Tip: How to Handle an Impossible Interview Question When You Don’t Know the Answer

This is one of the most difficult positions in which any quality professional can find themselves. If you don’t answer it correctly or handle the topic with skill, you are most likely out of the interview process. Over the last twenty two years, I’ve seen candidates in this quandary either tackle the situation adeptly or completely blow it. Let’s start out with some examples.

Many years ago, a candidate of ours was interviewing for a corporate quality engineer position in the Detroit area. It was a typical quality role with an A.P.Q.P. focus leading right up to launch. Prior to the interview process, I had a lengthy discussion with the hiring manager about the job description and his expectations. Working knowledge of G.D.& T. was never mentioned as an important requirement for candidates. Unfortunately, the hiring manager was under the impression that everyone was familiar with this tool.

Our first candidate was asked how strong he was in using G. D. & T. and tried to ‘fake’ his way through the discussion. As you might expect, the candidate talked too much, showing the interviewer tell tale signs of nervousness. Sensing this, the hiring manager pulled out a blueprint and asked a G. D. & T. ‘101’ question. The candidate was stumped…awkward! Needless to say, he was not asked back for a second interview.

The very same day, another candidate of ours came in and faced that identical question. Although he was caught off guard and was not prepared, his answer was quite different: “Our company is more of an ‘old line’ sheet metal stamping and fabrication operation. We do not use G. D. & T., nor am I strong in this area. It is a skill, however, I’ve always wanted to add to my toolbox. Since I am very interested in both the company and opportunity, I would be willing to do whatever it takes to come up to speed. I will even pay for the training out of my own pocket if that is what it takes.” He then asked, “How long do you think it would take me to learn this?” The answer, “Probably a three day course.” As you might expect, he got the job because he had eight tenths of what they wanted and the team liked him. He took the course, paid for by his new company.

Hiring managers know there is no such thing as a perfect candidate. There are always trade offs, except when it comes to ethics. Dancing around questions and evasiveness will do you a disservice. To wrap up the previous story, take a guess often any company ultimately makes the person pay for the training out of their own pocket? It has never happened in our firm’s history. Let’s examine another case.

Sometimes, our candidates are needlessly caught off guard by questions regarding tools even the hiring company doesn’t use. I learned about this in the 1990s when D.O.E.s were all the rage. Back then, all you would see in job descriptions is: D.O.E. experience needed, D.O.E. a must, D.O.E this, D.O.E. that, ad nausea. The problem was that quality engineers who lived in the real world of P.P.A.P.s, S.P.C., 8Ds rarely if ever had time to think about a DOE, let alone run one. In response to this, we had to make an adjustment in our interview preparation to include the question, “How many DOEs has this company run in the past year?” Case solved.

Since companies know there is no perfect fit, it is important to mitigate any negatives they see. So, not having D.O.E. could be a big strike against you. If you are able to make them think, “Yes, this is a box to check, but it is really not that important since we are either not really using it or it is something that can be easily be learned.” They can only come to that conclusion if they say it. “No, we haven’t run any D.O.E.s this year.” If the next comment is, “But we are looking to run a number of them in the near future and need an expert,” you don’t want to be hired anyway. You are not a fit. An interview is an honest attempt on both sides at getting questions answered in order to find out if a corporate marriage makes sense. It is not a competition to ‘win’ the job.

Here are my suggestions on how to handle these kinds of situations properly.


If you do not have knowledge or experience in the given area, say:


“I do not have experience with XYZ. I am willing, however, to learn and do whatever it takes to quickly come up to speed. How long do you think it would take me to pick this up?” Allow them to answer and then follow up by asking:


“How often are you using this tool and how often would I be using it in this role?”


For example, if the position requires extensive experience with Chrysler launch activities and you have no background with this customer, the job is not yours to fill. If the hiring manager says, “You can learn it in three days.” OK, learn it. If the hiring manager says it, they own it.


If you don’t understand the question, have the interviewer rephrase it or be more specific.


“Would you please repeat the question.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t quite understand the question. Would you please rephrase it?”

“I understand the question, but where would you like me to start?”

“You asked what my involvement with the customer is. Is this in regards to A.P.Q.P, problem resolution, or both? Which one is most important to you?”

“How do you mean?”

“Can you be more specific?”


As you answer a question, the hiring manager looks a bit bewildered.


Don’t prolong the moment. Stop and ask, “I’m sensing perhaps my answer is not going in the direction you were looking for. Would you like me to go over any points that may have been lost in translation?” The very fact you recognized this and addressed it shows the hiring manager you understand people and that you are a quality professional to the core. After all, you are recognizing a potential issue and taking steps to address it. Chances are you are gaining points in the mind of the hiring manager. If, on the other hand, you totally misread the person then perhaps you are not a fit to work together. Hope these insights help. Go Automotive Quality!