William Poundstone Talks To Bookbag About Job Interviews

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William Poundstone Talks To Bookbag About Job Interviews

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Summary: Ever since we read Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google? we've been trying out the questions on each other. William Poundstone popped into Bookbag Towers and chatted to us about some of the questions which are asked at job interviews.
Date: 5 April 2012

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No, Really — How Weird Are You?

By William Poundstone

Imagine that you are interviewing a politician or celebrity and are allowed to pose one question only. Is it possible to plumb the human soul in a single question?

I suspect the answer is "no," but that hasn't stopped people from trying. Revealing questions have become part of job interviewing. For over a decade, I've been collecting the unusual and sometimes bizarre questions that employers put to potential employees. I'm talking about questions like,

"On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?" (asked at Zappos)

"If you could be any superhero, who would it be?" (AT&T)

"What would be your last meal, if you could choose anything?" (Whole Foods)

"How many garbage collectors are there in California?" (Apple)

"I'm thinking of number between 1 and 100. You have three guesses." (Expedia)

"How do you feel about ambiguity?" (Starbucks)

Actually, you'd better be cool with ambiguity, and not just if you're angling for a job as barista. Questions like these usually have no "right" answer. They are home-brewed personality tests. These questions are intended to gauge "culture fit"—how well the applicant would fit in with the company and its people. In today's narcissistic workplaces, companies have personalities, and the job interview is speed dating. This style of interviewing has become more common as the job market has turned grim. Now that firms have ten qualified applicants for every open position, they feel an obligation to be picky about whom they hire. Why choose anyone who isn't absolutely perfect?

Take the "how weird are you?" question. The interviewer who asks this question is in fact saying something about himself. He clearly sees himself as a creative type, and he sees the company as a haven for hipsters. Assuming you still want the job, you'll have to draw on that cue. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh explained that they're looking for an answer in the middle. A 1 is "probably a little too straight-laced for us," Hsieh said, and a 10 "might be too psychotic." Zappos, in case you didn't know, sells shoes online.

Where do these questions come from? One root may be "Oxbridge questions." Applicants to Oxford and Cambridge have long been subjected to grueling interviews featuring oddball questions such as "Does a Girl Guide have a political agenda?" or "How much of the world's water is contained in a cow?" This is intended as a test of whether the prospective scholar can do something more than recite what he's been taught.

The puzzle idea was taken up by IBM in interviewing computer programmers in the 1950s. It's since become associated with technology companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook. “You have a bouquet of flowers," runs one interview riddle. "All but two are roses, all but two are daisies, and all but two are tulips. How many flowers do you have?”

In a way these are culture fit questions too. The people who enjoy these questions, or at least don't think them insufferable, are brainy types who may fit in well at a company where everyone is a computer science PhD working 60-hour weeks. (The correct answer to the flowers question: There are three flowers, one of each.)

Today's job interviews are often conducted by rank-and-file employees rather than human resources professionals. These citizen-interviewers are often unsure what to ask. They are also often bored and like to spice things up by tossing in an unusual question or two. The trend can be self-perpetuating. Off-the-wall questions are easier to remember than plain old boring questions and tend to get asked again. This is the age of interviewing by meme.

The cult of culture fit, like everything else, demands to be taken in moderation. The irony is that employers are more "diversity" conscious than ever—while also more obsessed than ever with finding employees whose personalities are exactly like those of the ones they've already got. There is a paradox there, right?

The consulting firm Accenture is said to have originated the following quartet of facetious interview questions (though it turns up at other companies). The jest speaks a truth: All-powerful employers and pop psychology have stacked the deck against today's job seekers.

1. "How do you put a giraffe in a refrigerator?" The job applicant fumbles and is told the correct answer: "Open the refrigerator, put in the giraffe, and close the door."

2. "How do you put an elephant in a refrigerator?" The correct answer: "Open the refrigerator, take out the giraffe, put in the elephant, and close the door." The interviewer explains, "this question tests your ability to recognize the consequences of your actions."

3. "The Lion King is holding an animal conference. All the animals attend except one. Which one?" The correct answer: "The elephant. You put him in the refrigerator." The interviewer adds, "This question tests your memory. You’ve now got one final chance to prove yourself."

4. "You have to cross a river in crocodile country and don’t have a boat. How do you get across?" The correct answer: "You swim. The crocodiles are all attending the animal conference." Explains the interviewer, "This tests how well you learn from your mistakes."

—William Poundstone is the author of Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google? (Oneworld)