Why Oddball Interview Questions Don’t Work

Agitated Interviewer after asking an Odd-Ball questionIf you haven’t been on the receiving end of them yourself, you’ve probably heard about oddball interview questions, like:

 “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

“What would I find in your refrigerator right now?”

“What kind of animal are you most like?”

If you’re hiring and you’re tempted to use questions like this, think again. They’ll rarely elicit useful information, and they’ll alienate most candidates.

Great candidates want to spend the interview talking about their background, the job you have open, and what they might bring to it. Start asking goofy questions about what kind of tree they’d be, and plenty of great candidates will be annoyed and question why you’re wasting their time – and plenty will decide they’re not a good fit with a hiring manager who hires this way. After all, interviews aren’t just about determining whether you want to hire the candidate. Good candidates will also be using the time to figure out whether they even want the job – and, if you’re the manager of the position, whether they want to work for you.

You should spend your time when interviewing probing into the candidate’s qualifications – asking in-depth questions about how they’ve operated in the past, talking over challenges they’ll face in this position and how they’ve responded to similar situations, giving them opportunities to simulate the work, and helping them get a better understanding of the job they’d be signing up for. If you start asking about the contents of their refrigerator, you’ll squander your time to do these things, and you’ll raise concerns about your ability to build and manage a high-performing team.

Not sure what to ask when you’re interviewing? Here are five questions that won’t waste your time or the candidate’s with goofy hypotheticals and will get you real information to help determine who to hire:

  • What has your biggest achievement been at ___? What results there that you produced are you most proud of? (Then ask the same question for other jobs they’ve had. You’re looking for someone with a pattern of taking things from X to Y — with Y being greater than X.)
  • This role requires a great deal of ___. Tell me about times in the past when you’ve had to use that skill.
  • It must have been hard to do ___. How did you approach that?
  • Tell me about a time when _____ (you were faced with a difficult challenge / you had to win over an unhappy customer / you faced an unreasonable deadline). What did you do? What did you do next? What happened after that? What was the result? Would you do anything differently?
  • If I were to talk to your previous managers, what would they say are the things you’re best at? What would they say you need to improve in?

Truly probe into the candidate’s ability to do the job, avoid the goofy questions, and you’ll make better hires.

Are you guilty of using any of the hypothetical oddball questions?  What are your favorite interview questions?  

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • JennyO

    I was asked why manhole covers are round. I had no idea, and I don’t like being put on the spot. I’m told the reason for these questions is to gauge your critical thinking skills, but I seriously don’t see it.

    [Reply]

    Nathan Reply:

    Manhole covers are round so the covers can’t be dropped down the holes.

    [Reply]

    Anony Reply:

    That’s a tricky question. The manhole covers are not always round, they can be rectangular, squares…I’ve even seen triangle shaped covers. So it depends upon need or looks.

    [Reply]

    thomast Reply:

    This is a relatively famous one because it got written up as a frequent question asked of Microsoft and/or Google prospects. For software and other engineering jobs, which clearly require critical thinking & problem solving skills, I think that’s a legitimate area to probe. But if some hiring manager read about it and stuck into their question bank, and started asking it without thinking through what information might be gained from the answer, that’s dumb.

    [Reply]

    cheeeees Reply:

    Because the manholes are round

    [Reply]

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  • resumestoyou.info

    I agree with you that an interviewer should ask logical and related questions regarding their job, previous job, background.

    [Reply]

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  • Carol

    This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything about the interview being a two-way street. I agree.
    I have always been gauging the interviewer and the company as well. They always seem to assume you definitely want the job or are desperate. I had one interview panel put chairs out and surround me in the middle of the floor (with me in the center). The ones in front of me so violated my personal space that their knees were touching my knees. Obviously an intimidation tactic, but I don’t know why. I was just offensive. Who would want to work for an employer like that? There was one interviewer who was so offensive and insulting that I got up half-way through the interview and left. He thought I didn’t have a right to leave because he hadn’t given me permission (he “wasn’t through yet”) and actually got up to try to physically block me from leaving. Wow – I already had work so wasn’t desperate, but I’d rather be unemployed than knowingly place myself under the power of such people. I think a lot of bad job matches would be prevented if candidates realized they are also interviewing a potential employer.

    [Reply]