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How to answer those bizarre riddle questions in a job interview

These hacks can help you feel more confident, no matter what unusual question is thrown your way.

How to answer those bizarre riddle questions in a job interview
[Photo: rawpixel]
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My niece Marley recently had a job interview for a quirky Michigan-based retailer. Towards the end of the interview, the manager asked her: “If Batman and Lobster Boy got into a fight, who would win?”

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Her response? “Is the fight above or below water?”

She was hired on the spot.

I admit, I would have folded under that type of question and probably chosen Batman for no other reason than he’s Batman. But questions like this are more commonplace as companies try to screen for culture add.

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In his book, How Do You Fight a Horse-Sized Duck? Secrets to Succeeding at Interview Mind Games and Getting the Job You Want, author William Poundstone offers insight and help. Poundstone admits he’s always been good at puzzles. After receiving several emails from friends who were going on job interviews and getting these riddle-like questions, he decided to write a book on the topic, collecting the unusual questions and offering advice on how to answer them.

“There are a lot of reasons companies ask these questions,” he says. “In tech, it’s almost a tradition to ask off-the-wall questions. This is also the case with startups that have a unique culture. For example, [eyeglass retailer] Warby Parker [managers] asks, ‘What’s the last costume you wore?’ They’re assuming you go to costume parties, which, in their opinion, means you’re hip.”

Why Creative Questions Are Effective

Candidates sometimes assume that creative questions are there to trick them, but the goal is to get the person out of the traditional interview mode. Everyone walks in with standard prepackaged answers to questions like, “Talk about a time when you disagreed your supervisor.” Or “What’s one of your biggest weaknesses?”

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When the interviewer asks something out of left field, they can see how well the candidate handles a challenge. The added benefit is that these questions can help remove unconscious bias.

“There is an awful lot of subjectivity in interviewing,” says Poundstone. “It’s an exercise in confirmation bias. Interviewers make snap judgement about applicants when they come in, and they ask softball questions to confirm what they already think.”

The advantage to asking creative questions is they don’t always have a right or wrong answer, and they can provide a reality check when properly used, says Poundstone.

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“The questions should deal with intangibles that are not on a résumé,” he says. “It’s checking to see if the person can think on their feet, which can indicate how well they learn on the job. The best way to use them is to make them standardized, asking the same question to each person so you have some baseline for evaluating. If you ask a different question, you’re in danger of giving an easier question to someone you like.”

How to Answer Them

If you’re the interviewee, these questions can be nerve-wracking. Poundstone says there are several hacks you can use to answer them. Consider this question: A hammer and a nail cost $1.10. The hammer costs a dollar more than the nail. How much does the nail cost?

The answer is five cents, although many of us (myself included) may quickly say, “a dime.”

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“When an answer immediately pops into your head, it’s almost certain to be wrong,” says Poundstone. “That fact gives you a lifeline.”

Poundstone likens these riddle questions to the rule, Measure twice, cut once. Instead of sitting silently, pondering the answer in your head, he recommends working through the problem aloud.

“You can say, ‘Well, the obvious answer is 10 cents, but I know the obvious is never right,'” he suggests. “If you talk about your first impression without giving it as an answer, you take control of the situation. Then you can rule out the obvious wrong answer. Do not be silent. Just like a podcast, you don’t want dead air while you’re thinking. The interviewer doesn’t know your brilliant thoughts.”

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If the answer to the question is more of an opinion, like the one my niece tackled, ask questions of your own to gather more information … and buy a little time, Poundstone suggests.

“Narrow down what the interviewer is getting at,” he says. “Also, try to bring it back to the job requirements, even if it feels frivolous. Make the most of every opportunity. Even a seemingly dumb question could be a chance to present your qualifications.”

Finally, forewarned is forearmed, and some of the questions that companies ask are available online. “Interviewers are aware that the questions are out there,” says Poundstone. “One I spoke to for the book said they’re not concerned that people have already seen the question. If they’ve gone to the trouble, they’re motivated, which is the best thing you can be.”

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The more you know, the more you feel in command. Kind of like Batman.