Handling Oddball Job Interviewees Is a Trick, Not a Treat

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek October 31, 2018
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It's Halloween, but unsettling scenarios aren't limited to Oct. 31. Recruiters, hiring managers and HR professionals have their own stories that haunt them.

Who can forget the candidate who launched into a graphic retelling of Fifty Shades of Grey when asked about a favorite book? Not Jeff Weber, senior vice president of people and places at Instructure, a technology company in Salt Lake City.

And during an interview with another job seeker, his recruiting team was taken aback by the answer provided after someone asked the applicant, "What is your superpower?"

"The candidate casually unbuttoned his shirt and showed them his cape," Weber said. "And he wasn't joking—he was wearing a cape."

Eric Klein, senior vice president of the technology project and contract staffing team at HireStrategy's Washington, D.C., offices, will always remember a systems developer who came in for a preliminary interview. That's because the man, who was in his late 20s, brought his mother along with him "to calm [his] nerves," Klein said.

"We sat outside in the lobby [with her] to make sure she wasn't going to do anything crazy," Klein said. "I'm sure she would have done the interview if the manager would have let her."

Kelli Lieder, recruiting manager in the Chicago office of Addison Group, was surprised at the actions of a job candidate she'd arranged to interview during the woman's lunch break.

"She sat down, whipped out her lunch and laptop, and set up shop while we were trying to interview her," Lieder said.

Lieder apologized for the lunchtime meeting—although it was at the time the candidate requested—and tried to refocus the woman's attention on the interview.

Applicants may not recognize that what they do or say is not appropriate, Lieder said.

"They get way too comfortable and blurt out anything and everything," as did the candidate who said she was sick of her husband and needed to get out of the house. "That's something to share with drinks with their friends, not a first interview," Lieder said, chuckling. "Good candidates don't do any of the horror stuff."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Recruiting Internally and Externally]

Crossing Paths 

Matt Dodgson, director and one of the founders of Market Recruitment in Ascot, Berkshire, in the United Kingdom, has had his share of interesting interviews with job seekers.

There was the time he subbed for a sick colleague, only to discover at the last minute that the candidate he agreed to interview was an ex-girlfriend.

"I did not make the connection when glancing at her [curriculum vitae]," Dodgson said, since she had married and changed her name. Their paths had not crossed for about 10 years. "We both had quite a shock and then a chuckle when we realized our situation. It also helped that our breakup was amicable and neither of us held grudges," he said.

"I was very impressed with her accomplishments. I ended up recommending her for the position." 

Then there was the woman he regarded as a stellar candidate who asked a question that gave him paws―er, pause.

"When it came time for her to ask questions, she asked with a straight face, 'How is your client with flexible time? I need to pick up my Sphynx cat from day care by 5 p.m. every day.' "

Dodgson has nearly 20 years as a recruitment professional, but he was floored.

"I thought I had heard a lot of stories until that day!"

The feline apparently starred in children's books the woman had written. She also needed to take the occasional Friday afternoon off to make local bookstore appearances.

But Dodgson said he recognized attributes she could bring to the job.

"She was truly a creative individual," he said. "I had a strong feeling that she would fit well within the company culture." However, she accepted another offer. 

When HR professionals find themselves dealing with oddball interview situations, he suggests always keeping the candidate's and the company's overall objectives in mind.

"Keeping a straight face isn't always easy to learn or do, but I practiced," he said. "To prepare myself for ridiculous scenarios, I watched movies that I knew made me laugh every time. I kept watching certain scenes until I could get through the scene three times without even a hint of a smile. … I still get a laugh from funny life scenarios, but I have trained myself to remain calm in the professional setting." 

Lieder suggested sending job candidates a reminder of interview do's and don'ts prior to the meeting, including guidelines outlining the company's dress code.

However, she hesitates to provide too much coaching.

"We want to see the real 'them.' "

And that might very well be someone wearing a superhero cape.

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