Human Resources News & Insights

Bizarre interview questions: Do they really work?

We’ve all read about them: The strange interview questions that companies throw at candidates just to see how they respond. The real question: Do those bizarre questions actually prove anything?

Two recent write-ups look at the pros and cons of the bizarro interview questions trend to see if they’re useful at all during the interview process.

Pro

Squire Sanders attorney David Whincup, writing for Employment Law Worldview, sits squarely in the Pro Bizarre Interview Questions camp.

Whincup acknowledges what many interviewers may not — that even the interviewer himself might not know the answer to questions like, “How many chickens are eaten in the UK each year?”

What he does say, however, is that a candidate who makes an effort to answer such a ridiculous question “would show us that he would not panic immediately if faced with an unknown, had an analytical mindset and possessed some degree of numeracy.”

Whincup does offer some legal advice for those who want to use such questions:

The key to using them successfully from the legal perspective … is to ensure the retention of written records of what the answer told you about the relevant attributes of the candidate. Supportable references to resilience, lateral thinking, analytical skills, pragmatism, sense of humor, even honesty, are all possible outcomes from such questions, provided that you can explain why – and without those written records, forget it.

Con

Sitting in the opposite camp is a company that formerly used these types of strange interview questions all the time: Google.

In fact, Google — who it was reported earlier this year asked a candidate, “How many cows are in Canada?” — recently admitted it had done away with strange interview questions entirely.

That’s the takeaway from the New York Times‘ interview with Google’s Senior VP of People Operations Laszlo Bock.

Bock said:

We found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.

Death and Taxes Magazine listed a few more examples of Google’s bizarre questions that the company no longer uses:

  • You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and your mass is proportionally reduced so as to maintain your original density. You are then thrown into an empty glass blender. The blades will start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?
  • How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?
  • How many times a day does a clock’s hands overlap?
  • A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. What happened?

Takeaway

So which is it: pro-or anti-bizarre interview questions?

Whichever path your company decides to go down, it’s certainly worth spending more time on the rest of the interview process rather than focusing a lot of time and energy on a question that’s sure to stump even the best candidates.

In fact, Bock, in the same interview, offers a sound piece of advice regarding interviews:

What works well are structured behavioral interviews, where you have a consistent rubric for how you assess people. This includes asking a candidate to describe a real-life situation in which they solved a difficult analytical problem. This has the added benefit of showing the interviewer what the candidate considers to be a difficult analytical problem rather than having each interviewer just make stuff up.

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