what are the worst questions job interviewers ask?

There’s plenty of advice out there for job-seekers about what not to say in an interview and how to blow your chances, but let’s turn the tables and talk about some of the worst questions that interviewers ask candidates. Interviewers, after all, are not infallible – and some of them are quite bad. Here are seven of the worst questions they commonly ask.

1. “So, what’s your background?” Interviewers shouldn’t need to ask this question, because they should have reviewed the candidate’s resume before the interview. When an interviewer shows up unprepared, they won’t be able to conduct a strong interview, and will signal to the candidate that they don’t put the same value on building a great team that a truly strong manager does.

2. “What is your biggest weakness?” This question has appeared in so many interview preparation books that’s it become a cliché at this point, with nearly every interviewee prepared with a canned answer for it. It rarely elicits useful information – and what’s more, a good interviewer will be able to make her own judgments about a candidate’s weakness. It’s hardly helpful to hear “I work too much,” “I’m a perfectionist,” or the other disingenuous responses candidates are taught to give.

3. “What’s your salary history?” Unless the interviewer is prepared to offer complete transparency when it comes to the company’s salary ranges (which most employers aren’t), this is an unfair question that makes most candidates uncomfortable. Furthermore, it’s unnecessary. You should pay candidates based on the value of their work to your company; what previous employers paid them isn’t relevant. And yes, sometimes lazy employers like to use salary history as a shorthand to determining a candidate’s worth, but good companies can figure that out on their own – without expecting the candidate to answer questions that, frankly, are no one’s business but hers and her accountant’s.

4. “Do you think you can handle this workload?” Asking a candidate a hypothetical question isn’t likely to get you useful information, and most people are smart enough to say “yes” to questions like this. Instead, better questions probe into how the candidate actually did act in the past, such as asking, “How much volume did you have to handle in your last job? How did you stay on top of it all? Tell me about a time when the volume was at its peak and how you handled it.” These questions probe into how the candidate really does operate, not just how she says she will in the future.

5. “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” Also known as “What kind of animal are you most like?” and “What would I find in your refrigerator right now?” Goofy questions like these rarely elicit useful information, and they’ll alienate most candidates. After all, the strongest candidates will want to spend the interview talking about their background, the job you have open, and what they might bring to it. Goofy questions will annoy most good candidates and make them 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.

6. “If I offered you the job, would you accept it?” Few candidates are going to answer “no” to this question, and the real answer is usually “it depends on how much the offer is for.” This question doesn’t garner the interviewer any real information – but does make most candidates uncomfortable.

7. “What does your husband do?” Or, “What church do you go to?” or “Do you have kids?” Personal questions like these are inappropriate for interviews, which should focus on the candidate’s ability to do the job. And moreover, while the questions themselves aren’t illegal to ask, making a hiring decision based on the answers is – so you can’t consider the responses, and most candidates with knowledge of the law will wonder if you’re asking with the intent to illegally discriminate. Steer clear of personal questions and stick to the candidate’s fit for the job.

Instead of asking ineffective questions like these, interviewers should spend their time 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 would be signing up for.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 225 comments… read them below }

  1. Sascha*

    What do y’all think of questions like, Where do you see yourself in five years? I get the gist of the question, but it rubs me the wrong way, especially when the hiring manager is looking for a magical answer that consists of “I want to be in this job forever because I love it so much, yet I want to grow professionally.”

    1. Colette*

      I do not like that question at all, because honestly, i don’t know where I see myself in five years. (Right now I have a hard time seeing myself in one year!) Ideally, I want to work towards a management position, but I feel that admitting that when the question comes up can sound a little presumptuous, considering that I don’t know the inner workings of their company or hiring/promotion methods, etc.

      1. Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog*

        I agree. I don’t have a career path planned out. Every new position opens up new opportunities and ideas. I usually know what skills I need to build next to position myself for a organization leadership (right now: project management, people management, budgeting)… but I have no idea what will be on the horizon 3 years from now.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m going to write a separate post on this question soon, but the big thing to know about this question is that they’re basically saying, “Tell me how this position fits in with your overall short-term and medium-term career goals for yourself.”

      1. Kerry*

        I had an interview last week where (among other wonderfully handled aspects – it was one of the best interviews I’ve ever had conducted) they asked “How does this job fit into your idea of where your career is going?”, which I thought was just the perfect way to phrase that question.

    3. Mike C.*

      I think it’s a terrible question because how in the heck will I know what is going on in my industry and the greater economy in the next five years? I mean sure I have goals, goals like “making more money”, “doing more interesting work” and “solving more complicated problems than before” but beyond that it all depends on how things are going now and the doors it opens up in the future.

      1. twentymilehike*

        I mean sure I have goals, goals like “making more money”, “doing more interesting work” and “solving more complicated problems than before”

        Agreed completely! Unfortunately, I can’ t think of a really impressive way to say, “richer.” LOL

          1. Evan the College Student*

            “Okay then; please tell us how you plan to get your accounting certification, and how this position fits into your plans…”

      2. Anonymous*

        I think my real answer might actually scare them so I keep it to myself.

        I honestly don’t know if I’ll even be working in this industry in 5 years (or still living in this city). I don’t have any plans to leave it but I’m always open to new opportunities and have been good at just about everything I’ve tried so far (except sales). Unlike a lot of IT folks, I’m not in love with computers or technology. I love solving problems and constantly learning things and I can do that in many industries. But after coming out of the recession unscathed (and making about $20K more then pre-recession), I would be a little hesitant to ever get out of IT.

    4. Dan*

      I don’t like it either. In my field of work, it takes quite some time to be a truly useful independent analyst. My boss has said it takes two years to get someone fully up to speed.

      When I was fresh out of school, and I was asked this question, my answer was along the lines of “it takes awhile to get good at this job, so I’d expect to be a senior analyst by then.”

      The response I got was: “You have to have ten years of experience to be a senior analyst here.”

      I wanted to ask: “So why’d you even bother with the question then?”

    5. A Disillusioned Employee*

      I typicaly answer it this way: “My goal is to be a go-to resource for my colleagues” and elaborate as needed, depending on the exact nature of the position.

      1. Jen in RO*

        That sounds like a good answer, I’ll remember that! I always feel like everyone is expected want to get into management… but I like being a “worker bee” and I would hate managing, so I never know what to answer.

        1. Neeta*

          Yay, a kindred soul! I always have this problem, and feel like I’m shooting myself in the foot when trying to explain this to others.

    6. Anonymous_J*

      I don’t like it either, because even in just five years, life can change A LOT. This includes knowing whether I will want to be at the job in question in five years. I might like it fine now, but maybe something happens in a year or two that changes things.

      Right now, where I see myself in five years is selling my house. LOL!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Right, but they’re not asking you to write it in stone. They’re asking you how you see this job fitting in with your overall plan for your career.

    7. HumbleOnion*

      I like to turn this around on the interviewer & ask where they see their place of employment in 5 years.

    8. Elizabeth West*

      I hate that question because the recession killed five-year plans. You can get the job of your dreams and be gone in a year and a half because some dumbass VP decided to shuffle and cut while giving himself a raise.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, but they’re not asking you to predict where you’ll be in five years. They’re asking how this job fit in with your overall plan for yourself.

        1. Jennifer*

          Yeah, but at this point ANY overall plan for your life can and will be chucked out the window. A lot of people’s “plans” are “dear god, let me get the job as a Wal-Mart greeter or I will die starving in the street,” you know?

          My overall plan for myself is to stay employed at the current level/money unless a miracle occurs. I have no goals beyond that since I don’t want to be management, and I can’t come up with a job I WANT to do that feeds my soul or whatever. My goal is to go in, type things for 8 hours and leave, because that’s all I can get paid to do. And that’s doing a lot better than most people, so…. *shrug* I think they need to get rid of this question, because it really only applies to management-types anyway.

    9. jesicka309*

      One day someone will ask someone “where do you see yourself in five years?” and will be shocked by the response….

      “Oh, I’ll be dead. We’ll all be dead. Judgement Day is coming.”

      “I’m anticipating that there will be a zombie apocalypse in 2014, killing about 90% of the population. I see this role as a temporary one, before I follow my true calling as a zombie hunter.”

      “In five years I will have finally completed my time machine, and will be zooming around through time and space.”

      “Probably doing porn. Always wanted to do porn, so I reckon I’ll finally have enough money to get a boob job by then, and I’ll be making films.”

      :) Wouldn’t that shock them?

    10. Neeta*

      I have a colleague who keeps saying “in the mirror”.

      I’ve never been asked this question myself, but had seen it answered on job applications. They’re generally full of really “grand-sounding goals”, so I just ignore them. Alternately, I laugh at the “what do you know, he’s after the hiring manager’s job” type of answers.

  2. Anonymous*

    One of the most uncomfortable questions that I was ever asked involved an interview I had for a production company that ran shows in my city. It was for an internship, and the interview was already going pretty lame (she was only asking me the “is this something you would be interested in?” questions as opposed to “actual” questions.) As my workstation was to face a hallway that a lot of actresses and dancers would use for auditions or practicing, the interviewer then asked if I could be comfortable with scantily-clad women passing through my desk or practicing right outside my door (I’m a guy.) Sounds like a reasonable question at first, and I said that it wouldn’t bother me, but then the interviewer kept going on in more graphic detail about it (“I mean, these women here will be wearing next to nothing and doing stretching, erotic moves and practicing dance moves, are you sure this won’t be a problem?”) I must of said that it wouldn’t be a problem at least four times in a row, with her going into more graphic detail each time I said it. Needless to say, I declined a second interview, for that and other reasons.

    1. Your Mileage May Vary*

      Anyone remember the British TV show “Coupling”? I can see this happening to Jeff and, as he get overwhelmed by the line of questioning, yelling out “Gusset, gusset, gusset!”

  3. Colette*

    I was recently asked the following four “brain teaser” questions in an interview situation for a graphic design position:
    1. List 10 things you can do with a pencil that do not involve writing or drawing.
    2. If I give you a lighter and two strings that burn at different rates of speed, tell me how you would determine at what point 45 minutes had gone by.
    3. Two people want to stand on the same newspaper but they have to be prevented from touching each other. How do you do it?
    4. Would you rather have a trunk full of nickels or half-full of dimes?
    Believe it or not, I turned down the job partially based on the fact that these questions were asked in such an intimidating manner. I felt like my intelligence was being insulted by the interviewer. I get that they may have been trying to determine my creativity or ability to think quickly under pressure…but I did not appreciate it.

    1. Sascha*

      1. Well, I used to throw pencils into the ceiling at school to see if they would stick…does that count?

    2. Lisa*

      I’m guessing “Stab someone” wouldn’t be an appropriate answer for number one, no matter how accurate…

      1. Windchime*

        I was going to say, “I’d stab myself with one of them, just to avoid having to answer questions like this.” So….similar answer. I hate it when these types of questions are asked; to me, it seems that the purpose is just to embarrass or confuse the candidate, when the goal of the interview should be to determine whether or not s/he is a good fit for the position (and vice-versa).

        A place where I used to work conducted interviews where the candidate would come into a room with 5-6 interviewers. I was sitting in on one such interview of an internal candidate, and the candidate was asked some horrible, pointless trick question about dividing up muffins. She got so flustered trying to solve it that she started to cry. It was awful.

      2. Colette*

        I actually had the nerve to answer her question #2 with “I would just stick the pencil from question number one in the ground to make a sun clock to tell you when 45 minutes has gone by, because I have no idea how to answer that question without a calculator and a little more time than we have at the moment.” But I said it with a smile, not with snark, and she actually looked impressed.

        1. Jamie*

          Totally vampire death would be #1.

          10. Measure pencil and then use it as a unit of measure.
          9. one half of goal posts for paper football.
          8. use eraser end to pull paper to you that is on floor just out of hand reach.
          7. very primitive tattooing (I still have a mark from when this guy accidentally stabbed me with a pencil in my leg in 8th grade.)
          6. dip tip in plastic resin and use as one half of a pair of chopsticks.
          5. Wrap in bit of paper towel, soak in windex, and clean tiny corner crevices in windowsill.
          4. Twirl in my fingers when fidgeting – pretending it’s a tiny baton…and then being sad that I’m too old to play with a real baton.
          3. unsharpened small pencil can be used as relay baton for Borrowers track meets.
          2. Put my hair up in loose messy bun when I don’t have a scrunchy (true – at least a couple times a week I resort to this)
          1. of course – kill vampires.

          1. Anonymous_J*

            I use them to prop open my cigar boxes when I’m painting or varnishing them to keep them from sticking shut.

    3. AmyNYC*

      My first thought for the pencil question was “that thing where you move the pencil loosely in your fingers so it looks all wibbly-wobbly”

    4. Vicki*

      > Believe it or not, I turned down the job partially based on the fact that these questions were asked in such an intimidating manner.

      I believe it. Good on you.

      I would have turned it down based on the fact that the interviewer was asking Stupid Nonsensical Questions.

    5. Meganly*

      I hate those “brain teaser” questions. At the last job interview, one of the questions was a very complicated one that involved how I would calculate dropping a glass ball from an airplane so that it would land in an open window in a skyscraper. (My answer was that in order to avoid dropping a glass ball on some random person’s head, I’d just take the glass ball in the elevator with me and skip the plane and window.)

      1. Josh S*

        Unless the window of the skyscraper faces up, you can’t do it anyway. The vertical velocity is so great after dropping from the height that most airplanes fly that there isn’t enough time for the horizontal velocity to carry it into the window in the space provided.

        Given the variable wind, you’d be lucky to even hit the building. The best result you could hope for would be to bounce it off the window ledge, and even that would be a miracle.

      2. Angela G.*

        I would tell the person flying the plane to land on top of the skyscraper so that I can get out and drop the glass ball into the window myself. :)

    6. Josh S*

      1. *sigh* really?
      2. I’d light the strings on fire and then look at my watch to tell the time.
      3. Old one — unfold the newspaper over a door’s threshold. Then close the door and have each stand on opposite sides.
      4. Half full of dimes. It’s more money (dimes have more than a 2x higher value-per-volume) AND it’s lighter to cart off.

  4. danr*

    #3 is really meaningless. My salary increases were consistently above the norm for the company until the last few years when pay freezes and token raises started. Out of context the numbers are very small, but there were other compensations to working there that couldn’t be expressed in raw numbers.

    #5… I know of a law firm that uses this type of question, but they ask it first as an icebreaker. After the first shocked response, they get to the weightier questions of being in a law firm.

  5. Kay @ Travel Bug Diary blog*

    Here’s one I flubbed recently:

    “How would you specify the regression model?”

    It was an analyst position… the conversation moved towards more advanced stats issues. I’m not THAT smart. I have no idea how to come up with regression models on the fly. The rejected me in a prompt manner.

    1. Anonymous*

      Ugh, I’m an analyst-type and these questions always throw me for a loop. I can’t tell you what I would put in the model because I can’t actually see the data! Give me 15 minutes with it and then I’ll answer your question. Luckily I’ve only had one or two of these.

      1. Athlum*

        If you can describe the process you would use when looking at the data, that’s just as good. (Better, really — a good analyst should understand the theoretical underpinnings of the analytic approach, not just how to click the right boxes in the statistical package.) If you describe or even mention considerations of which variables have theoretical relevance, suppression effects, multicollinearity, etc., you’re light-years ahead of a candidate who favors the kitchen-sink approach — or worse, thinks of themselves as a button-presser and doesn’t want the responsibility of independent thinking when model-building.

        Disclaimer: I’ve been asked that question in interviews and asked it of candidates as well. Never been too perturbed by it on either side.

  6. Eva*

    I’m curious to hear more about how this question plays out in an interview:

    “How much volume did you have to handle in your last job? How did you stay on top of it all? Tell me about a time when the volume was at its peak and how you handled it.”

    What are the ways that candidates respond to this question (and the ways in which a manager can probe their replies) that lets a manager distinguish between someone who has stayed on top of a genuinely big volume and someone who has stayed on top of simply an average one?

    1. Lora*

      -At CorporateHell, I had 6 projects/quarter which were expected to yield (result) to supply our customers in (departments). Each project required (deliverables) and involved (unknown variables). To immediately assess the (variables), I did X at the beginning of the project, and used that information to communicate back to the customer and set priorities and timelines for (deliverables). If (result) was not achievable in (timeline), I delegated (portion of deliverable) to (contractor) so that I could maintain quality of the final product. When CorporateHell had ScaryTakeover and the same deliverables were expected in two weeks instead of one quarter, I invested some time developing (new technology) that improved (yield result) to be able to meet the new timelines.

      -At Joe’sStartupCo, I had (monster project) with (deliverables) due in (timeline). I broke (monster project) into (components) and delegated (components) to (experts) and set (deadlines) for (milestones). We had Plans A, B and C and maintained communications on progress so that we could immediately change plans in the event of negative results.

      That’s what I say, anyways. It always seems to be well-received.

      I mean, “can you handle a big workload?” Well, yes, I can, but if you ask me that foolish question in an interview, my first assumption is that you’re not able to scope things correctly (i.e. you don’t have a clue how much manpower or time anything should actually take to do properly), you are going to ask me to do something half-baked, you’re a bean counter who doesn’t distinguish between Created World Peace and Kept Toddlers From Arguing, you probably have no clue how to set priorities and manage that workload appropriately so it’s fit for one human to do, and you’re going to do something really annoying like calling me at 2am about something that could totally wait for 8am.

      1. the gold digger*

        Which goes to the question I got: “How do you feel about long hours and tight deadlines?”

        I wanted to say, “That they are signs of managerial incompetence,” but decided that wouldn’t be prudent.

        1. Vicki*

          I’ve been asked the part abut long hours. I usually reply that I get my work done. I repeat that until they stop asking.

          I don’t do “long hours” They aren’t productive. But I’ve learned not to be honest in interviews. It’s a fine line to avoid lying without actually telling the “real” truth.

      2. Jessa*

        I love your answer, and I totally want to copy it for future reference, I hope you don’t mind. I hate people who do not know the difference between world peace and toddler control, and I’ve worked for them.

        1. Lora*

          Go for it, happy to be of service!

          I do generally find that as a rule, managers are not very good at scoping projects and estimating manpower unless they really, truly have both worked their way up through the ranks AND still do work in the trenches on occasion. When I have pointed out how much time and personnel projects actually do take, and try to calibrate expectations based on that, I am informed of the glories of Lean Operations/Manufacturing.

          I usually tell them, “OK, why don’t you show me how it’s done then,” and then when they try their hand they say, “oh my gosh, this is really hard!” Yes, yes it is. Which is what I had been telling you.

      3. HR Gorilla*

        “…you’re a bean counter who doesn’t distinguish between Created World Peace and Kept Toddlers From Arguing.”

        Lora! so great!

    2. Christine*

      I’m wondering this as well because the idea of high work volume makes me want to run in the other direction, but twice, I was put into situations where the volume temporarily increased due to staffing issues. The first time went very well and I was highly praised for it in my year-end review, saying I showed the ability to work well under pressure (!!!). The second time, in a different job, I started off really well in keeping on top of the increased volume, but lost my footing within maybe 2-3 weeks and never could get back up.

      Come to think of it, I think all of my jobs have had some component of high-volume work. I just can’t point to any one strategy that kept me above water other than just diving in and doing the best that I could.

  7. khilde*

    Oh!! #6! (“If I offered you the job, would you accept it?”)

    I just taught a interview & selection class to some of our supervisors recently and one came up to me afterward and asked me why that question was required to be asked in their department. I told him I had no idea, because I thought the question was rather useless (I was right!! hooray!!). I told him I’d ask his human resource manager for his department and try to find out the rationale (if any) for that question. Can anyone else shed light on what an interviewer is really looking for with that question?

    The employee and I speculated, but none of the reasons we came up wtih really made sense.

    1. Marie*

      Don’t know if this will shed light on anything for you, but my college-age daughter recently interviewed for a summer position, and her interviewer took this (annoying) question one step further: “On a scale of 1 – 10, how likely are you to take this job?” This was asked at the end of the interview and really threw my daughter for a loop, so she said “9”, though it probably was something more like, “Uh…well, I’m not sure, I guess a 9.” In the case of this position, it turns out that the interviewer was only going to be at the organization for a few more days and (presumably) wanted to gauge if she was going to have to continue interviewing more candidates. I assured my daughter that this was a lousy question (now confirmed by AAM!), and that it didn’t seem to be very helpful to the interviewer either. (BTW, my daughter actually declined the position….despite, her “9” response!….and happily landed a much better position the next wk.)

      1. khilde*

        Interesting, Marie, thanks for chiming in. Asking the question at the end of the interview is exactly what this supervisors was instructed to do, too. I suppose a poor interviewer could always come up with a legitimate reason why they need to ask the question!

        1. College Career Counselor*

          I suspect they are trying to figure out how gung-ho you are for the position. (Or how good an actor you are, if you’re not gung-ho..)

          I got asked a version of this recently at the end of an interview day, by the VP of the division. She asked me what I thought about the place, its opportunities and challenges (no problem addressing those), what I’d learned from the people I’d met (no problem there), and did I think I would take the position if offered it?

          That’s where the problem hit. I couldn’t say “yes, absolutely” because I wasn’t certain at that moment. Could I have done the work? Sure. Was it a perfect fit in all ways? Nope, but as Alison says, most dream jobs aren’t that. What I needed was time to figure out if there was enough commonality for it to be a good fit. Which is why I generally like to take some time to reflect on the entire interview and consider what I would say if they OFFERED me the position. In my field, that generally happens later on.

          This was not an offer on the spot (in which case I would have said, “Thank you, I’m very interested–I will need to discuss with my spouse–may I let you know by early next week?”), but an attempt to find out what my reaction would be IF they were going to make me an offer. It’s their prerogative to ask the question, but I wonder what you get out of it?

          a) He wants it–let’s low-ball him!
          b) He seems hesitant–we’re only interested in people who make snap decisions here!
          c) He can’t say yes to us right now–ergo it’s not a good match!

          I found out later that particular place wound up not making an offer to any of the finalists and went back to the drawing board. A certain kind of fit was evidently very important to them, and it included the thinking that “If your answer’s not [sincerely] ‘yes,’ then it’s ‘no.'”

          1. khilde*

            Interesting. All of your speculations and thoughts about what they are looking for in the question were things that ocurred to me, too. My hangup with the question was yours, as well, in paragraph 3.

        2. Waiting Patiently*

          Yep, got asked this question at the end of an interview. The interviewers even seemed to understand how stupid the question was. The first 3-4 question were the typical expected questions. The rest were spiels posed as question on the end; I got the impression there could be no deviation from the script. It felt like i was being read my rights. Horrible interview which I totally flubbed. And this question was the big finale.

    2. HR Gorilla*

      I always ask something along the lines of “what reservations, if any, do you have about this role?” if the interview has actually provoked my OWN reservations about the candidate’s fit. I tailor the wording to the candidate/role/feel of the interview though.

  8. CJ*

    A manager in my company used to ask applicants for sales positions how many Exxons are in the US. His turnover rate was usually 50% per year…

    1. Mike C.*

      Asking to estimate a large number of something is a fairly standard critical thinking question. The way those are addresses is to discuss what you would do to determine the answer, without always ending up with an answer at the end.

      1. Your Mileage May Vary*

        So, if they offer you a job after you’ve answered “Wikipeida,” you know to run far, far away. :)

        1. Mike C.*

          Well, if Wikipedia has a list of the number of Exxon gas stations and a link backing it up, I don’t see the problem here.

          I really just see these questions as, “here’s something you don’t know how to do, how do you go about getting it accomplished”.

          However, these sorts of questions could be much improved if they simply explained, “We’re not looking for a specific answer, but we want to see how you’d take on this challenge”.

      2. the gold digger*

        The proper response for that kind of question is, “The population of the US is 300 million” or some variation, such as, “Let’s say there are 100 billion gallons of gas sold annually in the US and each station dispenses an average of 100,000 gallons. There would need to be X stations for that. If Exxon has Y market share, then they would have X stations times Y.”

    2. Rana*

      There is one. All of the gas stations are franchises and subsidiaries of the main corporation. ;)

  9. Bryce*

    My major beefs with questions like these are first, it’s easy for people to “game” these questions and “BS” you by giving you answers you want to hear, with the help of coaching, or simply reading an article about how to answer common interview questions; and second, these questions give you little or no insight into how candidates would actually perform on the job and whether they’d fit well into your team and culture.

    It’s wiser to ask questions along the lines of: “In your previous jobs, have you had to handle Situation X? If so, what did you do and what happened? If not, how would you go about handling Situation X?” Questions like these have the benefit of helping you determine how rigorously candidates thing and approach problems.

    It’s also wiser to include simulations in the interview process. For example, if you’re hiring for a copywriter position, have candidates write ad copy for a 30-second broadcast spot, or if you’re hiring for a sales position, have candidates give a 5-minute product presentation. You may also use simulations to “instruct” candidates on things they’ll have to learn on the job to see if they have a knack for learning it.

    This approach makes more sense because it’s harder for candidates to “BS” or otherwise “game,” and also because it’s easier for hirers to see how candidates perform on tasks similar to what they’ll actually have to do.

    1. Jennifer*

      I think the “BS” questions are actually intended to see if you know how to BS/”play the game”/give politically correct answers at work. And anyone who answers honestly instead is shown the door. I suppose that has a purpose, too….

  10. Kelly O*

    I really hate the “so starting with the first job on your resume, tell me about your day-to-day duties at each position you list.”

    Seriously. I got asked that in a phone interview. No physical cues to see what she was thinking, or anything. I did the best I could, but there was no second interview. I tried a brief run-down and tried relating it to the job description they’d posted, but she just let me talk and then told me thanks and ended the call.

  11. Anlyn*

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

    Me: “One that didn’t cause allergies.”

    1. Mike C.*

      So you’d be a female rather than a male or asexual tree, as male/asexual trees spread all that pollen, while female/asexual trees drop the fruit/seeds.

      Which is why many places landscape with male trees: no seeds/fruits to have to clean up every year. but your allergies take a huge beating.

      In case you were ever curious.

      1. Anlyn*

        That is interesting information. Good to know I wouldn’t have to change my gender. And it does help me understand why I have no problems with the tree in my front yard that constantly drops…whatever type of seeds it drops; but I can barely walk out the door at work without sneezing.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      All the time I was job hunting, I was WAITING to be asked this. I have the most awesome answer and never got to give it.

      My answer would be, “A mallorn tree.” If the interviewer were to me my manager and knew what that was, they would be awesome. :)

    3. bearcat*

      I’ve had this one before!!!!

      He asked it, then I gave him an incredulous look and said “you can’t seriously want me to answer that.”

      Then he laughed boisterously and said, “that’s how we eliminate the twitchy ones.”

      Then this was my face: :-|

      Whatever he meant by that…I didn’t take the job.

  12. Plynn*

    I felt a little bad about it, but I did used to ask interviewees what their favourite book was. It really threw some people off, and others got really into it and almost couldn’t commit to an answer. Obviously, their favourite book was not going to be a deciding factor in whether or not they got the job – it mattered more that could name a book, ANY book (And that they seemed a little excited about it). Because some people couldn’t come up with anything – not even something they had read in the last five years. That did not bode well for a position that required a lot of inquisitiveness, self-directed research and familiarity with cultural references.

    So, I did have a legitimate reason, but I’m sure there are some applicants out there still cursing the crazy lady that asked stupid questions about books.

    1. Lora*

      Heh. I used to ask what they liked to read. The self-directedness part and taking an interest in a broad range of subjects was critical because we worked with so many different departments, and it was really helpful to understand what those departments were doing even if it wasn’t your field/interest at all. Had to get someone willing to try new things and read documentation well, with good reading comprehension because there just weren’t the staff available to show them in person every time they wanted to know a thing.

        1. Lora*

          Nope, although I would have asked, “what’s the most recent thing you read then?”
          Previous answers: Bloomberg news, a collection of Pushkin in the original Russian, John Scalzi science fiction, a school textbook, an instruction manual for a piece of equipment, 13th century Chinese poetry. Bunch of stuff from book clubs.

          Can’t say I am completely un-biased and that literally anything would be a great answer. I mean, if they say “Men are from Mars, Women Are From Venus” or “Atlas Shrugged,” I’m going to suppress an eyeroll. But if they said, you know, Les Mots Et Les Choses by Foucault or The Wealth Of Nations, that would be cool.

    2. Colette*

      Honestly I would welcome that question more than a brain teaser, because at least it sounds like you are taking a personal interest in the candidate’s personality, interests or intellect.

      I would have told you my favorite book is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, but that is neither here nor there. :)

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You know, I don’t think that’s a bad question, given your reason for asking it. I might have just followed it up with an explanation after they gave you an answer — “I ask because while I don’t really care what you read, we like to see that people do read something, because the position requires a lot of inquisitiveness, self-directed research and familiarity with cultural references.”

      That way they’d understand why you asked. (But I’d wait until you had their answer first, so the non-readers didn’t adjust their answer accordingly.)

    4. Yup*

      I totally get where you were going with this question. My dilemma as an applicant would be that my top favorites that spring to mind immediately are pretty off-kilter for interview conversations. I’m not sure how comfortable the interviewer would be if I was all “In Cold Blood! Oh, and Anaias Nin. Pretty much anything on the banned list!” You know? So something more along the lines of “Tell me about a book you read recently that you really enjoyed” will get a thoughtful, more useful answer from me. Instead of just watching me gawp as I try to self edit. :)

      1. Plynn*

        Actually, those would have been great answers because I could have dispensed with one of my later questions – “We often deal with images that are controversial or feature nudity, would that be a problem for you?”

        But yes, “tell me about something you’re read recently” is a better approach.

        1. Vicki*

          People try to game “tell me about something you’re read recently” too. Or worry about hidden meanings.

          Can I tell you I read a romcom? Urban fantasy? Do I have to pick a technical magazine or a non-fiction book? What if she asks me more about it?

          What if I pick the Wrong Answer???

          1. Jen in RO*

            My favorite is a fantasy book from the ’80s and I would definitely stress out about the wrong answer. When I was a teen *no one* I knew read the same books I did and I felt like such a weirdo! SF still does have a bit of a stigma associated to it around here, so I’d fear that my interviewer would consider me too immature…

            I read about a book a week, but I’d probably fail at this question.

            1. Jamie*

              Jen – my favorite series of books are about a pair of Siamese cats who solve crimes with the help of their human.

              I feel you on the stigma.

              1. the gold digger*

                And what books would those be? I love mysteries and I have two Siamese cats, one of whom doesn’t know how to solve the mystery of a closed cabinet door and tries to open the hinged side. But she is very pretty.

                1. Jamie*

                  The Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun.

                  Comfort reading – they are to books what Rocky Road from Baskin-Robins is to eating.

              2. Lexy*

                I LOVE THE CAT WHO SERIES!!!!!

                My grandma was hooked on them when I was a kid, I always loved mysteries and probably started reading them at about age 9 or so…. her giant bookshelf full of Cat Who books is one of my favorite treasures.

                Koko & Yum-Yum… the two greatest kitties of all time.

              3. Chinook*

                Ditto about the stigma. My favorite series is about a woman from the 1940’s/1960’s who goes back in time, twice, is married to a Scott who fought at Culloden and on both sides of the American Revolution, and the books follow the storyline of her, her husband and their daughter and friends.

                On the plus side, if they get the reference, I usually find a fellow fan.

                1. Chinook*

                  I just got notice that the entire-version with the zombies is available for purchase today (hee, hee, hee)

                2. Cathy*

                  Diana says they’re just making that date up and nobody will know when it’s coming out until she finishes writing it.

            2. Esra*

              That’s the great thing about nichey books though. My favourite books are Dune, Pride & Prejudice, and The Master and Margarita. So if an interviewer asked and I told them those books and they perked up, I would know I had found my people.

            3. Neeta*

              Eh don’t feel bad about it. My colleagues are always amazed that I actually read, of my own volition.

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            You guys are acting like there’s a “right” answer to every interview questions, when sometimes there’s really not. They just want more insight into you.

            1. Rana*

              But the problem is that you don’t know what a “good” insight is and what a “bad” one is. It’s pretty easy to know that interviewers will disapprove of instances when you screwed up on the job, and that they’re going to look unfavorably on people who say “I hate puppies and babies” (even if you have good reasons for it).

              It’s a lot harder to gauge whether your love of trashy sci-fi will mark you out as a cool potential colleague, or as a low-brow weirdo.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Right, and you assume that you’re screening for fit as much as they are, and you don’t want to work someone that thinks you’re a low-brow weirdo based on the fact that you like a particular book.

                And if you have no options and just need any job, regardless of the fit, then you go with something safe (like a recent Pulitzer or something else generally considered good that you’ve actually read). But hopefully you have enough options not to need to do that.

                1. KellyK*

                  When I was applying for colleges, the interviewer asked what I’d read lately, and I started enthusing about a fantasy book I was reading, only to be met with a disdainful, “Oh, is that *pleasure* reading?” That wasn’t the *only* reason I ended up not applying to that particular school, but it definitely made the list.

                2. Elizabeth West*

                  Yeah, but the mallorn tree is pretty obscure—if I said I wanted to be a mallorn tree when asked the tree question, and the interviewer knew what it was, I would know I was in the presence of a fellow Lord of the Rings nerd. At least ONE person at the company would be cool. And if someone sneered at my book choice, I would know they are not. So I would be looking at their reaction to the book question as much as they are judging my answer. :)

      2. fposte*

        This one is funny to me because we’re hiring people to work with books, so it’s our softball startup question.

      3. Heatherbrarian*

        Coming in WAY late on this (as usual), but at the interview for my current public-library job, when they asked me what I was currently reading, the true answer – which I gave – was Greek literature – I think a play by Euripides. I immediately followed by acknowledging that was a little unusual and talking about several other more “typical” books I’d read recently and how my reading tastes are varied and eclectic. They looked a little poleaxed at my initial answer but I think overall I think I gave a pretty good response. (I did get the job, after all!)

        At a public library interview, I wouldn’t blink an eye if I heard an applicant say they liked things on the banned books lists – it might even get you some brownie points. ;)

        1. Greg*

          Ugh, I hate that questions, too. The problem is that they’re not really asking for the truth. Maybe the last thing you read was something substantial and edifying. Or maybe it was the latest beach thriller. But the latter doesn’t make you less qualified for the job (well, unless you were reading Dan Brown).

          Maybe if you phrase the question as, “What’s something you read that really influenced your career?” But unless it’s a highly strategic role where they will need to be assimilating a lot of external info, I just don’t think it’s particularly helpful.

    5. Marina*

      Superlatives throw me off, but I would love to answer something like, “What’s something good that you’ve read recently?”

      1. Jamie*

        You know – that’s a good point. If asked to classify ‘best’ or ‘favorite’ I’d get way literal and start ranking things in my head. Staying away from absolutes and superlatives would be much better.

    6. Rana*

      Honestly? I hate “what’s your favorite x” questions. Hate, hate, hate them.

      For example, with the book thing – I read at minimum a hundred to two hundred books a year, and when I was in grad school, that number was easily doubled or tripled. Some I liked, some I didn’t, some I’d read again, some I’d read many times again. Now multiply this by all the years and years I’ve been reading books – I started when I was about three, and I’m 43 now. So we are literally talking thousands of books, many of which I really liked.

      And you’re going to ask me to pick ONE to single out as a favorite? As better in all regards than all the rest?

      No. No can do.

      1. Rana*

        I agree with the above that “what’s something you’ve read recently, and what did you think about it” would be more useful, if you’re going to go this route.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        You guys! You are over-thinking this. Come on. You say something like, “I love to read and have dozens of favorites, but some that I’ve really enjoyed lately are __.”

        1. Rana*

          Well, if you’re hiring me, you should know that I tend towards both literalism and over-thinking. ;)

    7. Lynne*

      I’ve encountered that question in librarian interviews…and for a lot of librarian jobs, you really ought to be able to talk enthusiastically about books you’ve read, sometimes at the drop of a hat. So then it can be a very relevant question. And even if the job doesn’t involve interacting with the public, it’s kind of a fun, icebreaker-like thing to talk about, or at least I find it so. (People are probably more likely to see it that way in the library world though.)

      I do dodge the “favourite” thing if they phrase it that way, and tell them I don’t have a single favourite (true!) and just talk about one I like or have read recently. Usually fantasy or SF. If they’re going to judge me for that, tough. :) (But it is important for librarians not to be too judgy about reading material, and I don’t want to work with someone who is.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s not exactly the way I’d word that one, but I don’t think it’s a terrible question. You can sometimes learn a lot by what people mention.

      1. Lora*

        Haha, “Absentee” is probably not the answer you’re looking for!

        I actually prefer being mentored by people with multiple decades of experience, from whom I can learn. To arrange this, I go on LinkedIn and check out the profiles of hiring managers and ask around my network for the hiring manager’s track record. Failing that, if I’m stuck with someone without that experience, the only way I want to see them is if they are jumping in and getting their hands dirty. If their contribution towards me is “I made a horrible PowerPoint slide in 5-point font, please present it at your next meeting,” just go away and quit bugging me.

        But somehow I don’t think hiring managers want to hear that I’d prefer if they were at least in their late 40s or 50s, a veteran, and still spent a significant amount of time in the lab/field.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Absolutely. And it will depend on what type of manager you’re interviewing with and what the org’s culture is. And being candid is a good way to ensure you don’t end up with a manager you’ll hate working for.

      2. Vicki*

        But again, we worry the answer in our minds. I Cannot Tell The Whole Truth. (But I will not lie either).

        I hate questions like this.

        I got the “what do you want from your manager” question once (from the hiring manager). I answered it. He nodded. There were other questions. I got the job.

        And he was a terrible micromanaging manager who did not match to what I said I wanted from a manager. I guess he thought he did. Or didn’t care what I replied.

      3. Josh S*

        I’ve actually asked this of potential managers in the latter stages of interviewing — “How would you describe your management style, or your typical involvement in making sure a project is completed well and on time?”

        Gives good insight into how they perceive their role as manager, and whether I’ll be micromanaged or completely left alone or something in between.

  13. Jane Doe*

    #1 – “What’s your background?” always confuses me because I’m not sure whether they want me to describe what’s on my resume (and what I likely told the HR person who did the initial phone interview), or if they want…something else.

    #4 – I usually take this question as a sign that the workload is unusually heavy and it reminds me to ask why the job is open if I haven’t already.

    #6 is like the interviewer equivalent of the obnoxious salesy tactics that applicants use.

  14. Your Mileage May Vary*

    At my university, the undergrads have to take a senior seminar that covers interviews/resumes/etc. I was talking to one of the professors about it and she teaches the anti-AAM material. She will fail a student in the interview portion of the class if they don’t have a well-thought-out answer to what tree they would be and what their greatest weakness is.

    1. khilde*

      I’m curious – did she offer any rationale why that’s such an important question for her?

      1. Your Mileage May Vary*

        She told me she only wanted to hire “creative” people. And if you couldn’t come up with an answer, you weren’t creative enough for her. Never mind that she has never actually hired anyone in real life.

    2. College Career Counselor*

      YMMV, that’s terrible! I assume the thinking is that “well, students may encounter this, so they need to be ready?” I can understand telling students, “look, this might happen in an interview” but not failing them for it.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m getting so sick of hearing this kind of thing. Can we do something about it? What about complaining to the administration? What about having me complain? This professor is ensuring her students will have more trouble finding work, not less.

      1. College Career Counselor*

        Guest lecture position for AAM? I like to bring in HR people, industry experts, hiring managers, etc. to offer their perspective to students. Unfortunately, I bet the professor in question wouldn’t show up, or would continue to do what she knows is “right.” (Because that’s easier than learning new things)

          1. College Career Counselor*

            I’d love to hear a follow-up post about the letter!
            (although I realize it’s unlikely)

    4. Jen in RO*

      So what on earth are you supposed to answer? I really can’t think of anything. It’s a tree!!

      1. Jamie*

        I would say I would be the tree closest to my house…so I can make sure I don’t fall on my roof when it storms.

        Seriously – I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of how to answer this either and frankly, I would say I wouldn’t want to work for a place that asked stupid questions but plenty of great workplaces have less than stellar hiring protocols so…still no idea of what a good answer to this would be.

        I would be a tree alone in the forest so I could answer the life long question of when I fall if there is no human to hear it do I make a noise? Except that wouldn’t work since as a tree I don’t have ears an I’d be dead (hence the falling) anyway. I got nothing.

        1. Jen in RO*

          Oh I would so suck at this question. I was walking around the house and I realized that if I applied for a new job, I’d most likely have the interview in English and I don’t even know what the damn trees are called. And then I tried to think about my favorite tree and I couldn’t even name it in Romanian. So I had to ask my boyfriend about “that tree that has leaves kinda like the Canadian tree and they go all pretty in autumn in the park next to my old apartment”. (It’s an oak.)

          1. OneoftheMichelles*

            There’s a theory that your answer to the tree question indicates your basic personality type. When I read this, the only example given was that “oak” = reliable (or something conservative and main-streamy like that).

            It’s so easy to come up with examples of other reasons to give any particular answer that I think it’s a pretty stupid theory–but it gets used anyway.

            1. Cat*

              Dude, that kind of thing assumes I know way more about trees than I actually do. My answer would really have to be something like “You know, the green kind with the pretty needly things?” (Though I guess I couldn’t fault botanists for asking this, to be fair.)

            2. Sue D. O'Nym*

              So what does it say about my personality if I answer “a whomping willow tree” ?

      2. Chinook*

        And cherry tree, but one that has both showy blossoms and fruit so I would be beautiful, practical and delicious ;)

      3. Anonymous*

        Whomping willow. Really, any other answer just shows that you’re a muggle. I thought it was obvious.

        You just have to make something up that sounds profound to your listener. You don’t actually have to buy into it, you know.

        I keep trying to think up a good reply that involves the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but I’m pretty sure all possible such answers are very sacrilegious.

        That ferngully tree also comes to mind (fairies, swallowed a Disney monster), or maybe Rafiki’s tree from Lion King (a baobab tree with a cool paint job).

        Pando, the giant Aspen clone colony in Utah, is pretty good, too, if you want a real live tree. It’s the biggest organism on the planet by mass, and one of the oldest at ~80,000 years old.

    5. Lora*

      What tree? *blinkblink*
      An elder tree, because if you cut them down evil spirits come out to haunt you. Or that’s what my British ex-mother-in-law used to say.

      My biggest weakness is that I can be a real asshole when people ask snarky rhetorical questions. I expect sincerity and tend to assume that people around me are intelligent, and sometimes it’s hard to hide my disappointment. *glare at interviewer*

  15. Leah*

    I was asked “What is your communication style?” and totally bungled my response. “um, I, uh, um…” = not exactly demonstrating any communication style. If asked that question today, I still don’t know how I would respond.

    1. KellyK*

      That’s such a vague question that there are tons of possible answers: are you very blunt and to the point, or do you take a softer, gentler approach; are your work conversations task-focused or relationship-focused; what communication methods do you prefer for what purposes; do you tend to provide people with a lot of information to make sure they’re in the loop or do you filter down to just the basics to avoid overwhelming them. And probably some more that I’m forgetting. I think it would depend on the context of the question which one of those I’d focus on in an answer, though.

    2. khilde*

      Every interviewer is probably looking for something different, but I suppose some things to consider for future questions of this nature:
      Are you more direct or indirect in your communication? Do you prefer to talk face to face with someone or do you prefer to email? Are you good at discussing information off the cuff or do you need time to mull it over? Do you talk more than you listen? Do you prefer to process information out loud (speaking while you think) or do you prefer to process information internally (thinking before you speak)? Are you more task-focused or people-focused?

      I’d tell you about myself that I’m a very open communicator. I’m best at processing information by talking it out with someone. I often come to conclusions and solutions if I can bounce ideas off someone and have them give me feedback. Rarely can I do this when I sit quietly by myself and think. I can think on my feet and come to decisions fairly quickly with some basic information. I tend to be more fast paced in my communication – sometimes I know that this overwhelms the listeners so I try to be aware of matching my style to the listeners, though that’s still sometimes tricky. I’m a people focused communicator – I am very aware of the impact of my message on my recipient and tend to make decisions based more on the people involved than the task at hand…..etc. etc.

      Good grief, I have no idea if this answer sucks. Don’t harpoon me on that – I’m not interviewing right now so that’s just something I’d tell a friend. It might be a totally crappy answer, which I hope someone would highlight so I don’t steer Leah wrong!!

    3. Jamie*

      I would totally break out what I’ve learned here if I had to answer that. I’d talk about how I’m more task oriented, but I understand that more relationship oriented people need a different style and I have learned to communicate effectively with people of varying styles. And then in my head I would do a little tm khilde – who opened my eyes to the task/relationship communication chasm initially.

      Understanding that actually helped me become a much better manager.

  16. maisie*

    So I just had an interview today which I think actually went okay overall and the company seemed cool, but he literally spent 15 min explaining the role and the company…

    (side note: I never know how to handle this part…I want to show that I’m interested while also indicating somehow that I DID read the job description and I HAVE researched the company! It feels rude to point out that I’ve read all this from their website/press releases/etc so I usually nod a long and act interested, but then I wonder if it looks like this is all brand new informatiom?)

    …and then said “so, I guess just answer however you see fit!” The interview was really casual, but this totally threw me. I felt totally schizophrenic and didn’t know whether to start by addressing my background, my experience, how I felt about the current role, etc. I would have preferred more of a ‘back and forth’ rather than a “I’ll talk for 15 min, now you” approach.

    1. Jen in RO*

      On the other hand, I was very happy when my future boss explained all this to me. I had no idea what the position actually meant, the job description was gibberish to me and I couldn’t find anything relevant about the company on google (just meaningless corporate speak). So in my case, it was great!

      (And my boss really loooooves to ramble… I think he was actually being succinct in the interview!)

  17. Anonymous*

    The question I would LIKE to be asked is: We’re going to call Manager ‘X’ to have a candid, no holds barred, dirt-digging discussion about you. What is your view of Manager ‘X’?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It means, “We’re going to call your old manager to ask for a detailed reference. Before we do, what is your take on that manager?”

        1. Jen in RO*

          Ohhh, I thought the interviewer was going to call (into the room) a manager from NewCompany and that didn’t make any sense! Thank you :)

          1. Anonymous*

            Manager ‘X’ won’t be. If you don’t answer it, how else will you be able to balance the scales? Just sticking to neutral or positive remarks won’t cut it, I’m afraid. We should move towards greater transparency. Tell us with whom you’re going to discuss us, warts and all, so we can at least have a fighting chance to counter the negatives about us with some negatives about Manager ‘X’.

            Also, it’s about time the human resources industry begin influencing hiring managers into recognizing that a potential hiree speaks ill of his/her former/current boss or company might be justified in doing so, and that it does not mean that he/she will do likewise about them without cause.

            1. Elizabeth West*

              YES YES YES. I have so wanted to say something many times about a terrible boss (nothing that wasn’t true, and in a way that didn’t make me seem bitter) but of course you can’t do that.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I actually had a tamer version of this question. I liked my manager and was proud of working with someone who strove to be professional every day.
      When HR called him, they were surprised to find a similar sentiment.

      Here’s the key part- Former manager did not know they were be calling. I was too slow in contacting him and HR beat me to the punch. I told HR this and they were pleased that I could be so confident about what he would say. And he, too, was confident that I had said positive things. I think it helped me to get the job by demonstrating a work relationship that was solid.

      I was lucky that went well. Some bosses the wind blows one way on Monday and another way on Tuesday. You never know what kind of an answer they will give.

  18. College Career Counselor*

    The worst interview question I heard of was when my wife was asked to imagine the department she was interviewing for as a pizza. What part of the pizza would she constitute, and why?

    Given that it was a managerial position, she told them she would be the crust, as it was a manager’s job to support the team in their work. But what a ridiculous way of getting there. “What is your management style and can you provide examples from your past experience” is much better and more specific to the industry.

    She wound up not getting the position, which is unfortunate, because that organization could have used her talents. I mean, they were so half-baked, they couldn’t tell a pizza from a calzone. Ba-dum CHA!

  19. felipe*

    In my last interview, the manager asked me that BS question about my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. Then she asked me for a 5-step plan on how to improve the weakness I specified. It was horrible.

    She also asked me to rate myself on several traits between 1-10 (including the strength and weakness).

    “Between 1 and 10, how good are you at _____?”

    “Between 1 and 10, how much of a risk taker are you?”

    “Between 1 and 10, how much of a team player are you?”

    Every question she asked me was ludicrous because it was all 100% mind games. There was no real attempt to be honest or try to get to know her, or her me. All I could do was try to guess whatever number she *wanted* me to say from the little I knew of her. Against my better judgement, I took the job when it was offered to me. Needless to say, her management style is just as full of BS as her interview questions.

    If there’s anything I learned from reading your great blog, Alison, it’s that I need to be much more aware of what I want as an employee from management/a company and be more willing to turn down offers if the fit is not right.

    1. Lisa*

      At that point I would answer everything with either a decimal or mixed number…just to be irritating.

    2. Sue D. O'Nym*

      I can’t pick a number between 1 and 10 because 10 is the number immediatly following 1.

  20. ThatGirl*

    #2: What’s your biggest weakness?

    Ok, that question really grates on my nerves. I always feel like that question is sort of OK (not really) if you are asking someone new to the work force. I can see that the employer wants to gauge what you think are your areas of concern.

    For those of us who have been working for awhile, I think that question is kind of stupid. Seriously, I’ve been working for 20+ years, so I know what constitutes professional behavior in the work place. Really, I do.

    Also, my greatest weaknesses have absolutely nothing to do with work. I like sweets way too much, I should exercise more and I should watch less cop/crime shows but none of that is applicable to work. *sigh*

    In a past interview when this question came up, I said something along the lines of:
    ‘I strive to be professional and be a professional every day. I arrive to work on time, every day and I strive to give 110% effort to every task/project that I am responsible for.’

    That answer actually went over pretty well because even though I wasn’t offered that job, the HR person contacted about a month later to interview for another position because she had been so impressed with my interview.

    /Monday morning rant about job searching. :-)

    1. Dan*

      You know what? I finally figured out how to ace that question… and I’m not sure it’s a complete waste.

      Every year, my company makes us do a self-evaluation to kick off the review process. These are used as a starting point for managers to do our full review. Our review has a section that asks for areas of improvement. That question sounds way too much like “name your greatest weakness.”

      Well, I told my boss that I prefer to think of the question in terms of “In what areas do you need more professional growth?” (or experience or practice for that matter…) Given that I am a strong performer in my department, I had no problem listing off a litany of things I would like to add to my knowledge base/get better at over the year, without getting into soft skills issues. I was thrilled when the response I got back was: “Dan has captured this area well” without adding to it.

      1. the gold digger*

        Yeah, it seems like they always want a tearful confession of how you have failed your comrades.

        I don’t play that any more, either. Now I say I need to learn SQL.

    1. Dan*

      If I have no job, the answer is, “Whatever you pay.” If I have a job that I’m reasonably happy at, I can’t answer that question without understanding a whole lot more about your company, your benefits package, and your quality of life.

      1. Jessa*

        This. It really does depend on the benefit package and other intangibles like company personality. Seriously. Compensation is not just money darn it. And I will take slightly less money for a killer awesome insurance plan, and maybe flex time or other interesting benefits. Maybe the office has a gym that they allow spouses to use too. Maybe they offer time off to do charity work. I mean how the heck do you answer that without a metric tonne more information than dollar signs.

        I swear before I want to answer that I want to hit them with “compensation is not just money…what else is on the plate?”

  21. Anonymous*

    What bugs me is when interviewers ask the same questions for contract positions. My company’s recruiter will call me up and say Acme needs somebody to do X for six months with the possibility of contract-to-hire if things work out. My mindset is “I know how to do X so I’m confident I can help them out. I guess we’ll both find out if we want to continue the relationship after six months.” It ticks me off when the interviewer starts asking me what kind of tree I am or where I want to be in five years. You’re not willing to commit to me in any way but you still want me to jump through your stupid hoops? The next six months is my interview.

    My current job had the right attitude. They asked me some tech-related questions to probe whether I actually knew what was on my resume and then they hired me on the spot. They said if I live up to my resume, get along with everyone and want to stay, I will be hired when my contract ends (and I was). If my skill level didn’t match my contract, they told me I would be let go immediately which is totally fair. Too many IT contractors bluff their way into jobs and then get paid a small fortune to learn on the job or call their buddies to tell them what to do.

  22. Meg*

    I always hated “what’s your biggest weakness” but I often try to answer it legitimately, but provide insight on what I’m doing to combat it. For example, I said my biggest weakness was staying focused on big projects that had no deadline or deadlines off in the distant future. To counter that, I often set deadlines for parts of it myself. Strict deadlines, because I work better under pressure.

    Definitely hate the “where do you see yourself in 5 years” question.

    And “tell me about yourself” – I typically bring up that I stay active – gym, hiking, rock climbing, surfing, etc – because although it directly doesn’t have anything to do with my job and work background, I like to point out that I’m not likely to get burned out by being behind a computer screen for hours at a time, or experience medical issues associated with it because of my active lifestyle, so longevity in my position is assumed from that perspective. Still hate the question.

    “What would your current manager say about you?” – Well I’d assume they give me a good reference, but I honestly don’t know what they would say about me.

    1. Jamie*

      ITA on tell me about yourself. HATE that question.

      I always gave a work related answer which ended up being covered by later more pointed questions anyway.

      I always wanted to answer, “why don’t you tell me what you want to know?” Never did, though.

      1. Vicki*

        I think “why don’t you tell me what you want to know?” or “Can you give me a hint of where you’re going with this” or “how do you intend to use the answer” or something like that would be a fine response.

        I’ve never been brave enough (or uncautious enough) to ask.

  23. Vicki*

    The worst question I was ever asked:

    4 people are “escaping from zombies” (or whatever). It is night. They have 1 lantern between them. They reach a gorge, spanned by a log bridge. There are crocodiles in the gorge (or at any rate, it’s very deep). They need to cross the gorge before the zombies arrive (cross completely, then destroy the bridge).
    As with all such puzzles, there are various artificial constraints

    The people have 18 minutes before the zombies arrive.
    They must cross the gorge in less than 18 minutes.
    Only two people can be on the bridge at the same time or it will not hold them.
    They need the lantern to cross; they can’t cross in the dark.
    It’s OK to be left alone in the dark on one side or the other.

    The interviewer left the room while I worked on it (having asked me if I wanted any water, and I said yes; he did not return with any). He finally wandered back in once to check on me; I had not solved the puzzle; he left again. Came back some 15 minutes later; thanked me for my time and we were done.

    I should have walked out earlier.

    1. Chaucer*

      Oh that’s easy, you simply kick the other three people in the shins, and run while they become Walker brunch. Wonder what the interviewer would have said to that!

      1. Jamie*

        As I was reading this my answer was shove the other three people into the gorge and take the lantern and book by myself.

        It’s possible that makes both Chaucer and I horrible people – but it’s an effective solution.

        If I was asked that might as well ask me if I were taking finals and looked down to find myself completely naked in class how do I leave the room without dying of shame – then we’d cover both my recurring nightmares.

    2. ThatGirl*

      I would have totally went with:
      2 people should take the lantern to half way on the bridge to hang it on the rope to create a decoy (2 people are needed to keep each person honest). Someone should probably leave a shirt or other item of clothing along side of the lantern (to lure the zombies onto the bridge)

      The other 2 people should be scouting a safe place to hide for all 4 people. Then everyone should hide in the nearby woods.

      The zombies would all go onto the log bridge and fall into the gorge. Problem solved. :-)

      Or not, Zombies aren’t really my thing. I’m pretty sure if the zombie apocalypse happened, I’d be one of the first victims. :-(

      1. Rana*

        “I don’t know anything about zombies, except that they are dead and disgusting. Surely it’s not too hard to escape dead bodies, right? They can’t move.”


        1. Jamie*

          Technically they are the undead…but I have heard that they love bacon.

          So basically they are distracted by the same favorite treat as my dogs…although my dogs are much cuter and less likely to eat my brain after the bacon is gone. :)

  24. Your Mileage May Vary*

    I must be an idiot because I can’t see any way for that to work. The original person would have to carry the lantern back so the next person could cross. My answer would be, “Let me be the first one over and I’ll help them out when I get there.” Then, after I cross…”suckers”…

    1. Vicki*

      My brother-in-law’s response to me was “stop thinking like a problem solver and think like a warrior. No one said the zombies need to survive.”

      Me? After that interview I carried a copy of “How Would You Move Mt Fuji” to every interview until I got a job, hoping to be asked another dumb puzzle question so I could say “I would look it up.”

      Sadly, no one ever asked me one of those again.

        1. ThatGirl*

          Isn’t that just the new age version of:
          A farmer needs to take a fox, a chicken, and some grain across the river in a small boat. He can’t leave the fox with the chicken or the chicken with the grain…


          3 people need to cross a river in a small boat that can only hold 150 pounds. Two people weigh 75 lbs each and one person weighs 150 lbs…

          1. Vicki*

            Yes, but with a LOT more special criteria added to make it weirder.

            Perhaps they assume people have memorized the fox, the farmer, the goose, and the grain.

  25. Lily in NYC*

    My ex had this asked in an interview with a very well-known real estate tycoon in NYC (not trump!):
    Are you Jewish?
    Is your girlfriend Jewish?
    Are you ok with the fact that you have to deal with a lot of *** (incredibly offensive Yiddish term for a minority) in this job?

    Even though we are no longer together, I will always love him for standing up and telling the guy that there is not enough money in the world that would make him work for such a racist a*hole.

  26. Grey*

    The one I hate is, “Tell me about a time you encountered [this very specific problem] and tell me how you handled it”. Who can quickly answer that right off the top of their head? I think it’s a silly way to ask a question and after I usually have to make up an answer.

    Why not just ask, “How do you handle [this specific problem] when you encounter it”?

      1. Grey*

        My problem is when the question is that specific. I could give great answers to each of the questions in your examples, but I have to think about it as I rewind 15 years of job experience in my head. And, the longer it takes me, the more pressure I feel to come up with an immediate answer. I usually end up rolling multiple instances into a somewhat fabricated story, because I don’t like saying “hmmm. Let me think about that for a moment”.

        BTW, I think my favorite interview answer came during a job interview to which I was a half hour late. They asked what my biggest strength was and I answered, “punctuality”. I’d decided to just be myself and roll with a “courtesy interview” without acting too professional since I didn’t think I’d get the job. They thought it was hilarious and I still work for them 3 years later.

  27. OneoftheMichelles*

    Aren’t we all afraid of missing our chance at a job we’d love because our interviewer isn’t very good at interviewing and erroneously knocks us off their list of good candidates?

    What are some effective ways to respond to the most common “bad” interview questions that let everyone in the interview save face? (For example, if you’ve researched the company and spoken to enough employees that you do happen to have a good grasp of the corporate culture/skills required, but it’s Nancy New-Kid’s first week in HR and she’s asking you what’s in your fridge during your interview…)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Honestly, I don’t have a good answer to that because I personally would not sit there and answer those questions, and I’d be so turned off by being asked that that would be the end of it for me. Not only are the questions ridiculous, but they’re an insulting power play too, because that interviewer would almost certainly not be willing to play along if you asked her the same questions!

      I suppose if you want to play along, you can simply tell the truth or make up something innocuous.

      But I wouldn’t worry about being taken off the “good candidate” list because you don’t give the “right” answer to one of these questions. An interviewer who’s going to do that is pretty likely to knock you for some other silly reason too.

  28. Jo*

    I’ve been asked the “What animal are you most like and why?” before and I’ve recently reapplied to the company that asked it,. It’s a clothing company aimed at teens, so I imagine they’re trying to be “cool” and “fun” by throwing these out there to see how we fit with their “image”, but quite honestly I lose my personality in interviews out of nerves. Does anyone have any idea how to answer this “Properly?”

    1. Lisa*

      Well, because I’m 1) a genetics geek, and 2) a smartass, I’d answer with “A chimpanzee, because our genomes are the most similar”.

  29. Magda*

    I was once asked “If you were a part of a bicycle, what part would you be?” This was for a college internship in a United States Senator’s office and pretty much the first big deal interview I had ever had and I was completely baffled by it. I stalled and stalled and finally said the chain because I like to keep moving.

  30. Elizabeth West*

    My worst questions:
    “Are you married?”
    “Do you have kids?” (same interviewer)
    “What church do you go to? Because we have prayer meetings every Wednesday in the office.”
    “If you were an ice cream flavor what would you be?” (asked in a group interview)


    1. bearcat*

      Geez…what church do you go to? Hate this question so much. Faith or lack there of is completely private.

  31. Anonymous*

    my current supervisor asked me, how I make a peanut butter sandwich. This has absolutely nothing to do with my current job nor can I figure out anyway to equate this to my job.

    1. Vicki*

      I took a class on “training the trainers” and the instructor uses the Peanut Butter Sandwich thing as an exercise in how to write a good training exercise. It’s also good for How to write a how-to (so tech writers need it) and excellent for how to write a good bug report (the steps to reproduce the bug).

      If you’re not an engineer/developer (bug report), IT staff (ditto), trainer, or tech writer, it probably falls into the Very Large classification of “she heard it somewhere and has no idea how to analyze the response.”

    2. Lisa*

      I remember getting this question in high school Chem class, and I think I “failed” it because of something dumb like I forgot to open the cupboard or take the jar off the lid. I thought it was a stupid question then, too…

  32. Greg*

    Thank you so much for these! I have been inveighing against the “weakness” question for years. My advice to job seekers is to come up with a plausible answer, memorize it, and then judge any organization that asks it of you.

    The salary history one drives me crazy, too. I’ve had that happen multiple times where we talked desired salary ranges, agreed we were both in the same ballpark, and then they said, “And what are you currently making?” One time I tried to take a stand and refuse to disclose it, and the HR rep seemed to get offended (I didn’t make it past the phone screen, though to be fair I probably could have phrased my response a little better). Still, it’s basically saying, “OK, we agree that we’re close enough on salary to keep talking. Now start negotiating against yourself by throwing out a lower number.”

    1. Vicki*

      I almost hope someone will ask me the “weakness” question. My planned response is “chocolate-glazed donuts”.

      1. Greg*

        This is one of those “probably apocryphal but man, I’d love to think it’s true” stories, but someone told me about a candidate who was asked the weakness question, and mumbled something about inability to delegate or some such cliche. The interviewer said, “That’s the same BS answer everyone gives.” To which the candidate replied, “That’s the same BS question everyone asks.”

  33. Vicki*

    I commented over on the article page. Repeating here:

    That’s i a great article for interviewers, to tell them what not to do. But what about the interviewees?

    How should we respond? We can’t just quote from this article about why the question was a bad one to ask!

    Alison – I’de love to see a followup blog post with recommendations for how _you_ would respond (or suggest we respond) to those 7 questions!

  34. bearcat*

    “what are you really good at?”

    The interview was going badly and I didn’t think the company was a good fit so my answer: Dance Dance Revolution

    And he laughs.

    And I deadpan, “Yes, I’ve won several gold metals in competitions (which I have).”

    He’s incredulous and says, “There are competitions for video games?”

    Yes, dude. There are. Lots.

    1. bearcat*

      And they offered me the job on the contention that I DDR in front of the whole office…



  35. Anonymous*

    Worst: why would you care if someone else in the (nonprofit) organization was embezzling money?

    Yeah, right…

  36. Beth*

    I just came back from a day of interviews on site at a major company, for a mid-career position. I was so thrilled that they didn’t ask ANY of these standard questions! Somehow in an informal moment the issue came up and the hiring manager said she never asks things like, “what’s your greatest weakness?” because the responses are generally meaningless. Everyone comes to the interviews with rehearsed responses. Yes!

    The questions I got were related to the tasks of the job for which I was applying, and details of my previous experience. It was really comfortable because it felt like a real back and forth conversation, although of course I was still being assessed based on my responses. I didn’t feel like we were wasting our time. I think this may be the first time I have ever interviewed with a company and not been asked even one question like the ones listed here, and it really contributed to a good impression of the company and its executives.

  37. Anon*

    I am not a fan of the “where do you see yourself in five years,” question, by any means.

    I was asked during a phone interview with an education company and after answering with what I believed to be a correct answer (a mix of, I want to work with your company and I’d like to see myself move up) I was unceremoniously given the brush off.

    I got the feeling this guy got nervous that I was gunning for his job or something. I’ve never had a person end a phone conversation so fast. Needless to say it did not make me feel confident in my job search or my ability to come off well in interviews.

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