why oddball interview questions don’t work

If you haven’t been on the receiving end of oddball job interview questions yourself, you’ve probably heard about them:

“If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

“What would I find in your refrigerator right now?”

“What kind of animal are you most like?”

… and so forth.

If you’re hiring and you’re tempted to use questions like, this again. They’ll rarely elicit useful information, and they’ll alienate most candidates.

Great candidates want to spend the interview talking about their background, the job you have open, and what they might bring to it. Start asking goofy questions about what kind of tree they’d be, and plenty of great candidates will be annoyed and question why you’re wasting their time – and plenty will decide they’re not a good fit with a hiring manager who hires this way. After all,interviews aren’t just about determining whether the you want to hire the candidate. Good candidates will also be using the time to figure out whether they even wants the job – and, if you’re the manager of the position, whether they want to work for you.

You should spend your time when interviewing probing into the candidate’s qualifications – asking in-depth questions about how they’ve operated in the past, talking over challenges they’ll face in this position and how they’ve responded to similar situations, giving them opportunities to simulate the work, and helping them get a better understanding of the job they’d be signing up for. If you start asking about the contents of their refrigerator, you’ll squander your time to do these things, and you’ll raise concerns about your ability to build and manage a high-performing team.

Not sure what to ask when you’re interviewing? Here are five questions that won’t waste your time or the candidate’s with goofy hypotheticals and will get you real information to help determine who to hire:

  • What has your biggest achievement been at ___? What results there that you produced are you most proud of? (Then ask the same question for other jobs they’ve had. You’re looking for someone with a pattern of taking things from X to Y — with Y being greater than X.)
  • This role requires a great deal of ___. Tell me about times in the past when you’ve had to use that skill.
  • It must have been hard to do ___. How did you approach that?
  • Tell me about a time when _____ (you were faced with a difficult challenge / you had to win over an unhappy customer / you faced an unreasonable deadline). What did you do? What did you do next? What happened after that? What was the result? Would you do anything differently?
  • If I were to talk to you’re your previous managers, what would they say are the things you’re best at? What would they say you need to improve in?

Truly probe into the candidate’s ability to do the job, avoid the goofy questions, and you’ll make better hires.

I originally published this at Intuit Quickbase’s blog.

{ 171 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick

    I love these questions! (The ones Alison suggests, not the goofy ones.) Thankfully, I haven’t gotten any weirdo questions like those when I’ve interviewed. I’m genuinely curious what information the hiring manager hopes to gain by asking something like that. A sense of the candidate’s creativity? Of his/her ability to respond to a curveball?

    1. Jamie

      I haven’t gotten any of those either – but I don’t have a ton of experience being interviewed.

      If I were I’d live in fear of the brain teaser questions. How many manholes are in NYC – that kind of thing. I love logic puzzles but I’m not that fast at that kind of thing and it would throw me into a panic – which would make me slower.

      And no – I don’t know how many people it would take to circle the equator holding hands because without google I don’t know the circumference of the earth or the average arm span.

      I need my google.

      1. Anonymous

        I once had a weird question like that come up at an interview. It was a place that had said they were looking for someone to push back against unneeded projects and leadership who just wanted to jump on every shiny new thing. So I thought that the question was a test like that so I responded “Well what are the reasons for doing this kind of project? What do you see accomplishing from doing it? Is this really the best use of the time?” The interviewer got all huffy and said, “You are just supposed to answer the question.”

        I felt like it was really telling that they didn’t actually want organizational change and if this person was going to be my boss even if they did hire me I’d be fired in a week for…doing my job.

        1. HL

          That interviewer’s response would have been troubling to me also. I need to be able to ask clarifying questions if needed when assigned tasks or in the course of completing them.

      2. Mike

        The “how many manholes” and similar questions aren’t really about the answer, it is about the process of finding the answer.

        When I interview and get complicated questions I just start walking them through how I’d solve the problem. The numbers themselves are just variables that are trivial to insert once the actual equation is found.

        1. Anonymous

          This isn’t a complicated question though. It is a dull question. With a dull answer. The answer would be call up NYC public works and ask, or go to google. Anything you could solve with google or one phone call? Not complex.

          A complex question would be something with variables, something where there are many factors at play that you need to account for.

          A good complex question would be one that relates to the job. “We have a need to develop a new database to track our clients. How would you go about doing it?”

              1. K

                Sadly, I do a fair amount of work with people in the utility sector I can guarantee you they don’t. You’re lucky if they know where all the live gas lines and emergency shut-off valves are located.

            1. Anonymous

              Starting from the assumption that you can’t get the answer with one phone call (and that should be public data) is going to get you people who always look for the most complex answer. If I’m going to ask how many sewer access points in NYC I want someone who isn’t going to cost my company thousands or more in time/money because they didn’t bother to call and see if they could get the number or check with google to see if someone else already solved it.

              This might actually do a very good job of getting and the org culture though. If the business asking that question wants the complex answer then it isn’t a place I want to work.

              1. K

                Well, if all you’re really trying to do is get their thinking process, you could always preface it with “You call the NYC Dep’t of Public Works and find out their maps have been lost in a fire. How many . . . ”

                (Though being a hideously non-quantitative person, I have no idea how useful the thinking demonstrated by those questions is, to be honest; I’ve always thought maybe for something like consulting where you have to jump into things you know nothing about and make suggestions extremely quickly it might make since but I’d be interested to know more from people more versed in those fields.)

                1. the gold digger

                  When I got this sort of question in an interview, I answered I would look it up. The recruiter rolled his eyes, then told me I was on an airplane and had to figure something out NOW.

                  I didn’t get that job.

                2. Rana

                  The recruiter rolled his eyes, then told me I was on an airplane and had to figure something out NOW.

                  If that’s meant to be a realistic scenario, I’d think you were well out of it! (I mean, really, do you want your employees making off-the-cuff judgements on an emergency basis with no feedback or references? Yikes.)

                3. K

                  While of course in an ideal world your employees would know everything they need all the time, there are jobs where you sometimes have to make quick decisions or present fast analyses based on facts you don’t know or can’t look up. So I think in certain jobs it’s a reasonable thing to test. (Probably not all the jobs where people try this during the interview though.)

              2. Mike

                If I asked someone that type of question and go only “Call xyz or Google it” I’d probably look down on it. Like a lot of things you can’t just take the question literally, especially in any type of problem solving position. Sure tell me you’d call xyz and/or Google it but also tell me what you’d do after that. Let’s say you Google it and get an answer, how do you verify it is accurate? What if it was from 2 years ago? What are the likely failures modes of your process of calling or Googling and how do you mitigate it?

                Again, the question is about the process not the number and you need to recognize the question for what it is and answer that.

                As for being job related: I’ve gotten questions and worked on problems that I never even thought would be related but there I was working on it.

                1. Rana

                  I think the problem is that for many people – myself included – it’s hard to tell when one is supposed to respond to something like that literally, as if it would be something you’d be asked on the job, or as if it were an abstract word puzzle. I’d much rather have a genuine real-world problem to solve than a math-and-reasoning puzzle that doesn’t operate according to real-world parameters.

                  On the other hand, I am also one of those people whose response to “what three items would you want on a desert island” is something like “a supply of water and food, a first aid kit, and an EPIRB.”

                2. Vicki

                  Einstein was once asked how many feet are in a mile. Einstein’s reply was “I don’t know, why should I fill my brain with facts I can find in two minutes in any standard reference book?”

                  If it’s good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for me. If “I would look it up; I’m very good at looking things up” isn’t good enough for the interviewer… I don’t want to work with you

          1. K

            I generally agree, but I do think it’s hard to hit the right balance. On the one hand, for too simple a question the answer is just “google it.” For too complicated a question, the answer is “Well, I can’t even get started unless I know these three things and the rest of the answer could go in 80 different directions depending on what those three are.” Which is true but doesn’t get at the person’s thought process the way you want either (since oddly enough, the starting three things are often pretty straight forward.)

            So sometimes I do think artificial situations tend to work the best. For instance, a colleague sometimes asks law students interviewing for entry level jobs (who we don’t expect to have substantive expertise) if a burrito qualifies as a “sandwich,” giving the background of a Qdoba that tried to move into a shopping mall where another chain had the exclusive rights to sell sandwiches. That involves some assumptions but they can be spelled out as you go. I suspect for some fields the “windows in New York” questions work similarly.

            1. Ellie H.

              Yeah, the burrito/sandwich (and many analogous situations) have specific connotations for law – so that’s not really an “oddball” hypothetical, even if it’s a hypothetical situation.

      3. Your Mileage May Vary

        How many manhole covers are there in NYC?

        None. They are Underground Utility Covers.

        :)

      4. Melissa

        I’ve had mock interviews that included those kinds of questions, and it seems the purpose is less about you getting the correct answer than to observe how you would go about figuring out the answer. They’re process-oriented, not outcome-oriented. Although I guess it would be better to ask “How would you go about finding out how many people it would take to encircle the equator holding hands?”

    2. Rana

      The only time I heard of a weird questions serving a useful purpose – and it was a really weird one* – was in the context of a Peace Corps interview. They were testing to see how the candidate responded to being asked something odd, because that sort of thing was likely to come up just because of cultural differences, and they wanted to make sure people didn’t freak out about it.

      *The question was whether you roll or crumple your toilet paper before use. (I told you it was weird. But it was no less weird than some of the actual questions my Peace Corps friends were asked by their host families. Little kids were especially likely to ask such awkward questions!)

  2. Jamie

    If you can ameliorate interview questions the way you’ve improved cover letters, than the world owes you a huge debt Alison.

    I especially love the first question – although all your suggested questions are probing for all the right things. I’m not interviewing, but in an audit the other day we got to talking about something and the topic was my biggest professional achievement. I could feel my face light up and I was thrilled to discuss Project X – and I know I’m excited when I have to consciously filter myself to tone down the details because no one cares.

    Miss Manners quoted a teacher once who said something about she could tell all she needed to know about a parent by whether or not they beamed when discussing their kids as people (paraphrasing). I want to work with people who beam about work accomplishments because that means it matters to them on an internal level. Not working enough to stay employed, not working enough to not “get in trouble” but the victories at work matter to them personally…because those are the people who will seek out ways to have those victories.

    I was asked what could be seen as a weird question in an interview once, which turned out to be a good one and one I’ve used since:

    “If you put toast in a toaster and push the lever down but nothing happens what do you do?”

    I thought it was out of the blue and apropos of nothing – but I said I would check and see if the toaster was plugged in. If it was I’d determine based on the cost of the toaster whether it was worth fixing or replacing.

    Apparently the person who was vacating my position had a habit of starting troubleshooting every problem from the highest and most complicated possible level. They wanted someone who would start by asking “have you tried turning it off an on again” (tm Roy – IT Crowd).

    Turns out I had the right answer and of the other three people they interviewed for my job I was the only one. And one refused to answer at all because he didn’t see what that had to do with IT until it was explained.

        1. the gold digger

          Although if it were my toaster oven – we don’t have a toaster, I would know to check if it’s plugged in. With the old toaster oven, it stopped toasting the bottom and I figured out the bottom heating element was kaput and had found a place to order a replacement and instructions on how to install it, but my engineer husband, who usually loves a challenge like that – he was so happy when he could use his soldering iron to fix his electric shaver, bought a new toaster oven instead.

          Which I thought was wasteful.

    1. Anonymous

      I feel like I would fail this. I probably would check if it’s plugged in.. and if it is, and still not working, I’d decide whether or not I want toast badly enough to toast it in the oven.

      And I wouldn’t think of replacing it. Apparently I don’t think long term? Interview terminated.

      1. Cathy

        Being a concrete thinker – I would ask them why I am putting *toast* in the toaster. I could understand putting *bread* in the toaster..bread being a key ingredient in toast.
        This is why I often get labeled the office smartass >sigh<

        1. Tasha

          Ooh, great point! When you put something that’s already toasted in a toaster, modern toasters’ heat-sensing features are triggered, so it won’t work because it’s already registering the toast as “hot enough.” So after checking the plugin, let the toast cool and/or move the dial to a higher doneness setting. This is why I should read more carefully.

        2. Ellie H.

          I think there’s a Latin word for the poetic device where you refer to something as the thing it’s going to become. But I would accept “putting toast in a toaster.” Haha.

        3. Long Time Admin

          And the water heater is not a “hot water heater”. It doesn’t heat hot water, it heats cold water.

          Although I don’t mind “ATM Machine”. Go figure.

      2. Tasha

        My answer (before reading Jamie’s) was this:

        1) Make sure that it’s plugged in.
        2) If it’s on a power strip, make sure that the power strip is on.
        3) Check whether the heating element is glowing.
        4) Put the toast in the oven instead.

        I didn’t think long term either, sadly. But who on Earth wouldn’t immediately check that it’s plugged in?

        1. Jamie

          The only answer they cared about was the plug. The rest was my inability to try to resist getting extra credit. :)

        2. Josh S

          Since it’s in a kitchen and presumably within X distance to the sink, the outlet it’s plugged into is probably a GFCI ( http://goo.gl/wxvSa ), if the house is up to code. So step 2.1 should be “Check to make sure the GFCI isn’t tripped, and reset if necessary.” :)

          1. AgilePhalanges

            Heh! My son has a donut maker that’s basically a waffle maker with differently-shaped panels. It wasn’t working, and he mentioned having “cleaned” it, and sure enough, it was sitting in a big puddle on the counter, so I assumed he’d destroyed it. A few days later, though, it occurred to me to check the GFCI outlet it had been plugged into, and sure enough, it was tripped, and the donut maker actually still works just fine.

        3. the gold digger

          Someone who is in the habit of leaving her toaster oven plugged in all the time and didn’t know that her husband had unplugged it to use his single-serve coffee maker and then never plugged the oven back in?

          It’s easier to live alone.

        4. Laura L

          My first thought was to replace it.

          But that’s just because I’m so in the habit of making sure things are plugged in that I don’t really think about it as a step.

          But, after the plug, definitely the replacing.

    2. Julie K

      I think I would have had trouble with this one because, as far as I know, the process for making the toast go down is mechanical and works (or doesn’t) whether the toaster is plugged in or not. So I probably would have said that if that basic mechanical process wasn’t working, the toaster may as well be replaced. Plus, we also have a toaster oven, and I would just use it instead!

      And while I know that about 95% of issues are due to physical problems (things not being plugged in or connected to each other), I have to make myself check the physical things first because the other things that could be causing the trouble are more interesting (and they’re not located under the desk or behind everything)!

    3. Frances

      Heh, for my position this would actually be a real world question. (Well, not the toaster, but as kitchen liaison/purchasing manager, I am constantly asked to troubleshoot our electric kettles and coffee makers.)

    4. Melissa

      That would’ve been my reply because our toaster is usually unplugged, but a few years ago when I had enough kitchen space that my toaster was perpetually plugged in, I might have failed that one. Even still, wouldn’t it make more sense to simply ask “How do you normally go about approaching/solving IT problems? What are your first steps?”

    5. Joe

      For some reason (and it really isn’t very similar, so I’m not sure why), this reminds me of my favorite apocryphal interview story. Some company is hiring for a mathematician, and have full-day barrage of interviews. In between the first and second interviews, they bring the candidate into the kitchen. There’s an empty table, a stove, a sink, and a box of tea bags, a kettle, and a mug on the counter. They ask the candidate to demonstrate how to make a cup of tea. He fills the kettle with water, puts it on the stove, waits for it to boil, puts a tea bag in the mug, pours the water, and lets it steep. They then continue on with the interviews. Some time late in the day, they bring the candidate back to the kitchen, which is set up similarly, but not the same: the kettle, mug, and tea bags are now on the table instead of the counter. They ask the candidate to again demonstrate how to make a cup of tea. The candidate who got the job was the one who moved the kettle, mug, and tea bags to the counter and announced, “This has now been reduced to the earlier problem.”

  3. RFA

    I recently got “If you could choose, would you rather be a superhero or a mouse?” It took me a minute, but I realized it is a trick question, as it assumes mice can’t be superheroes. Even though I figured it out, the question made me feel put on the spot and very uncomfortable. I thought it was really lame and left with a bad impression of the interviewer.

    1. Sascha

      That sounds like a question my manager loves to use – do you consider yourself a leader or a follower? And of course she is looking for “both,” with some lame explanation as to why. I hate those types of questions.

      1. Jane Doe

        I hate questions where you get the feeling that saying you’re more A than B is going to count against you, but saying “both” makes it sound like you’re indecisive or untruthful.

      2. Rana

        What’s also stupid about these sorts of questions is that it’s transparently easy to game them, regardless of what your real opinion is.

    2. Ellie H.

      Ugh, that’s such a dumb trick question though. A reasonable person would conclude that asking an “or” question implies that the two options are mutually exclusive.

  4. Lisa

    Unless the weird question is coming from Google, Microsoft, Facebook, TripAdvisor, Kayak, or a company like that, I wouldn’t want to work for a place that is trying so hard to be hip with meaningless questions.

    These questions make me want to leave the interview immediately. If I got one and wasn’t that interested, I would cut the interview short. I once had a group interview, that was clearly going to go on for another 2 hours (after 45 min of being there). In the only break in speaking that the interviewer had, I piped up and said … you know what this really isn’t for me. I thanked him for his time, apologized for leaving, and then left. The other interviewees looked so jealous, and I felt bad that I didn’t also ask if anyone wanted to come with me. It was one of the ‘let’s sell knives to your mom and her friends’ jobs, so clearly I didn’t care about any repercussions. If I came across an interview that was totally wrong for me and wasting hours of my time again, I would again tell the person that it sounds like they are looking for X and I am Y, so I think its best that I withdraw from the interview process. If someone gives me the ‘why are manhole covers round’ copy cat question from Microsoft, I will def want to leave, but most likely I would suck it up and then tell the recruiter that there is no way in hell I want to work for wannabe hipsters that are trying too hard to be like the big boy companies. But again, I am interviewing with large companies for a professional (8+ yrs exp) jobs. If I was still in my early 20’s interviewing to be a waitress or a cashier at McDonald’s and they start asking that stuff, I would walk out.

    1. Anonymous

      I think these questions are just as bad from Google or MS or such. (Which I believe, MS at least, was discovered by those companies because they ended up with a poor mix of staff they are still recovering from.)

    2. Elizabeth West

      Ugh, I had a group interview for a RECEPTIONIST position. They did do the stupid questions; they went around the room and asked each person one. We had to pick a number and that was the number of the question we got. It was so lame, like a team-building crap and we were all strangers competing for the same job!

      My question was “What flavor of ice cream would you be?” I said I’d make up my own flavor. They must have liked that, because I got an interview, although I didn’t get the job. I didn’t want it, because in the interview they asked me several questions that indicated they were really hard on people who weren’t perfectly toe-the-line types. I’m waaaay less formal, and I don’t think I would have fit in well.

    3. Rana

      Was it Cut-Co, by any chance? One my proudest moments when I was in college was walking out on one of their interview/indoctrination sessions.

  5. Heidi

    LOL!!! You guys are cracking me up this morning!! I needed a good laugh! Thanks Alison for the kick off!!

    I have to say, the most odd interview I have ever had was with a start-up company. I walked in to the interviewers HUGE office, sat down and proceeded to listen to her talk (for like 30mins!!) about how hard the job was!!! LOL I had spent some time preparing for “normal” interview questions, researched the company, etc and did not expect that!! This was before I found AAM and I am SO very thankful I did not get that job!!

    I have to say, that since reading just about everything on this site, I can spot a newbie interviewer and a seasoned pro within the first 2min!!! LOL Cracks me up every time!!

  6. Jamie

    On the topic of weird interview questions – I’ll try to find the link but I read an article a while back about Method – the company who makes the soaps and it was all about their interview style.

    Apparently it’s a very unconventional work environment so they are screening for a specific type of person who would be happy there. Part of the interview is to explain how you are weird. One candidate grabbed a guitar from a cubicle and started an impromptu sing along with people in the area…another one got on the floor to show their favorite yoga moves.

    This would definitely cause someone like to self- select the hell out of there and probably trip over my pumps on the way to my car.

    But I thought it was awesome that they know the kind of person they want to hire and tailored their interview style to find them. Too many companies hire for the culture they think they should have or pretend they have or want to project – and don’t hire for the culture that really exists.

    1. Lisa

      I would love to be asked that. In interviews, if asked to describe myself, I always talk about how I am geek. It makes the interview (if a geek), smile and then I know I can be all weird and get excited about things.

          1. Ash

            But clearly it’s dirty in an artistic way. He’s trying to make it look like he didn’t spend hundreds of dollars on products and hairstylists and that it’s a look that he either created himself or that’s what it looked like when he woke up.

      1. Elizabeth West

        Ha! Me too.

        My answer for the tree question is “A mallorn tree.” If the interviewer knows what that is, and especially if he/she is the manager, then they are awesome. :)

        So far no one has asked it though!

    2. EM

      Ha. My current company’s culture is somewhat casual, and there is a lot of camaraderie and we’ve given slightly insulting nicknames to each other. In my interview I was asked how I feel about swearing, because someone who is totally against swearing would feel pretty uncomfortable here.

  7. Ann

    I hate those questions. The weirdest interview I had was one where they told me, at the beginning, not to talk about my previous experience. Then, they proceeded to ask me questions about how I would react in certain situations and demanded examples of what I would do, but didn’t want me to talk about how I actually HAVE done it. For example, Q: How do you get your boss to trust you when you first start? A: I would start by keeping my commitments and showing that when I say I will do something, it will be done. Q: But how exactly?
    It was nerve wracking, and not very productive. In then end, I declined a second interview. They wouldn’t give me much of a job description, wouldn’t answer questions beyond single work answers, and kept asking questions related to trust issues. I found it a complete turn off.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Ha, it’s like they misread normal interviewing advice, which is to NOT ask hypotheticals and focus only on what the candidate has done in the past (and to not accept hypothetical answers if the candidate gives them). Maybe they read that and misunderstood.

    2. Anon

      I just had an interview like that. Four people walk in with little notepads, didn’t have a copy of my resume, didn’t ask to look at my portfolio of work, and did exactly what you just described – asking hypothetical questions, not questions about my actual experience. This went on for an hour. Oh and I took a writing test. I wasn’t mad at all that I didn’t get the job.

      I got the sense they were looking for someone to fit into their little group. Oh and the last person they had in the role had only lasted a year. They were mad about that too.

      Someone told me they felt that maybe they already had someone in mind and was going through the motions. I certainly hope so. People conduct these crap interviews and then when they end up with a bad hire, run to Ask a Manager to complain about this horrible employee (that they hired) and what to do.

      Hmm, maybe stop conducting job interviews like your little sorority rushes?

      1. Work It

        I’ve had a couple interviews where it felt like they were just going through the motions. My biggest pet peeve is when I go to interview with someone and they haven’t even seen my resume. They then look it over while I sit in awkward silence, trying to look annoyed about all the time I spent preparing.

        1. Anon

          I can’t imagine coming up with any good questions about someone’s background, work experience or interest in the job after glancing at their resume for a minute. People bring Bad Hires on themselves.

        2. Jamie

          The other side of this is I hate getting called into an interview at the last minute, when I had no idea I would be involved, or that someone was coming in.

          I’m embarrassed reading over their resume in front of them, because I know it makes us look disorganized. If I have a heads up I’m always prepared.

          It’s only happened a couple of times, but I hate that.

          1. Natalie

            I’m not anywhere at a management level and this has happened to me. The worst part was that all I could think about was how atrocious his resume was.

      2. Long Time Admin

        Someone actually did tell me, as soon as I sat down, that she had already selected the person she wanted for the job, but her boss was making her interview other people anyway.

        1. Jamie

          I would be so angry had this happened to me.

          Interviews are very stressful for me, and it starts the day before …I would not appreciate my time and emotional energy wasted.

          She should have met with everyone and kept an open mind or canceled.

  8. Frank

    I think the dumbest interview question I’ve been asked is how many golf balls would it take to fill the room I was interviewing in. This was for a software position, not a golf-ball-room-filler position.

    How stupid. Ask me about my accomplishments, my strengths and weaknesses, how I would fit in the environment or even what I think of my skills, but don’t waste my time with stupid questions. If you want to know how I come to an answer, ask me a question relevant to the position.

    My situation made me feel like the interviewer(s) were simply plugging “Interview Questions” into Google and taking whatever they felt were good results to them.

    1. Jamie

      This is exactly the kind of thing that bothers me.

      Because if asked that I’m not going to tell you my thought process for figuring it out – I’m going to think, “How the f**k would I know?” and then get stuck in a panic loop.

      And it isn’t like software positions aren’t some of the easiest to set up a practical test for.

    2. Lisa

      They are asked more tech people to see how they think, but still its jarring to get that crap for a job like an admin or jr marketing role.

    3. Tasha

      That’s definitely an annoying question to get during an interview. Yes, the interviewers are trying to examine candidates’ thought processes, but they could do that by asking questions that are actually related to the job. :)

      I’m waiting for a simulation to finish, though, so I might as well think about it. The obvious starting point would be to find the volume of the room and the diameter of a standard golf ball, but from there on out, that question is very poorly phrased. First, packing efficiency of hard spheres (golf balls) ranges from 55% to 70% depending on how they’re arranged. Would the office furniture be left in or taken out, and would any space in drawers and boxes need to be filled as well? How would the golf balls be put in, anyways, and would the room count as functionally “full” if no more could be added through the high window or ceiling vent of choice? To actually give a single answer, rather than a flow chart, I’d need to know the reason behind the request.

    4. Julie K

      As I’m reading these, I keep thinking I would ask the interviewer why she is asking that question. I would need some context in order to give them the answer that would be the most helpful. I wonder what the interviewer would think of that response…

    5. -X-

      But that’s a quote “easy” question to roughly answer, esp if you’re good at math.

      I’d say

      “Ideally I’d like to measure the room and also measure a gold ball, but estimating the room in 10’x10’x20″ and golf balls as a cubic inch, it’s roughly 12x12x12 – say 1,600 – balls per cubic foot by 2,000 cubic feet for the room, which equals 320,000

      But probably since balls are sphere they can pack more tightly than cubes, so I’ll guess 20% more than that. Say roughly 400,000 ball.”

      I’m bad at math so I may be off by something, but if you speak your assumptions out loud I think that’s a strong answer. It shows you’d like to measure things first, but if you can’t you can estimate.

      1. Frank

        Sure, but most math problems aren’t done with someone judging you and staring at you while you try to figure out…
        a) who the hell cares?
        b) really, how large IS a golf ball?
        c) who is paying for these golf balls?

        Again, I don’t mind relevant questions but this, to me, just screams inexperienced hiring manager. There’s a difference between conceptual theory for information gathering and then there’s oddball questions that have no real relevance.

        1. -X-

          It’s such a simple question if one has the actual figures, that you can show how you’d solve it easily, and the math is so easy to estimate (at least should be for doing programming). It’s just multiplication.

          And not being put off by something like that shows how’d you’d work. My org’s CEO asked me for a budget a few weeks ago by surprise so I said “I don’t have that info yet – I could get it for you by tomorrow” to which he said “Just rough, real rough quickly.” So I did in a couple minutes, told him my assumptions, and he was able to finish what he was doing.
          That’s how work works sometimes. That question is analogous.

  9. Paige

    True story: My mom was once asked in an interview for an admin position, “If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?” She said, “A duck.”

    The interviewer said, “Are you sure? You’re really tall. Wouldn’t you be a giraffe?”

    She said, “No. A duck is very adaptable: it walks on the ground, flies in the air, and swims in the water. I can type, take dictation, schedule meetings, and balance the needs of this job.”

    Their next question: “What year did you graduate high school?” She thanked them and left.

    1. Sascha

      It’s the “You’re really tall, wouldn’t you be a giraffe?” part that really gets to me. Kudos to your mom, though.

    2. Anonymous

      I’ve been asked what my spirit animal is. I have the perfect answer for someone in the health care industry, especially those dealing with the elderly… Elephant – because when a herd (pride? pack? bundle?) of elephants have an ailing or elderly member, they all stand around it and prop it up so predators don’t see it as an easy target.

      Not wildebeest though, cause they just push the three legged one out to the edge.

      Unfortunately I’m in marketing and I don’t have a good answer.

      I also had a question of “if you had 1000 christmas trees in the middle of july, what would you do with them?”

      1. K

        Velociraptor. Apparently in real life they were only the size of a turkey and probably extremely dumb. And yet look how they managed to product place themselves in Jurassic Park.

        1. Michelle.2

          Panda? They can be rendered in one ink (cheap for printing logos, etc.), they’re extremely popular in this culture, they’re cute, they’re vegan (work the Green angle)…and they really are bears, so in a pinch they can rip the arms off the competition.

        1. Anonymous

          Already cut.

          It was a group interview too (hello cattle call)… the other girl and I in the room just had fun with it. Why the heck not. The guy was taking it very seriously and refused to answer the question… we both got the job. He did not.

      2. Elizabeth West

        Set them on fire and have a giant weenie roast for all the customers. See, they won’t keep until December (I’m assuming they’re cut down; they never said the trees were growing). ;)

  10. Sue D. O'Nym

    I’ve been asked “what’s your favorite Disney Character” on occasion. (Granted, the question makes a lot more sense when you realize that I worked for Disney, and the question was asked in an interview for an internal position that would involve training new employees, and they were looking for knowledge/passion related to the Disney product)

    1. K

      I kind of want to start asking candidates what their favorite Disney princess is (and if they don’t say Belle, off with their heads!).

      1. Meredith

        What about Mulan? She’s now part of the canon of princesses and kicked serious ass. She’s my favorite. If you’re limiting me to classic, Belle’s my fave of those though.

      2. aname

        See now I’m going to be in trouble as I’d say Leia. What, its now owned by Disney and she IS a princess!

        I’m not a princess person!

      3. Chinook

        Princess Leia (an answer I would give only to show I am a smart*** who is up on entertainment news)

  11. anon-2

    This is like the old admonition = “When they take you out for lunch, don’t put salt on your food until you’ve tasted it.”

    If any place is trying to , well, for lack of a better word, MESS with your head during an interview cycle like this – don’t walk. RUN the hell away from it.

    If they play head games with you during the interview cycle – where they should be putting their best foot forward, I don’t know if that would be a place I’d want to work, or if those people are ones I’d want to be around.

    Note – there is a difference between TESTING your judgement – and just playing head games. As I said in earlier posts, there are people who will call you in for interviews for their own amusement (even though some said “no manager will do that”.) Yeah, right.

    When I get around to compiling my assortment of career stories, there will be quite a few crackpot managers and weird interviews with them included in the mix.

    1. Anon

      So true. People call folks in for interviews out of boredom, to “see what’s out there,” to play head games with current employees (we may be replacing you), to get free work and ideas out of applicants. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

      I don’t want to work for someone who has a manager or higher title and can’t conduct an insightful, professional interview.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Because I know some people will draw the wrong conclusion from that, I want to stress the “It doesn’t happen often” part of this. It’s very, very, very rare for people to waste their time interviewing people when they aren’t serious about hiring someone.

        1. anon-2

          It might be rare for a manager of a company that’s run effectively — but it’s not rare for applicants to run into this.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Honestly, it’s rare. Applicants often assume it’s happening based on other stuff, but they’re often not correct about it. It’s less uncommon to see someone interviewing people when they already have an internal candidate selected, but it’s really pretty uncommon for people to interview people to get free work or play head games.

            1. anon-2

              I have only been unemployed once in my career – for a period of several months.

              The two interviews (out of several) where I was being toyed with – stick in my mind.

              It taught me never to mess with someone during that process, whenever I’ve been on the other side of the desk.

              There are also some who learned the hard way — that if you engage in this, you might end up on the other side of the desk, with someone you messed with in previous times. This is probably the best advice that me, a non-manager, could give to any manager out there who thinks it’s a good idea.

              In my line of work – a computer specialist – it’s rather common to interview people to get “free consulting”.

        2. Jamie

          I can’t imagine this happening with any kind of regularity anywhere.

          Interviewing people in a huge PITA. It’s a necessary evil but it takes a ton of time and resources and the office has to field way more calls than normal.

          To me that would be like putting my house on the market although I had no intention of selling – just because I enjoyed having strangers traipse through and criticize my decorating.

          There is always someone out there doing something crazy – but I can’t imagine even badly run companies have time for this.

        3. Anonymous

          I think this is something that stands out sharply in people’s minds. So even the extremely rare times it happens are the times you remember. You forget/dismiss all the times it doesn’t.

  12. Ellie H.

    I got asked if I were in charge of the world, what would I change, which really irritated me. I was also asked what kind of music I liked.

    1. -X-

      Change the world? I guess I’d want dark rye bread to be more popular.

      Music? I’m into the whole indie moaning/croaking thing. Also death metal, played backwards of course. And bird songs.

    2. Jamie

      How would I change the world? How much time would the interviewer have.

      And sadly after the usual world peace and end hunger things there would be hours and hours of things that people do which annoy me and I want eradicated.

      And foods I want wiped off the face of the earth.

      And cities which aren’t laid out in grid patterns to reroute all their streets.

      And the end of one ply tissue – what is the point??

      1. Min

        And cities which aren’t laid out in grid patterns to reroute all their streets.

        This! Having moved from a very grid-based US city to the wandering roads of a small English island, I have lost all sense of direction. I have often said that I want to just scrape everything off and lay it all back down in a nice, sensible grid system.

    3. Ellie H.

      I said that I wouldn’t change anything because while I felt that many things about the world needed to be improved, it would be unrealistic to expect a sweeping top-down change determined by one person to produce meaningful results. I was so annoyed by this question. Also, that the Pixies were my favorite band.

    4. Rana

      I hate those sorts of questions, along with the “what’s your favorite color/book/animal/blah?” ones. It depends, people, it depends.

      (Seriously. I current read over 150 books a year, minimum, read far more than than in grad school, and I’ve been reading since I was a pre-schooler. And you want me to name ONE book out of all of those thousands and thousands to be my favorite? Glah.)

  13. Interviewer

    A few years ago, I brought a candidate into for an IT Manager to interview for a senior network administrator level position – someone with all the right certs and experience to add to an existing team of 4. I thought for sure this would be the one we hired, but after the interview, he explained that the candidate wouldn’t be a good fit. He said he had asked him several technical questions, and at one point, the candidate got it wrong, so the IT manager said, “No, I don’t think that’s correct.” The candidate got very flustered and defensive, almost angry. Often the team will work together on solutions, and someone will come up with an answer that won’t work, and the IT manager wanted to see specifically how that person would react to being told the answer was wrong. To him, the right response is to take it well, defend yourself in a professional mannner, ask where you went wrong, or work well with the team to tweak your solution. Getting pouty or arguing loudly is not a behavior he wants to add to his team.

    To clarify, he’s not ever looking for people to just roll over and give up – but he doesn’t want to see that flash of anger in an interview. To him, it only gets worse once the candidate is hired and far more comfortable in the role.

    Personally, I thought it was a pretty interesting take on the weird interview question.

    1. anon-2

      There’s an old Chinese expression – “A fool can ask more questions than any wise man can answer”….

      If the interviewer is running the interview as a “gong show” — that’s unprofessional as all get-out. If he/she is running it to gauge the reaction to an incorrect answer…. that’s a good tactic.

      The right answer is – “I’d probably have to go to the books to look that one up … the exact answer slips my mind right now…”

    2. Rana

      That sounds like part of the process of going through your orals defense on the way to the Ph.D. I’d say 90% of the orals interview involves demonstrating your mastery of your subject, but there’s an additional bit where they attempt to push you past the limits of your expertise, just to see how you’d handle it. Ideally, this doesn’t come too soon in the process, and ideally you are able to explain gracefully that you don’t know and the steps you’d take to fix that.

      It usually doesn’t require a weird question or head games, though.

    1. Jamie

      Ha – excellent!

      And Ravenclaw. Those kids from Gryfendor do way too much running around and I’m tired.

      1. Rana

        Aw, poor Hufflepuff. They’re loyal, hard-working, and not full of themselves. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want!

        1. Jamie

          Absolutely! Ever try to run a meeting with all Ravenclaws? Or Gryffindors, if they show up?

          Sometimes you really want a bunch of Hufflepuffs to actually get something done.

          1. K

            My office is probably 90% Ravenclaws with some Gryffindors thrown in. I can attest that some Hufflepuffs would be really useful sometimes (and frankly, we could use some Slytherins to ensure that, like, we’re actually making money instead of just being clever and helping people).

    2. Your Mileage May Vary

      You’d think Slytherin would be a good answer what with all their loyalty to the company man and all.

  14. SC in SC

    I doubt I would have the nerve to answer the “what kind of tree would you be” question but I would be tempted to respond with “A weeping willow since stupid interview questions make me sad.”

    1. Lulu

      Ok that just sounds like a no-win right there: you either risk offending someone, or sounding like you have some strange OCD issues… “Wyoming: it’s just too symmetrical, I like my states to have interesting borders.” Okay…

      1. KellyK

        You’re right. There are no possible good answers to that question, and the answers that most readily pop to a lot of people’s minds are political. I think I’d ask why we need to kick states out—did we make up a bunch of 49-star flags that we need to use?

        1. Laura L

          I would say we don’t need to kick out any states, but we do need to add some. *ahem*DC*ahem*

          Actually, I have no opinion on DC statehood. I just want voting representation in congress.

    2. Malissa

      California, their borders are already more secure than most of the USA. Seriously those produce check stations can be very thorough.

      1. Ellie H.

        Haha, that’s probably the most commonly heard answer, at least where I live now (New England). I don’t know what’s more annoying – just “Texas” or when people say “Texas, except for Austin.”

    3. Laura L

      Oh! A better question is: If you were recreating states, how would you do it? So, you could say, well, Oregon and Washington west of the cascades and Northern California should be their own state. Or whatever.

  15. Rob Bird

    “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” An Ent

    “What would I find in your refrigerator right now?” Yourself, because you are in my house uninvited….

    “What kind of animal are you most like?” A Liger….it’s like my favorite animal.

    1. Job seeker

      What would you find in my refrigerator right now? Wow! I have 5 people in my house right now (my mother is staying with us, my two sons and my husband and me). That would be a loaded question. I have vegetables, cottage cheese and greek yogurt and milk, juice, turkey and soups the list is endless.

    1. Rob Bird

      I would reply with-the spray nozzle on the faucet after someone has tied a rubber band around it.

  16. Lulu

    Well this certainly validates my previous “search technique” of avoiding as many interviews as possible and just surreptitiously inserting myself via temping! I don’t think I was ever asked any off the wall questions, but coincidentally I was just reading some articles about this on Linked In yesterday and thinking I was in big trouble if I ever were – my brain would probably just seize up and go “um, what?!” (cue visions of a Monty Python movie ending) People are already fairly stressed out about an interview, and while the problem solving questions could be kind of a appropriate in certain instances, the likelihood of successfully switching gears and even being able to come up with more than one kind of tree, let alone a “decent” rationale for wanting to BE one, seems slim…

    I am envious of the quick wit of many of today’s commenters, though :) One thing I’ve learned from this discussion: never schedule an interview in the morning if I can help it, if I want any hope of defeating the arboreal-velociraptor-toaster complex!

  17. Leslie

    I was interviewing for an administrative assistant position at an architecture firm several years ago, and got one of these questions. The question was, “If you had to move Mt. Fuji, how would you do it?” My answer was that I’d pick another mountain, maybe Mt. Kilimanjaro, and swap their names. Hey look everyone, Mt. Fuji is over there now! Update your maps, and we’re all good to go!

    The interviewer clearly did not like my answer. It completely changed the tone of the interview. And what was bizarre was that the interview seemed to be going well up until then. I have no idea what the interviewer was expecting with a question like that for an admin assistant position, but I really feel like I dodged a bullet.

    1. Ellie H.

      I’ve never heard that answer before – that is a great idea. I’m surprised they weren’t pleased with it.

    2. Chinook

      The irony is that is the perfect admin assistant answer – if you are asking me, the admin, to do the job, you obviously don’t want it moved but to just look moved, right? Otherwise, you would have asked someone who has the skills to do so.

  18. Anonymous

    Along the lines of dumb interview questions:

    I have several years of aviation experience (blue collar ramp work) went on to grad school and then interviewed at US Airways for a revenue management position.

    I had a few hours worth of interviews, the more notable being with the two supervisors who run the department. I interviewed with each manager separately, each for an hour. Between them was a “skills” test.

    I spent each hour going over office behavior situational questions. Things like “tell me about a time at Job X (they specified the job from my resume) where you stayed late on a Friday night to help the team out.” I got paid by the hour, and my days off were Sunday and Monday, so I pretty much worked overtime every Friday. Blue collar work is what it is, so I really couldn’t give them a “wow them with your dedication” story.

    Next question was something along the lines of “tell me about a time at Job Y (again specified) where you worked overtime.” Job Y was a contract position, and the boss specifically told me to never charge more than 40 hours in a week.

    My work life until that point was just not suited for the kinds of questions they asked. After two hours of interviews, the second guy finally looks at my resume and says, “Oh, it looks like you have some aviation experience.” And then proceeds to ask me one question about it. Hey genius, I was really looking forward to discussing my aviation background, the needs of your department, and how my knowledge of the industry can help you. I really wasn’t in the mood for talking about the overtime I worked at a job three years ago. I was going to walk out at that point, except for the fact the next “interview” was lunch with a peer (I wanted the free one) and I had three hours to kill before my flight.

    Even better, the “skills test” was a really nasty file they loaded into Excel and wanted me to parse it and run all kinds of analysis. My first thought was, “if you data looks like this, no wonder why you’re having problems. Your analysts are spending all their time untangling data and not enough time doing real work.”

    The only real question I had was going to be: “Given how you screen, tell me about the idiots on my team. I’ve met two of them.”

  19. Maria

    I was asked if I were a cucumber in a salad and someone was going to stab me with a fork and eat me what would I do. It was my first “real job interview” and I had no idea what to answer.

    I did get the job, regardless of what I said. Turned out it was one of the worst places I’ve ever worked.

  20. Elizabeth West

    I had answers all ready for these weirdo questions, and no one asked them. I was kinda disappointed. How people react to my answers tells me way more about them than they learn about me. Dear interviewer, I’m screening you too, you know.

    Tree- mallorn. (Nerd screen)
    Car- Batmobile. (Also nerd screen)
    Animal- black jaguar, because they are powerful but know when to be laid back. :)

  21. Emmies

    I had a really great interview with two people, and at the end of it I was asked by the second interviewer ‘If you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be’. The first gave me a look of what the hell, followed by that same look to the second, and I ummed and ahhed, and eventually said ‘I would probably be the cat’.

    I got the job, and its turned out to be the best one I’ve ever had, and every once and a while, the second interviewer still gets some grief about asking me that question.

    1. Jamie

      This is good to keep in mind – silly questions doesn’t mean it would be a bad place to work.

      My crappiest job had the tightest and most professional process I’ve seen and the best job ever had moments of weirdness.

      It extends to the whole process – smaller companies who don’t hire every day may not be as buttoned up as those running hiring like a well oiled machine…but it’s not always indicative of what it’s like to work there.

      1. Emmies

        The team I work in now has had three new employees in about 3 years, and I was hired to replace the previous guy who didnt work out – I think by the time my interview rolled around both of my managers were pretty over the whole process.

        That being said, the rest of the interview was filled with pretty good questions, and this was the one exception. My favourite part of the whole process was after the formal interview with my two managers, I got taken through the lab by one of my c0-workers, shown what was actually talked about in the formal part of the interview, and asked to perform some pretty basic pipetting (shows the level of some of the people who had previously applied!).

        Meeting the team like that sold the job to me, and made this the best interview experience Ive ever had.

  22. XT

    Oooh totally agree with this, and this is also how I feel about those horrid “personality” strongly disagree-strongly agree tests I took being in high school and college and applying for jobs. I failed those about every time I took them. No one told me to not go towards a “agree” or “disagree” answer, and sadly I spent minutes on each one trying to figure out how to answer them correctly. When I was 16 I had an interview and I said “no” when the interviewer went over the test and asked me if I had ever broken a law. He said, “well, you know, jaywalking is illegal are you telling me you haven’t ever jaywalked?” Definitely didn’t get that job, regardless! Wonderful topic :)

  23. confuzzled

    I’m so afraid I’d get one of these questions. I practice them with somebody else. I try to come up with the craziest scenarios. Here is a silly one I made up Batman is working at a sandwich shop, but then he has to stop the Joker from robbing a bank. What would you do if you were Batman. The person I practice with says “Why is Batman working at a sandwich shop? Isn’t he wealthy?” Or what kind of condiment I’d be.

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