should you listen to your gut when job-searching?

A reader writes:

I am being laid off at the end of February. It’s a single-role redundancy, not a mass layoff, and as much as something like this can ever be positive, it is. My managers have gone out of their way to make it clear that they hate to see me go and have been very proactive in putting me in touch with contacts for further opportunities.

Today I met with a hiring manager who is looking for a specific area of experience that I have. I was excited about the role before the meeting, but now that we’ve talked — and even though she seemed very nice and capable — I feel like I should run screaming in the other direction. I can identify a few concrete reasons, such as upheaval in their staffing arrangements, but my reasons don’t seem like they’re good enough to justify how strongly I feel about it — and it would otherwise be great in terms of hours and pay. It would also likely only be a 6-8 month contract, so a part of me thinks I should just go for it and stick it out if it’s bad.

I have always tended to listen to my instincts when I have such a strong response to situations, even if I can’t entirely work out why — but I feel like there is more at stake here. I’m afraid it’s a huge mistake to turn down the opportunity to go straight into new employment with no gap, and that it would make me look bad to the hiring manager and also to the person who recommended me. Obviously I can’t count on an offer being made — maybe they had the same reaction to me! — but my impression is that they’re likely to want to go ahead with it. Should I be trying to work past my strong negative reaction, or go with my gut?

I’m a big, big believer in listening to your gut, if your gut has a good track record.

Gut reactions are often based on real things that you’re picking up subconsciously. Here’s an example of how this can work: You go to an interview, and on the surface everything seems fine. However, what you didn’t consciously notice was that everyone you passed on the way to your interviewer’s office looked miserable and the interviewer kept looking nervously at her door when she spoke out of fear of being overheard saying things she didn’t want your future coworkers to hear. Plus, she avoided some of your direct questions a few times and never answered what you’d asked about. You didn’t notice these things on a conscious level, but your subconscious did — and filed them away. As a result, you now have a bad gut feeling, but since you can’t place your finger on why, you’re tempted to dismiss the worries because you can’t justify them on a logical level.

Now, this isn’t always how gut feelings work. Sometimes they’re not rooted in real external things at all. Sometimes they’re rooted in anxiety, or fear of change, or something else entirely. So it’s important to be honest with yourself about all your feelings about a situation, so that you can try to separate that stuff out.

And it’s also true that some people are really bad at reading situations. If you know from past experience that your gut isn’t calibrated that well — that you have a history of misreading situations and thinking they’ll be bad when they turn out fine — then you want to approach your gut feelings with some skepticism.

But if your gut has generally led you well, I’d listen to it.

Bringing this back to the specifics of your situation, that might mean that you turn down the job if it’s offered to you. Or it might mean that you take you take it only if it’s a short-term contract (as it sounds like it will be), and continue your job search during that time. You should also factor in how marketable your skills are, what the job market is like in your field and in your geographic area, and how much other interest you’ve had from other employers. Or it might mean that you take it and hope for the best — realizing, though, that you’ve seen some danger signs, so that you’re not blindsided if things don’t work out well.

And if you decide not to take it at all, you don’t need to worry that it will make you look bad to the hiring manager or the person who recommended you. People turn down jobs all the time if they judge it best for them. You can simply explain that you didn’t feel it was quite the right fit for you. That’s enough for most people — and if it turns out it’s not enough for these two, they’re in the wrong, not you.

But what I wouldn’t do is ignore your gut simply because you can’t quite figure out what it’s reacting to. Assuming, again, that it doesn’t have a history of overreacting, assume that it’s reacting that way for a reason.

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