In the November 18, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks about the rest of the stupid inteview questions… In the November 5 edition we discussed the first five of The Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions. (There are of course lots more than 10, but who’s counting?) Let’s recap the reader’s question, then tackle #6 – #10.

I am preparing for an interview with one of the big consulting firms, and I thought I would send you some sample interview questions that I retrieved from the Internet. (The article provided answers, too, but I thought they were ridiculous.) How would you advise answering these questions? Any help is appreciated. Here goes:

  1. Tell me about yourself.
  2. Why do you want to work here?
  3. stupid-questions-moreWhy did you leave your last job? (Or, Why do you want to leave your current company?)
  4. What are your best skills?
  5. What is your major weakness?
  6. Do you prefer to work by yourself or with others?
  7. What are your career goals? (Or, What are your future plans?)
  8. What are your hobbies? (Or, Do you play any sports?)
  9. What salary are you expecting?
  10. What have I forgotten to ask?

Nick’s Reply

6. Do you prefer to work by yourself or with others?

Gimme a break. If you hire me, I’m working with you, right?

Clearly, the purpose of the question is to assess whether you are a solitary type who prefers to avoid interacting with other people. Like you’re going to fess up if you’ve got asocial tendencies… In any case, if you take a guess and tell the interviewer what you think he wants to hear, you might be wrong. Worse, you risk getting a job that’s wrong for you.

I think the best answer to this question is an offer.

How to Say It: “I’d like to offer to come in for half a day to show you how I’d do this job. Perhaps that would involve shadowing another team member, or working alone, or participating in a group work meeting. I’m happy to invest the time, so you can see how I work, and so I can experience first-hand how you and your team work together.”

What’s not to like about such a direct assessment, where everyone can relax, forget about silly questions, and actually do some work? (Caution: Don’t let this turn into you doing lots of free work!) You’ll learn lots more about this approach in Fearless Job Hunting Book 6 – The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire.

7. What are your career goals? (Or, What are your future plans?)

“My long-term goal is to chuck it all, become a sailor, and sail around the world with my schnauzer. Do you like dogs and boats? If not, I suppose you won’t hire me.”

You could also try this:

How to Say It: “My goal for the foreseeable future is to help you increase your revenues and/or reduce your costs, and to improve your profit line by doing a better job than anyone else you could hire. I’m not perfect, but I’m determined. Let me explain how I’d do these things in this job…”

8. What are your hobbies? (Or, Do you play any sports?)

This is the proverbial loaded question — and most “experts” advise avoiding it because any answer may turn off the interviewer depending on what her interests are. (I’ve seen people rejected because they play golf and the manager recently blew a game.)

If the employer pays close attention to your answer and seems to be extrapolating from your hobbies — using some look-up table that explains what it really means when you say you like to read in your spare time — to decide whether you’d be a good hire, then this question is the least of your problems.

Your hobbies are no one’s business. But don’t lose the interview over this one. My advice: Tell the truth and damn the torpedoes. If the employer can’t deal with your interests and won’t hire you because of what you do in your spare time, to heck with her because she’s going to micro-manage you.

Everyone thinks they’re a psychologist. Thank you, Dr. Phil.

9. What salary are you expecting?

If an employer asks you this question instead of, “What’s your current salary?” you’re probably dealing with a smart employer. Smart employers don’t care what you’re making now, because they can figure out for themselves what you’re worth to their business — and that’s what they’re going to offer you, no matter what you made last year.

Show your respect and your own intelligence like this:

How to Say It: “Every good job is dynamic — it evolves and changes quickly. Let’s discuss what I’d be doing day one, week one, month one and by the end of one year — the actual work, the tasks, the deliverables. Then we can discuss how, and perhaps how much, I can add to your bottom line. That’s how I expect to come up with a salary range that I think represents my value, in terms of what I could bring to your bottom line.” (For more about how to handle salary topics in interviews, see Fearless Job Hunting Book 7: Win The Salary Games (long before you negotiate an offer).)

10. What have I forgotten to ask?

How to Say It: “You didn’t ask me the single most important question in an interview: How am I going to do this job profitably for your company? If I can’t demonstrate my ability to do that, you shouldn’t hire me.”

End of interview.

Now I’ll repeat what I said in the first installment of “The Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions”:

If you memorize these answers and use them, you’re a dope. (No offense.) Every person, every employer, ever interview, every situation is different. Use the answers I provided as a spark to get you thinking in the right direction. Preparing your own actual answers will require an immense amount of work on your part, for every single job you interview for. The details will be different in every case.

One more note: Never take anyone’s advice about your job search, including mine. At best, leaven your own approach with something you’ve learned here — but make it your own, make sure you’re comfortable with anything you say or do, and never, ever, ever complain that you blew it because you did what Nick told you to do… :-)

Remember that giving the “right” answers is not the point. That could lead to a job offer for a job that’s totally wrong for you. You don’t want to just succeed in the interview; you want to succeed in getting the right job. And some interviews reveal lousy jobs that you should walk away from.

The key to the ATH approach is figuring out the connection between the work you do and the profit you can add to a business. Without that, your answers to interview questions don’t matter.

I hope you find my suggestions useful.

How do you answer the top 10 interview questions (stupid or otherwise)? What makes your interviews work — and when and how have you failed?

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  1. Great suggestions and guidance, Nick. It’s hard to see how anyone would lose if they came across as dynamic as that.

    Thanks as always.

  2. Nick, I buy into the do-the-job mode of running the interview. I work in R&D for a promote from within company and most people we hire come directly from the university. Our interviewees typically give presentations with Q&A. We also take people around for 1:1 technical discussions.

    While I would ditch a number of the questions on your list I think some of them are fairly useful.

    For those questions, I look much more at how the person answers the questions rather than what they are answering. When she talks about her hobbies, can I feel her passion? Can he talk about something I know nothing about without completely losing me or boring me to death? If you list a unique hobby or engagement in an organization, I want to hear you telling me more about it.

    One question I have come to like is: tell me about the best moment in your career or education?

    What I want to see is how do they approach a problem they have not encountered before? Can I see that they are passionate and engaged in some aspect of their life. I can teach somebody a lot of technical skills.
    What I cannot teach is how to think, be engaged and passionate.

    No, I’m not a psychologist.

  3. While I generally like some of these responses, I think it’s worth noting that these are not even close to universal (which you sort-of say at the end). On the first one (#6), if someone answered that question with an offer to suck up half of ANOTHER day of my work life to teach them how to do a job I’m not yet prepared to hire them for, I’d roll my eyes, note that they dodged the question, and move on.

    If I’ve made you an offer and you need to experience the work dynamic to decide if you want to accept, that’s one thing. But to ask a company to spend that much time and effort on you so that YOU can have a leg up in the process? Most of the hiring managers I know would be immediately turned off by that. (All that being said, asking someone if they are a team player is dumb. Of course the right answer is obvious, so you learn nothing by asking it).

    I also disagree with your approach to #7. This isn’t a trick question. I’m asking because I want to know whether, if I hire you, you’re interested in doing that job for the long-term, or if you’ll only stick around if you can eventually be promoted into x or y job, or perhaps if there’s an interesting way this job and a completely separate interest a candidate has can dovetail into something I’d never even thought of. In short, I’m asking it because I want to know what your career goals are, not because I want some rehearsed, salesy bullsh*t (which is how your answer comes off).

    I’m glad you advise people not to just give the “right” answers, but it sounds like your argument is ultimately just that people are giving the wrong “right” answers.

    (And, of course, there’s nothing in this approach at all that would work for any kind of non-profit or, really, even mission-based organization. Which is a huge sector of the economy to just X out).

    • @Kimberlee:

      You are the type of self-important &#%&*&^%$head that we are all tryng to identify and boycott/repudiate in the first place.

      Just hire someone already you psychobabble psycho “Esquire” (whatever the hell that is).

  4. @Kimberlee: You make a lot of points.

    1. Nothing is universal about this. People must use their own good judgment first.

    2. I don’t understand your position about the applicant asking “a company to spend that much time and effort on you so that YOU can have a leg up in the process.” Any company that declines isn’t worth working for. How is it that the employer is free to ask you to invest YOUR time so THEY get a leg up, but it’s not right for you to do the same? I don’t agree at all. This is where worthy employers are separated from sweatshops.

    3. On #7, every applicant knows the b.s. answers that “show” they will stick around for the long term. It’s a game. While I agree it’s useful information to discuss, I think employers need to find another way to make it more of a discussion than a rigged Q&A.

    4. My intention is to promote honest discussion by encouraging employers to stop asking stupid questions (for which there are lots of rehearsed answers) and by discouraging applicants from playing along. Canned questions yield canned answers. That’s just not necessary or useful. In fact, it’s counter-productive for all involved.

    5. I think this approach works for non-profits and mission-based organizations, assuming they are well-managed. In my experience, most such organizations are run like stalags by idiots and bureaucrats who prefer “rules” to using their brains. Every organization must produce profit of some kind if it is to meet its mission. Profit might be cash (including donations), more success, better customer service, higher quality products, or whatever the mission specifies. By definition, every mission takes some input of resources and outputs something greater. I just don’t buy the idea that certain organizations can behave differently and succeed. The excuse most non-profits offer for their stifling bureaucracy is that “we’re a non-profit, after all.” Bunk. Non-profits go out of business all the time, for the same reasons for-profits do.

  5. Nick, I wholeheartedly agree with much of what you said however I would caution job seekers not to adopt even a smidgen of your cynicism because if your interviewer doesn’t like you, then you likely won’t have a chance to impress with your grand skills, experience, and cost saving ideas.

    Don’t you think it’s a bit dangerous to make the assumption that behind every stupid question is a stupid job that you didn’t want anyways? I think it’s safe to assume that not every interviewer is perfect so they may not always ask perfect questions. Perhaps it is okay to occasionally appease in the interest of furthering your objective?

  6. @John

    “I think it’s safe to assume that not every interviewer is perfect so they may not always ask perfect questions.”

    Then that’s a training issue and/or a performance issue. This is one place where HR can be partners in training managers/workers in how to conduct effective interviews. And I think (senior) management has a stake in it because if your interview process is poor, this is bad marketing.

  7. @Kimberlee, Esq.

    “If I’ve made you an offer and you need to experience the work dynamic to decide if you want to accept, that’s one thing. But to ask a company to spend that much time and effort on you so that YOU can have a leg up in the process? Most of the hiring managers I know would be immediately turned off by that.”

    Trying to get a leg up? Sorry – but this is a silly response. So, it’s okay for an employer to have the power (since they have the job/money) but it’s not okay for a potential hire to know what they are getting into?

    Also, it will benefit BOTH the company and hire since each will know what they are getting into.

    “. I’m asking because I want to know whether, if I hire you, you’re interested in doing that job for the long-term, or if you’ll only stick around if you can eventually be promoted into x or y job, or perhaps if there’s an interesting way this job and a completely separate interest a candidate has can dovetail into something I’d never even thought of. In short, I’m asking it because I want to know what your career goals are, not because I want some rehearsed, salesy bullsh*t (which is how your answer comes off).”

    You say two contradictory things here. You say you want to know if the person is in it for the long haul and not want to get promoted but then say you want to know if the person can dovetail into something else and want to know what their career goals are. You can’t have it both ways – People don’t want to be pigeon holed into a position with no career advancement. Who wants to be doing a bang up job for at least 3-5 years and not get any promotions/movement and nothing more than standard cost of living raises?

    If you don’t have a career advancement path for people then you shouldn’t be hiring – and you can’t complain about people saying “Someday I want get into X if you like my work over the long term.” If not, you’re just going to lose them.

    I have a friend who works for a large cell phone carrier as a customer service/tech support rep. It’s not what he wanted at first (this is something he discussed with their recruiters), but he took the job knowing that if he worked hard and showed them he was a profitable employee. Because of this he ended up in a job he likes.

  8. I’m with @Pete. We also hire from universities for R&D, and if someone could do the job immediately it would be a miracle. That’s why we train. We also handle very proprietary information which we are not going to reveal without a lot of paperwork.
    However when I do interview I walk the candidate through what a day is like. But I have pretty much figured out how to tell if they could do the job based on their answers to technical questions.

  9. 7. What are your future plans?

    To retire when I’m 65 (8 years hence),load up a converted VanHool, and see America. Not going to happen at this rate, but it’s a goal.

    Hobbies? I met a small company owner once who hated writers. Made one guy quit writing a sports column for a small weekly newspaper so he could devote that time to his company. Didn’t like that another employee had a letter to the editor printed. Bicycle racing was ok, auto racing was ok, just not writing.

    Never was so glad to leave that place behind.

  10. The big problem is that you never know how responses to the questions are received. Do they want a honest discussion, are they Fishing for the “right” answers or are they doing amateur psychology on “watching how you respond”?

    On the “where do you see yourself in five years”, I once gave the interviewer the response I thought he wanted. He, being honest, told me straight out that was not what they really looked for, and that in such case they might do me a favour not hiring me – actually, if I had told them the truth it would have been a better fit!

    Spent the rest of the interview doing pathetic damage control, and obviously did not get the job. Since then, I always give a (quite) honest answer and only look for jobs that fit. (At that time, I was desperate for a relevant job, today, I turn down recuriters every forthnight).

    • Fortnight … FORTNIGHT !!! NOT forthnight!

      So sick of people pumping themselves up in comboxes, all the while subtly and unknowingly emanating their mediocrity.

      Turning down recruiters every two weeks (ie, a FORTNIGHT … NOT FORTHNIGHT) is NOT a feat. Turning down bucketfuls of jobs offers is. I don’t know anyone, including Jesus, who has the opportunity to do the latter.

  11. What is really stupid are interviews that start out with “We have some questions that we ask all our candidates.”

    And they wonder why they always get the same drones as they’ve had in the past!

  12. @John Krytus: I agree with your objection, but I think I covered using good judgment in the column. My intent is to make nervous interviewees realize that stupid questions require a questioning attitude from the applicant — not fear and appeasement. But your point is well-taken.

    Dave makes a good case for employers taking responsibility for lousy interviewer skills. After all, aren’t we taught that the applicant gets just one real chance to impress the employer, and to be careful not to blow it? What then of the interviewer? How much slack do we have to cut him or her?

  13. L.T. reveals some troublesome examples about what can happen when you talk about your hobbies.

  14. @Karsten: This reminds me of my first interviews with a search firm straight out of grad school. Mind you, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was certainly honest. After a couple of rounds, the president of a small but successful search firm told me he was ready to make a decision about hiring me, and he had just one more question.

    He asked me how much money I needed to live. Having just finished a graduate degree at Stanford, living in Palo Alto on a $3,250/year stipend (after rent, etc., I had $9 at the end of each week to pay for food), I proudly announced that I could live on $3,250.

    The interviews ended right there. “I’m looking for someone who’s hungry,” said the president. “Someone with a mortgage and a big car payment who’s going to work really hard. Sorry, that’s not you. You’re not hungry.”

    I joined another small search firm and made a ton of money for the firm and for myself in my first year. The president of the first firm lost. I won, because I didn’t have to work under a greed-only, inept interviewer who didn’t know how to judge an applicant. Not to say that I did at the time. I certainly didn’t. But his business was headhunting. Glad he didn’t hire me.

    There’s a lot more to assessing a person for a job than asking questions and listening to answers. Yet it seems that’s all it’s about nowadays.

  15. Question #6 doesn’t put me off. Depending upon the circumstances, this can be a excellent question and provide insight to both the interviewer (assuming it is the hiring manager) and the interviewee. For example, at my last job, I worked mostly (as in more than 90% of my time on the job) by myself. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t interact with others–I did–on a daily basis, but all 5 of my direct supervisors were hands-off. I was expected to know without them telling me, what needed to be done. I did–I knew my job, the tasks, what deadlines I had, and didn’t need a boss to micromanage or remind me. For the year and half, my office was in another building from my boss’ office. I got the work done. I didn’t have co-workers in the sense that there were others to share the tasks. It was just me. In all honesty, I didn’t mind working by myself in the least. I remember one of the faculty commenting about his own situation–give me an office and computer and enough supplies to do the do job, then leave me alone. That was me as well. I work better without distractions (co-worker drama) and micromanagers (had too many of those and if I get a whiff of one, I run screaming). This doesn’t mean that I didn’t interact with others–I did–students, faculty, graduate school, cont. ed. staff, prospective students, alumni, applicants, textbook salesmen, library staff, IT staff, and more. But I didn’t work with any of them as part of a team. Nor did I work with the other administrators in my school–I ran one program without support, which had its pluses and minuses. If I should be asked whether I prefer to work in groups or by myself, my inclination would be to say “by myself”, but I think I’d want to know what prompted the question–does the job entail group work? If so, in what way? How do you recognize individual contributions? How do assign blame for failures (in cases where you have one slacker but everyone else is busting their butts)? Some people thrive in group environments, others find it overwhelming.

    The other questions are idiotic. I can think of several snarky answers to them, which wouldn’t endear me to an interviewer and which makes me wonder why the interviewer isn’t asking me important questions.

    Yes, the hobbies/outside interests question is a landmine. If the atmosphere is one where employees hang out after hours, then this is a “fit” question, as in does this person have the ability to fit in with our little group of rugby players, knitters, bowlers, pool sharks, book club goers, etc.? It would be better for the interviewer to say “We’re a close-knit group and like eachother enough that we socialize after hours. We’re all avid pool players. Do you play pool?” It has nothing to do with the job, but that kind of honest conversation gives you the interviewee insight–if you’re not a pool player and no matter how much you like your colleagues, you still like to keep your professional life and home life separate–then this should give you pause to think about how life will be when you start refusing to socialize after hours, or if you don’t play pool.

    @Kimberlee: with all due respect, I think you’re wrong about question #7. I’m with Nick and Dave on this one. You are saying two contradictory things that cannot be reconciled. If you don’t want your new hire to move up or to have aspirations above his rank, then you draft the job description in such a way that it is perfectly clear that it is a dead-end, snowball’s chance in hell of advancement kind of job, no matter how bright, how quick the candidate. He will be stuck there because of management’s and/or HR’s lack of imagination and common sense. Most people, as Dave noted, want to move up, which means learning new skills and that means that they hope the company promotes/advances from within. If you want unthinking drones, then make it clear. But don’t complain when people leave for better opportunities.

  16. @marybeth

    I would go as far as saying if the person does not want to move up or have different oppurtunities they are not worth hiring.

  17. Anything unrelated to the job, and anything which does not bring more understanding (to the interviewer, of you, and to you, of the interviewer) is a waste of time.

    Things like, “what animal would you like to be?”.
    I’ve got a good answer to that, and I’m sure it would require lots of explaining on my part about why that animal is so cool, but it’s a stupid question that’s wasting time because it’s unrelated to the job… so after I got done explaining my totally cool animal, I’d probably ask, “what does that have to do with this job?”.

    • @MKEgal

      You know Milwaukee. Being asked what kind of animal you’d like to be … asked by a jackass.


      A Milwaukee Guy