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Why Bizarre Interview Questions Go Viral

INTERVIEW EDGE • JAN 2015

The online career website Glassdoor recently issued its fourth annual list of the top 25 oddball interview questions. The questions are real, culled from thousands shared by candidates on the site last year, including mindbenders such as:

"If you were a pizza delivery person, how would you benefit from scissors?" (Apple)

"You're a new addition to the crayon box, what color would you be and why?" (Urban Outfitters)

"Do you believe in Big Foot?" (Norwegian Cruise Lines)

These kinds of questions became popular in Silicon Valley, apparently because hiring managers thought that time-honored interview tactics failed to identify the unconventional thinkers they were looking for. The fad has spread beyond tech companies to old-school organizations such as Bank of America and Xerox.

So why have these questions gone viral?

For one thing, bizarre interview questions, like artisanal foods or cat videos, are trendy. They are also easy to remember and share, and they make interviewers feel clever. Admittedly, they are also entertaining—at least for the people asking them.

But are they effective interviewing tools?

Some employers use on-your-feet thinking to judge whether a candidate will be a good fit for corporate culture. Others say quirky questions force candidates to think through problems out loud and come up with the best, if not always the right, solution. But what is the best solution if it's not the right one? What is the difference between the two? And who decides?

The fact is, just what constitutes the "best" answer is pretty much up to the discretion of the interviewer. Worse, there is no real way to extract relevant competencies from the answer. Candidates might have great ideas about the three items they would need to survive on a desert island (Yahoo), but there is no guarantee they will exhibit the same resourcefulness, foresight and imagination on the job. And it's nearly impossible to probe further to find out.

A few years ago, we published an article warning about the dangers of oddball interview questions (Magic Bullet Questions). Our opinion hasn't changed, and we're not alone.

Laszlo Bock, Google's Senior VP of People Operations, says his company, which used to be infamous for its brainteaser questions, now finds them a "complete waste of time."

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

We would add that using such questions undermines the professionalism of a company's recruiting program and fosters an attitude that interviews are unimportant mind games played with job applicants.

This, in turn, weakens an organization's commitment to learning anything useful from an interview because brainteaser questions, however amusing, have little value in predicting future performance. In the long run, they may actually discourage top candidates from accepting an offer—the opposite of their intended purpose.

It's fine to spend time trying to figure out how many square feet of pizza Americans eat each year (Goldman Sachs). We just don’t think it should be done during an interview.