“If you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” This is the sort of question that most people would shrug off if asked at an icebreaker or first date. Sally Gibson was asked the question at a job interview.
It was overwhelming. Gibson, who is the founder and owner Someone Sent You a Greeting, recalls that she “practically froze.” “I was silent for a long time and finally just said the first tree that came to my mind – elm. I didn’t go any further, just fell into silence. I think the interviewer realized that it wasn’t worth following up and he moved on.” Gibson said she still cringes when she recalls that moment that happend 20 years ago.
She was embarrassed that she hadn’t been more prepared for such an unexpected question, as they were very popular in the 2000s. According to job seekers, they were expected to be asked questions like “How heavy is the Empire State Building?” “How many golf balls can fit in a 747?” Or, as the 2013 film, The Internship, “You’re reduced to the size and weight of nickels, then dropped into a blender. What are you going to do?”
Gibson, however, has never considered this type question to be useful in private. Gibson says that you don’t get any insight into the person you are interviewing, and that they just seem like a ‘gotcha’. She says that interviewees are more likely to be a distraction or try to confuse people than they are of real value.
Amra Beganovich said she was asked brain-teaser questions about a dozen times between 2006 and 2008. She was interviewing for a position as an economist at IMR and Worldbank, and was asked these questions “about a dozen-plus” times. One time, she was asked how three balls could be placed in two boxes to ensure there were equal numbers. She explained that she would cut one end of each box, combine them so they overlap, and then place one ball into each box. Then, put one ball in each box. She was correct in her answer, but it left her dissatisfied with the questions. They don’t test creativity or critical thinking. These were best for people who had been mentored on how to answer brain-teasers, which they repeated often in interviews. It puts people without a mentor at a disadvantage.” Beganovich is now the CEO of a digital agency Elma.
These questions were common for job seekers in all industries. Michelle Keldgord, a 2018 dental assistant, was asked the following question: “You have two coins equal to 30 cents. One of them is not nickel.” “What coins do you own?” She knew the answer was a quarter and a penny. The quarter is the only coin that’s not nickel, but she was nervous about the interview and was already having a difficult time with the interviewer. She says she was dumbfounded at the time. “I was annoyed that I was being asked to solve a riddle within a professional setting. It didn’t show my understanding or wit. I would have much rather answered questions related to the dental field to show how smart I was,” says Keldgord, who went on to co-found BakingHow.
Given their almost universal despisal, it’s hard to believe that these questions even exist. They are actually not clear on their origins. They were commonly used in interviews at Google back in the early-aughts. Gayle Laakmann-McDowell, a former software engineer at Google, stated that this was not true in a post she posted on her website in 2010. She wrote that “Years back, rumors circulated about Microsoft interviews.” They were the new hot company everyone wanted to work for. Urban myths were born out of envy. These urban myths have been transferred to Google and will be transferred to another company soon. Bloggers, always looking for traffic and links, have taken advantage of this by creating scary articles about their infamous ‘nightmare interview’ or ‘crazy questions’. Let’s stop this now, shall we? [sic]” She continued to say that brain teasers were explicitly prohibited at Google (and Microsoft), during interviews.
The post did not seem to dispel the rumors, if any. In a 2013 interview with The New York Times, LaszloBock, who was 10 years senior vice president of people operations at Google, brought up the question again. However, he did not explicitly address whether they had ever been used by Google. He said that brain teasers were a waste of time… They don’t predict anything.” They are designed to make interviewers feel smart.”
Eric Cole, founder of InterviewIQ, is in agreement. Cole admits that he has been a hiring manager for more than 35 years and is now a career coach and interviewer. “Unfortunately, many interviewers who ask impossible ‘brain teaser’ questions are more interested in showing off their egos.”
He claims that brain teasers are intended to assess a candidate’s ability to think critically. As long as they can explain their reasoning to the interviewer, the answer should be considered “good.” Even if the answer to a question such as “How many marbles could fit in the Louvre?” is incorrect. Cole admits that not all candidates have the right thinking style to be able to use brain teasers. Some people think louder than others. Others may need to reflect before they can guide someone through their thinking process. It is better to ask candidates questions than just asking them random questions. For example, you can ask how they manage competing priorities and what their strengths are. You can also ask how they deal with mistakes.
Brain teasers don’t have to be annoying. Cole says interviewers who rely on brain teasers can sometimes want to make a candidate feel uncomfortable – and that information might give you useful insight into that company’s culture. Sarah Hudson is a friend and talent director in New York City. She has 12 years of experience in interviewing candidates for jobs. Hudson says that there is a lot of discussion right now about standardizing questions and asking questions that will help you understand the person. Hudson says that if she was ever asked a brain-teaser question during an interview, she would assume the person hasn’t been trained in the most recent interview techniques and see it as a red alert.
Gibson says that if Gibson was asked a similar question today she would be less likely to be off her game, although she would be annoyed. “Having gone through many interviews, I don’t think you can gain anything from asking such a question.” She says, “I would like to believe I’d be bold enough to ask how pertinent it is but that wouldn’t do me any favors.” “I think they’ve had their chance and would be shocked to find interviewers still using it.”
If only interviewers would stop asking, “So, where are you seeing yourself in five years?”