How to Answer the Interview Question: “So, how long do you plan on staying here?”

I recently got an e-mail from a woman that went something like this:

“Last week I was being interviewed for a promotion within my company, and was one of several applicants being considered for the job. Thought things were going rather well until the interviewer suddenly asked me, ‘So how long do you plan on staying in Norway?’ This was a question that I was completely unprepared for, and I stumbled so much through my answer that I can hardly remember what I said. Of course, I wondered afterwards if I got this question because I’m the only foreign-born permanent resident in the running (the others are natives). And hoped my poorly prepared answer hadn’t hurt my chances of getting the job. Am I just being paranoid? Is this a fair question to ask in this situation? Regardless, what would be the best answer to give?”

To which I replied:

“My first thought was that as in many instances where work-related misunderstandings  arise, there are two ways of looking at it. Let’s take the darker one first, which says that the interviewer is on the surface trying to find out how long you will stay in the job should you get it. Additionally, there’s a subtext here implying that because you grew up in another country, it’s only natural you’d want to return there as soon as possible. Even more extreme, the question poses a kind of loyalty test about living here – you pass only if your answer if appropriately enthusiastic (‘Oh, forever and ever!’) and fail if you sputter out anything less positive. And even more extreme than that—

But let’s stop there. Let’s not stay on the darker side, but rather move to the lighter one – both because of what might merely be my optimistic outlook and because I truly think that this is what happened in your case. This interviewer could’ve been showing what is, after all, natural curiosity about how you have enjoyed living in Norway, your adopted country. Granted, it was a clumsy way of going about it. And as I wasn’t there, only you could interpret the way in which the question was put to you – in other words, the interviewer’s tone of voice and facial expression when asking it. Perhaps all he/she really meant was to show interest in you as a person (not just an employee) sitting on the other side of the desk.

That said, the interviewer shouldn’t be entirely let off the hook here. While I wouldn’t necessarily say it was an unfair question, it wasn’t exactly an appropriate one, either. No matter, the best answer here would be to look them in the eye with a smile and answer in a friendly manner: ‘Oh, I haven’t put any time limit on living here. I’m really enjoying my work-life situation and feel grateful that things have turned out so well for me.’ Or something similar to that effect. Pushing any paranoia away so that you and your interviewer can quickly move along to the next question (which will hopefully be more suited to asking you about your background and skills). And you continue showing them by your well-rehearsed answers just what an excellent applicant you are, one who deserves this promotion. Hope you get the offer – good luck!”

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