What’s a good way to answer stupid interview questions like, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
Answer: “Gee, will your company be in business in 5 years?”
The “5 years” question is silly. I think my suggested answer is not, even if it might get you kicked out of the interview! The point is, the employer cannot see 5 years out, or predict what crises or opportunities might arise. Nor can a job seeker or employee.
You’re in the interview to answer questions, but it’s your duty to yourself to make sure the questions you answer are meaningful. We’ve discussed the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions at length. This question — let’s call it #11 — is yet another example of just how broken the employment system is. It reveals how much time and energy is wasted in job interviews — especially in today’s economy.
Who cares about stupid interview questions?
Depending on what survey you look at, between 23%-73% of current workers are considering or planning to quit their jobs. Over 15 million have already quit in the past year. So, you could reasonably respond: “What are the odds you or I would still be at this company in 5 years?”
The interviewer might argue they want to know about your plans and aspirations. And you may bear the same curiosity about the employer. But I don’t know one corporate executive who would bet $100 on their company’s pie-in-the-sky 5-year business plan — much less explain it to a job applicant! So why do employers ask stupid interview questions about your unknown future?
Perhaps the best, most business-like answer to the “5 years” question is “Who cares? We’ve got real fish to fry!” Then get down to real business.
The interview question we should care about
If employers weren’t wasting your (and their) time with side trips of fancy, they could focus on the reason they’re trying to fill a job: to get work done.
If my suggested answers to the “5 years” question worry you, do what skilled politicians do. Ignore the stupid question and talk about what you believe the subject should be:
“How can we work together to get this job done?”
Please think about what I’ve said, then try this as a response.
How to Say It
“It depends on where the business goes and what our customers need. I like to think in milestones that I can actually control. I like to think in terms of concrete deliverables. What do you expect your new hire to actually deliver to you in this job in the next month, 3 months, 6, 12 and 24? I’d be glad to walk you through how I will deliver on your expectations. Then you’ll see where I see myself in a year and two years. Of course, we have to roll up our sleeves and work closely so we’re both on the same page about our future.”
Get the idea? The employer is lucky if they can plan a job out to 12 months! If the manager cannot define the expected deliverables from the new hire at 3, 6, 12 and 24 months, then how can you tell where you see yourself in 60?
You must do a lot of work to prepare for such an encounter. If you are not willing to do that kind of preparation, then I think you have no business in that interview. Or, it’s the wrong job and the wrong interview for you.
The purpose of this approach is to maneuver the manager into a working meeting, in which both of you roll up your sleeves and talk shop to define and plan for those milestones. This changes the job interview entirely and makes you stand out from all other candidates — especially the one that answers, “In 5 years I see myself in your job, of course!”
In today’s economy, I think it’s crucial to break the conventional interview script. Help the manager define what they need, so the two of you can work together to decide how you will deliver it successfully if you’re hired. After all, we get paid to deliver, not to fantasize.
I cover this and related interview challenges in Book 6 of the Fearless Job Hunting Collection.
If you try this approach, I think you will be the first candidate your boss has ever met that shows up ready to talk shop and ready to create the real future.
How do you answer the “5 years” question? What other Stupid Interview Questions have you been asked? How do you control a job interview to maximize your chances of getting an offer? Is there a single interview question that you think every employer should ask above all others?
I was once asked that in an interview, along with ‘why did you chose to apply for this role – was it because it was a contract, or because you are interested in this company?’.
It was a three month contract. No one only applies for contracts with companies they find ‘interesting’, although we do reject ones for various reasons. For example, I don’t apply for roles in companies involved in gambling.
They thought they were asking smart questions, whereas they just came across as smart alecs.
@/Anne: I recently heard from a reader who tolerated 7 rounds of interviews for a job he was recommended for by an engineer in the company. At the end of each meeting the interviewers praised his skills and said they looked forward to having him on board. He was very enthusiastic about working there. After the last interview (the “cultural interview”) he was told they were rejecting him “because you don’t seem to have a lot of enthusiasm for our products.” In the early interviews, the same person declined to discuss the company’s products. His final assessment of the company? “I think they read too many management books. I still don’t get the purpose of the cultural interview. If they couldn’t determine whether I fit culturally during the 6 other meetings, what was the point?”
I think I need to start a “Stupid Interviews” list, not just stupid questions.
I get that it may be a lazy question, but I also get why some may ask it. I think a lot of companies, including mine, do and should know where they’ll be in five years. As a company we create long term vision plans often centered around future and emerging technologies we want to be involved and developing an expertise in in order to help our clients. We have to be looking that far out and position ourselves for success. We often ask our employees, new and old, to contribute to this long term vision on where they see the next frontiers or emerging hot spots to help us see where we need to put our efforts in and perhaps leave other areas behind. We often ask our employees “Where do you see current technologies or capabilities migrating or developing in five years AND where do you see your skills needing to be enhanced to be prepared for these changes?”. I like to be specific in interviews so perhaps taking this “where do you want to be in five years” to “where do you think we should be in five years in regards to our expertise and research” would be a better question. Sometimes employers ask the five year question regarding where the employees sees themselves growing with the company or their skillsets or developing into a future manager. Perhaps they just ask that specifically.
@Kirk: I like your version of the 5 year question. It’s a stepping-off point to discuss the worker, the job, and the market and technology. Such a discussion reveals the candidate’s and interviewer’s acumen, and it even addresses the question, “How can we do our jobs better as our world evolves?”
Your version does not beg answers like, “On a beach where it’s warm.”
your take is great if you give a prospect that 5 year overview (under non disclosure of course), But usually this question is tossed at an applicant in a vacuum without even lighting up some incense to set the mood.
My reply would be “Are you offering a five-year contract?”
Actually, I asked if I’d misunderstood and it was a permanent role. No, I was told, only three months with no assurance of renewal.
Couldn’t get out of that room fast enough!
I answered this question very seriously with a canned response of learning everything about the job and taking on more responsibility. Explained how I would do their job. Aced that interview. In my mind, I thought this is the job I move up from. The supervisor never told me I would need her permission to take another job in the company and she would never give it. She talked about the people who had moved up the ladder, as if their was potential. I lasted a few years before I realized the dysfunctional issues in this company meant I would never move up to a new position so I left.
Interviewers don’t know what to do with the answer to this question in my experience. They often don’t engage with your answer because they are trained not to talk about how someone will actually do the job and are looking for the right personality or so called mythical fitting into the department.
@Kathy: A VP of a telecom company once told me he had finally realized “we hire people because we like them, not because we have evidence they can do the job.”
Sadly this is something that comes up in corporations. The penalty for doing a great job is to be chained to the department. Working for managers that are remiss in one of their basic and very important parts of a manager’s job. To develop people. Career development is win/win/win. Good for the person, good for the company and good for the manager, as it’s a small world. Helping someone grow builds your internal (and external network).
“What do you expect your new hire to actually deliver to you in this job in the next month, 3 months, 6, 12 and 24?”
Ironically, I asked part of this question on job interviews for years:”What do you expect of this new hire after the first 90 days?”
I picked 90 days because two weeks was too short, and one year was too long.
And, often,it caused the interviewer to diverge from his prepared script and ACTUALLY THINK and offer comments like ‘establish an environment where junior people feel more invested’ or ‘maintain the high creative standard that the predecessor, who left not because he was unhappy, but because he wanted to move to California…set.”
Anu question that can make the interviewer reveal more about the employer can only benefit the subject.
@Jim: I love it! Reminds me of a senior exec who interviewed for a job in a major pharma company’s R&D operation. After he read one of my books, he came up with a good question that he asked at the end of his interview. “Can you lay out the top 3 or 4 problems or challenges you’d want me to tackle if you hired me?”
After a long, thoughtful pause, the interviewer (an even higher-level exec) said he couldn’t think of any, and thanked the candidate for such a thoughtful question. Inquiring a few weeks later about the company’s decision, he learned they decided not to fill the position at all.
The candidate told me he wasn’t sure, but he thought there was a good chance his question led to the decision. He concluded the job didn’t need filling because there was no good reason for it. He felt he had dodged a bullet.
@Astoria Jim-you’re 100% spot on right!
I unfortunately learned this the hard way and later in life.
Back in the early 80s I heard a radio interview with an Industrial Psychologist who had done a study and wrote a book on this very subject (author and book title I can’t remember). To paraphrase the gist of what he said “more people are told what’s expected of them in a job when they’re terminated as compared to when they are interviewed and when they start the job”. Amen!
I now ask “what are the expectations for the job at 90 days/6 months/1 year”? I’m amazed at the number of employers who can’t, or won’t, give a straight answer on this, or flat out get triggered. If they can’t, or refuse to answer that question in a coherent and straightforward manner, or they get their underwear in a bunch over a valid question and concern by me, then I walk.
This is one of the worst of canned questions. I was asked this during an interview with a company I wanted to work for. I realized immediately the interview was not going well at all. All the questions were scripted. I tried to steer the interview using some of Nick’s tips. Because I wanted to know what they needed to be done for the position; I just didn’t get clear answers. Needless to say I did not get the job. Yet weeks later, and to this day, they are constantly advertising for the same job.
@SAG: I think you dodged a bullet, too (see my comment above). Isn’t it interesting what you can learn about an employer in a job interview?
It has taken a long time for me to come to that conclusion. I had been trying to score an interview with that company for years, and as a career changer. And when I finally got it, and during COVID, I was really hoping to get an offer. Something isn’t right with that department. So you are right, I dodged a bullet.
I know someone who answered this with “I’ll be doing your job” to this question.
Hilarious. This person didn’t get the job.
I had an interview with Morgan Stanley during the Fall of 2008 financial crisis and was asked “where do you see yourself in five years ? ” My candid reply was ” where do you see Morgan Stanley in five years ?”
The office manager was silent.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Hey, great question!
Why do you ask?
If you want the job despite the red flag this question represents, a good answer might be:
“In five years I believe I will have demonstrated that I am more than capable of doing the job well and have the capacity to take on more responsibility when a suitable position opens up. Where do you think the company will be in five years and what do you think are the challenges that I will have to meet along the way?
@Tim: Good one, and well put!
Later in life I started answering that half-wit question truthfully and from the gut this way “I want to be well ensconced in a job I can perform adequately, with a reputable employer, and earning a decent wage, and a wage that’s much better than (fill in the blank of the paltry amount they’re offering). Reactions vary from a deer in headlights, to getting triggered (I’ve had my resume hurled in my face or pitched in the trash can in front of me), to “don’t call us we’ll call you”. A very scant few have chuckled and said “I appreciate your candor”. I’ve also answered it “I don’t remember what I had for dinner two nights ago, let alone where I’ll be at in 5 years”.
Fortunately, I seldom hear that question anymore. Why? Who knows!
This question ranks right up there with “What kind animal would you be?”. I’ve tried the answer a question with a question (where do you do you the dept. or job or company in 5 years?), hoping to get a dialogue about the dept.’s or company’s longer term goals and how the job fits in with those goals. If I get shocked looks, or the interviewer says he hasn’t thought about it, that’s not a good sign.
Yup, instead of David Letterman’s 10 stupid human tricks, how about Nick’s 10 stupid interview questions or even just stupid interviews (if you’re not going to discuss the job, the goals, the company, etc., then why bother?)
I think I may have been asked that question, but I know others have. Once in
awhile I did some job hunting presentations to job hunters and someone asked me how to answer that. He was a “mature” job hunter. I think this question is often tossed at older applicants and as such it’s kind of snarky.
I told him take possession of it and run with it your way. I’d told him flip it & tell him your onboarding and career development plan. e.g. Here’s my plan. For the 1st 6 months I’m going to settle in, find my way around, get to know my boss and co-workers, while I’m doing what you hired me to do (if you want overview the job description). I know what the company does for a living, from the outside view which has it’s limitations for obvious reasons (IP, competition). So once I know my way around for day to day contribution, I plan to learn the company’s five year plan (inferring they of course have one) and
the complimentary plans of the various support departments (again inferring they have one). It’s a good question (no it isn’t) but one best answered as a member of the team. So right now all I can give you is platitudes for an answer, but ask again in a year, say in my 1st performance appraisal. Then I think I can present a career plan that ties into and adds value to the applicable company plans & the best role for so doing. Very tempting to add Now let’s get started, which way to the bathroom.
Many years ago, I was in an interview and it became apparent that they had oversold the job as it ended up being a support position.
The interviewer asked “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” My answer was that I’d like to eventually get into the engineering end of things. His answer was “We aren’t hiring for that right now.” I was about to snarkily respond “Do you realize what you just asked me?”
Interesting point you bring up about an obtuse interviewer. Really mind numbing. I’ve experienced this exact same scenario, and more than once out there.
I used to wonder if employers just don’t realize, or just don’t care, about who the front line or first up face of their companies are. I think they just don’t care.
I believe this is a good indicator of the culture and character of an employer.
At my last job I answered “Hopefully here!” I really liked the company. I’d been grilled about my comprehensive set of skills that I wouldn’t even be using in the role, and I said I hoped I would be using all my skills for them. For the next 4 years, I wasn’t supported in any effort to change roles to reflect all my skills.
@Christy: It troubles me to say it. With few exceptions, employers take what they can get from employees and invest little or nothing in their workers. My advice to everyone is this: If your company has not followed through with promises to you, consider carefully whether it’s because of legit reasons — and don’t kid yourself. Face the truth and face it early. Too many workers keep waiting for things to get better. If you’re putting more into your work than your employer is putting into you, move on. 4 years is a LONG time. You’re not alone. I encounter this problem all the time. Workers really want to be loyal. But there’s a limit. I’m sorry it took you that long to face your limit, but my compliments for moving on. I hope others consider your experience seriously.
One of my many previous bosses gave me a good piece of advice. He said every 3 years stop and reflect on where you are. what you are doing, where you think you are heading & if you’re on track. If not, adjust.
Great advice…that on reflection I never took. Overall, at least for me, I don’t think people hang around thinking things will get better. I think we don’t think about thinking. You’re down in the trenches busy as Hell, day by day, even satisfied with what you do, and the next thing you know 5 years has gone by. But no reflection on your part. So de facto you are expecting the powers to be to take care of the career development element..which mostly doesn’t happen. It sounds counter intuitive, but it’s as if job satisfaction or tolerance, obscures career development.
As I’ve noted before, this is another case where the maligned performance appraisal can serve as a tool for oneself. Yeah maybe the boss treats it as paperwork, but nothing stops you from using it as a trigger to yourself, to reflect. How am I doing? etc.