will a job candidate who used to be in charge really be OK with a non-management job?

A reader writes:

I work in biotech and am in the process of reading resumes and interviewing candidates to replace my only direct report, who left recently when she got a really nice job offer elsewhere. I work full-time at the bench and this is the first time I’ve had to drive the selection process for a new hire. I’ve gotten quite a few resumes from people who are managers in a related field looking to pivot or expand their skill set. The job description makes it very clear that the role has no managerial component and the work is 100% at the bench. These former managers are under consideration because they have the correct educational background, some relevant skills, and industry experience in their favor. However, all of these current/former managers would need a lot of training from me to get them working independently.

I interviewed two of these “former manager” candidates and was a little thrown by some of their statements. I got the distinct impression from both of them that they preferred directing the action. It was clear that one candidate in particular LOVED being a manager at his last job and referred to his direct reports who worked at the bench as “worker bees” — I wondered if he thought working at the bench again was a bit beneath him now.

Bottom line, I’m not sure how these former managers would take to being managed by me in this role. I’m pretty sure my issues with these candidates will be rendered moot because we definitely cannot meet either person’s salary expectations. But is there anything I can ask during interviews to help me gauge an applicant’s willingness to be led, after being the person in charge? Do you have any thoughts about managing former managers that have to start at the (near) bottom after a career change? I’m sure I’ll be interviewing a few more soon.

You definitely shouldn’t assume someone won’t be okay with a step backwards without evidence … but if you are seeing evidence, you should put real weight on those signs. It’s also okay to ask the person to speak to it directly — although even then, some people will tell you what they think you want to hear or will have rose-colored glasses on about what the job really is. Ultimately you need to trust what people show you, not just what they say.

Some questions you can ask to get a better sense of how realistic candidates are being about what the job is and how much they really want to do it:

• “Can you tell me a bit about what you understand about the job so far?” (Here you’re listening to see if they have an accurate understanding, as well as which parts they emphasize most.)
• “How do you see this role fitting in with your broader career path?” (Here you’re trying to get a sense of whether this is a job that makes sense for them and why, to help you better predict if they’ll stay long enough to be worth your investment in them or whether they’ll keep looking for a higher-level role and leave as soon as they find it. Which they’re entitled to do, but you’re entitled to prefer to hire someone who doesn’t seem likely to leave so soon.)
• “What challenges do you anticipate in making the switch from managing others to doing the work yourself and not having a team under you?” (Here you’re looking for signs that they’ve given real thought to this — indications that they’ve fully processed how this will be different.)

And if someone gives you the sense that they might not be happy with the role as-is, you can ask about it directly: “It sounds like you really liked managing a team. You referred to ‘worker bees’ — how do you feel about being one of those ‘worker bees’ in this role?”

Also, unless they’re at the very top, most managers still have a boss they report to, so you can ask questions about that element of their work: “Tell me about a time you disagreed with your boss. How did you approach it and what happened?” … “Tell me about a time you had to implement a decision you disagreed with” … “Tell me about a time you were getting conflicting information from above” … and so forth.

Lots of people are genuinely happy to take a step back (hell, I’d be happy if I never had to manage anyone ever again). But if you see warning signs that they don’t want the job as it is, that’s worth paying attention to.

{ 145 comments… read them below }

  1. Buzz*

    My husband is currently interviewing for a role that would be a step down. He was promoted to manager as recognition for his expertise and skill, but after three years he’s learned that he really doesn’t enjoy managing. He misses being an individual contributor and actually working on the things he’s good at. Management is its own skill, and while he’s done a decent job he’s not as good at management as he is at the things that made his company promote him in the first place.

    1. CupcakeCounter*

      This is exactly what I say when I am interviewing and the subject of managing comes up. Sort of a “been there, done that” answer with a clear statement that my preference is an individual contributor role.

    2. Not A Girl Boss*

      I went through the same career transition lately. Frankly, I am SO relieved not to be managing people anymore. I found it so stressful and awful and am beyond thrilled to only be responsible for myself now. I just didn’t enjoy the task of leading other humans, even though according to my reviews I was good at it. But I definitely never would have gleefully referred to my direct report as a ‘worker bee’ though, my goodness.
      And I got this question when interviewing for individual contributor roles and was definitely able to talk to why I was excited for the change, and where I saw my career going in the future (being a technical expert / review board member, eventually).

      One thing that was important to me when transitioning back to an individual role was to have a greater degree of autonomy. I really wanted to be a trusted ‘expert’ and was at the point in my career where I’d have a hard time following a bad practice “because the boss said so.” So I was careful to pick a company that was definitely open to that. Not that I wanted to be “in charge” or do the job of my manager, but that I wanted the opportunity to influence my work in a broader sense.
      I think going from management to blindly following standard work would have been a really rough transition, like a step back to my first job out of college.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        One thing that was important to me when transitioning back to an individual role was to have a greater degree of autonomy. I really wanted to be a trusted ‘expert’ and was at the point in my career where I’d have a hard time following a bad practice “because the boss said so.” So I was careful to pick a company that was definitely open to that.

        You made a nice distinction here that I hope the OP takes into consideration. Maybe this doesn’t apply to Mr. Worker Bees, but that other former manager probably feels like this as well – heck, I imagine a lot of people do (I certainly do, and I’ve never managed anyone).

      2. Koalafied*

        Just to offer another interpretation, when I use the phrase “worker bees” it’s usually because I’m trying to describe a group of people who are extremely industrious together, not a group of mindless drones. Busy as a bee and all that. Without context we can’t know how the manager meant it but it doesn’t necessarily mean he looks down on workers – he might have just been trying to express something positive about the impressive volume of work that moves through the bench and how diligent the team is.

          1. Mad Harry Crewe*

            That’s not a universal statement, though. I think “worker bees” is very patronizing, and I would very much be on LW’s side with concern about this person thinking the “worker bee” work is below him. I’m happy to ascribe this to regional variation in meaning (neither of us is wrong, here!), but I want to offer the opposite perspective.

      3. Quiet Liberal*

        I was in the same boat as you, NAGB. I got a bellyful of managing at my old dysfunctional company for several reasons. I was so stressed out and tired of the long hours I was expected to work, I decided to get out and do the production work I enjoy and be paid by the hour and be eligible for overtime!!

        OP, just be honest about your concerns. As you can see in these comments, there are many of us who are happier where we are, now.

    3. Momma Bear*

      My spouse was looking for a tech job outside of management his last few years before retirement. After a while some people burn out. Or maybe they wouldn’t mind being a PM but do not want to be the kind of manager that has to navigate PIPs and sign timesheets. It is worth asking what they are looking for with this role and how they interact with a team of peers.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        This would be me; I like directing a project with a clear goal, but I have no interest in the nuts and bolts of overall people management.

        1. Anonapots*

          And I’m in the opposite place right now. I long for big picture and staff management instead of nuts and bolts and quasi-managing the young people in my program.

    4. A Penguin!*

      I’ve only been managing for a year, and I already can’t wait to be done with it. Probably saddled with it for the near future, though.

    5. Indigo a la mode*

      This is the kind of thing that cover letters were made for. These candidates could really assuage fears like OP’s if they address the role discrepancy up front.

    6. JSPA*

      A collaborator of mine is doing same. Not because they’re bad or unfulfilled with management.


      1. because “getting back to the bench” is something that lab scientists dream of.

      2. because their current institution has become a dysfunctional nest of bees (including requiring them to work within Covid guidelines they can’t honestly countenance).

      3. because they’ve been volunteering for years with an organization, where they now hold the volunteer equivalent of a mid-to-upper-managerial-level position which gives them plenty of the people wrangling, consensus-building and decision-making experiences that keep them feeling like they’re part of the greater social fabric.

      4. because they’re tired of giving their time to a world where being a “worker bee” is in any way looked down upon.

      They’re looking forward to bench work with huge enthusiasm and unalloyed delight.

    7. Harvey 6'3.5"*

      I also think it depends a little where the person is in their career. I was a Ph.D./Postdoc in bioscience worker bee at the beginning of my career, and one of my ease into retirement ideas is to retire from my biology adjacent job and work in a lab again for a few years. But I’ve never been a manager, so that is different.

    8. londonedit*

      I’ve done the same thing. I did the whole ‘working my way up the ladder’ thing and then realised I didn’t want to be in charge of people/budgets/etc, I wanted to do the actual hands-on work that I enjoy. So that’s what I say in interviews – ‘I reached a point where I realised I’d moved away from the actual llama grooming process, which is what I’ve always loved doing. I want to bring the experience I’ve gained through my career to date back into a hands-on llama grooming role, which is where I feel I can make a really valuable contribution and where I will be happiest in my work’.

    9. agnes*

      This was my experience too. And guess what–I’m now at an even higher salary level than I was when I was managing. I believe it’s because have been able to do what I am best at, which is to be a top notch individual contributor, rather than a so-so manager.

      1. Quiet Liberal*

        This is exactly true! I make way more now doing production work than I ever did as a manager. When I calculated how much I was actually earning per hour as a salaried manager expected to “do the job until it’s done” I was making an embarrassingly low wage.

    10. Cat Tree*

      In my company, it’s somewhat common for people to work as a manager for a while, then move to a senior individual contributor role (within the same company) when their kids are done with college, or they pay off their mortgage, or their expenses go down in some other way. They all do their best at whatever role they’re in while they’re in it, but many people just don’t love managing others.

      I’ve also seen it a few times where an individual contributor takes a management role for the pay bump, then goes directly back to individual contributor a few years later. The pay bands for our highest level individual contributor and lowest level manager overlap somewhat. So as long as they’re still within the right range, they won’t get a pay cut for the diagonal move. It’s sometimes a quicker way to move to the top of the salary range.

  2. Blisskrieg*

    Definitely don’t assume that once a manager, always a manager. Some people genuinely, truly want to stop managing! Alison’s scripting to weed those out is perfect.

    1. irene adler*


      And… I am in biotech.

      Unfortunately, my official job title is “Supervisor” although I manage no one. I do all the tasks myself. Makes it hard to get folks to understand that I prefer the individual contributor role. Interviewers take pains to clarify that the position has no reports. Great! That’s exactly what I’m looking for!

      Then I get asked if I’m okay with ‘taking a step back’ career-wise. Fine.
      (they don’t know that the job pays more than I make as a supervisor. So I don’t view it as a step back. Not concerned about job titles either. )

      When I removed the word “supervisor” from my resume, all the management questions stopped.

      1. Tammy*

        I had a similar experience during my recent job search. And it didn’t help that my previous employer followed a convention where “Llama Waxing Manager” denoted a non-supervisory role, but “Manager, Llama Waxing” denoted a people leader. It made sense internally as a convention, I guess, but it was sure confusing when people looked at mine and my co-workers’ resumes.

    2. High Score!*

      As someone in tech, another thing to consider is that managing and engineering are very different skill sets. If I was interviewing a manager for a worker bee position, I’d also want to know if their technical skills were current.

      1. TechWorker*

        This is true and I think some tech companies deliberately avoid people who have been managers for this reason… saying that… it is *hard* to keep fully up to date with the tech size when it’s only say 30% of your job and not 100%. I am sure I would be capable of ramping back up without too much difficulty, but if I do ever want to move out of mgmt I’m not looking forwards to trying to persuade a hiring manager I am infact still competent even though it’s not my current focus.

        1. dispatchrabbi*

          I had been an engineering manager for over 4 years and loved it, but my job included only abstract technical work, no coding or anything. When I got laid off in January, I applied to everything I was skilled at. On the technical side, that’s mainly JavaScript, hardly a static body of knowledge. All things being equal, I wanted to stay a manager, but I didn’t have the luxury of choice.

          Of the three offers I ended up getting over ,my job search, two were for IC positions. (The first fell through for #reasons; the second and third were simultaneous.) So, it can be done! If you’re applying to companies with a pretty standard technical hiring process and you’ve kept your hand reasonably in the game (and you come prepared to talk about the switch to IC), your experience will be seen as a bonus, not a hindrance.

    3. Harry*

      Agree! When I am hiring and am interviewing, I usually save my “elephant in the room” question and ask point blank the candidate and see how they respond. It can be anything from, “I notice you left your last job in just 3 months, any reason why?”, “I see you don’t have healthcare experience, how do you see yourself handling situations if you are hired?”, “You state you are living in xxx which is a good 1.5 commute from the office, are you planning to move?”.

  3. Daniel*

    There have been a slew of emails over the years here about managers who didn’t want to manage anymore. So yeah, there are definitely going to be candidates like that.

    While all of the advice above is great, I think addressing it head on is particularly useful, the “how do you feel about being one of the worker bees” bit. And if they give a good answer to that, ask them what they find appealing about the particular role, so you can be sure they have thought about it.

  4. Wendy*

    Plenty of people are in management roles because they were the “worker bees” and got sick of their managers not knowing how to do the job. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t rather be back in the trenches, or at least re-directing their career trajectories so they can make their way up a career ladder that doesn’t require managing people in the future. It’s a skillset not everyone has (including not all current managers) and not everyone wants to cultivate.

    1. Not A Girl Boss*

      I definitely think there is a huge difference between the kind of job where you are expected to follow standard work exactly (likely a bad fit for people who used to be managers) versus a job where individual contributors are trusted to go off and get things done. And sometimes that first type of job is caused by an incompetent manager.

  5. Anon For This*

    My husband loved managing, but finally got fed up with the constant headaches and went back to being an individual contributor. He loves it and has turned down several offers to move back into management. As Alison says, look for clues in what they say. But absent those signs, it could be the applicant wants to get back to the “real work”. I would straight out ask why they applied for this job, rather than a management role.

  6. NotAnotherManager!*

    I am a fairly high-level manager, and some days I DREAM of going back to a 100% individual contributor role. Doing actual, tangibly productive work! Not being responsible for other people! Not having to mediate other people’s interpersonal drama! Entirely worth the paycut on many, many days.

    1. Not A Girl Boss*

      The tangibly productive work was major for me. I almost cried the first day I *produced* something again. Even though the thing was not nearly as “important” as my old job.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        I’ve always thought that I would not enjoy being a manager; I mean, I’d enjoy the extra money that comes with a managerial role, but I am very not interested in dealing with the interpersonal drama, the office politics at that level, and so on. Then I took on a volunteer role that involved managing other volunteers, which definitely confirmed everything I’d thought. Oh, I enjoyed some aspects of it, but way too much stress and drama. I’m happier and less stressed as an individual contributor, and I love having the mental and emotional bandwidth to do the things I want to do. It was valuable, though, because I now have a different perspective on how things might look from the point of view of some of the higher-ups at my company, and it helps me do some parts of my job better.

      2. LJay*

        Yeah my boss is trying to get me to delegate some of the last direct work I do but I like this last bit of direct work. I feel like I get something directly accomplished and over with, as opposed to the never ending administrative work and people contact that takes up the rest of my job.

    2. NLMC*

      I’m currently job searching (thanks COVID) and have been in management for about 15 years. I have applied for a few individual contributor jobs. Not having to worry about whose manager made them mad, who doesn’t like where they are sitting, not having to do a ton of yearly evaluations etc all sound amazing to me.
      I’m not opposed to going back into management, there are certainly greats parts of it, but I couldn’t care less about the title.

  7. Sam*

    We recently hired an employee for a part-time role who was recently retired from a senior management role and used to being in charge, having a secretary, etc. We asked lots of these types of questions and he was able to talk about his interest in a smaller commitment and not dealing with the headaches of managing others, wanting to be hands-on again, and being a big fan of our mission. We made sure to emphasize the kinds of work involved to ensure he knew what he was getting into. It’s gone wonderfully! He’s truly enjoying the work and we’re so grateful to have someone who isn’t brand-new to the work world in this role, as he’s gently guiding his colleagues who are new to typical office standards and expectations. When it goes right, it’s a total win-win-win.

    1. I'm just here for the cats.*

      At first I thought that you were going somewhere else. That he was horrible and tried bossing people around. Glad that I was wrong and he sounds like a lovely person.

    2. Sarah*

      This sounds a lot like my dad. He retired a few years ago from high stress office job managing people and works in a low level role at a library now. He LOVES it. I’ve never heard him speak so positively about work until he started this position.

  8. Peanut Butter*

    Relook at your requirements for the role. If you have several current/ former managers applying and being interviewed, that can be a sign you’ve asked too much. I’m skeptical that more than one manager is somehow meeting the right education, skills, and experience needed but yet will take a lot of coaching to work independently and has higher salary needs than you’re offering. Is it possible your former employee was doing the work at a manager level, and you need to scale back your expectations for someone coded as individual contributor?

    1. MissDisplaced*

      When I left my last job, they had to hire 2 people to replace what I was doing. Which I what I kept trying to tell them and why I left. SMH

    2. Michaela*

      Eh, Covid?

      From all reports, open roles in my company are being inundated by applications from unusually high quality candidates. And I left a place which canned a third of my department.

  9. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

    all of these current/former managers would need a lot of training from me to get them working independently.

    I thought the answer was great, but didn’t go into detail of how to address this point. Are these people aware that they would need a lot of training (and how would they feel about that? etc) or is OP saying this, rightly I presume, but they are thinking that since they have enough background already they would be able to ‘hit the ground running’? And is training these people a good use of OPs time compared to recruiting someone else who could get on board quickly, i.e. what extra could these ex-managers contribute in exchange?

    1. OP Here*

      There is no way either of these people could “hit the ground running.” They both have some relevant skills and certainly the educational foundation of the work, but I’d still need to teach them a lot before they could work independently.

      These are the best applicants we have so far, because of a more limited applicant pool in my region.

  10. NQ*

    I have two good friends + former colleagues who have made this move. #1 specifically asked to move within her company out of management – it had suited the company to finally get a woman manager, but she was much happier and more skilled at labwork, and benefits from the lower stress. #2 started off part manager but also still in the lab, and is an excellent manager. He was laid off and moved into a slightly different area of science, fully at the bench. He misses management, and will surely regain more responsibilities in that area over time, but is also entirely committed to his bench role, which he’s also pretty great at.

    1. Celestine*

      Honestly, your first friend’s situation isn’t that uncommon in the more male dominated fields. I’ve known several women (as well as myself) who have been in the same situation.
      One of my friends said that her company tried everything short of dragging her by her hair into a management position because they so desperately wanted a woman manager to help their optics despite my friend had NO interest being in management at all. She was fired for “not being a team player” when she didn’t take the job.

  11. Lady Heather*

    Practically, managers may also be taking a cut in flexibility – whether it is “I can take a Friday to go to the zoo and and do paperwork at home on Saturday” to “I work extra-hard 7 weeks and take the 8th week off” – so I would be very explicit, early on, about what hours you expect them to work. Or inquire what hours/flexibility they have now and how they would experience the change to your workplace’s hours and flexibility.

    Of course, not all manager jobs have a lot of flexibility and not all non-manager jobs don’t, but in my experience people get used to flexibility.. fast, and stop recognizing it for the “deviation” it is, and don’t realize just how much they’ve built their life around their job’s flexibility.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      I have never been a manager, but I always had the flexibility of one thanks to the industry/company I worked for for years (insurance), and when I took a new job someplace else, they swore up and down they were flexible – they really were not. That was one of the reasons I ended up leaving 17 months later. I wasn’t going to go back to being expected to be locked down at my desk outside of lunch when I had been able to come and go as I pleased for years. No thanks.

    2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      One of the reason I never, ever want to be a manager again is that all of the flexibility benefited the company and it never managed to come back around to benefit me. If I came in early I did not get to leave early. If I came in on a weekend or holiday I did not get to take a weekday off to compensate. I had to be flexible but they never did.

      1. Bananag*

        I agree with you, That Girl from Quinn’s House. I just left a management role to make a career change. I have a set schedule and don’t get bothered outside of work hours now.

      2. Public Sector Manager*

        Totally agree. I’m in the public sector and my team has tons of flexibility and I have basically zero. Maybe some private sector companies have that kind of flexibility at the management ranks, but I don’t have it. I’m on-call at least 2-3 times a week. For my team, it’s 1-2 times per month. Something blows up on the weekend, I get a call. My team comes in on a weekend once a quarter at most. Vacations? I get a call. Conferences? I get a call.

        I love my current job and role, but if I could go to another agency that had robust WFH and a schedule where I could ignore my email and phone all weekend, and I’d only have to sacrifice my manager’s hat, I’d do it in two seconds.

  12. Cobol*

    There are so many reasons to take a step “back,” especially when it comes to managing people. It’s not for everybody. Look at their management history as evidence they performed in an individual contributor time.

  13. learnedthehardway*

    I’ve done quite a bit of recruiting, and have run into the situation the OP is facing several times. And while a lot of manager candidates will say they are fine to be in an individual contributor role, you really need to read between the lines to find out if they mean it.

    One indication that the person will be fine is if they have maintained some kind of hands-on involvement in their functional area throughout their management positions. Eg. if a finance manager wants to be hired as a financial analyst, they are still doing some financial analysis and keeping their skills up in the tools that individual contributors would use.

    Asking how they will contribute value in the role is also a good way to assess the manager candidate’s focus. Someone who talks about how they can do the work of 2 people, or fill in for the manager, or take on additional projects / functional areas – that person isn’t being realistic. Not only are there only 24 hours in a day, but the person isn’t satisfied with individual contributor mandate of the role.

    1. Sparkles McFadden*

      Excellent points.

      I was interviewing people for an open position on my team, which would be 100% hands on. I had one person who applied who lacked the technical skill for half of the job, and had been in a purely managerial position for more than ten years. When I would ask specific questions regarding how to perform a technical task, he would respond “I don’t know. I always had staff that did that for me.” He would follow that up with “But I’m fine with taking a more junior role.” I actually had an argument with the HR rep who kept saying “He says he won’t mind not being a manager anymore” but that was hardly the point. Managing people who have certain skills doesn’t mean the manager has that retained those skills…or ever had them at all.

  14. Antilles*

    The biggest thing I’ve found important when you hire someone to a significant step down is just making sure that everybody’s clear on what the role IS – especially in terms of opportunity for advancement (or lack thereof). More experienced candidates often come in with an expectation to move up the ladder more quickly due to their previous experience, but a lot of the time if you’re hiring for a junior role that’s just not feasible.
    I’m hiring a lab tech because I need someone running samples; you need to be happy doing that and not hoping to do more, because I don’t need a lab manager now, nor in the future. And if you’re coming in here with a quiet hope to start managing the lab in a few months, both of us are going to be frustrated.

    1. Portabella*

      I have found that’s also true when a job requires more education/experience than necessary. In one of my previous jobs, it was constant stress to hire for “support specialist 1” that required a master’s degree. This job did NOT require a master’s, or even a bachelor’s, and especially not for the pay. I pushed back on it quite a bit and they finally revised the job descriptions shortly before I left.

  15. Portabella*

    I work at a university, and in one of the larger departments, it seems like they have excessive amount of “associate directors”. I found out that these people are actually individual contributors, but they assist with managing the team of student workers. So some management experience – but it’s more like team lead, and less like a true manager, who has hire/fire authority, performance mgmt duties, etc. I have no idea why that dept chose to organize people that way, but whatever. Anyway, some of them have applied to my teams and while the “associate director” title sounded really daunting, I learned what it actually was during the interview, using questions that were similar to Alison’s suggestions.

    So it’s good to also probe their titles and see what kind of “manager” they actually were, in a practical sense. Often it’s obvious, but sometimes not. At another job, I worked with a woman who got hired at a finance firm in a somewhat-entry level position, and her title was “junior executive.”

    1. Damn it, Hardison!*

      That’s a good point! I’ve been a manager/senior manager in biotech for the last 5 years and haven’t managed more than a couple of interns for the summer.

      1. Portabella*

        There’s also some people in my dept who are more like product managers, in that they are in charge of applications or systems….but don’t have any direct reports. My dept has been slowly transitioning those types of jobs to “application architect” or something similar, to distinguish it from a people-manager.

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, my husband is in the energy sector and he has a title that sounds like he’s a manager when he doesn’t have any reports. He’s essentially responsible for negotiating equipment purchases in the hundreds of millions, and in his job, having a flashy title apparently improves his credibility with vendors.

    2. Esmeralda*

      They did that because often in academia (that is, for non-faculty positions) that’s the only way to reward people or to get them a raise.

    3. JMR*

      This is a huge problem in biotech, because different companies have different titling structures. In some companies, there’s one Director of X and one Associate Director of X, and a bunch of scientists and senior scientists under them in the X Department, but none of them is going to advance to Associate Director in their title unless someone quits. In other companies, Associate Director and Director titles denote that a person has a certain amount of responsibility and a certain amount of seniority, but there can be 5 Associate Directors in one department if there are 20 scientists with the required amount of experience. So someone with an AD title can be a higher-level manager with two decades’ worth of experience who leads a team of 30, or it can be a bench scientist with 5 years’ experience and one research assistant. It’s frustrating, and as someone whose company is not particularly generous with their AD/D titles, it’s hard not to be jealous of friends who have essentially the same role as I do at a different company, but with a much more impressive title.

  16. Lora*

    Biotech manager person here: I find the best line of discussion in the interview is walking them through what the actual day to day work is like. Because there are some places where even individual contributors are 80% in meetings, 20% in the lab, and there are some places where individual contributors are 50% in the lab 50% in meetings, and some places you’re 100% in the lab. It may well be that these managers who want to be ex-managers, think it’ll be more of a 80% meetings type of place, and they would be surprised at how much wet work the job involves. Similarly I know a lot of engineers whose job consists of sitting in front of a computer, and they really struggle with jobs that need a lot of hands-on prototyping or field work or managing trades. You have to be SUPER CLEAR what the day to day job entails.

    Currently dealing with this issue internally where I work: we have a lab that came from an acquisition, where they are more an 80% meetings type of place, and their data output is just pathetic from my perspective – when I was in their role, I was more 80% in the lab, churning out data set replicates. It’s a corporate cultural thing. One of my friends who is a computer engineer who is terrible at both field work and managing delicate corporate politics, has been super frustrated with not being able to get a job in my current role – which involves a lot of field work management and delicate politics, but you’d never know it from the job description alone. You really have to spell it out in little words, loud enough for the people in the back row, here is the day to day job. Otherwise they kinda don’t believe you or don’t understand you.

    1. Emma*

      Honestly, Alison’s interview advice to ask what a typical day on the job looks like, and how the time is split between different tasks, is so valuable as a candidate in situations like these. I’ve asked that question in interviews and found that the job is 80-90% focused on an aspect that seemed from the job description like it would be 20-30%, max. It also gives you an idea of how the work is structured – do you pretty much get to pick what you want to do each day as long as the deadlines are met, or is there a strict rota you have to follow? Does everyone do the same thing or is there room to specialise? – and just generally gives you a lot of useful information about the role.

  17. Lost academic*

    Because you’re hiring for a bench role I think you need to address two things with yourself and the candidates:
    1) Is there any real opportunity for someone in this position to be promoted to a supervisory position? Some of your candidates may be fine with a doer role now but expect to have that option. You should be clear with them about what that night look like even if they don’t ask.
    2) Bench skills can become rusty and dated fast – make sure you can identify which candidates can really fill this role if they haven’t been doing it for awhile. They might think they can jump back in and not realize the challenge.

  18. Tammy*

    I’ve gone back and forth in my career between individual contributor, people leadership, technical (but not people) leadership, and consultant roles. When I interviewed for my most recent position, my boss called the move from a people leadership role at my old company to an individual contributor role at my new one “the elephant in the room” with my application, but she asked me about it. My response was to explain that what brings me satisfaction is being able to contribute to the success of the business in whatever ways I can, and that for that reason I don’t view going from a people leadership role to an individual contributor as a “step down” or an “elephant in the room”.

    I work in IT/software/etc. and I really wish companies didn’t structure their career ladders in this way. But I’m not going to win that fight, I know. I figure in my career, I likely will again have opportunities to move between these three roles multiple times, and I’m totally okay with that.

    I do concur with Alison’s advice, though: Ask the candidates about this, and let them tell you how they feel and how they see it. And pay attention to their answers. Even if you don’t hear any red flags, I suspect they’ll tell you something about the candidate’s view of the world, and that’s always valuable information.

  19. animaniactoo*

    My entire work career has been in deadline driven jobs. In thinking about moving to another location, I have absolutely looked into receptionist jobs. Not because i don’t think the work isn’t serious and needs to be done well, but because I could use the lack of high pressure deadlines.

    I think it’s fair to ask why the job appeals to them given their work background, but definitely don’t assume that they’re not serious abut the job or wouldn’t be able to take the step back – they might be interested specifically because it’s a step back.

    1. Filosofickle*

      I feel you! Just out of college, I temped for a year in administrative roles until I found a position in my field. I was honestly tempted to bail on my degree and be a receptionist! I was good at it, paid pretty well, and greatly appreciated by the people around me. At a busy place it keeps you on your toes, while letting you go home unencumbered each night. (In the end, I found my job and moved on and it was the better decision but it was nice to have an option.)

  20. Mary Richards*

    I have a friend who recently left management for a non-management position, thinking she wanted a change, and she’s come to regret it. I think the “how do you see this fitting into your broader career path?” question is so helpful because she honestly would’ve struggled to answer in a way that didn’t put her right back into a management position. As Alison and others have said, the clearer you are about what to expect in this job, the easier it will be for everyone.

  21. HS Teacher*

    I stepped down from a couple of leadership roles at the school where I teach because it was really affecting my life outside of school, and I couldn’t be happier to not have to be in charge anymore.

    I still have to help out when my replacements aren’t sure how to do something, but I absolutely agree with Alison here. Lots of us get into leadership and realize it’s not for us and we’d rather someone else handle the challenges that come with it. I’m happily working my contract hours these days, and it’s been good for my mental health.

    1. Hydrangea McDuff*

      I did this as well, although I moved out of teaching into a different (non administration) part of public education. Until COVID hit I could work 8 hour days nearly all the time. After 20 years teaching 5-6 classes a day, being dept chair, advising clubs and grading in every spare moment…the change was immensely good for me.

  22. RedinSC*

    I, too, would like to not manage people. So when I’m looking at jobs I mention in my cover letter that I am looking to move from managing people to supporting programs and being part of a team (or some such language).

    But I’d asked outright. This job is very much individual contributor work. Are you OK with that? Does that fit in with your career path.

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      As a hiring manager, I would hope an applicant addressed this directly in the cover letter, so I didn’t have to worry about it! Like the OP, I would wonder if an applicant with management experience would be happy moving to an individual contributor role, or if they were using the position as a stepping stone to something else.

  23. hbc*

    It sounds like whatever you asked during the interview *did* get at their willingness to be non-managers, if they gave a lot of statements that made you think they wouldn’t be happy and referred to “worker bees.” Whatever normal questions you have worked!

    If you want to get more specific, I would just be direct. “Why are you looking to move to an independent contributor role?” “You’ll basically be following instructions for the first six months with no flexibility in process or even how you arrange your workstation. How do you feel about that?” I bet you catch a few people who say something like “Sure, I’ll just keep detailed notes about what can be improved so I can really change things up after I’ve become the SME.” Others will have the right words but might give something away with body language or tone.

    Also, the question I like best in these are-they-really-up-for-this scenarios is “What do you think will be the hardest part of X?” If they can’t give you a believable answer about something that will be difficult in the transition, Do Not Hire. Even if they hated management, anyone with clear eyes will be able to tell you something that will be an adjustment.

  24. Bopper*

    I have had at least 3 coworkers who used to be managers but went back to individual contributor…they had no problem doing this and were very good at what they did (which is why they got promoted). They were in these situation because they retired and still wanted to work, or it was decided there were too many people at a certain level.

  25. Rich*

    I have been in management, and currently am not.

    I work in IT, and have risen as high as second-level management (“director” in that org) where I had 5 front-line managers reporting to me and an overall organization of about 45. I loved that job.

    I am currently a front-line employee doing customer-facing technical sales with no direct reports and no management responsibility. I love this job.

    I made the step back from management to facilitate a cross-country move made for family reasons. I knew making such a big geographic shift would make it difficult to land in the same place in the org chart as I was before, particularly as I had no real professional network in the new location.

    So I took stock of what was important to me to make my work satisfying, matched it up with what was viable for me and my family, and shifted into my current role. And it’s fantastic. I do want to get back to management, but it’s been 7 years since the move, and I’m not feeling rushed to change or disappointed in either my current role or the choices that led me here.

    People have all kinds of reasons for stepping back from management, and all kinds of goals and aspirations around it. They can find satisfaction in the work for lots of reasons, and having been in management doesn’t mean a rejection of hands-on work.

    Talk with them about the change. Are they running from something or running to something?

  26. Paula*

    Another biotech manager here. I second the thought that if you ask people directly how they feel about taking this “step down” – or, maybe better put, a step into a different role – people may say they are OK with it in the interview, but they may not be OK with it once they get into that role. Certain roles can be seen as more prestigious, and some people consider number of people reporting to you as a sort of score card, whether they consciously think that or not. And while a candidate like this may take the job to pay the bills, as Alison mentions, there is a risk that the person may switch to focusing on moving out of the role sooner than you would like. I have had one person ask to participate in an extended internal job-switch program after being on the job only a few months.

    To deal with this, while hiring, for candidates who would be making a switch like this, we focus on candidates who have a good reason to want to make such a switch. Bonus if they volunteer this information themselves before we even ask for it. For example, they really miss the lab and want to get back to it, they don’t enjoy being a manager, or they are ready to make this move back at this point in their career because of upcoming changes in their personal life.

  27. Bertha*

    When I first started reading this, I immediately thought of how I desperately did not want to be a manager, and immediately “projected” (so to speak) that these people also don’t want to be managers again. But when you said this: “I got the distinct impression from both of them that they preferred directing the action. It was clear that one candidate in particular LOVED being a manager at his last job and referred to his direct reports who worked at the bench as “worker bees” — I wondered if he thought working at the bench again was a bit beneath him now.”

    I think AAM gave you great questions to ask, because I can absolutely say I would NOT have said that I loved being a manager, and wouldn’t have referred to “worker bees.” I did wonder if I ever gave the impression that I enjoyed managing, because there is such a balance in an interview. I hated managing, but I would never said it like that because .. that doesn’t sound so great to say I hated a past job. So I guess I’d be mindful of whether or not it sounds like the person is trying to put a more positive spin, or if they actually are giving a vibe that they wanted to be in charge.

    1. allathian*

      Oh, I don’t know. Maybe saying directly that you hated a past job would be impolitic… But certainly, clearly admitting that you would prefer to be in a non-management role should be acceptable and shouldn’t be seen as saying you hated a past job. It’s okay to admit that you felt the previous job was a bad fit and are looking to do something else.

      1. Bertha*

        Of course, no one would ever leave any jobs if they weren’t able to admit that a job was a bad fit. I guess I am encouraging OP to try to tell the difference between someone trying to put a positive spin on being a manager, vs. actually enjoying being a manager (and being unsatisfied NOT being a manager).

  28. Damn it, Hardison!*

    When I switched industries (same function, but from a lightly regulated industry to a heavily regulated industry), I moved from being a manager with several staff members to an individual contributor. It was something I expected, and wanted in order to be able to focus on understanding my new industry and company. It’s totally understandable to ask how someone will make that transition, and I think Alison’s questions will help flag folks who may not have any easy time not being in charge.

    1. NomadiCat*

      A+ user name. Have I seen you on a country music stage, or maybe a dad blog, or maybe a hockey team, or maybe a Japansese drink commercial?

  29. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

    I moved from a manager role to an individual contributor role (at a different company). There’s a long story I’ve written here before so I won’t repeat it, but the tl;dr is that I didn’t miss the “managing people” aspect which I was mediocre at, but what got to me was the step down from being involved in all the meetings/committees where decisions are made and direction is set, as opposed to just being on the receiving end of information being communicated by others, decisions already made, you just have to implement them, you can’t push back (well, you could but it would just be perceived as whinging rather than legitimate feedback), no one actually will listen to what you say, as you are just an implementer..

    Yeah, you can raise things to your boss and the boss may or may not take them upwards where decisions are actually being made. Most likely not, as the boss doesn’t see things the way you see them; doesn’t think it’s important; dismisses it as something inconvenient to them!

    I was professionally ready and capable at the “being involved in places where decisions are made” level and then it was uncomfortable having to just be given instructions from someone else again.

  30. Annony*

    Although the job description makes it clear that there isn’t any managerial responsibilities to the role, does it make it clear just how junior the role is? In academia terms, it sounds like you are looking for a “lab tech” role and getting applicants looking for a “research associate” role. Maybe if you can make the salary band more clear people looking for a more advanced role will self select out.

  31. Karia*

    I used to be a manager and hated it. I vastly prefer being an individual contributor, in an in house role, with work life balance. Just one perspective.

  32. GreenDoor*

    We had a similar problem with three applicants all assuming it was a manager role when it was actually very much a support staff job. We realized our job description wasn’t clear on the level of the position. After that, we revamped our job posting process to include a brief description of where the position falls in the overall hierarchy of our organization. Before the list of duties, we have a paragraph that says, “As part of a support team, the Bean Counter reports to the Bean Manager through the Bean Supervisor” or “The Cleaning Manager is reponsible for overseeing a twenty-person team divided into Broom Pushers and Window Washers” or the Data Reporter is a confidentialpositoin that reports directly to the CEO. Maybe a simple introduction speaking to this position’s place in the organization could ensure that applicants and the organization are on the same page about hierarchy.

  33. Monergy*

    Quite a number of years ago before I got this job I was a manager for a few years. I did not want to be a manger but did it to make my upper bosses happy and I regretted it. I was a good manager, we met our numbers, no one was unhappy and I got tons of praise. I hated it however as I no longer could complain about my work day or enjoy some of the friendships I had. I never like giving anyone direction and I was burn out on having to be available ALL the time. So I quit. Went to a low paying job (almost half of what I used to get paid) and the interviewer was honest. Asked my why I would even want to take a position when I used to be “on top”. End of day he ended up creating a temp position for me til a job opened up within the same company which he thought I was better suited for. Which had me available MOST of the time. Thankfully I found the position I am at now a few years ago and while I have risen ranks most understand when I say no to being promoted higher. 9/10 I don’t even need to explain.
    Long story short, just because someone used to be in management it doesn’t mean they want to STAY in it. The script given is great.

  34. NomadiCat*

    Count me as another manager who would be happy to go back to an individual contributor role– as long as the pay was right! I would absolutely apply for a non-manager role in the future if it was doing work that I loved.

    That said, the longer I have managed the more I do find myself being a little more difficult TO manage. I have greater empathy for the tough, no-win situations my own manager has to navigate. And I can help my boss out of challenging situations and just making their day to day life easier because I understand what they need. But having managed both project teams and direct employees for over a decade, I have developed higher, tougher standards for the way I want my manager to work with and advocate for me and my team. I do try to keep those impulses firmly in check, because I’m not a complete jerk, but I have way less patience for poor management at this point in my career than I ever did before I started managing.

    Tl;dr: Don’t discount someone because they have been a manager in the past, but do know that it is sometimes tougher to hide your managerial flaws from someone who has the “Been There, Done That” t-shirt.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      “the longer I have managed the more I do find myself being a little more difficult TO manage”

      Oh yes. I struggle with that at current job, which is very, very large and matrixed, with lots of hierarchy. My former job was pretty much self-managing and I had responsibility for my own budget of $1M and could make purchases up to about $20k without any oversight (as long as approved in the budget). With current job, I am frustrated because it feels like begging to even get $100 approved and has to go through 5 people for anything larger and takes ForEvEr. I miss having the autonomy I used to have to move on things fast.

    2. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

      Yes! It’s so difficult to see your own manager making management mistakes that you could so easily rectify in their position! I’m living it every day.

  35. Biotech Lab Rat*

    In hiring for lab positions, we ask candidates to rate themselves on eight or so procedures that they may be asked to perform. They need to show at least some proficiency in seven of eight and high proficiency in two specific skills to warrant an interview.

    We’ve found many people with management experience don’t pass the screen. Those that do are still active in the lab and often turn out to be much happier at the bench than at a desk. None of them would ever refer to a bench scientist as a worker bee.

  36. FutureLibrarianNoMore*

    It’s definitely going to be very individual. IMO, the “worker bees” person is probably not going to like not being the boss like you already suspect OP, so trust your gut!

    I left after maybe six months of management and moved to a position with almost no management, and eventually left that one for my current one, where I am one of the lowest in terms of position…and I love it. I’ll never go back to managing people!! But I know I’m unique.

    1. allathian*

      Hardly that. Plenty of people find that they intensely dislike managing people and being available all the time.

  37. Hey Karma, Over Here*

    OP, reading the comments I’m seeing that the people are looking to leave managerial roles will be indicating that throughout their answers. Not even burn out, just nope, tried it and it was not the reason I got into X field. I want to do A, B and C.
    I think the two people you cite are the outliers or simply potential bad fits, they are not looking to leave managing, but start a new path toward managing.

    1. Salamander*

      I think this is pretty key. I worked with a person who used to be a manager who moved to an individual contributor role. Though we were peers, she was constantly seeking to manage me…and that didn’t stop with just me. She truly tried to exert nonexistent authority over pretty much every one she came into contact with. I would be very careful in hiring someone for an individual contributor role who doesn’t clearly state that they’re wanting to be an individual contributor.

      One of my positions was in management, and I changed fields to a more entry level position. I had no interest in management any more – been there, done that, have the T-shirt. I was very frank about wanting to be a team contributor in my cover letters and interviews, and didn’t have any issues.

  38. Eleanor Shellstrop*

    For a lot of them, that point about ‘expanding their skill set’ may be precisely what they mean. At some point, they may want to manage again, but see this role as a necessary step to upskill themselves technically, so they can go on and manage a different set of people.

  39. MissDisplaced*

    I do think there are people who want to take a step back and not manage. But you are right to question the motives for them to be doing so. And sometimes it really might be they just badly need a job! I don’t think that alone should disqualify them given the high state of unemployment lately, but you’d have to be really clear about this role being “what it is” and no more.

    As for “worker bees” candidate. You have your answer! That one would be a hard pass.

    1. Filosofickle*

      This moment is really complicating things. In addition to the people who truly don’t want to manage anymore, there are lots of people shooting overly high/low because they are unemployed and just need something. I’m also hearing from friends who are looking for a step back right now because they can’t carry the pandemic / school burden. They have no idea what they’ll want in a year. None of this is part of their career plan!

      Definitely explore the whys and whats and hopefully there’s a candidate that is genuinely going to be happy in this role. But understand that there is a lot of weirdness and it’s hard to be confident about long-term happiness in any role.

  40. Dust Bunny*

    I was a supervisor for awhile at a past employer and I wanted to give up that position even before I left the job! I haaaaaated being in charge of people. I got the position because I was the best candidate they had–not a good candidate, but everyone else was worse, that is.

    But if you’re getting a strong message that these guys liked being managers, you should definitely ask some direct questions about that.

  41. Elizabeth West*

    These comments are giving me some great responses to questions I’ve been getting in interviews about my career trajectory. Hiring managers and recruiters have asked about future plans and I wasn’t sure how to frame “I’m not interested in management” so it didn’t sound negative.

  42. Subdermal Hemiola*

    I did this a few years ago. I was at a shop where I was running a department, but got a lead on another shop where I’d be at the bench, working in a team, and reporting to someone with more experience than I had. When they asked me if I was going to be happy moving from management to the bench, I was like, “This looks like a great opportunity for me to become a better engineer by working on a team and having a manager/mentor.”

    It’s not always about wanting to take a step back or down.

  43. Pooper McPoopy*

    As Alison said, ask them. But please don’t make any assumptions! The bulk of my resume shows management positions. I HATE being a manager!

  44. JessicaTate*

    While I totally recognize that there are people who want to take a step back from management, I think Alison’s advice is spot-on about really working to read between the lines on their expectations about the job – including asking a version of that “worker bee” question.

    My sense is that the issue is around being the person in charge. It can be HARD to not be in charge of decisions, direction, etc. if you shift into “worker bee” role (assuming that’s part of the concern here). I had to manage that person once and it was tough. She didn’t want the stress of managing people or budgets or business anymore, which is why she took the step-back job; but it became clear she was NOT OK with losing the “I make the decisions” part. (And I get it! I like being the boss! But that means I’m not a great hire for those jobs.) So, I would be framing my questions to be a little bit more about taking direction, following established protocols, or whatever else it is that distinguishes that role from yours.

  45. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    Even former managers had managers (unless they were self-employed) and should be used to being managed. But it’s a bit unclear to me how much you will be managing them if you say they “would need a lot of training from me to get them working independently.” Are they really going to be independent i.e. able to direct their own work, set priorities, and make key decisions (a former manager should be able to do that easily), or will they need to follow your instructions, ask you for priorities, and you make the key decisions but you trust that they will execute your directions without too much oversight from you? That last one is the sticking point because while there are managers who find they don’t like managing other people, it is difficult to go from being mostly in charge to not having any authority of yourself.

    1. OP Here*

      The type of work that we do means that ideally the new hire would eventually work independently, with advice and input from me, especially if a project proves to be more challenging than expected (which is like…all the time), or they need more direct help from me because of my technical skills and experience — troubleshooting, so to speak.

  46. OP Here*

    Just to give everyone a little update and more context, Mr. Worker Bee is still in the mix but the other former manager is out.

    I’ve already interviewed him once, and he will be coming in for a second interview soon where he will talk with the entire research team (7 people), then me, then my boss, then my grandboss. I’ll get to use some of the suggestions from you guys and Alison. HR has already told him the payband for the position (less than he wanted by 20k) and he said he wanted to continue.

    Mr. Worker Bee is just moved to this city because his wife is starting her residency at the local university hospital. He left his last position to move with his spouse, not because he didn’t like the work. He expressed interest in broadening his skill set but his long term goal is to return to a management position. I think he is looking to get a job wherever he can in this new city — which is totally ok and not a reason to eliminate him! One of the other things that made my ears prick up was that when I asked him, “What do you think makes a good team,” he talked for a long time, primarily referencing his experience as a manager. I think he really relished his managerial role at his last company, and it showed here in particular. I had to move him off the question, that’s how long he went on.

    We will see how he does on the second interview, and what the rest of the team thinks. You have given me some good ideas.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      Yeah, this sounds like he’s viewing this as his stepping stone job, so if that’s not a possibility here at all, you might just want to reiterate that.

    2. Wisteria*

      I don’t know about Mr. Worker Bee specifically, I am just a hair off put by your description of him, but as a general rule, a senior person who is not just purely technical but used to prioritizing actions and making decisions independently can be a real asset in the individual contributor role. That person can take a big load off you if you let them. Someone who is a former manager has that skill set. In fact, they might even be better at those things than you are! I’m not saying your current candidates are, just that it’s not a bad thing to have a direct report who is more than a worker bee.

  47. Blarg*

    I currently have one direct report. But only cause it came with the package of an otherwise ideal job. :) I’m hopeful my next gig (this one is pandemic related) will get me back out of managing. I hired well and she’s awesome, but I wouldn’t consider a future role without direct reports as a step down. Just a different role.

  48. Idril Celebrindal*

    OP, I just got asked about this is an interview this week, because I am working on shifting careers into the tech support side of the work I have been doing, and while I have been a supervisor and am currently coordinating staff with no managerial authority, I am interviewing for a position that is an individual contributor.

    I said that while I have enjoyed supervising in the past, what I am most excited by is working as part of a team and collaborating with peers, that I understand the role is that of an individual contributor, and that is the kind of role I want to focus on, and that I am looking forward to it. Is must have worked because I’m called back for the next round :)

    So, I think it’s definitely worth asking about directly, and I think if they talk about what they are looking forward to about the position (and appear to be understanding it correctly) then that’s a pretty good sign that they know what they are getting into and will enjoy it. In my case, what I didn’t say is that I am so tired of being the defacto manager of my department because my boss is completely incompetent, that I am really eager to be able to stay in my lane and do my job and no one else’s….

  49. SheLooksFamiliar*

    When a manager/director/people leader wants to take an individual contributor role, it makes sense to ask why. We used to call it the ‘diamond-shaped career path’, because the person broadened their reach and/or influence until they got to a point they missed being an IC. Exploring this makes sense, and you can learn a lot about how a person views ICs and managers alike.

    I’ve spoken to lots of people who said, “I was happiest and did my best work as an individual contributor. Because I was a manager, I can be a better employee – I see things as my manager would. But I want to return to a role that allows me to…’ and so on. That’s a valid career choice and, boy, can I relate to it.

  50. Workerbee*

    I call myself a worker bee, because I get the work done and have no illusions about middle management or corner office types. I personally would side-eye any manager referring to their direct reports as worker bees, minions, in the weeds, etc., no matter how forcibly jovial they may be about it.

  51. LadyProg*

    I recently stepped down, and have done the same in the past on order to move to another country and restart my life/career. I willingly applied to jobs that were a step down and never regretted it. I went back to managing after the first time and will probably go back again at some point but I’m very happy about being an individual contributor for the time being.
    I talked openly about doing so with my interviewer, and I worked have been ok with them bringing it up in the first place – just talk about that and measure their answer :)

  52. Employee #24601*

    I took a lateral step that meant giving up people management and I couldn’t be happier. I was very good at managing but it was such a mental burden on me that I didn’t want to keep doing it. There were concerns raised in my interviews, but I don’t need the manager title to feel good about my work. Plus my skills are in demand as an IC so I actually make more money now.

  53. ProdMgr*

    Some folks I follow in tech recommend alternating between manager roles and IC roles so that you stay hands-on and continue to develop your tech skills but also have opportunities to manage teams. If you change roles every few years, it means you can build up management experience but never get to the point where you’ve been hands-off for ten years.

  54. Gaia*

    When I was laid off two years ago, I decided that I wanted to move into an area in my field where I had managed projects and teams but never handled the process. While many interviewers saw this as a “step down” for me, I viewed it as a step in a different direction – anew path. I had decided I wanted to develop my technical skills to eventually advance through that side as a process manager, not a people manager. I was always upfront about that. Just ask and listen to what they say!

  55. Harvey 6'3.5"*

    I also think it depends a little where the person is in their career. I was a Ph.D./Postdoc in bioscience worker bee at the beginning of my career, and one of my ease into retirement ideas is to retire from my biology adjacent job and work in a lab again for a few years. But I’ve never been a manager, so that is different.

  56. Cocojuju*

    As a good manager myself, I have no problem being managed by other good managers. In fact, I am currently – managed by good managers.
    My problem would arise if my manger was incompetent, a micro-manager etc. I’d have a hard time being managed by someone with no idea what they were doing. There’d definitely be a little ‘managing up’ happening.
    As an experienced worker who can self-manage and work independently, I’m looking to my manager for support, challenges, growth – and competence. I want to do a good job, I love my field, and I will push back if my experience genuinely gives me doubts/insight/a different path than what’s directed – but only to offer insight.
    At the end of the day, you are paying me and I’ll do it your way.

  57. RockGirl*

    I did exactly this. I have previously lived/worked in remote area tourism for the same company for 7.5 years. By the time I left, I was heading up one of the three regional departments with 7 full time and about 20 casual staff under me. I left for personal reasons but ended up in a role that was hell (for various reasons but mainly that it was not really the right fit for me and my boss was a bully). When an opportunity came up to work FIFO in this remote area for my old company, I jumped at it. Yes it was a step down from my previous role with the company and even the roles that I had been in since leaving but the role itself (getting back out in the field instead of sitting at a desk and being back in a place that I love without having to live there full time) was more than attractive in and of itself but my confidence had taken a beating as a result of my last role and I wanted to focus on my own mental health and confidence before I felt I would be ready to give 100% to managing a team again.

    There are many reasons for wanting to take a step back – it’s natural to question it given our cultural focus on moving up being the only way forward, but I think if you are open about your concerns and listen closely to their answer, you will find out if it’s actually going to be an issue or not.

  58. Dennis Feinstein*

    I used to work in magazines. I first got into magazines because I liked/was good at: writing; editing; subediting; proofreading, etc. I initially got my foot in the door as an admin, but quickly moved into editing roles and ended up as deputy editor on a magazine. Then my editor got pregnant, so I filled in as editor. Then an editor on another magazine got pregnant, so I filled in for her. When she decided not to come back full-time, I became the editor by default. Now I had no time to write because I spent all my time managing the small team (I inherited one very difficult person who resented that I was the editor and showed it), attending meetings (which I hated then and still hate now), working on budgets (loathed it/still do), dealing with the (in some cases incompetent) sales staff and gradually coming to hate. my. job. Because I was now considered “management” I was pushed into doing all sorts of “management training” (which was generally run by mates of the big boss) which only served to drive home to me how much I disliked managing people. When I told big boss that I wasn’t happy and that I really just wanted to go back to writing, he basically brushed me off. (I do not care about awards but this company had given me one for being the best writer in the company, so… you’d think they’d want to keep me…) Anyway, I decided to quit and become a freelance writer. The same big boss (alpha male type) was STUNNED. He said, “What? So… you’re just going to sit at home all day writing with a cat at your feet?” as if this was the stupidest possible idea ever. I was like: “Um… yeah… that sounds effing great. If I can make a living doing it, I’m totally going to do it.” And I did for around 10 years until I could see the collapse of the local magazine industry coming and decided to switch careers. (This was in 2014. I’ve been in my new career since 2018. This year, the local magazine industry did collapse, sadly). So… yeah… just because someone HAS been a manager, doesn’t mean they’re good at it or that they liked it or that they even chose it! And it doesn’t mean that they’ll regard anything else as a demotion. Many of us are happy not to be managers any more!

  59. Roeslein*

    Many biotech and medtech companies (at least where I am) have an “individual contributor” track that caters specifically to senior scientists / engineers who want to continue to progress in their career as a subject expert but don’t want to go the management route – it’s not an uncommon preference. Perhaps some of these candidates should look into those types of roles.

  60. Bumble bee*

    OP this is not specific to you, as you haven’t implied a hierarchy of better or worse, but I know that it is a common challenge when people seek new roles that interviewers can assume that they wouldn’t really be happy/would move on quickly etc based on their own perceptions of the relative worth/prestige/return of different roles. Problem though is that these ratings often don’t match the applicant’s rankings. I’ve known people keep advanced degrees off their application in order to land the job they want rather than be pushed by well meaning companies into roles that do not interest them. I am replying with these thoughts in mind.

    A perspective that I think is really valuable here is not looking at careers as some sort of ladder with better jobs at the top and worse jobs down below, and therefore some order that matches to increasing job satisfaction.

    Management and non-management are just different roles. If you got applicants from non-managers for a management role you should be evaluating whether they have the skills to perform well, and the interest in the role to match. This is no different.

    In a previous career I worked at a place where management was not a promotion. At another company I know managers frequently have direct reports that outrank and out-earn then. In both it is common for people to move between managing, technical lead, and technical roles. Excellent managers were often excellent tech people too. When not managing they might miss management. But when managing they often missed getting to be the worker bee.

    Definitely ask questions of all applicants about how they see themselves in the role, and follow up if you’re getting a feel that they might not understand or be interested in the specifics. Just remember taking on a management role should not permanently exclude you from non-management opportunities in the future.

  61. Karia*

    Also, are your job titles clear? I clicked on one advert that said “Patient Navigation Operative” – they meant receptionist.

    1. OP Here*

      I don’t think changing the job title will help, but I will emphasize the duties and scope of the role to make sure it aligns with Mr. Worker Bee’s expectations.

      1. Argh!*

        I recommend also ensuring it’s clear how much agency someone has at that level. It varies greatly from one organization to another.

  62. LMM*

    Thank you for running this! I was a manager at my last job (before being a victim of a COVID layoff), and I enjoy the mentoring aspect of managing. But I found it super challenging to be in a new industry AND in my first management job. I want to stay in the industry, and have recently made it higher up in the interview process for two different jobs. I’ve been absolutely grilled by both hiring managers about my willingness to stop managing, and it’s really hard in the moment to find the right thing to say! I am eager to get back into the workplace and into this field, and am more than willing to take on a non-managerial role so that I can really focus on learning the business.

    1. Argh!*

      I have applied for many management jobs in my narrowly-defined field. Since we all know each other, I could learn how things turned out after not getting the job. In 3 cases the position was eliminated entirely — “flattening the organizational chart,” and in another couple, an internal candidate got the job.

      So it’s not like someone with managerial experience can just jump ship and land in an equal position. Times are tough. I wish you well.

  63. iglwif*

    When I read the title of this, I was prepared to be a bit indignant on behalf of all the people like me who ended up in management roles that made us miserable and are 1000% happier since going back to non-management jobs.

    But then I read the actual letter, and yeah, these specific candidates do sound like they wouldn’t work out. And actually … if that’s an accurate representation of how they talked about past jobs, I’m not sure I’d want to work for them as managers either.

  64. Argh!*

    A recent trend has been to gut middle management in large organizations. This happened to me twice. I think people should keep in mind that someone applying for a job that is lower on your org chart than previous experiences may not have any good choices.

    On the upside — organizations that have gutted middle management have also empowered the people lower down to make decisions on their own.

    So besides asking the applicant about their feelings, employers should ask themselves about the amount of agency the person will have and convey that to the applicant in my opinion!

  65. Sarah the Masshole*

    Yup. Allison’s advice is spot on. I’m a former manager who applied for (and accepted) an individual contributor role at another company. Most of the people who interviewed me asked the question directly, as to why I was looking to step down from a management role. Once I gave them my reasons, most of the interviewers actually laughed and shared that they could relate to everything I said! I’ve been in my new role since April of 2019 and I’ve been excelling! My quality of life has completely changed now that I’m no longer a manager. I really feel like I’ve been given a new lease on life. I suppose you could just ask the question outright, because many of my interviewers literally asked me straight out “why are you looking to move from management to an individual contributor role?” and I was fully prepared for that question ahead of time!

  66. VX34*

    I was promoted to a managerial role in my last job which underwent an offshoring effort. I looked at other managerial roles, but, they all wanted years of experience in management and I just didn’t have that, and wasn’t going to get it when all the jobs were being sent overseas…

    When I interviewed for roles, I got asked about what I would think about the “step down / step back”

    I basically said that I wouldn’t see a new role as a “step back”, because I was looking for an opportunity to build a great foundation, apply the skills I learned from my time in management, and look to apply them and to grow in my next role, with the implicit bit being “Yes, one day, I would like to return to it”.

    Even for jobs where I wasn’t offered a position, I never felt that anyone felt that answer was a red flag, or deterministic as to why those roles weren’t offered to me.

    Funnily enough, the one who questioned me the deepest about it – essentially saying I’d be a front line worker for “2-3 years until business needs dictate” – and wondering if I’d be okay with that…is the one that offered me the role I ended up accepting.

    I think there are a lot of great reasons why someone would want to go from Management to Non-Management.

    If they make it seem like they wouldn’t be okay with that, I think that’s reasonable to consider. But, I also wouldn’t go “looking for reasons” to find this, if that makes sense.

  67. Sophie1*

    I get a little annoyed at the concept of people stepping back and taking roles they are over qualified for over less qualified people who would love the chance to advance or gain entry and experience.

    But it’s certainly not the overqualified peoples’s fault – it’s just a symptom of a wider problem with an aging population who can’t afford to retire as early as older generations could so they aren’t making room for the younger gens, which is having a domino effect on job availability and making it harder for younger gens to move up. If this wasn’t the case then it wouldn’t be a big deal and people certainly deserve the chance to leave management if they aren’t happy or it’s not their thing and that is more of a problem with how work culture works than individuals. So really I’m just annoyed at how the world works!

  68. nnn*

    I find the scripts that Alison suggests a bit indirect. If I were an interviewee, I’m not sure whether these scripts would lead me to recognize exactly what concerns the interviewer has that I should address.

    I’d recommend something like “I see from your resume that you have a lot of management experience / you’ve mentioned a lot about your management experience. I want to make clear that this is an individual contributor role with no management or leadership aspect and no opportunity for advancement in that direction.” (Or whatever is actually true to your situation.)

  69. Becca*

    I’m in a different field, but I was VERY happy to go from being the boss to being a step below the boss. I’m in fundraising and found managing the team took time away from what I loved the most-getting to spend time with donors.

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