Ask a job seeker what his or her weaknesses are and chances are they will say they work too hard. Ask that same candidate what they would do if they won $20 million in the lottery and you’re not likely to get a canned or polished answer. While oddball questions may seem pointless, they can actually be more telling than the straight forward type of interview questions most employers use.
“Strange or oddball questions are not primarily asked to trick a person, but to uncover qualities about a candidate that can’t be determined from a resume or two-minute drill,” says Susan Ruhl, a managing partner at OI Partners – Innovative Career Consulting in Denver. ”They are designed to uncover how you think, handle unexpected problems and situations, whether you are a good fit for their culture, and how creative you are.”
Oddball questions can be a powerful tool to glean information about a potential candidate as long as they are used correctly. If the interviewer doesn’t know what he or she is looking for, then throwing out a strange question just for the sake of doing it will be pointless. “It’s an excellent technique to get to know the real person, but you have to know what you are doing,” says Mark Jaffe, president of Wyatt & Jaffe, the executive search firm. “It won’t yield meaningful results if you don’t know what you are looking for.” According to Jaffe, if the employer is using oddball questions just to throw a candidate off their game or trick them, then it won’t be useful in trying to get them to share something beyond their prepared answers. “The idea is to get people to relax their defenses and to dredge up something that may not be in their immediate repertoire for an interview,” says Jaffe.
Career experts say interviewers have to go into the interview knowing the role they are aiming to fill and the type of person that is best suited for that role. For instance, if you are looking to hire an accountant and you ask what would you do with $20 million in lottery winnings, you’re going to want to hear they would put it in savings, pay off debt or increase their retirement nest egg, but if you are looking to hire a creative type you may want to hear they would spend the money traveling the world.
“The questions are designed to illicit atypical responses,” says Chuck Fried, president and chief executive of technology staffing company TxMQ. “If you asked what three things you would bring to a deserted island you are trying to figure out if the person is pragmatic or fantasy-oriented.” Does the person say he or she would bring a book of matches, a cellphone and water filtration system or do they say they would bring a bottle of wine, a great novel, and an iPod?
When it comes to oddball questions they typically fall under the categories of problem solving, thought process and cultural fit, according to Ruhl. The problem solving ones are designed to see how quickly, accurately and creatively a person solves a problem and could include questions such as how many cows are in Canada or how many quarters would you need to reach the height of the Empire State building? Similar to problem solving questions are thought process questions which Ruhl says are designed to see how you think. Examples of thought process questions include what do you think about when you are alone in your car and how would you direct someone else on how to cook an omelet? Cultural fit questions are employed to see if a candidate would fit well within a company. Questions could include if you could be anyone else, who would it be and what kitchen utensil would you be?
Although oddball questions can catch job candidates off guard they can also demonstrate if a person can think on their feet. It’s not the job of the interviewer or the interviewee to actually know how many gas stations there are in the U.S., but Fried says it’s a great tool to see how someone thinks through the problem. “I don’t care about the right answer I care about the logic someone used to arrive at the answer,” says Fried.
Check out Glassdoor’s Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions for 2013