(The quote, “Never tell your mother how to have children!” is an oldie but a goodie. But the source, apparently, is the oldest of them all, “Anonymous.”)
It is common in job interviews for candidates to talk too much. As I have written before, in many cases candidates have talked themselves out of job offers. But it works both ways, interviewers can also talk too much.
This usually occurs when, logically, they want to explain to the candidate the problem they are facing and thus the need for bringing them on board. Again, it’s perfectly logical. And it’s also necessary. But it can also be a trap.
After explaining the situation for a few minutes the interviewer turns to the candidate and asks, “How would you handle this?” or “What would you recommend that we do?”
There are disreputable companies that engage in fake hiring to get free advice from professionals they probably could not afford to actually hire, even as consultants. So they ask the latter question and hope for some good advice they can use. The ironic thing is, more likely than not, they don’t have the intellect, intelligence or resources to implement the suggestions. So let’s focus on the former question, after all, they are both related.
You, the candidate, have been in the company less than half an hour. You did all the research your could on them. You memorized their website. You found articles written about them and their key staff. And now you are being asked, after a few minutes of conversation, for the most part a monologue, how you would solve their biggest problem.
Your response should come in two parts. First, show off your researching skills. Ask pertinent questions based on your research. Make them delve deeper and reveal some of the things they kept hidden. If they were being sincere, this is a great way to show them that you understand what the real issues may be. (As I have said often, knowing the right questions to ask can be far more important than knowing the right answers to give.) If they are insincere, just looking for free help, and refuse to answer, game over! You know they are not looking to hire and, if you have the right morals, values and ethics, you won’t want to work for them. All you have to say is, “This is a complicated subject and without knowing the answers to my questions, I would not hazard to guess.”
Which brings us to the second part of your response. Assuming they are forthcoming, you can now give them the perfect-non-answer-answer. It shows you are intelligent. It shows that you are a person of good character. It shows, most importantly, that you know your stuff.
“While I have read a great deal about your company, and appreciate your candor, I would not presume, after meeting with you for only a few minutes, to offer advice. There are too many unknowns. In fact, since I don’t know what I don’t know I don’t know what to ask.”
You have now set the table for a response that shows you can do the job:
“If I understand correctly, and please correct me if I misunderstood, you…” After you have reworded what they told you, you continue, “Again I would not presume to tell you what to do. But what I can tell you is that I faced a similar situation. At one of my former employers,” you always want to show that you respect confidentiality by not naming names, “our problem was A, B and C. I proposed… The proposal was accepted. I was put in charge of building a team. We implemented a plan that included X, Y and Z. Not only did we solve the problem, we achieved buy-in from everyone and completed the plan on-time and under budget.”
And that is how you answer the question. If the employer is looking for free advice, the information you provided is worthless. They don’t know enough the situation you described and certainly don’t have the team to implement your solution, even if it is relevant for what they are experiencing. If the employer is sincerely looking to hire someone, you just proved that you can do the job for them because you did it for someone else, probably one of their competitors.