One of the biggest problems interviewers face is that interviews are artificial. You are trying to get to know a candidate by asking them a series of predictable questions they can prepare in advance. Sometimes, it seems like all you learn about the candidate is how well they can memorize and deliver a script. No wonder many HR managers today feel like interviews just don’t work.
To get past this artificiality, some interviewers start throwing in questions that are unexpected—or downright weird. You know the ones: “What can you do with a pencil?” “Why are tennis balls furry?” Do you believe in Bigfoot?”
The idea is that throwing the candidate a curveball helps you get under their skin. They have to abandon their scripted answers and give you a sense of their thought processes, show you how creative and innovative they can be, and tell you more about who they really are.
But my experience has been that this logic doesn’t hold up in real interviews. For most people, even seasoned candidates, interviews are stressful. If you’re interviewing for a position that involves a lot of bizarre problem-solving under pressure, great! If not, these wildcard interview questions won’t help you figure out whether the candidate is a good fit for the job. All they do is make your candidate feel anxious, baffled, or irritated.
So, what’s the secret to getting to know the real candidate—without upping the stress?
The following 5 interview questions won’t appear on any standard interview scripts, but they are a far cry from the kind of “weird” questions that serve little purpose (apart from entertaining the interviewer!). These questions can actually tell you something about the candidate, what makes them tick and, most importantly, what they would be like to work with.
1. What makes you angry at work?
Why this works: Finding out what makes people angry tells you a lot about what they value at a gut level. For instance, one of my best hires answered this by saying she hated “people not pulling their weight.” She turned out to be one of the most dedicated team players of all time.
It’s also a great way of screening for emotional intelligence. Candidates with high EQ are likely to find it easy to access this information. They know themselves well and carefully manage their emotions—exactly the traits you should be looking for in any new hire.
Finally, it’s a hard question to answer with a bland, non-committal response, making it an excellent test for cultural fit. For instance, a candidate irritated by vague instructions might not fit into a low-key, relaxed team atmosphere. Someone driven crazy by competitive behavior might not work out in a high-pressure sales environment.
2. Describe this job—what you’ll be doing, why you do it—as if you were describing it to your grandmother.
Why this works: This is a great interview question for more technical or niche job roles. Someone who really understands something can describe it incredibly simply. You can learn a great deal from the answers to this one: how well the candidate truly understands the purpose of the job, what they will prioritize once they start working for you, and even how well you’ve explained the job in the ad.
What’s more, you can get a sense of how well they can adapt their explanations to a non-expert. A programmer who can write impeccable code is great, but a programmer who can also explain the benefit of a new feature clearly to, say, the Marketing Manager is even more valuable.
3. Tell me about a time you failed at work.
Why this works: Everyone loves to talk about their achievements, but you can often learn far more about them from their failures. The motivation behind the failure is invariably revealing. Were they too ambitious? Did they underestimate time constraints? Were they unable to get people on-side? Either way, you’ll have a much clearer understanding of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, while avoiding that old interview cliché that most will have prepared for.
You’ll also be able to see whether they tend to learn from their failures or to blame other people for it. You can spot any perfectionist tendencies which might slow things down, or a “fail faster” attitude which might or might not be a good cultural fit.
4. What do you do when you’re procrastinating?
Why this works: Again, this interview question can uncover a lot about the candidate without being unduly stressful. For one thing, discussing a shared flaw is a great ice breaker—a reminder during a stilted professional conversation that we are all human beings.
For another thing, the answers will tell you a lot about who someone really is. Someone who falls down the Wikipedia rabbit hole on a regular basis will usually have a high level of intellectual curiosity. Someone who obsesses over the news might have their finger on the pulse. Someone who denies ever procrastinating is probably just…not very honest.
5. What would your alternative career be, if you couldn’t do what you’re doing now?
Why this works: If you really want to know what motivates someone, ask them about their fantasy life. This question gives you a chance to see how imaginative the candidate is, but it also tells you a lot about what they look for in life. Would they have been an actor, a sports star, a singer? Maybe they respond best to external validation. Would they have gone into academia? Maybe they love research and problem-solving. It’s also a fun way to find out what took them into their current line of work in the first place.
So there we go—five ways to steer candidates into honest, revealing, and creative lines of conversation, without any gimmicks. And not a tennis ball in sight.
About the Author
Rosanna Campbell is a former HR Manager turned freelance writer for the HR industry. She helps HR and recruitment businesses find more clients and build authority online with hard-working content. Connect with her at rosannacampbell.com.