Bend it sideways, fold its neck or chop it up are some of the usual responses. But the answer is more simple: open the door and lead it in…

Tech giants such as Google and Microsoft have a reputation for difficult job interviews, but now it seems that companies of all sizes and across many industries are using “curveball” questions to find the best cultural fit.

Most candidates expect the old standards at interview, such as “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” and “What makes you the most qualified candidate for this job?” But what is the correct response to off-beat questions such as “Who would win a fight between Batman and Spiderman?” The answer is, there is no right or wrong answer.

Known as “curveballs” (baseball terminology) for their ability to catch the candidate completely off guard, these questions are designed to see how fast someone can think on their feet, showcase their creativity and demonstrate how well they would respond in an unexpected situation. 

By asking questions like the one at Google, the interviewer is trying to establish whether the candidate would overcomplicate procedures in their working life.

But do these off-the-wall questions actually pay off? According to a survey by recruitment company Glassdoor, they do. In fact, it found that more difficult job interviews are statistically linked to higher employee satisfaction across the six countries examined: U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Germany and France.

Overall, the survey found a job interview that is 10 percent more difficult is associated with 2.6 percent higher employee satisfaction later on.

This is due to the fact that tougher interviews help single out candidates that would be a better cultural match for the company. A good match leads to more productive work, which in turn creates higher job satisfaction.

Psychometric testing

Cultural fit is a critical factor for UKFast CEO Lawrence Jones, who looks for a specific set of characteristics in potential employees. He is a great believer in psychometric testing – the science of analyzing an individual’s character profile by asking a series of sometimes apparently random questions that unveil your motivations, strengths and weaknesses. “A good test asks a candidate questions allowing us to merely read what they say about themselves. There is no real right or wrong answer to the test, however, as we employ certain traits right across the business.”

The U.K.-based technology firm receives more than 10,000 applications a year, employing just 1 percent of applicants.

A popular aspect of psychometric testing is the Personality Test, which asks candidates questions to see which answer is most like them. In answer to “I like to react to things on the spur of the moment” or “I feel uneasy if I am center of attention,” candidates can select from five possible answers ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

Creative agencies and the more entrepreneurial consumer, tech and media firms often include challenging questions that are designed to catch candidates off guard, according to Jules Shelley of global recruitment firm Ellwood Atfield, whose clients include eBay, English National Opera, the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority and Barclays Bank.

“They will combine this with lengthy interview processes, sometimes of 7-9 interview stages, to engage as many people in the decision making process as possible,” says Jules. Her favorite curveball questions include “what dinosaur would you have been” and “what chocolate bar would you be and why?”

“Clearly there isn’t a right answer to these,” says Jules. “A left-of-field question can catch people off guard so the interviewer is trying to assess how well people cope under pressure and how they deal with uncertainty.”

Childhood experiences

Even childhood experiences provide useful information for a potential employer. Tom Quinlan, EMEA Solutions Architect for a US software firm, says: “I was once asked out of the blue to detail my experiences as a Boy Scout. While it seemed strange at the time to bring up something from my childhood, I later found out that the reason I got the job was because I reached Eagle Scout rank, the highest position in the Boy Scouts of America program. Only 4 percent of scouts achieve this rank and it is subject to a lengthy review process. I suppose it proved that I was resourceful, determined and could get a difficult job done, even at a young age.”

Business coach Peggy ­McKee, CEO of Texas-based Career Confidential, and author of “How To Answer Interview Questions: 101 Tough Interview Questions” has advice for dealing with seemingly tough questions:

“If you get asked one of these, just take a deep breath and roll with it. The key is to walk them through your thought process. Talk your way through it, showing how you would approach, think about, or strategize about whatever situation they throw at you.

“So if I were asked what I would do if an airplane landed in the parking lot, I would say something like:

‘I’m not sure I would do anything.  If there are a lot of other people around and they look like they know what they’re doing, I think I would stay back and let them handle it.  If no one’s hurt, I don’t see that I have to get involved in that at all, except for maybe calling 911.’”

She adds: “Immediate, ‘charge-in-on-a-white-horse’ action is not always the best move. Sometimes it’s more important to stop and create a strategy first.”

While most employers are on the lookout for innovative thinker, another top sellingpoint in a candidate is honesty. However, research from TPP Recruitment shows that as many as one in five jobseekers admits to lying on their CV by embellishing their achievements.

Safeera Sarjoo, an editor at Hotcourses, which lists education programs around the world, says: “I’ve had a couple of bizarre questions during interviews but one really stands out to me. During an interview at a local newspaper, the editor asked me what I had lied about on my CV. It was definitely a curveball, but I looked straight at him, holding his gaze firmly and simply replied ‘Nothing.’

“I don’t know if he was trying to see if I would falter,” says Safeera, “but I think these more creative approaches are ways that interviewers can get a much better sense of what a candidate is really like.”  — Angela Singleton

Published: May 2017

Illustrations: Danae Diaz