Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.


A reader asks:

While I try to be understanding of job candidates who give five-minute responses to interview questions that should never ever take that long to answer, I just can't get past it, and it makes me want to fidget uncomfortably.

Would it be rude to put specific time limits on their answers, like by saying, "In 90 seconds or less, please tell us how your work experience relates to this position?"

I've tried a lot of tactics to trim down excessively long-winded responses, like instructing candidates to be thorough yet brief in their responses and providing them with the number of questions and time constraints at the beginning of an interview and advising them to monitor their time. Some of my hiring committee members have been more cutthroat and cut off the chatty ones with a rushed, "Okay, thank you" of finality when the candidate finally takes a pause for breath. I've even gotten "meaner" over time by trying to convey with body language that I'm losing interest.

Unfortunately, first interviews with my employer have to be structured strictly by a script once the questions begin, so there isn't a lot of leeway to help overly chatty candidates correct their course.

Green responds:

I, too, don't appreciate long-windedness from job candidates. When I'm interviewing someone, I have a certain amount of time set aside and a lot of questions to get through, and long-winded interviewees mean that I won't be able to cover everything that I want to cover.

But you know what? Candidates who go on and on and on are giving me valuable information about themselves: They're telling me that they're not well-matched with roles that require them to be concise or that require them to pick up on other people's cues in conversation (because I make a point of giving cues about the amount of time we have, both at the start of the conversation and -- if necessary -- as we continue).

So as annoying as I find long-windedness, I'm glad to have the info now, rather than discovering after hiring them that every conversation will be three times as long as it needs to be. I want them to show that to me now, so that I can decide if it's likely to be a problem in the job or not.

Of course, there are jobs and some work cultures where long-windedness doesn't really matter. If that's the case, then I hear you on needing a way to move the conversation along and get the info that you need.

But I wouldn't say "in 90 seconds or less, tell me ___." While that might get you shorter answers, it will turn off candidates who aren't long-winded, because it will seem weirdly rigid and overly proscriptive. It's not really conducive to having a conversational interview, which is the kind you want.

What you can do (some of which you're already trying):

* Tell people at the start of the interview how much time you've set aside and roughly how many questions you're hoping to get through in that time.

* If you're finding someone is still being long-winded, you can interject and say, "I don't want to cut you off, but I want to make sure that I'm able to get through all my questions and I want to leave plenty of time for your own questions as well."

* If necessary, you can say directly, "We have about X more questions to get through and only Y minutes, so we might need to keep discussion of these next few items fairly brief."

One more thing! If you're interested in having the most useful interviews possible, truly the most important change you could make is to drop the prohibition on deviating from the interview script. That rule is weakening your interviews much more than the chattiest candidate could ever do, since it means you can't ask follow-up questions and probe more deeply into an answer. I realize this might be outside your control, but if you're in any sort of position to push back on that, please do.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Oct 9, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.