The case against strange interview questions

Google decides to stop using its famous ‘brainteasers’

By Brian Kreissl

A lot of people have been commenting lately about the fact Google has decided to end its practice of asking candidates strange “brainteaser” questions during interviews. Apparently, their analysis of “big data” found the questions weren’t helping them select better qualified candidates. 

The idea behind questions such as: “How many golf balls can you fit in a 747?”, “How many gas stations are there in Manhattan?” and “Why are manhole covers round?” was supposedly to assess candidates’ thought processes and their ability to think on their feet. However, Google found that having clever answers to the questions wasn’t a good predictor of who was likely to be successful in the role. 

As Google's Laszlo Bock, senior vice-president of people operations at Google recently told The New York Times: “They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.” He also called such questions “a waste of time.” 

Instead, Google has decided to focus instead on behavioural interviewing. It has also decided to focus less on applicants’ academic qualifications — other than perhaps in the case of recent grads. Several bloggers and other commentators praised the company for this change in direction.  

An employer of choice

On the other hand, with the tech giant truly being an employer of choice, it’s no wonder it tried to find some way of sifting through the piles of resumés it must receive. A few years ago I remember hearing how — at least at the time — Google never even had to advertise vacancies. 

Its employer brand was so good it had enough unsolicited applications to fill virtually all the vacancies. I believe that’s probably one of the reasons why it was so choosy — because it could afford to be, and because it’s really difficult to choose from a large number of seemingly equally qualified candidates. 

Being able to hire only the best is a nice advantage associated with being an employer of choice. But that advantage only applies if you’re able to capitalize on it. 

It sounds like Google began to realize its selection methods weren't necessarily yielding the best results. Therefore, it may have been squandering its advantage to a certain extent by screening out some candidates who would actually have been a good fit.

Avoiding candidate disillusionment

So, what methods should be used to select candidates? Personally, I don't think interviews in general are necessarily a great predictor of a candidate’s likely success on the job. But they’re a necessary evil and we don’t really have a better system. And interviews can be made more effective, for example, by using behavioural interviewing techniques. 

But anything that’s likely to turn candidates off or make them frustrated with the recruitment process is probably going too far. Overly long interviews, incredibly tough behavioural interviews, more than three or four interviews, lack of any feedback or contact from the recruiter, or a process that drags on for months can all end up turning the candidate off. 

I once did a quick telephone pre-screen with a candidate in which he asked, sounding a little frustrated, “Is this going to be a full-on interview?” That certainly wasn't my intention, but clearly he was getting a little annoyed with the process even that early on. He probably initially thought I was just calling to schedule an interview rather than trying to assess his suitability for an interview. 

That may have been a somewhat unreasonable expectation given how I was trying not to waste his time or mine, especially since he would be coming in from out of town (he ended up coming in for the interview, but didn’t get the job). Nevertheless, the reason I mention this particular anecdote is because it illustrates just how easy it is to alienate candidates during the recruitment process. 

Off-the-wall interview questions certainly can lead to disillusionment. Many candidates will no doubt be turned off by questions about their favourite colour or what animal they would like to be. To me, such questions always seemed to be evidence of an inexperienced interviewer or someone who doesn't know quite what to ask candidates in the interview. 

Testing, behavioural interviews, background screening, reference checks, simulations and problem-solving can help. But, unfortunately, wacky interview questions probably don’t yield the results some recruiters and hiring managers hope for.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit

Latest stories