Weird interview questions: pointless or necessary?

From ‘What’s your favourite colour’, to ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time’, just how useful are curveball questions in interviews?

Job interviews can be nerve-wracking enough for applicants, without having to worry about bizarre questions that might be aimed at them.

Unusual questions can be very useful in interviews, (particularly if the applicant appears to be a little too well-rehearsed), but sometimes the questions can end up having no relation to the position you’re interviewing for.

What is an unusual question?

Director of web marketing agency THREE-SIXTY, Ian Whiteling, has come across his fair share of useless questions.

“One question I was asked was: ‘If yellow is over here, and blue is over there, where are you?’,” he recalls. “I wanted to say that it was impossible to answer as I was colour blind, but in the end I said that I was in the middle encouraging blue and yellow to work together to make green.”

Whiteling got the job. Whether it was on the strength of that answer, or whether that was simply put in to entertain the interviewers during a gruelling interviewing session is uncertain. However, his sharp answer sends out the signal that he is a team player with strong liaison and communications skills, so perhaps the question wasn’t quite as pointless as it initially seemed.

Whiteling has had a fair share of useless questions, and so far he’s also come across: “If you were a hot dog, would you eat yourself”, and “What’s your theme song”.

The random nature of these questions means it’s almost impossible for applicants to prepare a structured answer, and they can go into an interview expecting the unexpected.

Are unusual questions useful?

Not all recruiters are convinced. Despite his own interesting answers, Whiteling, (who has also recruited), is not convinced by off-the-wall interview questions.

“The weird and wonderful questions that you hear about and occasionally experience are often about seeing how candidates react to bizarre situations, or are asked with the aim of revealing key personality traits,” he says.

“However, in the first instance it would make far more sense to ask the candidate to give an example of an unusual or stressful situation they found themselves in and how they dealt with it”

“With respect to the second aim, you won’t be able to accurately gauge a candidate’s personality through asking one question. If you want to assess this, it makes more sense to use one of the off-the-shelf psychometric tests that are available. I’m not totally convinced by these either, but at least they are scientific in their approach.”

The benefits of unusual questioning

While some recruiters are dubious about unusual questions, others can see the benefits of twisting the usual interview questions. Professional recruiter Lucy Salmon, direct and digital marketing senior consultant at Major Players, actually believes that there “is no such thing as a pointless interview question”.

“I’ve had clients who have asked someone what’s 12 divided by 0.6, or what’s the last song you listened to on your iPod, and even though this seems pointless, it is actually a way of finding out what drives them, what kind of person they are and how they work,” she says.

“In the creative industry, personality and culture fit is a massive part of it, so with every answer you are always looking to find out more about a person.”

Common interview mistakes

Perhaps it’s the more common interview questions, rather than the bizarre that are actually the most pointless.

“The one that interviewers like to ask is ‘What is your weakness?’,” says editor Daney Parker. “As if anyone would tell the truth, and reply something like: ‘I’m really lazy’, or ‘I pretend to be sick when I’m not’, or ‘I drink too much’!”

“We all know we are supposed to say we are perfectionists and take work home with us. When I’m asked this question I always avoid it by saying that I know the right answer is to say that I’m a perfectionist and work too hard, and the interviewer has always laughed and left it there.”

For the managing director of recruitment agency Lipton Fleming, Emy Rimble-Mettle, the problem is it not these questions are pointless, but rather that they are asked habitually. Others include “Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?” and “Can you work under pressure?”

“They get rolled out for every interview and unfortunately graduates and many of the under-30s are so well versed in answering them that they seem a bit worthless or irrelevant,” she says. “It should be about digging deeper and trying to understand real personal motivations and drivers.”

Really pointless questions

So if the bizarre and the mundane interview questions have at least some merit, what are the really pointless ones?

“The most common pointless questions are the ones that bear no relevance to the role or the level of seniority of the person being interviewed and the position they are being interviewed for,” says recruitment consultant Judith Armitage.

“Known as hypothetical questions, they are where the interviewer asks a low-level employee what they would do to fix x, y and z if they were chief executive  or the Prime Minister.

“On a similar theme,” she continues, “what is the point of asking: ‘What would you do if a fire broke out or a bomb went off right now?’, unless you are recruiting for a fire supervisor or safety role? Also, another waste of time are closed questions, where the interviewer is simply reading off a candidate’s CV.  These make the interviewee simply answer yes, yes, yes, and are useless unless clarifying something in particular.”

So the key is that you can pretty much ask what you want, as long as you have a concrete reason for doing so and it relates directly to the role.

Otherwise, you’re not only wasting a candidate’s time, but also your own and undermining their chances of successfully filling the vacancy.

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