my company asks personal, invasive questions about your childhood and adolescence

A reader writes:

I’ve been working for the past three years at a large global organization. After three interviews, I was brought on board for a one-year trial period, a common situation for junior staff, and I was recommended to go through the formal hiring process at the end of that first year.

Thus began a series of additional interviews, all of which had more to do with my childhood rather than my qualifications for the job. I was 24 years old at the time, and working in a program coordinator position.

The first interview was positioned as a coaching interview, because the hiring process is so bizarre that candidates are unlikely to pass without significant help. My teammates invited me to talk about moments I had a “new idea,” rehash the organizational philosophy, and talk about my family’s values. I was told to avoid the “we” pronoun, even if I was working as part of a team, and to throw in some key terms where I could.

In later interviews, questions ranged from “Tell me about your life history, starting when you were young” to “Who was the biggest influence on you when growing up and how?” to “What did your parents do?” and “What did you talk about as a family?” Not once did the interviewers ask about my recent job experience or the work I was performing at this organization; they were more interested in what my family discussed around the dinner table growing up.

Here’s the rationale, as I understand it: The organization reveres creativity and initiative, and the organization believes showing those traits as a kid indicates a natural leadership that makes you a great fit for the company culture. And this is an organization that loves thinking about culture; they seek employees who are lifelong and obsessive problem-solvers, even if their role is relatively straightforward or expertise-based (e.g., write tweets, organize the tax audit). The hiring committee bases their decision on more than just anecdotes from your childhood and early life, but that’s certainly a serious factor.

All told, this process took about three months, and included six people on my team, two random employees from other departments, and three high-ranking leadership members.

I was ultimately hired, but, as I watch newer colleagues struggle with this same process, I can’t quite get it out of my head. The process made me feel frustrated, demoralized, and devalued — as if my qualifications and ability to do the job were less important than whether my life story fit into this arbitrary box.

On one hand, it’s flattering to feel like the interviewer wants to get to know you as a person and cares how you see the world. On the other hand, I feel like my experience as an eight-year-old should have very little bearing on whether or not I’d be a high performer, a good colleague, or dedicated employee. I understand the need to assess cultural fit, but it strikes me that it should be a secondary or tertiary concern rather than the primary criteria. Right?

What’s your take? Am I wildly off-base? I love my teammates, but this part of our organization makes me feel queasy. I’m getting ready to move on from the organization, and so I’m asking partly because I’m dreading the interview process for my next job. This was my first salaried job after college, and I feel like I have such a skewed perspective of the hiring process in general!

Nooooo. It’s not normal for an interview to delve into your childhood and adolescence, let alone for an employer to have a series of interviews about it. It’s more what I’d imagine for an induction into a cult.

There are so many problems with doing this:

* It’s incredibly invasive. It’s likely to turn off good candidates who value their privacy or who recognize ineffective interviewing, as well as people who had difficult or unhappy childhoods and don’t care to discuss it at work.

* It’s psychologically unsound. Your employer’s premise seems to be that people don’t triumph over difficult childhoods, or change dramatically once out of their teens, or even benefit and grow from less-than-ideal circumstances in their lives. All of that is ridiculous and demonstrably untrue.

* It’s hugely biased against people from non-traditional or disadvantaged backgrounds. Are they not going to hire anyone who grew up with a single parent who who had to work most of the time? What about someone who grew up in foster care? What about the child of alcoholics who didn’t often make it to the dinner table? What about someone whose childhood was marked by sexual abuse and really doesn’t want to talk about it?

* It ensures that the company will end up with a relatively homogeneous workforce, rather than getting the benefit of a staff with a whole range of experiences and backgrounds.

And on top of all that, it’s not even the simplest path to assessing what they want to know. If they want to suss out candidates who are creative, take initiative, and are obsessive problem-solvers, it would be far more straightforward to look for evidence of these things in their adult lives and work histories, by using interview questions that probe into how they’ve used those traits at work and what they’ve achieved with them and by giving work simulations designed to assess those things. It really doesn’t require asking what your parents did for a living.

Plus, I’ve got to think that they’re getting lots of false positives — people whose childhoods check the “right” boxes in the interviews, but whose actual work doesn’t show the traits they’re looking for … since they’re apparently not bothering to spend much time probing into what people are really like now, as opposed to decades ago.

You’re right to feel queasy about it. The good news, though, is that it’s very unlikely that you need to worry about encountering this when you start interviewing for a new job. This is so Not Normal that it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever encounter it again. So yay for that.

{ 506 comments… read them below }

    1. CanadianKat*

      I kept expecting to read that this was for a job involving children, and the interviewers wanted to see how experiences from your childhood would affect your interactions with kids. Doesn’t look like this applies though, so they’re just crazy.

      I would have no hesitation lying about anything I wanted to hide from my childhood, and making up pretty stories. How would they know, and how is it any of their business?

      1. One of the Sarahs*

        But one’s own childhood experiences don’t necessarily affect our interactions with other kids! Watching candidates run a session with kids might, but the standard interview questions are probably the most efficient (though obviously not foolproof) ways to find that out.

  1. Some Sort of Management Consultant*

    I’m… Trying to understand what kind of organizational would do thud but I’m failing.

      1. Honeybee*

        OMG I just read the description for this book and it sounds amazing! It’s going on the List!

      2. Sarah*

        I didn’t love it, actually. It was so heavy on the millenial-bashing I gave up about halfway through. It was otherwise pretty compelling though, and it was a shame I couldn’t finish it due to my eyes rolling so hard they actually fell out of my head.

      3. Vicki*

        I went over to World’s Biggest Bookstore and read the first few pages. You didn’t say it as a horror genre book!


      4. Ron Skurat*

        It probably is in tech – I recently bailed on a series of interviews with a tech company for exactly this reason. Some cabal of poorly socialized upper management had ‘designed’ if-that’s-the-word a bizarre set of activities & questions that were so inane I just cancelled after the second interview. I probably burned a bridge, since I wasn’t even slightly diplomatic about it, but the stupidity of tech management has become so legendary I thought they should have a small taste of reality-testing.

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      One that believes by making the interview process so complicated and mystical that it requires coaching, that their selection approach must be good.

      See also: the movie Inception

      1. Kyrielle*

        I find it hilarious that they *do* coach, which is also going to partially invalidate what they’re looking for. How very bizarre.

      2. Cambridge Comma*

        The coaching is needed because imagine you are in an interview and people suddenly ask you about your childhood. In the moment, would you be able to respond with much more than mystification?

        1. Kyrielle*

          Well, yes, but if you wanted to invent an elaborate fiction you are also now warned to do so….

          Of course, I’d use that warning and opportunity to nope right out of there, as someone else so eloquently said elsewhere in the comments. (Or maybe I’d go through the interview process as best I could while job searching elsewhere, since not losing my paycheck due to declining immediately might matter to me. Ugh. Now I’m imagining being stuck in that spot!)

          I had a good childhood. I have a lousy memory, my parents are deceased which means I’d probably be trying not to get misty-eyed and sad, and in any case this is such a ridiculous circus that just…no.

          1. Some Sort of Management Consultant*

            Haha, yeah, gosh.
            My twin DOES NOT remember very much at all about our childhood.
            He remembers broad concepts like what schools we went to, where we went for vacation, etc but no details. Everything was just good, you know?

            It drives me nuts that I can say something along the lines of “oh, do you remember this show we used to watch?” and he never has any clue.

            I can just imagine how he would perform in an interview like this!

            1. Sydney Bristow*

              My memory is very similar to your twin’s. I’d be pretty awful at this kind of interview if they were looking for any specifics.

        2. Stranger than fiction*

          And I doubt the coaching involves which type of childhood they consider acceptable, which professions of your parents, what’s considered good diner conversation, etc. this whole thing is so bizarre.

      3. Some Sort of Management Consultant*

        Haha! Interview-inception. Really taking it to the next level…!

      4. Sunshine*

        Yes! And this is after they’ve already been there a year?? What in the name of Moses….

    2. Florida*

      There are a lot of armchair psychologists in the world. I mean a lot of them. These people imagine that they are better reading other, that they understand people’s inner thoughts much better than they actually do, and that the reason you can’t do this is because you don’t have their special gift.

      When those types of people are put in charge of hiring, they come up with nonsense like “Tell me about your childhood.” The person who came up with this honestly believes that they can glean special information from these questions. In their crazy mind, the reason you can’t glean this information is because you just aren’t as good at reading people as the armchair psychologist is.

      These people make me want to puke.

      1. Ron Skurat*

        Their explanation would probably be “I read this really cool book last year” and it would turn out they spend lots of time & money in the self-help section.

    3. Mike S.*

      While I’m sure you meant to type “would do this” instead of “would do thud”, honestly the “thud” seems rather appropriate.

  2. Bend & Snap*

    I balked at giving my SSN for a background check…no fricking way would I answer these types of questions. YIKES.

    1. Jadelyn*

      Do you mind if I ask why regarding the SSN? I ask because I work for a financial institution that, due to regulatory standards, is required to run a full criminal and credit background check on new hires before they start, and we’ve had a couple candidates who’ve had similar responses to being asked to fill out the background check authorization form, so I’d like to try to understand the reasoning behind it – maybe there’s something in the way we’re presenting it that’s coming off badly, or something. I’ve basically shrugged it off in the past as a case of, since we have to have that SSN in order to do the background check, if they’re not comfortable with it they’re basically refusing a background check, which means this wouldn’t be a good fit anyway. But if there’s something more there I’d really like to understand that better.

      1. Mike C.*

        Because we can’t trust you or any other employer to treat that private information with the respect it deserves.

        1. Bend & Snap*

          This, and they required it in the application, not once I had an offer. They wouldn’t let me get away with 000-00-0000 instead. Who knows where an online application goes, where it’s stored, how long it’s available, what the company’s security is like, what the scruples of people processing applications are like, whether people shred printed applications, etc etc etc.

          The background check required 7 years of W2s which was insane, + criminal, employment, education check and a drug test.

          I do not work in a financial role.

          I did ultimately authorize the check and got the job.

              1. OhNo*

                Wait, you mean they required all that and didn’t require a cavity search?

                Not being very thorough, are they?

        1. Jennifer Brooks*

          Considering you won’t get paid if they don’t have the SSN, I should *hope* you don’t mind giving it out then. ;)

          And yeah, I’m the same. Nobody gets my SSN before we’ve even interviewed. I do a lot of contract work thru agencies, and the recruiters get aggressive about it. And then I get really stubborn. They don’t need it before they set me up with an interview, either. The client might want it for a background check (I work in banks a lot), and the agency will need it to pay me, but there’s no way they need it during the first phone call or email exchange.

          And if that causes me to not get work thru that agency, my heart is not broken, because I don’t want to work for a company with crappy or rude recruiters.

      2. BananaPants*

        I’ll let an employer do a background check when we have an agreed-upon written job offer, and no sooner. I can’t trust your financial institution to protect my private information. Frankly, I’ll walk if a company wants my SSN at the application stage.

        Also, maybe your candidates balk at the credit check for fear that if they have a late payment or an account in collections or a bankruptcy on their record, it will disqualify them – so why bother going through the interview process and wasting everyone’s time if they’ll be rejected anyways? Those credit bureaus have done a splendid job of convincing employers that a person who’s “responsible” with money (i.e. is in debt in order to have a credit score in the first place) will be a more responsible and trustworthy employee.

      3. NoWhiteFlag*

        Mike C. Is correct. We don’t trust your organization to keep our records secure. Your organization does not need the information to interview me. If an offer is made, I will supply you with that information so a background check can be made. Otherwise, it is just a matter of convenience for your organization. It puts my information at risk and that is a high price for convenience.

    2. FriendofaTG*

      Giving out your SSN when they are ready to do the background check, or when they hire you for tax purposes, yes. Giving it out on the initial application before they even interview you, especially if it’s on the front page or over an unsecure connection, I’d hesitate for identity theft reasons (if possible I’d put down that I’ll provide it when necessary, but not until then).

      1. Mabel*

        I agree. I never provide my SSN unless I absolutely have to. Sometimes even a doctor’s office will ask for this (!?), and I just leave it blank. They don’t need it, and if they do, they can explain their reasons to me.

        1. Erica*

          Doctors Offices usually need it in case of a billing issue. If insurance does not pay, and you are sent a bill and refuse to pay, it’s easier to put it on your credit if they have your SSN. It’s not impossible if they do not, but i think if you dispute it on the credit report and they only have a name or something it’s a lot easier to come off and the doctor office loses the money.

          1. OhNo*

            Huh, for some reason I thought medical debt couldn’t go on your credit report/score… Maybe I got that wrong.

              1. OhNo*

                Ah, I figured out the source of my confusion. Apparently medical offices don’t (usually) ding your credit report directly, but their collection agencies almost definitely will. So if you keep the bill with the medical office you’re more likely to avoid the credit score issues.

                Thank goodness for Google!

              2. MsChanandlerBong*

                Yeah. My credit score is in the toilet because of medical debt. The hospital I used got bought by a for-profit org and would not continue making payment arrangements that lasted more than 12 months. That was okay with $500 bills, but not with the $4,500 bill I had after one of my surgeries.

          2. Lisa*

            Nope you don’t have to give it. At least in Washington. Laws may vary in other states. I asked once why it was on the form and she just said it was always there and no one has bothered to change it. I always leave it blank and it’s never been a problem.

            1. Meg Murry*

              Yes, back before there were laws preventing using your SSN as an ID number and many companies switched away from using them, often your ID number with the insurance company was the SSN of the person carrying the insurance. Lots of places used to use SSN as an ID number, including employers, colleges, etc.

              My doctor’s office still has it on the form as “SSN of the policy holder” and when I asked the receptionist/billing office she said they very rarely but occasionally do wind up needing it to verify insurance if something gets messed up like the ID number gets recorded wrong, but that just putting down the last 4 digits is usually sufficient.

          3. A Non*

            I usually leave it blank and let the receptionist know that my insurance company doesn’t usually ask for it and I’ll provide it if they do. It’s never been a problem yet. (I’m also in Washington state, YMMV.)

      2. Meg Murry*

        Yes, this. If you presented me with the background check form after an interview or two and gave me a conditional offer and explained to me what the background check involved, I’d be much more likely to fill it out. When it’s presented early in the process, I’m less likely to be willing to sign or fill out the SSN part – because you don’t really need that info yet.

        I’m interpreting Bend and Snap’s use of the word “balked” to mean – “I didn’t want to and I asked if it was necessary for the background check, but was willing to give it when it was explained to me” – not as “I absolutely refused” to give my SSN, period.

        I also have questioned it before because sometimes it seems like the application is just a super generic form they haven’t updated in 15 years and SSN is just a blank that isn’t used anymore – so there is no need to fill it in anymore.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Oh yes, I’ve seen many applications that still have it–and they obviously haven’t been updated in forever.
          The county here still asks you to fill out a paper app and it still has that box on it. I HATE writing my SSN on a paper app that could be left on someone’s desk for anyone to rifle through!

      3. Elysian*

        A bunch of my insurance things use my SS# as my id number and don’t give me a card (not my medical, but my dental and vision, for example). So I kind of need to give it to get benefits.

    3. Jso*

      Working in HR, I know that we would not hire a person who could not successfully pass a background check. So if you fail to provide your SSN, you are declining the job.

      1. OlympiasEpiriot*

        Why would not providing a SSN at the very beginning, before even an interview, prevent a background check? You’re not going to waste your company’s money running background checks on every applicant, are you?

        1. fposte*

          Yup. I hire, and that’s not a fair trade at the applicant level–you get valuable PII with no guarantee of security and they get a 1 in 100 chance of a job? Just to save you asking fewer people at a later stage? That’s an unnecessary unfairness.

      2. Here, kitty, kitty...*

        From the other side of things, I would not want to work for a company that devalues employee security in this way – assuming you mean applicants’ refusing to divulge their SSN during the application process. If you are referring to the post-interview, background-check portion of the process, then I agree.

  3. Jessen*

    “Yeah, I spent years 6-8 in a deep suicidal depression and nearly killed myself because of mismanaged medication.” I wonder what they’d make of that.

    1. Leatherwings*

      I’m imagining someone saying “I developed an eating disorder because of my parents’ intense insistence on my perfectionism”
      or “I was terrified all the time because I was in the closet and afraid I’d get kicked out of the house if my dad found out”

      It’s totally inappropriate to base an employment decision based on how these experiences line up with the “ideal” childhood creativity they’re talking about, so asking about it is inherently gross.

      1. A. Nonny Mouse*

        Or even just, “My parents and I didn’t really talk to each other much. They felt children should be seen and not heard.”

      2. all aboard the anon train*

        Even just the question “What did your parents do?” is strange because it’s not like a candidate’s parents job has anything to do with a candidate’s creativity. Not to mention it’s just a really weird question. Would you disqualify someone based on what their parents did for work? Why is it even relevant???

        1. Pwyll*

          True story: I was once asked this question in an interview and responded, truthfully, that my parents both have physical disabilities that prevented them from working. Interview said, “Oh come on, everyone can do something productive.”

          You know, as if it was my fault I didn’t force my parents to go work when I was 7 years old or something.

          1. Jadelyn*

            …I honestly might have literally walked out of that interview. I have zero interest in working with anyone who has such a gross attitude toward disability and disabled people. What the actual hell.

            1. OhNo*

              As a disabled person, I definitely would have walked out of that interview. Who thinks that is an okay thing to say, especially to someone who has identified themselves as having disabled family members?

              At least they showed you what kind of people they’d be to work for up front, I guess.

            2. Pwyll*

              I sorta did walk out, though it wasn’t as satisfying as it might sound. But I was also 17 and still caring for my parents, and I rationalized the whole scenario as “This isn’t the right fit so I’ll find somewhere else” not at all realizing how insane the interviewer was until later in my career. This was also a call center, so they weren’t exactly aiming for the sky in their candidates either, and effectively told me that if I was intending to go to college that they wouldn’t hire me.

          2. Jaydee*

            Wow. That is…wow. I mean, I believe it’s true that almost everyone can do something productive. I mean, that’s a big component of a lot of disability rights advocacy. But “something productive” is a broad category and does not consist solely of working for a wage. That interviewer. I’m just going to stick with “wow” as the best response to this. Wow.

            1. JessaB*

              Yeh some days for some people, “something productive,” is getting out of bed and making and eating a sandwich. I’ve had those days.

            2. Mander*

              And not to mention the fact that some employers will find sneaky ways to not hire people who need an accommodation. It’s illegal, sure, but it can be so hard to prove. I have heard a lot of horror stories here in the UK.

          3. Salyan*

            That… is stupid. My dad has epilepsy, and the stress of a regular shop (he’s a mechanic) can bring on seizures. So he’s never worked a ‘real’ job in my life. However, he’s always out in his shop fixing things for people, or working on projects, or fixing up the house – I don’t know anyone who works harder. Just because you can’t ‘work’ doesn’t mean you’re not productive.

          4. Fafaflunkie*

            Really? As soon as that interviewer responded the way they did, it would be an instanteous “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ll fit in with your company’s culture,” and head straight for the exit. Seriously, as if you’d have any way to convince your parents to find a job in their condition as a child? That’s just mind-boggling.

        2. DoDah*

          I was asked this also. The VP then shared that his parents were Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who summered in the Hamptons. So maybe it was a “who comes from better stock” thing?

            1. Leatherwings*

              hahahaha! Yeah, bragging about your kids being smart and successful is cute. Bragging about your parents about be smart and successful while wearing boat shoes and salmon shorts and eating fancy seafood in the richest summer region in the country is not cute.

              1. Real Life Leslie Knope*

                I’m cracking up about “salmon shorts” because my first thought was shorts made out of salmon. Like bacon-pants (shoutout to the Hax-philes). Not salmon colored… which is what you meant, right?

              2. Rebecca in Dallas*

                Haha there used to be a blog or tumblr that was literally called “white boys in salmon shorts.” It is seriously hilarious, that’s all it is. Pictures of white boys in their Vineyard Vines “Nantucket Red” shorts. Because that is the actual name of the color.

                I was the working-class kid who went to school with the types who “summer” places and I don’t want to re-live that.

            2. OriginalYup*

              If ever asked where I summer, I intend to reply, “The same place I winter, spring, and fall.”

              1. Kelly L.*

                “I don’t summer. I do, however, fall a lot. Down, that is. Usually after tripping over my own left foot.”

            3. Bend & Snap*

              I would be totally down with that if the job paid enough that I could also summer somewhere wonderful.

        3. MnGreeneyes*

          I wonder if in my case that would fall under a protected question. My dad is/was a Lutheran minister and my mom taught Lutheran school. Isn’t there something about not asking about one’s religion?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Nope, legal to ask about religion (see my comment below); they just can’t make hiring decisions based on it so it’s really stupid for them to ask. But in this case, they wouldn’t even be asking about it; they’d ask a non-religious question that happened to elicit a response that referenced religion, which isn’t typically a big deal.

          2. Liane*

            It is legal (in USA) to ASK questions where answers might indicate whether you belong to protected classes like religion, race, and marital status; what is illegal is using belonging to a protected class in hiring decisions. Therefore most employers won’t ask such questions to avoid even the appearance of biased hiring practices.

            1. neverjaunty*

              We all ‘belong to a protected class’ (with very few exceptions, like disability). It is not the case that only certain races, religions, etc. are entitled to legal protections.

        4. RVA Cat*

          I can imagine them rejecting A) a man abandoned by his foreign father, raised by an eccentric single mother and his grandparents until he moved abroad with his stepfather, and B) woman who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, daughter of city water plant worker and a catalog secretary. (somehow Barack & Michelle Obama turned out okay…)

          1. Dot Warner*

            Or a guy whose father died when he was a baby and had to save his mother from being beaten by his stepfather.

        5. BananaPants*

          The pessimist in me says it’s because they want to hire people like them – so they want the guy who says that Daddy went to his job as a partner at a law firm and Mommy spent her days at the club and Junior League…if your dad was a postal carrier or your (single) mom a nurse’s aide, you’re probably not up to par in terms of socioeconomic status.

          Again, I’m a pessimist.

          1. Hlyssande*

            That’s honestly what I was thinking. It sounds like these ridiculously invasive questions are a way to weed out anyone and everyone who isn’t like them… or to screen for people they can take advantage of. Or both.

            1. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

              Ooh, I hadn’t considered the second possibility. I once worked for a place that tended to hire the desperate – two of my coworkers had recently been homeless, and most were either recent college grads or otherwise in sticky situations. The owner was a manipulative, gaslighting sleaze who’d go on at length about how ethical he was and how every other business out there was a big soulless evil corporation, not pay people for weeks, and then tell people when they quit in disgust that he was doing them a favor because they’d never get a job anywhere else. So there are places that screen for people who probably won’t stand up for themselves or kick up a fuss about illegal shenanigans.

        6. One of the Sarahs*

          A friend used to do crop picking in school & uni holidays to make cash. Giving her a lift home one day, the boss asked what her dad did – worked for the tax office, as did her stepmum, who was in charge of a big department. And her mum? In a bank, but used to work in the tax office too. Boss obviously freaked out about all the dodgy things he was doing, because as he dropped her off, he told her there was no more work… So I guess in *that* kind of scenario, it kind of might make sense to a boss?

          (The follow-up? She told her mum she was fired, who immediately jumped to the conclusion he had something to hide, asked a few more questions, and reported him for full investigation, based on all the red flags!)

        7. OP*

          Hi, there! Original poster here – and so grateful for the commiseration among all the commenters. Just seeing a bunch of these comments focusing on the “parent employment status” aspect of Alison’s reply, and I wanted to clarify that the interviews aren’t actually focused on what the parents do.

          I threw out a couple of examples, which happened to focus on the parents, but in general the questions are much more along the lines of, “What’s an example of a time you took initiative as a child? That you saw a problem and tried to solve it?” It’s still weird – and still pretty icky – but that particular line of questioning has less to do with whether a parent works or not, whether they’re a single mom or not, etc. The bigger problem, as Alison and some commenters have pointed out, is the assumption that You Shall be Creative or You Shall Not Belong. It’s a pretty Western, privileged lens, which looks for examples of individual enterprise, without taking into account that lots of kids (and adults) don’t have the same ability to play, take risks, and talk back that others do — or it runs the risk of taking advantage of hardship in a way that feels voyeuristic or judgmental rather than compassionate.

          1. OlympiasEpiriot*

            I think most of us assumed this was just one of many invasive and actually useless topics. It did strike a nerve in many, though.

            Also, unless they are specifically looking for people who – in the brain stem/lizard brain – are good at bucking authority in covert and overt ways, the ‘taking initiative as a child’ is not something I would think a company wants to know about. Does the coaching talk about what kind of initiative? Is it more lemonade stands or leading a class rebellion against a bullying teacher? Sticking up for someone unpopular? What? The situations available for showing leadership in childhood tend to be potentially fraught, unless we’re talking about Scouts here, or some other structured environment.

            1. Rainbows and Bunnies*

              “What’s an example of a time you took initiative as a child? That you saw a problem and tried to solve it?”

              I packed a runaway bag and planned my escape. Does that count?

              I would find it so upsetting to have to talk about my childhood with people at work. Unbelievable.

          2. Collarbone High*

            “That you saw a problem and tried to solve it?”

            Well, I saw my little sister eating my coveted Crayola chapsticks, so I cried and tattled …

          3. Honeybee*

            And the fact that every team needs individual enterprise AND collaborative kinds of people. Teams function better with diversity; there are so many studies coming out that show that.

        8. Honeybee*

          My first inclination was to think it’s a class/socioeconomic status check. Saying “my dad was a banker and my mother was a physician” conveys something different from “my dad was a bus driver and my mother was a child care worker.”

            1. Anna the Accounting Grad*

              And you routinely get into debates over sparrows and coconuts. Your home town sounds like a silly place.

      3. DaisyGrrl*

        The details of my life are quite inconsequential… very well, where do I begin? My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a fifteen year old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet. My father would womanize, he would drink. He would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark. Sometimes he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy. The sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament. My childhood was typical. Summers in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we’d make meat helmets. When I was insolent I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds- pretty standard really. At the age of twelve I received my first scribe. At the age of fourteen a Zoroastrian named Vilma ritualistically shaved my testicles. There really is nothing like a shorn scrotum… it’s breathtaking – I highly suggest you try it.

          1. OlympiasEpiriot*

            Ah. Nvrmnd. It already is one. One I did not see. Also, one with an aesthetic that is completely different from what I was imagining.

          1. Grey*

            Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

            I was curious too, so I googled, “Zoroastrian named Vilma”.

          2. DaisyGrrl*

            It’s a quote from Austin Powers (Dr. Evil is recounting his childhood to his son, iirc).

            1. CM*

              Ohh, I thought you were just a genius who invented that on the spot, and was incredibly impressed. (Not that you’re not a genius. I just can’t tell from this.)

        1. Elizabeth West*

          LOL brilliant!
          I would love to do something like this. I hope if I’m ever job hunting again that I get an interview like the OP’s just so I can.

      4. Marillenbaum*

        Just go full Batman: “My parents, Thomas and Martha, were kind, loving, philanthropic people who valued the arts. They took me to the opera with them, but were tragically gunned down in a mugging, leaving me in the care of our loyal butler, Alfred…”

    2. Anon for This*

      1. I came from a long line of abusive alcoholics. I started drinking when I was still in diapers. Being hit and hurt was a daily occurrence.
      2. I was bullied by everyone at school until I hit puberty and it took me years to figure out the difference between being loved and being wanted.
      3. I was suicidal by the time I was in 4th grade.
      4. I was in a cult as a teenager and quite the little felon.
      5. I had a horrible eating disorder and at one point would have rather died than be size I am today.

      I have turned my life around through lots of therapy and 12-step programs. Exactly none of that has anything to do with my professional life or my creativity (although it helps you spot the antisocial personalities pretty fast). I cannot even imagine what they would have to say about me but I don’t think I’d get the job.

      1. KM110*

        As someone who has been in and out of therapy and in 12 step programs herself, I commend your progress and success. You’ve come a long way. Keep up the great work!

      2. Anna*

        “Too depressing. Not cultural fit.”

        Ugh. I really want to know which global organization this is.

      3. Anonymous for this*

        Hah, yes to the bit about now being able to spot certain types of abusers at 100 yards. “I have a lifetime of experience in a dysfunctional environment. I can appease difficult tempers, figure out back channels to get things done, say what people want to hear and then go right back to doing what I’d planned, be whatever anyone wants me to be, and accept a low wage and horrible treatment in return. I’d be a perfect fit for your company.”

        1. Jerry Blank*

          This! I know exactly what to say to each personality type to appease their anger and avoid getting hit. I can suppress my personality to the point where I poop blood from the stress of doing so. Do I have the job? I really need the health insurance.

      4. neverjaunty*

        All the kudos to you for turning your life around. And anyone who would deliberately dig into those things in a job interview is a garbage person.

    3. Interviewer*

      “My parents live in a world of denial and avoid conflict like the plague. As a result, I spent my childhood sticking to mundane topics of discussion, keeping it light and amusing. To this day, we never discuss anything profound or philosophical or significant. Occasionally we talk about our feelings around a tragic event, but at the first sign of emotion, everyone retreats. So, what are the benefits like around here?”

      1. Mabel*

        When I hear some of my friends talk to their parents, I’m astonished at how personal some of the conversations are. In my experience, that’s not the kind of conversation you have with parents! To be honest, I’m jealous that they can have that kind of closeness with their parents.

        1. Amadeo*

          My sister ran into this with her husband and his family. Ours is very open and we talk to each other fairly often. There aren’t many secrets though we don’t tend to overshare. My BIL’s family doesn’t talk about anything. And I think it was kind of a shock to him how much we talk to each other and probably even bothered him at first when he was within earshot while I was talking to my sister. My sister and my mother are probably the two people I share the most with.

          1. Anonymous for this*

            My sibling recently came out to our extended family via email. Apparently our cousins and their parents sat down and talked about it as a family. We’re over here going wait, people actually do that? Discuss things openly instead of in a series of tense, carefully managed private conversations? That sounds fake but okay.

            1. Amadeo*

              I suppose I have the blessing of a very loving, very close knit immediate family. My dad doesn’t talk much (strong silent type you know; must maintain manly veneer) but the rest of us (me, mom, sis, bro) tend to gather in the kitchen at Mom and Dad’s and that’s where we just talk without even having to arrange it.

              1. Amadeo*

                Well, manly veneer or fur-covered marshmallow defensive facade, we haven’t decided.

                1. Marillenbaum*

                  This makes me think of my dad: he tries super-hard to be all “manly” and silent, but he will also pause a romantic movie right after the last-minute crisis to ask if it ends “the right way”, because he did not invest emotionally in these characters for them not to end up happy together! It’s really adorable.

            2. OhNo*

              “Sounds fake, but okay” used to be pretty much my response whenever anyone talked about their family. It took until college for me to realize that there were people out there whose parents actually cared about them and weren’t just pretending for appearance’s sake. What an eye-opener that was!

              1. Amadeo*

                See, it’s the other side of the spectrum for me. I never truly didn’t believe people who talked about their horrible parents/grandparents/family but it was so incredibly difficult for me to understand how anyone could be so hateful to their kids. My parents always tried to treat the three of us fairly and lovingly even though no one’s totally perfect. Dad’s a horrible roommate, by the way, I have to hide my cheese or he’ll eat it all.

                1. Honeybee*

                  Me too. I used to belong to a wedding planning community and people would talk about disinviting their parents to their weddings. I was horrified – how could anyone not invite their own damn parents to their wedding?! Oh no!! And then I realized that some parents are really that awful, that they deserve not only to not come to the wedding but also to be the subject of a restraining order.

              2. Dynamic Beige*

                I thought the opposite. I thought that everyone else had “normal” parents who cared about them. It was kind of a relief to know that it wasn’t just me.

              3. Windchime*

                I felt extremely uncomfortable at some of my friends’ homes when I was a kid, because their interactions felt so fake and weird to me. Moms hugging kids and saying “I love you” — what kind of fake crap is THAT!?? It wasn’t until I got older that I realized lots of families were super nice to each other like this, and it was just my family where people screamed at each other and fought and threw things and were contemptuous.

    4. Regular poster going anon*

      *trigger warning for s*x assault*

      Well, my mother was a drug dealer and my father molested me from birth until I got to be “too old” at age 12. He then sold me to over to a family friend who took his turn for the next 4 years and married me. When I was 16 my husband murdered a teenage girl and claimed in court that I wasn’t satisfying him enough and he had to look elsewhere. I got sued by the girl’s family because I was married to him and they sued him. Then I ended up homeless for 2 years until I was 18.

      I would love to see the expressions on their faces after hearing about my childhood.

      1. Minion*

        Wow. Your comment literally made me cry. I’m so sorry that happened to you. I don’t know what else I could even say.
        I started reading these comments kind of snickering at the ideas of what to say to the interviewers, then I read this and it really made me upset and angry to think of someone feeling that they had to share something this personal with an interviewer. I wish OP could make them understand how horrible this type of questioning is. Obviously, it’s not OP’s job to do that, but maybe someone will educate them.
        Again, I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I hope you’re healing now and I wish you success and happiness in your life.

      2. Observer*

        That you are a functioning member of society is a huge deal, and it must have been a huge battle for you. How horrible, and totally something you should not have to share with someone in order to get a job.

        As horrible as your story is, I think that the piece that most stuns me is that the girl’s family sued YOU. Even if they didn’t recognize that you were the victim, how does suing you make any sense in ANY universe? I hope that that suit got tossed out of court.

      3. Dynamic Beige*

        I am so sorry that was the world you were brought into… but I am beyond impressed at how you’ve overcome it. You should write a book because sadly, there are far too many people out there who go through similar things and could use some hope.

        Also, what the actual hell… how can you sue a 16 year old? Let alone one who’s been victimised like that. Those people should be ashamed of themselves.

        1. going anon for this comment*

          Because they were victimized, too. Sometimes when you’re hurting it’s really hard to see how others are also, especially if you can frame it in your head as your suffering being objectively worse. It can also be really, really hard to separate the person who actually hurt you from the other people around him, in your mind – it can be hard, when you’re hurt that bad, to tell the difference between, say, “family member also trapped in a bad situation” and “family member who’s actively enabling the abuser and sees nothing wrong with what he did to you.”

          I’m not at all excusing that mindset, but it does happen, and for me (for the record, totally different circumstances) that was the hardest part of a victim mindset to get over.

      4. Dot Warner*

        So very sad for you. I hope the rest of your life is happy, because you deserve it.

      5. The Strand*

        I’m so sorry this happened to you. But even going anon, the fact that you can talk about it says many good things about where you are now and how resilient you are. I truly hope that after what you’ve been through, you are living a satisfying life right now, enjoying the present.

    5. Jadelyn*

      “My father was an abusive alcoholic with whom I’ve cut ties as an adult. My first suicide attempt was when I was 11 years old. Can you tell me a little bit more about the expectations for this role, and what you anticipate the schedule to be like – is there a lot of travel involved?”

    6. Kittymommy*

      “Both my parents were abusive alcoholics and most of my childhood I have blacked out and what snippets I do remember are not particularly good. Conversation wasn’t high on the priority list. Regular food wasn’t high lb the priority list. How does that help you?” I just want to be a fly on the wall to hear the organization’s response to something like that.

    7. Dot Warner*

      “My mother threw a fit because I put a dress on a wire hanger and yelled ‘No wire hangers ever!!”

  4. Leatherwings*

    I’m offended on behalf of the OP and anyone who’s ever had to interview for this place. Alison is right on target with all of this, but the first thing that jumped out to me was her third point – it makes sure as few people who grew up low-income or didn’t have supportive parents, or dealt with a lot of violence etc. aren’t getting those jobs. That’s hugely problematic, and I bet the lack of diversity shows in the upper echelons of the company.

    This is not how you build a dynamic, diverse and inclusive organization.

    1. Collarbone High*

      Totally agree. It sounds like (intentionally or not) they’re looking for people who had a very specific type of privileged upbringing. Plenty of kids are creative and resourceful not because they’re natural leaders but because they have to be to survive. And kids who grew up with a domineering, “my way or the highway” parent would never have put those types of skills to work.

      It’s also biased against cultures that teach and value obedience in children, and I get the feeling the decision-makers all had the same type of childhood and are unable to empathize with people who had different life experiences.

      1. Leatherwings*

        Yes! Like is there not one person in HR whose parents had a messy divorce or whatever and pointed out that
        A. Not everyone’s experiences are good and/or are willing to talk about it and
        B. Childhood doesn’t inherently indicate anything about a person’s work ethic or creativity?

        It must be a group of people with similar (privileged) backgrounds who haven’t even considered the above two facts.

        1. Elle*

          The OP says this is a global organization, so they must have an HR department. Shame on them if they are allowing this to happen. Any HR person worth their salt would put a stop to this pronto! I wonder if they even know about it. Double shame if they don’t!

          1. Jadelyn*

            SERIOUSLY! I honestly can’t imagine an HR person hearing about this and saying “Okay, good way to screen for cultural fit!” Just…the sheer number of potential EEO issues this could bring up (disparate racial impact via filtering out people who grew up poor, nationality discrimination via the aforementioned bias against differing cultural values, LGBT discrimination, just…all of it) should make any HR person throw a complete fit if that’s what it took to get them to stop doing it.

            1. OhNo*

              I wonder if the HR people have a slightly different hiring process. I can’t imagine any of them going through this series of interviews and not seeing the problems with it.

              However, I can imagine some people (the type who would fit in well at this organization, most likely) hearing people say “they asked invasive questions about my childhood” and wipe it away with “you’re being too sensitive!”

      2. Mona425*

        So what if a candidate picks up on the fact that they are looking for a certain type of childhood and lies in the interview, saying they had a “Leave it to Beaver” or “Donna Reed Show” type upbringing? How would a company go about checking that type of background? Your resume only lists work history and higher education, same with references. Also, I am not dating myself, but I do miss Nickelodeon’s Nick at Night programming.

        1. Honeybee*

          Nickelodeon still has Nick@Nite – they just show live action television shows that were more popular during the 1990s and early 2000s, when the current parents of the Nickelodeon set were preteens to young adults. So they show Friends, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Full House, and The George Lopez Show. (In fact, as someone in that age group, I found myself going from disliking Nick@Nite to actually really liking the line-up, lol.)

    2. Wendy Darling*

      Shit, I had a middle-class childhood and my parents weren’t NOT supportive but they were emotionally absent. I have no idea how to answer those questions in a productive way in a work environment! What did I talk about with my family? Well basically nothing because they were so snowed under with their own issues that they didn’t have the bandwidth to have a non-superficial conversation with their children.

      1. AnonAnalyst*

        Yeah, I’m reminded of my father reading these posts. He came from an upper-middle-class family, but he never would have gotten through this interview process, despite having the qualities they claim to be looking for. My father is brilliant and worked in management consulting for his whole career, eventually working his way up to leading a practice area of the (large, international) company until he retired at a young age. So, good at creative problem solving.

        His family life growing up totally wouldn’t have made the cut, though. His father was a classic narcissist and his mother was a (diagnosed!) sociopath. They had kids because that’s what you did, but their kids were more like accessories when the family went places than actual, you know, people. They made it clear throughout his childhood (and frankly, his adult life as well) that the kids would only be around temporarily, so their wants always came first and they didn’t care what their kids thought, felt, or had to say. Not many leadership opportunities or notable topics of conversation to discuss with parents like that…

      2. Dynamic Beige*

        I had a lower-middle class childhood and my parents were both absent and emotionally absent. What did I talk about with my family? Nothing of consequence, because it would be used against you later.

        I taught myself to ride a bike. I taught myself how to entertain myself. I had to, because there was no other option. Guess I would flunk that interview, too.

        The other thing I wonder about is: how many young adults understand enough about their upbringing to be able to answer questions like that? When I was that age, I was pretty angry. I wouldn’t have been able to see through the surface of the question in order to understand what the interviewer was truly after, let alone properly word an answer. Also, by that age, I was still under the “never discuss anything about the family with people outside of the family” fear of punishment. I’m sure I would have shut right down.

        1. SusanIvanova*

          “Nothing of consequence, because it would be used against you later.”

          Oh, that one! I had an elementary school counselor who *told my father* what I’d said to her – put me off trusting anyone in that profession for *decades*. It wasn’t even the bad stuff! At least I’d had sense enough not to talk about that!

          1. Dynamic Beige*

            I once did an assignment for a teacher, who then put it up on display for parent-teacher night and… with the benefit of hindsight… I’m pretty sure invited my ParentalUnit to come in, because PU was always so busy doing their stuff they never really had time for silly things like parent-teacher night. Oh, such fun! Because being yelled at for what seemed like forever until I was a crying mess is *exactly* the way I want to be rewarded for schoolwork! Not that I was ever encouraged to keep a diary or journal, but that experience (among others) taught me that my thoughts and feelings were never safe, mine, valid or worthy of respect. It took a long time to get past that.

            1. Here, kitty, kitty...*

              I empathize with you and with a lot of the other commenters sharing their stories today. My parents would go on these crazy hours long screaming binges (the record was a five hour one by my mother); by the time they finished, their voices would be hoarse. My brother and I would be crying, hysterical messes well before they were done with these rants, which also included breaking anything within reach – just-opened Christmas presents, that portrait of Grandma, the glass figurine we bought my mother when we were kids. Nothing was sacred. I was also screamed at because of school assignments. It wasn’t really the teachers’ fault, but I desperately wished they would have understood that for some kids, their insane rageaholic parents will treat the request for a family tree or even signing an “assignment log” verifying that the kid did her homework as an unwelcome cavity search, and take it out on the kid.

              I don’t know what I’d say to this interviewer, either. Having the devillish streak I do, I’d probably go into far more detail than the above, including a description of my father’s chronic philandering (sprinkled liberally with stories about how some of his objets d’amour burgled our house and threw rocks through the windows), stopping at the Isle of Sexual Abuse by Relatives, with Bonus Denial by Other Relatives along the way. Then I’d tell them I wasn’t a good fit for the organization and leave. Probably a mean strategy, but oh my goodness, leave people’s childhoods out of the interview process. Period.

              1. The Strand*

                No, I think that people who want to take that kind of social risk with potential employees, should be prepared to be made as uncomfortable as possible. I remember at the beginning of my career someone I worked with going on and on about how important it was to respect your mother, and I felt very ashamed and pressured to keep my family background secret. Now, if people ask me an inappropriate question (why I don’t have children yet is the more common one now), I usually just answer it directly and clearly and watch them squirm.

            2. SusanIvanova*

              I flunked 10th grade English because the teacher wanted us to write a journal – not anything particularly invasive, but even “what’s going on in your life” was fraught because that was the point where (as I was told much later) Mom was finally starting to realize that “staying together for the kids” was not actually good for the kids. So I simply didn’t do it.

              1. Dynamic Beige*

                When I had that assignment, I chose to write a story. Because there was no way in hell I was going to leave my thoughts lying around for anyone to read them.

                1. Gina*

                  When I was about 15 we were told to write in class about the “worst day in our lives”.
                  Well my mother had suddenly died the year before when I was just turned 14. I didn’t want to share that with my teacher – I hadn’t even talked to anyone about it (and didn’t for many many years) . The teacher didn’t much like me anyway and it was mutual so she was the last person I would confide in. I couldn’t make something up because that would be a huge betrayal of my mother. I was pretty upset but hid it. Eventually I cranked out something anodyne and fictional because I couldn’t face the idea of having to explain why I hadn’t written anything. Once we had finished the teacher said she was going to ask us to read out our pieces. The first girl she asked spoke about how her mother has been in hospital and she thought she would die but she was okay in the end. Fortunately the teacher realized this wasn’t the best plan and didn’t ask anyone else.

    3. OriginalYup*

      Agreed! What a giant steaming pile of paternalist garbage.

      A question like “Who influenced you?” isn’t horrendous on its own because you could answer “my fourth grade teacher” or “the writings of Madeleine L’Engle” or something. But it sounds like the only right answer with this company is “my mommy and daddy, because they’re the best and got me a pony.” And I fail to see how *any* of these questions accurately depict someone’s willingness and ability to do a given job. Gah. Please excuse me while I go scream into the void.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Yeah, you know EXACTLY how this type of company would react if your answer were “Bayard Rustin” or “I was most influenced by Jasbir Puar’s writings” or “the deacon at my church who made sure that all of us homeless kids got at least one meal a day”.

        1. OriginalYup*

          I actually experienced a mini version of this once. In a meeting, the president of the organization asked everyone (30 people) to go around and say who they most admired. I’m not even kidding when I say that 28 people in row named their parent or grandparent.

          I was #29. Since my grandparents all died when I was a toddler and my parents are jerks, I said “Mahatma Gandhi.” I think a tumbleweed may have rolled by.

              1. neverjaunty*

                Well, fair, but I mean in the context of “You picked Gandhi instead of your grandparents?!” (because nobody’s grandparents are ever sexist and racist)

                1. Hlyssande*

                  True! That, and pretty much everyone in the Western world, especially the US, has been taught that Gandhi was a totally awesome almost perfect person omg!

                  At least, that’s what I was taught in school. =\ It’s only in the last year or so that I ever found out more about him.

          1. Honeybee*

            I do love my parents, and my childhood was mostly uneventful (just working-class), but I still don’t think I would give them as an answer of the person I admired the most. Even if it were true, it’s not the kind of answer I would give in that setting, because I think the point is to say something about yourself and your values and nobody knows my parents, so…

          2. The Strand*

            Something similar happened to me, except the question was, what three people would you want on your team? Almost everyone said they wanted Jesus Christ, their parent, and their spouse. Actually, one of my colleagues said, “Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior,” and several “Amens” sprung out all over the room. This was, needless to say, a secular state organization.

            Along with my spouse, I named a well known actor and director who is also known for his nonprofit work. (Think George Clooney but more beloved.) One of my colleagues actually snickered. Super weird: I was doing media work, so why wouldn’t I want someone who excelled at it? That was when I realized that everyone was really trying to impress one another with how loving and pious they were, instead of actually coming up with a Dream Team for a project.

    4. OlympiasEpiriot*

      Signing on.

      So many places end up being not diverse even without this strange hiring procedure, but this really puts the lock on it.

    5. Honeybee*

      That was my first thought, too. I’m always worried about ‘cultural fit’ places because they always imply or outright state a value for people who had very different upbringings from mine. The thing is, those companies are always the first ones to claim they want to “change the world” or “make the world a better place”. How, if you’re not willing to even work elbow to elbow next to a person who even has that experience?

      1. OlympiasEpiriot*

        How, if you’re not willing to even work elbow to elbow next to a person who even has that experience?

        Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

  5. all aboard the anon train*

    I would have walked out of the interview if they started asking questions like that. Not only is it really bizarre and invasive, but it’d be a huge red flag that the company is probably sketchy.

    I don’t even like when coworkers bring up topics about your childhood during icebreakers or whatever. It’s none of their business and in my experience the people who usually love to talk about those things are either nosy or don’t realize not everyone had great childhoods.

    1. Sadsack*

      Yeah, but the interview takes place after you’ve already been at the company for a year. It seems like the choices are to not even start at this place because you know what you’re in for later, or start searching for a new job before it’s interview time.

      1. all aboard the anon train*

        Ah, I misread the OP’s letter and thought the three round of interviews were the first ones, and then there were more for the final phase.

        I still would have walked out at that point, though.

  6. Cambridge Comma*

    Good luck with the job search, OP! Maybe put a write up of the interview process on Glassdoor to help other applicants avoid this employer.
    Every organization has its quirks, but I think you have a low chance of encountering this particular quirk again.

    1. OhNo*

      Oh, yes please. Everyone should know not to be fooled the first year there, because the official hiring process is bananas.

  7. Marzipan*

    Also, even if this was a sound way of selecting obsessive problem-solvers, why would you want your entire workforce to be made up of them? Obsessive problem-solvers are great at obsessively solving problems, but will probably be bored and ineffective being, I don’t know, the person who has to reconcile receipts with purchase orders, or order photocopier toner.

    1. UnCivilServant*

      The employee I miss most was the guy who didn’t want to solve problems. He was perfectly happy to do the boring, routine work. If you gave him clear instructions he’d get the work done and take that load off of the rest of the team. A very useful co-worker to have around and a good guy.

      1. LCL*

        I was that employee, when I worked in the field. Which was a good thing, because the routine work involved inspections of equipment that was very important, whose failure could possibly be life threatening.
        “How are you going to fix that? I don’t know, call out the appropriate crew, I’m off to find the next broken thing.”

        1. Joseph*

          Good for you.

          I don’t want my safety inspector to be a creative inventor. Feel free to be creative on your own time, but when it’s my life, I’d really like to just use the standard safety equipment proven over years and decades, thanks.

          1. Minion*

            Reminds me of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor.

            If we just add a little torque to this defibrillator and maybe amp up the wattage…here, hand me my screwdriver…

          2. OhNo*

            Bingo. Speaking from experience (most of the members of my family are “creative problem solver” types), that kind of person is not a good fit for safety issues. They’re more likely to be impressed by the weird jury-rigged system you set up to get around the safety shut off than they are to note it as a violation and get it fixed.

      2. SusanIvanova*

        Three or four companies back I had a couple of co-workers I nicknamed the Spark (before Girl Genius, even) and the Plodder. The Spark would shoot off ideas in all directions like a Catherine Wheel. Some would be viable, some would be dead ends. The Plodder had the skill to see which ones were viable and nurture them into real projects. *All* the way, even through the boring bits at the end.

        Comes the merger, the new management only sees that the Spark is the one to have come up with the ideas and lays off the Plodder. Guess how many Spark ideas made it to production after that?

        1. The Strand*

          I have worked a few places where Plodders were valued and Sparks were generally just patted on the head. Both kinds of people are so valuable.

    2. Kristine*

      I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to solve problems. I mean, I CAN, it’s not beyond my comprehension or anything. But I would much rather Do The Thing that needs to get done rather than ponder over how to increase subscribers or make the product more innovative or whatever. I love having a long to do list of tasks that I can check off throughout the day.

      1. Marzipan*

        I actually do love solving problems – it’s a great feeling knowing that I *will* come up with a solution, then putting the problem aside and going about my day and bingo! It pops into my head. I would get intensely bored doing the same thing all the time. And yes, these are useful traits – in moderation. But I’m classic INTP – I’m interested in figuring out how to do the thing, and then the job’s over, as far as I’m concerned; having to actually *do* it is torturous. A company full of just me would be a nightmare!

        1. Editor*

          I like solving problems and can make a whole range of suggestions, but I have never worked anywhere where anyone wanted to solve anything. These days, I solve problems I encounter in my go-it-alone hobby, but I look for routine work. I have had way too many supervisors explain that, yes, my suggestion is good, but the (insert lame reason here to do with upper management) means nothing will change.

          There would be a lot fewer angry workers this election season if companies actually did try to solve complex problems and took feedback from all levels before making arbitrary decisions or keeping policies that make workers miserable.

    3. Snarkus Aurelius*

      This approach may be reminiscent of what Microsoft tried to do when trying to weed out people faster. They’d ask dumb questions like how do you weigh a 747 if you don’t have a scale or how would you build a bike for a blind person.

      Microsoft learned their lesson the hard way when they weeded out people like me (Google it) and hired people who wanted to put the 747 in a swimming pool and measure how much water was displaced. Microsoft hired people who came up with elaborate solutions to problems that didn’t exist while ignoring more convenient methods.

      Although they don’t do it now, they set the trend and potential employers elsewhere still try this crap.

      1. UnCivilServant*

        They’d ask dumb questions like how do you weigh a 747 if you don’t have a scale or how would you build a bike for a blind person

        You either build or buy a scale (whichever is less expensive/complicated). And you have to ask if there’s really a demand for blind bikes that can’t be met with existing bikes. After all the number of blind people who want to take that risk will be limited from the start.

        1. Snarkus Aurelius*

          And the response would be something like this:

          How would you build the scale? What materials would you use? Where would you put it? In a hangar? Oh you can’t put it there or a runway either. How would you know the scale is accurate? How would you get the plane on the scale? You can’t ask anyone for help.

          I read one guy’s response to the bike question was to get an exercise bike and tape a fan to the front. Interviewer wasn’t pleased, and he didn’t get the job.

          1. Marzipan*

            Why would you want to design a bike for blind people without getting help? That means you can’t ask blind people what they want/need, which is pretty horrible design practice.

            1. Snarkus Aurelius*

              Right. Besides do you want to hire someone who’ll never ask questions? Who won’t rely on the simplest of sources but rather do everything?!!

          2. UnCivilServant*

            I read one guy’s response to the bike question was to get an exercise bike and tape a fan to the front. Interviewer wasn’t pleased, and he didn’t get the job.

            I had that in an earlier draft, but figured it was too mean an answer and removed it before posting.

            My comeback to a torrent of detail questions is “You’re asking a software guy to do a mechanical engineering task that has already been done. That is both wasteful duplication of effort and using the wrong tool for the job. The scales exist as do the vehicles that tow planes around. Most use an electric pressure sensor that is able to handle the load. But if you really want to know, we can call Boeing and they’ll give us the number. Not asking for help with an issue that has already been solved is a recipie for disaster. Even if the solution does work, it will likely not be the best or most cost effective option.”

            Of course I wouldn’t get the job because my tone would end up conveying my irritation at the technique and the interviewer.

            1. OhNo*

              Seriously, I clearly would not have been cut out for working at Microsoft, because my first answer to “How do you weigh a 747?” would be “You don’t, you call and ask Boeing how much their plane weighs.”

              This is why I’m a librarian. I may not know all the answers, but I can usually figure out where to look to find them.

              1. BananaPants*

                I’m a mechanical engineer and that would have been my response as well. Unless I’m interviewing for a job at Boeing where I’m designing scales for a plane, I have no need to weigh a 747. If for some reason I need the plane’s weight, I’m going to go straight to the OEM to get it rather than spending months designing a scale or other means of measuring.

              2. AcademiaNut*

                I’d answer the same way, and I’m a scientist. It’s the same way I’d look up the gravitational constant rather than conducting the Cavendish balls experiment, and save my energy for the stuff we don’t know already.

          3. Pwyll*

            To be fair, this line of questioning is used heavily in management consulting to figure out a candidate’s analytical and reasoning. It makes sense there. It makes no sense anywhere else.

          4. Artemesia*

            Wouldn’t you weight the component parts and add them up? My father was a weight engineer and airplanes are engineered with great attention to weight issues. He also did weight design for the moon shot where weight and balance makes the difference between making it to the moon or not. They know from the design phase exactly how much planes will weigh.

            1. Jadelyn*

              That’s where I was going to go with it. Go back to the specs, add up weights of all component pieces, there you go.

            2. Lora*

              Depends on the tolerance. If some amount of the components are all on the upper end of the tolerance, sometimes you can end up off by a significant quantity. I always check weights and dimensions and holdup volumes after final assembly and during commissioning.

              However, I also just call up my Mettler-Toledo guy, give him a range and tell him how many contact points I have for load cells, he sends me a quote, I send him a PO and tell the technicians where to put things, plug in a data logger and voila.

              The moral of the story, also relevant to Microsoft: Always validate your design prior to release.

          5. Naomi*

            They ask you all those questions about the scale, but not where you’d get a swimming pool the size of a 747?

            Because that’s the problem with so-called lateral thinking questions: the question is contrived to point to a clever “right” answer rather than thinking through the practicalities of solving a real-world problem.

        2. Joseph*

          “And you have to ask if there’s really a demand for blind bikes that can’t be met with existing bikes. After all the number of blind people who want to take that risk will be limited from the start.”
          I don’t think they were looking for this sort of customer-focused, practical answer.

          In related news, Microsoft wasted almost a decade making products that customers ignored, hated, or reluctantly used.

      2. Augusta Sugarbean*

        Microsoft hired people who came up with elaborate solutions to problems that didn’t exist while ignoring more convenient methods.

        O.M.G. That explains so much!

        1. A Non E. Mouse*

          O.M.G. That explains so much!

          Certainly explains Edge, and why you’d hide Remote Assistance. Not that I’m bitter.

        2. Pwyll*

          Honestly, Microsoft’s problem isn’t its hiring processes, it’s that it silos every segment of every process. I once read it put something like: At Microsoft, each bricklayer is really fantastic at laying bricks, and works really well with all of their fellow bricklayers. It’s a shame they don’t know they’re supposed to be building a boat.

      3. David McWilliams*

        Pretty sure I’d call up Boeing and get them to send me another copy of the 747’s user manual. Should be listed in there, right?

        I would not have been hired at Microsoft.

        1. Pwyll*

          Hah! My answer to this question is “I’d look up the specifications document.” Great minds.

        2. Mike C.*

          If folks are actually curious, here are the stats for a 747-8I:

          Operating Empty Weight: 434,600 lbs
          Max Design Takeoff Weight: 975,000 lbs

          And yes, this took like 3 seconds of Googling to find out.

          1. OhNo*

            Hahahahaha, oh my gosh that would have been the best response to this question.

            “How would you figure out how much a 747 weighs?”
            “I’d google it. Oh look, it says right there.”

            1. (Not an IRS) Auditor*

              I expect that wouldn’t go well at Microsoft, but saying you’d Bing it doesn’t have the same, je ne c’est quoi.

          2. fposte*

            You could probably out-technical them. “Which of the six basic models are we talking about? Which airline’s cabin configuration? If you’re not prepared to be specific, this is a pointless question.”

      4. Amadeo*

        This reminds me of a story I read about a toothpaste company (might be real, might not) that was having issues with empty boxes shipping because the machine would miss filling the occasional box with a tube of toothpaste. So they hired a bunch of engineers to come up with a solution to the problem and they ended up designing an elaborate scale that would sound an alarm at the end of the line if the box didn’t weigh enough and stop the line so the box could be removed.

        At some point, the company realized that the alarm seemed to have stopped sounding pretty much ever and they weren’t shipping any empty boxes. They went to the fellow at the end of the line and he’d set up a fan to just blow the empty boxes off the line before they reached the scale. Simply because he’d gotten tired of attending to the alarm and removing the empty box from the scale. I think the lesson being never underestimate the creativity of people who seem ‘simple’ as opposed to an elaborate problem solver.

        1. fposte*

          The Gilbreths, pioneers in work efficiency, said look to see how the laziest worker does the job :-).

          1. E, F and G*

            I can’t remember who but someone share this a few weeks ago:

            Classification of officers
            As Chief of the Army High Command, Hammerstein-Equord oversaw the composition of the German manual on military unit command (Truppenführung), dated 17 October 1933.
            He is quoted as originating a special classification scheme for his men:

            I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

        2. Librarian Ish*

          That’s *exactly* how our machines worked at a certain snack factory I worked at.

        3. SusanIvanova*

          I think this story is older than I am:

          You’re a brand new lieutenant. You have a flagpole measuring X and a hole that’s Y deep and Z circumference, a sergeant, and three privates. How do you raise the flagpole?
          Correct answer: “Sergeant, raise that flagpole!”

      5. LCL*

        I didn’t know this! This totally explains Microsoft’s periodic “improvements” of Excel’s user interface…

      6. neverjaunty*

        Microsoft is a company that though stack ranking was awesome. That they copied dumb hiring practices even Google now admits were stupid surprises me not at all.

    4. Joseph*


      Obsessive, creative problem-solvers also tend to have a lot more issues following standard procedures or “just doing the usual”. Which can be fine, but re-inventing the wheel every single time ends up being a huge waste of time and money.

  8. UnCivilServant*

    This company strikes me as being doomed for lack of perspective and a disconnect from reality. I’m wondering if this is an established place or a company still burning venture capital.

  9. Jessie*

    If this is the company I think it might be, they have a very very weird culture in general.

      1. Jessie*

        I’m thinking of a company that’s notorious for its weird and lengthy interview process and a culture that encourages employees to openly and frequently criticize each other.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Google is super into evidence-based hiring and has actually conducted extensive research on how to hire well. I feel confident they’re not doing this.

            But we shouldn’t be speculating since the OP presumably wants to be anonymous and we shouldn’t out her.

            1. IT Kat*

              I actually have interviewed for Google and in my opinion as a lurker/reader of yours since at least 2010, the interview was not handled well on their side – so their “extensive research” either wasn’t good research or I had a particularly bad internal recruiter and interviewer. I’d give more details but I’d be writing paragraphs. ;-)

              That said, what I encountered was nowhere near like this so yup, I doubt this is Google… and agree with not outing the OP! :)

              1. IT Kat*

                Just wanted to edit to add – it’s very possible that I had a new recruiter and a last minute substitution on the interviewer or something along those lines, that could easily explain a lot of the red flags I ran into on the interview. But yeah… I’ve never even HEARD of a company doing something like what OP mentions!

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Oh yeah, I’m not saying they’re perfect, but they’re really into having data back up their interview methods, so this one is pretty unlikely there. Here’s a good piece on some of the research they’ve done:

                Interestingly, there’s a piece toward the top where one of their talent people notes that some of their interviewers do continue to use bad interview questions and says, “Sorry about that. We do everything we can to discourage this, and when our senior leaders—myself included—review applicants each week, we ignore the answers to these questions.”

              3. Observer*

                Besides all of the possibilities you bring up, they have changed their processes over the last few years, as they’ve looked at their data and seen that some of the techniques they have been using (eg bazillion interviews and “brain teaser” type questions) don’t correlate with good hires.

            2. neverjaunty*

              Google has moved into more sensible hiring practices recently, yes. The article you just linked to is written by a Google hiring manager, who has every interest in describing his company’s hiring process as evidence-based, objective and leading to fair and correct results. I wouldn’t expect him to say things like “we do a lot of silly things” or “crazily, we still end up hiring mostly white dudes”.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Fair enough, but there are lots of other articles out there about the pretty extensive research they’ve done. They’re also willing to say “this isn’t working” and switch to something else (most famously, with their notorious brainteaser questions, which they studied and found weren’t actually working).

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Only slightly related, but they also did really fascinating research on how to build higher-performing teams (outside of a hiring context) and they found that more than any other factor, “psychological safety” – a sense that the team is a safe place for interpersonal risk-taking, where people won’t be embarrassed or rejected for speaking up – was crucial to making a team function well:

                2. neverjaunty*

                  I imagine the Reid age discrimination suit was a wake-up call for them on that front.

          1. Pwyll*

            There have been a ton of articles about Amazon’s negative working culture, but I don’t think I’ve heard of them having crazy interview practices. Just that they work people literally to death.

          2. not my real name*

            I interviewed there a few years ago and the process was pretty much the complete opposite of this–they wanted a data-driven answer to *every question.* I do pretty qualitative work–I have very concrete schedules and deadlines but a) most of my work is essentially quality control and b) a lot of my success is measured by the things that *don’t* go wrong, which is hard to quantify. There’s really no way to say, this book will sell better if we spend $783 on the index than if we spend $942 dollars on it!

          3. A Non*

            The Amazonians I know say no, their hiring processes are usually pretty good. (They also say it’s such a huge company that you’re going to find vastly different things going on in different parts of it. I’m sure parts of it are very dysfunctional, but I’m equally certain that parts of it are fine.)

          4. Amazon*

            I interviewed there a few years ago as well, and the interview process was nothing but a series of “tell me about a time when” behavioral questions. Each interviewer robotically read the questions from a script, then typed my answers into a form. So yes, they collected data, although it was entirely qualitative data. I doubt it was analyzed in any scientific way. Also, the process left absolutely no time to talk about the job or the business.

          5. CM*

            I was really impressed by my Amazon interview. A lot of it was hypothetical situations that were very similar to situations I’d actually be in at work. They also asked for answers to essay questions (again, ones that mirrored real situations). I felt like out of all the interviews I’ve done, that was the one where I most felt like I demonstrated how good I would be at the job rather than coming up with answers that I hoped they would like.

          6. Turtle Candle*

            My partner interviewed there and the questions he got were very much in the professional “tell me a time when” vein, or else “how would you deal with [x code/business situation]?”, so I’d guess not.

            I’m intrigued that people keep guessing tech companies because, while tech companies definitely have their goofball hiring practices, IME they are goofball in an entirely orthogonal direction. “How many cans of reddi-whip would it take to fill a hot air balloon?” weird, not “tell me about your childhood” weird.

    1. Patrick*

      I don’t think that this is either of the companies I was thinking of, but there are 2 large, very well-known companies in my industry that have weird hiring practices/cultures that really reminded me of this (luckily my manager has interviewed for high up positions at both and told me all about it.)

      One is a company that’s founder pushed a bunch of his personal influences on the culture – think things like EST and “The Secret” (not that those even necessarily go together.) They’re very big on the whole open conflict thing, where every decision is a battle and criticism rises to the level of abuse. Oddly enough, they’re also into mandatory meditation and yoga.

      The other is a very well-known brand where the application process seems designed to end up with one type of employee (basically little versions of the person who ran the company for forever) – and of course it skews almost entirely white and middle-to-upper class. This includes making applicants take IQ and personality tests. My manager refused to even interview after they started asking for things like college transcripts (mind you, he reports to the president of our large, well-known company and has been in the business for over 10 years.)

      1. UnCivilServant*

        My first reaction was “Egads! I’d never want to employ people like me. I don’t get along with that personality type.” Then I remembered other types of people might just be biased towards themselves and want to be surrounded by clones.

    1. JustaTech*

      “My parents used Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to discuss the Israel/Palestine conflict. ” (True story!)

    2. A Non*

      And any further requests for explanation (like how courts could even do that) are met with “Sorry, can’t tell you, court order.”

  10. Jubilance*

    I’d love to know what company this is, just to avoid them.

    And being hired for a 1-year trial period seems so out of step – are there any industries that actually do this, in the US?

    1. UnCivilServant*

      I worked at a call center where the staff was hired as contractors for a year and either let go or hired as “real” employees. That did not strike me as terribly odd in the story. As yes, it was an office in the US of a US company (whose name is well known and the client for which we worked is a household name)

    2. Lemon Zinger*

      It’s very common. Some industries I can think of include higher ed, tech, and sales, among others.

    3. Pwyll*

      Not all that strange. I know a few people who work at a huge education-related company where everyone under the VP level is hired on a temporary, one year contract managed by a third party company, and transitioned into employment with the real company if they make the cut.

      1. I@W*

        Honestly, I like this approach because it also gives the employee the opportunity to decide if it’s the right fit.

        1. Pwyll*

          Meh, yes and no. Almost everyone has the opportunity to decide it’s the right fit with any employer, given the US is almost entirely an at-will employment country. But I don’t think a 1 year probationary period is all that bad, even if 3 months is more common.

          In the scenario with the particular company I’m thinking of, I suspect (but haven’t really looked into it) that this is just a way for the company to weed out people while saddling the third party employer with all the risk of wage claims (because they’re the “real” employer).

          1. neverjaunty*

            That is exactly what the intention is. “Oh sorry, Fergus doesn’t work for us. He’s just a temp!”

        2. Analyze All The Data*

          I totally agree here. I’m currently doing a one-year contract at a huge, global company that is very well known. While it is possible to be hired on as a full-time employee there, most of the new employees are contractors. There is a time-limit on how long a person can be in a contract position before they have to be either hired on as a full-time employee or let go. When I was taken on, it was with the understanding that there was the potential for a full time position at the end of my contract (provided I did good work).

          I appreciate the chance to get to know my company’s culture before signing on for a longer-term commitment. (If it was a full-time job, I would feel obligated to stick it out for 2-3 years as this is my first non-intern position in my new field.) I was very excited to get my job because of the excellent reputation of the company. I expected working there would be on par with working some place like Google. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. The structure of the company has been extremely dysfunctional. The company is broken down into groups whose grouping of duties have more to do with politics than logic. I have had 3 different bosses in the four months I’ve been there. Suffice it to say, I will not be continuing with this company after my contract is up. I’m glad I only have to stick it out for 8 more months rather than 1-2 more years.

      2. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

        My company hires for my division through third-party temp agencies. If you do well enough for a few months, they hire you as a temp directly for the company. Some unspecified time after that, they might hire you with benefits, though it can take years. So there are two trial periods here. (I’m in the latter one.)

    4. all aboard the anon train*

      It’s not that unusual in the US, though in my experience it’s been labelled more as a contract-to-hire role than a trial period. For certain areas of my industry, you’re hired as a contractor through the company (full benefits) for a year and if it works out, you get a permanent position after. It’s really just an easy way to determine if someone is going to work out in the role or with the company.

    5. Eplawyer*

      The one year trial period is not weird. The requiring a formal hiring process afterward is. One so bizarre it requires coaching to get through it. They should know culture fit and work ability after a year.

      If your hiring process requires coaching by the company to get through it because no one would pass otherwise you need to change your process.

      1. blushingflower*

        That was my thought! If you’ve been there for a year already, don’t they know whether or not you’re a good fit without having to ask you weird questions about your childhood?

  11. K.*

    Oh, I hate everything about this. I’m a private person, I don’t like telling coworkers my personal business, and I’d bet this is the most homogenous place ever, which is a huge drawback for me. I’d have opted out so fast, I can’t tell you. “What do you do for fun?” is fine. “Tell me about your childhood” is not.

    1. JustaTech*

      “Tell me about your mother” is the kind of thing I expect to hear lying on a couch in a psychotherapists’ office, not in a job interview!

  12. Dani X*

    Doesn’t sound like they are doing a good job either if you need to be coached to get through the interview process.

    I don’t even remember what we discussed around the dinner table when I was 8.

    1. Willis*

      Not to mention that it sounds ridiculously time consuming on their part! Meanwhile the interviewer is actually working at the company so they could just, you know, pay attention to how much she takes initiative to solve problems in an actual work environment every day.

      1. afiendishthingy*

        So weird! Also, I’m wondering how much of a bait and switch is occurring here- when an employee is hired for that first trial year, do they have any idea what they’ll have to go through to become permanent?

    2. ThursdaysGeek*

      I remember that we had a dinner table when I was 8 and had conversations, so I’m probably in the subset of people they’re looking for. But that’s all I remember about it.

  13. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

    As someone with titanium boundaries and ingrained need to keep many aspects of my personal life separate from work, this letter nearly made my skin crawl off. It’s such a creepy and inappropriate practice, I can’t imagine what compensation they offer to make up for having to go through all that.

    When you get the opportunity to move on, if you have the chance to do an exit interview, I would highly encourage you to bring your concerns up.

    1. Lemon Zinger*


      This should absolutely be brought up in an exit interview. OP shouldn’t ever want to work for this organization again, and they need to know that this hiring process is creepy and invasive.

  14. Pwyll*

    So, are the original interviews at the start of the process (to get the temporary position) all work focused, and the “culture” questions are only after a candidate is working there and being considered for a permanent role? In that case it sounds like they’re not asking work-related questions because you’re demonstrating that on the job, and instead this is some weirdly concocted way for them to assess your match with their child prodigy culture or something.

    Still incredibly bizarre, and I agree, almost cultish. I’m fairly sure I’d self-select myself out of that place if I were asked such questions. My rough childhood is absolutely none of my employer’s business.

  15. sparklealways*

    I did once get the “What did your mom do for a living? What did your dad do for a living?” and I answered it begrudgingly, even though I thought it was an inappropriate question and irrelevant, but holy crap… The rest of these… What are they thinking?! This is horrible.

    1. JustaTech*

      It’s such a bizarre question. I mean, it kind of makes sense when you’re in middle school, but at a full-time corporate job interview? Like, maybe if you need a government security clearance, but then the government just looks that up. And what if your parents had weird jobs? “Oh, they own the largest condom distribution company in the US.” “They’re horse trainers with the rodeo circuit.” “They’re custodians.”

      It’s so very judgey and classist and ugh.

      1. Marillenbaum*

        I would have to really resist the urge to make things up: “Yeah, my mom was a rodeo clown with her own webseries, and my dad is a mortician for pets!”

        1. Dot Warner*

          “My mom was a bookkeeper but became a SAHM after I was born, and my dad taught high school chemistry until he got lung cancer and decided to be a meth kingpin.”

      2. Jess*

        Nope, even a clearance doesn’t require that much info on your parents… just name, date/place of birth, and whether he/she is a US citizen or not.

      3. Granny K*

        I can just imagine what they’d say if I answered that question. My mom worked in TV and Radio before she met my dad, they got married and she stopped working (babies) and later she became a private psychic medium. (I am not making this up.) *Crickets*

  16. OwnedByTheCat*

    Gaaaaaah. I just cannot.

    I grew up in a really creative family. Grandmother is an artist and lived under us with her apartment and studio combined. I went to art school. I OOZE creativity. And sure, in my work life I have been a creative problem solver. But I had a difficult childhood. That grandma? Was a horribly abusive mother and I’m watching my mother still try to heal. So much wrong. If an interviewer asked about my family in any prying way it would be triggering, disrespectful and also unhelpful to both of us.

    Also as Alison said this is really going to limit the pool. I know a lot of amazing, creative people who didn’t have childhoods full of interesting, creative families. So many factors go into what makes someone tick. Please hold while I pick up my jaw off the floor.

    1. Lemon Zinger*

      Like, why on earth do they think that if your family is creative, you must also be creative? My grandma is an artist too, but that’s where it stopped. My siblings and I aren’t creative in the slightest because THAT’S HOW WE ARE. God, I can’t get over how weird this is.

    2. Analyze All The Data*

      Not to mention that there’s a correlation between depression and creativity. Hence the tortured artist imagery. Which means there’s a good chance that someone’s childhood wasn’t all sunshine and roses.

      (And no, I’m not saying that correlation=causation. There’s plenty of artists for whom this isn’t the case.)

      1. UnCivilServant*

        I believe there is a hypothesis that it might be an escape mechanism, a way to get away from something the person believes they can’t actually get away from.

        1. A Non*

          I’ve heard that brains that are a step away from average are more likely to have mental health problems and are also more likely to come up with ideas and insights that others wouldn’t, just because they’re attacking life from a slightly different angle. It sounds like a reasonable but thoroughly unscientific idea to me.

          (I do know that my acquaintances who are depressed artists say that depression is a huge obstacle to actually getting art made, and not a creative driving force in the least. Depression is the exact opposite of helpful to anyone who is trying to do things.)

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            Yep. It is really hard to muster up the energy to start doing something and keep doing it until it’s done when depression is dragging you down. It’s not “huge dramatic emotions” but like… the exact opposite of that. Numbness, listnessness, very low energy. The people who manage to create awesome things while depressed are the ones who are able to fight past that, not the ones who are ~sufficiently inspired~ or anything like that.

            1. Marillenbaum*

              Exactly! There was a really great exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam takes a look at dismantling the “tortured artist” myth, and instead demonstrates how his psychological difficulties weren’t the thing that made him brilliant–rather, they were something he had to fight every day in order to produce his art.

            2. Hlyssande*

              Yes, this. It is so hard to do stuff when you have severe depression.

              (/looks at all those partly-finished sewing/crocheting/knitting projects, sweats nervously)

          2. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

            I think having a *history* of depression and other mental health issues can be helpful for an artist, but *currently being in a depressed state* (or other messed-up mental state) is a major obstacle. Or at least that’s my personal experience as a writer, and what I seem to observe in other writers I know.

  17. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I can’t stop laughing at your letter, OP, because this whole interview process is so ironic.  Here we have the AAM blog that has entire sections of hundreds of letters devoted to figuring out how to navigate the interview process, yet your employer has set up something so utterly bizarre and see-through that ANYONE CAN FOOL THE INTERVIEW PROCESS!

    Apologies for the caps, but I swear I’m not yelling. You made my day.

    Not only that, but as a child, I can confirm that I have thousands of conversations with my parents in the 17.5 years I lived in their home.  I don’t remember what they were all about.  Most of them were yelling.  I highly doubt we were talking about corporate synergies and taking initiative.  Rather, my parents were nagging at me for my poor grades, bad attitude, and detention.  

    On a more serious note, if the interview process is so cryptic and difficult that it requires coaching, there’s no way you’re employer is going to get good candidates.  Job interviews aren’t the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle.  They’re only hard if the person is ill-suited to the job and/or work world, which is a good thing.  Interviews shouldn’t inherently be difficult.

    1. Marillenbaum*

      Unrelated, but I wish I could get coaching on the NYT crossword. I’ve gotten a bit better lately, but they are TOUGH.

        1. CM*

          This letter and many of the comments about people’s childhoods are distressing… but this article is great, thanks!

    2. JustaLurker*

      I especially agree with the last paragraph. If you are “coached” on the interview process it really isn’t much of a leap to figure out that your “creative problem solving” begins with these interviews.

      FWIW Plenty of the conversations with my mom (single parent household) included the phrase “you call this room clean?!?!?” and plenty of non-verbal communication from me. I don’t think I would give this info to the interviewer.

  18. Lemon Zinger*


    This letter made my skin crawl. I literally got goosebumps. OP, please get out as soon as you can. Document this! Bring it up in an exit interview and PLEASE write a review on Glassdoor so people will know to avoid this place.

    It’s completely inappropriate of them to ask such prying questions. Red flags everywhere. I’m an extremely private person and I would have noped right out of there. I’m so sorry.

  19. Marzipan*

    Thinking about it, I actually have very few memories of what my childhood was like. Even if I were prepared to discuss it, I would struggle, badly, to answer what we talked about as a family, because I don’t really remember. I don’t recall particularly looking up to anyone as a child. I do know what my parents did (although, since I’m not them, and the employer presumably isn’t in the market to hire my retired father or deceased mother, I’m not sure why it’s relevant). But, my brain just doesn’t work in that way to really be able to remember those things.

    Meanwhile, I have two degrees in creative fields, have had creative work exhibited/published, and am the most fiendish and practical solver of problems you could ever hope to meet. So, this filtering system may not be the most effective…

    1. Myrin*

      Right? I actually have a pretty good memory, especially when it comes to my childhood, but that “What did your family talk about thing?” would be really hard for me because… well, everything? Depends on what was going on at the moment? We talked about our family, what my day was like, what my sister’s day was like, tidbits about the food we were eating at that moment etc. And I am someone who is (and has always been) actually very close to her mum and always confided in her with all of my problems and whatnot, as well as discussed greater “philosophical” with her but damn if I could narrow it down to something more specific than that.

    2. Formica Dinette*

      Me too. I guess that’s where the coaching comes in. You get the opportunity to make shit up ahead of time and show off your creative problem solving skills in the process!

    3. CanadianKat*

      Also, – when is “childhood”? I’m sure we talked about very different things when I was 7, 11, and 15.

  20. Augusta Sugarbean*

    So a person has to go through three interviews to get into a one year trial period. And then there is a three month interview process with eleven people? How does anyone even have the time to do this obsessive problem solving?

  21. LQ*

    It sounds like this employer has set up their process to screen out people they don’t want to hire in a way that takes them off the hook from discrimination claims. They have a picture of the kind of person they want and this process will make sure that they get that type of person.

    It is incredibly depressing.

    This is not how a good employer functions.

    1. ZenJen*

      yeah, I agree–it sounds like a very sneaky way to get around any type of secret biases they have. making it about “creativity” is a LOUSY way to make it about “performance” and “culture fit” but they’re weeding out a HUGE amount of diversity which would make their company culture more rich and invigorating.
      I also hope that OP outs them on Glassdoor, which is the perfect outlet for this.

    2. Elle*

      Actually, I think this whole situation sets them up for discrimination claims!! And lots of ’em!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes — because if your hiring practices result in disparate impact (i.e., result in you ruling out a disparate number of otherwise qualified people of, say, race X or religion Y), that’s a legal issue in and of itself, even if you didn’t intend it.

        Here’s what the EEOC says:

        Title VII also prohibits employers from using neutral tests or selection procedures that have the effect of disproportionately excluding persons based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, where the tests or selection procedures are not “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” This is called “disparate impact” discrimination.

        Disparate impact cases typically involve the following issues:

        * Does the employer use a particular employment practice that has a disparate impact on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin? For example, if an employer requires that all applicants pass a physical agility test, does the test disproportionately screen out women? Determining whether a test or other selection procedure has a disparate impact on a particular group ordinarily requires a statistical analysis.

        * If the selection procedure has a disparate impact based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, can the employer show that the selection procedure is job-related and consistent with business necessity? An employer can meet this standard by showing that it is necessary to the safe and efficient performance of the job. The challenged policy or practice should therefore be associated with the skills needed to perform the job successfully. In contrast to a general measurement of applicants’ or employees’ skills, the challenged policy or practice must evaluate an individual’s skills as related to the particular job in question.

        * If the employer shows that the selection procedure is job-related and consistent with business necessity, can the person challenging the selection procedure demonstrate that there is a less discriminatory alternative available? For example, is another test available that would be equally effective in predicting job performance but would not disproportionately exclude the protected group?

        1. Elizabeth West*

          If this is a global company with headquarters in another country, this might not apply except to offices in the US, would it?

          It should, because this is bananacrackers.

          1. One of the Sarahs*

            If it’s truly global, it’s going to be in enough European countries with similar or more rigorous anti-discrimination legislation for it to be an issue though…

      2. LQ*

        I agree, but I think it would be harder to prove and incredibly frustrating to be the person trying to fight it.

        “We only want CREEEEAAAAATIVE people. We aren’t discriminating.”

        All of the side eyes.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Eh, probably not that hard to prove. It’s amazing, the stuff people say in internal emails.

          1. Observer*

            Ha! Anybody been following the DNC mess?

            The RNC chair said something interesting about it. He was asked whether a hack of RNC emails might turn up equally embarrassing emails and his response was essentially “Nope. I don’t put stuff like this in email. Too many people see it.”

            1. neverjaunty*

              Which may well be the case, but on the other hand, what did anyone expect him to say “Yeah, there’s some seriously toxic stuff in our secret emails. I pray every night that we don’t get hacked”?

              1. Observer*

                Oh, I’m not saying that he actually does that. Who knows?

                But it was interesting that he honed in on the not putting stuff in email rather that a pious “WE would NEVER stoop to such behavior.”

        2. Observer*

          Except that, in the US at least, unless you can show that you need “creative people” in ALL positions, you are going to run into the disparate impact issue.

            1. Observer*

              True. But in this case, the company won’t get past the first step. I can’t imagine how they are going to support the claim that they need creative and “obsessive problem solvers” in every type of position as the OP describes.

    3. Observer*

      I’m actually not even sure that they are going to get the kind of people they are looking for. There is just toooo much extraneous crud here.

  22. Bikirl*

    Is asking these kinds of questions even legal??? I’d love to hear an expert opinion on this.

    1. Leatherwings*

      Yeah. Questions like these aren’t illegal at all, in fact employers can ask pretty much anything they want, even related to protected classes. The thing they can’t do is make hiring decisions based on these questions and any smart employer won’t ask so as to avoid either the appearance of discrimination or actual discrimination.

      Asking in depth questions about childhood are certainly disgusting, and likely does screen out protected classes , even if it’s not by design. But ultimately I think it would be very difficult to prove that asking about what your parents talked to you about at the dinner table constitutes discrimination against a protected class.

      1. Pwyll*

        +1 to this. A lot of the difficulty with employment law is that you have to prove the employer based the negative decision on a protected class. Asking these questions just makes that proof easier for a litigator, it’s not illegal in and of itself.

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Asking the questions is by and large legal, so long as they steer clear of questions about disabilities. But given this stuff, they’d be getting so many answers based around membership in protected classes that it seems like any discrimination lawsuit would be a shoo-in. (A sue-in?)

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Perfectly legal. In fact, pretty much any question you want to ask is legal, except for asking about disabilities. What’ s illegal is making a decision based on race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, or other protected characteristics. So smart interviewers don’t ask questions about those things, because it will raise questions about whether they’re asking in order to discriminate, or use the info in an even inadvertently discriminatory way later on (and will make candidates really uncomfortable).

    4. HRChick*

      It’s legal, but they can still be sued if this process is shown to have a disparate impact on the employees who get the job. They have to be able to show that this process is relevant to getting the job and the only possible way of finding successful candidates if it IS shown to have a disparate impact.

    5. Florida*

      Sometimes I wish stupidity were illegal. That would help in things other than hiring. Alas, we just have to deal with it.

  23. Art_ticulate*

    Gaaah, my brain is crying. This is so gross and invasive.

    I’d be tempted to give really ridiculous answers to the questions, maybe use TV/movie plot lines and see if they notice.

  24. Brandy in Tn*

    I was raised with the whole, we don’t tell all our business. My life outside of what I do during the 8 hours you pay me is none of your business.

    1. Lemon Zinger*

      Yes! I can’t stand it when managers and coworkers pry about my personal life. It’s really not relevant to our work AT ALL.

  25. Karo*

    I had an interviewer recently ask me about my favorite childhood memory. It was weird, but I was super lucky to have a happy and healthy family life, so after thinking for a minute, I was able to go with it. I was talking about it with a friend afterwards and she made basically the same points as Alison, and even pointed to a former colleague who had a very troubled childhood but was a great coworker.

    For my particular experience, I think the interviewer was just using it as a softball question to get into your head a little, see how you reacted to unanticipated questions, not really thinking about people who didn’t have an easy childhood. And it really sucks for the people who have overcome so much in their lives, because it’s easy to get tripped up by this question even as someone with tons of happy memories.

    I hear about a lot of hiring practices on AAM that make me outraged, but this makes me genuinely depressed.

    1. CanadianKat*

      Any question containing a superlative is silly, – how do I decide which memory is my favourite? How specific do I have to get? Do you have to describe a specific day or are generalities Ok?

      I had a good childhood, and I have trouble coming up with a “favourite” memory. Was it spending summers at the cottage? (I can’t recall any specific day being particularly memorable.) Was it that I had good friend and the games we played? (Or do I have to pick one game out of many?) Was it skiing with my parents (but why not instead pick other activities)?

      I think even people with bad childhoods can come up with a good memory, – it doesn’t have anything to do with parents, home life, etc. Everybody had either a person or activity they liked. But what does any of it have to do with getting a job?

      1. Marillenbaum*

        My favorite memory would probably involve cake, because cake is always going to be my fave.

  26. A Nemo*

    People seem to be caught up on the fact that the company felt prep was needed for the interview process and that should be a sign that it wrong. Maybe I’ve worked for some questionable supervisors but the prep probably wasnt prep. It most likely was considered by the company as part of the interview even though it was presented differently. I would be willing to bet that the assigned helpers were asked for their input and the information gleaned from that part of the process was compared to the formal answers to determine if the candidate was “authentic”.

    1. Emilia Bedelia*

      I kind of wonder how much the “prep”was actually supposed to be part of the process. For a very large global company, there might be a hiring process set by corporate overall and the coaching session might be an attempt by the branch to get their preferred candidate through the process. At my company there is a personality screen as part of the (lengthy) hiring process, and hiring managers often mention that they hope their preferred people get though the screen

  27. some1*

    Another thing – what if your childhood was fine but one or both parents are no longer living? I lost my mom six months ago and a stranger or acquaintance asking me something mundane like, “what does your mom do for a living?” still feels like a punch to the gut some days.

  28. madge*

    Hiring one perfect type of person with a specific childhood is going to create a team that is the opposite of creative. Not to mention that it could trigger memories of anything from absent parents to horrific tragedy. I have family members who (when they were very young) witnessed their father murder their mother then attempt suicide. It later came out that the relative who took them in sexually abused them until they left for college. This is an extreme example but there’s no shortage of people with traumatic childhoods, and there are plenty who have overcome their pasts.

    1. Leatherwings*

      Yes, exactly. Even if this company likes those stories of beating the odds and overcoming tragedy/poverty/Creatively Beating the Odds, that doesn’t mean people should be forced to talk about it. Awful.

  29. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    This is especially crazy because they apparently also require year-long trial periods. What about her creativity and problem-solving is this interview going to reveal that the past year of working with her hasn’t?

  30. EA*

    I generally like to finish horrific interviews for the entertainment value and story, but I would flat out walk out of this. Its insulting and none of their business.

  31. Maria*

    This interview process sounds like a sitcom.

    “What do you parents do for a living”? “I’m not sure. I’m not allowed to ask. They often come home in the middle of the night and wash blood out of their clothing, though.”

    1. hbc*

      My parents actually were lifelong CIA employees (it’s how they met). I’d have been screwed at this interview.

      1. OlympiasEpiriot*

        My parents were both deeply political, acquired FBI files in the days of J. Edgar, and my father had a public feud with one of the Kennedy’s. It *really* isn’t the kind of thing anyone is looking for at an interview. (I do distinctly apolitical work.)

      2. BananaPants*

        I’ve been told that most U.S. intelligence community analysts/engineers/scientists have a cover of sorts; their family and close friends know who they really work for but at a cocktail party or to acquaintances they’re able to say they work for another government agency or organization. So your brother-in-law probably knows that you’re a CIA analyst, but the mom from your kid’s soccer team thinks you work for the USDA or something like that.

        1. irritable vowel*

          My friend always tells people her sister and her sister’s husband, who live in Europe, work for the State Department, and then says “I know that sounds exactly like what I would say if they worked for the CIA, but they don’t.” Or DO THEY…

      3. Lindsay J*

        My boyfriend’s father designed missiles and stuff like that. Pretty often he starts a story with, “Well, I can’t tell you what I was working on at the time because I think it’s still classified, but…”

    2. Marillenbaum*

      Well, they SAID they run a travel agency, but that doesn’t explain the collection of wigs, recording devices, and firearms I found behind the washing machine…

  32. Lizabeth*

    Wow, just wow…

    My second thought was “how do you go about CHANGING this type of process if you are a new HR hire?”

    1. Lizabeth*

      I forgot to add “that has the power and backing to do so?” Would it be easy or hard even with backing?

      1. Leatherwings*

        I think this is probably a really engrained practice that would be very difficult to get rid of from the middle – Maybe only a CEO or director could make it go away. There’s this one nonprofit I interviewed with that does these ridiculous large group interviews with 30 people for 1 position because it’s a process they’ve “developed and perfected.” Anyone who’s done hiring well knows it’s crap, but they think it’s the perfect process for their unique and oh so special workplace culture, and everyone who works there either buys into it or pretends to.

  33. Joseph*

    So nobody seems to have made a big deal of this part yet, but what the heck is with them having an interview to PREP for the interview? Like you know your hiring process is widely acknowledged to be so absurd that you have to warn people about it?

    And frankly, even if the interview process theoretically did produce results, it would be invalidated by the fact the interviewee is told about it in advance and specifically told what to say and not to say (don’t use “we”).

    1. Florida*

      The prep is probably part of the interview. It’s like those psychology experiments where they put you in a waiting room with a confederate, then call you in to do some silly activity. But the part that they are studying is whatever was happening in the waiting room.

      I’ve heard that if you interview at Coca-cola, they have Coke products and Pepsi products in the lobby. If you drink a Pepsi product, they terminate the interview before it starts. There is probably some urban legend in that story, but that’s the idea. The pre-interview is actually part of the interview.

      1. UnCivilServant*

        While they have a market rivalry, both Cocacola and PepsiCo have turned in people who’ve tried to sell them secrets from the other company. They don’t actually hate each other, it’s more of a case of “the respected opposition”. So I find it hard to believe that a preference for the company’s products would be a factor more important that what you can contribute to the business as an employee.

        Though one might argue that it demonstrates poor judgement to choose a compeditor’s product, the situation on the ground would be one of “it was offered”, and thus should not be out of bounds. Most people would be able to find something either company made that suited them if they stuck to the equally understandable policy of setting out their own stuff only.

        I’d wager it’s more of an urban legend than an actual practice.

        1. A Non*

          There’s also very little business reason for CocaCola and Pepsi to want each other’s secret recipes. They each have a following for their own recipes, changing to be exactly like the other guy would be disastrous. (See also: “New Coke”.) Business strategy might be a different matter.

        2. Florida*

          The Cola Wars were more prolific in the 1980s. That may be where this story comes from (I’m totally speculating. I don’t know for sure). I agree that it is more likely urban legend.
          But it story makes the point that the pre-interview is probably part of the interview.

      2. Lindsay J*

        One of my ex’s brothers worked for Pepsi as a driver/distributor. Whenever he went out to dinner, etc, he was required to ask specifically for a Pepsi product, even if he knew the place served Coke products. If they asked if Coke was okay he was allowed to drink it, but I guess they wanted their employees to specifically ask for Pepsi to make it seem to the restaurants like it was more in demand, or so an owner at a company they distributed to didn’t see him order and go “Well even the Pepsi guy drinks Coke, maybe I should switch”.

  34. Rich*

    Hello Interviewer,

    Now this is the story all about how
    My life got turned right upside down
    And I’d like to take a minute just sitting right here
    To tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.

    In West Philadelphia, born and raised
    On the playground is where I spent most of my days.
    Chewin’ out max and relaxin’ all cool
    I was shootin’ some b-ball outside of a school
    When a couple of guys, who were up to no good
    Started makin’ trouble in my neighborhood
    I got in one little fight and my mom got scared
    And she said “You’re movin’ with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air”.

    I whistled for a cab and when it came near
    The license plate set “Fresh” and had set of dice in the mirror
    If anything, I could say that this cab was rare
    But I thought “Man, forget it”
    “Yo homes, to Bel-Air”.

    I pulled up to the house about 7 or 8
    And I yelled to cabbie, “Yo homes, smell ya later”
    I looked at my kingdom, I was the finally there
    To sit on my throne as the Prince of Bel-Air.

  35. Cricket*

    I had a similar interview, albeit not as long or intensive, for an entry-level position at a mid-sized local nonprofit. The (very intimidating, aggressive) president interviewed every candidate personally, and she asked everyone to start with childhood and tell the story of their lives up to the present. She interrupted frequently to ask follow-up questions on anything from number of siblings to extracurriculars in high school. Needless to say, I should have taken more heed of that red flag. I ended up working there for a year and it was terrible.

    1. Anon right now*

      Yes, that was my first thought. I worked at a place where upper management was dominated by Scientologists and their unqualified HR person was also a member. With training, there were so many invasive questions and boundary issues with that place that I just started making stuff up.

    2. Van Wilder*

      Yeah my first thought was some sort of cult or like life-coaching cult-ish thing.

    3. IT Kat*

      Literally my first thought after finishing the fourth paragraph, before I’d even finished the letter.

    4. irritable vowel*

      Yup (I commented to that effect above). I recently read the novel that’s obviously a fictionalization of the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes romance, and so much of what the OP says sounds like the faux-Scientology organization in the book.

  36. A Non*

    It’s telling that this interview process only happens after you’ve been there a year and presumably are settled in and want to stay. Wouldn’t nobody put up with this if it happened before you even got in the door.

    (Also, count me among those would never pass that interview if I told the truth. Though I could probably spin the story they clearly want to hear. I have actually talked in interviews about the fact that both my parents are mechanical engineers, and my extended family are either engineers or professors of engineering. It’s usually good for a laugh, and for illustrating how deeply I prioritize results over the coolness of technology.)

  37. Lora*

    So many good responses. I’m also thinking of Nick Cave’s The Curse of Millhaven, Neil Gaiman’s My Life from Fragile Things, A Boy Named Sue, Dar Williams’ When I Was A Boy, Dixie Chicks’ Long Time Gone, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, Frank Zappa…

    These interviewers are bad, and they should feel bad about themselves.

  38. hbc*

    It sounds like someone there has noticed a coincidence or confused correlation with causation and then was off to the races. I’m sure there are more kids who displayed X or Y trait that go on to be great at Z as adults, but that doesn’t mean X and Y necessarily gets you Z, or that all Z comes from X and Y. (I need a Venn diagram here.) Someone who grew up with two political wonks arguing policy over the dinner table is more likely to be driven in politics, but the adult might just be going into the field due to parental pressure, or suck at formulating policy, or be unable to form an opinion before running it by the talking heads at home. The adult who didn’t have that at home might have read politics voraciously solo or didn’t even know there was such a thing until much later in life.

    Oh wait, I’m fielding a basketball team, and I’m not taking anyone who was ever cut from his high school team. See ya, Michael Jordan. And I’m definitely not taking anyone who started as late as college, Dikembe Mutombo.

  39. Jackie*

    I had an interviewer ask me about what kindergarten was like for me ! We traveled through all my school years. I still remember how bizarre this conversation was to this day, thirty-five years later.

    1. CM*

      And I was surprised at an interview recently when they wanted to know, in detail, about my experience at every one of my jobs in the past 18 years and why I left and how I decided to make my next move… at least they didn’t go back to kindergarten!

  40. Ellen N.*

    To the original poster, wow this is a horrifying interview process. I promise you it’s unique. You don’t need to worry about encountering these kinds of questions elsewhere.

    To the other commenters. I wonder why everyone thinks the company is looking for employees who had ideal childhoods. My parents were drug addicts. I can tell you that children of drug addicts are lifelong and obsessive problem solvers as literally a way of staying alive. When your parents are drug addicts you have to read their moods, solve their problems so that they don’t take their discomfort out on you and you have to solve your own problems as your parents are too busy getting high.

    1. Hlyssande*

      Yeah, I was thinking that either they’re trying to discriminate without seeming like they’re discriminating, or they’re trying to find people who they can abuse.

      Either way, super gross.

  41. MashaKasha*

    In addition to everything else that was said, this also opens the door to age discrimination. I’m in my late (VERY late) forties. I can barely remember my kids’ childhood; I have a very vague recollection of mine. I have no earthly idea what my parents and I talked about in the 1970s. But this is probably an unintended side effect. I’ll agree with everyone else, sounds that they’re looking for people that are of the right stock.

    This whole thing reminds me of when my family first came to America, and my dad thought it’d be a good idea for me to enroll my 4-year-old in a religious private preschool that let you attend free of charge if you were low-income (which we were). They asked me and my dad to come in for an interview. Weirdly, they never asked to see my son, whom we were trying to enroll. During the interview, they asked about my dad’s and my mom’s parents. When the interviewer said to me, “I would love to meet your mother’s parents”, I replied, “So would I! They died in 1946 and 1960!” We never got called back. Not that I was planning on ever going back to that place. But that was a 80-year-old principal of a religious school. To see this same process being used to hire people, in 2016, boggles my mind.

  42. Nea*

    “I’m sorry, I really don’t remember any part of my life before the accident. Let me tell you how I handled that as an adult.”

  43. E.R*

    A VP at my old job used to ask each applicant what their parents did for a living. Once hired, I told her that I found the question uncomfortable and she told me she asked it because kids from successful parents tend to be successful themselves. Which is super troubling because it obviously disadvantages kids whose parent(s) struggled or all kinds of situations that really should not be held against them ever.

    1. MashaKasha*

      Oh, wow, that is a terrible assumption, and one that should not be used in a hiring process :(

      1. UnCivilServant*

        It is a terrible assumption.

        My parents are both still working. Their careers are not exactly what people would look at and call “successes” (though they’re not failures either). I currently make more than both of them combined. It was in fact the trouble they had that made me not want to end up in their circumstances.

    2. LizzE*

      Your ex VP might as well have asked their parents’ income bracket as well. Talk about straight up classism.

      1. some1*

        Occupation isn’t necessarily a measure of success, anyway. Being a lawyer or doctor or engineer doesn’t mean you are great at performance.

    3. Dynamic Beige*

      Riiiight. Because kids with successful parents never get expelled, in trouble with the law or into drug addiction. SMH.

    4. OlympiasEpiriot*

      Actually, I’d disagree with that. I went to high school with lots of kids of very successful parents. They generally had to be to afford that school. Many of those kids were grade-A f*#k-ups. Drugs. Laziness. Bad behaviour. Those ones were sent there so someone else could be in loco parentis. If they had been poor, they’d have been arrested.

      Based on h.s., easily 60% of them I’d never want to hire. (But, just like less-privileged people overcoming their struggles and getting where they wanted to be, I’m sure there were many who overcame their advantages and turned into decent citizens.)

      1. MashaKasha*

        Heh heh, yup. When one of my kids was in high school, he once went to visit a friend’s extended family for a weekend, in a wealthy, upper-middle-class neighborhood (highly-paid professionals/doctors/lawyers/successful business owners). He returned wide-eyed and told me “you can buy ANYTHING around there.” and he did not mean they have a large shopping mall, if you get my drift. I would never automatically assume that the kids of successful parents would be successful themselves; and vice versa.

        PS. Loved “overcame their advantages”!

  44. LizzE*

    My boss had a hard childhood: His teen mother died in child labor and he was bounced around foster homes until he was adopted at 11 or 12 – a rarity for an older child, especially one that is black and male.

    He is probably my all-time favorite boss and is one of the most creative, innovative people I have ever worked with. His candidacy would not have gone very far with this organization.

    I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in the meeting where the higher ups agreed to this hiring process because it is easily one of the worst I have ever come across.

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      I absolutely agree that people who have had complicated and possibly even difficult lives can be some of the most innovative and interesting.

      This interview ‘technique’ stinks so hard. So many -isms I can’t even bother listing them. Probably its all of them.

  45. AFT123*

    Question to everyone saying they’d walk out of this interview or opt out – what would you actually, verbally say if this happened to you, in the moment?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      A few options:

      “You know, as we’re talking, I’m realizing that this isn’t going to be the right fit. I don’t think it makes sense to continue talking, so I’m going to wrap this up here.”

      “Hmm, I misunderstood the nature of the interview. I don’t think is for me, so I’ll excuse myself now.”

      If you want to directly call it out: “These questions are really invasive and inappropriate. They’re wildly out of sync with the data on hiring well, and they’re heavily biased in ways that are highly likely to discriminate against candidates in unlawful ways. This isn’t for me so I’m going to leave now, but I urge you to reconsider how you’re structuring these interviews.”

    2. Sibley*

      If I’m being polite? something like, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’d be a good fit for the culture here. I appreciate the opportunity, but I’m going to withdraw my application. Thank you, and have a good day.”

      Impolite? so many possibilities.

    3. Kyrielle*

      I believe I would gape at them like a fish, honestly. And then I’d either close my mouth and try to go on with it whilst job searching elsewhere (if I couldn’t afford to have them ditch me from my contract when I walked out of their process), or say something along the lines of “I think we’re done, thank you; if this is a requirement of the interviewing process, I won’t be proceeding.”

      Except, the gape like a fish is a lot more likely than the follow-on coherent sentence. If the way it came up touched on a painful memory or happened to trigger one, I might well gape like a fish, then say “Excuse me” and just walk rapidly out of the room. Not graceful, not helpful, but – really, I might have to.

      1. One of the Sarahs*

        Yeah, I can see myself googling, gaping, with a little bit of “Wait…. what…?”, and losing all my words (though of course, I’d love to have something clever to say!)

      2. Dynamic Beige*

        Would depend on how old I was at the time of the interview. Now? If I had never heard of it before, I would be astonished. I’ve learned so much from this site that, after I left, I would be thinking “bullet dodged”. Until I started reading here, I had no idea that politely excusing yourself and removing yourself from the process was even an option!

        When I was younger, I would have been deeply uncomfortable and tried my best, but I would not have known that this was out of bounds. I then would have kicked myself for quite a while for blowing it and not getting the job (or being extremely grateful for getting the job, too grateful).

    4. CM*

      Basically, variations of what Alison said:
      “I’m not comfortable answering these questions.”
      “I don’t understand how these questions are relevant to the position.” (If they respond that they’re looking for a culture fit, in this case I’d say, “I’m not comfortable working for an organization that weeds people out based on what their childhood was like. Not everyone had a great childhood, and I think people should be judged on their abilities and performance as they are now.”)
      Or, stand up and shake their hand while saying: “I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me, but I don’t think this is the right fit.”

    5. Turanga Leela*

      “I’m really not comfortable talking about my family or my childhood. I’d be happy to discuss the work I did at X and Y companies.”

      If they pressed on the family thing, I’d move to one of Alison’s lines and leave the interview.

  46. Lisa*

    I wonder if this is even legal. I have had extensive interviewer training and we were not allowed to ask things that didn’t pertain directly to the job. We weren’t even allowed to ask if they were married or had kids, or where they lived. Reasoning was if they say had 6 kids it might form a bias implying they wouldn’t have time to do the job. Or if they lived too far that the commute would impact them. Laws vary by state but they might be skirting what they are allowed to do.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The questions themselves are legal — see discussion of this above. Many companies do what yours did, but that’s not because the questions illegal; it’s because making a decision based on the answers is.

  47. anon_for_this_one*

    I would be severely tempted to answer it with: “Well, I was raped as a child of five, and later my sister committed suicide and I found her body. Oh, and did I ever mention the shooting in our college?”
    … which, sadly, would be the truth.

    It’s really not that complicated to think about stuff that 1. makes a childhood pretty terrible and 2. shouldn’t be (required to) tell at work.

    Massive side-eye to their hiring process.

  48. A Teacher*

    What the actual hell? I’m in the process of fostering to adopt from the foster care system and the very idea that a company would think this is okay is so odd to me. Literally, tell us about the horrible conditions you faced outside your control? No.

    I can say it as a teacher too, some of my students’ circumstances are devastating. So they are precluded from hiring because of something that happened outside their control? wow.

  49. Quandary*

    Very surprised by this practice. Is this even legal? When I led a department and was hiring people I was coached by HR that I could not ask people anything about their background, or even ask where they were from. I stuck only to questions about their skills and professional experience.

    I applied for a position a few months ago and went through a weird interview with the HR person where I was told would be largely be a series of behavioral questions, but spent a lot of time asking about my choice of college, my major, and when and why I decided to go to graduate school – all of which took place about 25 years ago. Like the letter writer, I was a little annoyed that was I wasn’t being asked about my professional experience, approach and projects.

  50. Bow Ties Are Cool*

    Do you work for the Church of Scientology? Because that is the only way this makes a lick of sense.

  51. Hypatia*

    Leaving aside the great points made by other commenters about the socioeconomic implications of these questions…this is a great way to shut down cultural diversity in your hiring process (especially if this is a global company). I am currently listening to a lecture series on cultural intelligence, and the professor literally gave a similar situation as an example of lack of cultural intelligence and how it can hurt you: if you are interviewing someone from Ghana (for example), and you ask them about their hobbies, and they shut down and seem very ill at ease with the question, and you decide not to hire them on the basis of that answer – you’re culturally misreading the situation. Personalities aside, many people come from cultures where sharing the details of your private life with a total stranger – especially one who might become your employer – is inappropriate and uncomfortable. But asking the same person about their extended family might give you equal insight into who they are. Culturally diverse teams are also more effective teams, so the company is really hurting itself here.

    1. Lemon Zinger*

      GREAT POINT. My work team actually talked about this today– it’s not “bad” if someone doesn’t want to share about their private life. It’s often a cultural thing, and you have to be respectful of that.

  52. ArtK*

    Let’s see now. They have an interview process that isn’t going to give them any useful insight about how good an employee a person would be today. Then they compound the uselessness by coaching people. With enough warning a halfway-decent liar could make up whatever they thought the interviewers wanted to hear.

  53. Boss Cat Meme*

    My husband has been applying here and there (considering a move to the coast) and in three different occasions he has been asked to complete an on-line “evaluation” as part of the hiring process. Most of the questions involve issues of honestly, like, “If you worked with a single mother who was struggling to make ends meet, and you noticed she was stealing milk from the employee refrigerator, what would you do? A. nothing, B. talk to her manager, C. give her money yourself, D. report her to security. Or, if “If you saw an employee steal money from the register, would you A. call the police, B. tell a manger, C. nothing, and sometimes the choices were just bizarre. Some of the questions were yes/no only, as in, “If you were working on a work assignment from home, would it be acceptable to take home things you needed to complete your work?’ It was yes/no, so he couldn’t say, highlighters and pens yes, computers no. Some of the questions were very personal too, like, “Do you believe stealing is a mortal sin? Do you believe you will face consequences in the afterlife for what you have done here on earth? Should employees with families receive a higher salary than single employees?

    In each of these cases, it was a timed test, done online, and he had to rush to complete it. He was never told what his “score” was or how it would be considered in the hiring process. We talked about it and I suggested just answering all the questions as if he was the most honest man on earth, and in all three cases, he moved on with the process. Afterwards, he felt really shaken by the whole experience, not because he felt like he was lying or anything, but because it was such a mental mind game –wondering if they want him to be completely honest, or a hard-ass, or show compassion for people, or what? Also, some of the questions had faith-based implications that could not be answered with a yes/no question, like, ‘Do you believe that lying is a sin?” “Is it ever acceptable to tell a lie of any kind?” More and more corporations are using these “tests” to get a lot more information than just a meaurement of creativity or inspiration.

    1. One of the Sarahs*

      That made the hairs rise on the back of my neck! HORRORS!

      (I am at my worst in those kinds of yes/no Qs, because I’m such a “that depends…” person – not to mention the whole faith-based stuff – aaargh!)

      1. Anon Moose*

        I’ve gotten kicked out of hiring processes for choosing “it depends” as an option. :-(

    2. CM*

      Consequences in the afterlife?? That phrase alone would make me hightail it out of there.

      1. MashaKasha*

        Yup yup. “I am sorry, I do not have the level of religious faith that it takes to work here.”

    3. A Non*

      I wonder if tests like that are less about what you really think and more about whether you know where the line is (their line, anyway) and are willing to toe it. Which usually means imagining the worst stereotype of a rules-bound middle manager with zero sense of reason or compassion, and then answering as that person would.

      The questions about the afterlife and mortal sin are just weird, though. And the one about salaries and families makes me wonder if they’re trying to judge whether people would be likely to join a union.

    4. Kyrielle*

      I have a number of friends who, if honest, would presumably flunk the lying-as-sin question, because they are atheists or of religions that don’t have that concept, and thus, *don’t believe in sin*. That and the afterlife one seem to set them up for a later charge of discrimination based on religion if someone doesn’t get the job.

      1. A Non*

        Well, and it’s specifically asking if stealing is a *mortal* sin, which as far as I know is a concept only Catholics have. It really does smell like religious discrimination.

        1. Myrin*

          And as per the Catholic Church, stealing/theft isn’t actually a mortal sin. So there’s that.

    5. Observer*

      More and more corporations are using these “tests” to get a lot more information than just a meaurement of creativity or inspiration.

      If that’s what they thing they are doing, they are being even stupider than I thought. Answering “Yes” to do you believe that X is a mortal sin is probably a give away that someone is probably a Christian of some sort, because I don’t think most other religions really use that term. But other than that, I can’t imagine getting any real clear picture of someone’s social, ethnic, economic or even religious background from most of these questions.

    6. Observer*

      On a separate note. These companies actually incorporated clear questions about about applicants’ religious beliefs in a standard test that is explicitly being used to evaluate whether to move applicants along in the hiring process? Seriously? It sounds like a law suit waiting to happen.

  54. (Another) B*

    This is horrific. I wouldn’t get the job for sure. Whatever happened in my childhood is between me and my therapist, not my JOB! Holy shiiit.

  55. Anna*


    What a ridiculous way of doing business–for all the reasons Alison mentioned, plus the innate bias of the reporter. A person can shape childhood stories in many different ways. I’m thinking of stories I might tell and ways I might frame things for different audiences. In one story, I come from an upper middle class family, and my parents tried to give me every advantage possible. In another story, I come from a family of two mentally ill parents who were physically and emotionally abusive and neglectful. Both of these stories are 100% true. Which one would get me in the door?

  56. Stranger than fiction*

    I don’t know if anyone else has suggested this, since unsurprisingly this got a ton of comments, but if I were the Op, after I found a new job and left this place, I’d send this thread to their HR.

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        Maybe you need to make a general post about that, calling for submissions? Whether that’s someone brave enough to admit they did it, or the recipient… might be interesting!

  57. Lara*

    Yeah, I’d be kind of weirded out about this. I even had a happy, “typical” childhood but my dad just died recently so I don’t think I would be able to get through the happy memories without crying to a stranger. How uncomfortable!

  58. Vicki*

    One of the things I love about reading these letters is seeing the vast differences in personality between letter writers and commenters and myself.

    In this case, I was cringing from almost te beginning of the letter. The hiring practice is so bizarre that people need coaching from inside to et through it??

    And then I read this line, “On one hand, it’s flattering to feel like the interviewer wants to get to know you as a person and cares how you see the world.”. Um, no. For some of us, that’s not flattering at all. It’s creepy, it’s over the line, and it’s inappropriate, especially at interview time. The interview is to determine if you can do the job.

    You’re not going to marry these people; they’re not adopting you,

  59. Grew up poor*

    Thank you for answering this! I grew up in a single parent household and was dirt poor (we were homeless for a bit and regularly went to food/clothing banks.) My mom was emotionally abusive and I was brought up doing very demanding physical labor at a young age to help support us. We weren’t the sit around a table type of family.

    Today, I have my MBA from a top-tier program and earn in a month what the two of us lived on over a year. It was a huge adjustment for me to learn basic things like how to do taxes, how to save for retirement or even how to just behave in an office let alone how to thrive in corporate culture (thank you Alison for teaching me many of the things I wish I would have learned growing up.)

    Heaven knows I could have never passed any kind of interview about my childhood!!!

  60. SSS*

    This really felt like it was bordering on a lot of potentially illegal interviewing questions…. they cannot legally ask about religion or ethnic background. What if you pray or discuss religious topics at dinner with your family? Or you have discussions/traditions with your family that are specific to a religion? Delving that deep into your personal history is bound to start hitting topics that fall under the illegal-to-be-asked categories.

  61. Willow Sunstar*

    I did not have a typical childhood either. I went to a religious school through elementary. My mom got diagnosed with cancer the first time when I was 11. She passed when I was in high school. High school was the worst time of my life, because not only was I dealing with being bullied, but my mother was dying. Oh, and she was not the world’s nicest mother. So no way in heck am I discussing my childhood in an interview. If asked even in Toastmasters for a table topic, I come up with one specific memory that was reasonably normal, and that’s it.

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