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When the Final Candidates Are Equally Qualified, Ask a Trick Question to Set Them Apart

Can "Trick" Questions Help You Hire the Best Applicants

There are literally thousands of job interview books available in bookstores right now, all designed to help people nail that interview and get the job of their dreams. Within all those pages, helpful authors take people through the tried and true questions to master in order to succeed, from the generic "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" to the practical "Talk to me about some of the projects you worked on while you were at your last job."

But buried beneath the classics are a few books with titles such as "Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?" In fact, just memorizing the 25-word subtitle of the book could be its own question: "Trick Questions, Zen-like Riddles, Insanely Difficult Puzzles, and Other Devious Interviewing Techniques You Need to Know to Get a Job Anywhere in the New Economy."

Most people will see a book or a blog post like that and treat it like a game show. Ha ha! I wonder if I can answer those crazy brain teasers! However, I began to wonder if the effectiveness of these questions was being undervalued -- by both the hiring company and the job-seeker. 

I wrote about an example in my career where a "bonus question" at the end of a job description surprised me with how effective it was at determining the strength of an applicant's candidacy. Some reader feedback argued that this was an irrelevant, unfair, or self-centered “trick question.” To re-emphasize, each and every resume was reviewed, and all candidates were evaluated for their experience and qualifications as the primary qualifier. The bonus question was just that -- a bonus. 

That’s how many employers judge applicants as well. If someone is going for a job in finance, he/she might come up with a great response to the question "If you could build a new animal, using the best parts of existing animals, which parts would you use?"

But if that person doesn't have a history of balanced budgets and a love for numbers, they’re not getting the finance job. However, if they DO have the background AND ace the other questions, chances are much greater you'll hire them. Let's explore why:

1) Increased competition
Let's face it, it's a very, very competitive job market right now, and in some cases, very little distinguishes one qualified person from the next. We've already established that the same old standard interview questions have been around for decades, so once there are five candidates with the same degree, 3-5 years experience, and a stock answer for "What is your greatest weakness?", it's going to have to come down to something else.

For a company like Google, it's about attracting the best of the best. Sure, the qualifications for their Enterprise Geospatial Deployment Manager position in Taipei will vary from your entry-level marketing coordinator opening in Toronto, but the goal is the same -- to use the interview process to determine the best possible candidate for the job.

So far, it seems to be working for them. For the past six years, Google has been in the top four of Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For, coming in first three times, and I’d argue that the $38 billion in revenue in 2011 means their employees are doing something right. 

2) New economy
Possibly more than any other time in our history, our culture is being defined by rapid change. Long-standing industries such as newspapers, books, movies, television, music, and retail have all had to rapidly adapt in a changing digital landscape.

In the online world, a company like MySpace can go from being valued at $12 billion to sold for $35 million in just four years, while Instagram went from its app store launch to a $1 billion acquisition in only 18 months.

Companies that have employees that are agile and highly responsive to change can be a huge asset, especially in a startup. Eric Reis, author of The Lean Startup, writes in his blog:

"By far the most important thing you want to hire for in a startup is the ability to handle the unexpected. Most normal people have a fairly narrow comfort zone, where they excel in their trained specialty… We want someone who is a strong lateral thinker, who can apply what they've learned to new situations, and who can un-learn skills that were useful in a different context but are lethal in a new one."

3) Company fit
Beyond the basic qualifications of a job, one of the top requirements for any hiring manager is to make sure a new employee is a fit within the company culture. Zappos is another company that is consistently ranked as an amazing place to work. To ensure that they are getting the right type of employee, one of the questions they ask is, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?"

CEO Tony Hsieh explains, "If you’re a 1, you're probably a little bit too strait-laced for us. If you're a 10, you might be too psychotic for us. It's not so much the number; it's more seeing how candidates react to a question."

Finding the Right Mix
For a hiring manager, how do you find the perfect mix of brains, humor, camaraderie, work ethic, and adaptability? Should you dismiss "trick" questions because many people feel they are unfair? For an employee, once you have your elevator pitch down and your resume highlights memorized, are you prepared to think on the fly?

I think Brandon Werner, a designer at Blip, sums it up well:

"I interviewed hundreds and hundreds of students when I was a Resident Director at my university, and I would always throw in the following question: ‘Which Muppet is the one who best describes you?’ I still do it when conducting interviews at my full-time job. I always get flack from people I’m working with about it, but I tell you, I have received some of the best and most telling answers from it. 

Yes, people aren't prepared for the question, so you can argue that it’s 'not fair,' but isn't that the point? Thinking on your feet and having a sense of humor are the two paramount things I look for when finding someone I want to work with, and this question shows both. For instance, I remember one guy saying ‘I’m most like Kermit, because he is the leader and I think I am a strong leader,’ then he launched into examples of good leadership. Another said ‘I’m most like Gonzo, because he is the strange one,’ and then started talking about how they think outside the box.

I think those that laugh at the question and blow it off shows more than anything. To me it means they might think they are too ‘special’ or cool to talk about Muppets as an adult. C’mon, everyone knows the Muppets! I don't want to work with someone who killed their inner child long ago, especially working in media and entertainment."

So it's OK to put a little pressure on the people you're interviewing. They have to be prepared to answer a non-standard question during an interview to show they possess the skills needed to adapt in a rapidly changing economy. Next time, try asking them about the Muppets.

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