do you have to answer every interview question perfectly?

A reader writes:

I have been interviewing for a position that I would consider my dream job. The interview took place over two days and I spent 5-6 hours in total with them, plus time exploring the organization.

Overall, I think I did very well and connected with the employees. However, I definitely flubbed two questions and it leaves me wondering how perfect prospective candidates need to be in order to get the job. If all else went great and there was a feeling of cultural fit, how important is it to answer every question perfectly? What do hiring managers think when the candidate does 90% excellently, but 10% poorly?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. KHB*

    I think the key is that interviews are always graded on a curve. It’s not just about you – it’s about you in relation to everyone else in the candidate pool. You can get the job despite an imperfect interview as long as you’re better than all the other candidates (and not so far outside the parameters of what the employer is looking for that they’d rather start the search all over again). Or you can do an A+ job at the interview but still lose out because someone else was an A++.

    1. Amadeo*

      I’ve recently done stints on a hiring committee for a couple of positions at my place of work and it’s basically this. Of course there’s always one or two that do fit that ‘terrible’ mold that we’d never hire in a million years, but there’s plenty that are ‘good’ and one or two that are ‘better’ and the ‘good’ didn’t do anything wrong, specifically, there were just a couple others that were ‘better’.

      Just make sure you’re actually answering the question and not saying “I don’t have a problem with it” in response to “How do you handle $item?”

      1. fposte*

        And sometimes you have pretty much equal top candidates, and it’s not really even a question of better, it’s a question of having to pick one.

  2. LQ*

    I feel like the premise here is wrong. There isn’t a perfect answer to a lot of questions. And I think that the chances that the interviewee would know what the perfect answer are is tiny. Last role we interviewed for the person we picked later told me she felt she’d flubbed answers to something that should have been straight forward, it was actually the reason she was at the top of my stack. And another guy who I am pretty sure thought he was nailing the answers (and likely would have been elsewhere) was a giant flop with us because we couldn’t do the things he was clearly excellent at so it wouldn’t have mattered that he gave what seemed to be a perfect answer.

    Which gets a bit to the point Alison made here too. The best answer is one that is honest, it might exclude you from a job but that might have been the wrong job for you, and it might get you waved into a job because they (I) are horrible at clearly explaining how on fire they are and that only someone who has skills that may be poorly articulated in the job description would be a good fit. Getting a job that’s a great fit can happen even if you are sure you flubbed, and not getting a job can happen even if you answered every question to what you were sure was perfection.

    1. Undine*

      The dating analogy makes sense here. It’s not about acing the test, it’s about how well you fit the company and the job, and a lot of intangibles go into that. And you don’t really know how you are coming off to other people.

      One thing I would recommend is, in following up with the company, focus on the things that (you think) went well. Don’t to include in your follow ups, “And how great is it that I have 15 years experience in shaving left llama forefeet!”, but when you sit down to write an email, think to yourself, “I know I have a lot of LLF experience, and it was clear they really need that.” That will help you to communicate with a sense of confidence and value* and if you have that, it will come through.

      * This advice not recommended for llama-splainers.

    2. fposte*

      I really like the point that the candidate may not be a good judge of what a perfect answer is for this particular interview. For most of my questions, I really don’t want somebody to trot out a glossy sentence that hits the buzzwords and then mentally throw the touchdown sign. For most of my questions, people will need to do some thinking and engage in dialogue as they go.

    3. Close Bracket*

      > There isn’t a perfect answer to a lot of questions.

      Maybe not in the objective sense, but there is a perfect answer for *that interviewer.*

      1. ArtsNerd*

        I think this still low-key implies that there is one answer that you can give to get the job and if you answer differently it will knock you out of the running. In a lot of the important ways, that’s simply not true.

        For the instances that it is true, it’s not particularly in the candidate’s best interest to spend a lot of energy trying to intuit what the interviewer wants to hear. It’s better to answer the question in a way that’s true to you and how you work, while of course framing yourself in a good light. Being ‘real’ has gotten me much further than trying to parrot ‘recommended’ answers I read online (which I definitely did do early in my career), because the interviewers can tell that I’m not really putting on a performance. If my work style or experience is a dealbreaker, then I’d probably be miserable in the job and am better off continuing my search.

        The calculus changes some if you’re just desperate to get any job at all, whether or not it’s a “good one,” I suppose.

      2. fposte*

        I’m still saying no–“perfect” answer suggests that there’s an objectively righter than any other answer answer out there, and my questions don’t have that. I get many very good answers, and that’s all I’m looking for.

      3. WittyUsername*

        I can definitely say that although there are clear wrong answers I don’t want to hear from candidates, there isn’t a single perfect answer I am hoping for from any of my questions. There are always multiple good ways to answer the question, including ways I may not have anticipated.

  3. AMac*

    It is so hard to answer this question. I recently conducted interviews for summer interns at my government job. We had 4 questions but 1 of the 4 questions had to have a “good” answer due to the nature of the work we perform and who our “clients” are. So if a candidate nailed the other 3 questions but flubbed the all important 4th one that would weigh very heavily against them as opposed to another candidate who did okay on the other 3 questions but really nailed the important 4th one. Also, candidates are being weighed against other candidates, so if one candidate nailed 90% of the questions but another one nailed 100% that would definitely be a factor into the hiring decision.

  4. Beancounter Eric*

    Like so many things in life….it depends.

    KHB gives a great answer above – I would add there are mistakes and then there are MISTAKES….some flubs fall in the “oopsie” category and interviewers see them as manifestation of interview nerves, and others fall into the “not a snowballs chance in Atlanta we would hire this person” grouping.

  5. AMPG*

    One thing I think you can do in a case where you know your answer didn’t appropriately convey your knowledge of the topic being discussed or your enthusiasm for the work is to address it in your thank you email. I was on a hiring committee where a candidate did this successfully. She gave an answer that was fine but somewhat mediocre, considering her level of expertise in the question, and in her email she basically said, I’ve given some more thought to that question, and I realized I should have mentioned X and Y as potential resolutions to the issue. I don’t think her original answer would’ve been a dealbreaker, but her follow-up did help put her over the top.

  6. Greg NY*

    As we always say here, an interview is like a date. Traditional thinkers believe that a woman should be courted and it’s up to the man to impress her, and that it’s up to a job candidate to impress the potential employer. Modern thinkers believe that both people on the date need to size up each other and be on their best behavior, and both interviewer and candidate are both answering and asking questions of each other, again seeing if it’s the right fit.

    On a date or in an interview, one egregious transgression can be disqualifying regardless of how the rest of the date or interview went. Flubbing two questions doesn’t meet that bar. It is like being unable to answer a question your date asked you or not giving a particularly good answer to it. It puts you at a disadvantage and puts pressure on you to make sure the rest of the date goes well, and even then you might be considered not to be as good as other dates they have had. But it can be recovered from if you “wow” them the rest of the date and then make an effort to fill in the gap created by the bad or missing answer.

    And remember, even a perfect date doesn’t guarantee another one. They might not be attracted to you or you might be a bad fit in other ways. That could’ve happened on your interview even if you didn’t flub those two questions. I’ve actually had dates in which everything went well but there was no spark. I’ve also had dates after which she became too busy (and it really wasn’t an excuse, I later found out), which is akin to an organization’s budget for the position falling through after the interview.

    Chalk it up to a learning experience. There are other dates and other interview possibilities. Finally, I’d caution you against thinking it’s your dream job right off the bat. It seems that way now. It seems like someone is your dream girl or dream boy while gazing at them before the date or while going on that date. But the not-so-good qualities of them come out gradually. Until you’ve dated them a while, you don’t know if they’re perfect for you, and until you’re in a job for a while, you won’t know if it’s really your dream job either.

  7. it_guy*

    I once had an interviewer who asked: “What’s teapot filler?”. I have been working with teapots for years and I’ve never heard of that. My response was: “I have no idea. What is it?” His response was that it was a made up question that he used to see if he could catch people lying. I took the offer and it was a less than steller company to work for.

    I didn’t stay there long.

    1. KHB*

      Wow. I mean, it’s not wrong to recognize that some people will try to BS their way through an interview and you want to weed those people out. But there have got to be better ways to do that than setting such obvious booby traps.

  8. Caramel & Cheddar*

    Honestly, usually when an interviewee is perceived as flubbing a question, I always wonder two things: a) were we expecting a level of knowledge about the work / our organization that no one could possibly know from the outside, and b) is the question itself worded poorly, where what we *think* we’re asking is not what we actually *are* asking?

    Sometimes someone just answers poorly and there’s nothing you can do about it, but I always try to examine my role in the flub in case it’s something I can fix (either be re-wording the question, providing more context, etc.) so that they can actually answer it in a way that is useful to my decision making.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I will also rephrase a question in a different way to give someone a second bite at it, if their original answer isn’t hitting my mark or is incomplete.

  9. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

    I had an interview a couple months ago where at the end of a long, difficult day of tough questions, the hiring manager asked a key question and my brain just blanked. I don’t remember what my answer was, but I do remember mentally drafting my “I understand completely, please keep me in mind if you have any future openings that are better suited to my skills” spiel when I left. I was that sure I’d fumbled beyond redemption. Long story short, the hiring manager is now my boss, and I’m typing this while having lunch at my desk in my (relatively) new office.

    The bad answers stick out more in your mind than your good ones because we’re all our own worst critics. But hiring committees aren’t looking for a “gotcha,” they’re looking for the right fit, and they understand that no one’s perfect. That’s not to say another candidate couldn’t be a better fit even if you knocked the whole interview out of the park, and it’s not to say that a not-handled-great question doesn’t sometimes reveal an underlying gap in experience or understanding that might affect the person’s ability to do the job. That’s why we have interviews, after all. But your candidacy is being considered holistically, and whether or not you’re the right fit, you almost certainly left a better impression in the interview than you think you did. 90% excellent sounds damn good to me.

    1. Kes*

      Yeah, I have totally gotten jobs where I thought I flubbed the interview because I knew I had messed up on certain questions. I walked out of the interview for my last job thinking ‘Well, that one was just practice’ – got a call later that day to set up the next interview. Just as well for me, since interviews give me a lot of anxiety which can cause me to overthink and not give answers sometimes even when I do know them. I think most interviewers don’t necessarily expect candidates to be perfect, just to display some evidence of a certain level of knowledge and skills. However, as Alison said it obviously also depends on situation, which questions and how you mess up.

  10. NotAnotherManager!*

    As a hiring manager, I’d say it really depends on what 10% we’re talking about. I work in a field that requires schedule flexibility and unpredictable OT, and, if you tell me that you’re only willing to work business hours and not a second more ever, that’s disqualifying. (Same for not wanting to work on a team or not having good problem-solving skills.) If you’re just not yet an expert in MS Word or Excel or you’ve never used a PDF editor or you’ve never seen legal citation format, I can teach you all of that. I’d rather have someone who has established office productivity skills, but not having them is not disqualifying. I have three to four core skill areas that I look for, and we can generally teach people the rest.

  11. RedinSC*

    THis is where the follow up thank you letter is a great idea. If you wanted to add substance to an answer you flubbed a little, I would say something like…reflecting back on our conversation, I wanted to add [more info about X]. I feel it’s a good way to let them know you have more knowledge about something and also gives you some great content for a thank you letter.

  12. DivineMissL*

    I had an interview where the boss said he was going to ask me a “Google company” question – “How many ping pong balls can you fit in a 747?” I don’t think he was accustomed to interviewing, and at this time, I had never heard of that this was a Thing. I was caught completely off-guard and had no answer; I think we were both embarrassed. The rest of the interview went fine, I don’t think that it hurt me overall. I didn’t get an offer, but after the interview I knew that this particular job wasn’t for me anyway, so it worked out fine in the end, but I don’t think that I didn’t get an offer simply because I bobbled one question.

    1. Nancie*

      I sure hope that “can I look up the dimensions of a 747 and a ping pong ball” is an acceptable answer. Because those aren’t the sort of facts I bother to store in my brain.

      (But I can tell you that according to one comedy writer and his two fictional pilots, you can fit 100 otters in relative comfort in a 24-seat jet.)

      1. Close Bracket*

        > I sure hope that “can I look up the dimensions of a 747 and a ping pong ball” is an acceptable answer. Because those aren’t the sort of facts I bother to store in my brain.

        It’s what’s known as a Fermi question bc physicists were asking these sort of order of magnitude questions long before Google was. You assume the size of the ping pong, assume the interior volume of the jet, and divide the one by the other. If you are really on the ping pong ball, you say something about packing fractions.

        I messed up an interview question like this when I was a wee sprog who was too early in my physics career to have heard of this kind of thing. They asked how many piano tuners were in Chicago. I thought it was the stupidest question I had ever heard and told them I would find a Chicago phonebook and count. They didn’t like that. You are supposed to estimate how many people own pianos, how often they need tuning, how many pianos a tuner can tune in a day, etc. They (non-scientists) actually gave me a lecture on the research process. I wish I had had the presence of mind to tell them that nobody does research without first conducting a literature search and that I stood by my answer.

        Google doesn’t ask questions like that anymore, and no physicist I have ever met, and I have met a lot, has ever made such a calculation outside the context of party tricks.

        1. ArtsNerd*

          Yeah that’s obnoxious and I love the literature review response. In what actual work project do you start by making wild assumptions when the actual facts are so easily obtained? Like, that’s a terrible use of anyone’s time. It has the logic of the most aggravating word problems I would come across in middle school math classes.

          1. Julia*

            Right? What if the answer is that Chicago has a huge shortage of piano tuners, or that they all live outside the city because piano tuning doesn’t pay enough?

          2. SarahTheEntwife*

            Yes! And there are weird cultural assumptions going on with expecting people to have any idea how many people in Chicago might own a piano. Or for that matter, how many people live in Chicago (unless the interview was in that area).

            And is piano tuning the sort of thing someone does as a full-time job, or is it something that people do on the side occasionally? Or are there both kinds of tuners and if so, do the part-time ones count in this equation?

        2. KHB*

          When I was in physics grad school, our qualifying exam would always have one question of that form. I forget what it was the year I took it, but on one of the practice exams it was “How much do disposable chopsticks contribute to deforestation?” (or something like that)

          It’s almost impossible to come up with a definitive answer, because the answer depends on how many people worldwide use disposable chopsticks on a given day. If you’ve only ever lived in the US, for example, you can probably come up with a reasonable estimate for the US and maybe other Western countries, but you probably have no idea how often they’re used in Asia.

          And that’s part of the point. The purpose of the question isn’t just to pull numbers out of the air and multiply and divide them and come up with another number. (Anyone who says it is is doing it wrong. Unfortunately, that’s a lot of people.) It’s also to examine what assumptions you’re making, how confident you are in your various estimates, what you know and what you don’t know, etc. – all of which are also parts of the research process. You don’t want to do your literature search, for example, without first giving some thought to what you’re looking for.

          1. ArtsNerd*

            See, that makes a bit more sense, only that’s not what the question was. I think if the question was explicitly structured asked about the steps you’d take to obtain the info and what factors you’re looking to incorporate into the calculations, that’s a different thing. As they are commonly phrased, it’s just like a big ole “eff you” to everyone who isn’t already in on the trick of what they’re actually looking for and why. In an exam context, I’d hope that would be communicated appropriately so y’all would gain the valuable lessons from the exercise.

            But this kind of question in a job interview? I’d be paralyzed by how little confidence I could put into my assumptions and estimates. Unless someone told me as such, I would have never magically guessed that my lack of confidence is the point….? It indicates a workplace that values ‘cleverness’ over actually learning and knowledge sharing, which sounds awful to me.

        3. Isabel Kunkle*

          “I look both of those things up on the Internet, and then I use a calculator on my computer to figure it out, because it is the twenty-first motherfucking century and what have you been smoking?” would probably not work as an answer, I’m guessing. This may be why I don’t work at Google. ;P

          1. Lavender Menace*

            Actually, yes, that probably (with some embellishment) would’ve been an acceptable answer. I work at a company in the same field that also used to ask these dumb questions before we changed our interviewing practices. The original “point” of the questions was to explore how people solved problems and how they thought through things, so the important part was not whether or not you got the right answer (in fact, your interviewer probably wouldn’t even know) but how you got to the answer you got to. So something like “First I figure out the interior square footage of a 747, which I guess is X for Y reasons; then I figure out the area of a ping pong ball, which I guess is about A for B reasons, and then I divide X by A” is along the lines of what they’re looking for. (But most tech companies don’t actually ask these kinds of questions anymore. They’re pretty useless.)

      2. Artemesia*

        That kind of question is always about strategy of problem solving. No one knows a number, but anyone should be able to say — well if we assume this dimension and that dimension and this size for the ping pong ball, here is how we would find out.

    2. Lavender Menace*

      Ironically, Google (and other companies notorious for this kind of questioning) have stopped asking questions like this because they realized it told them jack shit about the person that they were interviewing. It didn’t help them find the best candidates, and in some cases really just turned off otherwise interested and qualified candidates. They just do regular behavioral interviews like everyone else.

      1. Empty Sky*

        They used to be called McKinsey questions in my circle, because all the management consultancies were big on them.

        I agree they are a bit of a parlor trick. I can generally solve the cryptic crossword in our local paper in under 10 minutes, but if I pick up a new cryptic crossword from a random magazine I might be completely stumped. My ability to solve them rapidly and efficiently in one specific case tells you nothing about my ability in general – it just demonstrates that I’ve learned how the author in my specific case thinks.

  13. seller of teapots*

    I recently hired 15 new folks for my sales team. I had a list of 4 standard questions that I asked, and then varied from there, but I wasn’t looking for perfection.

    I wanted to see how they think, see how they approach the issues, what examples they pulled up from there career and what those examples told me about how they work. I was looking for red flags (overly negative about past employers, etc.) and certain attributes (resilient, think quick on their feet, story of overcoming objections, think about sales in a strategic way)…they are all kind of vague things and there can be a lot of ways to answer a question that express what I think is important to succeed in this job.

    I also put a lot of value in folks who came prepared with strong questions of their own, because 50% of this job is being able to ask smart, thoughtful questions of our customers.

  14. Artemesia*

    A job interview is not a school test where there is a passing score and a grade. You can get all the answers ‘right’ and still not impress them; you can be great on some things that are really really important to them and minor things won’t matter; you can think you were great and still have flopped because the interviewer has a particular point of view that is different from yours or you don’t know the context e.g. Fergus whom you would be replacing was a disaster dealing with difficult clients and your ‘tell me a time when you dealt with a difficult client’ answer sounded like Fergus.

    So how central was the ‘bad answer’ to the role? Or how much does it reveal about your expertise? e.g. I once was doing phone screens to hire someone whose role would include teaching undergrad and grad courses in organizational leadership and organizational development. One of our questions went something like ‘What are two or three of the theorists you think would be important to include in a course like this?’ Now anyone with a passing familiarity with the field, much less a PhD in related field should be able to tap dance on this at worst. Worst case, it is something like ‘this may seem unusual but I might include some work by Freud and Jung because (reasons)’ because you couldn’t think of a single organization theorist. But one PhD being interviewed whined ‘I didn’t know we were going to be tested on the material.’ Seriously. Hiring an expert and he needed special prep to talk about the field. He actually called after wards asking for another interview ‘after I have time to prepare.’ Seriously.

    so blow a question? Well it depends on the question.

  15. fieldpoppy*

    I’m a partner in a small, project-based consulting firm, so I do what amounts to job interviews 2 or 3 times a month, forever. (Let that sink in, lol). What everyone is saying about the “curve” and fit is absolutely true. Some of our clients have formal panels who ask pre-set questions, unbendingly, regardless of whether we’ve already dealt with something in a previous question, and some of them are much more fluid. Some want us to present first and then they will ask questions, and some are open to first having a bit of a dialogue about what’s most important to them to hear and then we present with that in mind. We find we work much much better with the clients who are open to having more dialogue first — we do our work in a really collaborative way, and if they can’t have a bit of a give and take in the getting-to-know-how-we-work phase, it often indicates a culture we don’t work as well with.

    All of this to say… be honest, be authentic, and be thoughtful. And if it’s the “wrong” answer, the fit may be off. It’s really hard to hold to that if it seems otherwise like a “dream” job, or you really need to find something, or it’s glittery in other ways — but after doing this 100s of times, I have finally found a way to make peace with that myself. I know I’m not going to work well with the person who responded to my “would it be okay if we asked you a couple of questions before we start?” with TIME OUT hand sign and a bzzzzzz noise and “Nice try!” lol

  16. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

    Not sure if I told this story here or not before. But it’s relevant so I’ll share.

    I once recommended a candidate based on her inability to answer a question :) My company was hiring for a Data Analyst role. I was asked to sit on the interviews because my previous position would have been the hiring manager for the open position. I asked all the candidates “How would you go about finding the answer or solving a vague ‘issue’ that someone brought to you” (If you’re an analyst you are familiar with this nebulous “Hey Random, I think the numbers in this report are looking funny, check it out will you?” or “Hey, there’s a bunch of exceptions in this report, need you find out the problem” )

    The candidate’s response was something like this “Well, first I’d umm, and then I’d start to … but I’d have to make sure…and it’s sometimes things like…and then I would check…” Now anyone listening or reading a transcript would think that the candidate bombed the question. But what I saw was while the candidate was answering the question she had a bit of a faraway look, she was getting a little frustrated, and she was gesturing in the air like she was tracing a thread. After a little bit she finally just sighed and said “I don’t know I’d just keep looking until I found the problem”

    In the debrief session, everyone was glowing about the other candidate who had perfectly good answers to questions (including the one I asked above). When they asked me who I thought they should choose I said the one who ‘bombed’ the question. I described to them the answers that both gave me and while the other candidate gave a good answer it was pretty standard and formulaic (not that it was a bad answer). I described the other candidates response and said

    “It was clear to me that she struggled to answer the question because to her it comes naturally. She literally couldn’t answer what her methodology was because she does it without thinking about it. That’s the person you want in your system. ” I could see they didn’t understand so I asked “Ok, let me explain it this way. Tell me the steps you would take to breathe” One person tried it and gave up, then gave me that “Oh I get it” look.

    They didn’t listen to me and hired the perfectly good candidate, who didn’t work out, she ended up resigning w/in about 6 months, and sited the work and lack of structure in our systems as one of the reasons. They contacted the other candidate who has been with us for several years now and is doing great. She’s the person who gets all of those weird, can’t describe, not sure if it’s wrong or not type of problems.

    1. ArtsNerd*

      Well that’s food for thought. I’m not sure I’d have backed you up in that instance, even though I agree an intuitive candidate is more likely to succeed in a less structured environment.

      p.s. I definitely bombed a scholarship interview for college because I couldn’t articulate “why I was so involved in the arts” in a similar way. Their loss.

      1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

        They both had similar qualifications and I’d already vetted technical knowledge so I wasn’t worried about that.

        The first candidate was used to a rigid environment where she was presented all the information, given strict parameters, and produced what she was told to produce. Nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t our world. The fist candidate ultimately didn’t succeed and wasn’t happy in our environment because she was used to working off of a script.

        We really needed someone who could go off script and could dig in and find the not obvious problems and solutions.

        1. ArtsNerd*

          Oh for sure! It seems like you were very insightful and thoughtful about this. I do hope you managed to get an appropriate(!) amount of “I told you so” in with the rest of the hiring committee.

    2. Empty Sky*

      I like to ask for examples in that scenario (where I think the candidate meets the requirement but is having trouble getting that point across due to the interview format). In that case I would have followed up with: “Have you ever been asked that question before? What did you do in that case? What ended up being the problem?”

      That also gives you a chance to hear her describe how she works in the context of a real example, and assess it against your company’s work style. It sounds like you were right in this case, but if I’d been one of the other interviewers I’d have wanted to know how you would tell the difference between the situation you described and a candidate that genuinely didn’t have a clue. Ideally your interview questions would answer that one for you.

  17. Ok_Go_West*

    Totally agree that it depends on which 10% of the questions you flubbed. I hire several people each year and I ask about 10 questions in the interview but there are only one or two questions where flubbing would absolutely stop me from considering the person further. From the standpoint of an interviewee, I don’t think these would be obvious, so I wouldn’t try to read the mind of the interviewer–you probably won’t be able to.

    For example, I do ask lots of questions about experience, what would you do in X situation, etc., but I’m open toa a wide range of possible answers to those questions, including answers that indicate the person would be a good worker given additional training. However, we work with minors so I always ask people how they maintain professional boundaries between themselves and the minors. Any answer that indicates a possible lack of boundaries is a red flag.

  18. Lynn Whitehat*

    Yeah, agreed with everyone else that it totally depends what the question is and what you mean by “answering it poorly”. I had an interviewee where I asked him an icebreaker question about why he was transitioning to software engineering. He told me “because I hate people”. Before I met that guy, I would have said there’s no wrong answer to that question.

    1. ArtsNerd*

      Yikes! I’ve had more than my fill of the “cranky tech dude” trope (both in fiction and in actual coworkers). Seems like this person took that cliche a little too much to heart.

  19. Cardamom*

    True Confession: Sometimes the interviewers write questions that are duds. They look good on paper, but don’t work with live candidates. Everyone ends up “flubbing” those questions, but we’re stuck with them through the process because we are required to ask the same list of questions for everyone no matter what.

  20. sometimeswhy*

    I had a candidate who got a job based on a flubbed answer. (Well, not just that but it was among the deciding factors.) It was a question designed to identify unicorns, people who had a very specific set of experience or transferable skills in an industry where specifics are pretty rare but the specifics were addressed first.

    She thought about the set, asked if she could answer it in reverse, gave a thorough and convincing answer for the transferable skills and then smoothly closed with, “but no hands on experience with the rest of the items” instead of having to start off with “no, no, not that, not that either, oh i’ve read about that, no, nope, uh uh.”

  21. Echo*

    I also agree that the premise seems a little wrong to me. Before I started interviewing candidates, which I did in a previous role, I always heard about “preparing for an interview” and assumed that there were specific correct answers interviewers were looking for. I think there are definitely answers that show someone isn’t a good fit, but I’m rarely looking for a specific word or phrase or exact response. It’s not really something you can “flub” to that extent, as long as you answer honestly.

    This particularly comes up with crummy interview questions, like “what are your biggest weaknesses?” I think as an early-career professional I stressed out a lot about trying to figure out what I was “supposed to say” instead of thinking about what my interviewer was actually trying to learn. A good interviewer would ask it more like “are there particular skills in the job description where you have less experience or think you would need more training up front?” or “are there particular types of responsibilities that would make this role a poor fit for you?” which prompt a much more personalized answer. That’s where I could say “I haven’t worked with the Teapot Designer software before, and I know you’re looking for someone with experience there. But I’m familiar with Teapot Publisher and I know it’s very similar, so hopefully I could get up to speed quickly” or “if this role evolves to include more direct-to-customer llama sales, I’m not sure it would be a good fit with my skill set”.

    Granted, this applies more to behavioral interviewing than it does to something like a technical interview (but personally, I feel the “trivia question” style of technical interviewing is also bad interviewing–a good technical interview should have you walk through a process or demonstrate how you’d solve a problem rather than show that you can memorize things really well).

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