Stupid interview questions

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?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 interview help – for getting canned answers to all the canned questions. 😉

27 thoughts to “Stupid interview questions”

  1. It is a nice piece. I’m not Madman, but he does deserve a pat on his back.
    And hey, the notes below are cool!

  2. Nice one MadMan.
    I liked that describe yourselves bit.
    I even had friends coming to me and asking me to write out their life history in ten lines so they can puke it out at interviews.
    Thankfully, I have never been interviewd for a job. All I have to do is walk up, ask to meet the writer and show him my portfolio. That’s it. Job or no, no questions.

  3. Nice one Madhu. Very true. I have been asked many of these questions. Also, i do interviews and have asked similar questions. A good eye opener.

  4. Very thoughtful, Mad Man. I agree fully, but the only problem is how do you get the interviewers to pay attention. Perhaps mail it to the company anonymously?

  5. very nice article.I would like to add a new idiotic question which was asked to me .”Will you quit from a company if you get more pay?”I got irritated with this question.&most of my friends too

  6. good stuff!!!…i wish i came across this site earlier…was asked some stupid questions yesterday tho…one of it was, “what was the last book you read?” errrrr….”how to get a job in 20 minutes???” hahaha

  7. Q. Tell us five of your greatest weaknesses.
    A. Smokes, Food, Wine, Wimmen and Money.
    But hey on a serious note, some interviewers do look out for clues like how cofidently you state the obvious, whether or not you lie etc. from these so called “canned” questions.
    But I seriously doubt about how many HR managers know how to glean this information.

  8. I’m an HR Professional, have studied and practiced for several years in the Silicon Valley.
    I have been a speaker at several local job networking groups.
    Like many Recruiters and HR people, I’ve successfully found great candidates and pushed hiring managers to review resumes, interview candidates, gather team input, and make decisions for many different positions over the years.
    Do I ask questions that may seem to have no relevance to you? Sometimes, yes, I’m guilty. However, my questions are carefully thought out, scripted, and I listen to the responses so I can follow up intelligently.
    Every Recruiter or HR professional has stories about the outrageous replies given by some candidates. Although you are biting your tongue and finding the politically correct response, I can assure you many people are not doing the same!
    During this time of downsizing and outsourcing, there are people acting as Recruiters or HR people who are not qualified but were assigned the role.
    Your quarrel is with a limited number of people, not an entire group of professionals.

  9. Wow! I’d like to know what kind of companies, especially the *technical* ones in the Silicon Valley ask such questions to recruit! As an engineer, I have interviewed several candidates and been in countless interview meetings. Usually the problem has been the opposite. People ask such difficult and specific techinical questions that sometimes only those who are directly working on the topic can answer it, not even those who have done a PhD in the same or related area. To make it worse, sometimes the interviewers turn their backs to the poor candidate solving an excruciating equation on the board and work on their computers, blissfully ruthless towards their plight. It is easy to take for granted what you are working on and I have seen brilliant candidates rejected due to whims of high-nosed technical interviewers, for not answering some very specific questions that are related to their work.
    I think the focus should be to choose candidates based on fundamentals. Or even I.Q if it is something as basic as programming etc. If fundamentals are clear, it is very easy to pick other things since no one does rocket science in engineering firms.
    Anyhow…just another perspective!

  10. I ran across this website by Googling the combination of “stupid questions,” “five years,” and “interviews.” The question, “where to you see yourself in n years,” is my biggest interview pet peeve. It seems to cross all occupational lines. Good luck guessing what the interviewer considers the middle ground between “Running this company” and “I dunno.”
    I always feel like answering something like, “Five years, in other words January 2010. Wherever I am by then I’ll be able to forsee by December 2009.” Or maybe, Living off the royalties from my book, 1001 Brutally Honest Answers When Asked Where You’ll Be in Five Years. Both of those would blow my chances, of course.
    Interviewers sometimes fail to realize that the door is swinging both ways, especially when it’s your prospective supervisor, not some “HR lackey,” asking the questions. In some cases, if they turn me down because they didn’t like my answers, they’re doing me a favor.

  11. One more question is ” Why do u want to shift your job”. Most of the times it is the salary which drives us to a new job. Even the interviewer changes his job if he had offered few thousands more. This blog is too interesting.

  12. Oh man, the “where do you see yourself in X years” question. I hate that one. This was a great article to read. Love the tips! I wish more interviewers followed them. I get tired of being asked the same old questions.

  13. MadMan-
    Needed the piece/peace.
    Been raising kids for the past 10 years.
    Tough getting an interview without recent exp. When I do, I feel like i’m dealing with the kids! It is so hard holding back the sarcasm. My questions:
    Can you multitask? What have you been doing the last 10 yrs? Why do you want to go back to work?

  14. The most ridiculous question I had was when applying for a PhD grant. After the usual questions, mentioned already, I was then asked what research I would do or how I would change my proposal if I won the lottery!!! Well absolutely none is the honest answer, I?d be lazing on a Mediterranean beach, sipping sangria in the sun! The answer was supposed to be ?I wouldn?t change a thing?, but come on!
    The worst thing about this interview was that after a 20 minute presentation there were no questions of note regarding what I?d said. Then came the actual interview in front of a four person panel. Now after spending weeks learning the quite intricate and difficult biology of my topic inside out, and swotting up in a hotel room for the 24 hours prior to the interview I expected a few technical questions. There were none. Not one. All I got were the usual ones of ?why research, where do you want to be in 5 years time bla bla bla, explain what you do to the layman (why?), the lottery conundrum, tell me about yourself, and countless other pointless, clich?d and, quite frankly, demoralising queries. One man in particular had a very poor technique, where he would read something from my resume, then ask me about a certain point, but in a way so that I could only reply monosyllabically to confirm what he?d just read. I understand the need when required to expand on an answer, but this wasn?t the time.
    To top it all, I was last to be interviewed and after doing this for 8 or so hours they had had enough, they had trains to catch hundreds of miles to their respective homes and in my opinion already knew which candidates would be successful. This was borne out by the eventual recipients of the two grants as they were in a field of biology that at the time was the ?in? thing, completely destroying my faith in the whole system!! I am better now though and working in the field of my choice, but I?ll be very wary of interviews in the future, although probably better prepared. Well as much as you can be for whatever mind boggling drivel they come out with next!!!

  15. hey,
    it was a gr8 article… madman, u r tooo kool…wen evr i cum to bglore, i wil drop in @ ur restau

  16. THIS IS THE MOST TERRIBLE ARTICLE EVER WRITTEN ON INTERVIEWING AND THE ADVICE GIVEN IN IT INDICATES THAT THE PERSON WHO WROTE IT KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT PSYCHOLOGY OR HIRING ANYONE. These questions are asked over and over again because a good interviewer can read a person like a book based on how they answer introspective open ended questions. You can’t make a knowledgeable decision on someones character based on what school they went to and what is on their resume. Too often people are hired for those reasons and they are not a good fit with a company because the interviewer didn’t spend enough time getting to know the person. If you are reading this article and you are taking this advice i implore you to disregard it. These are the most important questions you will be asked.

  17. I was at a job interview about a week ago and was asked nothing but these lame questions.
    And @Wambamcam27
    What does psychology have anything to do with it? Canned questions get canned answers. It doesn’t reveal anything about the candidate other than he/she has a good enough memory to recite canned answers.

  18. I believe that all hiring power for companies should given back to the managers like it used to be.HR has no idea of what a good canidate is for most of their departments.The local manager/dept is where the rubber meets the road.Do you really think that all these bogus questions really guage any real qualities of say a programer,eletronics tech,or mechanic.20 years ago I was hired on with a fortune 500 company.I was interviewed over the phone by a manager (that new the trade and knows what it takes to do the job) from 1500 miles away and was hired.Today this would rarely happen because HR has to meet with you and ask all these stupid illrelevent questions.

  19. @Wambamcam27
    You are wrong.You are one of the reasons that there is incompetence in the workplace.Your PSYCHOLOGY argument is totally bogus.If a person is applying for a job that he is unqualied for and has no experience, then mabie because that is the only tool that you have.In alot of fields like mine (Telephone Communications),the 20 years of experience and accomplishments on my resume, says it all.A competent manager can tell if I’m a fit for the job or not, and all those bogus questions guage nothing.

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