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Curveball Questions: Time to be Prepared

Clare Hopping

Curve_Ball_Throw_BackGot a job interview coming up? Turns out that more than half (56%) of today’s employers are dishing out curveball questions during interviews.

Rare is the batter who consistently hits a home run off a curveball. But the real difficulty with curveballs is not, in fact, the unpredictable arc of the pitch itself. We find out the top three pop questions and how to change your interviewing style from simple swinging to pinch-hitting.

As psychology professor and optical researcher Arthur Shapiro reveals in this Scientific American article, curveballs only become tricky when batters swing at the past instead of the present: the ball, as it appeared in the pitcher’s hand before it left the mound, looks nothing like the ball that’s actually in play.

Home run batters, Shapiro implies, accept and react to the new angle of the ball even as it hurtles towards their potential blind spots.

Curveball questions in job interviews operate in a similar way. If you swing at the question you prepared for the night before, instead of the question they’re throwing at you in the room, unpredictable queries can derail your interview and strike you out.

But if you respond deftly in the moment, these pop questions will reveal the social skills, light-footed thinking, and problem solving that just might score you the job.

MugFrom the Other Side of the Desk

According to a new report, as covered by Recruitment Buzz, employers have caught onto the revealing power of the curveball question.

After polling upwards of 500 British employers and more than 1,000 adults in the UK, researchers discovered that 56% of employers use deliberately perturbing questions to gauge candidates’ personalities (30%), as well as test interviewees’ ability to think on their feet (58%) and generate creative ideas (52%).

Interestingly, 61% of male recruiters are likely to throw a curveball question at a candidate, while just under half (49%) of women employers report using the same strategy.

Why are employers doing this? In a job market that is as competitive as today’s and a financial climate that is as – let’s say, frisky – as the current U.S. economy, companies don’t have the manpower or money to handle a hire-and-fire scenario.

As Gareth Greenidge reports in our LaunchPad article on company hiring, bad appointment decisions (that result in firing) often lead to substantial financial losses and lowered staff morale.

As a result, bosses are reserving jobs – both entry-level and coveted senior positions – for employees who will perform reliably in the short and long term, innovators who grow new company initiatives as they improve their skill sets for the benefit of the organization.

Those are the facts. The real question is: how do you prepare for a question that is, by its very nature, impossible to predict? We’ve got a few ideas.

InterviewNow, Let Me Ask You…

In cocktail party conversation, questions are usually fueled by curiosity without an agenda. In interviews, employers ask questions because they want specific knowledge:

1) Will your professional goals mesh well with their company’s mission?

2) Are your skills, work ethic, and personality well-suited to the position?

If you keep in mind that every interview question – be it quirky, left-field, or abrupt – is a means to finding out these two larger questions, you’ll be better equipped to respond to curveballs in a way that gives the interviewer a good sense of your qualifications and communication skills.

No two interviewers will phrase a question in precisely the same way, so we’ll take a look at the top three curveball topics and discuss specific interviewing strategies for each.


Robert S. Donovan/Flickr Robert S. Donovan/Flickr

One: The Millenial Resume

Lifelong hires and decades of company-ladder climbing ended in the era of Mad Men. According to The Atlantic, Baby Boomers have typically worked 11 jobs over the course of their working life (ages 18 to 44, approximately 2.4 years per job). And the apple does not fall far from the tree.

As Jeanne Meister of Forbes indicates, 91% of Millennials expect to work a job for less than three years. This “job-hopping” often leads to resumes filled with one or two year-long work experiences that span a wide – even unrelated – range of fields.

Meister notes that “hiring managers worry they’ll become the next victims of these applicant’s hit-and-run jobholding…wasting precious time and resources on training and development, only to lose the employee before that investment pays off.”

Because of this suspicion, employers often ask candidates to explain their resumes, especially gaps between jobs, part-time jobs, positions that candidates worked simultaneously, and candidates’ reasons for leaving a job or transitioning to a new field of work.

If an employer asks a curveball question about a gap or idiosyncrasy in your resume, they probably want to know about your larger professional goals or five-year plan, and whether their company will be a place that you invest your time and energy as you pursue those goals.

The good news is that today’s employers understand the market’s financial instability, and have likely weathered challenges of their own. There is no need to apologize for your resume: simply explain it in an honest, favorable light.

The “Mind the Gap” curveball is an opportunity for you to articulate the cohesive, responsible logic that has driven your transitions between jobs. The best strategy for effectively answering this question is to prepare a confident way to map the thought process of your professional decisions.

Make sure to highlight how each new job increased your experience or broadened your skill set, and make it clear that you hold yourself accountable to your professional commitments. If you have had periods of unemployment, underscore your resilience and persistence in finding a new job.


(Mick Baker)rooster/Flickr (Mick Baker)rooster/Flickr

Two: In Today's News

Because of the social media boom, companies are increasingly obliged to rethink their PR campaigns, branding, and customer relations, engaging with the consumer culture and its rapidly shifting tastes on a daily (if not hourly or minute-by-minute) basis. Employers are searching for candidates who exhibit a wide-ranging curiosity in current events and make an active effort to stay informed.

Why? Companies believe employee curiosity powers better media outreach, product development, and sales models.

According to Evan Carmichael, investor and business magnate (and The Apprentice celebrity, of course) Donald Trump openly encourages entrepreneurs, businessmen, and other professionals to seek in-depth knowledge about topics that are not strictly in “your line of business,” noting that curiosity encourages “a form of lateral thinking” that can catalyze fresh ideas in the office.

The best pre-interview strategy for an “In Today’s News” curveball question is to prepare talking points.

Think of a few subjects that genuinely interest you for “lateral” reasons (as Mr. Trump would say) to highlight the nature of your curiosity: these could be anything from documentaries about climate change to the rise and cultural trajectory of techno music to making your own sushi by hand.

It’s best to have a few concrete details ready: a book you read on the subject recently, the name of the documentary’s director, the technique for rolling sushi rice.

Then, think about the current events, social trends, and business models (of related or unrelated fields) that might be useful for your potential future boss to know about. Has your employer’s primary competitor tapped into a new demographic by changing their brand image?

Are people looking at billboards less during commutes because they’re absorbed in their smartphones? When you remark on these trends, make it clear that you’ve considered how you might put your observations to practical use.

If an employer asks you about a specific current event or subject related to the company and you aren’t familiar with the subject, don’t panic.

Answer succinctly with any basic facts you might know and segue into your talking points to show that, even if you haven’t read the precise article they’re asking about, you’ve thought about their line of business while reading other publications or developing projects at your previous job.

Sometimes employers are looking for an exact, in-depth answer. Just as often, however, employers use hyper-specific, factual questions to gauge how you cope under pressure when asked to speak authoritatively on a subject. So, if you need to gear-shift into your own domain of expertise, do it with confidence.


Steve Jurvetson/Flickr Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

Three: What Would You Do?

Bosses don’t hire employees with the expectation that everything will go smoothly as their company takes on new projects; they hire people who expect a bumpy road and have learned not only to cope with unexpected challenges, but to anticipate those challenges and use them as a springboard for better work performance.

Look, Leap and Reflect

In a study conducted by team of professors at Harvard Business School, researchers gave two sequences of brain teasers to two groups: one “control” group was simply asked to complete the second sequence of teasers without reflecting on their performances during the first sequence.

The second group was asked to complete the first set of teasers, evaluate their performances with the other group members, and then tackle the second set.

After the scores of each group were tallied, the researchers discovered that “the reflection and sharing group performed an average of 18% better on the second round of brain teasers than the control group.”

Because they were asked to consciously assess their strategy and exchange ideas about new or alternative approaches, the second group developed new problem-solving strategies and out-performed their peers.

The road to success is never smooth, so employers tend to favor curveball questions that will determine whether or not a job candidate displays the characteristics of Group #2 from the Harvard study: reflection, forethought, and planning.

Your interviewer may ask you to describe a time when something at your previous job went awry, what your biggest professional obstacle has been, or what you’ve learned from your work experience.

Take this question as an opportunity to show them that you’ve pondered the challenges of your previous jobs, evaluated your performance with a critical eye for improvement, and learned to funnel your self-evaluation into strategies that allow you to solve problems more efficiently and effectively.

Better yet, describe a specific instance from a previous job in which you nipped a problem in the bud so you could direct your creative energy elsewhere.

The Takeaway

It’s easiest to distill these curveball strategies into a few pinch-hitting mantras, so we’ll leave you with three:

1) Explain the logic & goals behind your resume
2) Use curiosity to prove your creative thinking
3) Show them how you taught yourself to solve problems

Clare Hopping

Clare Hopping has been involved in the recruitment of both full-time employees and freelance staff for ten years. She specialises in recruiting staff via social media and digital platforms.