During a typical job interview, you can usually expect to answer familiar questions like “What are your strengths?” or “Why exactly do you want to work here?” Occasionally, you might also field not-so-legal questions from a hiring manager, the kind that involves your personal business or family plans, for instance. (If you’re in this position, it’s perfectly ok not to answer.)
And between those two areas lies a grey area of questions that aren’t necessarily illegal, but probably aren’t easy to answer, at least without taking time to consider your options. One such question is whether you’d be willing to make a long-term commitment to a prospective employer—before you’re even officially hired.
Over on Forbes, one reader experienced this dilemma. “When I took my job a year ago, my boss made me sign a piece of paper that said I would stay in the job for two years,” she wrote, asking for advice. “... I’ve only been in the job for a year but I’m ready to go.”
In the past, you may have also been asked something slightly similar, like where you see yourself in five years, which could be a simple question about your long-term goals—or just a subtle means of better understanding your commitment to that company.
As you can already guess, this ask for a commitment is mostly about the company. “I know companies want employees that are in it for the long-haul,” Brianna Rooney, CEO of the Millionaire Recruiter and Techees.com, a recruiting firm, said via email.
If you’re asked to commit to a company, you should know that it isn’t some binding agreement, however. (Unless you do sign a binding contract upon your hiring that includes this contingency. Even then, as Forbes writes, chances are your written agreement is easily breakable depending on the contract and employer). But first, you should consider what saying “yes” could mean and decidedly leaving before your time is up.
As Allison Green of Ask A Manager writes, if you leave a job early under a verbal commitment to that company, you might risk a hit to your reputation in your field or the possibility of ever getting hired at that company in the future, but no other tangible consequences. If it’s a binding agreement, you might risk losing out on a bonus or other incentive, on top of the concerns above, but that depends on your particular case. You should take time to understand these risks if you’re on the fence about taking on an opportunity, long-term.
Saying “no” to a commitment is ok, too, especially if you feel uncomfortable with the question being asked from the outset. On the other hand, there are other ways to answer questions about your future without necessarily committing to any timeline. Green recommends an ethical answer to the question: “Obviously I can’t predict the future and nothing’s written in stone, but if everything goes well on both sides, I’d hope to stay a long time.”
If asked specifically about your five-year plan, Rooney recommends another good starting point for an answer, that should sound something like, “My intentions are to find a company that I can grow and learn with.”
And if you’re still stressing out about an upcoming job interview, check out our guide to acing the interview, so you can better anticipate what questions you might be asked.