"This seems like a sideways move for you..."
July 13, 2020 11:48 AM   Subscribe

How do I explain a career move that doesn't seem in line with what most people's expectations of what a career move should look like?

I've posted before on here about my negative work situation (bad boss, toxic environment, etc) and I'm actively job-hunting, including one or two jobs that don't represent huge steps up in responsibility. For me, this is okay. I don't actually want a big step up in responsibility. I am burnt out.

Over the last few years my stressful, long-hours job and long commute have taken over my life and negatively impacted my hobbies, physical/mental health and social life, and I'm interviewing now for roles which don't seem particularly exciting but I'm fairly sure I could perform them well, I'd enjoy doing them (or at least not hate them) and also the commutes are easier (not relevant at the time of COVID19 but will eventually, at some point, become relevant again I think). I realise I am not guaranteed a walk in the park but I am prioritising jobs that are at the same level of responsibility, not steps up in responsibility.

But I keep getting asked at interview, "Why this move, it doesn't seem like a step up for you" and once I accept a job I anticipate lots of people asking me the same question.

How can I spin this especially in professional situations where they don't need to know about my personal issues with my manager and the workload?
posted by unicorn chaser to Work & Money (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
"Why this move, it doesn't seem like a step up for you"

"I'm not looking for a step up, I'm looking to continue to do well at a role I love at an organisation that values work/life balance."

Job done.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:57 AM on July 13, 2020 [27 favorites]

Try responding by highlighting the things about the job that interest you. You will be able to redirect from the “why a lateral move?” questions pretty easily if you can articulate specific things about the role that appeal to you.
posted by cakelite at 12:01 PM on July 13, 2020 [6 favorites]

It's about subtext. What they're REALLY asking is whether this new position will be satisfactory for you in the long term, since most applicants usually follow the expected track of changing jobs for more money or a better title. They don't want you to come on board, use time and resources to get trained up and counted on, and then leave abruptly because you decide you want more money/prestige/etc. after all.

In interviews (and afterwards, when talking with new colleagues), always remember to focus on the benefits of the new position instead of any complaints about the old one. So your answers should hone in on why you're excited about the new company/industry because of its work doing ABC, or how you are looking for a role where you'd be able to focus more on your particular strengths doing XYZ.
posted by mochapickle at 12:05 PM on July 13, 2020 [17 favorites]

Here's my take as someone responsible for HR and hiring:

Interviewer asks "Why this move, it doesn't seem like a step up for you?"

What they mean is "Is this person bad at their job and about to be fired, and therefore I'm at risk of wasting time and resources hiring, training, then eventually firing?"
or, "is this person good at their job and will jump ship as soon as a better job comes along, and and therefore I'm at risk of wasting time and resources hiring, training, then eventually accepting their early resignation?"

What you can say:

"why not take a step up? That's a great question. I enjoy this kind of work, and do not mind doing it. I wouldn't say no to higher compensation, but right now I am focusing on improving my work life balance, something that is difficult at my current company due to the work culture, and risky if I move to a position with more responsibilities.

"Looking into the opportunity at your company, it seems like a much better fit in terms of work-life balance. And I would be able to perform the same job with significantly less commute time, and less required but uncompensated evening and weekend work - making my effective hourly wage that much higher."

If I'm interviewing someone who appears overqualified for a mid to low-level job, I'm worried they are going to be an unhappy employee, or someone who jumps ship.

But if that same person talks about work-life balance - then I think they are considering employment as part of a bigger picture and may be more reliable and a better bet for hiring.

It can also be helpful to put a stake in the ground about what you expect for respecting boundaries of work and life, and hours and commitment. If the new jobs are round-the-clock grinds, then you both have the option to gracefully exit the hiring process before you sign on and then have to put your foot down about hours.

Of course your mileage may vary.

On preview - yeah what literally everyone else is saying but they did it shorter and better.
posted by sol at 12:07 PM on July 13, 2020 [14 favorites]

It's okay to say you like the general role and responsibilities and want to continue doing them, but that you're also looking for X traits or Y qualities.

In non-pandemic times, a shorter commute is a very legitimate reason to look for a different job that wouldn't be questioned much (by non-sociopaths who value work-life balance). If you use the commute as one of your main reasons, your can add that you knew you'd be returning to the office eventually and were ready for change.

+1 to everything mochapickle wrote, you got this! You don't need to satisfy their every curiosity, you just want to avoid being flagged as questionable by anyone interviewing you.

As for friends/family questioning your plans, let them know you want a better work-life balance, and that's what makes you happy in the long run. Some will get it, and others.... don't get to make life decisions for you.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 12:12 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is a great use for your cover letter. You can address it head on there and talk about how you’re looking for stability, a chance to excel in an individual contributor role, whatever it is that makes you feel good about a lateral move. (Or is it a step back?)

I feel like one of the other unspoken assumptions is that they won’t be able to match your salary requirements. Handily, being upfront in your cover letter will implicitly help address this too.
posted by capricorn at 12:14 PM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I did this successfully once. I was moving from a position directly engaged with scientific research to one where I would be doing administrative work a layer or two removed from actual hands-on work in a lab. The interviewers were clearly worried that I would a) be bored senseless b) find out that I really missed research and run screaming back to the lab. They just want to know that you are willing to do the work and stick around for a while.

In my case this involved emphasizing the parts of my then-job that I did like and would carry over, and also the parts that I was really looking forward to be free of.

It went something like "Being involved in and supporting research is something I feel really strongly about doing for my whole career, but I've realized through my current job that I really enjoy and am good at the administrative/organizing/compliance parts of it, and I'm not as passionate about data analysis and having toddlers squish crackers in my hair while I run them through experiments. I'm also really excited about moving to a department level where I can have a broader view of the whole scope of the organization's research, rather than having a deep-dive experience with just the one lab." I had to sell them on it a bit but it was do-able because I really did mean it in the broad strokes even if some of the specifics may have been laid on a little thick.

I've been there for nearly a decade now and no one has squished a cracker in my hair once. I'm very happy with my sideways move and I hope you find yourself in a better position too.
posted by Stacey at 12:26 PM on July 13, 2020 [8 favorites]

“I’ve heard great things about this company and want to be part of a team that’s well-run, well-organized, and headed by great people. I’ve realized over my career how important those qualities are for me, especially because I’m looking for a place I want to stay for the long run, as I continue to grow my career and skills.”
posted by sallybrown at 12:30 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

answer it entirely in terms of what you like about the position as described, how you will be good at doing it, and why you will enjoy being good at it. basically play up what you said here, except obvs never ever say you expect it to be boring but easy. don't know if it's generally advisable to mention an easy & sustainable commute as a factor, but you might drop that in as an afterthought as support for your argument that this a place you want to be and a job you want to do = that you would be a stable & reliable employee.

the only thing that is pretty universally true about interviewers is they don't want to hear bad things about your old job. It isn't that they don't need to know; they don't want to know and they will hold it heavily against you if you bring it up. they want to be a prized destination, not an emergency refuge. so just talk to them as if they are. it is ok to lie about your enthusiasm as long as you are truthful about your skill level.

move right on past the hierarchical part of it altogether. you are going somewhere, and this is the place you want to go. or if this seems impossible, say it is a step up by the metrics that are important to you.
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:35 PM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

"The position isn't a step up, but the job very much is. I've lost faith in Company X and I am looking forward to putting down roots in a company I can believe in."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:41 PM on July 13, 2020

Apologies but as someone who used to hire other people I would not want to hear someone I was interviewing tell me that they had lost faith in their old company. Even if their old company sucked I would not want to hear it because I would wonder if they were maybe a complainer who was going to make my life harder. Look, I’m not proud that that would be my thinking, but that would be my thinking. So don’t say anything bad about your current or former company, please. Even if your former company was shitty, focus on what an excellent fit this new job is for you.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:46 PM on July 13, 2020 [11 favorites]

I have asked this question when hiring people and the answer I wanted to hear what was cakelight said: something specific about the company that is appealing to you. If you can’t think of anything specific to them, an acceptable generic answer would be that they have a reputation for having a great company culture in which people can do good work. It would also be reasonable to say you especially enjoy working at large/small/well-established/fast-growing companies — whatever is true of them. Whatever you say, try to frame it as a positive about them, not a negative about your current company. You want to come across as someone who is happy and optimistic.

I wouldn’t have wanted to hear anything about good work-life balance, because leading with that as a major motivation to switch jobs would make me worry that you might have an unusually high need for balance — like, because you also have a side business or something. I also wouldn’t have wanted to hear about your commute, or about stability. Those are perfectly fine reasons, but not ones IMO you should lead with in an interview — it wouldn’t make someone excited about hiring you.

And sol is right that they are also trying to check to see if you are awful and on the verge of being fired, so I would be extra-careful to not trash-talk your current employer.
posted by Susan PG at 2:53 PM on July 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

I did this. I made a lateral move because I was completely burned out at my last job. I did not want a step up that would have left me even more burned out.

I explained in the interview that while I loved my field, and loved my former company, I was ready for a change and excited to bring my skills to a new industry and company. I'm in HR so my skills are highly translatable from industry to industry. I told them that my job search was very intentional, that I was looking for a company that had a core set of values that it truly lived, and that I wanted my next role to be long-term with the opportunity to make a real difference. I actually meant every word of this.

I didn't diss my former employer but I was honest about the fact that they had been experiencing a lot of leadership turnover and that that instability had inspired me to start looking sooner rather than later. But my interview themes were around looking for change, being part of a strong team, making meaningful contributions, and the opportunity to learn a new business and new way of doing things.
posted by MissPitts at 4:54 PM on July 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

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