Will your ideas be the gift that gives back, or will they present a real issue?
Will your ideas be the gift that gives back, or will they present a real issue? Image: Kostikova Natalia/Shutterstock

Should you give away your ideas to prospective employers?

26 Oct 2017

You want to make it clear to your potential boss that you have ideas, but should you reveal them in an interview?

It is a painful situation familiar to all: the minutes of waiting before being ushered into a job interview.

You’re taut with tension and straightening out the creases beginning to form on your interview clothes, envisioning what kind of questions your prospective employer may ask you.

Trying to make someone understand not only that you’re a good and qualified candidate, but the most suitable candidate for the job, can seem insurmountable. How do you make someone pick you?

Your interviewer peeks over their open notebook, which has a printout of your CV and cover letter tucked into the pages near the back. ‘What ideas do you have to improve x?’ they ask. ‘What method would you suggest for x?’

Any opportunity to prove you have ideas seems like the perfect way to impress your would-be boss and distinguish yourself from the sea of applicants.

The pressures of the interview environment make you want to say exactly what the interviewer wants to hear. You also want to dazzle them, so it seems the logical conclusion is to give them the best ideas you have right then and there. But what if the employer just takes your idea and runs, without hiring you?

Liz Ryan was once the senior vice-president of HR at a Fortune 500 company and hired “thousands of people” during her time in the position. One of the pieces of wisdom that she gives most emphatically is this: do not give away free advice at the interview stage.

She is aware of the natural impulse to present all your good ideas upon command, but warned that this is dangerous for multiple reasons.

“[Jobseekers] don’t realise that your value as a candidate doesn’t increase when you spill the contents of your brain across the conference room table. Your value decreases.”

Ryan maintains that people don’t want to hire the person who is the most “docile” in interview, or the one who is the most obsequious. There is also the more sinister possibility that your potential boss will steal your ideas and then forget you even exist, a grim reality for some unfortunate jobseekers out there.

Ryan has created a pretty handy flowchart outlining every (negative) possible outcome of giving away ideas too quickly in interview.

Your options are as follows: you give the employer an idea they already thought of and rejected, which results in them thinking your ideas are bad; you give them something they already tried that was a failure, which also results in them thinking your ideas are bad; or you give them a great idea that they subsequently steal.

It’s like being between a rock and a hard place, it seems, but amplified – more like encased in some sort of metaphorical cement. A trap, if you will.

So, the question is a trap that can potentially derail your interview or leave you feeling cheated after having your idea unscrupulously stolen. Yet the issue still remains of how to navigate such a tricky question in interview without leaving a bad taste in the mouth of the company you want to hire you.

Luckily, Ryan has kindly laid out a script that you can roughly follow. The key is to indicate that you understand how to implement and create good ideas while skilfully equivocating around the actual nugget of the idea, without a sense of absence or avoidance creeping into your tone.

By being asked to give ideas in interview, you’re essentially being treated like a consultant. A consultant working pro bono, granted, but a consultant nonetheless. So, consider your potential employer as if they were a client.

As Ryan points out, any consultant worth their salt knows that the priority in initial meetings with clients is to establish what they want and ask plenty of questions so you can tailor your plan of action to their needs. As you ask questions, you can showcase your critical-thinking skills by offering observations based on the information you’re being given.

Instead of giving away specific ideas, you can instead speak about the process by which you would execute ideas. Keep the conversation in a more general, speculative realm.

This way, you’ve made it clear that you’re up to the task of solving your potential employer’s problems rather than handing over solutions without any commitment on their part.

The job search can be a complete minefield, but that doesn’t mean you have to get burned.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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