Can Wild-Card Interview Questions Turn Up an Ace?

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 17, 2013

“If you were a breakfast cereal, what would you be and why?”

“How would you explain Facebook to your grandma?”

“If you had to make a shoe with anything in this room, how would you make it?”

These are among the quirky questions that unearthed in an informal poll it conducted with clients from May 30 to June 18, 2013.

“As bizarre as they may seem, the ‘What would you be?’ questions do have a purpose,” said Jason Hamilton, vice president of marketing at Snagajob, in a news release.

“Employers want to know if [applicants] can think fast on [their] feet to handle unexpected customer interactions,” he said. “Which plant or breakfast cereal doesn’t matter as much as [their] reason why you’ve selected something.”

Some hiring managers see these queries as a way to learn how a job applicant approaches a problem. An anonymous Google job candidate on’s site told of being asked how many cows are in Canada without using the Internet to find the answer. The question, the candidate explained in the posting, was more about how he or she would go about determining the answer.

In such cases “the interviewer is looking for how you process information using an active example,” said Jim Blair, SPHR, managing director at Blair & Co. HR Consultants LLC, during a LinkedIn discussion for Society for Human Resource Management members.

“They are interested in the process used to generate an answer. These questions are usually asked of students graduating college because they may have little experience to draw from. Questions of this nature would have little value for a senior director position.”

He recalled a job interview more than 15 years ago in which he was asked how many yards of Astroturf were in U.S. stadiums and how many barbers were in the nation. His self-described analytical bent and experience recruiting top engineers and scientists helped him through the process.

“Interviewers rarely know or care what the answer is—it’s the process.”

That said, Blair wonders whether an interviewer has been trained on how to pose such questions and to understand when they are best used.

“These questions are usually for engineering, scientific and IT positions” and not sales, research and development, and other areas, he said. Mishandled, they can “miss some excellent candidates.”

Jonathan Carter, PMP, benefits management analyst in Ohio’s Department of Administrative Services, has seen such questions used from time to time.

“The recruiter’s justification is usually either to decrease the tension of the interview or to get an unscripted look at the candidate’s personality or thought process,” he said in the LinkedIn discussion.

“My experience is that wild-card questions typically accomplish neither. The usual result is a confused look from your candidate while they try to rationalize what type of answer you’re looking for.”

Instead, he advises taking the top three candidates to lunch to discuss the realities of the job, the organization and the team they would join. During the conversation “ask their advice on how to handle a project related to their job role. This is a much more productive use of your interview time and provides a much clearer understanding of a candidate’s personality and logic.”

M. Neal Martino, PHR, HR manager at Las Vegas-based Manheim, thinks off-the-wall questions are silly.

“Get creative if you want, but remember that the best answer doesn’t mean the best candidate,” he said in the LinkedIn discussion. “You’re not judging interview skills; you’re judging the probability of performance success. Tried and true: The best predictor of future success is past success.”

Although Google made’s 2013 list with the cow question, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at the company, said in a June 2013 New York Times interview that brainteaser questions are a waste of time and don’t predict anything about the potential hire. He favors structured behavioral interviews with questions that ask the candidate to provide an example of solving an “analytically difficult problem.”

But Rosemary Haefner, global vice president of HR at CareerBuilder, noted that the nontraditional question can help an employer find candidates who fit in with their organization.

“We’re seeing more people saying, ‘I’m open to using these different types of questions,’ and it seems pretty broad-based and not for one type of role,” she told SHRM Online.

They’re trying to get away from scripted interview responses so as to better assess how well a candidate would fit in at their company, to gauge his or her vision, or how the person would work in an eclectic team.

However, the interviewer must be able to articulate the need for asking the odd question.

“If you have an interviewer who’s just trying really hard to be different, what’s the point?” she said. “Maybe they’re trying too hard to put the candidate on the spot. If you want to assess someone’s personality … [the question] has to be relevant to the position that they’re going to be offered.”

Sometimes such a question is asked to make the organization stand out and be memorable, she noted.

“Clearly, some of these [questions] will be more successful depending on the role or culture of the company conducting the interviews,” Haefner said. “Where it’s not effective is if somebody’s just going for the shock value … and to see somebody sweat.”

If interviewers want to use such questions, Haefner advises them to:

*Ask the question of all candidates, so as to be consistent in comparing applicants.

*Ask themselves if posing such a question helps or hurts the organization’s brand; is there more risk than reward?

*Know why this particular question is being asked and be able to explain the reasoning to the candidate after the person has answered.

“You’re not doing it because you want them to fail; you’re not doing it to play ‘gotcha’ … it’s a balance. Make it relative [to the position], but being creative in your questions means you’re going to have a more well-rounded conversation with your candidate.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor for HR News.


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