This can feel like an exciting and promising question to be asked in a job interview.
Do NOT see this question as the guarantee of a job offer!
Many employers ask most -- if not all -- job candidates this question, just in case the candidate is the one selected for this job.
This seems like a simple question to answer, but, in reality, answering appropriately takes time, effort, and information.
Don't say "TOMORROW!" unless you are unemployed and don't need any time to prepare to start a new job.
Avoid sounding 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.
Instead, a very good response would be the counter-question,
When would you LIKE me to start?
When would you NEED me to start?
If they do not tell you when they need you to start, give the response you had already prepared. (More on preparing below.)
If they do give you a date, evaluate whether or not that date is realistic for you, given your current situation and possible commitments to your current employer.
For most employers and jobs, some flexibility in determining your start date is usually acceptable. However, if they give you a specific date, be very careful of making a commitment you cannot keep. Or, if their date works for you, you can make a note of it, and tell them that the date is fine -- IF it really is acceptable to you.
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 existing employer (if you are currently employed).
Be very 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 later to go from telling an employer you can start in two days to 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 or if you are able.
Be cautious of an employer who does not appreciate your commitment and loyalty to your current employer.
The “right” answer depends on several things.
Your answer depends on:
If you signed an employment contract when you started your current job, hopefully you retained a copy that you can check. Or, 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:
Stay truthful, but don't share too much information.
Know that the real starting date may change as their hiring process or the job offer negotiations take a few days (or weeks) to conclude.
You should 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 and preparation for being employed can be very helpful. This time before you start your new job can be a wonderful catch-your-breath break.
So taking those needs into consideration, frame your answer like this:
Do not include any personal details. You're not best friends with these people (yet).
If you ask the when-do-you-need-me question, be prepared with your answer. The employer may give you a start date, which may or may not be real, but the date is too soon for you.
If their date is not acceptable, provide them with an alternative date. You don't need to give a reason, simply state,
Unfortunately, that date will not work for me. How about [your preferred date].
If you are currently employed, a very good reason you cannot start immediately is because you need to give your current employer sufficient notice (two weeks is standard). You can explain that situation simply.
Unfortunately, that date will not work for me. I am required to give my current employer two weeks [or whatever is required by your employer or specified in your contract with them] notice, so I won't be able to start until [alternate date].
OR, as recommended by Pam Lassiter of Lassiter Consulting Services...
Unfortunately, that date will not work for me. I want to be fair to my current employer and give them adequate notice notice, so I won't be able to start until [alternate date].
Most (but not all) employers will respect and appreciate your consideration for your current employer, knowing how annoying and disruptive it can be when an employee leaves without sufficient notice.
On the other hand, some employers may use the delay in starting as a reason to choose another candidate, which may be an indication that the employer or the manager is not very flexible or respectful of their employees. Or, they may have a very tight schedule and are unable to be flexible. You need to decide what you think the situation is and how important your need for more time is to you.
Typically, leaving your current employer without sufficient notice is a bad idea that may mean poor references from that employer for many years in the future. Depending on your employer, once you give notice, they may terminate you, enabling you to move on to the new job immediately. So, a response could be...
Unfortunately, that date may not work for me. I am required to give my current employer two weeks [or whatever is required] notice, but they may not enforce that requirement. Let me talk to them to see if I could start sooner.
Choose the option that is most appropriate for you.
On the other hand, if their start date works for you, confirm the date.
While you may be very tempted, do NOT do either of these two things:
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 (the former employer you left too quickly won’t be happy with you).
And, turning in your notice in anticipation of a job offer can be a VERY big mistake when that job offer does not happen because the employer ultimately chose someone else or the job was cancelled or put on hold.
Be sure that the job offer is in writing on the corporate letterhead or from HR or the hiring manager's corporate email address including the agreed-upon:
This is often asked of all qualified candidates, but do be well-prepared for this question so that you can make an excellent impression and, hopefully, a smooth transition if an offer is made.
Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a recent Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. Since 1998, Susan has been editor and publisher of Job-Hunt.org. Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Facebook, LinkedIn.