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Offbeat interview questions: What have you encountered?

It’s widely known that certain companies use nontraditional interview questions. There have been a couple of recent stories that highlight questions used by Amazon, Apple, Zappos, and many others. 

A few of my favorites:

  • Zappos: “What superhero would you be and would you dress up at work given the chance?”
  • Clark Construction Group: “A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?”
  • Bain and Company: “Estimate how many windows are in New York.”
  • Apple: “If you were a pizza delivery man, how would you benefit from scissors?” 

I think these types of questions can help an interviewer evaluate how a candidate articulates their way through solving for an unknown problem (Bain/Apple examples) or whether a candidate is a culture fit (Zappos). But some of the questions (like the penguin question above) just seem ludicrous to me.

Recruiters/Hiring Managers: What are your thoughts on these types of questions? Do you/have you work(ed) for companies that use them as part of their interview process? How were the answers evaluated?

Job seekers: What unusual questions have you been hit with during an interview? How did you respond?

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The highest offer isn’t always the best offer.

My other half and I have been down the house buying path together a couple of times.

The first time was in 2006-07, right in the eye of the real estate chaos. After losing a few houses we gave up and decided to rent. (One of the best choices we’ve made, in retrospect.)

We decided to re-enter the home buying market in early 2010. We figured with banks ratcheting up approval criteria for home loans about 1000%, it would be a buyer’s market. Wrong. We lost out on two houses before we came upon another, a nicely kept Tudor in our target area.

I found it about an hour after it first hit the MLS, around 9pm. I sent the listing to our realtor. He called before 8:30am the next morning. “That house is a peach. If you’re interested you need to see it today because it’s going to sell.”

By the time we walked in the door at 8pm that night, 24 realtors had toured the house (in 1 day!) and there was already one offer. After a 20 minute walkthrough, we decided to make an offer.

Two hours later, he called. “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is there are four offers on the table–and one of them is substantially higher than yours.” My heart sank.

He continued: “The good news: The seller likes the terms of your offer better.” I was confused. How can our offer, which wasn’t the highest, be better?

The answer is: The offer is a better fit for the individual. And this also holds true in your job search. Money isn’t the only thing.

You need to carefully prioritize what is most important to you:

  • Is it work/life balance–you want to be able to arrive at 8 and leave at 5 every day?
  • Is it base compensation more important than…
  • …Bonus or incentive compensation? Are you someone that wants to control how much you make (commission-based environment)?
  • How important are benefits to you? Do you need them, or are you covered under someone else’s plan? What about cost of coverage?
  • Is location and commute a factor? There are some people that will go nearly anywhere for the right job; others don’t want anything longer than a 20 minute commute by bike or bus.
  • How about corporate social responsibility factors–is working for a company that is a good corporate citizen, and pays its employees to volunteer/matches donations/etc a strong driver?

You need to look at all of these factors in considering a job offer. It’s imperative that you know how the above factors are prioritized for you in order to make that decision.

As a recruiter, I’ve occasionally extended an offer to a candidate when the company I represent doesn’t have the highest dollar offer they are considering. But occasionally, after the candidate walks through all of the decision factors, they realize that the best offer isn’t the highest.

Oh, and the house? Our counter-counter offer was accepted at about 11:45 that night. We went to bed in a bit of a daze, not quite believing that in the short time since dinner we’d bought a house.

Likability and Job Interviews

The subject of likability in job interviews has been discussed ad nauseam. There are even books written about increasing your likability.

I’ve previously stated that job interviews are a lot like first dates: very unnatural interpersonal interactions where both parties attempt to gain sufficient information about the other to make a determination whether they are worthy of another round. At the same time, you are presenting a version of yourself that has been to a spa day. Iit’s massaged, manicured, and any rough edges are buffed and polished; an optimized version of your everyday self. (The company–or your date–is doing this too.)

Recruiters look for people that will meet the hiring manager’s requirements for technical skills and experience (“She’s built an iOS app and had it published in the marketplace–check”), but also whether the candidate will be a good fit with the manager and team in terms of communication style, how they deal with that type of work environment, etc.

A part of this is often likability. Any recruiter is going to have concerns about a candidate who raises obvious red flags (being a total pain about scheduling calls/interviews; missing a scheduled call or interview; showing up late to an interview without a plausible reason). We’ll do the same if a candidate is clearly difficult during our phone screen. But in some cases, candidates are smart enough to act likable to people that they think are the primary decision makers (recruiters/hiring managers) but treat others poorly. Unfortunately, these candidates aren’t as smart as they think. Because some of the most important sources of information are not in the interview room.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll repeat it now as it’s a brilliant example. Zappos offers out of town interview candidates a tour of the area before they interview. After the tour, they collect feedback from the tour driver: Was the candidate nice? If they weren’t, they don’t get hired–no matter what the interview feedback says.

Another startup has gone so far as to create an imaginary HR person on LinkedIn. When prospective candidates call the company to ask for the imaginary HR person, they are evaluated by how they treat the person answering the phone.

Is likability everything in the interview process? It absolutely should not be. But should it be considered? Absolutely. I’m a big believer in the idea that people often reveal their true selves when they think they aren’t being evaluated–so feedback channels like the above (or from the Recruiting Coordinator or group admin who are facilitating the onsite interview) can be critical.

Something to think about prior to your next interview…

Breaking through the fourth wall of recruiting.

We had dinner last night with a friend of ours (for the sake of this we’ll call her Jane). Jane is a brilliant technical program manager who works for a major hospital system. I first met her when I recruited and hired her in a former role.

The core focus of a recruiter’s job is to deliver is talent that you have evaluated to be an appropriate fit with the technical, cultural, and effectiveness requirements of the position and to build candidate interest in your organization/the position. To do this, a recruiter must build rapport quickly with a broad diversity of personality types and engage candidates in a dialogue where they ask questions about the candidate’s experience, skills, and accomplishments without making it seem like an interrogation.

A good recruiter should always demonstrate an interest in, and curiosity about, people. That curiosity should be evident through the types of questions they ask you about your experience. There should be an innate drive to learn things they don’t know in order to better understand the business they support and/or the technologies for which they are hiring. 

Does this ever translate into a recruiter and a candidate they hire becoming friends? In my experience, rarely. Jane is a notable exception for me. We discovered that we had friends in common when we ran into each other at a mutual friend’s event. Last night, she mentioned that when we met for coffee after she onboarded, she’d thought, “He’s an interesting guy”. But I always seemed to have a solid professional wall up that she couldn’t break through.

I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but she’s correct. Recruiters walk a fine line between building rapport with people as we go through the attraction, evaluation, and offer process and not going beyond. We don’t become personally invested because 1) It’s a business transaction and it might not go the way one or both parties want; 2) it’s important to follow employment law and not ask illegal questions.

I consider myself fortunate that we connected, as Jane and her other half are interesting, thoughtful people who are doing work that benefits communities both regional and global. 

Recruiters don’t always shrug off a breakup.

At one point in my career, I was working on a high-criticality recruiting initiative. One position for this team in particular was pivotal. The opportunity was compelling; however the location was a bit challenging for some.

I had sourced a candidate for the position who the team thought was very strong. Everyone was very excited to have this person join the team. We negotiated–hard–to get them. After a couple weeks’ negotiation, the candidate made the choice to pursue a different opportunity.

You might think that a professional recruiter isn’t bothered when a candidate turns them down. Recruiting is a numbers game, after all, and when you’re in a highly competitive market for talent it is a given you will get declines. While the latter is true, allow me to disabuse you of the former.

A good recruiter assesses a candidate’s engagement level and evaluates the likelihood they will accept an offer. There are times when our instincts tell us ‘this candidate isn’t into us’, and in some cases we can raise a candidate’s level of engagement through qualifying and overcoming concerns/anxieties, having key leaders provide information to the candidate about the future vision for the product, etc. Then there are times when something outside our control impacts a decision to accept (family, spouse’s employment).

Having a great candidate decline a critical position is a huge bummer, especially for what we call ‘purple squirrels’–candidates that have such a unique skillset that finding another, similar person will involve a long search.

If you ever find yourself needing to decline a position, consider reading my earlier post on how to gracefully turn down a job offer before making that call or sending that email. And know that if the recruiter sounds disappointed, it’s likely quite genuine.

September 2017
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