Tricky Job Interview Question: When Can You Start?

WorkCoachCafeThis can be a wonderful question to be asked at the end of an interview. It feels like a simple question, but it really isn’t.

Being asked this question does NOT mean that the employer is making you a job offer. For many employers, this question is asked of most – if not all – job candidates, just in case… 

So, avoid sounding too desperate (no one wants to hire someone who is desperate) or too eager (which can make employers suspicious of your motivation) by saying “RIGHT NOW!”-  even if that’s exactly what you are thinking.

A very good first response would be the counter-question, “When would you like me to start?” If that question is not answered, or is deflected, then, give the response you had already prepared (right?).

Know Your Answer Before You Are Asked

It’s easy to get intimidated into over-committing to an early start date, but you want to get the new job off to a great beginning. In addition, you don’t want to create any long term problems with your employer (if you are currently employed).

Be careful when answering. Think about what you absolutely need and what you would like.

It’s better to initially ask for more time than you think you will need, allowing yourself time to shut down your job search, take care of family or home issues that have been on hold, and maybe take a day or two for some “R and R.” Then, if your new employer wants you to start earlier, you can adjust to a shorter time frame.

It is very difficult to go from telling an employer you can start in two days and then asking for more time, like a week – not a good start! It is much better and easier to initially ask for two weeks and adjust to a shorter time frame if the new employer requests.

Be cautious of an employer who doesn’t appreciate your commitment and loyalty to your current employer.

So, How Do You Answer This Question – When Can You Start a New Job?

The “right” answer depends on a bunch of things.

If you are currently employed…

Your answer depends on:

  • The amount of notice your current employer’s policies require. OR
  • The amount of notice you agreed to in an employment contract you might have signed when you were hired. OR
  • The amount of notice required in a union contract you may be a participant in if you are a member of the union. OR
  • The amount of notice required by local government regulation. OR
  • The commitment you made to your current employer for a project.

Research to discover any local government regulations or union rules that may apply to you and your job. Where you work, look and ask as carefully and subtly as possible about applicable policies or rules. If possible, ask former employees what rules or restrictions they encountered.

Once you know the answer to those questions, you can share it with your new employer:

  • My employer (or my contract with my employer) requires me to give [the amount] of notice before I leave. OR
  • I am finishing a project that should be completed by [realistic date], and I need to stay until then. But I can start immediately after that. OR
  • I am working on an important project for my current employer and would like to remain until [reasonable date] to ensure a smooth transition.

Always emphasize that you can be flexible in choosing a starting date.

If you are NOT currently employed…

You have many more options since you have no obligation to give a current employer appropriate notice. You may want to begin working immediately so you can pay your bills. However, don’t underestimate the time you might need to shut down your job search gracefully and get back into work mode.

If you can afford it, a few days of real relaxation before you start your new job can be a wonderful catch-your-breath break.

So take those needs into consideration when you frame your answer, like this:

  • I am available to start whenever you need me to start.
  • I need (or would greatly appreciate) a few days (or a week or two) to clear the decks before I start, but I can be flexible if you need me before then.

Close by emphasizing that you will be flexible.

2 VERY Important DON’Ts!

While you may be very tempted, do NOT do either of these two things:

  1. Don’t leave your current job without sufficient notice to your employer. 
  2. Don’t give notice to your current employer until you are holding a written job offer – that you have accepted, preferably in writing – in your hands.

Leaving your current employer too abruptly may come back to bite you hard in your next job search, when someone checks for a reference with that former employer (they won’t be happy with you).

And, turning in your notice in anticipation of a job offer can be a very big mistake when the job offer doesn’t happen because they ultimately chose someone else or the job was cancelled or put on hold. Don’t give your notice until you have received that official job offer. an interviewer who says he or she looks forward to working with you is NOT a job offer.

More on Answering Job Interview Questions

What Happened – Did I Get the Job?

Great! They Want to Hire You. Now What?

How to Answer the Top 10 Job Interview Questions

More Interview Questions Answered:

Answering the Dreaded Salary Question

Why Do You Want to Work Here?

Why Should We Hire You?

Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?

So What Do You Know About Us?

Where Do You See Yourself Five Years From Now?

What’s Your Greatest Weakness?

What’s Your Greatest Strength?

Tell Me A Little About Yourself

Ask the Right Questions

© Copyright, 2014, Susan P. Joyce. All rights reserved.


About the author…

Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been  observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. In 2011, NETability purchased, and Susan has been editor and publisher of WorkCoach since then.  Susan also edits and publishes  Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on .



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