In the January 26, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we talk about where parents fit in the career equation.


I’m a senior at a big state university in the midwest. I have applied for many jobs and gotten a few leads, and some employers are inquiring via my LinkedIn account. The problem is that some of these employers require me to take silly numerical assessments that have nothing to do with the job, and I have to invest time in them before I can even have an interview.


Recently I was sitting before a group of managers and asked to use mental math on a series of frivolous arithmetical questions. I offered very close approximations, but was prompted to “be more specific.” I stopped and said, “Look, if I’m making decisions on the fly, I’m estimating. I’m not a human calculator. I’m here to do my job well, and this isn’t a tool I’ll utilize.”

I was escorted out. Did I make the right move? Are some interviews just a form of hazing that we are supposed to tolerate just because we’re applying for our first jobs?

Nick’s Reply

I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time, but I think you made the right move. I think some people would disagree, and suggest that you take whatever employers shovel at you, because you’re a new grad and need to get a job.

Sadly, this sort of new-grad employment hazing is common. The attitude among some employers seems to be that, since you have no real experience they can judge you on, anything goes. Why are manhole covers round? How many barbers do you think are in Chicago? What animal would you be, if you could be any animal? Or, do some quick math out loud so we can see whether you’re smart. (It gets worse. See Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions: #1 – #5.)

These are excuses for employers’ failure to learn how to assess whether a person can do a job. (See What is the single best interview question ever?) I think your instinct is correct. These are not legitimate interview practices. HR buys these lame “screening tools” from “HR consultancies” run by failed HR people. It’s really stupid. I compliment you for coming out of school and questioning what seems to be standard procedure that isn’t legit, smart, or acceptable.

Such ridiculous screening practices tell you a lot about an employer and what it would be like to work there. Smarter companies are coming to realize how this kind of nonsense reflects on them. Google, for example, recently announced it would stop using silly questions to assess candidates, because the company did an outcomes analysis and found such questions don’t predict an employee’s success. (See 4 HR Practices That Kill ROI.) More employers need to reconsider their screening methods.

As I mentioned above, you’ll find that many people will advise you to shut up and play ball, and to never question the people who control the job offer. But I’ll tell you to never hesitate to judge the managers who are interviewing you.

In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball With Employers, (p. 28) I offer this advice:

Judge a manager’s sincerity about working together. Does she want to hire you because you can add something to the way the work is done, or does she want another interchangeable part for her machine? Listen carefully to what the manager says. You will hear either a mind interacting with your own, or a machine waiting to grind you up.

Too often, in an effort to impress a manager, candidates calculate their answers so they’ll add up for the manager — but not for the candidate. Consider that if you need to calculate your answers this way, there’s a good chance you’re playing to the interview rather than setting the stage for an honest, accurate judgment.

What would happen if you answered simply, directly and honestly? Perhaps the manager would not like your answer. Perhaps your answer would cost you the job. That’s good. Because, do you want to work with a manager who can’t deal with you?

It’s your choice. Every question a manager asks tells you something about the manager. Every reaction to your answers tells you something, too. The manager is judging you. Don’t forget to judge the manager.

Consider that out of dozens of interviews, only one might turn into a job offer. Likewise, out of dozens of employers, only one might behave professionally enough to be worth working for. It’s up to you to use your good sense to judge who’s worthy. The idea that you should sit back and take whatever an interviewer throws at you — that’s about as reasonable as you tossing silly questions at employers and expecting them not to kick you out of interviews. Hazing, whether practiced by college fraternities and other social groups, or by employers, reveals that the group has nothing better to offer than a pathetic demonstration of its own insecurity.

If you’re going to be shown the door — like you were — let it be because you have higher standards than an employer whose idea of interviewing is silly hazing. (See Raise your standards.)

When you find a good employer, you’ll know it. There are some excellent ones out there who will engage you in discussion about the work they want done, and who know how to assess your abilities respectfully and intelligently. They’re worth looking for. Meantime, remember that stupid interview questions are sometimes a sign of stupid employers. Move on.

How do you handle silly interview questions? (Maybe you don’t think the example in this Q&A was so silly?) Do you have ways of helping keep interviews on track? Have you ever been rejected because you couldn’t explain what animal you would be, if you could be any animal?

: :

  1. I was being interviewed for an IT analyst position and was asked “If you could meet any person in history, living or dead, who would it be?”. I must tell you that I am a black woman sitting in a room full of white interviewers. I thought to myself “Really? Who am I going to say, President Obama, Abe Lincoln because he freed slaves, Harriet Tubman, MLK?” I was a bit disgusted and I stumbled on that question because of its relevance and its seemingly personal nature as it pertained to me. I asked them to come back to the question. A few minutes later I answered “I don’t really hold people in that high regard. I admire those who can do the seemingly impossible without having what they need, like the little girl who won a handwriting contest but has no hands.” Then there was silence. After that, I really didn’t care what the rest of the interview was about because I felt the question was unprofessional and changed the tone of the interview. I didn’t get that job and I am grateful for that.

  2. There’s a more sinister reason employers act like this, but you can use it to weed out the worst employers.

    When I was in IT, I worked for many employers who simply didn’t know how to treat employees well, or who thought being in charge meant you could be abusive to employees. So lots of employees left, and these bad employers were inconvenienced by having to constantly replace employees. Instead of realizing they would need to learn to treat their employees better if they wanted to retain them, they would simply start looking for prospective employees who would take a lot of bad treatment and stay in place.

    These kinds of companies may ask you questions pertaining to how you would do the job because they know they’re supposed to care about that, but what they’re really looking for is doormats, because they’ve come to realize that people with backbones won’t stay with them for long. They’re testing you to see how badly they can treat you without you leaving.

    I eventually learned to spot this kind of interviewing “screening” very early, and I would simply thank the interviewer for their time and leave without explanation. That was my way of letting these horrible employers know that they needed to keep looking for their perfect doormat.

    People who will take a lot of bad treatment are often not the kinds of people who have a lot to offer employers. So if you worked for a company like this, you’d not only be treated badly, but you’d probably be surrounded by people who weren’t up to whatever task they were hired to do.

  3. Walking out was the right thing to do. If you are treated poorly when interviewing with a company, how much worse will you be treated if you are hired.

    It is like the blind leading the blind–HR departments buy into this stupidity because some HR firm says this is how you screen for good employees, which is absolute total nonsense.

  4. Nope. Completely disagree, with Nick and with the comments posted so far.

    Not that the questions asked were appropriate. Taken at face value, they weren’t.

    But the way the candidate handled the questions told the interviewers quite a bit more than just what the interviewee’s math skills were. They revealed how he handled a frustrating public situation.

    It’s never a good idea to be hostile and confrontational in a job interview, and rarely a good idea in any circumstances. Nick recommends having applicants “do the job in the interview,” and recommends that applicants take control of the process so as to do likewise.

    Think Nick’s interlocutor will ever have a job in which he isn’t asked stupid and pointless questions?

    How to say it: “It isn’t that I’m unwilling to answer, although I’m in the habit of using a calculator for this sort of thing,” he might have smiled instead. “But before I pull up the calculator app on my smartphone, I wonder if one of you could explain how this question connects to the job you’ll be asking me to do.”

  5. Bob is one of those people who think you should gratefully take whatever nonsense is dished out to you – that’s what they sound like.

  6. I agree with Bob and Nick!

    Nick “These are excuses for employers’ failure to learn how to assess whether a person can do a job.”

    Bob “But the way the candidate handled the questions told the interviewers quite a bit more than just what the interviewee’s math skills were. They revealed how he handled a frustrating public situation.”

    Nick “When you find a good employer, you’ll know it. There are some excellent ones out there who will engage you in discussion about the work they want done, and who know how to assess your abilities respectfully and intelligently.”

  7. While I with everyone else lament that we have all been reduced to the status of performance monkeys in this circus of a job market, I do have one fond memory to share…25 years ago I was interviewing for my first permanent job after college (secretary in a bank). The last question the VP asked me was, “Let’s say you’re driving to work one morning, it’s raining, and you get a flat tire. What would you do?” I said I’d change the flat tire. She was totally blown away by my response, saying that was the first time she got that answer (after being hired I chatted with the other girls on the team who were hired and I asked what they answered to that question, and it was all “oh, I’d cry”). I’m convinced that’s what got me the job, but we’re definitely living in different times, I routinely see stupid irrelevant questions on online applications which results in my exiting the app…

  8. “senior at a big state university”

    “frivolous arithmetical questions”

    “I have to invest time in them before I can even have an interview.”

    It’s clear the applicant is new to the job world and is waking up to the reality that a degree is not the only thing one needs to find a job. Just as with the degree, you have to work at finding the right job with the right company so both parties end up happy about the relationship in the end. It’s not going to be handed out like a hat for both to try on. Companies do not have the time and can not afford to try employees out for a week or two. They have to try and weed out the applicants who are not a good fit for the company or its environment.

    I totally agree with Bob on the applicants response as he communicated it. The applicant displayed, for all present in that room, his lack of maturity and inexperience in an office environment where they are wanting people who can think/function outside the classroom. It’s very different from course work where you are given controls and how you should approach a solution. The real world does not work that way and no one said it would be easy. If they did, they lied.

    It would have been very helpful to know what the position was that he was applying for, but then maybe the “arithmetical question” would then seem more appropriate a question, than what were were lead to believe.

    While it may appear to have been an unrelated question for the applicant and many of us (since we don’t know the job he was applying for), it clearly helped the committee (bob and myself) see the applicants rude/abrupt response in a stressful situation and his quickness at giving up at troubleshooting an issue. Could he have asked more questions of the committee to work towards the solution?

    I like to look at interviews as first dates, where you get to know each other and what the expectations are for both parties.

    It was a bad first date, but better to find out now than have to deal with a bad relationship and a worse break up.

    It was the best result for both parties in the end and I think a learning experience for both parties.

  9. I try to answer stupid interview questions to the best of my ability. Then, I just try to get through the interview as quickly as possible and leave because I’m definitely not going to work for people that treat applicants as entertainment.

  10. Loved Bob’s answer. If by some weird happenstance mental math ability WAS something the job required, the interviewers could have explained that.

  11. Lest we forget:
    (Circa 1978 and my first job outside of the Corps):
    “Why did you waste your time going into the Marine Corps right out of high school rather than college?”

    Stupid interview questions are not a new thing.

    As an aside, this is interesting. I don’t see Bob and Nick disagree often.

  12. While the intent of the interviewer may have been to ascertain how an applicant handles frustration, isn’t the idea behind an interview to determine if the skills the applicant has match what is needed to get the job done?

    Isn’t it better to talk about the work the new hire will be expected to do and then have the applicant talk about how they would accomplish that work, if hired?

  13. I was interviewing with companies on-campus for an electrical engineering position in 1975. Most of the interviews were substantive, but my interview with AT&T consisted of psychobabble questions by a young female (I’m also a woman). After her ridiculous interview, I asked questions pertaining to working as an engineer, and she could not answer any of my questions.

    At the end of the interview, I immediately walked down to the university’s job recruitment center that had sponsored the interviews and told them how silly and ridiculous that ‘interview’ had been, especially as compared with my other interviews. I told them the interviewer could not provide any information about the nature of the work and positions to be filled. I recommended they not allow AT&T to interview student engineers on campus unless they also brought engineers to campus who could answer technical questions relating to the actual work to be performed.

    I was deeply offended by the interview and thought it was a complete waste of my time. Zero chance I would have worked for them.

  14. We do not know the job applied for, but many of us have jobs that involve a lot of math. I taught and tutored calculus and other higher level math classes for a few years. Many young people simply can not figure without using calculators or computers. They do not have any “math sense.” During the recent Powerball mania, there was a FB meme about how if the money from the jackpot was divided equally among all Americans, we would each have $43,300. No, we would all have $4.33! It should have been obvious that the jackpot divided by 330,000,000 Americans could not equal anything on the magnitude of $43,300 but many people shared that meme uncritically, including (frighteningly) college graduates. Perhaps the interviewees were trying to gauge common sense? A math pre-screening test is not necessarily inappropriate as a prerequisite to an interview. Many people can not do the required math and there is no point interviewing them.

  15. @EEDR

    Some of the most frightening TV ever broadcast was Jay Leno’s Jaywalking segments taken at college graduations.

    • And don’t forget a similar format where liberals were surveyed about supposedly Obama administration policies.

      The “reporter” verbally listed about four conservative (read Republican) policies but stated they were Obama’s initiatives. Most of those asked if they strongly agreed with said policies declared that they did.

      Lesson: Completely clueless people. LIV (Low Information Voter).

  16. @ Bob: You may be giving too much credit to non-thinking HR staff. Most are not as sophisticated as you are suggesting. Sounds like they are watching too much reality TV, instead.

  17. @EEDR:
    If the writer refused to answer the question, that is one thing. But estimation in many cases is more important than arithmetic, since it will tell you if your arithmetic is badly flawed. Back in the days of slide rules you estimated first and used the slide rule second.
    I’m with Nick and the writer. If the interviewers did not realize this was a Mickey Mouse question, they are people to avoid. If they did know it and their response to pushback is to escort the candidate out, they are people to avoid even more.
    The questions I ask of people about to graduate (and that is most of who we hire) are about projects and about whether they understand what they learned at a deep level, as opposed to rote.
    When I was at Bell Labs we were not allowed to give stupid quizzes like this. We managed to hire some top people nonetheless.

  18. I have interviewed so many times it is mind-numbing. The most idiotic interview I had (and even three years later it is still seared into my memory) was at Expedia in Seattle. Two of the support staff were allowed to be the second group I met with. The one young woman had just been hired six weeks prior, but had a very smug demeanor which gave the room an air of prickly. At the very end of interviewing with these two…Ms Smug says “If you were any animal, what animal would you be?”
    I laughed. Then said “seriously?”
    They did not find MY question amusing.
    As someone with an MBA and Graduate degree from UCLA I find these stupid, inane, brainless questions demeaning for all candidate’s. I didn’t work my ass off in college with nine years of corporate experience to play cutesy with idiots. In fact, it just plain pisses me off. The interviewer’s should be strung up by their toes

  19. By ldl
    January 26, 2016 at 11:12 am
    “Bob is one of those people who think you should gratefully take whatever nonsense is dished out to you – that’s what they sound like.”

    LOL…well said
    Trust me people…don’t be like Bob

  20. “I just try to get through the interview as quickly as possible and leave because I’m definitely not going to work for people that treat applicants as entertainment.”

    @Amy, I feel the same way. In fact, after leaving Expedia that day I emailed them and declined moving forward. Then when I posted the experience on Glassdoor, it was rejected because the same guy who started Expedia is the founder of Glassdoor. Definitely a slanted perspective of the real world.

  21. @Lisa

    Having been reading Bob’s work for years, I want to be very much like him.

    I didn’t read that he said you should gratefully take whatever. Quite the opposite. In his How to Say It he gave a better way to deal with the situation. Communicated that the interviewee didn’t appreciate the questions, and showed that they could deal with such a situation tactfully. I think there is great wisdom in that response.

  22. @Michael

    Trust me. I have interviewed with the Bob’s of the world. Their idea of how to interview stopped being relevant back in 1975

  23. @Scott, Clearly you didn’t understand my comment. Read it again.

  24. I’m my experience I believe the higher the ratio of stupid questions in the interview is in inverse relationship in how much you would want to work there.

  25. I also once had to write a paragraph on how to make a grilled cheese sandwich. These are demeaning exercises of which the intent has proven to be frivolous. But the funniest part is that they will have you jumping through hoops and when you ask about the salary, everyone suddenly gets amnesia.

  26. The big “but” to all of this is if you need to work. Now. I have a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. If I do not have a positive cash flow, I might need to jump through hoops and discuss stupid questions.

    When I have the steady paycheck, then I can be selective in the interviews I submit myself too and the companies I work for.

  27. @Greg: Your circumstance is why they behave so badly – a bit like a bully. Very despicable.

  28. @Leo: Ha! I loved your story – a very pointed message and a wonderfully pointed example. My compliments to you for handling it so deftly, and for declining to play the game, even if it required a bit of sarcasm. You took the time to think about how you’d handle it, and made a choice. Good for you.

    @Idl: You provide a scary analysis of how companies fail. You may know the old saw, “A people hire A people. B people hire C people. And when enough C people are on board, the A people leave, and the rest goes to hell from there.” It’s true.

    @dlms: “It is like the blind leading the blind–HR departments buy into this stupidity because some HR firm says this is how you screen for good employees…” You nailed it. HR’s coffin is built and delivered by failed HR people who run HR consultancies that sell back to their old employers.

    @Bob Lewis: You are, as always, right. There’s always a way to finesse a situation where the person you’re dealing with tosses something really stupid onto the table. In this case, I invoke the Gene Webb Rule: Never work with jerks. Maybe I’m getting old and crotchety, but I’m just not so willing any more to cut a jerk a break or to bail them out. I’d just walk. It’s not for everyone.

    @Peter: I get your point, as I do Bob Lewis’s. But I take the reader in this Q&A at face value. “Frivolous arithmetical questions” reveal a very questionable hiring and management style. If employers in general were not so haphazard about how they select job candidates for interviews, I might agree with you, but I think even green new grads understand that something in the hiring process is very, very broken. While I also agree that some new grads are naive and expect too much, many employers ride in that boat, too.

    @L.T.: “I don’t see Bob [Lewis] and Nick disagree often.” Yup, and ain’t it great?? I’m sure Bob’s laughing as he reads all this…

  29. @Idl: “There’s a more sinister reason employers act like this, but you can use it to weed out the worst employers.” — I agree. Therefore, to Nicks point my first inclination is to walk out. How to say it: Thank you for your time, I withdraw my candidacy.

    @Bob: If I am interested in a little personal entertainment, I will answer as you suggested but not because I want to play along, but because I turn the tables and start reverse interviewing the interviewers about the job. Talking about anything else is a waste of time.

    It’s interesting how some employers exist in a bubble, I get it, its their castle, their rules, if they like wasting time playing games, their prerogative, but I draw a pretty hard line when it comes to how I spend my time.

    Only in some corporate universe is such nonsense considered normal. Imagine what would happen if you called a plumber to your house to fix a plumbing problem, you meet him at the front door and ask him to count backwards from 100 in groups of 7. What exactly does it tell you about the plumber who refuses to comply?

  30. @dlms: “Isn’t it better to talk about the work the new hire will be expected to do”

    That’s the point. It all comes down to the purpose of a job interview, which has now been hijacked so interviewers can drive meetings off cliffs more readily.

    @Dale Rybick: While your story about AT&T is from 1975, it’s still the way many companies handle job applicants. An inexperienced personnel jockey lobs generic, irrelevant questions at a seasoned, busy professonial who showed up to talk shop with, in your case, engineers. Much of the time, the rationale is, “We need to establish whether this applicant is worth a hiring manager’s time.” So HR wastes the applicant’s time, learns nothing about the applicant’s acumen, and very often loses the applicant – either via an incompetent rejection, or because the applicant is disgusted and never returns. I’ve seen this again and again in technical settings, where the HR person doesn’t know the difference between jargon and technology. It is indeed offensive.

    @EEDR: Estimation is not a skill we hear about a lot. It’s why people drive around curves too fast and go over the edge. Behavior economists like the late Amos Tversky and Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman have done some fascinating research showing how lousy people are at estimating.

    @Scott: “When I was at Bell Labs we were not allowed to give stupid quizzes like this. We managed to hire some top people nonetheless.” See Dale Rybick’s comment about AT&T, which at the time was Bell Labs’ parent company. Where did it all go…? The Labs used to be a national treasure. Thanks for sharing your story.

    @Lisa: “I find these stupid, inane, brainless questions demeaning”

    This is what inbreeding of the HR profession has gotten us. Many in HR (“best practices”) believe they know more about evaluating engineers, marketers, scientists more than people in those disciplines themselves. I don’t think they realize how this backfires on the employers themselves.

    Regarding your comments about Glassdoor and Expedia, if that’s why your comments about the latter were rejected by the former, it just confirms the bias of Glassdoor.

    RE: Bob Lewis
    I’m sure Bob is enjoying being pilloried when it’s done well. But like Michael, I’m a big fan of Bob’s work. So we disagree on this story – no big deal. His comments are worth digesting.

    @Leo: “I also once had to write a paragraph on how to make a grilled cheese sandwich.”
    Thanks for adding to the Stupid Interview Question canon! I never heard that one!

    @Greg: No argument with your point that if someone needs a job, it may be best to bite the tongue and play along. The downside of that approach may be worth the salary, at least for a while.

  31. @Leo

    Leo, you are so much more diplomatic than I. For that matter, I too am getting old and crotchety.

    The “If you could meet any person in history …” question to me might be met with “I have had the company of humans. I have had the company of cats. On the whole, I prefer the company of cats.”

    The only downside is that most interviewers who propose silly questions would miss the corollary that I would also prefer the company of cats to their or their firm’s company.

  32. Candidate’s response didn’t seem that snippy to me, which makes me think this was a stress test. Too bad the type of position wasn’t mentioned, what type of job requires mental math nowadays?

    I remember having to take a basic math and personality test for a software development position almost 20 years ago. I couldn’t believe how preposterous it all was.

  33. Nick,

    All job candidates are hazed, not just new grads.

    People may as well have to put on a clown suit and ride a tricycle up a loop de loop ramp and through a ring of fire. Anything but a flawless landing results in removal for consideration!

    On a related note, companies only want ninjas!

  34. Not hazing, just clueless interviewing techniques, which are not limited to recent college graduates but to applicants of all ages.

    We recently hired an intern to help out for the remainder of the academic year due to one of my colleagues getting impaneled on a grand jury, another colleague refusing to teach, and a third colleague who gets early release for religious reasons. The intern hired, a soon-to-be Simmons library school grad, was asked during the interview how she would handle uncertainty and students who often come into the library for help but either can’t tell you enough information (most often, ANY information) so you can point them in the right direction. Frustration (for everyone) and uncertainty, like death and taxes, are the guarantees here. What we did during the interview was give her examples AFTER explaining to her that students will come to the library expecting to buy their books (confuse us with the bookstore), or, if the books are on reserve, they never have their syllabi or class schedules on them, and when you ask them “which class?” and “who is your professor?”, the answer is “I don’t know”. If you ask “what is the subject?”, meaning is it English or Biology or Chemistry or Spanish, they don’t know.

    Asking questions or even role-playing to determine how prospective employees or even interns react is important because the biggest part of the jobs is helping students, even the clueless ones.

    But just randomly asking someone on a job interview to estimate something, without providing context or even a “problem” is silly. There are better ways to determine if the applicant can deal with having to guess or estimate something!

  35. The grilled cheese essay is a tool that I’ve used with interns. If someone has never written a technical specification, writing details about a common item is a great tool to teach them specifying. With that being said, it does seem odd to bring this up in an interview. I could live with the grilled cheese question in an interview only if a brief introduction was included.

  36. As the article states:

    “…pathetic demonstration of its own insecurity.” …”its” meaning the directionless interviewer, HR dept., company, etc.

    But hey, let them keep chanting “talent shortage”. LOL. Really? Could it be the real talent “shortage” emanates from the interviewers side of the desk?

    Here is something to fire back:

    “Where exactly will this company be 5 years from now, what animal best represents your company’s reputation and how many control freaks do you estimate currently infest your HR dept.?”