Here's exactly what to say when your CEO asks you a question you don't know how to answer

Boss employee conversationITU Pictures/FlickrPromise to take action.

There are a number of reasons why your CEO would spring a tricky question on you.

Maybe they’re genuinely curious and assume you have the answer. Maybe they’re testing you to see whether you can think on your feet.

Or, maybe they’re evil and will cackle joyously at the sight of you sweating and stammering.

Regardless of their specific motive, you’ll feel better if you’re able to stay calm and respond in a way that sounds professional.

According to Rosalinda Oropeza Randall, an etiquette and civility expert and the author of “Don’t Burp in the Boardroom,” your best bet is to just be honest. Here’s an example of what you might say:

I’m sorry, but I don’t know. I’m happy to find out — I know who to ask.”

“It’s a good career move,” Randall said. “You acknowledge that you don’t know and that you will take action.”

At this point, your CEO will probably say one of two things: “It’s ok; never mind,” or “Yes, please, find out.”

If they ask you to find out, Randall said, do it immediately and follow up with them.

Stephen Dubner and Stephen Levitt, authors of “Freakonomics,” recommend a similar strategy in this situation. As Levitt said in a 2014 podcast episode, feigning knowledge is counterproductive:

“It might keep your job for another week or another month, it might make people think you are good, but that’s not the point,” he said. “Really, the goal is to be good and to improve and to learn and to make things better. And the only way to do that is to start by saying, ‘I don’t know.'”

Of course, if it was your job to find out the answer to your CEO’s question — i.e. if it wasn’t a surprise — and you don’t have the answer, “you’re in big trouble,” Randall said.

“Your CEO doesn’t have time for excuses,” she added. “They want the information. They will remember that you don’t have it and move on.”

While you might not be able to restore your reputation completely, Randall said, you should definitely speak to your manager after the meeting with your CEO. When you’re unprepared, it makes your boss look bad, too.

Offer to gather the information this afternoon — but know that at this point, your manager might say, “never mind.”

Another option, assuming your manager thinks it’s a good idea, is to email your CEO and copy your manager. Include the information you were supposed to bring and tell your CEO that this won’t happen again.

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