Weekly Wrap: Why Are We Still Asking Oddball Interview Questions?

I have never understood why so many companies and hiring managers seem to revel in oddball interview questions.

They used to be really popular, but the appeal of asking someone in a job interview, “if you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” is — thankfully — fading. Even Google, an organization that knows a thing or two about hiring good people, has opted to stop asking crazy (some would say stupid) questions in job interviews and now says that they “are a complete waste of time.”

For the record, I think asking job candidates oddball interview questions is “stupid and idiotic,” as I put it last year, and I still wonder “what the hell do you find out about a potential employee by asking them crap like that?”

Some incredibly odd interview questions …

Despite my strong feelings on this subject, I still find value in taking a good look at Glassdoor’s annual list of the Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions because it always,

  1. Spotlights how much terrible (and insulting) interviewing goes on each year; and,
  2. Shows that some of the “oddball” questions are actually pretty interesting and may not be so odd at all.

Here are some of the absolute worst ones from Glassdoor‘s 2014 list:

  •  “If you were a pizza delivery man, how would you benefit from scissors?” – Asked at Apple as part of a specialist interview.
  • “Do you believe in Big Foot?” – Asked at Norwegian Cruise Lines in an interview for a Casino Marketing Coordinator.
  • If you were a box of cereal, what would you be and why?” – Asked at Bed Bath & Beyond in an interview for a sales associate.
  • How many square feet of pizza is eaten in the U.S. each year?” – Asked at Goldman Sachs as part of a programmer analyst interview.
  • You’re a new addition to the crayon box, what color would you be and why?” – Asked at Urban Outfitters in a sales associate interview.
  • Have you ever been on a boat?” – Asked at Applied Systems in a graphic designer interview.

I’ve always struck by the complete and total uselessness of questions like these. Although I appreciate asking about things that help to reveal character or other internal qualities that might be useful in a job setting, queries like these are just completely idiotic, and I challenge anyone to make a reasonable case for the value of wasting precious interview time on this kind of crap.

… and a few questions that actually make sense

But, one of the joys of Glassdoor’s Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions is that some of the “oddball” questions they list are not that odd at all because, yes, they seem to reasonably be looking to reveal some of those internal characteristics that savvy employers want to know more about. For example, the 2014 Glassdoor list also had questions like these:

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  • If you could sing one song on American Idol, what would it be?” – Asked at Red Frog Events in an event coordinator interviewer.
  • What is your least favorite thing about humanity?” – Asked at ZocDoc in an interview for an operations associate.
  • “If you were 80 years old, what would you tell your children?” – Asked as part of an associate interview at McKinsey & Company.
  • How honest are you?” – Asked at Allied Telesis during an interview for an executive assistant.

To me, this last set of questions shows an attempt to get some insight into the job candidate, their personality, and their character, by asking questions that might reveal some of that. And, they aren’t questions that insult your intelligence and make you want to scream.

Most of all, Glassdoor’s Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions shows again how interviewing job candidates is a real art that can help you to better understand whether the person at hand has a lot more to them than their resume, education, or job experience seems to indicate.

Should you allow e-cigarettes in the workplace?

But, you should also remember this: for every oddball question there is an oddball interviewer, and somehow, THEY got hired for a job. Yes remembering that might help put some of these questions into perspective.

Of course, there’s a lot more than oddball 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.

  • How employees perform when they can control their space. An HBR blog post recently dug into a survey about how workers did when they were better able to control their work environment. The result? “An emerging suite of literature and research .. clearly points to the power of choice and autonomy to drive not only employee happiness, but also motivation and performance. We found that knowledge workers whose companies allow them to help decide when, where, and how they work were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, performed better, and viewed their company as more innovative than competitors that didn’t offer such choices.”
  • Should you allow e-cigarettes at work? Should you allow e-cigarettes in the office if it helps people quit smoking? It’s an intriguing question, and a new dilemma for HR, as The Wall Street Journal explains. Some “24 states and the District of Columbia ban smoking in the workplace, but only three — New Jersey, Utah and North Dakota — have added e-cigarettes to those laws. And while more than 100 cities forbid vaping in areas where regular cigarettes are already banned—including Chicago, where city aldermen voted on Wednesday to restrict e-cigarette use — most haven’t addressed the issue, leaving employers to make their own decisions. (And) employers’ choices are complicated by the fact that public-health experts can’t agree on whether e-cigarettes are a valuable tool for helping smokers kick the habit or simply a milder — but still potentially harmful — alternative to regular cigarettes.”
  • Survivor’s guide to bullies, backstabbers and bastards. Chester Elton is a very entertaining guy, as anyone who ever saw his presentations for OC Tanner surely knows. Chester has moved on to other things, and one of them is writing stuff like this ‘Survivor’s Guide” on LinkedIn. This should give you a flavor of where’s he’s going with this — “As I survey employees about their jobs, one thing most of us say is we’ve all worked for our share of terrible bosses. Some of these managers are Bullies: Controlling, picky and petty. Some are Backstabbers: Taking credit for your work and undermining you at every turn. And others are just plain Bastards: Mean, vindictive, conniving. And, if we are lucky, we get all three in one package like my worst boss Voldemort (not his real name).”
  • Who’s really in charge of the workplace? I get a lot of infographics sent my way although I rarely publish them here at TLNT because many simply don’t have all that much value. This one from Spherion (the staffing services people) is different, however, and seems to not only have a lot of good information but a minimum of marketing hype. It’s worth taking a look at.In charge

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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2 Comments on “Weekly Wrap: Why Are We Still Asking Oddball Interview Questions?

  1. While I can see how some places ask these questions as a way to gage a person’s thinking process and the assumptions they need to make to answer some of them, I think many are asked for one purpose: to rattle candidates.
    People who have been rattled are not composed, can become flustered, and blurt out things they might not otherwise say.

  2. While I can’t agree with the vitriolic reaction to the mere notion of offbeat interview questions, I can see a difference in efficacy between questions being used to suss fit and questions that are used to throw-off the candidate. A friend of mine was promoted to manager of her department, and went through several rounds of hiring. For her – and her team – fit was extremely important, so as part of her regular round of questions she would ask candidates, “Kirk or Picard?” Candidates who did not get the reference were unlikely to fit well with the existing team, who were apparently very nerdy.
    If Good.Co had been around at the time, she could have just had potential candidates fill out our 3-minute personal assessment survey to find an ideal fit -without any oddball questions.
    Cheers! Lisa Chatroop, Good.Co

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