Can you distinguish between your vertical progression through the ranks at your last/present company and your lateral assumption of broader responsibilities?

Why Ask This Question?

It's fairly well known that U.S. organizations are flattening out by reducing the levels of management necessary to carry out business. Consequently, far fewer jobs are available up the proverbial corporate ladder. Instead, many workers are seeking cross-functional experiences to broaden their expertise in their organizations' line units. Similarly, many executives are looking for international assignments to gain the broader knowledge of doing business overseas.

Analyzing the Response

As discussed under Question 21, documenting vertical promotions is a fairly straightforward task. The key to evaluating lateral movement, on the other hand, lies in understanding the candidate's motivation behind those moves. When workers assume broader responsibilities by relocating to another plant or related business unit, it is either at their request or the company's. Both reasons are telling.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. Employees who deliberately seek out cross-functional opportunities will most likely increase their chances for promotion later on at their current firm, or they will improve their marketability elsewhere. The answer regarding the individual's motivation can be gleaned by asking something like:

''When you switched from field human resources to corporate human resources, what ultimate goal did you have in mind?''

''And what prompted the move: Were you asked by management to transfer to the corporate office, or did you put in for the transfer yourself?''

''In retrospect, what was the ultimate benefit to the company?''

Employees who relocate or take on lateral assignments at the company's request show both loyalty and flexibility—two very admirable traits in today's business world. After all, what greater test of an employee's commitment is there than accepting an assignment overseas for a year and relocating the entire family? Moreover, in a study conducted by the national outplacement firm Right Associates in conjunction with the University of Tennessee, it was estimated that 41 percent of employee relocations were for lateral moves whereas only 39 percent were for promotions. Consequently, there is a marked shift away from the traditionally accepted ''transfer equals promotion paradigm. What that means to you is that lateral relocations and cross-functional training represent a new barometer for measuring employee commitment and adaptability.

Discussing the ramifications of individuals' career movements within their companies can clearly serve as an accurate indicator of people s needs and motivation. It s equally important to look at career progression from a job change perspective as candidates consider leaving their current company to join yours. When employed candidates interview with you and express a generic reason for wanting to leave their present position like, ''I m looking for added responsibilities and more challenge, it s time to gain a more accurate understanding of their real motivation for change. You can gather a more realistic response by asking:

What would be your next logical move in progression at your present company?

Why Ask This Question?

Let s face it: No one wants to talk about a derailed career. After all, upward movers and fast trackers will stay with a company as long as they can still make a positive impact on the organization and their interpersonal relationships remain strong. Once that win-win relationship gets compromised, however, the job search begins. Still, as a savvy and sophisticated interviewer, you re responsible for getting to the heart of the matter, and few questions work as well as this one in forcing individuals to candidly come to terms with their current limitations.

Analyzing the Response

The ''next logical move in progression query surfaces candidates immediate career goals: namely, their next step in added responsibilities, influence, and compensation. Something is blocking their attainment of that brass ring—a superior who refuses to retire, a change in senior management that threatens job stability, or a level of achievement that seems to elude them— and they may not be comfortable admitting it to themselves, much less you, the prospective employer.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. A gentle probing question regarding the nature of this career block might sound something like this: ''Chuck, the company is healthy, your track record with the firm is apparently very solid, yet you re looking outside for increased opportunities.

Share with me what's blocking the road ahead for you. And what would have to happen for you to remove that roadblock from your path?'' Your caring tone should go a long way in encouraging the candidate to open up regarding his actual concerns. More important, your targeted question will have pierced a wound that you have every right to explore before passing final judgment on this individual's candidacy.

To encourage the candidate further, you might ask questions like these:

''Where exactly on the organization chart would you be if you made one vertical move upward?''

''Whose job would you have, why would you want it, and what would you typically have to do to get there?''

''What would you have to add to your background to receive that promotion?''

''How long would it take for you to see that game plan through to completion?''

''From a relationship standpoint with your boss, what's the key factor keeping you from reaching that rung on the ladder?''

Red Flags

All shooting stars eventually burn out. Interpersonal relationships fluctuate as personnel changes take place. And the heir apparent to the throne may get passed over for someone else who is possibly less capable but more politically fit. These are all natural occurrences that encourage workers to explore opportunities with other teams in different leagues. You are ultimately responsible, however, for ensuring that the malady plaguing the candidate isn't chronic and going to carry forward to your company.

When you're not sure that you're getting the whole story regarding the candidate's motivation for leaving the current company and joining yours, apply the pressure-temperament-recognition'' triad to explore common problem areas that candidates usually prefer to hide from prospective employers. These three issues should be applied as rapid-fire queries to swiftly identify a candidate's hot buttons that could trigger negative reactions. A dubious response in any of the three following areas should be probed more deeply for fear that the problem will infect new employees in your organization. For example, you could use this questioning strategy as follows:

''Vic, I sense that you're holding back from me regarding what's really standing in your way at your current company.

''Tell me about the level of pressure on your job: Did you ever find yourself complaining about management's inability or unwillingness to relieve the pressure, and could that have anything to do with your decision to look elsewhere?

''Would you say that your temperament complemented your boss's, or were you cut from a different cloth? In other words, did the interpersonal relationship with your immediate superior demotivate you or encourage you to reach your personal best?

''How could the company have done a better job of recognizing your contributions?''

How could these problem issues carry over into your organization? Someone who complains about management s unwillingness to better the working environment is most likely conditioned to place blame on the organization rather than accept responsibility for the company s shortcomings. In addition, having a different outlook or opinion than your supervisor is in itself no great sin, but this query may trigger some deep resentment that the candidate holds against his superior. Thus your specific mention of this issue could open a floodgate of complaints against the person's boss. Finally, feeling inadequately recognized for your contributions isn't at all uncommon—unless the candidate placed unrealistic expectations or demands on his previous company.

In short, these rapid-fire queries could very well release pent-up tensions lying just below the surface. A candidate with chronic issues regarding stress, interpersonal relationships with the boss, or the need for praise and recognition may very well stir up similar latent feelings in coworkers. Again, many candidates have such issues to some degree, but if they seem disproportionately strong, proceed with caution.

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