‘If You Could Be Any Vegetable …’ and Other Offbeat Interview Questions

By Lin Grensing-Pophal January 9, 2020
job interview

​"Why are manhole covers round?" "How would you solve problems if you were from Mars?" "How would you test an elevator?"

These kinds of crazy questions have been asked by companies as large and renowned as Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Why? What are hiring managers looking for? Is this approach effective? Could it backfire by turning off potential job candidates? Should you incorporate provocative—even goofy—questions into your interview process?

The answer is maybe.

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A Case in Point

Bryan Mattimore is co-founder and chief idea guy with Growth Engine Co. in Norwalk, Conn. As the owner of what he refers to as "a boutique innovation agency," Mattimore said, "The nature of our consulting work requires we have employees who are both creative and analytical, at once detail-oriented but also able to see the big picture, passionately interested in learning new things and having the self-confidence to tackle problems that they know nothing about."

To gauge candidates' competence in these areas, Mattimore came up with a provocative question: "You are on a yacht in the Pacific Ocean, over its deepest point, the Mariana Trench. You accidentally drop a cannonball over the side of the boat. How long does it take the cannonball to reach the bottom?" Mattimore is not concerned about receiving the right answer, but about how candidates think through the problem:

  • Do they just take a wild guess because there isn't enough information to solve the problem?
  • Do they get overly bogged down in the details, such as the temperature or salinity of the water?
  • Do they zero in on the two most important components of the problem: how deep the Mariana Trench is and how fast a cannonball might fall through the water?

It's the last approach he's looking for. But, he said, "it always disappoints me when most candidates simply make a wild guess. It's as if, if they couldn't be 100 percent right, it wasn't worth trying to be 95 percent right."

Even a response such as "Well, in order to answer this, I'd need some more information—specifically how deep the Mariana Trench is and how fast a cannonball falls" would give a good indication that the candidate isn't afraid to tackle tough challenges and can think through problems logically.

But, while questions like the one Mattimore asks can play a positive role in the candidate screening process, these questions may not always be appropriate.

Keep It Relevant

Candidates shouldn't be asked only provocative questions to test their ability to think on their feet or to see how easily they might be rattled.

"These questions tap into areas that are often important to employers, such as a candidate's ability to think on the spot, innovation and creativity, and analytical abilities," said Lindsey Burke, senior consultant with PSI Services, headquartered in Glendale, Calif.

"Although good in theory," she cautioned, "untraditional and out-there interview questions can pose compliance problems. Any question asked during an interview should be a job-relevant question" so as not to violate anti-discrimination and other employment laws.

Certain job fields might be better suited to the use of provocative questions to judge candidates' aptitude for creative thinking. Yaniv Masjedi, chief marketing officer at Nextiva, does a lot of hiring and has been known to throw in "an oddball question" from time to time, he said, to see how candidates will respond to something completely unexpected.

"I don't really care about their specific answer. If I ask what kind of vegetable you'd be and why, I don't care which vegetable you choose. Instead, I care how you react to being asked a question you weren't expecting. Do you get anxious? Do you overthink it and try to give a perfect answer? Or do you kind of just laugh and do your best to answer a seemingly impossible question?" What he wants to see, he said, is a candidate's ability "to stay relaxed and creative, even when asked a question that was impossible to practice or prepare for."

Consider the Candidate Experience

HR leaders and hiring managers also should consider the candidate experience and the impression unusual interview questions or processes might make, Burke said. "Some candidates may appreciate a unique style of interview questioning—potentially those more seasoned or those who excel in creativity and problem-solving. However, others may perceive the process as frustrating, unprofessional and as if the company is trying to trick them," she said. In today's job market, "a positive candidate experience is extremely important."

Rhys Williams, managing director of Sigma Recruitment in Cardiff, Wales, agrees. "I am not a huge fan of these questions because they can potentially be off-putting to otherwise great candidates," he said. "It is not necessary to include these kinds of questions in an interview for it to be a good interview."

Still, he acknowledges that there is no problem with using offbeat, unexpected questions as long as interviewers know "exactly what they are testing with the questions." Sometimes the questions make sense; sometimes they don't. It's important to know the difference, he said.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.



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