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The problem with job interview questions about duck-sized horses

Employers should stick to questions that interrogate the candidate’s experience and deliver measurable evidence, writes careers expert Eoghan McDermott.

Eoghan McDermott

CAREERS WEBSITE GLASSDOOR recently released a list of the toughest or most left-of-field questions interview candidates had been asked over the last year, and it really is something.

The questions broadly fall into two buckets: one bucket is “maybe if the wind was blowing in the right direction you could argue there’s value to asking it” and the other is utterly pointless.

The first contains questions like this one from Dropbox: “If you’re CEO, what are the first three things you check about the business when you wake up?” The candidate wasn’t going for the CEO role – they were going for a place on Dropbox’s rotation programme.

The interviewer could argue that the question is merely hunting for the candidate’s commercial acumen and understanding of Dropbox’s business which are fair enough characteristics to be assessed in any candidate. Of course, the interviewer could argue that. But it’s an argument that’s full of holes.

Another question from the first bucket came from Boston Consulting Group: “If you were a brand, what would your motto be?” The person who was asked this was going for a consultant position. Again, one could argue that what the panel were hunting for was the candidate to articulate and illustrate attributes for the role. But it’s a bit of a reach.

The questions that fall into the utterly pointless bucket ranged from “When a hot dog expands, in which direction does it split and why?” to “What would you do if you found a penguin in the freezer?”

Imagine, a human asked another human these question. If my four-year-old asked me some of these, I’d think something was up.

For example, what if I said “I’d invite the penguin to sit down for dinner” and you said “I’d leave him in there”, or “I’d stick him in the oven”, which answer is better? And how can the panel prove it?

Another question was “Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck, or a 100 duck-sized horses?” Whole Foods Market asked this for a meat cutter role.

Clearly you would rather fight 100 duck-sized horses; you’d be able to kick them away or stamp on them. But what does that prove about the candidate?

Or did they want you to say that you would rather fight the horse-sized duck because if you cut it in the right place with your meat cutter the fight would be over in an instant? Daft.

Brainteasers

We have Google to blame for this. In the early noughties they became famous for asking “brainteaser questions”. And then the world followed.

Thankfully, though, Lazlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations has dumped this style of questioning. He told the New York Times that “we found that brainteaser questions are a complete waste of time”.

How many golf balls can you fit in an airplane? How many gas stations are in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.

Instead, Google now does what all interview panels should do. They ask candidates to talk about a time where they led a team, or solved a complex problem. Questions relevant to the role that challenge the candidates’ experience and can be properly assessed, requiring a logic and rationale.

However, there is still a risk that you could be asked one of those idiotic questions. And if you are, how do you answer them? All you can do is show a logic and rationale for your answer, and deliver it relatively coherently.

For example, a client of mine was recently in an interview for a place on a science course in a top UK university where they were asked “how many molecules are in that bottle of water in front of you?” To answer it, he began to work it out based on the bottle’s size and volume of water, used the bottle as a prop and described his thought process.

It’s thought that a bad hire can cost an organisation anywhere up to three or four times the employee’s salary. If that’s the risk, they should, as much as is possible, make sure they’re getting the best person for the job by asking questions relevant to the role that interrogate the candidate’s experience, and deliver measurable evidence.

I’ve told you what to do if you get thrown one of those showoff curve balls – at the time. Afterwards, though, you might ask yourself if you really want to work for people whose approach to hiring is demonstrably crazy.

Eoghan McDermott is a Director of the Communications Clinic and is Head of Training and Careers there. You can follow him on Twitter here. www.communicationsclinic.ie

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