Weekly Wrap: When Some Oddball Interview Questions Aren’t So Odd

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I’ve been dealing with stupid and idiotic interview questions for a very, very long time.

It’s been more than 25 years since I heard a City Editor I used to work with asking a reporter applicant, “If you could be a criminal (or a tree/color/milkshake), what kind would it be?” and I wondered then as I do now, what the hell do you find out about a potential employee by asking them crap like that?

That’s why Glassdoor‘s annual list of the Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions released this week is so instructive, because it gives a little insight into the kind of silliness that goes on in the interviewing process.

2 key things about the “odd” question list

The Glassdoor list, which they say is “compiled from the tens of thousands of interview questions shared by job candidates over the past year,” is designed “to help job seekers prepare for challenging or unexpected questions that may arise during an interview.” It may certainly do that, but it also does two other things that I can see:

  1. It puts a spotlight on how much bad interviewing goes on each year; and,
  2. It shows that some of the “oddball” questions are actually pretty interesting and may not be so odd at all.

Here are some of the wackiest ones I pulled out of the Glassdoor list (and you can go to the complete list here):

  • “A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?” – Asked at Clark Construction Group, Office Engineer candidate.
  • Can you say: ’Peter Pepper Picked a Pickled Pepper’ and cross-sell a washing machine at the same time?” – Asked at MasterCard, Call Centre candidate.
  • “What’s your favorite song? Perform it for us now.” – Asked at LivingSocial, Adventures City Manager candidate.
  • How many cows are in Canada?” – Asked at Google, Local Data Quality Evaluator candidate.
  • “What kitchen utensil would you be?” – Asked at Bandwidth.com.

Questions that actually made sense

Reading these questions makes you wonder: why would anyone in a hiring position care about Canadian cows (except perhaps Canadian farmers) or kitchen utensils? What could this possibly have to do with how successful they would be on the job?

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But, there were some on the oddball question list that actually seemed like they had a lot of merit. They included:

  • Jeff Bezos walks into your office and says you can have a million dollars to launch your best entrepreneurial idea. What is it?” – Asked at Amazon, Product Development candidate.
  • What do you think about when you are alone in your car?” – Asked at Gallup, Associate Analyst candidate.
  • Have you ever stolen a pen from work?” – Asked at Jiffy Software, Software Architect candidate.
  • You are a head chef at a restaurant and your team has been selected to be on Iron Chef. How do you prepare your team for the competition and how do you leverage the competition for your restaurant?” – Asked at Accenture, Business Analyst candidate.

Some of you may not agree, but I believe these last four questions questions work because the answers might reveal something insightful about either the candidates’ character, or, their planning, preparation, and vision. And, those are all great qualities to explore in a potential hire.

Are there no good applicants out there?

So, take a look at these “oddball” interview questions and remember this: for every oddball question there is an oddball interviewer, and somehow, THEY got hired for a job. Remembering that might put some of these questions into perspective.

Of course, there’s a lot more than odd interview questions in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Are there really no good job applicants out there? It’s a provocative questions asked this week in The New York Times’ Economix blog. And as author Catherine Rampall notes, “Despite the glut of workers, the share of small businesses saying they couldn’t find the talent they wanted was generally rising from December 2009 until September 2012, when it reached its highest point since the recession began five years earlier. What’s especially odd about these survey responses is that if employers are having trouble finding qualified workers, they should be bidding up wages to attract the few qualified workers who are out there. But that’s not what the data show. … Average hourly earnings in the private sector fell over the period that businesses reported having increased trouble finding qualified workers (December 2009 to September 2012). Perhaps this means businesses are having trouble finding qualified workers precisely because they’re unwilling to pay new hires enough money.”
  • What do you know about your workplace rules? Every company and workplace has rules, and as Cindy Krischer Goodman reports in The Miami Herald, what you don’t know about your workplace rules could get you fired. “The holidays are over, your boss is still a jerk and now you’re deciding whether to set him straight about how to treat you in 2013. What you do next could cost you your job, shut you out of your industry for awhile or help you win a case against your employer. As we launch into a new year, it’s an ideal time to brush up on your workplace rights.”
  • Is this the year for workers to find a new job? The Christian Science Monitor says that it is — if the economy will let you. “With America’s slow-growth economy looking stable, 2013 is shaping up to be the year that many workers look for a new job. After years of slogging in their current positions, unable to move because of the lack of new openings, workers are eager for a new job… If the job market continues on its current path, those who are aiming to work in growth industries should be able to make the jump.  … Many Americans are eager to change jobs. In a new suvery of 1,000 workers, 38 percent are resolved to find a new or better job this year, according to Indeed.com, a job-search website. In a separate survey of 2,250 adults by Glassdoor, an online career-search company, 33 percent of workers say they will look for a new job this year if the economy doesn’t contract; more than half of those plan on looking in the next three months.”
  • The problem with “reply all.” Are you one of those people who gets tired of being copied on emails that you really don’t need to see? It’ an ongoing problem in the workplace, as the San Francisco Chronicle notes: “At least 15 percent of a typical office worker’s day is spent on e-mail, and 5 percent of e-mails received are replies to all, according to data from VoloMetrix, a Seattle startup that tracks, minute by minute, how its clients’ employees use technology at work. While that might sound like a small number, spread those stats over a 10,000-employee company and “you rapidly get to a pretty big number in terms of dollar cost – in the tens of millions of dollars” per year, says VoloMetrix founder Ryan Fuller. For worker productivity, he says, “it’s death by a thousand cuts.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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5 Comments on “Weekly Wrap: When Some Oddball Interview Questions Aren’t So Odd

  1. An interesting read. Many of these questions are more about showing how innovative/wacky/creative/zany the employer is and have little to do with the candidate. It seems they are almost trying to sell the company rather than interview the candidate. I remember one interview i sat in and the lead interviewer said: so you have a master degree, but what does that qualify you for? The candidate replied without hesitating: well, your job for a start…
    Always enjoy your posts!

  2. Personally, I think they are a really fun and interesting way to see one’s problem-solving responses on the fly. Especially for a creative job in the advertising or marketing arena, one should be able to ask the prospective employee questions that might give them an idea how the person thinks and would fit in.

    Of course I say this in the safety of my own studio. I would like to think if I were being interviewed and asked a question like that, I could come up with a brilliant answer that will blow them away. HIRED!

  3. Personally, I think they are a really fun and interesting way to see one’s problem-solving capabilities on the fly. Especially for a creative job in the advertising or marketing arena, one should be able to ask the prospective employee questions that might give them an idea how the person thinks and would fit in.

    Of course I say this from the safety of my own studio. I would like to think if I were being interviewed and asked a question like that, I could come up with a brilliant answer that will blow them away. HIRED!

  4. I think these questions reflect the sad state of HR and it’s learn as you earn administrative mentality…sure, they are cute but are they are job-related? Is there any internal company study showing whatever they are trying to measure with these questions has anything to do with job performance? Assuming candidates pass/fail depending on their answers, where is the standardized answer key that determines answer quality or it’s relationship to job performance?
    Over 30 years ago, the DOL published a set of guidelines stating hiring tools (yes, that includes interviews) should be based on job requirements and business necessity…and furthermore, answers to these tools should directly relate to job performance. Questions like these coming from such large companies makes you wonder about the professonal qualifications of their HR gatekeepers. Doesn’t their executive leadership think job relatedness and validity is important? Otherwise why on earth would they let HR get away with these psychobabble games?

  5. I’m not sure companies need to focus on degrees and courses and grades. There are people that graduate from MIT and can’t think their way out of a paper bag. Here’s what one manager has to say —- and I might add that he is not just any manager workiing for just any company:

    “At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, the head of Human Resources says he has
    trouble replacing his master problem-solvers. He has his pick from Harvard and MIT, but he found even though they were brilliant, they weren’t innovative in dealing with problems the way their predecessors were. He realized that his best problem-solvers had been kids who were tinkerers, who built sand castles, who took computers apart with their friends so they could understand their guts. Degrees didn’t matter.”

    Read Eric Gaydos’ post: https://staging.tlnt.com/2012/08/13/why-the-tech-industry-loves-to-hire-college-dropouts/
    Hiring managers spend entirely too much time focused on credentials without probing and finding out what a candidate really knows, how they apply it and how they think. That is the only thing that is useful. What the DOL says is nice — but let’s get real here.

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