If you were a Disney cartoon character, who or what would you be? Count to 11 in 3.5 intervals. How many ping pong balls fit into a 747?
These are not idle riddles to help you and your fellow layabouts while away a sunny Sunday afternoon at the pub, but genuine questions put to job-seekers by interviewers at British companies over the past year.
The third one about ping pong balls was asked at Goldman Sachs. This is an investment bank with such a fearsome reputation for intellectual superiority that its employees used to be known as Masters of the Universe. Maybe years of focusing on table tennis, rather than credit-default swaps, may explain why it – along with many fellow Wall Street banks – had to go running to the US Treasury to be bailed out.
The conundrums were revealed in a round-up of some of the odder questions posed to candidates at a time when, even if you have a good degree from a top university, it is a challenge to land a job. True, the unemployment rate in the UK has fallen from a peak of 8.4 per cent three years ago to 6.8 per cent, but there are still hundreds of candidates chasing a single vacancy in some dream jobs.
The round-up of left-field questions, compiled by Glassdoor, a career website, is valuable and great fun. Not only does it allow us to scratch our heads along with the candidates (you start at -3, not zero, if you want to get to 11 in 3.5 intervals, by the way) but it also says much about the modern workplace and the reliance on business psychology that has come to dominate office life.
Wacky questions about how you fit an elephant into a fridge are not a new fad. “These sort of left-field questions are as old as the hills,” says Dr Mark Parkinson, a business psychologist, who advises companies on how to hire the best staff.
There is a (possibly apocryphal) story about Lew Grade, the great theatrical impresario, who would always interview the final candidates for a job. Once, he ushered in a hopeful to his cigar-filled office, saying: “So you want to be a salesman. Here’s my water jug, sell it to me!” The young man thought for a moment, got up, walked around Lord Grade’s desk, picked up the waste paper bin and set it on the desk, before lighting a match and dropping it in the bin. As the flames rose, he politely asked Lord Grade: “Would you like to buy this jug of water?”
He got the job.
The competitive graduate trainee schemes run by ICI and Unilever in the 1970s and 1980s went in for similar questions that tested students already on track for stellar degrees.
Partly because these jobs were aimed at Oxbridge graduates, the interviews had a touch of the Oxford All Souls exam about them. This postgraduate college – which selects just two prize fellows a year – has a reputation for making the cleverest astrophysicist or medieval historian sweat a little and has been setting notoriously difficult tests since 1878. Two sample questions from last year’s general paper were: “Should intellectuals tweet?” and “Defend kitsch”.
There is a logic to testing the intellectual gymnastics of a person whose sole job for the next seven years is to sit in an ivory tower. But as a way of hiring an employee for a software company or clothing chain? That’s a different matter.
Dr Parkinson says that interview questions – for a chief executive down to the lowest menial job – should always ask for evidence about suitability for the task. Specifically: “Can you do it? This is about your knowledge and experience. Will you do it? This is to do with motivation. And will you fit in? Which is to do with your personality and the company’s culture.” The only reason for asking whether the Rolling Stones or The Beatles were a better band is to discover whether you are willing to play ball and engage with the question. In other words, do you have enough motivation for the job not to walk out of the interview? The Stones/Beatles puzzle is one of the questions a candidate was asked at National Milk Records, a dairy software company.
The company most famous for asking these left-field questions in recent years has been Google. One seemingly nonsensical question about being shrunk to the height of a 2p coin and thrown into a blender was designed to test knowledge of mass versus height. The Silicon Valley company also used to ask: “A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. What happened?” The answer was that he was playing Monopoly. But Google, a couple of years ago, declared that it had stopped this tactic. For starters, if you were clever enough to land a job interview with them, you were clever enough to Google the sort of questions you’d be asked and mug up on the answers.
And second, as Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations at Google told the New York Times, these brainteasers were, “a complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”
The new fashion in recruitment, according to Claire McCartney, talent planning adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is “whole person interviews”. This is business-speak for asking people about their home life and personal views, as well as their work experience. It usually involves psychometric testing as well as an interview.
This technique, adopted by John Lewis and the NHS, is about “getting a sense of the values of the candidate and whether they are a good match for the cultural ethics of the company”, says Ms McCartney, who adds that this is important at a time when trust in corporations and big organisations is so low.
One question asked by ThoughtWorks, a software company, is: “What do you consider to be the greater good?” A spokesman explained its motivation: “Our mission is to better humanity through software and help drive the creation of a socially and economically just world. Finding capable people who share this mission is important to us.” Of course, there are only a few steps between asking about your belief in humanity and asking whether you intend to have children, which could land the company in an employment tribunal.
Dr Amanda Potter, a business psychologist at Zircon, which advises HSBC and Pearson, says: “You can’t talk about personal and family issues, you need to talk about values and what drives you. You need to ensure that any question asked is completely reflective of the job. Then it is legally defensible.”
Asking a candidate to dance to a Daft Punk song, as one hopeful sales assistant at Currys was, is also inexcusable, says Dr Potter. Currys subsequently apologised to poor Alan Bacon, who hit the news last year after being “humiliated” by the team-bonding exercise, as cringe-making as anything championed by David Brent in The Office.
And Dr Parkinson says: “There is no such thing as the killer question. All those famous ones such as ‘When was the last time you cried?’ along with ‘Do you prefer cats or dogs?’ are just pseudo-psychology. You need to deal with verifiable facts, something measurable.”
As to the ping pong question? The answer is 31 million balls, if you used all of the cabin as well as the hold space. However, a very clever candidate would note that all those little balls would weigh a remarkable amount – about 83 tonnes, and if they were golf balls they’d weigh 1,395 tonnes, enough to make it impossible for a Boeing 747 to take off.
I hope you enjoy your career at Goldman Sachs.