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Stupid interview questions

August 1, 2002

So the big day finally arrives. You've got an interview at a company where you'd really like to work. You eagerly arrive 15 minutes ahead of schedule, are ushered into a room with three interviewers, and it begins. Just when you think everything's going great, the HR manager asks you one of those groaners. "So... what would you say are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?"

Your mind screams, "Oh no, not that one again!" but you somehow manage a clich餠answer anyway. And just as you're hoping that the question was just an aberration, out shoots the next one: "If you were an animal, what animal would you be?"

In an instant, your impression of the company crumbles. Is this the company you admired? How could it be, when you're being asked such asinine questions?

Sadly, far too many managers, especially HR folks, continue to ask stupid, clich餬 and pointless questions at interviews in the misguided hope that somehow they can reveal the true nature of the candidate.

Nonsense! Interviews must focus on how well a person can do the job he's being interviewed for. Most of the "standard" interview questions are so cliched that interview guides all over the Internet and magazines have canned answers ready for you to use. They're like those beauty pageants where the girls get asked what they would like most and they reply "world peace!"

So, dear managers, here is your guide to stupid interview questions and why shouldn't waste your time, and more importantly, the candidate's time, with them.

Let's start with?

The stupid

If you were an animal, what would you be?

These types of questions make me laugh. Some people actually believe that questions like those can realistically measure how "creative" the person is or how well he can "think out of the box" (how I despise that term). Yeah, right! If you think that if a person wanting to be a lion tells you that he'd make an excellent leader, you need to go back to school and learn something useful. What does being an animal have to do with the job they're being interviewed for anyway? Are you looking for cats for your company? Horses? Elephants? Gorillas? Besides, why on earth would any "creative" person want to be an animal? They'd be bored out of their skulls. All animals do all day is wander around, find food, eat and sleep. Even sex is usually restricted to the mating season. Not exactly what I'd want to be doing.

Want to see how creative they are? Give them a real life problem your company has faced, and ask them to tell you how they'd solve it.

If you could have dinner with a famous historical figure, who would it be?
How many squares are in this figure?
A plane crashes on the border between USA and Canada. Where did they bury the survivors?

How would your boss/ friends / subordinates describe you?

You expect an honest answer to this? Is the candidate supposed to read the minds of his co-workers and tell you what they think? If they thought he was an incompetent moron, do you reckon they'd tell him about it? And even if the candidate knew that they felt that way, do you think he's going to tell you that? Asking someone what others think about him or her is silly. You'll never hear the truth, so why bother asking? You might as well ask, "Describe yourself."

You want to know what others think of him? Call up his references and find out.

Are you a team player / a good manager / a good leader?

Not one sensible person will answer "No" to any of those questions. If an interview question has only one answer, don't waste time asking it. Who in their right minds will say that they're not good "team players" (a term that means different things to different people) or being good managers, even if they weren't? (Aside: if you asked me if I were a good team player, I'd reply, "depends on the team". It's true. I've been in situations where I've got things done faster by myself because I was working with idiots.)

If you want to find out more about a person's leadership skills, I'm afraid that no interview can ascertain that. Leadership skills are best demonstrated in real life situations that demand them. Sure, you could pose several hypothetical situations, but case studies are very limited in what they can measure. Besides, the best people to ask about someone's leadership ability are his subordinates.

For managerial skills, ask questions about how he managed performance problems with subordinates, conflicts within the team, and how he developed their skills.

The clichéd

What are your weaknesses? 

Every darn interview guide you can read on the Net has a canned answer to this. Pick something positive and point it out as a weakness - "I work too hard", "I tend to work late to adhere to deadlines", etc. This is the king of "I wish for world peace" questions. Ask a clichéd question and you get a cliché answer.

The candidate knows that an honest answer to this question is quite likely to cost him the job, so why would he tell the whole truth? What if the interviewer then decides to "put him under pressure" and keep picking at his "weakness"? How many people will admit, at least to an interviewer, that they have a short temper?

Ask specific questions about the work they need to do in their new job, and then see if you can spot weaknesses in their answers.

(I'll admit my weakness. I can't put up with people asking stupid interview questions. Thankfully, I've never been asked any of these, though I've sat in on interviews where they've been asked.)

Where do you see yourself in five years?

This one is one of my favourites. In this age when the business landscape can change radically in less than 3 years (dotcom "boom", anyone?), making long-term career plans can be a mistake. Companies change, businesses change, business models change, and technologies certainly change. The IT industry especially is one where you have to keep adapting quickly. Locking your sights on some distant goal can leave you blind to the other opportunities around you. Other opportunities don't necessarily mean switching jobs. It can be a new direction for your existing company. The real question is where the company sees itself in 5 years.

If you're interviewing for a middle or senior management position, there is always the chance that the job the candidate is aspiring towards is held by one of the interviewers. Making that the target could be seen as a threat, and could cost the candidate the job.

Here's a tip: don't make 5-year plans for your company, and please don't ask candidates to make astrological predictions. Concentrate on what they can do for you in the present, and whether they show the resilience to adapt to changing business conditions in the future. It doesn't matter if they are good candidates for the VP - Automated Widgets position in five years. Who knows if the Automated Widgets department will even be around in five years?

Nick Corcodilos, keeper of the excellent Ask The HeadHunter site, suggests a tongue-in-cheek answer of "Do you keep your employees for five years?"

Tell me about yourself

It's a "classic" interview question. Supposedly intended to be open-ended to break the ice, this question isn't and never was very useful. It's too vague to be of any help. Is this the first you've ever heard of the candidate? Don't you have his resumé in front of you? Doesn't that tell you about him? Yep, there's his work experience, there's his education, there's the stuff he's supposedly skilled at. So what do you want to know? Whenever I've heard this question being asked at an interview, the candidate usually starts off from the beginning, explaining his educational qualifications, his first job, his second job? his eleventh job, and so on. Some have even started off with their childhood. Why waste everyone's time? It's all there in the resumé, dear manager. Why don't you look at it?

Tip to candidates: if you're asked this question, reply with "what specifically would you like to know about?"

The worthless

These are questions to which there's only one appropriate answer, and those are available in any of the hundreds of interview guides you can find. They also try to measure qualities that can't be realistically measured in an interview. Some of these are:

How do you feel about working overtime?

If you say you don't like it, you'll be labelled a lazy slob. If you say you don't mind at all, you will be seen as a desperate, overenthusiastic bloke who's saying it just to get the job. The only "acceptable" answer is that you don't mind it once in a while if it's critical to the work being done. Don't bother asking this. You know it's a canned answer.

Can you work under pressure and deadlines?

Ever known a person who said "no" to this one? If he says that he thrives on pressure, he comes across as a guy who needs to be pressurised before he gets anything done. If he says he doesn't like it, he gets the boot. What's the alternative? I've interviewed hundreds of people, and I can confidently tell you that there is no reliable way of measuring the candidate's ability to work under pressure in the job he's being interviewed for. For that, you just have to put him in a real work situation, something that the interview can't do. If you ask him about pressure on previous work, it's very easy for him to either lie about it or to exaggerate, which makes the question worthless.

How do you take criticism?

"Not very well" is not an option, even if it's true. There's only one "acceptable" answer to this too. The interview guides usually suggest that you reply with "I consider it if it seems valid and reasonable." Phooey! There's another canned answer.

So, dear managers, tell those clueless HR lackeys to stop asking these silly interview questions. Instead, explain to the candidate what the job requirements are, right at the beginning of the interview. Then ask them questions that will help you understand how they'd do the job. Encourage them to ask questions and get more information, and accept that job interviews cannot always reveal everything about a candidate.

These aren't the only stupid questions out there, but I hope they do give you an idea of what to avoid. If your HR manager could use the advice in this article, e-mail this link to him or her. And if you're asked three or more of these types of questions in an interview, I suggest that you think again about the company you're planning to join.

Of course, I expect a lot of angry mail from HR folks. I welcome feedback. If you can think of other stupid questions you've been asked, let me know too. I'll add them here.

Further reading

Nick Corcodilos, Ask The Headhunter - full of job hunting, interviewing, and HR wisdom. Read all the articles on his site, especially this one about respecting the candidate. Good for HR people, even better for job hunters. Nick is also the author of the book Ask the Headhunter: Reinventing the Interview to Win the Job

Monster.com interview help - for getting canned answers to all the canned questions. ;)

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