Many candidates don’t answer the job interview question. Here’s why that’s a problem.

By Scot Herrick | Job Search

Jun 18

Here's a situation I've faced when conducting job interview way more often than I should: I ask a question and the question is never answered.

After listening to an answer, I ask, "What role did you play in achieving those results?" Straightforward enough. Here's what I get for answers:

  • What we did was analyze...
  • There were two ways we went about...
  • What the project did was to...

The person I'm interviewing, apparently, didn't do anything to achieve the results. Only the plural "we" or "the project."

Since this happens so often (why does this happen so often??), I try again with a different approach.

"What documents did you produce that shows your results for this solution?"

That's a bit generic, on purpose so that I can publish it here. You get the idea though -- for what we're talking about during the job interview, what did you document for the results?

The answers that come back quite often don't answer the question again. I get another whole series of "we", "the team", "the effort". 

One time, I asked a job candidate what he did to produce a set of project requirements. "The team interviewed business stakeholders and produced a set of requirements for the project" -- a quick summary of a 2-minute response.

Then I asked this job candidate who he interviewed and to give me one of the requirements he produced that went into the document. "The team did the interviews and I...hmmm...I...uh...I can't remember from that project a good example of a requirement I did." 

Well, that doesn't come across real well now, does it?

Then I asked him how to construct a good requirement. A minute of tap dancing.

Hopefully you can see this particular job candidate was in trouble for getting hired when he said the team interviewed business stakeholders. Then completely lost the job when he couldn't provide an example of a requirement he provided from the team asking stakeholders questions.

Not answering a job interview question significantly hurts your ability to get the job.

The Job Candidate didn't listen to the question

This is the first problem: not listening to the question. Let's say this person gets hired and the hiring manager now tasks this person with doing something. How much faith can you have in the person hearing the task correctly? Maybe...maybe not.

If you were the hiring manager and wanted this person to help with your business goals, why would you want a person who doesn't listen on your team?

“Founder Ramkumar Balaraman memorably calls this the "Sarah Palin" problem. "Poor language skills aren't a deal breaker, depending on the role. Nor is being introverted or reserved," he writes, "but poor listening skills, i.e., repeatedly misunderstanding questions (whether intentional or not), are a red flag.”

The Job Candidate didn't clarify the question

There are lots of interview questions that can have multiple tracks for an answer. The question could be about asking this or it could be that. 

If you as the job candidate don't clarify which way the question is going, you'll often end up answering the wrong track. Good interviewers will back track on this and say that they didn't mean that part, but this other part and let the candidate answer the question going down the right track.

But not always. An interviewer, often based on how the previous questions have gone and what they are currently thinking about hiring the candidate, could just as easily use this wayward answer as yet another nail in the job candidate's interview coffin.

The Job Candidate may have an agenda

Candidates want the job, of course. But if the candidate goes into an interview thinking he or she needs to get these "X" points across, the points getting across could very well not answer the question. Politicians do this all the time...start to answer the question and then get to the talking points regardless of the question.

You don't want to do that in a job interview.

The thing is, not answering the interviewer's question sets you up to lose. The interviewer -- even if a poorly constructed question is asked -- assumes that he or she is clear about what is being asked. Not answering the question immediately causes the interviewer to question hiring you for all the reasons above.

After all, would you want to entrust the person across from you to do great work when that person can't even answer the question you're asking?

Have you ever missed out on a job because you missed the intent of an interview question? Let me know in the comments below.

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