Companies & Industries

Stupid Interview Questions


By Liz Ryan It isn't much fun being a corporate human resources person, but the job offers one treat: You get to dream up outlandish interview questions to throw at job candidates, then watch them squirm. Some of these goofy questions are time-honored -- they may not be useful, but they've become an HR tradition. Others are hot off the press. Here's a tour through the world of wacky queries -- so you'll be prepared the next time you're hit with one in an interview:

Where do you see yourself in five years?

This is the great-granddaddy of goofy questions, and I give you permission, if you have any misgivings about a job opportunity, to walk out the doorhen you hear it. It's such a time-waster that only the most hidebound interviewers will utter it, but it lives on.

Here's why it's dumb. No company will guarantee you a job for five years, much less a career path. To construct such a plan for yourself, you'd have to make predictions about industries, companies, and your likes and dislikes that could only serve to constrain your choices. And in any case, why is it so all-fired important to have a dang career plan in mind? Every successful entrepreneur and many top corporate people will tell you their key to success: I did what I felt driven to do at the moment.

So when you get asked this question, you can say: "I intend to be happy and productive five years from now, working at a job I love in a company that values my talents" and leave it at that. Or you can give the expected answer and say: "I hope to be three levels up the ladder, here at Happy Corp." Or you can say: "I hope to own this company," just to shake things up.

But for an interviewer to ask the question at all is a bad sign. Come on, people! There are millions of thoughts in the human brain. Can we change the ones we use in job interviews every decade or so?

If you were an animal/a can of soup/some other random object, which one would you be?

This is a question typically asked of new grads, because it's considered cute. It's supposed to test how people think. But it's asinine. You can pretend to think about your answer for a moment (eyes to the ceiling, chin resting on hand) and then come up with something. Or stare blankly at the interviewer and say,deadpan: "Are you serious?" Or try one of these answers:

(Animal) "Oh, any crepuscular animal would do well for me -- a rabbit or a bat, perhaps." (Crepuscular means most active during dawn and dusk, so you'll get to show off your extensive vocab.)

(Soup) "Probably the low-sodium chicken broth." Fix the interviewer with a penetrating gaze -- she won't know whether you're mocking her imbecilic question or are deadly serious.

What are your weaknesses?

By now, such a large percentage of the job-seeking public has gotten clued in on the politically correct answer to this one -- which is, "I'm a hopeless workaholic" -- that the question's utility is limited. But it's also offensive.

This is a job interview, not a psychological exam. It's one thing for an interviewer to ask you what you do particularly well. It's another thing to ask what you don't do well and expect to get a forthright answer -- in a context where it's clear to both parties that you're being weeded in or out. The most honest answer might be this: "That's for me to know and you to find out." But that won't help your chances.

So if you can't bear to repeat the "workaholic" line, I'd say something that is true of yourself but also terribly common -- like the fact that you get bored easily, or prefer numbers to people or vice versa. None of these is actually a weakness, but that's O.K.

What in particular interested youabout our company?

Now, on one level this is a reasonable question. If you say: "I'm interested in this job because it's three blocks from my apartment," you might not be the world's best candidate. But the disingenuous, and therefore offensive, aspect of this question is that it assumes that you have unlimited job opportunities and have pinpointed this one because of some dazzling aspect of the role or the company.

I mean, please. Most of the job-seeking population is living on the lower two-thirds of Maslow's pyramid, where the most appealing thing about any job is that you got the darned interview. Why am I interested? Because you guys called me back. But you can't say that, so you have to rhapsodize about the company's wonderful products and services and the world-class management team and so on.

Now, it's important to show that you know a lot about the company. But you have lots of ways to demonstrate that in an interview (and lots of ways for the interviewer to ask you to do so) without pretending that the company had to fight every employer in town to get an audience with you. Everybody involved knows the company is shredding 10 times the number of résumés it's reading, so let's not pretend it was your breathtaking credentials that gotyou the interview. It was the fact thatthe company responded toyour overture,unlike 90% of the employersyou contacted.

Below the director level or so, where it might be reasonable to assume you sought out the company for particular job-hunting attention, it's not necessary to pretend that you carefully chose it from a raft of others pursuing you. So unless you approached the outfit in the absence of a posted job opportunity, it's just silly to ask: "Why us?"

Rather, the interviewer can say: "When you saw our ad on Monster.com, what made you respond?" And, of course, the logical answer is: "Because I know I can do the job that was posted." Duh. No one said job-hunting was easy.

What would your past managers say about you?

This is a fine question, but it's not a true interview question. It's an intelligence question. It's like the question on one of those "honesty" tests that are becoming more and more popular in the hiring process (to add insult to injury, they're often called Personality Profiles): "Do you think it's O.K. to steal from your employer?"

These are intelligence questions because you have to have the intelligence to know the answer in order to be smart enough to go and get a job.

The trick here is to say something sufficiently witty or pithy to make you stand out from the crowd, because the standard answers are so tired: My managers would say that I'm hard-working, loyal, reliable, and a great team player. Snoozeville.

Why not try: My past managers would say that I was an outstanding individual contributor who also supported the team 100%. Or: My managers would say that I came up with breakthrough solutions while never losing track of the bottom line. You can probably dream up something better.

The point is, this is a softball: Don't think too much about it. It says more about the interviewer (who lacks the moxie to think up unique or penetrating questions) than it ever will about you.

The secret of good job interviewers is that they never ask traditional, dorky interview questions. They don't need to. They jump into a business conversation that does three powerful things in a one-hour chat:

a) Gets you excited about this opportunity (or, as valuably, makes it clear that you and this job are not a good fit)

b) Reveals to the interviewer how you'll fit into the role and the company, based on your background, perspective, temperament, and ideas

c) Gives you a ton of new information about the job, the management, the goals, the culture, and what life at this joint would be like.

If any of this doesn't happen, it's a problem.If you're lukewarm on the job when you leave the interview, or if you don't feel you've had a chance to show what you know and how you think, or -- worst of all -- if the interviewer used your time together to satisfy his need for more information about you while sharing almost nothing about the job, that's an enormous red flag.

And if you get called back for a second interview while you're still information-deprived, say so. "I'm interested in learning more about the opportunity before a second interview," you can say. "Would a phone call with the hiring manager be an effective way to help me get up to speed?" That kind of suggestion respects the hiring manager's time and won't waste yours on a second, no-new-data interview.

Try it. You might save yourself some aggravation -- along with some extra time you can use to work on your five-year career plan and on tackling those pesky weaknesses of yours before the next interview. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT


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