should I mention future plans for a family when interviewing?

A reader writes:

I could use a hiring manager’s eye on my answer to “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Honestly, once my student loans are paid off and my husband and I buy a house, I think I am going to try to drop to part time or quit work entirely and focus on raising a family. This will probably be 2-3 years into the future. However, I can’t guarantee that, for example, we won’t have fertility problems that delay kids for a few years, or that I won’t decide that I can’t do the whole stay-at-home-mom thing and need to dive back into work.

I really want to totally focus on my career right now, while I can commit all of myself to it. A full-time management position has opened up that would be a step up from my current position, and I have asked to interview for it with my current supervisor’s blessing. But I know the dreaded five-year question will come up. I want to answer honestly – but I also want to advance my career while I have a chance!

My thought is to respond with something like, “I don’t know what the future holds, which is why I want to be fully dedicated to my career right now,” maybe mentioning a house and family vaguely, and talking about things the company will be doing in the future that I am genuinely excited about being a part of.

Nooooo. Do not talk about your plans for a house or a family. First, they don’t care about your plans for your personal life or real estate; they’re asking about where you see your career in five years. And don’t say that thing about not knowing what the future holds either; they know that no one knows what the future holds, but they’re asking anyway, because they want a sense of your career goals and how this job ties into them.

That’s all this question is about. It’s not about committing you to any specific path. It’s not about other things that might be going on in your life in five years. It’s just another way of saying, “How does this position fit in with your short-term and medium-term career goals for yourself?”

And the reason they care about this is because they want to hire someone who will be excited about the job and where it will lead them, whether that’s to a higher-level position or just increased accomplishment or satisfaction. They also want to know that you’re not just applying for jobs randomly and taking whatever you can get, because if you are, you’re more likely to get bored or leave as soon as something else comes along.

Now, in your case, I get that you want to answer honestly, and if all goes well for you, you’d like to raising kids in five years and not working, or at least not working full-time. But reality may play out a different way, and there’s no reason to hobble yourself professionally now by giving an answer that sounds like less than full commitment to the track you’re interviewing for.

When the day comes that you’re ready to change the track you’re on, you can change it then. But don’t change it prematurely … and don’t answer a question about career goals with an answer about houses and family.

Good luck!

{ 173 comments… read them below }

  1. Cat*

    I, like apparently everyone else in America, have mixed feelings about Sheryl Sandberg, but this is where her advice of “Don’t leave until you leave” is really great, I think. You don’t owe your employers an opportunity to discount you; and if you want to fully commit to your career now, you have every right to. Go for it!

  2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    Yeah, this is literally the exact premise of “Lean In.” While you’re there, lean into your career.

  3. OriginalYup*

    Ditto everything Alison said. If you were planning to stop working in 3 months (or leave to go back to school full-time next semester, or move to a different country shortly) that would be relevant to their question. But the transition you’re forecasting is tentative and based on a ton of other factors, so you’re not obliged to bring it up at this stage.

  4. some1*

    You’re overthinking this. If all goes according to plan, in two years the person interviewing you probably won’t remember how you answered the five-year plan question, even if they are still working there. And if they do remember it, I doubt they would hold it against you or think you were being dishonest.

  5. Elizabeth West*

    My first thought when I read this heading was “Aack! Don’t do that!” I was really disappointed that Alison didn’t say that in her answer.

    (Just kidding, Alison! :D)

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      As soon as I saw the title I glanced down to the start of the answer, and was gratified to see that it started with “Nooooo”. (Although I was slightly disappointed at the lack of exclamation points. :D )

    2. The IT Manager*

      That was my thoughts exactly and I too am disappointed with the lack of “Aack! Don’t do that!”.

  6. Jax*

    In 5 years I’d like to be a published author who spends her days writing in a little cabin in the woods. But since only some of that is in my control (writing and pursuing agents) and the rest of it is up to fate, I’m not going to tell my office job that it’s the life I’m really dreaming of during talks of promotion.

    I think family planning fits right in with those dreams. It’s nice to talk about it with friends and family, but it isn’t something to share with management until it’s a reality.

    1. LizNYC*

      Hey, me too! Except I’d like my cabin to be beachfront. And first I’d need to actually finish/have a solid idea for a book.

      In the meantime, I’m going to keep showing up to work. And keeping my family planning plans to myself. (Not even my mother gets to know!)

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        Ha, my mother doesn’t get to know either. And it’s driving her INSANE. She’d stopped asking when we’re going to have a baby for a while because she realized it wasn’t working. Now she’s trying “so, are you guys thinking of buying a house soon?” I think this is her not-so-stealthy way of asking the baby question without actually saying the word “baby.”

    2. KaseyMack*

      Hahaha, I AM a published author with an agent and unfortunately I still don’t have that little cabin in the woods. Although actually, I would prefer a nice hut on the beach, haha. (I just love finding other writers who understand that dream. =) )

      I echo the sentiment that it’s perfectly fine to make general plans for your personal future without mentioning it professionally until (and only if) it becomes directly relevant to your particular job. Even then, I would view it only as a “need-to-know” basis.

      (Regular lurker trying to get into the habit of actually contributing to the community!)

  7. Jubilance*

    I cringed when reading this question. OP, you’re thinking way too much into this, and sharing about your personal life plans will totally shoot yourself in the foot. And sadly, answers like the one you were planning to give is why some people are hesitant to hire or promote women in their childbearing years (which was highlighted by a Reddit user a couple of weeks ago, sadly). Nobody knows the future, for all we know you could win the Powerball jackpot and decide to stop working. Just like you wouldn’t give your “here’s what I’d do in case I win the lottery” answer, you shouldn’t go into what you MIGHT do if you buy a house and decide to start a family. As you mentioned, lots of things could happen that could derail your plans. Much better to follow Alison’s advice and focus on sharing what your career goals are & how this role fits into that.

    1. RS*

      I liked your comparison to the “winning the lottery” situation. That is a really good point!

      Do you happen to have a link to that Reddit thread? I’d be interested to read that.

    2. thenoiseinspace*

      I think the problem here, though, is that the OP’s career goals for five years from now are, essentially, to NOT have a career. It would be hard to talk about five years down the road if you honestly plan on stopping after two. It makes keeping it relevant difficult.

      1. Zahra*

        It took me 3 years to get pregnant. When we started trying, we made plans according to our future reality: 4-door car instead of 2-door one, for example. After 2.5 years, I was ready to say that the next car would be a cooler car, because putting plans on hold for a future pregnancy can really suck.

          1. Zahra*

            Nah, you don’t really need a minivan unless you have 3 kids (and even then, some car seats fit in a 3-across configuration) or you transport your kid’s friends fairly frequently.

            1. Hunny*

              Depends a lot on what you think you need. My friend just sold her 4-door car for a minivan because she’s thinking of maybe in the next couple of years having a second child. Would I do the same, no way! I’m more like Zahra here.

      2. teclatwig*

        +1 I think it’s helpful to say “no, this won’t fly,” but…what next? It seems like the solution is to put work into imagining and investigating where your current career path would likely take you.

        Maybe if you don’t think about the question as asking “where do you most want to be in 5 years,” but instead reword it — in your mind!” to ask “where do you see your career in 5 years if external forces dictate that I don’t start having children for another 5-7 years?” What can you see yourself throwing your time and effort into? Where would you like the *path you are currently treading* to lead?

    3. Annie O*

      “… answers like the one you were planning to give is why some people are hesitant to hire or promote women in their childbearing years.”

      I know what you mean. I support the OP’s choice to cut back / opt out for kids, but I hate that it can be used as justification for discrimination against other women of childbearing age.

  8. AnonManager*

    I once had a well-qualified and very gung-ho candidate for an open position. Unfortunately during interviews– perhaps because the hiring committee was all-female and the candidate felt comfortable — she frequently brought up her plans to start a family and how pleased she was about the job’s shorter commute. We did go with another candidate for a multitude of reasons. Sadly, nobody was able to give her honest feedback that her family talk didn’t help, out of fear of the perception of discrimination.

    1. Laufey*

      If it was for a multitude of reasons, why couldn’t you give her feedback on those? I mean, if it was “fear of the perception of discrimination,” there must have been something(s) else that lead you to the other candidate….

      1. OPI Addict*

        “Nobody was able to give her honest feedback that her family talk didn’t help” – it doesn’t say they couldn’t give her feedback at all, but that the feedback couldn’t address the references to starting a family being problematic.

    2. Zahra*

      Wasn’t it discrimination, though? Would you have held a man to the same standard if he had talked a lot about a family and shorter commute?

      If no, then it really looks like discrimination.

      If yes, then it’s more a perception that she didn’t seem excited about the job.

      1. Laufey*

        Well, AnonManager does say there were a multitude of reasons, and Alison has said previously on the blog that your reason for liking a new job shouldn’t be something superficial like a commute, etc.

      2. AnonManager*

        I would have DEFINITELY held a man to the same standard.
        It just ended up seeming to the committee that she was more excited about the potential change in her circumstances than she was about the job.

        FWIW, I have been a stay-at-home mom, a mom who works nights, a mom who works 3 days/week and a mom who works full-time. I have tons of empathy for anyone trying to achieve that parent/work balance.

      3. LBK*

        It doesn’t sound like it was because she was a woman but rather because she was focused on building a family. A man could be equally as focused on wanting a family, and it could be equally problematic if brought up in a job interview. I don’t see how this has to do with gender.

  9. Diet Coke Addict*

    Alison’s advice is, of course, correct.

    On the other (awful) side, I have been in an interview where when I was asked this question, and started to mention “hopefully I’d be in a position to start using some senior leadership in this department to branch out into more responsibilities across departments” or whatever it was, the interviewer INTERRUPTED ME to say “No, I meant, in your family and your life!” Like I was going to say “well ACTUALLY in five years I hope to have begun raising an army of children to help out on the 40-acre weasel farm I own.”

    I didn’t get called back (or any follow-up to that interview, for that matter), but I counted it as a blessing, because….no. I’m thinking the interviewer was aware that this is a good question to ask, but not that it needs to be confined to work answers.

    1. Stephanie*

      I always get thrown off when interviewers ask personal questions, since so much interview advice suggests omitting personal information.

      1. LAI*

        I had an interview where they asked “what gets you out of bed in the morning?” and specified that they didn’t mean just professionally. So my answer was “my dog, both literally and figuratively”, which they seemed to like. Then we turned back to professional motivations.

    2. Jen RO*

      Huh, I just realized that this is what my interviewer on Friday was asking! She wanted to know where I thought my personal life would be in 5 years, and she didn’t seem satisfied by my ‘uh, I’d like to travel?’ answer. I’m childfree so it didn’t even occur me that she was asking about kids!

    3. Ash (the other one!)*

      Isn’t it illegal to base hiring decisions on familial status? Doesn’t that include future potential familal status?

      1. Marcy*

        In the US it is but not necessarily in other countries. When I interviewed in Sweden, I was asked “Are you pregnant right now or do you plan to become pregnant in the next couple of years?”.

        1. fposte*

          It’s not actually federally illegal in the US, either, though there are some states where it is.

    4. Arjay*

      I had an interview with someone that I knew slightly through work. Everything was going swimmingly, until as the last question she said, “So what do you like to do for fun?” And I literally had no idea – my mind was a total blank trying to shift from professional me to leisure me. :)

      1. LQ*

        I had someone ask me this question once and I had actually gone and checked out the interviewers linkedin where I had discovered was a huge tennis person. I’d just taken it up so I was able to talk about that. Since then I’ve always had 1 potential “personal” or “for fun” answer ready.

    5. littlemoose*

      Your hypothetical plans made me snicker so loudly that my boyfriend demanded to know what was so funny.

  10. Rayner*

    I really don’t understand why people even think this is a suitable answer to give.

    This is a business/professional conversation, and that’s the kind of thing people should be bringing to the table. The boss wants to know “what are you planning to bring to this business/company/non profit in the next five years [and potentially] how can we, as a business support that?”

    They’re looking for something like “I want to move into Y area, or I want to progress Z skill [which will help your business in [this way]].” or “I want to progress up on the management chain (if that’s an applicable option to you).” They want to hear answers like, “I’m excited to work with [Z] part of the business because [S]”.

    It’s definitely one of those things that’s being discussed in the whole ‘lean in’ (and additional critical materials of that particular variety o fapproach).

    It undermines women in the work place when instead of thinking “Business context, professional approach,” many women immediately turn to “general plans for the future.”

    It’s perfectly legitimate to want to be a homemaker, or a stay at home mother, or to have children, and if that’s your goal, then it’s totally awesome to aim for it. But plans change, people change, and there’s no telling what the future and the economy holds for people, and saying something like “I want to be a stay at home parent” can sound naive and not prepared for the reality of working, depending on your location and the area’s economic climate.

    Basically, don’t tell your boss that’s your professional aspiration in the mid term future that because you cut yourself off at the knees – “This person is not worth investing five years of money and training into before they resign and start a family/become a stay at home person etc.”

    Just… GAH. It’s such a common trap to fall into but it’s so easy to not fall into it as well. I guess this is the time to do what AAM suggests about practising interview answers so they feel natural and picking something that’s in line with your professional aspiration, not your domestic one.

    1. The IT Manager*

      Similarly you wouldn’t tell anyone that in the next five years you hope to find a new job because that’s pretty much the equivalent quitting to raise a family.

      You don’t say either when trying to get hired.

    2. Elysian*

      I think people bring it up, especially women, because someone somewhere told them it was relevant or asked them about it. It’s circular. Employers have felt it was relevant and have used it as a hiring criteria (even though that’s not proper). Thus, some employees think it must be relevant and feel the need to disclose it.

  11. Annie O*

    OP, you don’t know if you’re going to win the lottery, have kids, or get divorced in the next 5 years. Don’t limp through your present career as if your ideal choice of staying home with the future kids is guaranteed. You need a strong career plan, even if you prefer to think of it as a backup plan. And maybe if you have one, you’ll feel less likely to feel dishonest in your conversations with employers.

  12. lemons*

    My mom likes to tell the story of when she was interviewing for a job in 1983 when an employer asked her directly if she planned to have children since she was married and came from a large family (not sure how the discussion of how many siblings she has came up, but whatever). She lied and told him that she absolutely did not want children, so they hired her. Two years later I was born! If she told the truth, she probably would not have gotten the job, which could have also derailed her plans to have kids due to lack of financial stability. Then, I wouldn’t be here to tell this great story.

    1. HM in Atlanta*

      I had this question in 1996. The hiring manager actually said, “are you planning to get married or have kids, because we just had to get rid of the last gal when she got pregnant.” The young/full of confidence me said, “You aren’t allowed to ask me that. Next question.” Is anyone surprised I didn’t get an offer?

      1. Scott M*

        I think they are ‘allowed’ to ask you that, they just aren’t allowed (legally) to make hiring decisions based upon it. By asking that in an interview, they put themselves in a hard-to-defend position if they are ever sued for gender-discrimination.

        1. Del*

          I believe you’re correct.

          The only potentially discriminatory questions they are actually not allowed to even ask, IIRC, are questions relating to disability or disability accommodations. .

      2. Jax*

        Love it! In 2008 a panel of older men interviewed me for my first post-sahm job, and one of them asked me if my husband was okay with me going back to work.

        I laughed uncomfortably and said, “I don’t think you’re allowed to ask me that…?” Lucky for me it was a panel and the others jumped in to ask the real question: “What are your child care arrangements?”

        Which sadly proves that for a young woman, this question IS on interviewers minds. You’re being screened based on whether you may have children, and if you already do, whether you have child care that the company thinks is reliable.

        I’ve been asked the child care question in every interview, and each time I say that my mother-in-law watches the girls, I get a wide smile. I can work overtime! I don’t have to make a daycare run! I won’t be the mom running out the door at 4:55! It’s pretty gross and makes me sad for working women.

        1. Xay*

          I got the question “who will take care of your child when you travel” for an internal promotion. I bluntly answered “his father” and still got the job, but the question startled me.

          1. Us, Too*

            I stayed late to finish up a task the other night and a colleague asked me “who is taking care of your little one right now”. I answered “his father”, but I was taken aback. Apparently fathers caring for their children is rare enough to still be surprising. (*deadpan*)

                1. Mallory*

                  That drives me crazy, too! My mother-in-law also says that her husband does housecleaning tasks “for her” . . . like the whole house is her job, and none of his concern, but he benevolently deigns to pitch in. They are both retired.

        2. Piper*

          Ugh. If I’m ever asked this question, I’ll tell them that my childcare is taken care of and is not something I regularly allow to interfere with work. No details necessary and if they push, well, I probably don’t want to work for them anyway. It’s none of their effing business. This enrages me that employers behave this way.

        3. Zahra*

          Even the childcare arrangements question seems iffy to me (unless they ask it of men and women alike). I think the proper question would be “Is there anything that would prevent you from X (traveling, working long hours, etc.)?”

          AAM, what’s your take on it?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            If they’re asking it of men too, then I guess there’s not a discrimination issue, but (a) I find it hard to believe they’re asking it of men too, and (b) even if they are, all the women they ask are going to assume they’re not asking the men and will be annoyed by it.

            Plus, of course, people have all kinds of commitments outside of work and the person without kids might have to run out the door at 5 every day to pick up her iguana from iguana day care or whatever. “Is there anything that would prevent you from X (traveling, working long hours, etc.)?” is much better.

        4. LAI*

          This is also not effective because there are plenty of other factors that affect one’s ability to work. I am a single dog-owner and I need to be home by a certain time every day if I don’t want pee on my carpet. I also have a male coworker who is single and childless but leaves work early at least once a week to work on the house he’s renovating (meeting the plumber, Home Depot trips, etc.). The question about whether there is anything that would make it difficult to fulfill the requirements of the job is a much better question, combined with making it clear what kinds of hours and travel will really be expected.

          1. KellyK*

            Exactly! Anyone, regardless of their marriage or family status, might have things that make working late or travel unfeasible (or that mean they need enough notice to make alternate arrangements).

      3. Poohbear McGriddles*

        Yeah, they’re totally allowed to ask that. But admitting that it was a factor in letting someone else go was stupid, as it would have opened up a discrimination claim pretty easily.

      4. Lamington*

        My snarky self would have answered in an icy tone: None, my husband has fertility problems, therefore we won’t be having any children.

    2. JMegan*

      If she told the truth, she probably would not have gotten the job, which could have also derailed her plans to have kids due to lack of financial stability.

      This is so important. Children are expensive! If your five-year plan is to get yourself out of the paid workforce, then your immediate plan needs to include identifying where the money is going to come from while you’re out.

      (Which you also don’t tell your interviewer, of course! “I’m just building up a nest egg so I can get myself out of here asap” is just a little bit too honest for most hiring managers, even if it does happen to be the truth.)

    3. Zahra*

      I actually think women should not tell about their plans to have children unless they show up visibly pregnant. The only time I’d bring it up is if it interferes with the job itself: they mention a big project due for when you’re due, there’s a lot of travel involved (either frequently or a few stretches of more than a week) and you don’t have a child care option.

      1. JGil*

        I was promoted to an internal position when I was 7 months pregnant. It never came up once during the interview. I was not even able to hide the bump at that point, nor did I try (a black maternity suit jacket only does so much!). I did have to take leave shortly after I was hired, but the position was new and nobody had filled it before. So I guess they figured what was another few months? My husband and I bought a house when I was on maternity leave (talk about crazy timing), and I did have to complete mortgage/financial paperwork saying I’d be going back to work.

    4. BeenThere*

      This. All my friends lie because of the discrimination against women of child bearing age.

      1. Lizzy Mac*

        This is very true in my experience. I’ve even had one married friend tell me she took off her wedding/engagement ring for a job interview because she was worried it may be held against her. She didn’t get that job but its a sad state of affairs when a woman feels like she has to lie to be competitive.

        1. Meredith*

          This is actually a concern of mine. I’m almost 32. I do plan on having children in the next few years. I do NOT plan on leaving the work force.

          I am currently actively applying and have a phone interview this week for the first time since I got married. If this leads to an in-person interview, I’m seriously wondering if I should leave my rings on or off.

          To compound this problem, I currently work remotely – I moved to this state last year due to my husband’s job and was luckily able to continue my position from home. But I also assume that an interviewer might ask about me relocating as it seems an odd thing to do without reason, and both of our families live in other states (closer to where we are now, but not close enough to be an excuse for moving here).

          We also just bought a house. I love my husband and the house (although it is, indeed, a money pit), but a woman in her early 30s who is married and just bought a house seems like a prime candidate for a pregnancy.

    5. Cath in Canada*

      When my Mum went back to work after taking eight years off as a SAHM, she was asked in her interview if she had kids and if she thought she’d have to take much time off to deal with childhood ailments, school plays, and the like. She said “I assume you’re asking the male candidates the same question?”, to which the committee responded with uncomfortable silence and a swift change of topic.

      She got the job :D

    6. Annie O*

      I was asked this question in 2011. And I expect it will be asked at my next interview, too.

      No one said it was easy working in a male-dominated field.

    7. EM*

      I was also asked what my husband did for a career (I was wearing my wedding band, but what the eff does it matter what my husband does??) and if we planned on having children. They had just lost the previous person in my role due to her deciding to be a SAHM so I guess it was on their radar.

      This was in 2010. SIGH.

      1. Annie O*

        My husband was asked about me in a previous interview. Specifically, “Does your wife work full-time? Most of our employees have stay-at-home wives.” Then the interviewer started talking about the long hours and the required travel.

        This was in 2012.

  13. Lola*

    Answer it like a man would leave your family plans out of it! It’s a rare man who would think “I might take some paternity leave somewhere down the line & I want to be honest about that”. He’s going to focus on his career goals & you should too.

    1. Celeste*

      Focusing on your career goals is great. But realistically, family building is different for a woman than it is for a man. I think the OP was just saying that it’s weighing on her mind right now. I think that when you can see yourself possibly opting out, it’s really hard to feel completely sincere about moving up.

      I do think it’s great to stay on a forward track while you are working, OP. You might as well bring the most to your employer while you are employed, and any skills you get will only help you should want to return to work after an absence. Maybe the thing to do in interviews is to focus only on the short term pre-pregnancy and let the rest of your future unfold as it will.

      1. KellyK*

        Is it, though? There’s nothing *inherently* different about family building for men and women, apart from the fact that the person giving birth to the kid (assuming you’re even building a family that way, as opposed to adoption) needs time off to physically recover.

        The whole idea that having children is this huge impact on women’s careers and completely irrelevant to men’s careers hinges on the idea that *of course* the mother is the primary caretaker, but that’s not written in stone anywhere.

      2. Judy*

        That sounds like the BS that I hear second hand being said to friends of ours. The wife’s dad especially loves to bait the husband that he’s not a real man because he has primary responsibility for the kids.

        Well, your daughter is the one who had the talents and drive to go to medical school. Yes, he works at home so he’s there when the bus is. He is a writer, and did freelance editing once the kids were in school. He’s now a published author in his own right, with an agent and a book deal. The kids are in high school. It’s not like they can’t live on her salary (I hope), even if he hadn’t been freelancing.

        1. Mallory*

          One of my friends went back to work full-time as an RN when her baby was 6 weeks old, and her husband stays home with the kids. My husband is completely jealous. His dream of SAHD-ness is crushed, though, by the fact that my salary can’t support that (public university admin here).

      3. Celeste*

        Pregnancy can turn out to be really demanding, and NOT everyone can work full steam during it. I think that’s a valid consideration that a man doesn’t have to worry about. Also, many employers may assume they can quit giving important assignments to a woman who has announced her pregnancy. A man also doesn’t have to consider that when he’s going to become a father. A man returning to work post birth isn’t going to have to stress about how he’s going to fit pumping milk into his day, if the workplace is even friendly towards it.

        It is inherently different to be the mother.

        1. KellyK*

          Sure, absolutely. But pregnancy as a medical issue and building a family in terms of who, if anyone, stays home or works part-time are two different things.

          And it seems like putting the cart way ahead of the horse to be worried about how someone who hasn’t even started trying yet is going to function at work while pregnant, particularly when how disabling or limiting pregnancy is varies a ton. Some people function pretty well the whole time, some have serious complications and spend 5 months on bed rest.

        2. hamster*

          In my country , you have 1 year maternity leave ( paid at 80% of salary)However, when my brother was born my mom was in position to hire a nanny. She got to work after 2 months and did not pump. It’s not mandatory to pump .
          My ex-boss left at 5-30 pm daily to take his kids from school. he was the owner of his own business, his wife was a dental practice that simply made money to make her time in the evening more relevant. So many scenarios. It’s not the mother’s responsability alone to raise the children

        3. Judy*

          Pregnancy can be demanding, and it can not be demanding, but that’s a short length of time. Building a family is about the following 18+ years.

          I don’t think anyone is arguing that in today’s world many women have to worry about that. I think we’re saying they shouldn’t have to worry about not getting important assignments just because they gave birth.

        4. Cat*

          So your argument is that an employer might discriminate against you when you become pregnant so . . . you should give them a heads up during the interview that they should start discriminating against you?

    1. Joey*

      Does than mean you hate that companies expect you to have career goals? Or that someone might want to know if the job they may hire you for fits into it?

      Does that mean that no one should have goals that far out because too many thugs can change?

        1. Kai*

          I agree with Stephanie here. Of course it’s good to demonstrate that you’re ambitious and goal-oriented, but any answer that sounds good is likely to be BS.

      1. Stephanie*

        Nah, I agree with all your points. I think it’s just a poorly-worded question that’s difficult to answer tactfully without an overly vague, optimistic answer. Plus, without an inside knowledge of the company, it’s hard to figure what’s feasible sounding. I wouldn’t know what’s realistic in five years in a job/company until I actually worked there day-to-day.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          This. You could have an interview and come away thinking the job is a perfect fit. Then a year or two down the line, there could be a buyout, a management change, closures, etc. Everything could change. And in this economy, it doesn’t take much and it doesn’t take long.

          1. Beth*

            I once had an interview at a place that stressed they needed me to commit to them for at least three years, then once I got the job it turned out that they fire everyone except management every six months to avoid complacency and mumble mumble head office. (Not much in that job made sense, but still.)

        2. the_scientist*

          I’m sending out job applications again and although have not yet gotten interviews, I’m already thinking about how I’d answer this question! Finding the balance between lazy and naive/overly ambitious is tricky when you don’t know how long people typically stay in that role or the amount of time it takes to “master” the role. Since I also don’t have a terminal degree, there’s kind of a cap as to how far I can advance in some companies/roles, and I think it’s important to address that in an answer, but again, it’s tricky if I have no idea what the usual trajectory is!

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I sometimes like to ask more junior level candidates, “Tell me how this position fits into your overall career goals,” which generally gets me what I want to know.

    2. Us, Too*

      I like the five year question and here’s why:

      I’ve screened out a number of candidates with it and not because they gave some stupid answer to the question or kissed my ass with it, but because their answer made it clear that they’d be very unhappy in the job longer term. Two examples come to mind:

      1. A candidate was applying for an entry level role in the hopes that it would get her foot in the door for a role she coveted in an entirely different group at the company. However, we hired for that other group exclusively through another process and the odds of her ever going from the role she was interviewing for to the other group was pretty much zero.

      2. I’ve had candidates who were super bright, ambitious people but had career goals that they simply wouldn’t achieve in our organization. For example, a candidate who wanted to be a VP in 5 years. In our organization that is something that would take 10+ years to accommodate IF it was even possible at all given the competition for that role. Maybe in a startup org he may have been able to do this, but in our stodgy, old school world it was unheard of. He needed to know that.

      1. Stephanie*

        Hmmm, I see your point. But for #2, how would a candidate know that from the outside? I can make some broad guesses about advancement based on the type of company; for example, rapid advancement would be far more likely at a software startup versus IBM. But once you get outside of extremes in company culture (or companies that advertise specific advancement paths such as the big strategy consulting firms), it’s just a guess as to what’s typical tenure in a role or a realistic advancement timeline.

      2. Persephone Mulberry*

        I’m curious – did you explore that further with this candidate or did you just make a mental note of “no” and move on to the next question? From where I’m sitting, “Become a VP” is just a title. What kind of influence or responsibility is he looking to hold in five years, and is THAT acheivable in your organization, whatever the accompanying title might be? Are there other opportunities for growth or recognition that would appeal to him? IMO it would suck to miss out on a “super bright, ambitious” candidate who could make lasting positive contributions to your organization, based on an assumption that what he wanted was unrealistic within your corporate structure.

      3. Joey*

        Its sounds though like you’re made it into sort of a trick question – sort of see if you can figure out a right answer you have no way of knowing.

        Wouldn’t it have been better to inform both and then revisit the question before you screened them out?

  14. Sophia*

    No one has mentioned this, but it kind of bothers me that the OP wants to interview for a manager position when the plan is to stop working in 2-3 years.

    I have a near entry level position and was asked to commit to two years when I interviewed. Isn’t it expected that most managers (not retail) will stay on for 3 years?

    I know this isn’t the case in every field- it could just be where I work – but it does bother me. I guess planning to leave in 2-3 years without letting anyone know feels a lot worse than leaving in 2-3 years because an amazing offer unexpectedly came up. To me it’s kind of like interviewing for a job that a company plans to only have until funding runs out in 2-3 years – but the company never reveals this.

    1. Cat*

      I think this is where the fact that life can change is really relevant. Nobody can guarantee that they’re going to get pregnant at a specific time, or that they’re going to want to stay home with the kids when the time comes, or that they’re going to be able to afford to. This is an area of life where the best laid plans are extremely likely to go awry.

    2. Ash (the other one!)*

      In this day and age? No. Yea, you shouldn’t be a job hopper, but there’s no such thing as a permanent job and you make no commitment when you start a job that you won’t leave in a year, two, or five.

      1. Celeste*

        So true. The employer doesn’t make any guarantees that they won’t have a layoff that affects you. I think both sides just need to go forward and whatever will be, will be.

      2. Sunflower*

        Yea I gotta agree with this. 2-3 years isn’t a long amount of time but it isn’t short either.

    3. KellyK*

      I think 2-3 years is far enough out as to be irrelevant. If you worked somewhere for two years and then left for a better job, or to relocate, or to do grad school, or whatever, a reasonable employer wouldn’t feel betrayed or screwed over by that.

      Less than a year, I’d be more inclined to agree with you. (But even at that, plans to have a kid aren’t necessarily relevant until you’re actually pregnant–who knows when it might happen or how long it might take.)

    4. Meredith*

      This is EXACTLY why women tend to make less, not work for promotions, and not plan their careers as much as men. And then – surprise! – when they have children it just “makes sense financially” for women to be the ones who stay home with the children. It’s an insidious kind of attitude that our society has towards women working.

      Yes, the OP has stated she would like to stay at home, but in 5 years, perhaps she’ll be making more money than her husband. Perhaps, like she said, they’ll have trouble trying to conceive and she’ll decide to redouble her efforts on her career. Perhaps she’ll be divorced or something will happen that will make it necessary for her to keep working.

  15. Citizen Rex*

    I don’t really understand why people even bother asking about some hypothetical five-year plan. I get that what they’re trying to gage is whether or not an applicant’s career plans fit in with the position, but in the last analysis, it’s irrelevant; it’s based on speculation about things neither the interviewer or candidate can in any way control, and can only speak to what the candidate thinks at that particular moment in time. There are no consequences for getting the answer “wrong” or saying what the interviewer wants to hear just to get the job. It also gets way too close to the none of your business category, and that’s dangerous ground these days. When I hire, I never ask any question I would not answer myself, and that rule has served me well for close to thirty years.

    1. fposte*

      I can see where it could be illuminating in some organizations, in that it could be useful to know if Candidate sees herself on a sales track or an accounting track, or is hoping to learn more about fundraising or events or something. But I also suspect it’s asked about a lot of jobs where it doesn’t make any difference.

      1. Mike C.*

        But even if someone is looking at a given track, that can change do to all sorts of emergent reasons that one cannot plan for. And there are many, many people out there who aren’t doing their 1st/2nd/3rd choice of work and are perfectly happy with their situation anyway.

        And what about folks who fell into their jobs or their industry? I certainly did, so five years plans are really silly in my book.

        1. OriginalYup*

          I’ve often wondered if the question is more of a “I’d kick myself later if I didn’t ask this” question for employers, on the off chance that someone does reply with a showstopper.

          To use the interviewing-is-like-dating analogy, it might be like asking “where do you see this relationship going?” just in case the answer is “nowhere.”

          1. Us, Too*

            Yep, this. Also, I think it does depend on the job. For an entry level file clerk, I wouldn’t have strong expectations that I’d get much from this answer other than the infrequent deal-breaker kind of answer. If I’m hiring someone to lead the strategy and vision for a new sector of our business and he can’t give me a 5 year plan for his OWN career path… FAIL.

          2. NW Cat Lady*

            But if someone asked me the “where do you see this relationship going?” question on the first date (which is what an interview is), I’d run screaming and possibly be on the alert for a stalker.

        2. fposte*

          It’s not asking for a commitment, though, it’s just finding out somebody’s inclinations. I don’t see anything special about five years–I like KatieCC’s “long-term” phraseology–but there are fields where trajectory can matter. And since I’m in a field where you’ve gotten a dedicated professional degree, we’re not likely to have many people who just fell into that.

        3. Joey*

          Are you saying its not smart to hire people who would prefer to stay on a specific career path? Everyone knows things change, but I don’t see how its not useful to know where someone wants to be down the road given their current situation.

    2. Celeste*

      I agree with this. If you want to know about their career goals, there are other ways to ask. OP, it’s unfortunate that they ask you to decode what they’re saying, but there it is. Under no circumstances are you being asked to enter into a contract about where your life will be.

    3. Stephanie*

      I got the five years’ question during a six-month contract role interview. It was kind of farcical, considering the company wasn’t even pretending that the contract would extend past the six months.

    4. KatieinCC*

      I agree. I ask “What are your long-term career goals, and how does this position fit in to them?” A lot of entry-level candidates in my field view the positions that I hire for as a stepping stone to a much cooler, highly competitive role. And they really aren’t. So this question helps to weed them out and ensure that we are bringing in people who are right for the role – which has nothing to do with what their personal plans may be.

    5. Sunflower*

      I don’t understand why they don’t just phrase the question the way Alison does in the article she’s linked to this- ‘How does this job fit in with your career’. I think that is how you’re going to get the best answer. When I was asked this question while interviewing for entry-level jobs, I was worried that I was going to give an answer that was either overreaching or one that didn’t show enough ambition. Why do interviewers always try to ‘hide’ the question. Just be straight forward and you won’t get as many formulated, fake answers.

    6. annie*

      I’m always annoyed by this question to. Setting aside any personal considerations and just looking strictly at your career aspirations – who knows where you’ll be or want to be in five years, when so much is unknowable until you are actually in the company and working at the job? Really, anything could happen – you could have a great manager who inspires you to thrive and stay within the company for twenty years or you could work on a client that ends up collapsing and find yourself out of a job next year.

  16. Mike C.*

    Do I look like China or the old Soviet Union? No, I don’t have a five year plan for you, my plan is to do the best work I can, advance where it makes sense, and to maximize my compensation and happiness at best as I’m able.

    Doesn’t that question look really dumb now? Quit asking it.

    1. Joey*

      That really doesn’t answer the question though. Ideally, would you want to move into management, another division, something more technical, sales, the corporate office, r&d, our sister company, some of the above, or none of the above?

      At least in my opinion it would matter as I would try to give you opportunities to develop skills that bet align with your goals as a priority.

      1. LBK*

        My problem is that there’s no area you listed that I wouldn’t be happy working in except for sales. As long as I feel like I’m learning something new, I can pretty much do any job and enjoy it. I love doing higher level stuff like relationship building and customer service, and I also love super technical stuff that means I don’t speak to humans for days while I’m buried in spreadsheets and code. I also like management, which could be in any department.

        So my answer for my 5 year plan really would be working in a role that engages my various skills and regularly provides me new challenges, whether that’s as a programmer, an analyst, a manager, a customer service rep, etc. I don’t know how to be more specific than that.

        1. Us, Too*

          The thing is, when you ask candidates this, you’d be surprised how much information they do tend to share. YOU may be interested in lots of things, but I’ve had candidates be pretty specific in their likes and dislikes. For example, I had someone tell me they hated managing people and just wanted to spend all day at their desk writing code. And that’s fine for some roles and not for others!

          When someone is vague in their answer, I’ll probe:
          How do you feel about mentoring others?
          What interests, if any, do you have in personnel management?
          How would you feel if I told you this job would never increase in scope or responsibility?
          What new skills would you like to learn?

          I have actually had a candidate in a tech role tell me that they had no interest in learning any new technologies in the next five years – they liked the technology they were already an expert in and didn’t want to expand beyond that. Now, in some roles, that’s fine. In others, not so much. Depends on the job.

  17. Ash (the other one!)*

    I agree not to mention anything about planning to have a family, but I have a related question — how do you ask about maternity benefits without giving away you’re thinking about potentially using them? Obviously not until the offer point, but they could still rescind, but its one of the things I know I am looking for…

    To the OP: You never know what the future holds. Focus only on who you are careerwise in five years. Even SAHM have goals and passions that go beyond their kids.

    1. Sophia*

      Someone mentioned asking for a copy of the employee handbook. I like this option the best.

      1. Ash (the other one!)*

        That assumes the employee handbook is coherent on this point. My current workplace has this information in about 5 locations in the handbook that if I hadn’t talked to our pseudo-HR person (i.e. the accountant) I wouldn’t have fully understood the combination of time in service, FMLA, and short-term disability.

        1. Robin*

          If it’s not in the handbook clearly, I think at some point you just have to bite the bullet and ask / negotiate maternity benefits. If they rescind their offer after that, aren’t they basically handing you a lawsuit? Not to mention the potential hit to their reputation. Most places won’t do that, especially no place you want to work.

          1. fposte*

            Though–to keep with the theme of today’s other post–if they’re under 15 employees, it’s not federally illegal for them to rescind based on pregnancy.

    2. KellyK*

      Asking some general questions about benefits (insurance, 401k, etc.) and some general questions about vacation, sick time, and any other leave might be a good way to start. If you’re lucky, they’ll volunteer that information.

      Otherwise, waiting til you have an offer might be the way to go.

      1. Liz T*

        Yeah–I thought that, generally, asking about benefits and compensation was for when you get an offer.

        1. KellyK*

          I think it depends. If there’s stuff that’s a real deal-breaker for you benefits-wise, then it’s reasonable to ask before you get an offer, especially if they have a really long selection process. Probably not in the first interview unless they bring it up first.

    3. Lyssa*

      FWIW, I did ask in my last interview (2nd interview/offer discussion, lawyer at a law firm) and it didn’t seem to phase them. There is no handbook/official policy (and the firm is too small for FMLA), but one of my interviewers (now my boss) had children years back while working here, and they talked a little about that, mentioned a secretary that was pg, and basically said they would work with me.

      So, plus side, I feel good that they’ll work with me and won’t, like flip out or fire me or anything. Minus side is that, since there is no policy, I still have no idea what to reasonably expect, so we’ll have to see. :) (We’re trying to save now, on the assumption that I’ll have at least some unpaid leave – if that’s wrong, hey, bonus!)

  18. Laura*

    Think of it as “business years”. You know how there are business days and non-business days? Well, where do you want to be in five business years, whether that’s calendar years or is interrupted by some immeasurable amount of time off with your family? :)

  19. Nichole*

    I tend to be both honest and literal to a fault in a lot of situations (ok, pretty much all the time…), so I definitely feel the OP’s anxiety at this question, where the literal true answer isn’t necessarily the answer to the question that’s really being asked. Forming a premade mental outline of the answer to the “secret” question helps a lot. For me, I know at this point in my career path I want to build stability, professional development opportunities, and variety, so I form these into a statement that tells how this particular job would meet those needs within the first five years. It’s not perfect, but it seems to work, and I don’t feel like a great big liar.

    1. teclatwig*

      Awesom. +eleventy.

      (Sorry if this duplicates — not seeing it posting so I reworded and resubmitted.)

  20. Harryv*

    There is a joke going around my company because I tend to replace my managers wherever I go. So if they ask where do I see myself in 3 years, I am tempted to answer “where you are sitting.”

  21. Poohbear McGriddles*

    My plan for the next five years includes winning the lottery (need to buy at least one ticket I suppose), and finally becoming that tree I never knew I wanted to be until recently. Maybe I can be planted near the Empire State Building, so I can work on figuring out how many golf balls would fit in it.

  22. Lils*

    OP, can you chime in here in the comments and tell us more about why you feel it’s important to be strictly honest in this situation? I’m wondering if it’s because you have a warm relationship with these people since you’ve been working there.

    I’m also one of those honest-to-a-fault people, but Alison’s right: in this situation, focus on work themes in an interview, not family stuff.

  23. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*


    I hope your desire for a house, children, and an ability for you to back burner a career to focus first on all of that works out for you, but there are many possible futures for you five years from now and that’s just one of them.

    There are times that bringing up the children you do have is appropriate (believe it or not). I’ve interviewed and hired a few amazing women who had young families and brought them up in the context of why they were looking for a job change. (We offer flexibility that they didn’t have in the current job.)

    Bringing up children you don’t have and aren’t going to have for awhile makes you look…frivolous, ungrounded in the reality that many different things might happen next.

    Give the answer you would give, honestly, if potential children weren’t in the picture, is my opinion.

      1. fposte*

        I still don’t think she has to share that, because she *thinks* she wants to dial back working *if* a series of events happen in the next two to three years–this isn’t somebody who’s job hunting knowing for sure they’re leaving for grad school this fall. This is uncertain enough that it’s not really signal–I think it blends into the general uncertainty noise that any employee brings with them.

        1. Joey*

          I don’t disagree tht you owe an answer, but you’ve got to say something. And what could you possibly say without being dishonest that would satisfy a good interviewer?

          1. fposte*

            “I really like the sales side, so I’m hoping I’d be more involved in that as my career develops.”

            Done and dusted. This isn’t a pre-nup, it’s just a question.

              1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

                Joey, I doubt there’s an answer that’s going to satisfy you. You obviously believe that it’s wrong for this woman to give any response that leaves out her current thinking on how she will raise her kids. I disagree; I expect many of us would struggle to give an answer that you’d be comfortable with, given your hard line on this.

                But regardless of whether we agree or disagree, your proposed follow up questions don’t “expose” the duplicitous interviewee. Easy response: “What I most love is generating new leads. I’ve excelled in that work in previous roles, , and I want to focus on that going forward. I’d start with XYZ, with a goal of achieving ABC.”

                If an interviewer wanted to get at, specifically, whether someone planned to be in a role in five years they could ask that. It’s a dumb question, because the obvious answer is that it’s impossible to know where we’ll be in five years (and surely the company isn’t sharing their plans for a merger or new management structure with every interviewee).

                1. Joey*

                  Nope. I just think not being honest leads you down rabbit holes. I can’t think of a great answer but id probably say something like , “Its hard to say that far out. I’ve been focusing more on my goals for the next few years which are taking on more responsibility and leading a team. That means learning everything I can about hiring, developing and retaining great employees.”

              2. fposte*

                I think you’re treating it as an interrogation question now. It’s true, if somebody is determined to get the truth out of somebody about just how much enthusiasm they have for teapots, whether the dates on their last job really indicate the years or just months in those years, or whether somebody has created a five-year plan or not, they can push somebody to either lie or confess.

                But most interviews really aren’t interrogations. They just want to know if you have thought about how you’d grow at their organization. And if the OP does end up interviewing at a place that’s so determined people stay there for at least five years that they beat her into a corner about what her office walls will be decorated with in 2019, then that’s probably a bad fit for her right now anyway.

      2. the_scientist*

        Right, but she’s planning on quitting working 2-3 or more years down the line. Given that the OP in question is in her childbearing years and is paying off student loans, I would hazard a guess that she is at a level, career-wise, where it’s reasonable that you’d advance or change jobs within 2-3 years (i.e. she’s likely not interviewing for say, a C-level role or a role with a big learning curve where it would be more reasonable that someone would commit to 5 or more years in the same role right from the get-go). Is it a bit dishonest to talk about where you’d be if potential children are not in the picture? Perhaps, but the OP could very well end up there if their plans for children are derailed. Not to mention, given the frequency with which people change jobs in their early career now, I think an employer is naive to expect more than a 2-3 commitment in lower-level roles anyway and should understand that life happens, plans change, and we can’t predict the future.

  24. Jennifer R.*

    The truth is most of us have 5 year plans and in 5 years we will be somewhere else entirely. Life has a way of changing our plans, especially when it comes to planning a family.

    As everyone has said – you would answer this based on your career. You would not say “Well, in 5 years I hope to be a stay at home mother” considering you have a million pieces to fall into place first. A better answer would be “With a little luck, I hope to have a proven track record in this position and to be trusted with move up within this field” yadda yadda and maybe a mention of your ultimate career goals such as graduate degree or what upper level job you’d love to have 10+ years down the road. It’s also nice to say that you realize it won’t happen overnight, and intend to work your way up (so many people are entitled these days!)

    Hypothetically if you say you see yourself working 5 years from now but 3 years from now you quit to stay home with a child, pretty much everyone will understand as this is a really common occurrence.

    Good luck with all your future plans!

    1. Judy*

      “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I’ve ended up where I needed to be.” – Douglas Adams

      I’ve never been where I thought I’d be 5 years before.

      1. Sandrine (France)*

        The Doctor: You know, since we’re talking with mouths, not really an opportunity that comes along very often, I just want to say, you know, you have never been very reliable.
        Idris: And you have?
        The Doctor: You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go.
        Idris: No, but I always took you where you needed to go.
        The Doctor: You did!

  25. Marie*

    Does the answer change when the children are immediately on the way? I was contacted by a recruiter, and would really like it to be ok to say ‘I am only looking at part-time positions at this time as I am pregnant’. I would like to live in a world where statements like that don’t get me crossed off the list of candidates for multiple reasons.

    1. PX*

      I would say this is a case where you dont need to give more information than necessary. You can simply say that at this time you are only looking for part time work and leave it at that. Dont fall into the trap of overexplaining!

  26. OP*

    Thank you guys for all the advice!

    I realize now I should have mentioned that i had a chance to interview for a more senior position at the same company a couple months ago! and the manager asked, “Where do you see yourself in the next five years? This could be both personally in your life, and professionally at work.” The company has very standardized interview questions, so I assume it’s going to come up again and be worded the same way.

    I will try to find more ways to talk about my career-related goals for five years, and maybe avoid the personal side of the question altogether.

  27. Hare*

    This is so helpful. Due to my Asperger’s I tend to take questions literally, so I hadn’t realised what the question actually meant. Thank you.

  28. VeryKatie*

    I had an interview yesterday and they asked me this question. I responded that I wanted to be in a role that was both majorly technical and had management aspects and mentioned that’s why I was so drawn to this posting in the first place.

    My interviewer actually got tough on me and made me pick one either technical or management. It’s my opinion that no job is ever one or the other in my field! Yet my answer wasn’t good enough for him (not that he let me finish speaking anyway – which I feel is a no-no. If I can’t interrupt, why can he?).

    I wasn’t going to point out that I truthfully didn’t know what I would do considering the job I was applying for was a 4 year position and he asked what I wanted to do after that. Well, good sir, I suppose I’ll have found a new job by then since you can’t guarantee me a place here in that time. Bah.

Comments are closed.