Quit with the Stupid Job Interview Questions

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Fortune presents a list of job interview questions that are too clever — I was going to say “by half,” but in fact they’re too clever by about 1000%…if “clever” is even the right word. The article describes these questions as a “desperate measure” that employers have resorted to in light of the fact that there are too many candidates for the jobs available. I’m calling B.S. on that justification (although I don’t doubt for a second that some employers offer that explanation in all seriousness.)

“Too many candidates” is also one of the reasons given for the practice of considering only currently employed candidates for new openings. Anyone who reads this blog knows how I feel about that policy and the employers who follow it. I find it interesting that the glut of candidates is apparently being used to justify a whole host of misguided hiring practices.

Here are a few examples:

“How many bricks are there in Shanghai? Consider only residential buildings.” –Deloitte Consulting

“How would you market ping pong balls if ping pong itself became obsolete? List many ways, then pick one and go into detail.” — Microsoft (MSFT)

“Given the numbers 1 to 1,000, what is the minimum number of guesses needed to find a specific number, if you are given the hint ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ for each guess you make?” — Facebook

“How many balloons would fit in this room?” — PricewaterhouseCoopers

“If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?” — Goldman Sachs (GS)

I love brain teasers and I’m a big fan of lateral thinking puzzles. As part of an exercise given to an individual or team already working for the company, these questions would be fine. But it seems to me that job interviews are nerve-wracking enough without this nonsense, especially in a market where candidates know that, numerically, their chances aren’t great.

Why can’t a job interview just be a conversation? Why does it need to be some elaborate piece of theater or a something akin to an initiation or hazing? I wonder how many of these companies pull brain-teaser questions on potential vendors? And if they don’t, why not?

Questions like these are sometimes used to build a kind of mystique around the company or the position. At this point, based on the list presented in the linked article, pretty much everyone is doing this now.  So much for the mystique.

Maybe now would be a good time for employers to start distinguishing themselves by asking relevant questions. Relevant questions can be just as hard as irrelevant ones, and they can show us as much about how a person thinks as irrelevant ones can. Moreover, as an added bonus, they’re relevant – which means that limiting the interview to them shows a certain amount of courtesy and respect to the candidate. I can think of few other business contexts where it would be considered acceptable to call someone into the office to talk about one thing, and then sit them down with some idiotic hypothetical about being caught in a blender. Why is it suddenly okay to do that when someone comes in looking for a job — because you’ve got them over a barrel?

Hiring companies can do better than this, and should.

UPDATE: In the comments, Joe Brooks recommends this video — which is completely on point:

14 Comments

  1. 2014-10-30 01:17:19

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  2. 2014-09-05 09:42:08

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  3. 2012-06-21 14:18:30

    I'm not sure what the correct answer is to that question, but it would really depend on the size of the balloons and whether or not they're inflated and to what degree of fullness.

  4. 2012-02-04 19:25:19

    The correct answer to most of those is "why do you need to know that?"

  5. 2012-01-31 23:17:13

    Here's a job interview question I will ask: How are you doing today? Next question: Did you find the place alright? Next one: It's a nice day outside, don't you think? Blah blah blah, anyone with a brain can weed out the good from bad without being a tool in the process. Quit fucking with people.

  6. 2011-07-15 17:03:17

    one of the greatest posts i've read.

  7. 2011-07-13 21:16:41

    1024 = 2^10 [Log (base 2) N] -1 would be the expected number of guesses. Log (base 2) N would be the worst case number of guesses. So the minimum would be 1, if you were lucky. The maximum you would ever need is 10 questions if you were maximilly unlucky, (or your reporter was cheating) using interval halving. 500 would be your first guess, then 250 or 750, and so on. You would expect that a golden section search would be somewhat faster, if you were of "average luck". a/b = (1+ sqrt(5))/2 = 1.618 So for a golden section your first guess would be 618, then 382 or 854 depending on if you were high or low. It converges a bit faster in that after 2 questions you have a good chance of being down to 146 instead of 250.

  8. 2011-07-13 20:53:18

    The Facebook question is NOT a stupid one, unless they're intentionally being dicks about the meaning of the word 'needed'. It's a computer science question on a basic topic -- the problem is a form of binary search: the minimum number of guesses *guaranteed* to find the answer is 10, because 2 to the tenth power = 1024. The ideal answer would be to explain this and then also point out that you might get lucky on the first try. It's a way to find out if the applicant is a real software geek, or just a guy/girl wjo 'types stuff' on the computer (whihc is all a lot of CS/IS/IT grads are).

  9. 2011-07-12 20:00:19

    Or, you can offer me a job and I'll tell you.

  10. 2011-07-12 19:57:16

    == == Given the numbers 1 to 1,000, what is the minimum number of guesses needed to find a specific number, if you are given the hint ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ for each guess you make?” — Facebook == == Easy. The minimum is one guess, and you have to be lucky. The MAXIMUM number of guesses needed is much more interesting, left as an exercise for the reader.

  11. 2011-04-06 09:59:00

    I would say that it is all in the preparation for the interview. If you are going to a consulting interview and you are prepared you will know that they will ask you abstract questions. You would also know that it is to see how you tackle problem solving. That said...I am sure they do get entertained too - especially when people are not prepared. I guess the key is to always be prepared for an interview and know what to expect.

  12. 2011-04-06 09:02:44

    RedNeck -- Great story! This sounds more like hazing than testing. If they were testing whether you would honestly admit you don't know something -- you failed both times. And yet you got (and then got to keep) the job. To their credit, even if they were just messing with you, it was all farm-related.

  13. 2011-04-06 07:00:46

    I went to an interview as a agricultural assistant (farm hand). I was asked how long it took me to "render a hectare of corn"? That question puzzled me as much as those mentioned in Phil's blog. I did get the job (It was just a farm hand's position) and first day I was out "rendering" when my foreman asked me to "go get the sky hooks". This was also a test to see how long it would take me to realize that there is no such thing. What they didn't take into account was my stubborn ignorance. I spent three hours investigating and locating "sky hooks". Phil this process is hazing and testing. Enough said.

  14. 2011-04-05 21:25:34

    You mean PriceWaterhouse Coopers consultants don't actually fill rooms with balloons?! I suppose there are so many resources to prep people for interviews that maybe they feel that asking something off the wall will give them insights into coping with the (very) unexpected. Although my money is still on the interviewer just needing entertainment and liking to see the candidate squirm...

  15. 2011-04-05 16:59:47

    Joe -- I agree, but why not floor that would-be management consultant with a really challenging hypothetical...that has something to do with management consulting? I don't see why that couldn't be just as effective.

  16. 2011-04-05 16:34:32

    I guess it really depends on the sort of job you're interviewing for. If you're going to be paid a fortune as a management consultant, they may want to see how you deal with being put on the spot with an awkward problem that puts you on the spot. Otherwise, I think a few interviewees may be reduced to tears by that one! Reading some of those does make you think that some hiring managers just want to be entertained by the answers when sitting through a day of back-to-back interviews. Reminds me of the Monty Python interview sketch... http://tinyurl.com/5va4lvs

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