Red Flag Interview Question.

I was in two minds whether to discuss this topic as it's was quite a recent scenario.  However, I do think it's interesting and I've had to challenge my own thinking!  I am most definitely not someone who sets out to be divisive or to bait a response but on this subject I've always had a firm opinion and sometimes it does no harm to question oneself!

My client here is a well established integrated agency.  Boutique in size and long established. Genuinely lovely people and a very good creative output and they're strong across all channels and on strategy as much as delivery/production.  

I have a candidate who was interviewing for a Senior Account Executive position.  

The client and the candidate met for a first chat via Teams.  It was a good chat and the client asked me if we could set up a second interview - Face to Face and they'd ask the candidate to respond to a brief.  

However, the client said that they did have one 'red flag' that had come up during the interview.  When asked if they had any questions at the end of the chat, the candidate asked what the office hours were and how long they would have for a lunch break. 

Historically, I would always advise to never ask about hours or questions of this nature in a first interview.  Potentially at second stage, I would ask a little about work life balance or ask to chat to another member of the client services team to talk about 'a day in the life' and to ascertain if the agency has a good culture when it comes to working hours and conditions.  Directly asking 'how long do I get for lunch' is, I think, bound to get a potential employer wondering how much of a grafter you are. 

Interviews are a performance.  You're up against other people (usually).  It's certainly not unreasonable to ask questions but if the first question you ask is about hours and lunch, then it's likely that the employer will have a concern.    It would be disingenuous of me to say otherwise. 

However, now for the other side of the argument!   When I rang the candidate to ask for their feedback on how they thought the chat had gone....the candidate remarked that it had gone well but (exact same phrasing!) they too had a 'red flag moment'.  They'd asked about hours and lunch and could see that the client was visibly, not shocked but surprised at this being a question.  The candidate then surmised that perhaps they would not want to work for an employer who did not support people taking a lunch break or leaving the office on time.


Now, I work with a lot of agencies across the region. I work with networked agencies and independents.  In fact, there are more owner managed agencies than networks here in the regions and the ethos is generally 'we all muck in'.   Whilst there are some agencies who are 'renowned' for long hours and hard working cultures, this agency is certainly not one of them. 

I'm also conscious that as a nation, we don't really do lunch during the working week.  In most offices, people will nip out for a sandwich, perhaps do a few messages and then head back to the office. We're not the French who will have a menu du jour including an aperitif.

Most employers are pretty flexible. Particularly post Covid.  Most agencies now have core hours so they won't fret if you're not there at 0900 on the dot or if you have to run at 1630 - there is a general consensus that it all works out evenly and if you do need to leave early, that's communicated to the team and it's all fine. Equally, one might log on at home just to send an email - again that's something the French have made illegal!  Lots of agencies also have a policy that if you're finding things tough during the working day to take some time out - go for a walk around the block - clear your head. 

I don't know many employers now who have a full hour for a lunch break either.  Typically it's 45 minutes and again, occasionally if you need to leave early then I'm sure most employers are fine with taking a shorter break so that you can head off on time. 

In this example. Context and Communication are everything.  The candidate, as it transpires, does have several activities in the evening during the week.  They would be commuting by public transport to the office (hence worrying about being there at the dot of 9) but also on those days with an evening engagement, they wondered if they might be able to work through lunch so that they could leave early to ensure that they made the engagement (again, bearing in mind public transport). 

During the interview, I think the candidate felt flustered that they could read the reaction of the client and the client themselves didn't want to come across as being a sweat shop.  However, from the client's perspective, there was a definite feeling that 'we're an agency, sometimes if a client makes a demand, we have to react'.  Of course, again, context is key. Agencies, particularly independent ones operate as a team and as a team, you'd work together to ensure delivery.

And the candidate, felt distraught that the client might think they were a 'slacker'.  Or that they weren't 100% committed to their day job or not interested in furthering their career.

The concerns were addressed by me to both parties and the candidate and client are meeting again for a second stage interview with a brief.  Both are now on the same page when it comes to that question and the answer.  From the client's perspective, if it's the best person for the job, as much flexibility as possible will be given - but the goodwill and flexibility does go both ways. 

I did briefly consider how it would work in creative agency if someone could only arrive at 0900 and had to leave at 1730 on the dot every day and they took a full hour to go for lunch.  I actually just don't think that would happen.  Most people work in the creative sector for the pace and the vibrancy of the culture and that's definitely not a 'clock in, clock out' mentality.  But the majority of creative agencies do work very hard to create a good work life balance for everyone and they know that if they don't....people will leave!

I still think that I wouldn't recommend asking this question at first interview.  And I'd phrase the subject a little more tactfully.   And if there is a specific context - e.g. I need to nip home to walk the dog, then be open about it - it will make it much easier for a potential employer to say if they can accommodate your needs or if it's just not the right place for you.  There is somewhere for everyone!

By Fiona.  20 June 2024.