January 25, 2012
Elephants, aliens and other interview tests of character
Recently, glassdoor.com released its Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions of 2011. It's a worthy read and a good self-test. Statistically, the chances are low that you would get one of these fringe questions -- but what if you did?
In a competitive economy, employers are sifting through heaps of qualified applicants. Maybe asking about garden gnomes is what it takes to find the right one. Maybe, if you can turn a wacky interview question on its head, the right hire will be you.
I once went on a job interview that was like an episode of "The Twilight Zone." It was an opening for a reporter at a small newspaper in the California high desert, a depressed town with a name that sounded like a federal penitentiary and a thermometer that flirted with 107 on a cool day in spring.
I was a new college grad, but this was before the economy slid into the basement so I had reason to be hopeful. And maybe a bit cocky. I had lined up many other interviews, and from the moment I drove into Penitentiary Town I had already decided the place was too remote, too dust-obscured, too small-time for a San Francisco hotshot like me.
Maybe they knew this, the editors who were waiting for me. One, the news editor, conducted a strange and rambling interview with me and then, toward the end, threw me the most unexpected curveball of all.
Handing me a pen and legal pad (I am not so old that there were not computers readily available at every workstation), he said, "I want you to make up a news story and write it."
Um, make it up? I checked, just to be certain. Surely this odd but seasoned editor could not be asking me to invent a story? For a job as reporter? Wherein my job description would be, above all, to tell the truth? I could go into town and really report a story, or write from a set of facts, but make it up?
Fine, I thought, shaking my head. These were crazy people in a crazy place, so I would show them. I scribbled for 20 minutes and looked up smugly when I was done. My interview was over and I knew they would read my story later, after I'd gone. I was glad not to be there when they did. I wrote about aliens.
Specifically, I wrote about an alien spacecraft landing in the town and the ensuing emergency scenario. I really did. I wrote about aliens.
It embarrasses me now, because I think I likely failed the test (however weird and Twilight-Zoneish it was): I think that editor wanted to know more about what I'd do than what I'd write about. Was it a trick question? Could I have used it to my advantage (assuming I had wanted the job)? Was that "assignment" an opportunity to show my character and values as a potential employee?
I'll never know. But I learned from it. Ultimately, weird interview questions strike me foremost as an attempt to get to the candidate's character, something hard to sniff out on a résumé or with traditional questions. The candidate whose character and values shine through would be the one, as an employer, that I would want to hire.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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