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August 25, 2009 10:25 AM   Subscribe

What are the most interesting or unusual questions you've ever been asked at a job interview?

Spurred on by a raging FPP, I'm moving forward on a project regarding the nature of job interviews.

What have been the most memorable, surprising, or downright strange questions you've ever been asked in an interview? How did you answer them? And what was the interviewer, in your opinion, trying to get at by asking them?

And please, If there are HR people out there, are you required to ask questions you find strange? What's the strangest answer you've received to a seemingly straight forward question?
posted by SinisterPurpose to Grab Bag (84 answers total) 106 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry, I should clarify that I mean a question asked by a person, and not a piece of paper or some other manner of test.
posted by SinisterPurpose at 10:29 AM on August 25, 2009

One that my team used to ask, and I was asked it coming aboard, was "If you could be any animal, what animal would you be and why".

They had other versions. "Any type of tree". "Any sandwich".

These were questions where it was more about the ability to think on your feet than it was about the real answer, though sometimes the real answer was telling. One "tree" answer was Weeping Willow (not hired). One animal was LITERALLY "a fly, so I can be in the room and see everything without being noticed" (not hired). One was "I'd like to be my cat. He doesn't do much, just lays in the sun and lets me take care of him" (not hired).

The most harsh question I've heard of was "What would you say right now if I were to tell you that you aren't doing very well in this interview?" It was again not about the answer so much as about the reaction and seeing if it's a personality you want to work with.
posted by arniec at 10:30 AM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I see from your resume that you were a member of the Hitler Youth.

I guess that wasn't really a question, but it was damm strange...
posted by Confess, Fletch at 10:31 AM on August 25, 2009

i was asked how my pet would describe me, if given the chance. the interviewer knew i had a dog because of some small talk we had made when we met. i think it was a different way of asking the "how might your friends/coworkers/family members describe you" question.

it's not all that bizarre, but it was the first one to come to mind when i read your question.
posted by gursky at 10:32 AM on August 25, 2009

"Dude, why are you wearing a suit?"

I actually DID get hired at that interview.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:34 AM on August 25, 2009

When I used to interview candidates for engineering positions, I used to toss odd questions at them. One of my favorites was "What is the most useless error message you've ever seen?"

My own answer to that was "syntax error" but someone topped it: "Keyboard not found. Press F1 to continue."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:34 AM on August 25, 2009 [9 favorites]

I was interviewing for a marketing position on a student-run organization, and they asked me to re-enact a scene from my favourite TV Show/Movie. That stopped me utterly cold.
posted by Phire at 10:35 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

So, you want to be VP of Order and Tradition? Your room is awful messy for that isn't it?

It was an election for a student organization, I got in.
posted by theichibun at 10:40 AM on August 25, 2009

Once during an interview I was asked:

"OK, tell me quickly, what is [large number] times [large number]?" I don't remember what the large numbers were. I do remember that the question pissed me off and I got pretty flustered.

That was many years ago and I didn't get the job. But in the grand scheme of my career path, it turned out OK that I bombed that interview.
posted by shino-boy at 10:41 AM on August 25, 2009

The weirdest question I was ever asked in an interview was "when we call your references, what do you think they'll say about you?"

I held my tongue, but I wanted to say: "I don't know, why don't you call them and find out"?
posted by LN at 10:42 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I once had a job interview at a law firm where one of the hiring partners just stared at me for 30 seconds and that was the entire interview.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 10:50 AM on August 25, 2009 [22 favorites]

A friend of mine was asked to tell a joke. She did the #1 thing you are not supposed to do in that situation, and told a completely inappropriate sexually themed joke. Not only that, she'd fucked up the actual mechanics of the joke so that the punch line: "And then Queen Elizabeth says, 'You mean a horse cock!?' " ended up making no sense whatsoever.

She didn't get the job.
posted by 8dot3 at 10:51 AM on August 25, 2009 [19 favorites]

"What do you think about the war in Iraq? I just want to make sure that you'll fit in with the group of people working here."

Not the exact words as it was nearly two years ago now, it was over the phone, and I can't remember the whole lead-up to that, but I answered it, after telling the interviewer that he had "quite a bit of nerve going there", that I was answering it so "he wouldn't have ANY doubt what I thought", and then told him exactly what I thought for fifteen minutes.

I was pissed off that I'd been asked about my political views, but it was so out of left field that the honesty of his reply to my answer convinced me that the interviewer wasn't some HR-speak-y drone, and that on balance, I should treat the question as a net positive, and the rest of the interview was more of a chat about what I wanted out of the job than him hitting bullet points.

I got the job, and I took it; the interviewer ended up being a great boss.
posted by mdonley at 10:52 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Are you an air traffic controller or a traffic cop?

This totally threw me off, but I said 'air traffic controller' and then asked the interviewer what the question was getting at. Apparently, it has something to do with leadership styles and that was the right answer. Still don't know if I got the job yet.
posted by kitcat at 10:52 AM on August 25, 2009

When I interviewed for an editorial job at Lonely Planet, they asked me to tell a travel story (one of my own, of course).

When I was on a committee to hire a new head of the Specialty department (cheese, wine, beer, salumi) at Whole Foods (I worked in the department), we told candidates, "We're all coming for dinner on Saturday. What would you cook for us, and what kind of wine should we bring?"
posted by rtha at 10:53 AM on August 25, 2009

Questions that have really been asked of me or people I know:

"What were you doing when you were 12 years old?"

"You discover your co-worker OD'ing on cocaine. What do you do?"

"What does your supervisor at [your former job] look like?"

"What's the hardest thing you've ever had to do?" (I was tempted to say: "This interview.")
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:53 AM on August 25, 2009

Q: When you were growing up, did your parents rent an apartment or own a house, and in what area of town?
A: Are you trying to ask my family's socio-economic bracket?
posted by Houstonian at 10:58 AM on August 25, 2009 [8 favorites]

My old boss used to ask people to tell her a joke during the interview (like 8dot3). She loved a) putting people just outside their comfort zone and seeing how they'd handle themselves, and b) seeing if she thought they'd be a fun person to work with.

(That is just cruel IMHO and I thank god she did not ask me that when she interviewed me or I'm fairly positive I wouldn't have gotten the job. I am the world's worst joke-teller - but I'm a great audience!)
posted by widdershins at 10:59 AM on August 25, 2009

"Do you think it's appropriate to comment on someone's appearance in a work setting?"

When I said if it would save someone from embarassment, the interviewer said, "Oh, good, because your jacket is totally misbuttoned."
posted by xingcat at 10:59 AM on August 25, 2009 [29 favorites]

I was asked, "Coach K or Dean Smith?"

With the answering being Dean Smith, of course.

I also have a friend who likes to ask, "Who is your favorite Beatle?"
posted by bluedaisy at 10:59 AM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

"Dude, why are you wearing a suit?"

I got "You're dressed pretty casually for this interview. What are your opinions on how to dress in the workplace?" [this was for a public library job and I was dressed fairly casually] I explained that I thought you shouldn't "dress up" to work with the public, you should dress like you were a part of the public and that I'd buy nicer shoes if I got the job. I did [buy nicer shoes, and get the job]. That said, the boss's focus on what I was wearing was sort of a thing the whole time I was working there. Not my dress, per se, but the whole dressing = status thing and making judgments on people based on that sort of thing. Ultimately I wasn't happy there.
posted by jessamyn at 11:00 AM on August 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

Not all that weird, but I had a very long interview that began with, "what is your earliest memory?"
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:00 AM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

A couple classic, tricky questions I've seen in interview books:

"Sell me this stapler." (Most useful for a sales position, of course.)

"How much do you think Americans spend on cigars in one year?" (Meant to test your ability to make educated guesses on the fly and stay calm in the face of uncertainty, e.g. "Let's see, there are about 300 million Americans, and maybe only 1% are regular cigar smokers, so that's 3 million, but there are also some cigars smoked by nonsmokers on special occasions," etc.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:03 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's this German-run grocery chain with stores in parts of the US called "Aldi."

I was the perfect fit for Aldi's Area-Manager Trainee program. I had worked in grocery stores in one form or another since I was 15, including during my college years. Knew the business inside and out, found it interesting, and was matriculating with honors from the business program at my smallish Lib Arts college.

Not only was I a perfect fit for it, the job was a perfect fit for me. You got a car, something like $70,000 starting salary, and would be managing 3-4 stores in your first year of work. Nobody else was paying business grads from our school that much back in 2000.

Well, I'm just acing this interview, and I know it, and they know it, and then they ask me:

"Say you caught one of your store clerks in the act of skimming off a til. What would you do?"

Whatever company HR policy directs in such a situation (duh).

"Say you haven't been trained on that policy yet, what would you do if you had to act right away?"

Well, I would hope I wouldn't be managing people before being advised of such policies, so that I could follow them, but if were me, I'd send them home immediately, write them up and place the write-up in their HR file, then maybe consider bringing them back on a probationary basis after a couple weeks of un-paid suspension.

2 weeks later I got the rejection letter in the mail. I was good friends with the director of Career Services so I marched down to his office in a rage. Why? How? What did I do wrong?

He made me promise I couldn't tell any of my peers this, but apparently if you don't answer that question with "I'd fire their ass on the spot," or something equivalent, you immediately disqualify.

I'd still be pissed at you Aldi, but I'm pretty happy in the end that I didn't end up working for a bunch of morons like you anyway.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:07 AM on August 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

I for some reason agreed to interview at Abercrombie's HQ and one of the first questions they asked was how much Abercrombie I owned. At the time I was too large to wear their clothes and responded that their clothes didn't fit me. There was a long silence.

Somehow I got brought in for an in person interview but it didn't work out (perhaps for the best)
posted by zennoshinjou at 11:07 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

One time I got asked to design a switch for a phone system. I was like "Well ok, how many wires?"

I did not get an offer, but that's ok, because I have no experience in designing switches for phone systems ;)
posted by shownomercy at 11:07 AM on August 25, 2009

Not strange but I think one of the dopiest questions is, "What are your greatest weaknesses?"

I work too hard, I care too much...
posted by dzaz at 11:12 AM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

"Are you street smart?" It seemed a startling question to be asked by the pinstriped hiring partner of a law firm.

"You mean, ...could I ...break into your car with a hanger?"

I got the job (lowly law clerk). My interviewer went on to explain how tired he was of hiring "prima donna law students" who "have no fucking clue about anything outside of their textbooks."

I thought he was a jerk. Fifteen years later, I still think he's a jerk...but a very, very accurate one.
posted by applemeat at 11:17 AM on August 25, 2009 [6 favorites]

For an engineering interview: After I had solved a relatively simple force-balance problem, "Can you describe three other ways to get the right answer? Which is the fastest way? Which gives the most general answer?" (I got the job, although I said "momentum balance" when the answer was "energy balance")

At a very tough interview to work at the front desk of my college activity center: "You are working a shift right before the biggest test of the year. The person after you doesn't show up. What do you do?"

Every answer I gave was met with a further condition, like "None of the other employees answer the phone. The head Dean doesn't answer his phone. Your professor has said that if you don't take this test today, you fail the class. You can't kick everyone out and lock up because the basketball players refuse to leave. Security won't kick them out either." I think it was supposed to show how I problem-solved but eventually I just gave up. Yeah, didn't get that job right away, but they called me in as a mid-semester replacement. The above situation never happened.
posted by muddgirl at 11:17 AM on August 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

Interview at British Nuclear Fuels, 1992, for a reactor pressure vessel design job:
Interviewer: what do you think the fastest-growing source of electricity will be over the next two decades?
Me: Wind power.
Surprisingly, didn't get it. Rather glad, as there hasn't been a ton of new reactor pressure vessels built in the UK since then.

I also worked at a place that asked the skill/estimation type question "How many golf balls can you fit in a car?". One interviewee inexplicably answered "four ... maybe five."
posted by scruss at 11:25 AM on August 25, 2009 [9 favorites]

I think the one thing all these "tough" questions have in common is how effective they are in letting the interviewee know this is not a place he wants to work.

It's also interesting when the interviewer reveals the kind of person he is in slightly oblique terms. While interviewing for a job related to sports, the interviewer wanted to know how I felt about the "thugs" (ie, young black men) in the NBA.

You'll never guess which network it was.


Fox Sports.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:26 AM on August 25, 2009 [8 favorites]

Once I was asked how much sand (by weight) it would take to fill a football field with a five-foot high wall around it. I had to admit that I knew nothing about football and therefore didn't know how big a football field was. Which, incidentally, was the point - the question was to judge how well you could estimate and come up with back of the napkin answers.

When I was doing college recruiting at my last job, I'd often have graduating seniors come up to our booth and just gush at me about how much they wanted to be a systems engineer. One particular recruiting trip, the HR guy and me spent the previous night seeing how big a bar tab we could run up. Needless to say, I was feeling a little grouchy that morning of the career fair. I had a guy come up to me and give me the schtick - I love systems engineering, I've wanted to do this for so long, blah blah blah. It was obvious he read the career fair documentation and knew what we were looking for.

So I asked him, "Tell me what a systems engineer does."

His jaw worked up and down for awhile and he stammered something out - "It's, uh, working on, um... systems! And, uh... sensor... systems? I like sensors!"

"Nice try. Don't call us, we'll call you." And I round-filed him.

I guess the lesson there is less zany interview questions and more don't bullshit the interviewer.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:28 AM on August 25, 2009

First "real" job I ever interviewed (entry-level code monkey), the interviewer dropped this one on me:

"Say you've got this hotel, and you want to make sure that all the rooms have hot water all the time. What do you do?"

I mean, I know that interviewers want to do these "puzzle" type questions, to see how you think on your feet, or what your process is in getting something done, or some rubbish like that, but this one.... it's just open. "I'd hire a plumber because I have no idea how hot water systems work."

"Okay, could you.... elaborate?"
posted by specialagentwebb at 11:32 AM on August 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

A friend of mine was interviewing for a quant or tech position (i.e.: not a trader) at one of the i-banks in NYC sometime in 2007. Not Goldman Sachs, maybe Merrill Lynch or Morgan Stanley. His interviews seemed to be going well. His last interview of the day was with someone who was clearly higher ranked than anyone else he had met so far. His interviewer quickly launched into a tirade about how my friend had falsified his resume or lied about his qualifications or something like that, really shouting and getting in his face. My friend tried to calmly explain how none of this was true. After a while, the interviewer calmed down and said that he just wanted to see how my friend would react under pressure. My friend thought that this was not indicative of a productive work environment (and kind of a dick move) and declined their offer. Apparently, this kind of nonsense was (is?) not uncommon at those i-banks.
posted by mhum at 11:36 AM on August 25, 2009

I've been asked "What is your favorite TV show?" (with a nice little leadup about how it was the most important question in the interview, and whether or not I got a job depended on it).

I was also asked in a different interview about where popular deer hunting sites were in my homestate, when I had in no way indicated I was into hunting or knew anything about it. Also, deer hunting is probably unrelated to any sort of work I'd do at that law firm. Or so I'd hope.
posted by mesha steele at 11:41 AM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

"So I see you have a website, and that you do some cartooning."

"Yes, I do."

"What direction do you see that taking you?"

"Well, I think it's been good at helping me develop skills, like attention to detail... and... observational habits... and... (furiously thinking up work-related strengths) ... I'm good at working with new web technologies... and..."

"Oh, no, sorry, that question doesn't have anything to do with this job, I was just wondering what you're drawing these days."
posted by Greg Nog at 11:49 AM on August 25, 2009 [17 favorites]

8dot3: A friend of mine was asked to tell a joke.

Reminds me of a story a coworker of mine told about an interview he conducted. Something along the lines of...

[Male Interviewer]: What would your friends say about you?
[Female Candidate]: I'm the second funniest person they know... Only because everyone says they know someone else who is the funniest person in the world.
[Male Interviewer]: OK, tell me a joke.
[Female Candidate]: Do you remember when you were a kid growing up and you used to blow bubbles?
[Male Interviewer]: Sure.
[Female Candidate]: Well, I bumped into him the other night and he asked me to say "thanks" when I saw you.

= =

I once was once in a hour-long interview. About five minutes into it, my colleague (who would talk to candidates for hours on end) and I asked the candidate, "So, what is it you think we do here." She paused for a moment before saying, "Oh, I think you do a hodgepodge of things."

There was an awkward silence for a moment before my coworker simply said, "Well, I think I'm all out of questions..."
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:53 AM on August 25, 2009 [9 favorites]

For a summer job at a (non-chain) print shop:

"If you were a vegetable in a salad, what vegetable would you be?"

Followup: "You have been stabbed on a fork with some other pieces of salad and are rising upward toward a giant mouth. What do you do?"
posted by heyforfour at 11:53 AM on August 25, 2009 [21 favorites]

It was not so much the question as the context; interviewing for the most brainless job I've ever had - night truck, shelf stocking at an organic grocery store. One of the two (!) interviewers asked, "What do you think you can bring to the team*?"

I thought about it for a moment, really trying to think of something substantive to say. Shortly I gave up and burst out laughing, saying, "My Protestant work ethic?" then shrugged and laughed some more. The interviewers both shrugged and started laughing too.

I got the job.

*The 'team' were a bunch of potheads doing the bare minimum at probably the least mentally taxing job a person might be able to work.
posted by Pecinpah at 11:56 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am a sometime pro-interviewer (creative/tech/management), as my 40,000 words in that employment testing thread today will attest.

To answer your last part.... a good interviewer has a checklist, either mentally or on paper, of things that need to be measured so that applicants can be compared. Sometimes the questions are obvious ("How good is your French?"), sometimes it's up to the interviewer(s) to check off the question/issue in any way they choose.

I'll endorse what many suspect above: your actual answer doesn't matter. It's about the grace you deploy in receiving an unexpected problem, and how you "work through" to get an answer. For example, the "How many golf balls fit in your car?" question.

A bad answer would be "Um, a million?" (with a glance for approval).

A good answer would be "Ha! Well, let's see, a golf ball is about, um, 30 cc's or so... that's about, erm, ten in every cubic foot... my back seat is about five feet across, so...." and so on.

That transition from WTF to a reasoned breakdown of the problem is what's wanted, generally. Many people are intimidated by problems that "seem too big" or impossible, and freeze up when challenged. Others become completely incapacitated by big numbers: every college grad will know six plus seven, but if you ask them what six billion plus seven billion is, they're stumped. Yes, really.

For every person who is annoyed by a "hard" question there are at least ten people who say "Oh, man, I loved that question. I can't wait to spring that on my wife...."

Granted, most of my interviewing has been for "creative problem solver" types, so maybe that's not a general population thing.
posted by rokusan at 11:58 AM on August 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

What's the strangest answer you've received to a seemingly straight forward question?

Q: Are you a CCNA?
A: No, I'm Jewish.
posted by rokusan at 12:00 PM on August 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

NotMyselfRightNow has a version of what was one of my favorite "mean" questions to ask for awhile, by which I mean it really separates those who care about getting this job from those who are just applying to 300 places in the hope of getting something, and really don't care what.

My version was just: "So, tell me about [This Company Name]."

There's not much that's as impressive as a candidate who has actually done research on the employer, and there's no quicker route to the door than to really have no clue. I think that question brings more looks of abject horror than any weird "puzzle" question ever can.

A longer and kinder version invites the applicant to ask questions about the company (not the position). Again, good questions are very, very impressive.
posted by rokusan at 12:10 PM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

A longer and kinder version invites the applicant to ask questions about the company (not the position).

Yeah, the interview for my current job was exactly like that. I met with about six different people during the day, and I think I got asked a grand total of about four direct questions, most of them from the HR rep. Everyone else just wanted to know if I had any questions I wanted to ask them.

Actually, the person who ended up becoming my manager asked me what excuse I gave my then-current employer for missing work to go to an interview. I told him I scheduled a vacation day.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:18 PM on August 25, 2009

The oddest and most frustrating question that I got was just recently when I was interviewing at a small software company for a QA job. I interviewed with the technical managers and did really well since I've been doing QA for a dozen years in similar environments and know my stuff pretty well. The last interview was with the CEO who spent most of the interview quizzing me about the management structure of my past companies. "Who was the VP of Engineering at [old company]?", and questions like that. I was stumped on most questions; I'm terrible with names and also generally don't really pay a whole lot of attention to management. I didn't get the job and I think that he was really offended that I didn't really care about upper management.
posted by octothorpe at 12:24 PM on August 25, 2009

Followup: "You have been stabbed on a fork with some other pieces of salad and are rising upward toward a giant mouth. What do you do?"

I desperately need to know how you responded. Please?
posted by anderjen at 12:42 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine while interviewing for a finance job at a big NY firm was asked if he'd done any modelling.

He replied, "why, yes, how did you know? I did some advertisements a few years back, magazine shots and such..."

The interviewer cut him off, "We meant economic modelling."
posted by Pollomacho at 12:47 PM on August 25, 2009 [16 favorites]

My absolute weirdest interview experience was at a Japanese automotive supplier. I was applying for a part-time position as a telex operator (that's how long ago this was) - because of the time difference between Detroit and Tokyo, they needed someone to be on telex duty from 5-11PM. Anyway, after a few perfunctory questions and sending a "test" telex, I was brought into the office of some executive (judging from his furniture and decor). He didn't speak much English, but handed me a telex written in Romaji (Japanese language/English letters). I told him that I didn't speak Japanese, so I wasn't sure how accurate my pronunciation would be, and he just smiled and encouraged me to try. I began reading, and he started giggling. I apologized for my pronunciation and he said "No, no, good, keep going." I sat there for about 20 minutes reading several different telexes like this, and during that time he invited three additional men to come in and listen. They all giggled and laughed like school girls. I got a call the next day offering me the job, but I turned it down. I have no idea what I was reading, but I have a feeling it was some sort of porn or naughty story or something, and the whole thing was very unsettling.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:47 PM on August 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

The last interview was with the CEO...

Red alert. All advice, guidance, and sanity goes out the window when you're being interviewed by the CEO or an owner.

They don't know what you do. They will hire you if they like you. Period.
posted by rokusan at 1:06 PM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was asked my typical two-person scrabble score. This was for a warehouse receptionist job.
posted by dinty_moore at 1:22 PM on August 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

"Are you anal?"

"Pardon me?"

"Are you anal? You know anal retentive."

"Um, well, yes I am".

"Well that's good. We're all anal here and it helps in the job..."

I did get the job.
posted by qsysopr at 1:35 PM on August 25, 2009

"How many ping-pong balls will fit in a 747."
posted by gregr at 1:41 PM on August 25, 2009

I know someone who was asked if she had any friends. After a nanosecond of shocked disbelief, she said yes (a truthful answer), and later told me the answer she imagined: "Why--do you want to know what it's like?"

I myself was once asked if I planned to have any children anytime soon. I was but a youth at the time, so I wasn't aware that this question is illegal as can be.
posted by scratch at 1:42 PM on August 25, 2009

I have another one. I was once asked why I got a Bachelor of Arts with honours in Music, rather than a Bachelor of Music. I explained that the BA hon. Music offered me more scope to take courses outside of the music department, and that I had used those extra courses to expand the scope of my education. This was apparently the wrong answer.
posted by LN at 1:50 PM on August 25, 2009

At a mid-level investment bank:

Interviewer: "I'm going to ask you a question and you have exactly five seconds to answer it."

Friend: "OK."

Interviewer: "What is the worst thing you've ever done to a human being? 5... 4.... 3.... 2.... 1... "

That's how my friend ended up confessing to some horrible thing he did years ago. The interviewer's counting down out loud was designed to prevent interviewees from lying.


My worst interview experience was in September 2006 with one bank VP, who, 15-minutes in, asked me what Power was.

Me: "Uh... the use of force? Energy?"

Interviewer: "No, the physical formula for it."

Me: (oh crap) "Hold on, I don't..."

Interviewer: "It's work divided by time. We need people with a lot of power, people who can work quickly under deep pressure and very short time spans. You are clearly not one of those people."

I walked out totally defeated, but three years later, I laugh at the experience with that jackass.

He was a CDO trader for Bear Stearns.
posted by chalbe at 2:03 PM on August 25, 2009 [10 favorites]

I love this thread.

Not that strange, but in the same interview I was asked:

If you were a tree, what would you be?
If you were a character from Lord of the Rings, which one would you be?
What is your favorite snack chip?

After the interview, I was told they only asked me in because they thought I had a very strange name and wanted to see who this strange named person was.

I got the job.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:55 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

"What are the most interesting or unusual questions you've ever been asked at a job interview?"

When is it OK to lie?

Basically, this question was a check for value rigidity, and the ability to answer a question without an immediately apparent correct answer, gracefully.

I said that I thought everyone lied regularly, at least socially ("Say, have you lost weight?" or "That's sounds like a great place you went on vacation, Steve!"), and sometimes, even self-protectively ("Yes sir, we'll be finished on schedule!" when your only hope of that is to work all weekend at home.). I said that I thought it was OK to lie in any situation where the cost of telling the truth exceeded the benefit of the truth told. ... Whether that was the "right" answer or not, it wasn't "wrong" enough to cost me the job, and I worked at that place a couple years.

I've since used the question in interviewing others, and it really makes people squirm.
posted by paulsc at 3:03 PM on August 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

I was once asked, as the FIRST question on an interview, what church I attended. This is about as illegal a question as can possibly be asked on a US job interview. I got up and walked out - I didn't need the job that badly.
posted by deadmessenger at 3:05 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I know someone who was asked to draw a picture of themselves, as realistic as possible. (The job did not involve drawing, nor, to my knowledge, did it require any special congruence between self-image and reality.)
posted by Beardman at 3:23 PM on August 25, 2009

"Have you ever tried to kill yourself?"

Admittedly, this was about 2 in the morning when we were riffing on how ridiculous a process interviewing people for a job can be. But it really was part of my job interview. There are nice things about working with friends — it was followed with "There's no wrong answer!"
posted by anildash at 3:23 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

At 19, I interviewed to work at a record label that specialized in heavy metal music. The president (all of 22 years old) asked me what my three favorite bands were. I said "Slayer, Neurosis, and Black Sabbath". He was on the verge of signing Neurosis, unbeknownst to me, and, hello, Slayer and Black Sabbath? Got that job.

Best damn job of my life, too. Would have stayed there if it paid more than, oh, $6 an hour.
posted by medeine at 4:09 PM on August 25, 2009

"What role do you think religion should play when teaching science?"

Admittedly, it was for a teacher position at a Catholic middle school, but I was still in liberal-college-cocoon mode and was completely blindsided. After an audible gasp, I replied, "None whatsoever" and, yup, that was the end of that interview.
posted by kookaburra at 4:33 PM on August 25, 2009

"How much gray is there in your personality?"

This was for a summer job as a restaurant hostess. The entire interview consisted of questions along those lines, but that's the only one I remember specifically. It cracked me up because there's not even a given format for the answer - um, five? Sixty percent? More than green? Less than happy?

I did get the job, but in retrospect I wish I'd realized what an ass that guy was right off the bat.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 4:44 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

While interviewing for an office boy job at the Yale School of Management, I was asked what my theories on customer service were.

I was 19. What the hell did I know about customer service? Filing, typing, Internet, sure; but having a theoretical basis for my market-based social interactions?

While walking home I resolved to not get another office job again. Before I made it back to my apartment I'd lined up an off-the-books gig, and remained such for another 3 or 4 years, but that's another story...
posted by jtron at 5:10 PM on August 25, 2009

I'm still working on the golf balls question.

A golf ball is 1.68" in diameter. This gives you ~ 7.14 golf balls per foot or ~ 364.43 per cubic foot.

The cut off between what is a coupe and what is a sedan is 33 cubic feet.

So you could get 33 x 364.43 or about 12026 (no fractional golf balls) in a small sedan/large coupe.

Obviously you'll get more in an SUV.
posted by Bonzai at 7:06 PM on August 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

A couple jobs ago, I was interviewed by my potential co-workers, my potential boss, and finally HER boss. Normal questions from her, but when she asked me if *I* had any questions, I asked her "If I asked Potential Boss and Potential Co-Workers what it was like to work for you, what would they tell me?" She kind of dug getting that question, and spent a long time answering it. And she was SO FUCKING WRONG.
posted by ersatzkat at 7:14 PM on August 25, 2009 [9 favorites]

Christ, I couldn't answer any of these questions! This is a scary thread.

I was once ushered into Big Shot Famous Editor's office, the culmination of a lot of luck and effort and pulled strings just to get seen at all. He never looked up, kept his back to me, said nothing, and kept typing. I knew perfectly well it was some fucked up test, but I stood there unable to think of a way to say politely, "hey asshole, I'm standing here! I know you're playing a mind game, can you cut it out and act like a person?" The minutes dragged on and on, I felt like dying, he kept typing. I never did figure out what to say.

I didn't get the job.

(A few years later, I found myself working for that guy in a different context and he said he'd made a big mistake not hiring me, which exorcised those particular demons.)
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:19 PM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

So you could get 33 x 364.43 or about 12026 (no fractional golf balls) in a small sedan/large coupe.

That'll definitely be pretty low, because it's assuming a square packing of the golf balls - ie, each golf ball sits exactly on the diameter of its neighbors (a pretty good estimate for a job interview)

An upper bound would be if the spheres packed perfectly. The right answer for, say, a guess-the-number contest would be less than this because you can assume they won't place each ball with precision.
posted by muddgirl at 7:40 PM on August 25, 2009

I had a college professor who was interviewing to get in med school and was asked (apparently to see how honest he was) "When was the last time you masturbated?"

He responded "In the elevator on the way up!"
posted by Zebtron at 8:01 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

ManMen filter from way back when: What does your father do? Why, you ask? Well, because I've found that children rarely exceed their fathers' accomplishments. This was from a Brit who was obviously stuck in some time warp where trades were inherited through the generations. He didn't fit with what Canadian children were taught and parents expected - more. It was also the dirtiest office I'd ever seen. Everything was grimy. Ugh.

Also: Ranted at and thrown out the door by a male tester who loudly accused me of having been given a copy of the math test (back when they did those things) as no one had ever finished the test let alone gotten all the questions right. He was convinced I'd cheated. Guess he couldn't stand the idea that a girl could do math. The receptionist and I shared an eye roll while he ranted, and a giggle after he left. He looked like a stroke waiting to happen.

And: Do you live alone or do you share with someone? This from a lethario who went through office staff like water. Wonder why.

And later: What are the ways in which data can be stored electronically in an office environment? This from a non-technical manager who argued with me about my answer and kept referring to the paper he was clutching that had the wrong answers on it.

And: What do you think man will eventually evolve into? Not part of the 4 hour interview, the guy just wanted to talk. Got the job.
posted by x46 at 8:01 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

The insane questions and posturing (the yelling, the crazy litmus tests) from financial services firms are making me snort, because that's exactly right in my experience, too: they're all That Guy from Futurama. They'll say it's because they need people who can work under high pressure. My impression has always been that they've already cracked under it themselves, and just want to pass on the crazy to someone new.

(I've always tried to get them out of the room by promising to consult with them very seriously for their opinion. Later.)

So vaguely toward the OP's question: for interviews in Fin. Services, expect crazy gorillas and realize they probably just want to see if you'll cry. Silly.
posted by rokusan at 8:19 PM on August 25, 2009

My worst interview experience was in September 2006 with one bank VP, who, 15-minutes in, asked me what Power was.... It's work divided by time. We need people with a lot of power.

Ha. Yes, a lot of people who don't really interview much (but think they're very clever) really love to use whatever book is on their night table to run their interview.

(Most business books, if you've never read one, are really, really bad. They're self-help books plus doubletalk and testosterone.)

For the applicant, this is an unfortunate lottery.
posted by rokusan at 8:22 PM on August 25, 2009

When is it OK to lie?

Yeah, that's very common. It's a decent question, too.

"Never ever, sir!" is a bad answer, of course, but that should be obvious. Like most of these, it's just a poke to see "how you think on your feet".

(People lie in interviews even more than they exaggerate resumes, so you need to forgive interviewers for using their little tricks to ferret out useful information. Rattling the applicant a bit by asking something unexpected is an easy form of this.)

One of the best ways to handle questions like these is to shut the hell up for a second and actually THINK. A ten second pause followed by a well-reasoned answer is golden, while pretty much any thing you want to blurt out immediately will be less good.

(Places that penalizing you for "not answering faster" aren't good workplaces, so don't worry.)
posted by rokusan at 8:27 PM on August 25, 2009

Man this is an interesting thread! I'm so glad that interview for my current job was more a casual conversation/discussion.
posted by radioamy at 9:26 PM on August 25, 2009

A friend once got to the final round for a management consulting firm. After botching a case study terribly, he was allowed to ask the Principal (his interviewer) a question:

Friend: "What advice would you have for an English Literature major trying to break into management consulting?"

Interviewer: "English Literature, huh? I guess that makes you even less employable than my sophomore daughter! Hahaha..."

...followed by a very, very awkward silence and as the interviewer realized what he said.

(He got the job anyways)
posted by chalbe at 9:46 PM on August 25, 2009

In one interview I got asked to write a list of ten things in my house I would save if the house burnt down. Then I got asked to cross them off one by one till I was left with the last item. My last item was my guitar.

This got a lot of surprised reactions (for an IT Application packaging role). I guess they expected me to say my laptop or something...

I got the job.
posted by Admira at 9:58 PM on August 25, 2009

There is an entire book on the puzzle questions that Microsoft asks in its interviews (probably dated now, but the book gives an insight into the thinking process involved in answering a puzzle interview question).
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 10:14 PM on August 25, 2009

Oh, speaking of these "how many golf balls would fit in a car" type questions, I am led to believe that these are very common at management consulting firms (e.g.: McKinsey, BCG, Accenture, etc...) although they occasionally show up at other types of job interviews. I just remembered that I got one of these in an interview ages and ages ago: "How many telephone booths are there in Manhattan?".

These questions basically involve two things: 1) the ability to make reasonable estimates about the world around you, and 2) the ability to do basic multiplication. You'd be surprised at how many people fail at either or both. But here's the thing: the interviewer practically never knows the real answer. They're just watching to see what you do with the problem, not checking to see how close you come to the correct answer.
posted by mhum at 12:46 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

"What will your refences say when we call them?"

Me: "They'd better say good things, I paid them enough." Yes, I really said that. The silence and stares that followed still haunt my dreams. Didn't get the job.

"Are you going to steal that pen?"

This was at a large discount store who was apparently quite upset that I had laughed out loud when they told me they did a morning cheer. The whole interview was a disaster and was a giant waste of time. I did intend to steal the pen, and told them so. Only interview I've ever had where they didn't even offer to shake my hand on the way out. I kept that pen for years and would carry it to other interviews.

"What TV character would best describe you?"

Long uncomfortable silence wherein I admitted I didn't watch much TV, but read a lot, which actually worked out okay when I asked if I could suggest book characters instead. Got the job.

"Do you have a favorite disease?"

I didn't. I got the job anyway.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:22 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

As part of my job on a college campus, I advise a student group that fundraises for a well-known charitable organization. This student group is run like a well-oiled machine, and the aforementioned charitable organization suggests interviewing students who want to sit on the Executive Board of the group. Last spring when my colleagues and I were conducting the interviews, we decided to end each one with a ridiculous question.

Some of the questions we used:

-If you were part of a bicycle, which part would you be and why?
-If you were an alien, what color would you be and what planet would you be from? why?
-If you had a superpower, what would it be and why?
-If a song played every time you walked into a room – what song would it be?

And, the most amusing:

-Name 10 uses for a pencil
posted by nuclear_soup at 6:30 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I should add that the student's weren't judged by their answers to the ridiculous questions.
posted by nuclear_soup at 6:32 AM on August 26, 2009

At my first civilian job interview, my potential manager came out and called my name, tacking on a "-ski". I laughed. I think that got me the job.
posted by dwbrant at 10:10 AM on August 26, 2009

rokusan: "The last interview was with the CEO...

Red alert. All advice, guidance, and sanity goes out the window when you're being interviewed by the CEO or an owner.

They don't know what you do. They will hire you if they like you. Period.

Oddly enough he had previously been a computer science professor at CMU before he started the company, you'd think he'd have been more interested in my technical background.
posted by octothorpe at 2:04 PM on August 26, 2009

I was once asked if I had a boyfriend, because you know the married man 30 years older than me wanted to know if I'd always be daydreaming about him at work and running out of work early to see him.
posted by whoaali at 8:14 PM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm an HR pro. Long before I was an HR pro, I was asked "If you could be any animal, what would you be?".

I laughed at the three interviewers. I told them that "I hope to god this organization doesn't judge potential applicants by this question...otherwise, I run the chance of working with people who hiss and meow all day long".

That got a huge laugh...and me the job.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:20 PM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

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