My #1 interview question

Away vs. towards candidates

Many employers and recruiting professionals have a favourite interview question. I have mine too - it's simply "why are you sitting here today?". But to understand why this is my favourite question, you first need to understand the difference between away and towards candidates.

The away candidate wants to get away from a painful situation that is causing them stress or discomfort. They may be unemployed or at risk of getting fired, or the company they are working for may be struggling to remain viable. These candidates tend to look at things negatively, as they are focused on alleviating their pain. As such, they may say:

  • "My current employer doesn't understand what the job requires."
  • "We've lost so many staff because of my manager."
  • "It's such a negative atmosphere."
  • "The company's going down and management doesn't care."
  • "The company keeps changing the goal posts"

The towards candidate, on the other hand, is drawn towards something better. They are not trying to escape a painful situation, so their motivation is very different to the away candidate. These candidates focus on what they could get in a new role, and how it will make them even happier than they currently are. As such, they may say:

  • "This sounds really interesting, tell me more."
  • "What benefits and rewards do you offer?"
  • "Tell me about your career options, work-life balance and pay."
  • "I have always wanted to learn more about this."
  • "It is an area I would like to pursue."
My #1 interview question | Away vs. towards candidates

Interview questions to explore

I recommend asking candidates the following questions regarding the status quo, urgency and impact expectancy. From the answer they give, you will be able to establish whether you are talking to an away or a towards candidate.

  • "What are the consequences if you don't get the job?" While both candidates will stay in their current situation, the away candidate will be left in a negative situation that is causing them pain, while the towards candidate will be happy either way.
  • "What is your time frame?" The away candidate will want to change their situation as soon as possible, so their time frame will be immediate. The towards candidates, on the other hand, is happy with where they are currently, so there will be no time pressure.
  • "What does it take for you to accept a new position?" For the away candidate it won't take much - they will be willing to make a horizontal move, as long as it alleviates their pain. This is a stark contrast to the towards candidate, who will need a significant improvement to warrant the change.

An article for First Round Review details the favourite interview questions from a range of employers. Some that I found of interest include:

  • "What do you want to do differently in your next role?" This question can help you identify away vs. towards candidates. Towards candidates will focus on what they're running towards, while away candidates will focus on what they're running from.
  • "Imagine yourself in three years. What do you hope will be different about you then compared to now?" This question helps you understand the candidate's ambitions. It will also indicate how goal-oriented and reflective they are.
  • "For the last few companies you've been at, why did you leave and why did you choose the next company you worked for?" This question will highlight whether the candidate has a history of running away from pain, or running towards something positive.
  • "Among the people you've worked with, who do you admire and why?" This question gives you a subtle way to uncover the candidate's motivations and values, as asking them directly is not always effective.
  • "What’s something great about your current or previous job? Why?" This question will tell you what the candidate values. They may also follow-up with a qualifier, such as "but that doesn't make up for...", which will give you insight as to whether they are an away or towards candidate.
My #1 interview question | Interview questions to explore

Why are you sitting here today?

This takes me back to my own favourite interview question - "why are you sitting here today?". The answer you receive will tell you why the candidate is looking for a new job. And from this, you will be able to establish whether they are an away or a towards candidate. 

If you are considering an away candidate for your role, you should be careful if their pain is self-inflicted (e.g. poor performance). You need to ask yourself - will this pain be carried over into their new job? If the answer is yes, then you should reject them.

However, being an away candidate isn't always a negative. If the candidate is not responsible for their pain, then we can often secure them by offering the same conditions as their current role. As long as their pain is alleviated, they will likely accept the offer.

Conversely, if you are considering a towards candidate, you will need to be prepared to offer 30% more than what they already have. If you cannot offer them this, they will not accept the role. As such, towards candidates are typically more expensive to get on board.

If you think you're interviewing a towards candidate, but they are willing to accept the same conditions as they currently have, you may need to dig further. Ask probing questions to find out if there is some pain the candidate wishes to alleviate, and determine whether that pain is self-inflicted.

So, next time you prepare your list of interview questions, you should ask the candidate about their motivation. This will make it easier for you to determine whether you should make an offer of employment, and what you will need to offer the candidate to get them to say "yes".

My #1 interview question | Why are you sitting here today?

Christian Madsen | Managing Director
Christian Madsen
Managing Director
11 Recruitment

Recruitment tips & advice

  • Warren Davis says:

    I appreciated your article.

  • Craig Mist says:

    Thanks for sharing – Great post

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