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January 2010

Interviewing Going Rogue


Around this time each year lots of lists get complied on events of the past year.   A few weeks ago the Web 2.0 career transition site Glassdoor.com created a list of the top 25 oddball interview questions. Of these questions over half were measuring problem solving skills, while about a quarter focused on assessing personality and the remaining quarter on creativity. 


Examples of these questions are:

  • What is your best McGuyver moment?
  •  How would you move Mount Fuji?
  •  What is your favorite food?
  • Tell me how you would determine how many house painters are in the United States.

Smart Questions Can Lead to Unpredictable Answers


While these questions are intriguing and sometimes funny, they do point an unsettling trend in employment interviewing. That is, moving away from asking questions that can be reliably evaluated to more creative questions that send all sorts of mixed signals to job candidates. 


Most of the companies associated with this list of questions have the reputation of hiring really smart people. I get the impression that these overly smart interviewers are trying to out-smart their smart candidates. It may be less important what the candidate’s response actually means, than satisfying the interviewer’s need to just show a candidate how smart he or she is.


Historically, interviewing has been shown to be one of the least valid methods for pre-employment selection.  But it continues today to be the most utilized assessment approach to hiring.  It is rare that anyone hires sight unseen. It is only human nature that we all need to validate our gut feelings about a candidate.


In recent years interview predictive accuracy has improved considerably. This is primarily due to the use of structured behavioral based interviewing techniques (e.g., “Tell about a time when you…”) and the implementation of structured approaches for scoring candidates answers.  All this helps clarify what constructs (e.g., personality characteristics, ability, experience, organizational culture fit, etc.) the interview questions are measuring as well as improving the consistency and accuracy of rating candidate answers on some continuum (e.g., Excellent-Poor, High-Low). 


Now it seems like all this progress is being thrown out the window to focus on asking clever questions without regard to the development of a way to reliably evaluate answers.


Candidate Reactions


On the flip side is what candidates think of these questions.  Asking such oddball questions may create a negative impression of the company.  But if you’re a highly desirable employer, with candidates lined up to work there regardless of their feelings about the hiring process, this may not be a big concern. 


On the other hand, such questions do give candidates an insight into the culture and style of managers and leaders.  Comments written by candidates on the Glassdoor.com blog site indicate that the arrogance that comes through this sort of questioning continues after candidates are hired.


The blog comments strongly suggest that candidates are expecting straightforward yet thought provoking questions.  Those couched in terms of the typical behavioral based question format appear to be viewed more favorably than these odd ball questions.




One way to help eliminate the need to ask such questions is to move some of the assessment process to formal tests.  This does not mean that a hiring manager should make up the test. Rather, use a test developed by professionals.


Simply asking these oddball questions in a test format does not change the accuracy of the assessment.  For example, I have seen a highly sought after employer employment test that asks candidates to write a haiku.  I think we would all agree that this very much an atypical question. First it assumes that the candidate knows what a haiku is and how to construct one. Second, if there isn’t some sort of scoring guideline, how does one evaluate the answer?  For this question to have any validity answers need to be linked to the specific construct it is measuring (e.g., creativity, verbal ability, risk taking).

Providing hiring managers with interview training on what questions to ask and more importantly, what questions not to ask continues to be a good solution. So does just having a social two-way conversation.


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