I made up an answer in a job interview; what should I do now?

by Ask a Manager on June 8, 2011

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A reader writes:

I had an interview this morning and I answered one of the technical questions wrong.  I had heard the term before, but I didn’t know how it was used (or how I use it, which was the question they asked). So, I just made up an answer. Is it okay for me to address the flub and attempt to answer it in my “thank you” letter to them or should I just leave it alone?

Someone suggested I call the leader of the interview panel and address it that way, but I’m not sure if that is appropriate. Also, if I should address it, how do I do that when I don’t have any experience in it….I only know the definition of it.

Oh, no. Noooo!  This is not good, but you probably already know that.

Here’s the thing: It’s one thing not to know much about X. That may or may not matter to them. But if they could tell that you fudged your way through it, that almost certainly will matter to them.

Here’s why: In addition to the obvious issues of honesty and integrity, let’s say you’re working for me and I ask you about Z, and you don’t know the answer. But instead of saying, “I don’t know but I’ll find out and get back to you,” you make up an answer. This is very, very bad because I’m going to make decisions and move forward in some way based on what you just said. So I need to be able to count on you giving me reliable information (and especially to not knowingly give me bad information).

Now, this may be the only time you’ve ever fudged your way through an answer on anything, but they don’t know that. They’ve got limited information about you, and now one of the pieces of info they have is “she makes up answers when she doesn’t know for sure.” To most interviewers, that’s a big red flag. (Unless you’re applying for a job where bluff and bluster actually help — and there are such jobs.)

As for how to handle it now… Send your interviewers a thank-you note, reiterating your interest in the job, and mention something like, “I realized after we spoke that when you asked me about X, I spoke of it as if it were Y. I realized my mistake right afterwards and wanted to correct it!” You could also add, “I should be candid and say that I’m not experienced with X, although I do think that my background in A, B, and C would be hugely useful in achieving D for you.”

Few people own up to their mistakes, and people who do almost always come across well. Addressing it may not completely assuage their concern, but it’s your best bet at this point.

(And ignore your friend who told you to call them.)

Last, if you have a habit of making up answers when you don’t know for sure (in any work situation, not just interviews), use this as impetus to stop, right now, today!   It doesn’t take much of this to destroy your credibility.

{ 11 comments }

Anonymous June 8, 2011 at 2:24 am

Or… learn it! Make it true! Great incentive for education.

Anonymous June 8, 2011 at 3:11 am

In technical interviews, if you don’t know the answer, admit up front, or ask probing questions to get more information. Sometimes if you ask the interviewer to describe what they’re talking about, you may have an AH HA moment where you can say, “Oh I know what you mean, I did that all the time at my last job, it was just never called X!”

Also, in technical interviews the interviewer wants to see how you approach and solve problems, not just the answer. If it’s something you don’t know, do you freeze up or lie, like this person did? Or do you ask for more information, start walking through your problem solving process, and demonstrate that you know how to handle it when you don’t have a ready answer. Cause a lot of the time, you won’t.

Meredith June 8, 2011 at 4:10 am

I suppose it depends on the interviewer, but in technical interviews when I was the interviewer, I was really trying to get a good understanding of the candidate’s skill in X. Not how you would approach it or that you are a “fast learner.” (Apparently a common phrase people use when they don’t know something. It starts to feel meaningless after a while when they don’t back that up with concrete examples.)

Like AAM says, I rather have someone just be honest and say that they haven’t had any experience with X so I can move on and ask them about their skills in Y and Z.

Since we ask candidates about their experience in 10+ technical areas, it is not a deal breaker if they don’t have experience with them all. It does become a deal breaker when they say “yes” and then they sound like they don’t know what they are talking about.

Gayle Laakmann June 8, 2011 at 6:18 pm

I’d rather have a candidate who doesn’t know the answer say “Hmm, I’m not sure, but I would approach it this way…” That shows that they’re smart and know how to solve problems, which, frankly, is more important than memorizing details.

Sallie June 8, 2011 at 5:06 am

Hi,

I did something similar once, when asked a technical question that I really wasn’t sure about I rambled on with an answer that was “okay” but not the answer they would have been looking for. On the way home from the interview I realized that I did actually know the answer to the question, I called the manager that interviewed me and left him a voicemail message saying I had just realised the correct answer to the question and left the details.

I don’t know if it made any difference to the outcome but I was offered the position so it certainly didn’t hurt.

Anonymous June 8, 2011 at 7:43 am

As a software development manager, I’m less concerned with making up answers to technical questions than answers to other questions. I’d rather know that you don’t know the answer to the technical question and hear why and what you think the answer might be. And then sometimes all we’re looking for is the definition and not if you’ve used it. In the technical world it’s pretty easy to look up concepts on google and learn them, a lot easier than people or leadership skills or experience. I don’t know if I’d go back and correct myself. Now, if it was about job experience or a project I worked on, that would be bad. But I’m going to guess it’s a question more like “What is a View State in ASP.NET?” or something like that, which an .NET developer should know, and if you miss it or give a wrong answer but show other technical acumen, that’s probably fine.

Matthew June 9, 2011 at 11:29 am

I second this… whenever I’m conducting an interview, I am looking for someone who has the knowledge and the wherewithal to figure out the answer… not necessarily to have the answer is itself. If I felt your answer was wrong, I’d probe more into it and figure out if you’d have the chops to learn it quickly.

Don’t draw attention to yourself about it, I think that’s the wrong move, and be more careful next time about putting 100% guesses.

Cruella June 8, 2011 at 10:09 am

I would much rather a candidate ( or employee for that matter) claim ignorance than lie to me. Trust goes right out the window.

How hard would it have been to honestly answer, “I’m familiar with the term but not familiar with the application” ?

I guess OP will not only learn the answer to the question, but also learn never to do something dishonest like this again.

Gayle Laakmann June 8, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Having done tons of hundreds of engineering interviews, written two books about the space (Cracking the Coding Interview and The Google Resume), and worked pretty in depth in the recruiting space (though I’m engineering, not a recruiter), I don’t think the candidate should address the issue after the fact.

It doesn’t come across as an honesty or integrity issue. It comes across as the candidate was simply wrong. It happens – very often (almost always) in a technical interview at least at some point. I don’t see any value in addressing the issue after the fact. It just focused people on negative areas, and you don’t prove anything by doing that.

It’s interesting if you read the comments that there’s a difference between what engineers and non-engineers say. Engineers are basically saying “don’t address it, and don’t worry about it too much” because incorrect answers are so common and even expected in an interview. Non-engineers are the ones saying “ZOMG you lied,” probably because the expectations are much higher that candidates solve the problems perfectly.

* I’m assuming that “technical” here means something related to computers.

Meredith June 8, 2011 at 7:01 pm

I’m in data analysis/statistics. Just recently we had someone fall apart at the last question on why they performed a X analysis and not a Y analysis. If after the interview, that person reached out to the hiring committee and said you know, in retrospect, this is why I did X and not Y and here’s some literature to back it up that would have saved the person. But the person didn’t. And we can’t hire someone who can’t correctly articulate and defend why they are selecting particular methods.

Nate June 9, 2011 at 12:46 am

Is reaching out to clarify a technical question after the interview encouraged? If so, I may have to actually do this the next time I interview.

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