Stupid questions deserve clever answers

Bizarre job interviews may be just about seeing if you can think on your feet

Bizarre job interviews may be just about seeing if you can think on your feet The other day someone I know was asked the following question in a job interview: "When you look out the window, what colours do you see? What are people wearing?" Huh? Considering the interview wasn’t with a fashion house, but with a technology company, it struck her as a little odd. The problem with a question like this is you have no idea what they’re really asking. You can’t guess what they want to hear and you may become flustered — and they get to see how you react to stress. I asked around people I know to see what experience they’ve had of such questions. They’ve been asked everything from who they most identify with in literature to what they watch on television. One friend of mine was even asked if she drank alcohol. "He didn’t," she says, "ask if I enjoyed alcohol, drank to excess, sipped on sherry once a month or could sink five pints in five minutes, so I thought I’d be cagey and just answered with ‘yes’." She was pleased to see the interviewer’s face light up. (She got the job.) Another woman had a job interview which was taped — which the person doing the hiring would later listen to. The person doing the interviewing was most unhelpful. When she asked if the interviewer could clarify what a question meant, she was told to just answer the question. Another person was asked what was the most spontaneous thing he’d ever done — he concluded he’d never acted spontaneously in his entire life — while yet another was asked to describe himself in one word. "Verbose" perhaps? And my personal favourite: What scares you? This person truthfully answered spiders and blames this answer on not getting the job. "I think the correct answer was ‘you’," she says. So what is the point of such ridiculous questions? Well, recruitment firm De Winter International director Mike Green says quite often the people asking these kinds of questions aren’t so much interested in the answer, as how you handle answering a tricky question — particularly if the job you’re going for requires you to think on your feet. One way to cope is by answering it with a question, he says. "That’s a very interesting question. I’ve been to many interviews and never been asked that. Is there a reason why you ask that particular question?" If nothing else, such a response gives you time to think of an answer. You can also ask the interviewer to clarify the question if it doesn’t make much sense. That may even be what the interviewer would expect a good applicant to do. Some interviewers may ask questions to see how you think both technically and using common sense and see what your problem-solving skills are like. Green says they may ask you how many ways you can think of to measure the width of a nearby building, for example. The good news according to Green is that most interviewers won’t ask candidates trick questions. However, he says some interviewers may use standard questions to help them benchmark a candidate against other people they’ve already hired (and asked the same question of). "They want to see how people react — do they think laterally, do they think outside the square, can they answer a non-technology question." So have you ever been asked a strange question in an interview or know of people who have? If so, how did you, or they, handle it? Email me with the details — I’d love to hear about it. Mills is Computerworld’s careers editor and can be contacted at or ph: 03-467-2869 or fax: 0-3-467 2875.

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