Human Resources News & Insights

Who's asking these silly interview questions?

Some companies, such as Google, are famous for asking weird, off-the-wall interview questions. Are they innovative or just wasting everybody’s time?

Monster’s SalesHQ Web site recently posted a list of 100 interview questions sales employees should be prepared to answer.

The list includes the basic “Why do you want this job?” fare, but also several items that are a little less ordinary. For example:

  1. Why is there fuzz on a tennis ball?
  2. How would you weigh a plane without scales?
  3. If you could choose one superhero power, what would it be and why?
  4. If you could get rid of any one of the US states, which one would you get rid of, and why?
  5. With your eyes closed, tell me step-by-step how to tie my shoes.
  6. Tell me 10 ways to use a pencil other than writing.
  7. What is your favorite memory from childhood?
  8. What’s the best movie you’ve seen in the last year?

The real question: Are those worth asking in an interview? Supporters say they give you an idea of candidates’ personalities and get them to think on their toes.

But many HR managers say they provide no useful information and annoy candidates.

The best advice: Keep it work-related. You can still ask personality-related questions and come up with critical-thinking problems, but they’ll be more effective when they’re related to the work environment and the job in question.

What do you think? Do off-the-wall questions have a place in job interviews? Give us your opinion in the comments section below.

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Comments

  1. I totally agree that off the wall questons are not valued added and provide no meaning information.

  2. I agree keeping it work related makes most sense. Others can be entertaining (if you like watching people squirm) but I have to say my biggest pet peeve is being asked “where do you see yourself in ten years” (or 5 years etc). I understand why they’re asking…but really…how could I possibly have anticipated my spouse dying at 47, having to sell the home I’d owned and lived in for 25 years, moving across the country and starting all over again! So what real good does it serve? Is anyone really going to admit that in 10 years they’d like to have your job…retire at 50?

  3. I have been doing this for over 25 years (in the financial and insurance field) and have made it a practice to have one or two off-the-wall questions, in every interview. It does make the candidate think on their feet, it reveals a lot about their personality, it gets away from their practiced answers, it demonstrates that you are not predictable, and it definitely changes the mood of the interview, etc.

    In fact, the last two hiring decisions I have made were almost soley on how they answered the “special” questions! And they have both turned out to be the right choice!

    Thanks for the new ideas for questions.

  4. I love those questions! I’m going to use some of them. I want to see if they get flustered just trying to explain how to tie their shoes…
    Some of the answers could be very revealing and may uncover some real creativity that I may have missed.
    Very cool.

  5. MGinSA – sorry to hear of your struggles, but you must know those “10-year” questions are asked to see whether you have GOALS, or if you’re just a slacker content to drift along.

    I like the off-the-wall questions, too! I saw one asking something along the lines of, “How many quarters would it take to stack as high as this building?” Of course there’s no way to give the exact answer, but it’s a great opportunity to show that you HAVE a thought process, and can think through things. The example answer was something like, “…If there are four floors on this building, each with 10-foot ceilings plus the construction and wiring – we’ll say 12 feet per floor, that’s 48-feet total. A quarter is approximately one inch wide, so 12 quarters for each foot…” The examples don’t have to be 100% accurate (such as construction knowledge or the exact dimensions of a quarter), but they want to see that the potential employee can work through a problem logically. Also might gauge whether they’d be a good fit in the department.

  6. I have been interviewing people for over 10 years and I have learned that you don’t need these types of irreverent questions to get “an idea of candidates’ personalities and get them to think on their toes.”
    1. Be genuinely curious about an interviewee.
    2. Seek out points on a resume or in the conversation, that allow you to ask a question that is work-related (maybe not relevant to your job) that you are curious to know more about. For example, I know nothing about horticulture and horticulture is irrelevant where I work. But if someone had it on a resume or mentioned it, I would zero in on that & ask a few curious questions. People love to talk about what interests them….so now you have a conversation. This conversation is more realistic. It is more likely that this person will talk about horticulture with co-workers than tennis ball fuzz. Through your conversation you learn how they will talk to other co-workers, thus how their personality will fit in your culture.
    3. Stop thinking sadistically when interviewing. Why do you want to watch an interviewee squirm? All this tells you is how well a person will fit a indentured servitude.
    4. If you want to know how well someone thinks on their toes, design questions that are specifically job-related. Work with your managers on situational questions.
    In short, I believe that when an interviewer uses these questions, it can make the interviewer to appear to be either an inexperienced interviewer, those who read into personalities instead of one who gets to really know you, or those that seek to be clever.
    All in all, for me, not useful.

  7. I like some of the oddball questions for the same reason as Carolyn. Takes the applicant away from the rehearsed answers to the usual interview questions. i don’t know about the fuzz on a tennis ball, but some questions let you know if the person has critical or flexible thinking or reasoning skills. And the superhero question lets you know a lot about someone’s personality and how they work- not so much in what power they choose, then why they choose it. However, I would limit the odd questions and ultimately choose a candidate based on qualifications.

  8. The question about closing your eyes and instructing on how to tie shoes does show that someone can clealry deliver step by stop directions. Who cares what movie someone liked? Most of these questions are a waste of time other than as ice-breakers. Too many hiring decisions are based upon nonsense and later there are issues with the employee that could have been uncovered if a better screening process were in place.

  9. I think they should be work related; more along the lines of what did you do to increase profit in your last position or help efficiency? Find how creative they are but make it work related. Try this one: How do you solve the staging problems for a performance of Peer Gynt? Do it on the radio.

  10. I really think it depends on the job you are being hired for. It makes sense that some sales jobs want to see which direction outside the box their candidates go (the article mentions these are questions sales employees should be prepared to answer). If they are looking for someone more analytical, how they answer the pencil question can really make a difference. The same question can tell them how creative a person is.

    One cannot always tell if a person is a good fit on a team unless they go outside the box of the core job requirements. I squirm when these types of questions are asked of me but also see the value in them so remember to just be myself in that part of the interview.

  11. I think the one point everyone seems to be missing is if you have reviewed the resume and done a pre-screen, when you get to the interview, you are mainly looking for some skill explanations, but mostly you are looking to a personality fit. I much prefer a quasi-behavorial interview to judge thinking ability, but have a much more relaxed interview and once the interviewee is relaxed, you would be surprised how much they will tell you, much to their detriment at times.

    If they are there for the interview, I would assume you have done enough pre-interview probing to know they have the skill sets required. Personality fit is the new trend for retianing employees. If they have the right fit, chances are they will enjoy the atmosphere. Then it is the employer’s job to ensure they are challenged and that they feel they have a personal stake in the company where their ideas are heard and they buy in to what the company is trying to do well. Too many employers think if the employee is given the job they are looking for, they will be happy, but so much more goes into the equation. They have to develop a strong on-boarding system, challenge the employee with additional training and genuinely ask them for their ideas for improvement and get them involved in the business.

    It’s sad to see how much employer’s talk about “our employees are our biggest asset” when management and the higher-ups don’t get down to the floor level to find out what truly makes employees happy and how to best motivate them.

  12. I agree with jps 100% – thanks for the nice summary. While I am looking for the right fit, the off-the-wall questions seem mostly irrelevant and designed to torture!

  13. JPS has the right idea. To my mind, this type question is an easy out. It takes effort to ask job specific questions to get an idea of how a prospective employee might tackle a challenge in the workplace…”I see you were responsible for event planning with xyz company. Did you ever have to reschedule a large event due to unforeseen circumstance at the last minute? How did you handle that?” I also like to pick out a resume point and say “Tell me about this”. On occasion, I will outline a potential scenario which could occur at our company and ask “How would you go about solving this?” or “Where would you begin the process of completing this task?”. This isn’t facebook and I don’t particularly care what dead rock star they are.

  14. 2 off the wall questions I’ve been asked:
    If you were a tree, what kind of a tree would you be and why?
    If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be and why?

  15. I have a sense of humor and love to laugh, but I’m not a fan of off-the-wall questions. Think about it: if you were constructing an employment test, you’d have to be able to demonstrate that it was a valid and reliable predictor of performance and didn’t cause disparate impace. Why should interview questions be so different?

    I believe that with a little thought and creativity, you can ask unexpected–and work related–questions without venturing into silly territory.

  16. Aaarrrggghhhhh!!!!! Did Diane really use the dreaded and reviled “out of the box”? Twice???Thanks! my eyes are now bleeding.

  17. I feel off the wall questions are a good tool. You relax the candidate as you both chuckle over the outlandish nature of the question, plus you get to see a little bit of the “real” person behind the interview face. Mine aren’t nearly as imaginative as the ones listed, but I generally ask people what they think their 3 greatest weakness/or stregths are. I also like to ask a candidate what makes them the best candidate for the job; why should I hire them over the others? I’ve gotten some really good insight with the answers I get. I truly think it’s good to see something other than an “interview face”.

  18. Some of you are just too serious. I don’t believe that anyone would derive pleasure from watching someone squirm – jeeze! If someone can explain how to tie their shoes you will reveal how their brain works and whether they have good communication skills. I feel that you could get some real insight into a person if they are to tell you about a childhood memory-and you may even be making them a little more comfortable if they share something that they really enjoyed – like the latest movie that they went to. If they uncomfortable, maybe they have something to hide? This opens them up to real conversation which may reveal more than just stuffy answers to stuffy questions. Maybe some of you should try it sometime before you make your decision about whether silly questions have any value. All of those questions have significance if you think about them.

  19. If a prospective employer will waste my time with questions that have nothing to do with the position I’m interviewing for, or the company itself, it makes me wonder how much time will also be wasted at the office if I choose to take that position. If an interviewer wants to learn about my personality, then be up front and give me a personality test.
    Also, if an interviewer starts asking those kinds of questions, I would like their answers to them as well, as I would like to know a bit more about their personality – just to make sure they are worth working for, you know… because an interview goes both ways. Seeing if a prospective employee is a good fit for that particular company, and also for the prospective company is a good fit for the job seeker.

  20. Come on people lighten up! We have asked questions like, If you could pick a fruit to describe you what would it be and why? It tells a lot about a person; good and bad. I’m not saying it could throw an interview, but it might reinforce some opinions you have of a person based on how they may have answered the competency based questions that we usually use. I also think it shows if someone can think on their feet. I may use some of the one listed above. Filling a vacancy is just not always about their technical ability and education; it is also about the “right fit.”

  21. Merlynn Bertini says:

    My issue with these questions is they really waste time. How does one support a hiring decision made by using these questions? Does anyone want to go before a judge and discuss why these questions are important–when a candidates screams discrimination? Lastly, what about candidates from diverse backgrounds. Someone from another culture may not have grown up with “super heroes”–does that make them a poor employee?

  22. I’m with Jim, Diana, JHT, Krista, JS, Merylynn & especially, JPS & Michael. I’ve been interviewing people for well over 20 years to include for military service. There are other ways for the interviewer to “lighten up” or not be “too serious” than to ask these types of questions. How you greet, your demeanor when you first interact makes a big difference in getting your candidates to be relaxed & the interview process less stressful for all concerned. As Michael stated, “once the interviewee is relaxed, you would be surprised how much they will tell you, much to their detriment at times.”

    Personally, but most importantly, professionally I don’t care for these off the wall questions. In my experience they serve nothing else but to cause the candidates to “be flustered” or “squirm” as Lori puts it. That’s pretty sadistic & unprofessional behavior in my opinion.

    For your info Lori, in these times, just to be called in for an interview is serious. With the unemployment rates at its highest in years, with some cities whose job ratio to applicants is 1/46 these are statistics (from this very site) enough to make anyone “be flustered” & “squirm”. Too many people are in need of a job & don’t need to degraded further by asking these ridiculous “off the wall” questions.

  23. Gee thanks, Pat T.! Now I can strive to be as professional as you are – and take interviews seriously – as if I don’t already! (I bet you’re a lot of fun to work for…) How dare you! I actually have been doing this longer than you have and you think that because you have a lot of experience that your opinion is more important than mine? -That I don’t consider the applicants that are desparate for work? We don’t have much of a turnover but when I do need people I want to get to know everything I can about them because we will be practically living together every day. I never said that I wanted to watch anyone squirm – those are your words. If they were to get flustered and get mad, that may be an indicator that this person probably will not work out. I only thought that the questions could interject some insight as to their thought processes. I wouldn’t allow anything to go so far as bringing someone to tears. I run my office in a casual manner and would never make my employees suffer or make them feel uncomfortable on purpose. Thanks for the personal attack and the accusation that I am unprofessional. It’s you who are ridiculous, close-minded and who needs to lighten up. Sir-yes-Sir!

  24. Lori, you need to get a grip. There was no “personal attack” on you, that’s how you took my comments/opinion, so that’s on you. So let me quote you, “I want to see if they get flustered just trying to explain how to tie their shoes…” Additionally no where in my posting did I accuse you, directly or indirectly, of being unprofessional. There were others who commented they were for these “off the wall questions” you weren’t the only one. To each his/her own.

    As with everyone else on this posting, I merely expressed my opinion on the subject matter. Last, but not least, your statement “I actually have been doing this longer than you have and you think that because you have a lot of experience that your opinion is more important than mine?” sounds pretty ridiculous ……. again just my opinion. Seems you need to lighten up yourself, have a great week, Lori.

  25. Lori, You are in the wrong field. Your comments come from the Barbara Walters School of HR or maybe a Dr. Phil pop therapy session. We are professionals in HR not confidantes or therapists.

  26. Whoa ladies. Lets step back. There are different ways to accomplish the same task. Like Lori, I too, run a casual atmosphere. Strict on policy and law, but casual in manner. As a result, I sometimes find myself in the position of therapist and that’s ok too. I want to be approachable, not stereotypical ice queen HR (not saying anyone here is that.) How did unconventional interview questions lead to this? I am assuming that we are all HR professionals and use the interview techniques that best serve the atmospheres of our respective businesses. Agreed?

  27. Well Carla, you ARE quite the professional! Whatever you do, stick to what works for you – I actually respect that. Too bad you can’t respect that I too have an opinion and that I can choose to use this type of question if I want to. I don’t agree with you so I am a ridiculous, torcherous wanna-be therapist! Do you people ever have any fun with your employees?

  28. Hwk, you’re absolutely right, there are different ways to accomplish the same task. However, the fact that the approach I or anyone else uses, but don’t utilitze these “unconventional interview questions” does not mean that makes us unapproachable or “stereotypical ice queen HR”. And I do have fun with my employees as well as candidates I interview, contrary to how it may appear. As a matter of fact, I have an “open door policy” whereby my employees are always welcome to see me at anytime for any reason. Last, but not least, “Agreed” as you so eloquently stated, “we are all HR professionals and use the interview techniques that best serve the atmospheres of our respective businesses.”

  29. We have lots of fun with our employees and I have received national recognition for Best Practices. Asking inane, silly questions is a turn off for applicants and is not job related. Rather than ask someone for instructions on tying their shoes might be helpful if the person were a supervisor candidate or a trainer. Otherwise it is irrelevant. What would you do if the person were in a wheelchair? People like you make HR look life a department of fluff.

  30. I understand that Lori wants to be friendly, but if HR asks non value added questions of applicants, you may be missing out on some great people who do not get your humor or who are from different cultural backgrounds and find it uncomfortable answering what appears to be irrelevant questions. YOu can have fun with employees by having recognition events, doing community work and events, but to paraphrase Jack Welch at the SHRM conference titled, HR needs to get out of the picnic business! Comments like yours Lori, makes HR look like we are back 40 years. Now to paraphrase Obama, let’s stop this silliness. We have more important issues in HR to tackle.

  31. Thank you for taking your precious time to grace us with your nationally recognized professionalism Carla. How and why do you find the time? Yeah, fluffy me, I would probably have asked someone in a wheelchair to describe tying their shoe had I not listened to your ultimate wisdom. I bet you get up every morning and kiss the mirror. Good grief…sorry, it’s not just your way or the highway – I don’t work for you, thank goodness.

  32. Lori,
    You should stay at your fluffy job. You couldn’t get past the interview stage at a real job.

  33. In my whole life I never interviewed for a job that I didn’t get. I love my fluffy job, thank you!

  34. It’s not that I don’t like fun. I love it. You are taking the comments way too seriously! This banter is comic relief.

  35. Us too! Every time a new comment comes up we’ve all been getting a big laugh – me and my torchered employees. My most recent new hire has been here almost 6 years and I really do care which movie she saw last. It’s true, it’s not fair to my employees that our office is so relaxed – and that we break the tension with a nerf ball or the occaisional rubber band fights. I do tell them that jobs everywhere else are not like it is here and I have ruined their expectations for working at any other professional office. They tell me that they really appreciate that I respect them enough to do their jobs without me hanging over their shoulders and no one is afraid to admit that they made a mistake, including me. Yeah, these are the kind of people that I ‘enjoy’ working with so, unless we can all get along, which we do, I would rather not share my day with them. Life is too short to take everything so seriously. It doesn’t mean that we don’t do an amazing job – we just enjoy doing it. -and, ‘Newsflash’ Chris: you don’t have to be a stiff jerk to keep up with current regulations and laws – it’s not all that difficult.

  36. What the heck is the definition of “torchered”….is it a sort of lamp ? Tortured? And as far as rubberband fights are concerned…as my dear old granny used to say “You’ll poke your eye out!”.

  37. Wow, Lori’s company must exist in the Land of Oz. Pretty scary scenario “the occasional rubber band fights.” Wonder how a “relaxed office” defense would withstand a worker’s comp claim should someone get hit the eye & injured. Although a bit off the subject, food for thought. And, Lori, really get a grip …… seems you’re too defensive as well as sarcastic. As for your statement of keeping up with current regulations and laws not being difficult, beg to differ as well as I’m sure many of my peers. It appears you may not be receiving up-to-date info regarding these regulations & laws ….. hence your rubber band fights. Again, the “Land of Oz”

  38. Lori,
    Now that you have revealed your work environment, I can appreciate why you have the points of view that you do. I agree with Pat that I have all I can do to keep up with the laws since my employer is in 14 states. I don’t have time for rubber band fights. Image if the CEO saw that going on in HR offices! People should enjoy their jobs and do them well. However, none of us, except you perhaps is at work just to have fun. IF we didn’t get paid and have to support ourselves and our famlies, we wouldn’t be at work because it was a blast. I think your comments towards Chris were unfair since he was only paraphrasing what Jack Welch said in his comments about the state of HR. Maybe you should take a page from his book or better yet read the whole book.

  39. I rather be a “stiff jerk” to paraphrase Lori than being seen as sophmoric at best throwing rubber bands around the office at each other. I guess you are recruitng from the fraternity featured in Animal House for your College Relatios program.

  40. Lori:
    Do you ask the question “How far can you shoot a rubberband?” Oh No!!! What if the applicant has a latex allergy??? Do you make an accommodation?

  41. Very funny Mimi! Guess those applicants won’t be able to work at Lori’s company, Oz Land Inc

  42. Wonder how the worker’s comp report would read that the employee was struck by her boss when they were flinging rubberbands at each other? Is that assault with a dangerous weapon? Those antics went out with grammar school. How about telling an amusing anecdote or joke or lauging to ease tension. Much safer than bandying around with rubber bands.

  43. Guess this topic brought out how silly HR can be. I want to know where I can apply at Oz?

  44. Subjective process’ showed signs of bias (from your website) How would those “silly questions be scored?”
    July 14, 2008 by Sam Narisi
    Posted in: In This Week’s E-Newsletter, Interviewing, Latest News & Views, Law
    Interviews are tricky — a candidate’s success or failure often depends on highly subjective criteria. But here’s an example of how too much subjectivity can wind up hitting a company with a bias lawsuit:

    An African-American man applied for a job. Based on his experience, he was brought in to interview. He was turned down in favor of a white applicant. He sued for race discrimination — and won.

    Why? Most of the evidence against the company came in the way interviewees were evaluated. All candidates were asked the same questions, but the way the answers were scored was highly subjective.

    Each answer was graded on a point system, but there didn’t seem to be a set formula for how points were awarded. For example, when asked about his attendance record, the man said he’d only ever missed a few days due to illness. A white applicant gave nearly the same answer, but got a much higher score.

    The judge ruled that the subjective grading system was a cover for the hiring manager’s bias.

    The company made the right choice by keeping the interview questions similar for all applicants — but didn’t carry the consistency through to the scoring.

    Cite: Dunlap v. Tennessee Valley Authority

  45. One last comment from OZ…I don’t work here to have fun but I sure do look forward to coming to work every day. The owner, CEO is a lot of fun – and he’s not a bad aim with a rubber band either. He’s an electrical engineer and we work extremely hard on construction contracts and job management with a crew of over 400 electricians. If we didn’t let loose once in a while we would surely explode so – it’s OK to let off a little steam when the pressure lets off – or when we finally win a bid after a 3-month dry-spell. You have created your own impression that we play all of the time and that is not true. We run a very tight operation and are more successful than any of our competitors within 1,000 miles. Whatever you think of me or how we act, it works well for us and we genuinely love our work and care about eachother. We work together like a well-oiled machine – not because some dried up shrew is standing over us with a whip but because we want to do our best to be a part of the achievements. He consistently rewards us with 25%/gross profit sharing contribution every year and we are extremely successful in a very down-trodden industry. We have practically no turnover, except for some union employees and we ‘love’ to do a good job for ‘our’ company. I wouldn’t swap jobs with ANY of you!

  46. Lori, get off your soap box already!!! Everyone gets the point where YOU’RE concerned and as you’ve said ‘JEEZE”!!

  47. Lori –

    Yes, I cherry-picked and listed below are just a few of your comments. These comments are hositle, aggressive, overbearing, insensitive, sarcastic, unprofessional and (to be honest) just a tad scary.

    “I want to see if they get flustered just trying to explain how to tie their shoes…
    If they uncomfortable, maybe they have something to hide?
    It’s you who are ridiculous, close-minded and who needs to lighten up. Sir-yes-Sir!
    I bet you get up every morning and kiss the mirror.
    In my whole life I never interviewed for a job that I didn’t get.
    I do tell them that jobs everywhere else are not like it is here and I have ruined their expectations for working at any other professional office.
    …not because some dried up shrew is standing over us with a whip”

    You have issues, dear. Please, seek help. Seek help now.

  48. …can we be done with this, now?

  49. 10 dumb ways managers drive job applicants away, October 15, 2009 by Sam Narisi. The following was number 5:

    Asking irrelevant questions (30%) — Some interviewers like asking off-beat, unexpected questions to keep candidates on their toes (for example, “If you were a fruit, what kind would you be?”). But most experts recommend sticking to job-related topics.

  50. [But many HR managers say they provide no useful information and annoy candidates].

    Some are not useless information. Perhaps to HR, but to a technical manager, if asked the right off-beat question, can give you an insight on how an applicant processes info and then resolve them. In the case of [With your eyes closed, tell me step-by-step how to tie my shoes], there are technical writing positions where you need to write SOPs. Depending on the regulation standards of that industry, the writing may require this kind of though process.

    I understand the HR side as I am currently an HR Manager, but my studies and a decade of my career was a scientist in medical development.

  51. I think we have beat this dead horse enough…..

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