Why Do Interviewers Feel Like They Need To Stump Candidates With Way Out Questions?

There are certain urban legends and wives tales about way-off-base questions being posed during interviews in an attempt to ascertain the candidates thinking process and stamina under pressure that have found their way onto the internet recently.  If truth be told, some of those “interesting” questions are part and parcel of the standard operating procedure for some interviews and some professions.

The question that get the most play is one that can be traced back to Microsoft:  Why is a manhole cover round?  I remember my son being asked this question for a financial position as he was looking for work right out of college.  Of course his first response was what is a manhole cover?  Being a suburban kid and not one that learned how to play stickball on the streets of the Bronx he had never heard the term before.

According to a recent posting by Cindy Perman of CNBC.com the appropriate answers to the manhole question are:

* so they won’t fall in the hole

* a square cover, if tilted can fall into a square hole

* because they are heavy and that way you can roll them

* because the hole is round

The only wrong answer to this and probably most of the other “out of right field” questions according to Rusty Rueff, a career and workplace expert for Glassdoor.com is to say “I don’t know.”

One must ask:  Why do interviewers believe they need to ask such questions?  I guess you can call them ice breakers or questions that are aimed to loosen up the candidate, but seriously, What are your expectations with such questions?  I guess the answer is in what kind of job you are interviewing for? 

There is certainly much to be gained from such a question if you are inquiring about the mindset of an engineering student or maybe even a tactician, but do you really want an answer to such a question like that from someone who is going to drive a bus or sell the next new laptop at the local electronics store?

I know that interviews have a certain personality and hopefully, through the design of the interviewer can truly be a composite of what you as a candidate can bring to this new employer but I hope we are beyond playing games of how to stump the candidate.  The same article on CNBC.com highlighted a question raised in an interview at Apple: “Why was your GPA not a 4.0?

I guess you can give the interviewer some creative points for trying to assess if this candidate was a party-goer, but if you were just trying to stump the candidate there must be more direct ways of achieving that.  The posting stated that an answer saying that I was sucked into frat parties might not be the appropriate answer but that if you stated: “I was so interested in my engineering classes that I didn’t give as much time to History or English” that you might be right on target for that technology position with Steve Jobs in northern California.

One recruiter in the article stated that they pose these wacky questions just for some fun and in attempt to see what kind of reaction one would get.  I suppose if laughter, panic and fright are results you are looking for, that such an approach can certainly work for you.

Maybe instead of asking a question like:  “Who would you fire right away?” (a question apparently a favorite for management candidates) that you may want to have the interviewee give his track record on how he has handled the awkward and humbling process of letting someone go. 

Wouldn’t you rather want to know who are my heroes or my mentors than “How do they get the M on M & M’s?; which is a true question posed to someone interviewing for an attorney position.

I think you would be more interested in what are my hobbies or what do I do for relaxation than “How many dogs in the world have the same exact number of hairs?, which is a real question asked of a candidate for a financial job.

Obviously as a candidate you need to be prepared for anything in an interview but the interviewer need not act like Perry Mason in his attempt to stump the witness on the stand.  Preparation is essential for both participants at the table and it is imperative for the candidate to be able to position himself as the answer to any question they may have. 

Eye contact, calmness and passion for who you are and the job before you are the only traits you need to make sure the interviewer takes away from your time together.   Obviously you want to have fun while participating in the interview but reminding yourself that the ultimate goal is being chosen for this job will certainly be cause enough to be prepared.

Prepare for the worst in any interview but don’t get yourself into such a frenzy that you blow it.  There is enough anxiety around the table without worrying about the next “out of right field” question.  Obviously never say you don’t know to such a question, but on the other hand never say a falsehood or stumble for an answer.  Keep your cool and the positive results will follow you everywhere.


One thought on “Why Do Interviewers Feel Like They Need To Stump Candidates With Way Out Questions?

  1. Companies that play games with your head during the interview will continue to play games with your head throughout your employment. I have almost 15 years of Human Resources experience and I’ve always steered clear of these tactics. A professional HR person will always as it unnecessarily exposes the company to nonstandard interviewing practices, i.e., unqualified psychological testing, cultural bias.. the list goes on. Asking these types of questions is the mark of an inexperienced (or arrogant) interviewer.

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