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Oddball Interview Questions: All Risk, No Reward?

Kennedy's Column

If you could be a superhero, who would it be? What color best represents your personality? On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?

These aren't bad pick-up lines; they're examples of increasingly popular interview questions that aim to better match potential candidates with a particular job and culture. And though they probably originated in Silicon Valley—most notably at Google—they've since seeped into the corporate mainstream. The questions above are used by interviewers at AT&T, Johnson and Johnson, and Zappos, respectively.

Still the award for the wackiest puzzlers goes to Google, which is famous for questions like this one: "You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?"

Why so weird?

A huge surplus of talented workers and the growing recognition that standard interview techniques don't work very well appears to be spurring the oddball question movement. But do these questions actually achieve what they're supposed to, and if so, at what price?

It takes hard work to prepare for and achieve a strategic flow to an interview and to learn enough about a candidate to predict future on-the-job performance and behavior. An effective interviewer should start with a well-defined job profile that reflects the corporate culture and identifies desired or required behavioral competencies. Given this, it's hard to know what kind of assessment a "trick questions" interview actually yields.

For instance, personality assessments based on color preference have never been considered scientifically valid. So a question such as "What color best represents your personality?" not only runs the risk of providing misleading information but also of alienating candidates, who are likely to view it as irrelevant to the job.

Risky business

A primary concern with quirky questions, then, is the possibility that candidates won't take the questions, interviewer, or the interview itself seriously. Or, since a little Web research can turn up most of these questions and suggested answers, candidates can prepare for even the most outlandish riddles without actually having any of the qualities the questions are designed to uncover. See "Magic Bullet Questions".

And even if a candidate has not been coached to give the "right" answer, common sense and a desire to make a good impression would seem to dictate the response. When asked," What animal are you?" few candidates will answer, three-toed sloth or iguana or dinosaur. Instead they will describe themselves as an eagle, lion, tiger, cheetah or something equally designed to impress.

Finally, better and more confident candidates may "push back" on these questions. Such candidates may ask with varying degrees of politeness; "I don't understand how this question relates to your selection criteria for this job. Perhaps you could explain to me why I am being asked this question so I can make sure I give you a relevant answer."

Solving problems in real time still important

On the other hand, Google is on to something. They think, as we do, that having candidates solve work-relevant problems is a strong predictor of future performance in addition to having them recount what they have done in the past. The blender question, for instance, is designed to measure a talent for invention. We think that problem questions can be effective if they are truly relevant and the answers can't be faked.

But those are two big "ifs," and many oddball questions seem to fail in one or both regards. We feel that continued corporate use of such questions, while certain to create a lot of online buzz, is, by and large, a risky way to treat candidates and a trivializing of the responsibility of selecting suitable talent for a company's future.

Possible answers to the blender riddle:

1. Lie down below the blades or stand to the side of the blades. There should be at least a nickel's width of clearance between the whirring blades and the bottom or sides of the blender jar.

2. Leap out of the blender. If were you shrunk to 1/10 your present height, your muscles would be only 1/100 as powerful—but you'd weigh a mere 1/1,000 as much. All else being equal, small creatures are "stronger" in lifting their bodies against gravity. Were you shrunk to nickel size, you'd be strong enough to leap like Superman, right out of the blender.