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Is it OK to tell an employer you prefer to take a step back?

I got a note from a reader asking about how they might be perceived by potential employers when he tells them he would prefer a lesser role than he had in his previous position.

He had advanced to a leadership position in his previous company, however, came to the conclusion he enjoys his career much more at the staff level. He tells potential employers he "prefers an individual contributor role", however, is unsure whether that hurts his chances of getting a position, or helps.

The answer is likely… YES.

The reaction to his statement is a very subjective one. Some employers will surely see it as a lack of drive and ambition, or as settling for something less than he could be. While others will see it as great self-awareness, and think well of him for understanding where he's most effective and not trying to be something he's not. It's not usually obvious which way a potential employer will react. However, you can look for some clues…

Ask questions throughout the interview. Any good interview should be a 2-way street with the candidate asking questions along with the employer. Asking questions about the organization, the culture, about other successful employees, about typical career paths, about expectations, and many other related topics will give you clues about what they value most. If it becomes clear they are always looking for the ambitious climber up the corporate ladder, telling them you prefer to be an individual contributor may not resonate very well. If, however, they talk about consistently adding value, long-term tenure, effective team contributions, or other related topics, a solid individual contributor may be quite attractive to them.

What really matters is honesty! As with so many other questions that come up about interviews… honesty is the best policy. The constant quest by some job seekers to answer questions with the spin they think will most impress the employer, often misses the mark by not figuring out if the job is right for them. If, as in this case, an employer is really not interested in someone that wants to remain an individual contributor instead of strive to become a manager, spinning an answer to get the job will lead to a very unhappy employment situation. Seeking an employer that wants a long-term effective individual contributor will lead to a much more satisfying career. Stating what's true for you and letting the cards fall where they may, is more likely to end up with the right outcome for that particular opportunity.

Certainly a job seeker should always hone their words and practice ways to best present themselves and concisely convey their objectives. However, trying to creatively say something that sounds like something else, only leads to misunderstandings or frustrations down the road.

Be aware that reactions will vary. Ask plenty of questions of your own throughout the interview process. Be direct and honest. And your results will be the best outcome for each opportunity.


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