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12 Unconventional Interview Questions That Recruiters Should Ask

Two women sitting in an office talking to each other.

​Coming up with questions to ask job candidates during the interview process usually is pretty easy. Hiring managers and recruiters often have a list of time-tested, no-brainer queries that they rely on, such as:

  • What makes you the best candidate for this job?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years? 
  • Why should I hire you over someone with more experience?

But what about those questions that may not be obvious but can help uncover the true motivations of eager job candidates? 

Senior HR professionals agree that there are many revealing questions that should be asked—but rarely are—in job interviews. Sometimes it's because interviewers don't think they have sufficient time to ask them, or because the level of the job doesn't seem equal to the depth of the questions. But more often than not, it's simply because interviewers haven't thought through what questions would dig deeper to reveal the best candidate.

That's a shame. Recruiters agree that the job interview is an employer's single best chance to gain insights into prospective employees. Even then, many fail to ask unusual questions that could give them a better understanding of the job candidate.

To help remedy that problem, consider the following advice from senior HR executives and nationally recognized job coaches, who offer 12 unconventional yet critical questions to ask during a job interview.   

1. What product—or brand—best describes you?

That's a favorite question from Andrea Ferrara, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for PepsiCo Beverages North America in Purchase, N.Y. Ferrara, who has been in the HR post at PepsiCo for three decades, said this is a particularly "fun" way to see how insightful or self-aware the job candidate is. Among other things, she said, their response immediately tells her whether they did their homework on the company and its products. She's not necessarily looking for them to name a PepsiCo product, but if they don't, the cleverness of their response should explain why. In fact, one of her favorite responses to this question was one candidate who smartly compared herself to a top-selling brand of bubblegum.

2. Can you tell me about a complex problem you faced where you felt you implemented a creative solution?

This is a question that Ferrara prefers to ask when she's interviewing more senior-level applicants. She's trying to follow the analytics that the job candidate uses in accessing and, ultimately, simplifying the complex problem. If the response is too far outside the box, it can meet organizational resistance, she said. It's all about providing an answer that's different but attractive enough to encourage others to follow. One job candidate from a major high-tech company impressed her with a response that detailed how far he reached up the company's executive ranks to make a change.

3. Can you tell me how you and your best friend are alike—and different?

This one is a bit of a trick question. When Ferrara asks this, she said, she's really looking for the value that the job candidate puts on diversity. If their best friend is essentially a clone of the candidate, that can show a lack of interest in diversity.

"There's no wrong or right answer," she said. "But if someone says that my best friend and I are totally opposites, it shows that as a leader, they may want to build a more diverse team."

4. How do you hope people describe you at your retirement party?

Young applicants tend to hate this question, Ferrara said. But she likes to ask it because the answer will show what leadership attributes are truly important to them, as well as what they stand for as an employee and as a human being. When Ferrara was first asked a similar question in a job interview, she said she wanted to be described as consistent, candid, courageous and, yes, comical. She isn't necessarily looking for job candidates to repeat those exact words, but she likes to see just how wide a net they want to cast across the organization and what kind of impact they plan to have.

5. Can you tell me about a failure, what you learned from it and how you leveraged those learnings?

Anyone, of course, can brag about their personal victories. But the best of us learn and get better from our failures. That said, this is another trick question, Ferrara said, who is hoping to hear about big-time failures. If someone shares a "failure" that's relatively minor in nature, that shows Ferrara that they're simply not courageous enough to take chances. Or, perhaps, they lived through major workplace failures but aren't being transparent enough to share those experiences.

6. When have you slowed down or stopped a big initiative and why?

This also is a question that Ferrara tends to ask senior executives. She wants to hear how good the job candidate was at accessing their capacity to keep moving forward under the evolving circumstances. She also wants to know how good the person is at helping her organization prioritize. Sometimes, she said, it takes courage to stop a big initiative that's in motion—like a new product launch that's not fully baked.

7. What is your one 'superpower' that makes you stand out from others? 

This question comes from Neil Crumpton, director of talent acquisition at Conagra Brands in Chicago. His company's vision is "to have the most impactful, energized and inclusive culture in the food business," he said, so Conagra asks questions like this to make sure it considers applicants with different backgrounds and perspectives (professional and personal) to build diverse teams.

"This question is open for interpretation, allowing talent to demonstrate their individual authenticity and opinion, which our teams throughout the organization value," he said. The job candidate can choose to share a job-focused skill or provide a creative (or even quirky) response. In the end, Crumpton said, the question itself demonstrates to the job candidate "we encourage openness while finding a fit for the role."

8. What activities do you lose all sense of time when you do them?

When time starts to fly by, that's usually because you're "in the zone" and doing something you not only love but also typically are very good at, said Katie Weiser, a certified career coach and founder of Katie Weiser Coaching in Martinez, Ga. Let's say the job candidate loves organizing. If the job requires organizational skills, that makes for a perfect match, she said, adding that what she's really looking for are special strengths that can be applied to the job.

9. How did others describe you when you were a child?

With this question, Weiser said, she's looking for possible "gremlins" that the job candidate may still be fighting. Kids are typically quite honest—even mean—in their descriptions of each other. So if the job candidate said other kids described them as a loner, for example, that might not be a perfect fit in an organization looking for teamwork.

10. What self-improvement efforts have you undertaken?

Weiser said this question attempts to uncover a clear sign of continuous learning. "People need to invest in themselves outside of the company," she said, adding that she looks for candidates who have taken public-speaking classes and are invested in health and wellness.

11. How did you spend your summers as a kid?

If the answer is mostly traveling or summer camp—not summer jobs—you may be getting insight into someone who is less inclined to put in the extra effort since it may be less ingrained, Weiser said.

12. What life experience led you to know that you want to do this kind of work? 

New York career consultant and executive coach Maggie Mistal said this is her favorite question. "I've found that it separates out candidates who have done the work to know themselves and know where the best opportunities are so they can conduct a strategically targeted job search," she said.

Bruce Horovitz is a freelance writer based in Falls Church, Va


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