Trick Questions: Should You Use Them In An Interview?

Recently a journalist contacted me to get my opinion on some good trick questions to use in interviews. Their view was that interviews can get boring and to ‘shake it up’ a little, they wanted to offer readers of their business magazine options for ‘out-of-the-box’ questions for candidate screening.

There are a long list of weird ‘challenge’ questions that  can be found on the internet. Some big name organisations, such as MicroSoft, are famous for asking the ‘Why are manholes round?’ question that is supposed to catch unwitting, or more to the point, witless candidates out.

There are however a number of problems with asking trick questions:

1. Often out-of-box questions don’t have a legal basis that is relevant to the job and as such, the candidate does have a legal right to decline answering them if they don’t directly related to the job duties of the role.

2. Out-of-box questions can backfire on you, especially if they contain any reference or content linked to discriminatory factors such as age, gender, sexual preference, ethnic origin, political persuasion, parental responsibilities, or disability.

3. You can only really use one or two, definitely no more than three within 30 minutes, otherwise it gets too weird.

4. Interviewers need to by very skilled and have a reasonable understanding of psychology principles and personality profiles in order to interpret the candidates answer to obtain any useable data. If you don’t know what you are looking for in the answer , you can make a judgement based on your subjective opinion.

5. Trick questions are hard to subjectively rank across a number of candidates if you are using a ranking method of selection.

6. Often they are not properly aligned to real behavioural requirements of the role.

There are ways that you can use ‘Out of the box’ questions to gain further insight, however they  do need to be used carefully, and with a specific purpose rather than being trite.

For example, want to know how some one approaches a problem?  Or how analytical they are? Ask them this:

Q: How many dollar coins would it take to go across the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge?

Some may trying and guess the answer, where as a very analytical person will answer using logic and problem solving skills.

Q: What would you do if you were given 2 hours notice to put on a party?

The answer can demonstrate lateral thinking skills and planning or project skills. The planner will start by getting the data first to make sure the party is right, rather than the person ploughing in and then facing challenges down the track, due to an initial lack of data gathering.

Q: What tasks do you dislike about your job?

We are looking for honesty and a level of directness. Every one has things that are least favourable about their job, however many will try and give you an answer they think you want to hear. So they answer that they love everything about their job. It is not likely to be truthful and demonstrates a lack of self confidence or an over accommodating person.

Used wisely and as a leader questions for further drill down, ‘out-of-the-box’ questions can have potential for eliciting useful selection information. However using them without real tactical strategy behind it and the answer can be less than useful.