In the December 10, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wants to know why employers ask  irrelevant, roundabout interview questions.

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Question

When an interviewer asks roundabout questions like, “What is your greatest weakness?” and “What is your greatest strength?”, what do they hope to learn about you as a prospective hire?

Nick’s Reply

interview questions

Those questions hint at why job seekers agonize for weeks or months “waiting to hear back” from employers that never should have interviewed them to begin with. Such questions are irrelevant to assessing a candidate for a job, so they don’t help the employer make a hiring decision.

Gratuitous interview questions

“What is your greatest weakness?” and “What is your greatest strength?” are two of the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions. They tell you more about the interviewer than your answers would tell about you. Such gratuitous queries reveal that the interviewer knows too little about the job to intelligently assess whether you can do it.

Managers and some career experts suggest that those two open-ended questions tell the employer a lot about you. I don’t agree. Such questions distract both the employer and the applicant from the critical-path question in any job interview.

Can you do the work?

“Can you do the work?” is the very first thing any savvy interviewer needs to know about you. If you cannot show that you can do the work, the meeting should end right there. Your weaknesses and strengths are irrelevant. So is what animal you’d be if you could be any animal, and how many golf balls you estimate would fit in the Empire State Building. None of that “open-ended” palaver matters if you can’t do the work.

So the message is, beware this interviewer.

What should you do when you’re asked such lame questions? Take control of the interview. Do it politely but firmly.

How to Say It

“I’d like to show you how I’d do this job, if you will permit me. If I can’t do that, then you shouldn’t hire me. So that I’m not wasting your time, will you please outline three key deliverables you’d like to see from a new hire? That is, if you hired me, what would you want me to do, fix, change, create, improve after three months on the job, then after six and 12 months? I’ll do my best to show and explain how I would do the work, so that you may accurately assess me.”

If you’re not ready to make that offer, then you’re not prepared to discuss the job and you have no business in the interview. Pull it off, and any good manager will fall at your feet. (See Good Interview Questions: You need just one.)

Don’t waste your time

If the manager cannot define the deliverables he or she wants, or doesn’t “get” what you’re offering, then you’re wasting your time. It’s better to be spared early, rather than to invest hours of time and energy, not to mention the agony you’ll be spared “waiting to hear back.”

When managers ask canned, indirect interview questions rather than directly assess your ability to do the job, they are going to waste their time and yours. If that’s what you encounter, raise the standard and offer to show the manager how you’d do the job.

Can you judge an employer by the interview questions they ask? What’s the best question you’ve been asked? I’m sure you’ll share the worst! Have you ever taken control of a job interview that was going nowhere fast?


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59 Comments
  1. I’ve had some really good questions, and some fetid stinkers too.

    Probably the best question I’ve had in the last decade (or more) was – from fallible memory – “Describe your biggest career mistake; what was it, why did you do it that way, and what would you change if you could replay it?”

    Woof.

    I haven’t had the animal one, though I did once get “If you were a plant, what kind of plant would you be?”

    My answer? Barrel cactus. Why? “I’m short, round, and very prickly on the outside… but once you get past that I’m sweet mush on the inside.”

    • @David – I hate all sorts of “if you were X, what kind would you be?” That said, I think your answer there was brilliant!

    • If I’m ever asked the plant question, I’m answering triffid without hesitation and without any further explanation.

      Either they’ll get it (and redeem themselves for asking such a question) or they won’t and I’ll know it’s time to move on.

      • I love it. I know what a triffid is, but I have 6,000 sf books.
        What would you answer if you had an interviewer who knew and asked why?

  2. I believe that the best question that I ever was asked was “Can you do the job?” In the same dialog, the interviewer added, “And are you a Star Trek fan?” The hiring manager was a big Star Trek fan and he wanted to make sure that the next hire was also a fan.

    • The first has me applauding. The second, gives me the willies.

      Yes, it’d be nice to be on good terms with my boss and have non-work things to discuss too. BUT… my workplace is not where I make friends. It used to be, and one of my closest friends is from when I worked at Ford. No longer.

    • I agree with David – the second question is real problem. A notable exec once told me he had recently realized why certain hires failed. “Our mistake is that we hire people because we like them.”

      • In this situation, my Star Trek boss also had a great sense of humor. We got along great. I was there for 4 wonderful years.

    • Personal fit is very important. I have had a micromanaging boss with mood swings. Narcissist who did not realize that not knowing petroleum geology actually matters when you do petroleum geology(!). A mostly good boss, but which I did not always know how would react. And my current boss, to whom I fit so well both regarding personality, that I have became a kind of adviser to him, and actually decided to not pursue further a job search I had started.

  3. Point well taken in the editor’s answer to not wasting your time with interviewers who ask impertinent questions, and quickly getting to the point if you can add value to the job, and be able to perform the job. I’d add quickly getting to the point of the culture, and whether or not it’s a fit for the candidate, is equally important. I’ve personally found telephone interviews to be a good screening tool, and a way of avoiding wasting one’s time, or valuable PTO time, on “fishing expeditions”, or fake, job interviews.

    • Cultural fit is critical, but on the critical path to making a choice, it comes after “can you do the job.” But I’d never join a company where the cultural fit was not right. Been there, done that, and it is a critical mistake not to assess the place’s culture.

  4. In a recent request for an interview where they called me first, they said the interview would not go forward unless I gave them my salary requirements. I did my research and discovered that the market rate in that particular city was way below what it needs to be for the cost of living. I withdrew and told them so. The recruiter said my pulling out was “most unfortunate” but did not offer to discuss salary any further.

    Goodbye.

  5. “What’s your biggest weakness?”

    One day, if faced with this question (and when I have the guts to wittingly risk burning the bridge), I hope my response is:

    “I’d say my biggest weakness is being gullible. Sometimes I find myself easily tricked by ill-prepared people into envisioning a promising venture but in reality I’m a cookie on their cookie sheet created by an out-dated cookie-cutter. The root of this weakness stems from being born without the ability to be psychic.”

    But I’m a bit of a coward and I lack such curt assertiveness (or is it sarcasm?), yet, I dream of such a direct moment. In reality, I keep a canned response formula in my back pocket where I begin to state a ‘weakness’ but then delve into how I learned from it and how I turned it into a strength/success. Basically, I give them a reason to hire me disguised as an answer to a question they posed that was meant to pry for a reason not to hire me.

    In the end, usually it isn’t the decision-maker who asks this question but either a potential co-worker for the role or some other employee who is in the interview because of probably some consolation prize or something. Don’t know; don’t care.

    • @K-Ster: While I pose my suggested responses with a dash of sarcasm, I don’t recommend being sarcastic. It’s not hard to make the point diplomatically. But of course, it’s a matter of style and personal preference!

  6. “What is your greatest weakness?”

    I would be sorely tempted to reply “Not tolerating stupid and pointless questions.”

    • My favorite weakness answer is an old classic: “Chocolate.”

      Then I’d add, “But would you like to discuss how I would add profit to your bottom line if you hired me?”

  7. I always answer the “greatest weakness” question with a weakness that’s completely unrelated to the job.

    For example, I’m an engineer not a programmer or software engineer. Any decent engineer knows some programming, either through a class or kludging Excel or some other software package into doing something automated. So, I always say, “I wish my programming skills were better.” Since 100 out 100 times I’m not interviewing for a programming job, the interviewer has no basis to really criticize my statement.

    I think next time I’m going to get adventurous and state that I really can’t hand cut dovetail joints and have to cop out with a router jig. At worst, it gets me past the question. At best, maybe I find a fellow weekend woodworker and we talk shop.

    • But it won’t get you past the question. You’ll just get some form of “Ha ha…I mean relative to this position” and you’ll have to answer it anyway. How do I know? Because I’ve tried the dodgy/smart-ass/unrelated reply like yours.

      • I simply say, “No, that’s it” when they press and then go quiet.

        Makes it uncomfortable for them. I figure if they’re gonna judge me on a stupid question, I’m not gonna help them. Yeah, it may hurt me, but does it really hurt me if that’s the type of organization they are?

      • @Chicago: “But it won’t get you past the question. You’ll just get some form of “Ha ha…I mean relative to this position”

        Good point. And here’s the answer: “Relative to this position? Happy to, but I need to know a few more things about the position to give you an intelligent, relevant answer. So, tell me – what would you want your new hire to have accomplished after 3, 6, and 12 months on the job? Once I understand your objectives, I can discuss which of my skills would be strongest and which I’d need to work on with you…”

        The best response to any interview question is always to stimulate discussion about the actual work and how you would do it. It forces the interviewer to focus on what you’re best at — the work itself.

    • @Chris: I love your programming skills answer. That’s very deft!

  8. In my field a a technical consultant, I’ve been noticing a trend recently where the recruiters themselves are doing impromptu technical screens. They say a few words about the company and then immediately give you the pop quiz treatment and start rattling off questions from a list. I’ve become pretty good at shutting these down immediately…in one case I told the recruiter thank you for the consideration but I don’t think I’m a good fit. That’s when I got the really stupid question:

    “So can you tell us why you don’t wish to continue with the interview?”

    “Yes, because getting a surprise technical screen from someone without a technical background isn’t a very good way to treat a candidate or assess their fit for a job. I speak from experience here as when I did interviews for technical candidates we always scheduled technical screens in advance and communicated this clearly to our candidates. Thank you again for the opportunity.”

    *CLICK*

    • I term these questions “What’s your favorite color?” questions. Thankfully, I haven’t those asked by any of the line employees I’ve interviewed with, only HR people or the recruiters and, frankly, I don’t hear them asked by those folks much any more. I’m not sure how I’d answer. (“What’s your biggest weakness?” “That I don’t know everything… but I’m working on that.”)

      My recent experiences have had to do more with dealing with interviews (or phone screens) with people who know nothing about the field. I would expect a “good” recruiter or interviewer to that it’s preposterous to ask a candidate if they have at least, say, ten years experience with UNIX and then ask if they know “shell”. Now I say “Of course” but back when I was working with a recruiter for a Senior VMS System Manager position (obviously a while back) their client had open, I was once asked if I knew “DCL” to which I snarkily replied something like: “You can’t really do much of /anything/ on VMS without knowing DCL, let alone manage the system, and I’ve been managing VMS systems for X years.” This was I’d scored 100% on the skills test they had me take. Shees.

      It’s tough to consider many of the people who are working as “recruiters” to actually be recruiters. Apprentice recruiters, maybe. They invariably ask to join my LinkedIn network and when I check out their profile I find they’ve a.) been out of school for a short time and b.) their career as an IT recruiter (for, maybe,a year) followed a couple years’ experience doing something completely unrelated to the IT field—in one case, being the manager of a spa. I’ve considered starting to ask them to call me back after I’d had a chance to review their background so as to avoid wasting my time and /theirs/.

      On the other hand, I was recently contacted by a recruiter I worked with for a time quite a few years ago. I /know/ he’s been doing IT recruiting for a while and he’d been working in the field long before I even moved into the area. If he contacted me
      tomorrow morning with a suitable position, I’d work with him in a heartbeat because I know he’s up-to-date on the field. There are only a handful of recruiting firms still around from those days. The rest seem to have popped only in the past few years and are staffed with people unfamiliar with the field they recruit for.

      • @Rick: I’ve run into this as a headhunter, when an HR rep insists on discussing a technical position with me. Meanwhile, I want to work directly with the engineering manager. The HR person will use what’s obviously a tech buzz word they don’t really understand — but they have the correct “answer” handy. So I respond with, “Well, that depends. Do you have a hand-wired working PCB we can refer to…?”

        The point is to force the HR rep or recruiter to throw their untutored hands up in the air and let you talk to the manager!

  9. As someone who has conducted a lot of interviews, my answer to the reader’s question would be “damn if I know.” I’ve never used those questions and wouldn’t know what to do with the answers if I did.
    I did ask for details about something on their resumes, some project or job. Sometimes I found that they were only somewhat involved in this great sounding project, and knew little about it. My general question for programmers was “what was the nastiest bug you created and debugged?” If they claimed they never messed up they were either lying or had never programmed seriously.
    I think some interviewers ask these questions because they don’t know anything about the field the interviewee would be working in, and so are unqualified to evaluate whether the interviewee could do the job or not. One hopes that this isn’t the hiring manager!

  10. The question that really used to cheese me off was, “Why should we hire you instead of someone else?”

    I can’t possibly answer that question if I don’t know who else is in the pool. And maybe, if I did know, I might just say, “No reason at all. X would be better for the job.”

    But I also remember being told by a recruiting agency that many of my proposed answers to interview questions were WRONG. So I suppose another wrong one didn’t exactly matter.

    • I once reciprocated the question in an interview “why do I want to work here”? That ended the interview right then and there.

      • @Antonio: BINGO!! Why waste your time, right??

        • Exactly!! I’ll no longer accept an invitation for a face- face sit down interview unless there’s a phone interview first (granted, I’m employed currently and looking, would have to play their game more if I was unemployed). When called for a sit down interview, I’ll just start asking probing questions. If they are evasive, or I don’t like what I hear, I tell then I’m not interested politely, then hang up. At 62, I’ve had an epiphany that life is too short, and my remaining time on this earth, is too valuable to waste on such people and shenanigans. Too bad I didn’t see this earlier in life.

          • Exactly.

            I sometimes have been asked what my motivation is.

            And yes, I answer that I like solving problems, a “challenge,” and so on. But then I state that at the foundation, what motivates me calls me “DADDY!” when I get home.

            You can’t imagine the sour looks when I say that.

    • My stock answer?

      “I am sure every person you meet has, at least on paper, the qualifications to be a solid contributor. Where I excel is the fact that if you ask me a question, I’ll give you my honest answer based on my education, experience, and intuition. If I don’t know, I’ll say I don’t know – but will then find out. If I tell you what you don’t want to hear, it’s not because I’m being a contrarian, it’s because I believe it’s my honest answer.”

      Then, depending on how sour their face looks:

      “Look if you want someone to give you answers that you want to hear, and to give you warm fuzzies inside instead of speaking with candor, buy a parrot – it’s cheaper.”

  11. “Why have you had so many jobs?”

    Because I’ve never been the quota/affirmative action/diversity candidate and I look like crap in a miniskirt. I’m still trying, after 40+ years, to find a place where this doesn’t matter.

  12. These sorts of questions are usually a sign of a lazy or poorly prepared interviewer.
    Greatest weakness: My sister’s Ghiardelli brownies.
    Greatest strength: my deadlift
    If they don’t appreciate that I probably don’t want to work there.

    • Amen, Jim Dunphy! Lazy and ill-prepared interviewers and managers. This goes back to what I’ve stated in previous posts; qualifications aside, whatever happened to good old fashioned “trusting your gut” when vetting and hiring employees??

    • @Jim: While some may laff uncomfortably at your suggested answers, they’re actually perfect. A savvy manager is trying to assess your cultural fit. But you’re assessing theirs, too. And if they can’t handle a couple of friendly snarky answers, who wants to work with them? You’re not applying to join the Marines.

  13. Ridiculous or not, if I am asked about my greatest weaknesses and strengths, I might just give the interviewer the benefit of the doubt and give them an answer they expect:

    My greatest strength: A great passion and thirst for knowledge in electrical engineering, and I particularly enjoy working on projects where my work encompasses both electronic circuits and software. If I need a new skill, I learn it (for example, RF circuits, low noise design, and the Python language are skills I have acquired on the job – and though these skills were new, that fact did not slow me down). More than one manager has said to me that my enthusiasm is unmatched. It is this enthusiasm that carries me through the tedious parts of the job.

    My greatest weakness: Sometimes my enthusiasm can bubble over to a point where I interrupt a conversation, but I try to be mindful of that in my professional life.

    — As you can see, I showed that my greatest weakness is based on a strength. Maybe I will decide later that I don’t want the job, but while I am in the interview, I will try to make the best of it. The interview is not always like the job.

    • @Kevin: I have no problem with your canned, expected responses. But I think the risk you take is that you tacitly buy into a game that renders you no different from any other candidate. Managers usually talk to so many candidates that they cannot distinguish one from another the next day. They burn out. That’s why I refer to “standing out.” It’s a memory problem that we all face. You have to help managers overcome it.

      • @Nick: I actually thought my answer was good, but I never got a job in a place where people ask these kinds of questions anyway. If my strengths are really good, the interviewer might forget to ask my greatest strengths and weaknesses.

        I want to come up with a way to answer these questions both professionally and in a way that I will be remembered. Anyone have any ideas?

  14. This comes from a meme but it also happens to be me in real life:

    “What’s your greatest weakness?”

    Me: Honesty

    “I don’t I think that honesty is a weakness.”

    Me: I don’t give a shit what you think.

    LOLOL. It’s not quite that bad but almost. I was absent on the day they taught how to suffer fools gladly.

    • I’d hire you in a cold second based on that answer.

      1. Humor
      2. Honesty even if it’s uncomfortable

    • File that in the HR folder labeled Job Ad Text: “We’re looking for a few good people who think out of the box!”

      NOT.

      • Remember how my catch phrase used to be “The best place to find an out of the box thinker is… outside the box!”?

        • The thing that really slays me about the “we’re looking for people who can think outside the box” thing is these same HR morons who post that crap proceed to use inside the box thinking to try to find hires.

          Here’s a hint: if you truly want unconventional people working for you, you’re going to have to use unconventional means to find and attract them. It’s not rocket science.

  15. I’ve had plenty of off-the-wall questions and canned questions. In these interviews and depending upon my gut feel, eye contact, and body language gauges the interviewer’s interest in me, I will not hesitate to put the kibosh right then and there advising the interviewer he/she needs to practice appropriate interviewing skills then leave.

    DON’T WASTE MY PRECIOUS TIME with irrelevant and stupid questions.

    Always pre-screen them before going into a face-to-face (F2F) interview by nailing down the salary expectations, relo, benefits, and cultural fit. Do the research first to spare you the agony later on. Utilize video conferencing exclusively before agreeing to a F2F. Some organizations do just that before inviting you for an office visit.

    • Spot on right 100%. Some on here will call you a malcontent (as I’ve been accused of LOL), but I’d say your commentary shows a realist who isn’t playing their time wasting and dehumanizing mental gymnastics.

  16. Years ago, applying for a PC repair position, I was asked what my biggest mistake was and I answered honestly that I missed a software installation on 50 pc’s—small school district, had to do all individually and couldn’t push it to the entire school. Explained what I learned from that and came up with a failsafe installation procedure for the future. Later realized I probably was too honest, should have told the story about the years as an auto mechanic, a car fell off the hoist, a collector car no less. Didn’t get the job, that was ok, something better came along.

    • I’ve made the same mistake too; being too honest. I’ve concluded that “less is best”, and being to confessional is a disqualified.

  17. You had me at Triffids.

    If the interviewer or hiring manager doesn’t know what a Triffid is, RUN!

    This comes under the heading of E.S.S.–Essential Esoteric Knowledge.

    Give the interviewer 5 points if he/she saw the movie, 20 points if they read the book, which discussed the socioeconomic effects of Triffids.

    I lost my book, but you encouraged me to renew my search to replace it.

    The Day of the Triffids
    John Wyndham, 1951

  18. “What animal would you be” – A cat. Cute and cuddly on the outside, psycho on the inside, with claws to scratch interviewers with stupid questions.

    “Your greatest weakness?” – Is it now that I am supposed to answer with “lack of patience” or something canned, which also can be viewed as positive? (i) But, related to the job (ii); I am a good geologist (iii), but knows little about geophysics (iv), although I would be happy to learn more (v).

    i) Friendly mocking of the interviewer
    ii) Turning to the real issues
    iii) True
    iv) Also true – and relevant to the job
    v) Shows dedication and willingness to develop

    • My answer to the “which animal would you be” question is a human.

      First, if the person says humans aren’t animals, you can remind them what they learned in high school biology: we’re in the animal kingdom.

      Second, every other animal* is limited by whatever they’ve evolved to be. Sure, cheetahs run faster than humans….but humans can build machines to achieve speeds no cheetah will ever see. Sure, eagles can spot prey from hundreds of yards away…..but humans can build devices to see across hundreds of thousands of light years. Being anything else, IMHO, is kind of a let down.

      Except for a house cat. You get to sleep 20 hours a day.

      * Our fellow cousins in the great ape family have displayed tool use but they don’t create things like us.

  19. Just had an interview with a company for a mid-level position. I saw the position posted many times over the past two years. After researching the company prior to the interview, I read reviews that were not giving me hope about interviewing with this place (harassment, lots of mandatory OT, poor training).

    But, I decided to give it a go and accepted to interview. The first interviewer provided more detail about the position but not enough to gauge what they truly wanted someone to achieve who would be successful in this work. I did not have enough time to spend with this person to get a better idea of what they wanted, other than a 60+ hour work week under the guise of “whatever it takes to get the job done.”

    The next person asked me HR behavioral questions. I just gave canned answers because there was no point in diving deeper about the position with this interviewer. I tried to steer my answers toward questions about the position, but the interviewer kept plugging away at the behavioral questions.

    The last interviewer was honest about what most of the job encompassed. As we talked more about the position, I learned that what was written in the job description did not match what the actual duties would be.

    I had high hopes for this company and the position because it was something I wanted to do based on the description and the industry. My gut feeling told me if I was offered the position, I would decline. While I do need a full-time job, I do not want to job hunt again in a year because this one didn’t work out.

    Based on other interviews I had this past year, most interviewers are not prepared (they don’t even read in advance the canned questions HR gives them) and they don’t really know what they want a new hire to do and accomplish in the position. I have asked the question of what success looks like in this position and the interviewers cannot answer the question. Oh, they talk about metrics but how does that relate to success in this position. Is the position about meeting numbers only? Or, what do you want the new hire to accomplish the first 30 days, in three months, and in one year. They seem stumped by the question.

  20. I was once called on the carpet by an HR Director who had the nerve to say, “Smoking is only permitted AFTER hours.” I said, “huh. really. Do I get a lunch break?” She said of course. I asked the next logical question, “So I’m not permitted, if I’m even a habit smoker, to smoke on my lunch break? lunch is my own time, off the clock.”
    This, hoping she would hear the illogic.

    She replied, “No. All employees have to sign a form stating you will only smoke after work hours. Are you going to comply?” She was approaching a screech. I stared at her and said, “Hm, no. No I don’t think I am. Would you please show me out? I need a cigarette.”

    My stock answer for the animal question is, “Since I was born a human I couldn’t really say.” (smile smile smile)
    If the interview is a real dog, one can follow up with an interview destroyer.

    “And if you don’t mind a similar question, What kind of turnip would you most like to be when you become a tree farmer in Guatemala?”

    • I once interviewed with a company that always asked if you used tobacco. Of course I don’t (and I don’t drink either, including wine, even though I’m from California). When it comes to working on a job where a US security clearance is needed, one area of concern is drugs, and even though my own state makes marijuana legal, it is illegal on a federal level. Likewise, if you use marijuana and related substances, you will not get a security clearance.

      My best friend does HR (and accounting) for their company, and they were telling me of an employee who said she was not a smoker on her health insurance application, and then saw the woman smoke during a break when she was pregnant. In this case, what should HR do? (Their health insurance is priced based upon various health and risk factors, including smoking.)

      My friend is one of the good people in HR – if you do it well, it is a really tough job.

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