They are the magic words every eager job seeker wants to hear – “when can you start?” However, be careful how you answer and don’t quit your current job just yet.
It’s Usually Great News, But Not Always
Hearing that question at the end of an interview is definitely a positive sign that the interview did not go badly; but, it’s not absolutely a sign that you’ll have the official job offer in your hands shortly. It’s not unusual for interviewers to ask that question of every candidate who could still be selected, although less so for senior management positions.
The thing is, it could either be a sure sign that you have been selected for the position or may as well be the deal breaker.
If you were initially approached by a third-party recruiter, and even more so if all the candidates were recruited, which isn’t unusual for jobs with mid-size or smaller firms without an internal recruiter, the interviewer understands that you may not have even been actively seeking a job and could really just be kicking tires to check on your current market value.
He might ask all the candidates that question as a way to eliminate anyone who really isn’t committed to accepting an offer even if it were extended. He would not want to waste your time or his.
Still, such a scenario is the exception. In most cases, hearing that question is a good thing. However, don’t submit your resignation to your current employer just yet.
The hiring manager could very well have every intention of offering you the job, and then something changes – the position is cut, he gets fired or accepts another position elsewhere, the hiring could be delayed by budgetary constraints, or the company could even be sold. These things happen a lot more often than you’d probably think.
I’ve even heard of companies intentionally hiring away a star performer from one of their main competitors – makes sense, right? – but then firing him a couple of months later knowing that it would be unlikely that he would be rehired by the competitor. Evil? – yes. Unheard of? – no.
It’s hard to predict or to protect yourself from this last scenario, short of simply not accepting an offer from your company’s competitors, but that sure limits your career opportunities.
For the previous scenarios, your best bet is to not resign a current job until receiving a firm job offer in writing and after notifying them in writing of your acceptance.
If for some reason the job offer was withdrawn after that, you would have an actionable cause for damages, and most companies would quickly acknowledge their responsibility for your loss without you resorting to legal action.
So, How Do You Answer?
If the “when can you start” question surprises you, as in nothing up to that point indicated that you were about to receive the job offer, don’t act too eager. The question is not an official job offer, and you could still raise their suspicions by seeming willing to start immediately.
Most people are required to give a two-week notice to current employers, and they want a few days off after that and before starting the new job in order to prepare for the transition.
If you respond to the question with an offer to start immediately, they’ll suspect that you either have already been let go by your last employer, which will raise a whole lot of issues, or that you’re acting unethically by not submitting your two-week notice, which doesn’t bode well for the likelihood of you acting ethically as their employee.
On the other hand, if the question is prefaced by a detailed discussion about you joining their company and included multiple statements indicating that they will be extending you an offer, the question becomes a relevant tangent to that conversation, and you could feel free to answer more openly.
Continue, however, to maintain ethical standards regarding your commitments to providing notice to a current employer. It should be noted, however, than many employers will allow an employee to terminate immediately upon giving notice, figuring that he will not be motivated to work hard during that interim period. You may also have vacation/sick time accrued that can allow you to take off the last days you are otherwise required to report for work.
The best response in many situations is to simply reverse the question – “When would you like me to start?” If the interviewer does not respond clearly, you’ll just have to answer the question.
It is easier to ask for more time and have to honor their request for an earlier start date than it is to promise an early start date and then have to ask for additional time before starting. If you are currently employed be aware that there could be legal issues affecting your job transition. To wit, you may have to adhere to:
- Your employer’s written policies.
- The terms regarding notice stated in your employment contract.
- The terms of a union collective bargaining agreement to which you are a member.
- The notice required by local government regulations.
- A commitment you made to a current employer regarding completion of specific work.
When Should You Start?
Most HR consultants recommend that a new hire take at least one week off before starting a new job. Two weeks is common. You need the time to wrap up your now-completed job search with regards to any prospective employers with whom you were communicating. Also, because your commitment to a new employer usually results in long hours for training and on boarding over the first couple of months, you might take the opportunity between jobs to catch up on household projects that had been delayed and enjoy some family time while you can. Changing jobs is also very stressful, and if you had been out of work, even more stressful. A few days of rest and relaxation can make a big difference in your performance at the new job.Still, the new employer may have an urgent need for your services, so don’t answer the question with a hard time. Instead, suggest how long you’d like before starting, but also offer to begin earlier if they need you to.