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Dumb questions from dumb people

I’ve never been good at job interviews. I once went for a final interview at a publishers with the head of HR. When I entered the room, he was reading a newspaper as he asked me; “What really annoys you?”. It was impossible not to tell him; “Rudeness; someone reading a newspaper in a job interview should cover it.” Never cracked the world of publishing after that.

But apparently the world of crass interviewing techniques is still flourishing, with the popularity of questions known as ‘brainteasers’.

An example of one of these is; “‘How many tears are there in a bottle of gin?” If you are asked this in an interview I’m sure you must have a legal right to insist on the interview continuing, but with a responsible adult present.

Why do job interviewers ask such terrible questions; there is no point to them, other than narcissm.

Many bosses apparently swear by brainteasers, but new research suggests they are useless for selecting candidates.

How many cabs are there in New York City? How many tears in a bottle of gin? These aren’t  the lyrics to a song by Alanis Morissette, but the kind of questions you are likely to be asked during a job interview.

In recent years, it has become common for bosses to ask interview questions that are impossible to answer. There is no right answer to these ‘brainteasers’. Instead, they are supposed to help an interviewer gauge an applicant’s reasoning skills. What matters is how you come to the conclusion, not what conclusion you arrive at.

Brainteasers became popular in management consultancy firms. Young graduates (probably from Oxbridge; see below) hoping to join the company would be asked: “How many phone booths are there in Manhattan?” They weren’t expected to blurt out a random number – instead, they were expected to show they could solve even the most obscure problem.

As consultants swarmed across other organisations, they bought their inscrutable questions with them. Now, people applying for a job in a call centre can expect to be asked how a nuclear power plant works.

While many bosses swear by brainteasers, a research paper published in the journal Applied Psychology found they are useless for spotting the best candidate for the job. What they are great for is boosting the ego of the person asking the question.

The study’s findings are not surprising. Studies have repeatedly found that most methods of selecting job candidates are hopelessly flawed. Job interviews are among the worst way of picking the right person for the job.

The results of this research raise the question: if interviews are bad at picking the right person for the job, what are they there for? In many respects, job selection processes are thinly disguised forms of torture, designed to make applicants feel worthless and employers feel like intellectual giants.

Think about the extensive list of personal skills required for even the most lowly entry-level job. Or those painful assessment centres where you are supposed to play nice with people you are competing against to get the job. And then there are the firms that ask applicants to make a showreel to convey how awesome they are. All these exercises seem designed not to get the best person for the role, but to assure the boss how great they are, and remind you just how lucky you would be to get this boring job.

I first heard about these kind of questions in relation to entry interviews to Oxbridge and one story is quite good. Again, it involved the interviewer reading a newspaper as the potential student comes into the room. The don orders the candidate to; “Entertain me,” as he goes back to his paper.

The student got out a box of matches and set fire to the professor’s newspaper. Excellent, wish I’d thought of that.

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