HR Magazine, January 2001: Games Interviewers Play

By Martha Frase-Blunt Jan 1, 2001
HR Magazine,   July 2000Vol. 46, No. 1

Do brainteasers, puzzles and two-way mirrors really help spot the right candidate?

Mike and Todd have $21 between them. Mike has $20 more than Todd. How much money has Mike, and how much money has Todd?

So went one question Microsoft Corp. posed to IT professional Steve Dobbs in a job interview he recalls as one of the most grueling of his career. And, no fractions were involved in the answer. What has this to do with filling a telephone tech support position?

"At the time, I didn’t see anything in the question that was relevant to the job," says Dobbs. "But in retrospect, I think it does bear some resemblance to technical support situations, in that there are many times when all the easy answers to a technical problem don’t work, and you have to go back and re-evaluate the assumptions you are working with, and essentially throw out the ground rules."

Throwing a Mensa-style question at a candidate has become so common in the high-tech hiring process that many recruits bone up on methodologies they might need to meet the challenge. Many web sites for job seekers such as The Student Advantage (, Jobcircle ( and (, post tips on how to beat the brainteaser, counseling them to break it down, think out loud, never go for the obvious answer, don’t spend too much time crunching numbers, etc.

Though Dobbs got the answer, he didn’t get the job. "I talked my way through my thought processes, letting them know what I was thinking and how I was eliminating or zeroing in on possible answers," he said. "They looked pleased—in a ‘he figured out the trap’ kind of way—when I said that the only way to answer the question was to forget about the ‘no fractions’ rule." (The solution was $20.50 and 50 cents. Units of currency technically are whole numbers.)

Financial services employers also enjoy pitching curveballs. Since it’s thought that investment bankers and other finance professionals should be able to work well under pressure, many interviewers believe that tossing a puzzle at candidates is a good way to test their battle-readiness. Marketing companies also like to see how candidates handle a tough challenge, like designing a marketing plan for a touch-tone phone—for an 1850s audience. But those "out-there" interview questions more often face candidates for jobs at the cutting edges of technology, such as dot-com, software design and engineering jobs.

Try These on for Size

Quite often, the question is simply an old-fashioned logic problem:

  • You are faced with two doors. One door leads to your job offer, and the other leads to the exit. In front of each door is a guard. One guard always tells the truth. The other always lies. You can ask a single question to both guards to help you decide which door is the correct one. What will you ask?
  • Others seem to call for a wild "guesstimate":
  • How many gallons of white house paint are sold in the U.S. every year?
  • And still others border on the truly bizarre:
  • You are in solitary confinement. It is Friday afternoon and you absolutely must have a cigarette. The only person who can give you one is the guard outside your cell. What do you do? (For the answers, see " How Did You Do?")

Create Tension or Calm Nerves?

"Some of those puzzler questions are excellent," says Orv Owens, a Washington-based consultant and psychologist who conducts corporate workshops on effective interviewing. "Interviewers will use these questions to gauge response time and the candidate’s ability to think on his or her feet."

The philosophy is not new; the infamous interview techniques of the late Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, father of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine program, have become the stuff of legend. He was known to offer interviewees a chair from which he had sawed several inches off one or two of the legs. "It was difficult because it was a shiny chair," he once explained to Diane Sawyer on "60 Minutes," the CBS magazine show. "They had to maintain their wits about them as they answered questions while sliding off the chair. ... I was trying to draw out of them what they had potentially in them."

On the other hand, some companies use games or puzzles to put candidates at ease. ZEFER, a leading Boston-based Internet and consulting firm, will hand candidates a box of Legos and tell them they have five minutes to build anything they want, and then talk about it. "The Lego test was received quite well," notes Susan Perry, ZEFER’s vice president of talent. "It sparked some great conversations and insights that challenged and intrigued people."

Games and challenges also can help interviewers overcome a tendency to make snap judgments about candidates too early in the meeting. Tossing an unexpected question into the mix can bring a new focus for both prospect and interviewer.

"Good candidates really love it—it’s a Rubik’s Cube for them," says John Putzier, SPHR, president of FirStep Inc., a performance improvement, training and consulting firm in Prospect, Pa. He also is the author of the forthcoming book Get Weird: 101 Innovative Ways to Make Your Company a Great Place to Work (AMACOM, 2001). "A lot of companies do raise their eyebrows at approaches that seem to create barriers to employment, but for many positions, questions that deviate from the norm can offer a realistic job preview, requiring just the competencies a worker would need on the job."

Putzier doubts there is any science behind these approaches, but adds that, "I don’t think you need 10 years of empirical research to prove something that is obvious—that you can learn more from a candidate this way."

But he scorns the Zen-like puzzler, sometimes offered with a Barbara Walters twist, that some interviewers use, as in: Define the color green. Or: If you were a car, what kind of car would you be?

"Questions like these are pointless, and only serve to make people sweat," Putzier says. "A worthy question must give an answer that predicts the candidate’s success in some area. If it doesn’t, what’s the purpose?"

Jan Cox, staffing specialist at Internet security firm Symantec, in Eugene, Ore., says, "Interviewers who are not HR professionals think it’s kind of cute to ask such questions, but it often has no relevance to the job." Such metaphysical questions also can be extremely irritating to candidates, especially those being recruited for more senior positions. "The higher you go professionally, the more savvy candidates become. HR people understand this, but hiring managers may not. They may be unprepared for the negative reactions they’ll get from applicants," Cox notes.

Peering into a Job Seeker’s Life

Another tactic that makes some HR folks uncomfortable is a surreptitious assessment of the candidate outside the interview room. "I have known interviewers who don’t even do a sit-down discussion," says Owens. "They’ll take candidates for a ride and just listen to them talk, or just pal around with them for a while. But this usually occurs after they have been thoroughly screened for background and knowledge."

Colleen Aylward, president of Devon James Associates in Seattle, who helps Internet start-ups recruit creative people, says one of her clients would pretend he had forgotten his dry cleaning, ask the candidate to drive him to the cleaners, and conduct the interview in the car. "It was a multitasking exercise," she explains. "He would encourage hiring managers to use this approach and bark out directions to unsettle the driver. If the subject takes his foot off the gas pedal and looks over at you to answer, maybe you don’t want him doing a job that requires performing several important functions at once."

Some interviewers find it enough to simply eyeball a candidate’s car, like Dr. Pierre Mornell, a Northern California psychiatrist, who helps corporations evaluate and select key employees. But, he stresses, it’s not merely a matter of screening out people whose cars don’t suit.

"It’s always courteous to walk a candidate to the car after a meeting, and this gives you an opportunity to observe yet another aspect of the person. Noticing the type of car she drives, where she chose to park it and what sort of condition she keeps it in can be helpful in testing your thinking," he explains. "If, for example, you have just interviewed a person who came across as meticulous, detail-oriented or even obsessive, and their car is neat as a pin, it fits. But if the car is messy and un-maintained, you have some more questions to ask that candidate."

Mornell suggests that when discrepancies like these arise, the candidate should be asked about them right then and there. "You’re looking for disconnects; we all have them, but an interviewer should pursue them."

But How Legal Is It?

HR professionals who have long argued their right to use subjective criteria in judging job candidates won support in an October 2000 ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chapman v. AI Trans-port. In finding for the employer in an age discrimination suit, the court stated that, "Employers may use subjective reasons, such as an individual’s lack of aggressiveness, to make employment decisions as long as a clear factual foundation is provided when the reason is offered as evidence of non-discrimination."

In other words, says attorney Jordan Cowman of Baker & McKenzie in Dallas, "You have to document the purpose of the exercise, how it relates to the position and what answers are acceptable and unacceptable."

Subjective, open-ended questions can be very useful, Cowman notes, but "Make sure they have been tried and tested, and that every candidate is issued the exact same challenge. As long as this is documented, the courts will be very friendly."

He also cautions that exercises like driving to the dry cleaners or eyeballing a candidate’s car will be viewed less charitably in some states than in others. For example, he points out that in California, courts are more protective of a plaintiff’s private life, and if an employer is going out to look at a car as part of the employment decision, the candidate could claim a privacy violation. "In Texas, we have pure employment-at-will, so it probably won’t be a problem."

Cowman says that employers, when designing interview questions or challenges, also need to thoroughly understand the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commis-sion regulations, as well as privacy laws in their own states. "It’s a fine line," agrees Putzier. "I remember a manager who would always watch people out of his office window, and made a lot of judgments about them before they even got into the office. He claimed he could tell enough about them by their walk. But biases shouldn’t be institutionalized."

Mike Mendenhall, SPHR, employment manager for the City of Omaha and a frequent speaker on ensuring legally defensible selection interviews, is dubious about interview games and puzzles. Warning that "Employers are in danger of becoming amateur psychologists," Mendenhall asks: "Who are the people who are developing the games or brainteasers, and who are those doing the evaluation? Are they trained or qualified in some way? Or are they making a purely gut-level judgment?"

He questions whether games and brainteasers truly measure required job skills, saying, "I believe you can more directly accomplish your objective without using subterfuge."

Sometimes a hiring manager will set up a process that seems to be neutral, he adds, "but underneath may present a barrier to minority groups or other protected classes." Mendenhall also notes that some candidates may be unfairly advantaged if the details of a unique interview question hit the grapevine before said candidates are interviewed.

He says the kind of message such a process sends to candidates could also be a problem. "Like whether the company is taking the selection process seriously, and whether good applicants may be turned off by what they may consider to be a frivolous or unfair process of making important selection decisions based on a five-minute exercise."

Puzzles vs. ‘Situationals’

Interestingly, two who seem to agree that puzzles and gamesmanship have their limits are Aylward, whose client likes to be driven to the cleaners, and Perry of the ZEFER Lego test.

"In a short period of time, the hiring market has evolved, and now you’ll see fewer games," says Aylward. "Now our clients use ‘situationals,’ posing problems that are real-life, or close to real-life. Our clients are looking for problem solvers, and candidates are more closely scrutinizing companies for effective management." But she acknowledged, "You’ll see some very clever and creative situationals."

Perry explains that, "After using the Lego test for a while, we determined that it was important to give candidates an opportunity to truly experience what it would be like to work at ZEFER. Our organization has evolved and migrated our selection tools, and now we rely on presenting cases to solve."

Interviewers present real-life problems and ask candidates to develop creative solutions, she says. "We don’t use this test alone to make a hiring decision, but it gives us the opportunity to evaluate them in real time. At the same time, candidates can gain insights into ZEFER’s clients, and the types of daily challenges they will face."

The Lego test is not dead, though. ZEFER managers find that it—and other toys—are useful tools for job fairs and talent labs. "It’s a great icebreaker, and it helps people remember us," says Perry.

Martha Frase-Blunt is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who frequently covers recruiting issues.


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