two times I’ve felt really torn were both times when I didn’t feel great about any of our finalists. The rest of the time there were standouts.

            1. The IT Manager

              Can I just say that I love that hypothetical Jane now has an equally unlucky co-worker named Wakeen.

              1. Min

                I love it, too! I’ve been wondering what anyone who didn’t read the Wakeen story thinks when they see the name in the comments. :D

                1. Heatherbrarian

                  Wow, that was fast. Thanks!

                  (As a side note, I never seem to be able to load those Intuit QuickBase articles when you link to them. Firefox just thinks and thinks and thinks… I finally tried this one in IE and it did load.)

        2. fposte

          I get that with some frequency, actually, and I do think it’s because I’m dealing with people early in their careers. Sometimes I have a standout, but not always. There’s also a lot of translating from other kinds accomplishments at this stage, and those are so varied that there’s not really a reliable metric; therefore even stuff that perhaps *should* result in one candidate’s having an edge doesn’t necessarily because I can only vaguely parse it.

  11. Not So NewReader

    I really believe that we are supposed to be intuitive to some degree. Some people will be more intuitive than others, of course.

    OP, remember a time in your life when your gut said “NO-NO-NO!” very emphatically. How did that situation play out for you? Try to remember how that felt. When you feel that feeling again, pay attention.

    Going the opposite way- remember a time in your life when your gut said “You CAN do this!” And you knew beyond a doubt- “yeah, I can do this! I got this one!”

    Compare those feelings to what you feel now.

    1. Jamie

      OP, remember a time in your life when your gut said “NO-NO-NO!” very emphatically. How did that situation play out for you? Try to remember how that felt. When you feel that feeling again, pay attention.

      It’s funny – I’ve been thinking about this intuition thing and it sparked some interesting conversations at home last night.

      Ironic, with the timing of the mentor thread, but I do remember a time I was offered a position and everything in my body and soul was screaming NO – I knew I would be absolutely miserable and was set to turn it down. It was early in my career and it was a promotion to the corporate office and it was going to be a nightmare.

      I told my boss (awesome mentor of the other thread) that I was going to say no and he convinced me to take it. He agreed I would be miserable and that this wouldn’t last long term for me but if I took the raise and the new title it would get me in higher at my next company.

      He went in as my agent and got me a 42% raise – I stayed just shy of 3 months and it did get me in a lot higher at my next place than if I hadn’t done that.

      So as someone else said when you have experience use intuition and if you have no experience use your head. It was the first in my career so I had no experience and just trusted my mentors intuition and he was absolutely right.

  12. FormerManager

    My suggestion is if your gut feeling is really strong explore it. Often there are reasons you feel this way once you sit down and think it out. I once took a job that was a bad fit and I had a strong gut feeling about it going in. If I’d had sat down and thought about it, I would have figured out it was because it was a position I looked qualified for on paper but really wasn’t (the subject matter was too complex and in hindsight they needed someone with more experience in that area). Plus, the commute was a mess and I didn’t click with anyone who interviewed me. That mistake cost me four months where I could have found something better.

  13. New To AAM

    So any thoughts on what to do when your gut is telling you something is the right move but your brain is telling you it isn’t? I’m employed, enjoy what I do, but hate my organization’s internal politics. Have the opportunity to go somewhere much smaller, have much more authority in the organization than I do now, but would be making less money. My brain is second guessing the move, but my gut is telling me to take it and run with it. Partly maybe to get away from my current politics

    1. Jamie

      For me my brain will always opt for the safer choice. My brain is very cautious and resistant to change and really hates new – especially new people.

      So if my gut keeps nudging me to change or make a bold move, I know it’s something I need to examine because it has to be a pretty powerful impulse to stand up to my logic center which is a total bully when it comes to trying to maintain stability and consistency at all costs.

      It’s like my brain is Mike Tyson and my gut is Mr. Peepers…so if it feels strongly enough to keep popping up to confront Tyson it’s probably worth considering.

      On the other hand when my gut tells me to solider on and stay put how much of that is intuition and how much of that is just my desire to stay in my comfort zone?

      Overall though – I can’t think of any time I’ve regretted listening to my intuition – but plenty of regrets for disregarding it.

      1. New To AAM

        Thanks– sounds like we are similar. My brain also really dislikes the new and meeting new people exhausts me. But my brain has kept me where I am for a long time and I think my gut is finally reaching and and telling me it’s time to go.

  14. Lily in NYC

    The dumbest career move I ever made was not listening to my gut and accepting a job offer. I really couldn’t place my finger on why my spidey senses were tingling, so I ignored the feeling and ended up with a horrible boss (I’m an Exec. Asst) who had gone through 3 assistants in 8 months. I lasted 5 months before I got the heck out of there (and the poor person that took the job after me managed 3 weeks). However, I did learn from the experience. I was offered a promotion to a different dept. where I am currently employed – something was telling me it wasn’t going to work out and the feeling was very strong. I listened to my gut and didn’t accept the promotion. And I’m so glad I didn’t – the job is nothing like they described and the person that ended up taking it is miserable.

      1. Limon

        I had an interview today that I already knew would not be right for me, I sensed that something was wrong with this employer but I wanted to go and practice my interviewing skills and my instincts.

        I was calm, friendly and I smiled alot – like Pastor Joel Osteen recommends! I had a good time and was polite when I left.

        It was easy to consciously spot the reasons why this was not a good employer, I just listened and was a little detached. I kept the radio off in the car both ways and I made sure I really thought through what happened, and how I felt about it. Trusting that feeling is hard but really important, I really want to succeed and feel comfortable in my next job.

      2. Lily in NYC

        Honestly, no! It really was just a “feeling”. The only thing I can think of is that maybe my subconscious was able to sense that the person I’d be working for was a nightmare. She seemed perfectly nice in the interview.

  15. Anonymous

    There’s a book about this called ‘The Gift of Fear’ by Gavin de Becker. It’s mostly about avoiding violent situations, but the way he describes the gut response is intriguing. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with him:

    Gavin de Becker: “Like every creature on earth, we have an extraordinary defense resource: We don’t have the sharpest claws and strongest jaws–but we do have the biggest brains, and intuition is the most impressive process of these brains. It might be hard to accept its importance because intuition is often described as emotional, unreasonable, or inexplicable. Husbands chide their wives about “feminine intuition” and don’t take it seriously. If intuition is used by a woman to explain some choice she made or a concern she can’t let go of, men roll their eyes and write it off. We much prefer logic, the grounded, explainable, unemotional thought process that ends in a supportable conclusion. In fact, Americans worship logic, even when it’s wrong, and deny intuition, even when it’s right. Men, of course, have their own version of intuition, not so light and inconsequential, they tell themselves, as that feminine stuff. Theirs is more viscerally named a “gut feeling,” but whatever name we use, it isn’t just a feeling. It is a process more extraordinary and ultimately more logical in the natural order than the most fantastic computer calculation. It is our most complex cognitive process and, at the same time, the simplest.

    Intuition connects us to the natural world and to our nature. It carries us to predictions we will later marvel at. “Somehow I knew,” we will say about the chance meeting we predicted, or about the unexpected phone call from a distant friend, or the unlikely turnaround in someone’s behavior, or about the violence we steered clear of, or, too often, the violence we elected not to steer clear of. The Gift of Fear offers strategies that help us recognize the signals of intuition–and helps us avoid denial, which is the enemy of safety.”

    Food for thought.

      1. fposte

        For me, it both gets and loses points with its treatment of intuition. It’s utterly mired in confirmation bias; the case it builds about intuition’s “rightness” is completely untenable. This is not a man who’s ever heard the aphorism about hindsight being 20/20.

        But it gets points back for advocating that suppressing that intuition to avoid friction with other people is mistake. Its real contribution to me isn’t the glorifying of intuition, despite the name; it’s the point that it is more important for you to make sure you’re safe than for you to avoid hurting somebody’s feelings. Which, especially for women, and especially in a social situation, is an extraordinarily difficult priority.

        1. Limon

          Gavin de Becker’s book is crucial reading (or listening to, all 12 cds!) for men and women, and children.

          His message is simple and sincere and he has powerful advice. Being able to de-code what actually made you react is brilliant and can help you feel less powerless.

          We should all take care of ourselves, and honest people will expect that. Dishonest people will bad intentions are the ones who will be offended, he states that very clearly.

    1. Jamie

      I brought this very thing up to my husband the other day.

      We’ve been carpooling lately – and he takes a different way to the expressway than I do. His way gives me the creeps – it’s kind of remote and you go under this viaduct/overpass thing and I keep thinking if something happens here I’m dead – I know it sounds crazy but this really scares me and I have a visceral reaction – I get goosebumps and a little nauseated until we’re on the expressway.

      The way I take is like 3 blocks further but it’s all main streets – I just feel safer.

      The thing is – he’s a cop and statistically my way is more dangerous because of gang activity. He says I only feel safer because I think people = protection. But I’m actually not and this is kind of a bone of contention. Usually logic works for me – but not this time.

      Every time we go under that overpass I am convinced something very bad is going to happen there. I can just feel it.

      So it’s really hard to know when it’s really an intuitive thought and when my gut just has an overactive imagination fueled by conditioned fears.

      1. moss

        Jamie, maybe something bad DID happen there and you are just picking up on it? I know that sounds like a bunch of crazy woo but I think it could be possible. Not sure if it would reassure you to research the history of that place or not. Ask your husband to give you the dirt.

  16. Dan

    I had a “gut feeling” issue when I interviewed for my dream job in 2008. I have an aviation background, and secured an interview at an airline for what I thought was my dream position. It was a perfect paper match for both skills and interests. I was *thrilled*.

    First signal: Pay was *bad*. I did some research, and figured out that the top of their range was at the bottom of mine. This was in a lower cost of living city, so I told the interviewer “let’s evaluate fit and then talk about pay.” I meant it. Although, let me say that they wanted to pay less than $50k for someone with a Masters degree in a technical field.

    Second signal: First interviewer I had was a very, very cold woman. Quite robotic. I mean, I’m here on an interview for my dream job, have a background in your field, (meaning we can actually have a conversation!) but you give me the very distinct impression you’d rather be elsewhere?

    Third signal, which was a riff on the second: Nobody around there seemed happy. Again, I’m interviewing for my *dream* job, and I’m *thrilled* to be there. I couldn’t fathom working in an environment where everybody else would rather be elsewhere.

    2008 was in the thick of the recession, and I would have had a hard time turning down an offer had it been made (it was one of my first). I left the interview hoping (and praying) they would *not* extend an offer, because that was a choice I didn’t want to have to make.

    Thankfully, after two months, they finally rejected me, and I ended up in a place where I’m quite happy.

    That was a learning experience for me: You cannot identify a dream job from a job posting.

  17. Liz T

    Malcolm Gladwell says that we should trust our guts in areas where we have experience, and trust our intellect in areas where we are inexperienced. FYI.

  18. A Nonny Mouse

    Alison, it’s awesome that you posted this today – I was just offered a job at a small law firm in an area of the law I’m really interested in, but I had a bad gut feeling after the interview. I couldn’t really place why, until I looked at everything in my interview and the hiring process put together – for instance:

    1. When I asked about the work environment and culture, the associate interviewing me told me that “everything is always crazy and disorganized” and that the partner was “demanding, constantly stressed, and nitpicky.” When an associate talks about the office and her boss that way to a potential employee, it can only get worse from there.

    2. The pay schedule was only once a month, and would be a significant pay cut from what I’m making now, even though I was their “top candidate” and they knew what my salary requirements were before I interviewed.

    3. I interviewed on Thursday, they offered the job Friday morning, and expected an answer Friday night, and wanted me to leave my employer with only a week’s notice because the person they were replacing had given two weeks’ notice and her notice period was over the following day. They sniped at me for asking to be given til today to make a decision because I needed time to review the offer which they couldn’t send me in writing until Monday morning, and I didn’t want to take only a verbal offer and give notice based on that.

    Given the economy, there was a certain level of guilt I felt about turning down a job offer in my field in an area that interested me, when so many people can’t get a foot in the door. But when I turned the job down (politely telling them via an email this morning that I simply couldn’t afford the pay cut), their reaction was to tell me that I was irresponsible and that I “jerked them around.” Apparently my gut was right, because if this is how they treat potential employees, the existing staff must be miserable!

    Moral of the story – trust your gut instinct, because, as Alison said, there are usually reasons behind it that you don’t even realize are there.

    1. Anon

      You made the right decision. Good looking out – and you WILL find something that is a much better fit!

    2. Lily in NYC

      Yikes. I don’t think you need a gut feeling to tell you this place would be awful. Talk about glaring red flags! You made the right decision for yourself.

    3. Kaz

      That was absolutely covered in red flags. This place is going down the tubes and you don’t want to go with it.

  19. OP

    Thanks so much for the quick reply! I got your notification at the exact same time as I got an offer email – both only hours after the interview.

    My gut has never yet led me wrong. I’ve only had a couple of situations where I had this strong reaction before, and I’ve always been deeply relieved and glad that I listened to it. (And I feel the same way about negative vs positive – I think it’s more trustworthy on the former and I’m always cautious of the euphoric feeling of “this is perfect!”)

    I think what’s complicating it here is that I feel a huge pressure of guilt and obligation – it’s a job offer! I should take it! Immediately! It’s hard to find job right now! How can I be thinking of turning it down? What if no other job offers come along? EVER? etc. But I am in the incredibly fortunate position of being financially okay for at least the next four or five months (partly because I have been given a very generous severance package), and I live in a country with universal healthcare, so I don’t have to worry about losing insurance or access to medical services.

    In the time since the meeting I’ve been able to put into words more of what’s bothering me. There was a feeling of suppressed panic in the office, and the swift offer, rather than delighting me, has reinforced the feeling of desperation on their end. This is a non-profit with a heavy weight of accountability for tax issues, and a large part of the position would involve creating processes for dealing with donations completely from scratch – and fixing any problems that came to light from the past. Which I have no experience in. And the person currently doing the job I would be doing… she looked at me the same way I would have looked at a new candidate trying to enter the sick system I was trapped in at one point a few years ago. That last one is very subjective, and I wouldn’t give it as much weight without the other things… but with them, it fills me with dread.

    I talked it over with my partner and we agreed that if, three months down the line, I had a similar offer and similar feelings, I would need to be willing to override them if necessary – but for now, I have the indescribable luxury of making the choice, so I am going to listen to my instinct.

    And try not to feel like I am a terrible person for “leading them on” so they set me an offer letter…

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Ooooh, that would scare me too. Donation processing can be a convoluted nightmare, particularly if there are problems from the past. It’s the kind of thing that can be really satisfying to work through, but if you have no experience in it, I can only imagine the pitfalls.

      As for “leading them on,” you absolutely didn’t. Employers aren’t leading candidates on if they interview them without eventually making an offer, and you’re just as entitled to interview without accepting an offer. Remember that interviews are two-way streets; part of the point is for you to be assessing them right back, so anyone who argues that interviewing implies you’d take a job is silly.

      1. OP

        I’m usually pretty good at remembering that the interview is a two-way street – it’s just that in this case it was so effortless on my part (manager put me in touch, one conversation, job offer) that I feel ungrateful for turning it down. Which I know is not how it works! But it’s hard to overcome.

  20. Nyxalinth

    Im kind of in this situation right now (please excuse the lack of apostrophes, my laptop is getting weird and some keys have stopped working). I interviewed today and I cant tell if the area (slightly dodgy part of downtown) or the guy who interviewed me (I feel a personality mismatch in a way I cant quite put my finger on) or what it is, but I really, really hope he wont be calling me today to offer the job (he said if I was hired I would be called today, its phone sales, and they often do hire that fast). If they dont call, I wont feel like I have to take something that I probably wont fit well into just to have a job.

  21. Anonymous

    Agreed w/ AAM. If your gut has a good track record, trust it! I’ve never regretted listening to my gut and it has a great track record. The times I didn’t listen is when I’ve most regretted it. Sometimes our subconscious picks up on things we didn’t realize and our gut alerts us something’s not right.

    And I’m very sorry to read about your situation. Best wishes for a great new job!

  22. Elizabeth West

    I get really nervous and anxious when I’m about to make a decision or am in a situation that my gut thinks is wrong. It’s the exact opposite when things are right. Well, I assume they’re right. I’ve never had anything go exactly right.

    This happened to me back when I turned down that job that didn’t pay enough. I literally would have had maybe $14 a month left over after paying bills, with not even a cost of living raise forthcoming, for who knows how many years. I put my foot down and listened to my gut and that “wait and see” feeling, and right before my unemployment ran out, I found NewJob. And it is WAY better already, and I’ve only been there a couple of weeks. There is so much to be happy about that the slight inconveniences of a very regimented IT system aren’t making me too unhappy. It was worth the wait.

    Now if only something else would go the same way, then I could finally relax. I’m getting that same “wait and see” feeling, so who knows? Maybe it’s not coming from me…maybe the Universe is trying to tell me something LOL.

  23. Heather

    RUN.!!!!!! I’ve seen this scenario play out for other people a dozen times. History suggests that your gut is telling you it is a bad fit. Which means they will fire you in a fire and brimstone hell storm that has nothing to do with anything you did. You will then not be eligible for unemployment benefits. Which you are now. Better off protecting your work history, emotional state and unemployment benefits. Once you run out of employment benefits, this type scenario would not be as risky.

  24. JM Hosp

    Man, reading stories like these makes me feel like my gut is totally dormant. Although it does serve me well when it sends out “this coworker is a creep” signals.

  25. Neeta

    I remember listening to a purely gut feeling only once, and for quite a while after that I felt that I had made a huge mistake. Only recently did I find out that perhaps it was not such a bad thing.

    So I went to this interview about a year and a half into my first job. First step was a technical interview, which I found I didn’t exactly excel in.

    Despite that, I was called back the next day to have an interview with the CEO. He was positively enchanted with me and offered me an extremely tempting salary. Oddly enough, the CEO’s reaction seemed really really creepy to me… so I ended up refusing the offer.

    Three years later I found out that this company habitually loaded their employees with so much work that they literally didn’t have time to go home some days.

    1. Laura L

      What do you mean by creepy? I was assuming that you’d heard he’d had inappropriate sexual relations with his staff!

  26. Neeta

    Oh no nothing of the like.
    It was more of a “this guy is waaaay to excited to have me”. Our interview included a small verbal chat in German, and he got all excited when I started the conversation with “Well…”.

    I work in IT, so I basically found it really odd that the CEO was so enchanted when the technical interviewer must have given him some feedback. Plus the technical interviewer made me wait over an hour, which caused me to be almost late to work. Though admittedly, I wasn’t (consciously) taking this into account when refusing.

    I just had a general feeling of : something is not right. This is too good to be true..

  27. Tony

    I start a new job soon and my gut is telling me to back out of the job offer. Looking back on my gut I’ve been right about 95% of the time. The recruiter was extremely rude and threatening trying to get to accept the job offer. I do feel guilty as some of you guys have mentioned about turning down a job offer in this tough economy especially when unemployed but my gut is telling me to back out. I may get into trouble with unemployment insurance but you do what you gotta do.
    I’ve gone against my gut subconsciously and I’ve paid for it. I do feel a bit bad if I do decide for backing out of this job but my state is “at-will” so I can do that. I do fear the recruiter a bit because he is a bully but if I have to do it than I’ll do it and be prepared to put up a FIGHT until the death.

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