5 Extreme Interview Tactics: Do They Really Work?

When it comes to interviewing, don't ask pointless questions or ambush your candidates. Become a smarter interviewer, and find better talent.
July 17, 2013

"I don't mind doing interviews," says actor Harrison Ford. "I don't mind answering thoughtful questions. But I'm not thrilled about answering questions like, 'If you were being mugged, and you had a light saber in one pocket and a whip in the other, which would you use?' 

Harrison might as well have been talking about some of the outlandish interview questions business owners and hiring managers ask job candidates. Take for example, "What kitchen utensil would you be?" asked at Bandwidth.com. If a candidate answers "butter curler," does that make him or her pretentious?

Interview questions like this will not aid in selecting a competent project manager or a brilliant Web developer. Google has come to the same conclusion. In a recent interview in The New York Times, Laszlo Bock, Google's Senior Vice President of People Operations, said that the company has now found brainteasers to be a complete waste of time: "How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything." (Here is a quick list of 25 similar oddball questions asked at interviews with various companies.)

Apart from brain teasers, what other outlandish hiring tactics are being used by companies? Do they work? Let's explore some of these:

Using "speed dating"-style interviews. Speed dating has inspired a new, radical approach to interviewing. With this approach, candidates are given anywhere from five to 15 minutes to sell themselves. This gives hiring managers an opportunity to screen a large number of applicants in a short period of time. While most screenings are conducted on the phone, through Skype, or in person, one enterprising company has capitalized on this growing trend by providing a unique platform for busy hiring managers: HireLite, an online recruitment solution for software engineers to be interviewed by video chat, for five minutes. If there's a fit, a mutual connection is made. But the most cutting-edge approach in speed interviewing comes perhaps from Pizza Hut, which gives candidates 140 seconds to sell themselves.

Speed interviewing is a tactic that works for assessing personality fit. Studies show that we make snap decisions about a candidate in the first few minutes of an interview anyway. In Blink, The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking, author Malcolm Gladwell calls these snap decisions "rapid cognition." According to Gladwell, we need to pay more attention to what happens in the first few seconds when we interview someone for a job, for example. We should not discount the "thin slices" of information that we get in the first few fleeting moments. These instantaneous impressions are powerful in helping us make good decisions. If nothing else, they prompt us to consciously look more closely for relevant information.

Placing importance on a candidate's GPA. Google used an applicant's GPA as an important hiring criterion. This, too, was found to be useless in predicting how a new hire will perform. "One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching," Bock says, "is that GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring." That's because the ability to perform at work has zero correlation with how one performed in school. Not only are college environments artificial and different from the real world, but the skills required to succeed in college are fundamentally different from the ones that are required to navigate the uncertainly and complexity encountered in the business world. 

study shows that 38 percent of employers require a GPA greater than 3.0. It's not unheard of that rushed hiring managers will use the GPA as a quick filtering method to get through 300 resumes. This is shortsighted, as it can easily lead to missing the best people. There are many valid reasons for a low GPA, such as having worked full time to pay for educational costs.

Holding a mob-style panel interview. Panel interviews are a ubiquitous, yet controversial mode of interviewing. They can be an effective selection tool, eliminating bias, but they are often mishandled. It's not uncommon to put an applicant through an inquisition-type experience by having them face more than 20 interviewers at one time. This type of pressure may be necessary to assess how cool under fire an air traffic controller, or an explosive expert, might be, but hardly useful for evaluating a software developer or an accounting manager. In "Ditch The Panel Interview: Why Companies Say Farewell To The Firing Squad", HR opponents of panel interviews list various reasons for a call to abandon this practice. One of these reasons is the perils of group thinking. A dominant voice in the room, for example, can lead the process astray.

Setting up an ambush for the applicant. Here's an example of an employer who sets up a special filtering technique dubbed a "quick qualifier." The secret plan involves adding the following words about three quarters of the way in a job advertisement: "To prove that you're a meticulous reader, you have to include the following sentence when you send your resume: 'It is with my utmost respect I hereto surrender my curriculum vitae for your consideration.'" If you only consider applications that contain the sentence, it has been estimated you could cut the number of resumes to review by 80 percent.

Unfortunately, this tactic may also cut out qualified applicants. It's easy for bright, highly qualified people to forget to include the sentence once they set out to prepare the cover letter and resume. They likely have other more important details on their mind, such as how to best position their expertise and knowledge. 

Asking the unanswerable. Some interviewers ask pointless questions. These fall in the category of outlandish "what if" questions, such as: "If you were a punctuation mark, what would you be?" What could an interviewer possibly hope to discover with this type of question? Would a question mark be indicative of a curious mind? An exclamation mark a sign of passion? A comma indicative of hesitation? And what about a semicolon? Good at connecting?

The New (and Improved) Interview

We can all derive inspiration from companies such as Google who candidly admit that some of the interview tactics they used were ineffective. Traditional hiring interviews are unreliable at the best of times, without the addition of outlandish interviewing tactics that result in a flawed system by design. Google now relies on structured behavioral interviews. "The interesting thing about the behavioral interview," Bock says, "is that when you ask somebody to speak to their own experience, and you drill into that, you get two kinds of information. One is you get to see how they actually interacted in a real-world situation, and the valuable “meta” information you get about the candidate is a sense of what they consider to be difficult."

Employers can also take a page from a company such as Hub Spot, for example. No gimmick questions here. Instead, one of the strategies it uses to engage the attention of top candidates is recruiting videos where employees give a feel of what it's like to work in the company. Starbucks is an example of another company that uses creative videos of employees talking about the culture, and why it's a great place to learn and grow. And let's not forget the recruiting videos of Apple, where employees genuinely talk about the reverence for expertise and the drive for perfection.  

Finally, we can also learn from examples of companies such as IDEO, one of the most respected and innovative companies in the world. Watch founder David Kelley speak about how the company goes about hiring great people. One of IDEO's tactics is to have 10 IDEO employees each take an applicant to lunch to assess if the person is a good fit for IDEO. A major fit criterion is what IDEO calls "the attitude of wisdom," which describes individuals who can get their ideas across forcefully but also have the wisdom to know that their idea might be improved by others. As Kelley puts it, IDEO grows because "we find another one of these people." No gimmicks, tricks or contrived questions here. Just candor and ingeniousness.  

Read more articles on hiring.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Photo: Getty Images