How to answer a boss's tough questions

What to do when bosses put you on the spot with a question you can't answer quickly. Plus, whether to send an employer a video resume, and the etiquette of referral bonuses.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I am a slow thinker, and I like to consider all aspects of a question before I answer it. This is a little bit of a problem, because my boss often puts me on the spot by asking, "What do you think?" and seems to expect an instant answer. Sometimes I respond with "That sounds good" even if I'm not sure it does, or else just say nothing, which I think makes me seem stupid. Is there a better way? -Mister Methodical

Dear Mister: When stumped by a question, try answering it with another question, suggests Nancy Friedberg, president of New York City executive coaching firm Career Leverage (

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"For instance, you could say something like, 'Before I plunge in with my opinion, I'd like to make sure I understand,' and then ask what the other person's ideal outcome would look like, and how whatever they're suggesting would help achieve that," says Friedberg.

You can also ask what you can do to help reach the goal your boss is aiming for, or you could ask a question that brings up another aspect of the situation, like "Do we have any research on how customers would respond to that?" Friedberg notes that answering a question with another question "opens up a dialogue" that can lead to interesting new ideas.

True enough, but I wonder: What's wrong with simply saying, "That's an interesting question. I'd like to give it some thought and get back to you"? If it makes you feel better, you can give yourself a deadline for responding: Say you'll do it by this afternoon, or tomorrow, or the end of the week, and then stick to that. We've all become so used to working with computers that I think we forget that humans generally don't process information as fast as machines do. Plenty of really bad decisions could be avoided if people allowed themselves, and each other, a bit of time to think.

Dear Annie: I'm a new college grad applying for jobs in sales. I already have lots of experience from part-time jobs and internships. I'm a very high-energy person, which has helped me succeed in sales so far, but I just don't think my written resume captures my personality. A friend suggested that I try sending employers a video resume instead. Is this a good idea? Will hiring managers watch it? -High Octane

Dear H.O.: Probably, yes. Back in March, online career-information publishers ( surveyed 309 employers in various industries around the country and found that only 17% have actually used a video resume to evaluate a candidate - but 89% said they would do so if given the chance, and 56% think video resumes will become much more common as time goes on. The main reason these hiring managers would appreciate a video, they said, was "to assess a candidate's professional presentation and demeanor" (52%) - particularly apt in a role like sales, where how you come across to clients is crucial.

A note of caution, however: You'll have to talk fast. Slightly more than three-quarters (76%) of the employers in the survey said candidates should limit their celluloid resumes to under two minutes, and nearly half (47%) recommend you keep your spiel down to one minute, or about the length of a TV commercial.

Dear Annie: I need some advice about referral bonuses. I referred an acquaintance (I don't know her well) for a job opening at my company, and she was hired. Now, she is demanding that I share with her the referral bonus I'll get after she works here for three months. She wants half the money. (She has also requested a "welcome" dinner, which normally would be no problem, except that she's insisting on it so ungraciously.) I'd like to maintain a good professional relationship with her, but I feel she's overstepping. Is it standard practice to split the referral bonus? -Pressured in Portland

Dear Pressured: Yikes. Your question may be moot since, if her behavior toward you is typical, she has such horrendous people skills that she won't last three months. But no, it is absolutely not standard practice for an employee who refers a new hire to split the bonus with said new hire: That money is yours. As for her other request, do you really want to spend an evening with this person? If you feel you must, bring along some colleagues you actually like, and make sure the check gets divided fairly. Then, having done your duty, stay as far away from her as you possibly can. Good luck.

Do you get nervous with on-the-spot questions? Have you had any embarrassing situations at work when you didn't have an immediate answer to a question? Let us know. Post to the Ask Annie blog.  Top of page