There are no stupid questions, but are there stupid interview questions? Yes. HR staples like, “What's your biggest weakness?”, brainteasers (“How many golfballs can you fit into a plane?”), and fluffy feelers (“What kind of animal would you be?”) don't provide the insight into candidates that prospective employers hope.
Choosing interview questions is an art. Employers use the interview process to assess whether candidates have necessary skills and experience. Responses inform the recruiter's sense of who best fills the role and fits the company.
Good interview questions have candidates betraying work experience, IQ, and personality in ways they don't even realize, while “stupid” questions don't reveal much of anything. In fact, the stupidest interview questions are the ones recruiters assume to be revealing when in reality they convey very little.
Ask too many stupid questions and recruiters run the risk of employing someone unsuitable. Stupid interview questions fall into some common categories, all too familiar to recruiters and interviewees. They would be funny, if they weren't so popular. Learn why these HR “Do's” are really “Don'ts.”
Theoretical Personal Choices
“What celebrity would you have dinner with?”
“What five things would you bring to a desert island?”
“If you won the lottery, how would you spend your winnings?”
On the surface, these questions invite candidates to share personal information they wouldn't otherwise in a conversation about career. They seem to offer an alternative route into the human being.
In practice, on top of being very difficult to answer, these pointless questions are not helpful in predicting how well a person will perform on the job, career coaches say. They're terrible at gauging, for example, whether or not a prospective employee will show up on time.
Theoretical questions are doubly problematic as they're subject to the bias of the interviewer. Recruiters open themselves up to giving preferential treatment to candidates just because they like the same celebrities or enjoy the same hobbies.
“Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?”
This question is so popular that it's become an interview cliché. So why shouldn't recruiters whip out this HR staple?
Answering where one sees oneself in five years requires candidates to predict the future, and recruiters especially should appreciate how impossible it is to anticipate the course of a career beyond the next step. No company guarantees a job for five plus years; no one job guarantees a career path.
In terms of the response, recruiters are likely to hear a story spun for their benefit about how the candidate's longterm goals relate to the position on offer. If interviewers decide that might be useful for assessing candidates' interests, it's an easy fix, but they should reframe the question to place the emphasis on where candidates would Like to be in five years' time.
“Tell me a little bit about yourself.”
Asking a candidate to describe him/herself isn’t really a question. To the degree that it is a question, it's too open. Candidates could just as easily respond with where they grew up as why they want this job. Especially when the invitation comes at the top of an interview, recruiters allow the candidate to guide the conversation.
While that may seem like a positive, the reality is time is of the essence and this question is unlikely to give employers the relevant information they seek. Recruiters would do better to orient the candidate first to the world of the position.
Such an open-ended invitation may also pressure candidates to “express everything” about their personality in what is ultimately a very short amount of time, giving the response to an impossible question a confused or manic quality.
“What's your greatest weakness?”
“Name three of your weaknesses.”
If you've ever been on the applying side of an interview, you've likely heard this traditional HR question. Trouble is, weakness-related questions are loaded and recruiters should know by now that they will receive stock responses.
Forbes Magazine warns that this question traps candidates; no one in their right mind would admit true weaknesses. No interviewee should proclaim how they struggle to get out of bed, often turn up at work late, or don't like working on teams. Instead, candidates get through this predictable question with generic responses like “I'm a workaholic” or “I'm a perfectionist.”
“How did you get along with your previous employer?”
“What was your relationship like with the company?”
As with questions about weaknesses, employers are unlikely to receive honest answers when it comes to questions about candidates' former employers. If you disliked your most recent boss, you wouldn't say so, and similarly it's taboo to badmouth your old company.
Perhaps interviewers can make an argument that these questions demonstrate how candidates handle themselves professionally, but ultimately recruiters don't learn very much. They need to know more about the candidate and their experiences before they can effectively interpret the genuine or tactful response.
“How many golfballs can you fit into a plane?”
“How many manholes are there in London?”
These questions risk alienating good candidates by placing a kind of pressure on interviewees that they are unlikely to experience on the job. Quick estimates and computations make candidates sweat, but how much do they indicate about intelligence?
Not enough to merit the kind of antagonistic environment they establish. Besides, if and when recruiters receive “impressive” answers, do they really know what they're looking for?
Google sets a high standard for interview innovation. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Google loves inviting candidates to flex mental muscles, famous for asking questions like “What would you do if you were shrunk to the high of a nickel and thrown into a blender?” ()
But while the blender question prompts interviewees to exercise creative problem-solving, Google found questions like the above that demand quantitative responses unnecessarily pressurizing and useless at predicting acumen or behaviour. Candidates can rest a little easier knowing the tech company has banned the practice.
“If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?”
Once upon a time, fluffy questions like this one were used to surprise candidates, but not anymore; interviewees expect this kind of soft psychological analysis and often prepare stock responses.
According to Hiring Monster, organizations that use this question rarely have documented proof that they are measuring anything job-related.
To the degree that questions of this nature have legitimate psychological bases, most employers aren't trained psychiatrists and cannot accurately interpret responses.
Like Theoretical Personal Choice questions, softly scientific personality questions are susceptible to the bias of the interviewer. Recruiters could wind up preferring applicants who identify with their favourite species.
Moral of the story: if interviewers are looking to find out about a person's leadership style, better to ask outright than to employ psychoanalysis.
The Real Moral of the Story
Of course recruiters do not want to ask pointless, predictable questions. If you shouldn't ask any of the above, what should you ask? Orienting the candidate and being direct is always advised. Career coaches recommend companies choose interview questions that are original and challenge applicants to think critically.
Which is to say, if interview questions were animals, they should be unicorns.
- For Hiring Managers: Had enough of pointless interview questions? Here are five power questions to engage candidates.
- For Recruiters: These are the right interview questions to ask when hiring for a marketing role.
- For Candidates: How to answer "curveball" interview questions.
- Infographic: Why do recruiters ask "hard" interview questions?
- For Recruiters: Google recruits through behavioural interview questions.