Three Little Words to Never Say in an Interview

Not without a follow up at least

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If you’re in a job interview, you might think answering “I don’t know” in response to a question would be the kiss of death, a faux pas on par with showing up in flip-flops. But new research disputes this conventional wisdom. As it turns out, sometimes admitting that you don’t have all the answers — especially if you’ve just been hit with one of those notorious brainteaser questions like “Why are manholes round?” — in a job interview can pay off.

Alan Scoboria, an associate psychology professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, found that when subjects in an experiment were encouraged to say “I don’t know” in an interview setting rather than just take a wild guess, they provided more accurate information to the interviewer.

That’s because we often know more than we think we do, Scoboria says. “What we remember depends on how we’re asked and the situation we’re asked,” he says. In a high-pressure setting like a job interview, it’s not unreasonable that some critical fact or detail might escape you. “It’s O.K. to take a couple of seconds and try to cue yourself for additional information because the context might be narrowing what you remember,” he says. Saying “I don’t know” gives you a couple of seconds to effectively hit pause on your train of thought and recollect yourself.

(MORE: Keep Your Best Employees: 5 Steps)

But it’s important that “I don’t know” isn’t the entirety of your answer. “‘I don’t know’ can be interpreted in a variety of different ways,” Scoboria says. Answering, “I don’t know” and then remaining silent could give the impression that you don’t want to engage with the interviewer — not the impression you want to give if you’re trying to get hired.

In Scoboria’s research, interviewers encouraged some subjects to answer “I don’t know” when they didn’t know the answer. A hiring manager is unlikely to do so, so you’ll have to take the ball yourself and build on your initial response, Scoboria says. Elaborate on why you can’t answer the question right away and how you’ll find the tools and information to figure it out.

“That’s a demonstration of strategy for answering the question,” he says. In some cases, especially when it comes to those popular (but ineffectual) brainteaser questions, a display of strategic thinking is what the interviewer is looking for, anyway. The answer is just a by-product of letting the hiring manager see how you would tackle a complex, unusual problem.

(MORE: No-Brainer: ‘Brainteaser’ Job Interview Questions Don’t Work)

“Saying ‘I don’t know’ at the right time could give you an edge and show off a rare trait,” says Heidi Golledge, CEO of CyberCoders and jobs website CareerBliss. “The ability to be honest, when the tendency would be to create an answer … to impress the interviewer.”

Golledge recently interviewed candidates for an executive position at her firm. “Each time, we raised a complex business question we had been grappling with for years,” she says. Every candidate provided an answer except for one, who said, “I don’t know.”

“Then, [he] proceeded to explain that he would need more time and data to formulate the best answer and come up with a strategic plan. This was refreshing,” Golledge says. “If we spent a year on the topic, how was any candidate to know the answer within the time allotted in an interview?” she says. That candidate got the job.

35 comments
almodozo
almodozo

I think the headline writer didn't read the article...

raygillies550
raygillies550

I'm a tech guy - the goto answer is "to the Google machine"  But it is important to establish how one uses "the Google"  there is skill involved in being able to quickly distill the solution from the tons of BS.

UsedtobeFishfry
UsedtobeFishfry

Oh. I thought the three words were going to be, "Pass the bong."

SattarRind1
SattarRind1

How could a person could know each and everything what interviewers are requires the answers. Besides mostly inteviewrs knows nothing what they want to get in respons of their Questions. Or what kind of person they needs. Interview room has its own psychological atomspher in which the inteviewer also being in a complex that they are superior as they have a job in their hand. They are giver end and interviewed person are at reciveing end both psycological are in a different and seprete room. Any way slecting right person for right job is not eassy job

Concerned100
Concerned100

Resumes are just a plethora of lies. The people who interview you are mostly idiots, who manage to ensure that the hiring manager never gets to meet the best candidate.

I asked some of the top people, geniuses in their field, what results they had in applying for jobs and they said that they had never been invited to any interview on the basis of a resume, because they use words, in their normal conversation, that are not picked up by the electronic scanners, used by the head hunters. They also fail to use the key words demanded by the electronic scanners. 

Who dictates the words used by the scanners? A bunch of idiots, that's who.

Some CEOs actually sent resumes into their own companies and they never even made it to interview stage.

In the 80s some musicians sent demo tapes into the companies, where they were the biggest earners, and their tapes were turned down.

How do the smart people get top jobs? They network.

How do we change the situation?

Start hiring HR Directors, who are smart. Stop hiring idiots.

I can guarantee you there is no-one in charge of HR in North America who is intelligent.

tushambi
tushambi

The reason a person has a job is because a problem needs to be solved. If you own a resturant and you're real  busy you need enough cooks and waiters,etc. If a resturant is real slow you're not going to hire more people regardless of their qualifications. The same is true for all business with the exception of Government and dishonest corporate managers.  Helping a friend or relative or looking for sex is why others are hired who are not needed. The reason good jobs are hard to get  is that the economy is really bad in most of the country and individual and corporate greed is making the economy worse. Americas largest employer won't pay most of their employees a living wage. Their empoyees then have litle purchasing power and barely get by. Other major corporations have taken their jobs overseas to maximize profit so executives can earn multi-million dollars salaries while the corporations avoid  rules and regulations that protect workers. This kills the American economy also. There are millions of skilled,educated,intelligent people in this country who can't get a job that pays a liveable wage. The reasons given in this article for college graduates finding it hard to get a job are just  foolish and not factual.

SingingM1
SingingM1

These articles about the job interview are annoying.  Each company has their own way of interviewing.  One company may be impressed with a certain candidate, others will like a different style.  The best advice for people that are interviewing is to be themselves. If the company does not like them, well apply somewhere else.  

This article says, some companies may not want to hear, "I don't know" , while other companies will like it that you are being honest. There is really nothing to be learned from this article.

JohnSmith3
JohnSmith3

This shows how much the idiocy of religion and ideology affect society.

Those who are certain in their ignorance (wild guesses and uniformed assumptions) are considered "smart".

Those who prefer fact checking and reasoning ("I don't know") are considered "stupid".


ran6363
ran6363

If I get a question like that in an interview I usually just roll my eyes and say,  "Who cares?", and then follow up with ,  "this is stupid."  

Heisencat
Heisencat

What is 4348370253485730498570328975023857.434534  X 2344234234242.3242.. hmm.. let me think about it.....  *waiting *waiting **KNOWS TO NEVER SAY I DON'T KNOW!** *asked to leave by security.  In hindsight, sometimes, it's OK to say "I don't know"

.

eetom
eetom

What about this:  I don't know but do you?

rskins09
rskins09

Glad I'm retired now and don't have to go through all the BS interviews to get a job ..Too many of the question are just plain  stupid ..Many of these questions, I think, are just to see how much they  can make you squirm, make you nervous or both ..Loosen up a little ..Even a very bright candidate can become nervous answering some of these superfluous questions ....One thing that used to bother me were some of these so-called  Interviewers in the HR Dept... Your supposed to spend  hours researching   a Company  before your interview but once you get to the interview  you realize that  the Interviewer  didn't read your resume - they're busy or haven't had time .Been told that a couple of times years ago ...Don't tell me - the regular guy who usually does them is on vacation  ... Now that's trifling ..Good luck to all you people who are looking for employment .. Hope you don't run across some of the flunkies  I had to deal with years ago ....

AlexeyAbraham
AlexeyAbraham

I see this article as misleading and improper.
It is just 'A MUST' for many positions - TO BE ABLE honestly say I DON'T KNOW about questions, they really don't!
- since NOBODY KNOWS EVERYTHING and I, with my 25 years of programming experience know it really good.

As a part of my work I'm in charge for recruiting of new programmers in our company.
Candidates tend NOT to say "I don't know", but actually, I EXPECT FROM THEM TO SAY THESE 3 LITTLE WORDS about things, they really don't know since guessing about questions like "when Picasso started to write his 2nd book? OR How much years JFK was married when died? OR 'Can you kill thread in Java programming language?" will bring just crap, if person does not know EXACT answer.

WaltKienia
WaltKienia

It's not "I don't know," it's, "I'm a democrat."

RJWinUK
RJWinUK

Everyone know why manhole covers are round. Because if they were any other shape they could fall in the hole and also whatever way you put it down it will always fit immediately. A square a the wrong angle can fall in and also has to be perfectly aligned to fit. Did you not have blocks as children? 

johnsmithcmu
johnsmithcmu

@JohnSmith3 That's a pretty big jump there equating religion and ideology with uninformed assumption. 

As to the rest of your post, it seems that you have missed that the author points out by the end though, that answering "I don't know," with a follow-up of how you would approach the original question by fact checking and reasoning are smart, and the wild guesses are stupid.

stormyrain2010
stormyrain2010

@rskins09 I've gone to interviews and they've had others stand in for the hiring manager. The questions they ask have absolutely nothing to do with the job or job performance. I've met people in the hallway, lobby, etc and they can't look you in the eye, acknowledge you or even saying hello.  One interview was 4 hours long! They never offered me a drink or asked me if I needed to use the restroom! Bounced me around to everyone in an office of 15 people...

SingingM1
SingingM1

Thank you.  You are retired and can speak the truth without worrying about being on some "list" of the complainers who they never want to hire.    I am over 50 and have a few years to go before I retire. The job interviews now are TERRIBLE.  All the companies want to run background checks, and credit checks, and give you a letter to sign that says: "Employee at will" .  They let you know that they can fire for any or no reason.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@AlexeyAbraham I need a logic shave.  Shall we whip out Occam's Razor on this?

Everyone, to some degree, thinks they know something about everything.  Conversely, no one knows everything about anything.  There is always a degree of uncertainty in all things.

So the HONEST ANSWER is ALWAYS "I don't know for SURE."  It's also the only answer to every question except, perhaps, "what's your gender?", and they're not supposed to ask that (and some people have a hard time deciding).

But that answer doesn't get anyone hired.  This means there is no credible test for honesty in an interview because of the fact all of the questions you ask are subject to interpretation on the part of the nervous interviewee for their hidden meaning and that "honesty" all by itself has different levels of meaning and intention to each individual.

I suggest you loosen up in your interview process and test their skills instead.  Honesty isn't that important in the grand scheme of things.  Besides, with your apparent emphasis on it, you'll never trust anyone right out of the gate no matter how they answer your questions.  Let them earn your trust with consistency and competence - both of which can be demonstrated.  Trust is more important than honesty on all levels.  You can trust a liar to tell lies.  You'll never know when an "honest" person you thought you could trust is lying to you.

As for your questions, Picasso never wrote any books.  He was a painter in Florence who had an ear for art.

It seems to me JFK was married in the mid fifties, so he would have been married about seven to eight years when he was assassinated in 1963.

I don't know jack about Java since I've never used it, but I've seen a lot of the syntax and it's looks like a variation on C - which I have some experience in.  If by "killing thread", you mean kill a threaded method, sure through exception handling or using an abort if necessary, assuming Java does explicit exception handling like that (which would seem to be a safe assumption since it's a basic part of code in everything ELSE), but it's really, really not a good idea to use abort.  It's better to write methods that you always explicitly control.

I'm most proficient in Pascal, but at a relatively basic level.  I've written and sold a few database programs to clients that didn't involve gigantic amounts of skill or unusually outside of the box approaches - with the exception of one program I wrote that was used as the battle calculator for an online SIM/RPG game that assigned an indeterminate number of unexpressed variables by loading a grid field instead of a database with parsed data.  That one was kind of special IMHO (Which given my skill is pretty damn humble).

There, I was honest.  So do I get the job? 

J/K

Sometimes honesty isn't the best policy.  Of course I wouldn't have applied for the job in the first place since I'm probably not even remotely qualified. But as one "manager" to another, try to lighten up in your interviews.  If they know their stuff, let them earn your trust.  They're going to have to do that anyhow.

ombet4s
ombet4s

@RJWinUK  Simplest answer would be: The manhole cover is round because the hole that it needs to cover is also round, period!

AlexeyAbraham
AlexeyAbraham

@PeggyMcKee If the question requires some particular knowledge, answering "I don't know" shows HONESTY.
Guesing and avoiding saying "I don't know" about huge amount of things for many positions is just a bad habit.

hedy1234
hedy1234

@SingingM1 

Hiring interviews have always been very weak. This is not news.

They should and must run background checks. This is basic risk management and you should not be bothered by that.

Employee at will is not news either. It has been this way for a long time and is not going away. Everyone is a free agent.

So what is your real issue(s)? Age discrimination? That is real and must be overcome. (not an easy thing to do)

ChadBurke
ChadBurke

Actually Van Gogh had the 'ear' smart guy, and neither were from Florence. Spanish and Dutch I believe.