In the December 14, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to best answer an age-old interview question:
Many job-related sites talk about this interview question, but none suggest how to best answer it. The question is, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Obviously, this question relates to a person’s goals, but it can be sticky in some situations, especially a small business to which you are applying where the only promotion may be to the interviewer’s position. What do you suggest?
Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)
So, what should you say to the five-year question? My cynical answer is another question: “Will your company still be in business five years from now?”
Yah, that’s a little rude, but a dopey question sometimes deserves a pointed rejoinder.
This is why I include “five years” in my list of the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions. You see, the problem doesn’t lie in coming up with an answer. The problem is the question itself. I advise employers not to ask “where you see yourself in five years” for a number of reasons:
- There are so many canned answers floating around that it’s meaningless — few people answer it honestly.
- Many businesses really won’t be around in five years.
- Changes in technology and business render almost any career goal ephemeral.
I suggest you be honest with the employer. If you don’t know where you see yourself in five years, tell him where you see yourself in six months or a year: “Contributing to the profitability of this company by doing A, B, and C for you.” Then explain what A, B, and C are in detail. (Do your homework, or don’t go to the interview!)
Talk shop! Steer the interviewer away from goofy questions like, What’s your greatest weakness? If you could be any animal, what animal would you be? No matter how you decide to answer (or parry) a worn out interview question, you can take control of the interview. In the Answer Kit: How Can I Change Careers? I offer many suggestions to help you take the interviewer out of fantasyland. Here are two of them:
- Don’t talk about yourself. Talk shop and demonstrate your abilities. Ask the interviewer: What’s the main problem or challenge you’d like the person you hire to tackle? I’d like to show you how I’d go about it…
- Skip the elevator pitch. Offer value and make a commitment. Rather than say, “I’m a hardworking, capable operations manager seeking opportunity for advancement,” (so’s everybody!) try this: I will reduce your operations costs by negotiating better deals with your freight vendors and streamlining your shipping department by doing X, Y and Z… (Again, you’d better have done your homework, and be ready to get very specific!)
(How Can I Change Careers? isn’t just for career changers. It’s for anyone who wants to stand out by demonstrating their value to a specific employer.)
Don’t get lost trying to answer distracting questions. If you find a job interview is going off the track, you can also steer it back on course by raising (and answering) The Most Important Question in an Interview.
Employers seem to think that certain interview questions are a must. Is “the five year question” one of them? Does it matter where you see yourself in five years?
Besides, hasn’t this question been so over-analyzed and the answers “faked” for so long that it’s meaningless anyway? Gimme a break. I’d rather be asked why manhole covers are round.
What’s your take on it? Is this just another stupid interview question? How do you answer it?
Here are some interview question and answer samples from my upcoming book. Feel free to use them.
What is your greatest weakness?
“Arson, ’cause I’m all fired up to work for you.”
“What is this weakness you speak of? I am Thor. I am invincible.”
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
“In my flying car on my way to open our newest branch in outer space.”
“As the sole survivor of an ecological/nuclear holocaust living a hand-to-mouth existence. Why do you ask?”
I think this is a very stupid interview question. If the interviewer looked at my resume with any care at all, they’d notice that I’ve never spent five years at any one company. So my stupid answer to this stupid question would be, “Not here.”
Of course, that would probably get me thrown out, so I tend to avoid answering this question, or I keep my answer very general in terms of where I want my career to be.
“I see myself doing what I’m doing now, but on a progressive track.”
@Jim You nailed the answer to this question. I have always hated these canned robotic idiotic questions that clearly have nothing to do with an individual’s skill and potential. Again, this is just another clear example of how HR people has ruined companies in the past 25 years. The people running HR don’t have a clue how to interview talent. You cannot have third rate people look for first rate talent. It will never happen, because first rate people see it and will run.
Well, I see myself at the top of fulfilling the 5 years strategy of the company vision and mission!!! knowing or assuming a plan is a must; do your homework… i agree with that :)
As for a well-established company, they should have had established a 5 year plan, and my plan, in principle, should not be different than that?
Of course, i gather we should refrain from stating any personal goals… at this stage!
I suggest pointing out the futility of the question. Any number of things could happen in 5 years: I could win the lottery, get killed in a car accident, have a religious conversion that leads me to live naked in the desert, get offered a job that pays 10x what this position makes, end up in jail in a case of mistaken identity, and so forth.
When the person says, “True, but what about your plans?”, you say, “Well, here’s my plan to help your company right now……”
And if that doesn’t work, point out that the Soviet Union loved to have 5 year plans, and you can see how well that worked out…..;^)
What is the conspiracy theory going around here about HR. HR didn’t come up with these stupid questions and don’t frog march people into parroting them in interviews. Hiring people read the same stupid books are everyone else. HR gets blamed for a lot, on this blog, and I agree with a some of it, but not that.
@Chris, well managed companies come up with 5 year plans EVERY Year. The Soviet Union did too, but didn’t have the motivator of profit and didn’t have good economists who could help them.
Since the average tenure in a job these days is about 4 years, the honest answer would be ‘If you hire me, I won’t be here anymore.’
The answer we recommend is ‘I want to get this job; I want to learn this job; I want to be the best widget whacker you’ve got and advance *with* the company.’ It’s ‘we’ that are moving forward not just ‘me’.
While it may be fun to rant about “Stoopid Interview Questions,” it’s very likely that such questions stand between you and the job you really want.
The simple answer that is consitent with the AtH philosophy is: “I see myself continuing to help the company solve problems and make money by doing X, Y, Z. Let’s talk about how I can get started today, so that 5 years from now, we can celebrate how far the company has come.”
Dang, should have previewed.
Since I’m in my early 70’s and still working, I’ve had to answer this idiot question for many, many years.
I usually say: “I see myself doing the same type of projects — even better — using the latest advanced tools. I’m a specialist and have no wish to go into management.”
If they want someone who can do the job, they hire me. If they want a rising star, they don’t. That’s fine with me.
I had to deal with a similar question recently at a “career planning” meeting with my supervisor and the HR manager. My supervisor asked, “Where do you see yourself in 20 years?”
I answered, “Retired.”
Though I tried to remind her that age 63 isn’t an unreasonable retirement goal, things went downhill from there.
I agree that interview question is pretty worthless, however….
I was recently asked (by a friend) to consider in general terms what I’d like to doing just before retirement. I’m a civil engineer and my most likely options are finding (or creating) my next job in government or with an engineering firm, developer or contractor. My answer helped me realize that I want a high level of influence over end product – more than I’d get working as a contractor (unless I specialized in design-build). I now know that an employment area I may have considered would be a detour from my long-term goals.
I recently read an online article about the 10 boilerplate phrases that kill resumes. It talked about such phrases as “team player”, and “strong work ethic”, phrases which would have been OK on a resume or cover letter a few years ago, but are now not ok.
If we job-seekers need to get away from old, worn-out phrases on our cover letters and resumes, then it is about time for HR departments to get away from old, worn-out interview questions that really have no bearing on a candidate’s ability to perform the job that he is applying for.
You could handle this in a variety of ways. One that few consider is to frame it via the interviewer’s perspective.
“That’s an intriguing question. I like to set short and long-term goals for myself. But where do you see yourself in the next three to five years at your company? That would help me understand how I could serve your needs in the next five years.”
I believe this addresses a few things. It shows a different thought process. You also make the interviewer think about their own future. If you are going to outline five years of goals, you need more information. Especially if the interviewer is your future boss. You also don’t lock yourself into the assumption of five years at this company. Because the question assumes, however illogical, that you are “signing” a five-year contract without pen and paper.
It is important not to put down the interviewer for asking the question. Many have to ask this for the sake of compliance. In terms of asking similar questions to all applicants. You have to stand out and show that you respond thoughtfully rather than react rashly. It’s another way to sell yourself, imho. And as Nick C. often tells us, to turn the interview into a sensible discussion about work.
You are absolutely right, anyone who would include a question like this in an interview is absolutely clueless. There is nothing about this question that indicates a good fit which makes it completely invalid.
With all the HR angst about poor hires and conducting “legal” job selections, you would think they would be a little more scientific and do some research. Or maybe just think it through a little and let common sense take over.
I have been asked this question and since I knew the organization valued low turn-over and is slow to promote, I told them about what I’d been up to over the past 5 years to prepare me for the role at hand and then said I hoped to continue developing my talents in whatever direction my employer needed. Good thing our noses don’t grow when we tell whoppers!
Of course you’re right that you shouldn’t put down the interviewer, especially if you want the job, but wouldn’t it be nice if the interviewer knew something about his or her job?
It’s like hiring an electrician and having them ask you what an outlet was for. There are fundamentals in every profession and this line of questioning just shows they know nothing about how to select an employee. What can you possibly learn from this type of question that would make you select one candidate over another?
As far as needing to ask the same questions, how about asking the right questions instead of making the same mistakes?
You are the voice of reason, but this stuff just makes me nuts.
The issue is not whether or not the question is stupid, the issue is a candidate who believes that flippant answers are the way to prove how valuable you are. If I asked a candidate the “5 year” question and was given the pompous and inane response of “will this company be around in 5 years”, the interview would be over.
Interviewers are not perfect and many have not been trained in how to interview. After all, they are programmers, accountants, or architects that have been promoted. Instead of ridiculing the interviewer with your response, know that these questions ARE coming and prepare a thoughtful and honest response.
The 5-year question is truly inane (and a waste of time – sorry Dave!) but likely not the worst.
I was asked once around 1978 “Why did you waste 4 years in the military instead of going to college?” by the girl from HR in a round-robin interview. In the past 32 years, the interview questions have gotten little better.
While I don’t like questions like this one, I would tolerate it from the an HR person more than from a hiring manager. After all, the HR person is trying to size you up based on physcological criteria rather than your job knowldege and skills.
It also depends on the sequence of the interview. If HR is acting as a gate keeper on the front of the interview process, you more or less have to suck it up and provide an answer if you want to continue with the job prospect.
However, if the HR iterview is after the hiring manager’s interview, the question is probably moot if the HM wants to offer you the job. You can say almost anything provided you keep a straight face, and don’t use any four letter words.
For the record, anyone who is familiar with how to use “psychological criteria” for job selection purposes knows better than to ask this question – trust me.
People making hiring decisions and those who are responsible for them should do their homework. Part of me thinks “oh well, they get what they deserve.” But the other part of me is outraged that the job candidate has to be put through useless hoops and stands a chance to say the “wrong thing” and fall out of the running because there is no correct answer.
The question you describe would be considered discrimination today, as archaic and as uninformed as the interview process seems now, at least we have managed to learn that much in 30 years.
L.T. “Why did you waste 4 years in the military instead of going to college?” really means “Why isn’t your job history exactly the same as mine? Obviously that’s the only way to live!”
Besides being stupid and offensive, it has nothing at all to do with whether you could do the job or not.
But as Dave points out, if you want the job you need to answer politely. Preferably by not answering the dopey question but by answering the question they should have asked.
@G & Suzzanne
I was dumbfounded at the time, and thankfully, the dept. manager moved the interview on along. He was former Air Force, so I think he was an embarrassed as I was.
Having had time to think about it (as it was directly post-Vietnam) the correct answer was “Well, with all the draft-dodgers hiding in college, someone had to.”
Thank you for your service to our country.
@Lucille, re: HR
See Another Steve’s story above – why was the HR manager standing idly by while the idiot manager asked the 20 year question?
(Please note that I didn’t mention HR in my posting. Though I could have. There’s plenty of blame to go around for this question.)
The message between the lines in my posting is this: Your answer to any particular question can sink you in a job interview. You might have the the “best” answer to the five year question – but the interviewer may not like it.
I think the point is to avoid answering the way you think the interviewer wants you to answer. (You could be wrong anyway.) Answer honestly.
Michael points out that such questions stand between you and the job you want, even if the question is silly. So does that mean you have to tell the employer what it wants to hear? Or be honest, and if you get rejected, realize that if your honest answer is “wrong,” then this company probably isn’t the one you want!
When interview questions get weird (or silly), it’s up to you to shift the discussion to the work – to what really matters. To what will make the employer realize, hey, I can’t live without this candidate.
@Lynne: I love it when a question like this makes the lights go off like they did in your story!
@Joan: That’s a nice way to get the discussion back to what the employer is going to pay you for: doing the work properly. And as you said, if that’s not what they want, it’s fine if they don’t hire you!
I also hate these idiotic and senseless canned questions. Who doesn’t?
I roll with the punches and in 5 yrs, “where I see myself” is secondary to the opportunities I create for myself, whether or not the company I work for has any real interest in supporting my advancement while respecting my personal autonomy and responsibilities off and on the job, what competing offers I may attract, what new technologies and innovations are developed that effect my field, my family situation, my health, the overall direction of the country (as I am thinking my prospects may very well be much better if I leave the USA), whether I like and respect my managers, co-workers, customers, and how much control I have over training, hiring, disciplining, promoting, and firing subordinates, pay and benefits, promotions, my spouse’s work and health conditions, and a whole raft of other things, some of which are predictable but most of which are not. Wow that’s a mouth full!
As far as the merit of the question, I think what they are really digging for is… *drum roll*… are you inclined to stick around and build a career here or are you a job hopper? That is the real question behind the question. But whether or not I hop jobs depends on how I am treated there versus what opportunities I have elsewhere.
In actuality I have always provided the “correct” answer indicating that I want to grow and advance with the company, while solving their unique challenges and providing them increased profits and reduced costs, in accordance with the goals and preferences of the employer. Then I describe how I would do exactly that and ask them to lay out a live problem.
But, I so dislike these questions, and the cookie-cutter corporate cultures that would ask them, that truthfully, I find myself working for myself more and more. I like to hunt for my own opportunities and keep all the profits I make assisting my customers, instead of playing these reindeer games.
Employers don’t show respect for the employee with these idiot questions. They are trying to make “apples-to-apples” comparisons but I am not a piece of fruit and neither is any other candidate, much less the same piece of fruit!
I always thought the 5 year question was foolish. I think the intent behind the question is to see: a) how long will you stay with the company? b) are you gunning for the interviewer’s job? I had an interview about 7 months ago that asked me where I saw myself in not 5 years but 10 years. Anyone that has their life planned out for the next 10 years is a nutcase. It was the cherry on top of the sundae, telling me that I did not want to work for the company. Many of the previous questions and comments were straight out of robotic interview handbook. Any interviewer that has to stress that “we are like family here” run for the exit. If you go to a company for an interview, you should be able to see that people get along, you should have to be told.
Odd enough this question was asked of me in an interview for a position about 5 years ago. I got the job, quit 3 months later, and the company went into receivership 2 months after that. What a stupid question and one that I should have answered with Nick’s “Is the company going to be here in 5 years”?
“I think the point is to avoid answering the way you think the interviewer wants you to answer. (You could be wrong anyway.) Answer honestly.”
Several years ago, I once tried to tell the interviewer what I thought he wanted to hear, rather than what would be the truth. It turned out that it was the other way around; my honest answer would have been the preferred one. I spent the rest of the interview doing damage control, which was so pathetic that I was not surprised at all to not get the job.
“We are like a family here.”
Well, let’s see, more than half of American families are directly involved with, and /or affected by, one or more of the following: divorce, single-parent households (never married), addiction, abuse (physical, emotional / verbal, sexual), poverty, legal problems, crime, disease, etc…
If you grew up under one or more of those conditions, of course, you may have turned out to be perfectly fine. I did. That is called resilience. And some may disagree with my values completely. But I still think that a loving 2-parent home, full of love, absent of abuse of any kind, absent of want and need, healthy, not troubled legally or otherwise, is the ideal…
“We are like a family here.” “OK, what type of family, and should I be scared?”
M.L., you are so right, getting along well in a prospective workplace should be self-evident. If a person must be told, they should indeed be skeptical.
My reply could have been something like “I hope you are not like MY family!”
@Karsten: When I got out of grad school, I interviewed with a small search firm. Made it through all the meetings. Then the owner of the firm asked me the big question. I don’t recall the specifics, but the gist was, How aggressive are you? I answered honestly: I get things done without being brash. He summarily rejected me and told me I wasn’t “hungry enough” for the job.
Cut to the next search firm. Having learned my lesson (“Tell them what they want to hear.”), I laid it on. The owner of this firm stopped the interview and told me I’d never make it in the business because I was too brash.
Lesson learned. It’s not smart to deliver clever answers that you think they want to hear.
The owner of the second firm gave me a second chance when I relaxed and acted like myself. She had me interview with her office manager, and she hired me. While I left the firm after two years to start my own business, it was a pretty good fit because the people were basically honest, friendly and easy to work with.
I wrote an article about this: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/hatellem.htm
Don’t play the game. That’s not what a GOOD employer hires you to do.
I have told several employers the truth, albeit as diplomatically as possible. The result? Firings. Who stays on? The obsequious. Sorry, Nick. You are right in theory, but I have rarely seen this work in practice. Women especially, are seen as bitchy ball-busters for not silently acquiescing to their boss’ stupidity. This is part of the reason I am more suited to self-employment, which also pays better. Bosses aren’t comfortable with the truth and it ends interviewee’s prospects. Many places say they want innovation but they really want status quo, based on results. But you are certainly right— those are not GOOD places to work for anyways. They are not the RIGHT employers for innovative employees. You never said it would be easy to find the right match.
Retired and doing something more useful to both myself and the world. Let’s face it – if 90% of the businesses went out of business, the only people who’d care would be the employees.
Merry Christmas and a Useful New Year!
@Steve Amoia: Your welcome. I should have stuck with it (USMC) retired at 38, and I wouldn’t have to worry about stoopid interview questions!
@M.L. et al.: “We are like a family here.”
Any interview that includes that (or heaven forbid, the company IS in fact family owned and operated) makes me mentally close my portfolio and head for the door. Most companies run in this manner put the “fun” in “dysfunctional”, and at this late stage of my career, I choose not to participate.
@Erika: Oh, but your story proves that it works in practice. You tell the employer the truth; you get fired. You become self-employed. Or you become free to find a better employer or to start a business. It’s never my intention to help people win or keep lousy jobs, but to help them develop a healthy life at work. The truth is sometimes both painful and detrimental to earning a living. But living a lie can kill you. As I’ve said before, I don’t disparage anyone who takes any job just to put food on the table. But please don’t pretend it’s anything more. Do what you have to, be honest with yourself, and plan to move on as soon as possible.
Amen, living a lie is detrimental to both the employee and the employer. One of the biggest reasons improvement initiatives fail is because leaders don’t engage everyone’s talents and thoughts. Employees and customers need to be treated as valuable stakeholders.
LOL My red flag is when someone asks if I can “work well under pressure” – I have, but I refuse to make it a habit.
I totally agree with your response Nick C. I wasn’t really contradicting myself, but there have been times in my younger yrs when I needed to compromise to put food on the table, but yes, I knew it was only that, and moved on as swiftly as possibly. (Which is sometimes not as swiftly as ideal in a terrible economy.) For an actual career, I agree that this is the time to be oneself and be choosy, so a bad “marriage” is not made. That could set one back in an arena that really mattered.
“One of the biggest reasons improvement initiatives fail is because leaders don’t engage everyone’s talents and thoughts. Employees and customers need to be treated as valuable stakeholders.”
AMEN to that! So many employers are more concerned that we don’t get “too big for our britches” by being invited to participate. But an unengaged, underutilized employee is a bored employee who will look around or get that hopeless feeling and stop performing.
I also agree to your assessment about “working under pressure.” I don’t want to make a habit of it either. If one does their job for 8+ hrs per day, where would the “pressure” be coming from? Colleagues or bosses who offload their work onto me because I’m a good worker and they know that they can get away with it in that culture?
I will be the dissenter here. I use the question when I interview some people. Not everyone and not for every position. Generally, it provides me with useful information when I am making an entry level hire. For the most part, they can’t tell me how they are going to help my organization. They lack the experience in both the workplace and in interviewing.
What can there answer tell me? It opens up the conversation as to whether there is a potential long-term future for them in the organization. I know the direction in which a career can go in my organization. If they are at 90 degrees from that, they might not be a good long-term fit. If they haven’t thought about it at all, they might not have the self-awareness that would make them an effective employee in my organization.
What about the standard canned answers? If I can’t distinguish a canned answer at this point, I must be having a bad day.
And yes, I do look at hiring as a long-term commitment and look to ensure that there is a career growth path. I’m not naive. I know how long people on average stay with an organization. Generally though, the people I have hired stay longer. I am still in communication with several who have left (generally for personal reasons). No hard feelings either way.
Asking where you see yourself in five years to someone with a lot of experience is not value added. You can see their career path in the projects they have taken on. And they should be able to provide me with better answers. Asking this question to someone nearing retirement is stupid.
Bottom-line, I I have used the question and think it has helped me make some good choices when asked appropriately.
@rkc: That’s one of the best explanations I’ve seen about how the question can be useful. It seems you actually USE it rather than just ask it. Good for you! Thanks for sharing your method.
Many good points. To me, with the exception of rkc’s use, if the asker wants a real answer it’s a waste of time. To quote one of my bosses classic lines “grown men don’t plan” (not meant as a compliment). To be kind, I think when used, in most cases it’s a question meant to get you talking to see if you can get some insights on the kind of person you are, outside of your vocation. Time flies when you’re having fun and 5 years is an eon. If you must answer it the best one I can come up with is after learning my way around the company, it’s mission, it’s culture I’ll adapt then help where needed drive the changes it needs to stay ahead of it’s game. If asked why I said that, I’ll point out in today’s business world a company that succeeds must be doing something different in 5 years, that don’t exist now. I’d cite 3M who publicly noted that they make about 80% of their revenue from products that didn’t exist 5 years ago. If you aren’t changing you’ll die. Same for people, you need to adapt. So it’s very logical that you haven’t a clue as to what you’ll be doing or want to do 5 years from now.
I don’t ask that question. I do ask questions in the spirit of it. I want to know what you aspire to and what you have a passion for. what rings your chimes. if an interviewer wants people to talk, these do while providing useful information. They apply to grads & people nearing retirement.
Thank you for posting this question. You have made me feel much better about what I experienced today. I am a thirty something female that was asked this “old school” question today at a job interview today by a twenty something female. I felt that the person was not highly skilled in interviewing. Most companies are only asking your two year plan now, especially since they are freezing or cutting out pensions all together. The five year question boils down to loyalty, which renders it useless in this economy. I’ve worked for a Fortune 500 and the federal government. Questions such as “Five Year” and “Small Gaps in your Employment” (for the most part) are silly, especially with the current outsourcing trends. When the recruiter reviewed my resume and asked why I hadn’t worked in a year in a half, I was honest. I was laid off, did some traveling and am now ready to get back into the workforce. That was not good enough for her apparently. My interview today was for a temp agency, to be placed on an assigment, well below the salary that I used to make. My previous position was “Phased Out” due to government budget cuts. Five year question, really? In five years, I fully intend to be working from my own home office (or Asia maybe even on Mars), happily filling my IRA, from the profits of my own business or a lucrative contract. I laughed all the way to the car, upon exiting this interview!