can I ask my interviewer if they’re likely to want someone with more experience?

A reader writes:

I have a job interview in the next few days. When it’s time for me to ask questions of them, is it too inappropriate to ask whether they are likely to want a more experienced person for an entry-level role?

I’ve been told three or four times now that while I was great and my references gave good reviews of me, they went with the person who is moving from another branch of theirs to the one I applied to, or someone who had two years of work experience, etc. I am all too aware it’s a line used by HR departments to reject people, and I don’t want to over-think whether they were lying or not or I will drive myself mad. But I’m at the end of my tether feeling like I gave it my all and did my research, only to be told they went with experience at the end of it. (Side question: shouldn’t you figure this all out before you start interviewing people if indeed it is true?)

I wouldn’t ask it. It’s not going to help you show how you’d be a strong candidate for the job or help you figure out if the job is the right fit for you, and that’s really what the interview time is for — not getting info to manage your own expectations. And really, that’s what you’d be doing by asking this question — trying to prevent yourself from feeling the sting of rejection later on, right?

There are times when it makes sense to ask that sort of question, but this doesn’t sound like one of them. For example, if you’re interviewing for a job and start to realize that Responsibility X will be a big part of the role, that you have little to no experience with X, and that X is generally thought to be pretty challenging, it’s reasonable to say something like, “Do you foresee my relative lack of experience doing X as an obstacle?” But that would be about your own genuine desire to discuss that, as part of your own effort to figure out if this is a job you’ll thrive in. That’s different than just asking if they’re likely to reject you for someone with more experience, which is more about reassurance or getting ready for rejection.

As for the whole “we went with a more experienced candidate” line that you’re hearing, it’s true that it can be a boilerplate rejection without a lot of meaning to it. It’s also possible that it means exactly what it says. But you’re obviously qualified enough to get an interview, which is good, and the fact that others are beating you doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It just means that they had multiple qualified applicants and went with the one who was the strongest match. Four post-interview rejections is pretty par for the course (although it also wouldn’t hurt to reflect on your interview skills and preparation routine and make sure you’re doing all you can in that regard).

As for whether they should figure out if they’re going to want someone more experienced before they start interviewing: not necessarily. That’s the point of interviewing — to get to know more about candidates and figure out who will be the best match.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Technical Editor*

    I feel the OP’s pain here, and understand the desire to understand what the interviewers are actually looking for. It’s difficult when you apply to the job and the ad doesn’t make it clear to applicants that experience in Tool X or Skill Y is highly desired (or sometimes, flat-out required). I realize that sometimes an applicant has more experience in a skill that was not advertised, and that throws off the balance for everyone being interviewed.

    Nevertheless, I agree with Alison’s wording. There’s no point in trying to change the way hiring is done – you can only decide if you are a good fit for the job as discussed during the interview.

  2. sunny-dee*

    I encountered this recently. I am doing an internal transfer to a new department, and while I have tons of technical and writing experience, I have virtually no marketing experience, and it’s a marketing role. I asked the interviewers, “hey, I have no experience with marketing. What is the impact of that on the team? And, knowing that and I assuming I get the role, what would you recommend that I do to learn the skills that I need?”

    They were really open (and the answer to “does it matter” was no, because they wanted the writing experience), and they all had good ideas on what I could do to build those skills — which was not only helpful for me to start learning the role, it also told me that they would be supportive and be willing to provide guidance if I asked or needed it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, that’s a great example of a time where it makes sense! And a great example of how to do it — in a way where you’re having an open dialogue where both of you are concerned about fit.

  3. HarryV*

    Instead of that question, I read some blog and I wish I could give credit to it but I honestly don’t remember. I ask, “Is there anything I can clarify any concerns you have on my skills or what you heard from me today?” I’ve asked it once at the end of questions and it turned out great.

    1. Tammy*

      I wish companies as a whole were more transparent about this kind of stuff during interviews.

      When I applied for my first role at my current company, the executive doing the interview asked me a few questions like this: “I’m concerned that your relative lack of experience with computer-guided laser teapot fabrication will be an impediment to your success in this role. What can you tell me to convince me I don’t need to worry about that?” I felt a certain amount of pressure and stress in the moment, but in hindsight I’m very grateful he put his concerns out on the table and we were able to have a candid conversation about them. (And it clearly worked well for all concerned – I’ve been here nearly 3 years, have moved from an individual contributor role to management of a team, and have a good reputation and good relationships across the organization.)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’m a big fan of that … although I don’t like the “convince me” wording, since it shouldn’t be about you selling him, but rather about you both figuring out if it’s the right fit. So ideally the interviewer would frame it more as “tell me your thoughts on that” or something a little less “sell me on you.” But overall, I like the gist.

        1. Tammy*

          I’d tend to agree, if it was me asking the question. He was also a retired Marine with a bit of a blunt streak to his communication generally, so the wording was pretty consistent with how he normally talked. But it definitely was mutually beneficial to all concerned for him to get his concerns out on the table so we could talk honestly about them.

          Personally, I see a lot of potential downside, and not a lot of upside, to employers being coy about their needs, concerns, etc. It’s very much harder to get the right person for the job if you’re not transparent about what you’re looking for.

      2. Charity*

        I agree completely. I think a lot of times it’s because they aren’t really firm on what the role needs before they start interviewing. That’s why you end up with really vague cookie-cutter job descriptions in ads and even ads where they leave off the main requirement that they’re looking for.

        1. SL #2*

          It’s how I landed my current role. The ad read like a typical admin role, with a dash of executive assistant as the person settles into the job… turns out it’s more 40% executive assistant, 60% event planner, and I got the job because I have event planning experience even though it wasn’t mentioned in the ad at all. The team didn’t even know they wanted that particular set of skills until they interviewed me.

  4. Anonymous Educator*

    But I’m at the end of my tether feeling like I gave it my all and did my research, only to be told they went with experience at the end of it. (Side question: shouldn’t you figure this all out before you start interviewing people if indeed it is true?)

    Answer to your side question: part of interviewing people is figuring it out.

    Hiring is not an exact science. You have (on paper, at least) what your dream candidate should look like, what some reasonable candidates should look like, and then a couple of people you’re willing to take a risk on.

    Sometimes people who look great on paper are lousy interviews. Sometimes people who may not look great on paper look intriguing enough as a possibility to bring in to interview. I was involved in hiring someone who technically had zero experience with the position we were hiring for (she had other somewhat-related experience), and she was directly up against another candidate who had three solid years (on paper, at least) of exactly what we wanted. Turns out, in this case, the person with “zero” experience was a much better candidate, and we hired her (and she was good even after being hired—not just a good interviewee).

    In all the hiring I’ve been involved in, the dream is always for a candidate who is excellent on paper who is also excellent in person who is also affordable and who also wants the job. Rarely does that occur. But if it does occur, of course they’ll prefer the awesome-in-person candidate who has more experience over the awesome-in-person candidate who has less experience.

    I will say, as someone who’s made a few career changes over the years, if no one ever took chances on candidates with no experience, I’d be out of a job… or would never have switched off the first career!

    Hang in there! I know it can be discouraging, but they’re honestly not trying to waste your time or theirs. They really think you’re a viable candidate if they’re interviewing you. Doesn’t mean there aren’t other viable candidates who may be more appealing eventually.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      P.S. I don’t know if this applies to you, but when I was in my early twenties, I and a lot of my recent-college-grad friends got a bit of cold water truth splashed on us, because we were used to the college/grade school model of “This is my reach school, this is my likely school, and this is my safety school.” We found, though, we had to shift our thinking when applying for jobs. No matter how good we were (or thought we were), there was no such thing as a safety job. Someone can always be a better fit (and you may, in fact, have too much experience or be overqualified). More importantly, it’s often the case there is only one opening many candidates are competing for (as opposed to college/university admission that often has many open spots candidates are competing for, so they can accept more than one applicant at a time).

    2. Artemesia*

      And as noted — it isn’t as if the ‘more experience’ was necessarily a deal breaker for them or they wouldn’t have interviewed you, but that with finalists, the one who had more experience was more impressive in the interview. The line is sort of boilerplate. All they are telling you in a rejection letter is ‘we liked someone else better.’ And they aren’t always right of course. My daughter lost out to another candidate for initial hire at the company she works for now; they were impressed enough with her as #2 that they hired her for contract work and then later hired her full time. She is now their CEO.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        All they are telling you in a rejection letter is ‘we liked someone else better.’ And they aren’t always right of course.

        Absolutely. As I mentioned before, hiring is not an exact science. They like someone else better based on the information they have at the time. Clearly, bad hires happen sometimes or excellent candidates get passed over.

        Congrats to your daughter, by the way!

    3. afiendishthingy*

      I’m thrilled my current employer took a chance and hired me right before I took my professional certification exam, knowing it would be 3-8 weeks before I knew my results, and that I wouldn’t legally be able to have my own caseload until I passed. I was up against more experienced people who were already licensed, but I also speak an in-demand foreign language, have an in-demand skill set, and apparently interview pretty well. If another candidate had the same skills, was already certified, had more years of experience, and interviewed well, that person would have gotten the job. If I’d turned out to be terrible in person, another candidate might have gotten the job despite not being bilingual. It’s definitely not an exact science.

  5. Jane Gloriana Villanueva*

    >>(Side question: shouldn’t you figure this all out before you start interviewing people if indeed it is true?)

    I think this question speaks to so many points that Alison advises us on:
    – not needing to fit every single qualification to be a strong candidate
    – coming into the interview prepared to speak to how you can fill the role even if you aren’t the cookie they think they are trying to cut
    – remembering that an interview is *mutual* and you want to make sure they fit you as well; an interview can be fantastic and successful, and the place can still feel wrong for you

    During a day-long interview a couple of years ago (divided into several appointments – some with individuals, some teleconferences, some group meetings, a presentation by me), I was consistently asked one question that I tried not to let bother me but which I couldn’t help acknowledge was valid. I wasn’t switching fields, it was all teapots, but after years of working with Vanilla Teapots and learning many variations of quality vanilla and enjoying them much more than I expected, an opportunity to work with Chocolate Teapots presented itself, and even better it was a job in Switzerland. Over and over again, I was asked how I would really like chocolate teapots when I had spent so much time excelling in vanilla. While chocolate is closer to my dream job, my work experience didn’t explain that by itself, so I covered a little different ground each time. At the end of the day wrap up with the interview coordinator, I felt comfortable enough to broach this with her, simply to emphasize that I had heard their concerns. I understood what they were asking and I wasn’t going to emphasize my lack of experience; I feel learning about the mechanics of teapots and sensitivity to heating elements and environment meant I would have a fairly smooth entry to the realm of chocolate. I wanted to show that I understood there would be a learning curve but there were more similarities between the jobs than my questioners seemed to think.

    [I still work with Vanilla Teapots, btw. The whole interview was fairly successful; I know where my weaknesses were, but there was much more going on behind the scenes. Nobody got the job, and they lost their manager a few months after that. It was a very long process but taught me a lot.]

    1. Jane Gloriana Villanueva*

      Oh, and since I got a little long-winded while dreaming about this Swiss Chocolate Dream Job, the way I broached it with the coordinator was, “One question that came up often was the difference between X at Vanilla teapots and Y at Chocolate. Do you feel that experience in Vanilla (or Raspberry, or Almond) flavors present significant obstacles to hitting the ground running with Chocolate, given the distance between HQ and the office, and the needs of the clients we serve?”

  6. IT_Guy*

    One of the big disconnects that I and other tea-pot spout fabricators face is that: Companies, want to hire top-shelf people for middle shelf problems, but want to pay bottom shelf salaries. And when they get one, they can’t figure out why the average job duration for tea-pot spout fabricators is 3 years.

    1. fposte*

      If they’re hiring people at that rate and they’re staying for three years, that might be the market rate, though, whether the teapot fabricators like it or not.

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      Three years is a bad thing? I’ve never stayed anywhere more than five years (average three).

  7. Kyrielle*

    And sometimes “more experience” doesn’t mean a whole lot more. And sometimes the person sending that letter is just boiler plating…as far as I know, rejection letters to people who didn’t get jobs at $PreviousJob went out from HR, and were probably formulaic.

    Actual reasons (as opposed to formula reasons) that someone didn’t get the job included (translated into chocolate teapots), “There were three of you with nearly identical experience, qualifications, etc., each with a slightly different focus (spouts, handles, and lids). The reality is we badly wanted to hire *all three* of you, but with only one position open, we went with the person with marginally more lid experience, because our current team is weakest on lids out of those three areas. Lid experience already existed on the team; if no candidate had it, it wasn’t a deal-breaker. But given a chance to bring in someone who knew lids and shore up our weak spot a little, we went with it.”

    But I’m confident the rejection letters didn’t say that, and not *only* because we weren’t actually working with chocolate teapots, but because boilerplate letters are a thing and I am pretty sure the people sending them didn’t know the exact calculus of why that person was chosen.

  8. TootsNYC*

    I feel that the way you’re wording it an approaching it comes across as though you’re asking them to give you reasons they should reject you right now.

    Just assume that they think you’re a viable candidate with the experience visible to them, or they wouldn’t have called you in.
    Even if there is a strong “hole” in your experience, they must think you’re worth their time to interview.

    Asking questions about how you would eventually do the job, how you would excel in it, and how they envision your experience, or the lack of it, working into their current team or future plans–that’s smart at any stage.

    I had some college students come through my workplace, and a staff member met with them as a courtesy to me. I cringed when their first question was, “Do you have internships?” They’re rookies, and that *is* the most important question on their minds.

    But I thought it’s always a good idea to talk about the DOING of the job, not the GETTING of the job. Or, in this case, the “getting” of the job well after discussing the doing of it.

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