Offbeat interviews

Employers are using different tactics to take candidates out of their comfort zone

It sounds like a frightening scenario. The job candidate is tied to a chair. The recruiter pulls out a revolver and shows the applicant six empty chambers. He calmly slides two bullets in — side by side — and gives the barrel a spin. He points the gun at the candidate and pulls the trigger. The gun clicks, the hammer striking down on one of the four empty chambers.

“Now before we discuss your resume,” the recruiter says to the relieved candidate, “I’m going to pull the trigger one more time. Would you prefer that I do it now or spin the barrel again?”

But, thankfully, this game of Russian roulette is not real. The candidate is not tied to the chair. The gun is imaginary. But the question is genuine and it’s making the rounds among some Wall Street investment banks, according to William Poundstone, the California-based author of How Would You Move Mount Fuji?, a book that looks at some of the more bizarre interview techniques used by organizations.

“There’s a long tradition in Wall Street of asking these types of questions,” said Poundstone. “It’s like a fraternity hazing. They just want to make you uncomfortable. I don’t think that’s the best idea because there are people who are nervous about interviews anyway and I don’t know that you gain a whole lot by enhancing that aspect of it.”

But the question has some value because it’s basically a logic puzzle the recruiter is using to test the candidate’s thinking skills. Mathematically speaking, are the odds better to fire again or spin the barrel? How fast can the candidate come up with the right answer under pressure, and how cogent are his thoughts along the way? The general thinking is that employees who can solve problems under stress are more effective than those who can’t.

There are less stressful ways of testing a candidate’s thinking skills and creativity, though. Dana Burdenuk, director of human resources for Mississauga, Ont.-based Playtex Limited, said she asks creative questions to get an understanding of a candidate’s thought process.

While interviewing a candidate for a marketing position, she might ask how many golf balls there are in Canada. She doesn’t know how many golf balls are actually in the country, and doesn’t really care — it’s not the number she’s interested in.

“We just want to see their thought process and how they would go about determining that,” said Burdenuk. “That’s what we’re looking for.”

Poundstone said the golf ball question is a classic example of a Fermi question — invented by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi. A Fermi question is designed to find out how people actually think.

“I think it is a good type of question,” he said. “You can vary it a lot and there’s not one right answer that you’re supposed to memorize.”

The value in such a question is that it poses a unique challenge and gives the employer a chance to see how the candidate responds.

“In business, most of the time the problem is not something very pat,” he said. “You really have to decide what the problem is, how you’re going to look at that problem and you go through a similar sort of process with those types of questions.”

Software giant Microsoft has been at the forefront of using logic puzzles to gauge candidates, Poundstone said. It tends to use the questions as a negative screen. It doesn’t use them to identify extraordinarily bright people — it leaves that to more traditional HR practices — but rather to ensure the candidate isn’t stopped cold when presented with a surprise logic problem.

“In the software business, you are doing a lot of step-by-step logical thinking,” he said. “It should raise a red flag if someone is just totally unable to proceed with one of these questions. It doesn’t always mean you’ll give the so-called right answer, but if you can show your reasoning and the basic approach was good, they would certainly take that into account.”

Another offbeat type of interview is something that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) — the organization that runs the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors — used when hiring part-time staff for the Air Canada Centre.

Mardi Walker, vice-president of people at MLSE, said the organization used auditions to evaluate candidates for positions such as hotdog vendors and ushers when the Air Canada Centre opened five years ago. Candidates were put into groups and asked to perform in front of the hiring managers during the initial hiring blitz.

“We would give them scenarios and they would have so long to come up with how they’re going to present this scenario,” she said. “It might be a soap opera involving fruit and they’d have to sing, dance, act, whatever. These are our front-line staff dealing with our fans at every single event, so you have to have a certain amount of comfort level being outgoing with people and not afraid to talk to strangers.”

The goal was to put groups of strangers together to see how they reacted and interacted with each other. The practice was stopped for a number of reasons — the Air Canada Centre is fully staffed and has low turnover and the hiring managers were resistant to the idea of auditions. But Walker doesn’t rule out bringing the practice back in the future, and thinks an audition format might be more acceptable now than it was five years ago.

“People probably have less resistance now because they’ve watched shows like American Idol and Canadian Idol so much,” said Walker. “Now it probably doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea as it did when we did it five years ago.”

Poundstone said MLSE’s audition strategy was probably very effective in screening front-line staff at a sports venue because it gauged how confident and outgoing the applicants were.

“But I have a certain skepticism about a lot of the crazier types of interview stunts like that,” he said.

He gave the example of a now defunct dot-com consulting firm in Boston that was notorious for its interviewing style. It would start by giving candidates Lego blocks and telling them they had five minutes to construct something.

“So you’re trying to make something very creative and then, at the end of five minutes, you’re supposed to explain why you made whatever you made,” he said. “I think it’s tough to really draw much of a conclusion from that type of interview when it’s just so totally open-ended, where there’s no clear correlation between the skills involved in that and the skills on the job.”

Murray Bandura, a Calgary-based recruiting manager with staffing firm Robert Half International Inc., said logic puzzles and offbeat questions are gaining in popularity because HR has gotten into a pattern of asking candidates the same questions over and over.

“People are now coming to an interview better prepared, so you’re not getting the spontaneity,” said Bandura. “I think what people are trying to do with these unique questions is create that spontaneity.”

He said there are two basic points of view— either the practice is good because it brings out spontaneity and challenges a candidate, or it’s evil because it puts even more pressure on a person in an already stressful situation.

“Interviews are very stressful for most people because candidates personalize it very much as, ‘This is a judgment of me as a person and not necessarily the skills I have,’” he said. “If you put a person under too much stress, sometimes you’re going to take them out of being able to present the skills they really have.”

The challenge for HR is to strike the right balance between creating an opportunity for an interesting conversation while not being so far reaching that a person is just grasping at straws to throw out any answer, said Bandura.

Poundstone said whatever questions an employer asks, it should be mindful of the taste it will leave in the candidate’s mouth. He gave the example of a promising software engineer who applied for a job at Microsoft. The engineer had endured an entire gruelling day of puzzle and logic questions. For the last question, the recruiter posed a puzzle and left the office, supposedly to take a phone call. He didn’t return for more than 20 minutes, so the candidate got fed up, left and didn’t take the job as a result.

“You do have to realize that any interview is going to leave a certain impression about a company,” he said. “You want to show common courtesy when you’re using this. It’s certainly a bad sign when people get fed up with it like that.”

When deciding whether or not to use an offbeat question, HR practitioners should sit down and analyze the skill set needed for the job, he said. If the skills can be measured by looking at the candidate’s experience or through asking questions about those skills, then it probably isn’t necessary to use this tactic.

But if the firm is looking to measure how the person thinks, to get a grasp of his problem-solving ability if it’s a vital part of the job, then offbeat tactics can go a long way in separating the wheat from the chaff.

That might be little comfort to the candidate with the imaginary gun pointed at him, whose thought process might go something like this:

“There are two bullets in six chambers — or, more optimistically, four empty chambers out of six. If I choose to spin the barrel, I’ve got a two-in-three chance of survival. But if I choose not to spin the barrel, and just fire again, my odds of survival are greater. That’s because the empty chambers are all contiguous, and one of them just spared my life. For three of the four empty chambers, the next chamber will also be empty. That means I have a three-in-four chance of survival if I choose not to spin the barrel.”

So if the candidate said don’t spin the barrel and just fire again, well, then he just might come away with the job. Or he might leave in disgust.

Bill Gates’ bathroom — offbeat interview questions

Here are some of the unusual logic questions asked by Microsoft in interviews from William Poundstone’s book How Would You Move Mount Fuji?:

•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 rather than 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?

•Why is it that, when you turn on the hot water in a hotel, the hot water comes out instantly?

•How do they make M&Ms?

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

•What does all the ice in a hockey rink weigh?

•How many times a day do a clock’s hands overlap?

•Mike and Todd have $21 between them. Mike has $20 more than Todd. How much does each have? You can’t use fractions in the answer.

•On average, how many times would you have to flip open the Manhattan phone book to find a specific name?

•How would you design Bill Gates’ bathroom?

•Design a spice rack for a blind person.

•Why are beer cans tapered at the top and bottom?

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