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What’s your favourite (and most hated) interview question?

With the stakes of making the wrong choice so high, hiring managers use plenty of tactics to find ultimate recruit

By Todd Humber

Rare is the decision that can cause as much damage as a bad hire.

Put the wrong person in the wrong role at the wrong time, and lookout. The ensuing collateral damage to productivity, morale and retention can be almost limitless.

Massive legal and PR headaches could follow and, if the bad hire has enough authority and is left unchecked, the organization’s culture could be destroyed.

With all that in mind, it’s no surprise that organizations — and the human resources profession specifically — have worked so hard to come up with tactics to identify the best talent. Because, when it comes to hiring decisions, no organization is too big to fail.

But it’s far from a perfect science. Psychometric testing and behavioural-based interviewing only work so well, and many hiring managers ultimately trust their “guts” — whatever that means — when it comes time to make a decision. And there are plenty of human rights pitfalls in Canada when it comes to questions that are taboo.

Plus it only takes one rogue hiring manager going off script — perhaps himself a bad hire — to sink even the best designed and communicated talent acquisition program.

So it got me thinking: What is the ultimate interview question or tactic?

I found a pretty good answer courtesy of Kevin Morrill, chief technology officer and co-founder of Referly in San Francisco, who outlined it in his blog.

Here’s the question:

“I want you to explain something to me. Pick any topic you want: a hobby you have, a book you’ve read, a project you worked on — anything. You’ll have just five minutes to explain it. At the beginning of the five minutes you shouldn’t assume anything about what I know, and at the end I should understand whatever is most important (to) this topic. During the five minutes, I might ask you some questions, and you can ask me questions. Take as much time as you want to think it through, and let me know when you want to start.”

Morrill’s question is a pretty solid one, in these books. It certainly won’t show technical knowledge, nor will it reveal if a person is a sociopath — those are best left to other parts of the selection process. But what it will do, without fail, is provide an excellent window into that individual’s thought processes.

“It’s without a doubt my favourite interview question because it only takes five minutes and tells me a remarkable amount about candidates,” wrote Morrill on his blog. “Even though it’s not a technical question per se, I still give it to every programmer I interview.”

Sure, some people will be tripped up and get tongue tied, and introverts might struggle more than extroverts. But if the interviewer shows enough patience, and isn’t condescending, even the most timid candidates should be able to thoroughly explain something they feel passionate about.

If they can’t, it’s probably a red flag.

Nearly a decade ago, in the May 17, 2004, issue of Canadian HR Reporter, I took a look at some of the more offbeat tactics organizations were using to find talent. Some of the questions had very specific answers; others were designed solely to get an idea of a candidate’s critical thinking skills.

A few examples from that article, courtesy of William Poundstone’s book How Would You Move Mount Fuji? which examined some of the questions used at the time by Microsoft:

•Suppose you had eight billiard balls. One of them is slightly heavier, but the only way to tell is by putting it on a scale against the others. What’s the fewest number of times you’d have to use the scale to find the heavier ball?

•How would you weigh a jet plane without using scales?

•Why are manhole covers round instead of square?

•Why do mirrors reverse right and left instead of up and down?

•Which way should the key turn in a car door to unlock it?

•If you are on a boat and toss a suitcase overboard, will the water level rise or fall?

•Design a spice rack for a blind person.

I won’t leave you hanging. For answers to those questions and more, click here.

What are some of your favourite — and most hated — interview questions? What tactics do you find work, and which ones should be thrown out with the bathwater? Enter your thoughts below.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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