These two trendy interview practices need to stop

No, offbeat questions don’t help you learn how someone will work under pressure.

These two trendy interview practices need to stop
[Photo: Mark Flanders/Unsplash]

Want to get hired by Elon Musk? According to the Musk biography written by Ashlee Vance, you’ll have to answer this question:


You’re standing on the surface of Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?

The two right answers are the North Pole and the South Pole (here’s the explanation). If you didn’t get it right, don’t worry. Musk hired some people who got it wrong. Unfortunately, tricky interview practices like Musk’s are becoming more commonplace as some hiring managers believe that intimidating questions give them a glimpse at what an applicant is like under pressure, says Kyle M.K., author of The Economics of Emotion: How to Build a Business Everyone Will Love.

“If they see you keeping your cool, you’d be someone they would like to hire,” he says. “But the interview process will make anyone nervous so they’re already seeing an applicant in an intimidating situation. Unless the entire job is intimidating, the interview is focused on all of the wrong things.”

Unusual or tricky interview practices may backfire, however, and not help with the hiring process at all. Here are two that need to be retired:

Unrealistic hypothetical situations

Musk used his brainteaser to test a candidate’s process of analysis, but some managers take it too far, using bizarre scenarios.

“A question like, ‘What would you do if a clown was running at you with knife?’ is usually meant to determine how well someone listens and how quickly they can solve a problem,” says M.K. “But the hypothetical situation never gives you enough information, and you expect the candidate to respond with, ‘I would do this perfect thing.'”


Wacky questions out of left field that have no relevance to the day-to-day job don’t help you to pick good candidates, says cognitive scientist (and Fast Company contributor)  Art Markman, author of Bring Your Brain To Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do It Well, and Advance Your Career.

“Most of what people are called on to do on a daily basis is to use their knowledge,” he says. “Part of what you want to understand about a candidate is what do they know and how willing are they to learn new things? Giving some bizarre question about being trapped on desert island or stuck in a locked room may be a fun party game, but it’s not going to tell you about what the person knows and what they want to learn.”

Some people will freeze up in ways that are not at all indicative of the performance they’d give on the job, says Markman. “It’s utterly unhelpful when it has nothing to do with job performance,” he says. “If I came across a situation with no idea how to address it, I wouldn’t stumble around to come up with solution. I would find someone who had experience in that domain and ask them. Wouldn’t you want that in an employee?”

If you’re asked a trick question, Markman suggests asking for more information. “If I was fairly new to the job market and someone asked me a question like that, I would a start saying, ‘What are you trying to get out of this question? What do you really want to know? Do you want to know how I solve problems in an area I know nothing about? Do you want to see how willing I am to go along with a new game? I’m willing, but I want to know what you are hoping to learn here.'”

Or if you’re the interviewer, ask questions where a candidate already has enough information but maybe they hadn’t thought of answer, suggests M.K. “For example, ‘When do you think they’ll make human drivers illegal?'” he says. “Questions like this get into someone’s psyche to see what they believe in.”

Social experiments

Another bad interview tactic is performing social experiments on interviewees, says M.K. One of his friends was in a third and final interview when the creative director who was interviewing him asked if he wanted a cup of water and then added, “Ice or no ice?”


“My friend answered, ‘Ice would be fine,’ and when the creative director came back with a cup of water with no ice, my friend noticed the CD was intensely focused on my friend’s face to see how he would react,” says M.K. “My friend didn’t react because it wasn’t a big deal to him, but when he didn’t get the job he started to think, ‘Maybe I should have said something.'”

“What kind of social situation are you creating when you deliberately don’t bring something someone asked for,” comments Markman. “On an early interaction, you want someone to call you out? Is that what you’re doing? Who thought that was a good idea?”

Experiments are common in group interviews. M.K. worked for Apple as a project lead in 2011 and says that social tests were part of the process.

“They would divide applicants into groups of four and five and give them an object, such as an extension cord, a piece from a table, or a honeycomb speaker,” he says. “They would ask the group to give us the features and benefits of this object, but to think of it as something else.”

Mentors and managers would observe the groups to see if someone took the lead, checked out, or took over, says M.K.

“The weird thing is that we were hiring people to be individual contributors, but we were judging them based off of a group activity,” he says. “Putting people in situations they wouldn’t encounter on the job is a broken system.”


Why they’re bad

Hiring managers should carefully consider how they treat applicants because the interview structure reveals a lot about organizations, says Markman. “It’s easy to create interviews that play a game of gotcha; I asked a hard question and if you don’t get it right I’ve taught you,” he says. “We all have gaps in knowledge, and no one hired will already know every single thing they need to know to do the job. People want to work for companies that help them grow instead of prove that they’re somehow deficient.”

By using nontraditional interviewing tactics, candidates aren’t able to show their true selves, says M.K. “This can lead to some bad hires,” he says. “If you want great employees and you want to see someone’s true authentic self as quickly as possible, then make them feel comfortable during the interview process and do it as quickly as possible.”