When Can You Start?

By Joe Stein

For some Interviewers, this question is merely a matter of routine because they ask it of all interviewed candidates as part of a set list. For most, however, it is asked of candidates that did well in the interview.   In these situations, being asked the question is a nice sign of interest.
Whatever the reason it is asked, the question may appear to be easy to answer, but is actually much more complex. This is certainly one that you will want to answer successfully as it may just immediately lead to a “next step” discussion.
This week, let’s look at one of the most anticipated Frequently Asked Question: “When Can You Start?” 
Why Is It Asked?
·        The Need to Plan – It is important to know when someone can start for several reasons, whether it is for training/on-boarding, scheduling, or to reduce overtime. On the rare occasion, the need may be immediate and the company is looking for a quick turnaround. This generally only happens with entry-level positions where speed of filling the position may outweigh selecting the best candidate.
·        Display Interest – This is sometimes a subtle way to let a candidate know that the Interviewer is interested without overtly stating that information. This can be strategically important for a Hiring Manager if he or she feels the candidate may have other employer options. The thought being that, perhaps, by showing some implied interest, they will be able to engage the candidate longer while they finish the process.
·        Gauge Candidate Interest Level – The question may be asked to view the reaction of the candidate. If the candidate does not appear to have a genuine interest in discussing a potential start date, then the prospective employer may just decide to move on. 
How Should It Be Answered?
·        Be Honest About Any Delay – If there is some need for a delay in your start period, then communicate this information. I am assuming that if it is months, you probably are not even actively looking. Most employers will understand if you answer in terms of weeks. There is not a requirement to go into detail about the reason for your delay unless you feel it is to your advantage to explain.
·        Offer Notice – If you are currently employed, most prospective employers will look at you a little funny if you answer “immediately”. It is a given that proper business etiquette requires a notice period when you preparing to depart a company. For Non-Exempt/Hourly folks, the standard is 1-2 week of notice provided and for Exempt/Salary, that accepted period is 2-4 weeks (the longer period for higher-level positions). A Hiring Manager will probably process that if you are prepared to give no notice to your current employer, you are likely to do the same to him or her in the future.
·        With Confidence – This is especially important for those not currently employed. It is almost human nature to jump on this question and appear desperate when you are in this situation. Show enthusiasm and answer it confidently, but do not appear like you have no options and you have just been thrown a life preserver. The Interviewer may begin to doubt his or her interest in you by wondering why you are so desperate.
What Not To Do:
·        Answer With Excited Frenzy –   Don’t get carried away when asked this question. Act like this is just any other question and answer clearly and confidently. Do not stammer/stutter or appear overly excited that you were asked the question.
·        Act In Shock – Respond to the question like you expected to be asked it. This is no time for an “I Don’t Know”. Show some confidence and answer as you prepared it. Not knowing when you can start does not really leave a good impression.
·        Display a Lack of Interest – The Interviewer is going to expect you to have some interest in this aspect of the discussion. Even if the position does not overly excite you, keep your options open by answering the question. Unless you feel that the process will be a waste of time, don’t close the book on a prospective employer until you know everything you can and there is an offer presented.
·        Feel Pressured – A prospective employer, on a rare occasion, may pressure the desired candidate into cutting short or eliminating the notice period. They make it clear that the potential for an offer is contingent on doing this to your current employer. Make the decision that works best for you, but be wary of any employer that would use this tactic. It is generally a sign of how they treat employees on an overall basis.
·        Drop a “Bomb” – The Interviewer should not find out any new information during this discussion. I once had a candidate who was very highly regarded during the interview process, but answered this final question by informing us that he really is no longer with his last company as of a week ago and could start right away. Not the time to let us know as that opened up a whole new set of questions. We ended up deciding not to hire him and the way he handled this situation played a major role in the decision. 
This can be one of the most challenging questions to answer because of the level of strategy associated with delivering the correct response.  The key is to anticipate the question, prepare your response, and practice the delivery and you will be on your way to acing this inquiry.
As always, best of luck in your job search.