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Abstracting the Fool

By February 14, 2020No Comments

I always remind my candidates that it is imperative they ask questions during their interviews; I remind them that their role isn’t to blindly bark answers back on cue. That’s an interrogation, not an interview. I feel an inquisitive nature is at the core of every good recruitment consultant, the ability to keep probing until we get to the heart of the issue. Sometimes I’ll get into conversations with less than chatty people befuddled that there’s a growing silence, just ask me the same question I asked you! Simple! In prep for an interview, I remind consultants that their interviewer will ask a similar line of questions to those I asked in our very first conversation; billings, process, strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and aspirations set in a more formal light.

However, there are some things you can’t prepare a candidate for, a particular line of questioning that’s designed to put you on the back foot. There’s you, trying to be the most employable version of yourself, channeling enthusiasm, projecting professionalism to find yourself suddenly deciding whether you’re a Tom or a Jerry, if you would rather fly or be invisible or which Friends character you most identify with? These are abstract questions, designed to ask a question without asking the question. Now, full disclosure, a candidate I’ve been working with was burnt by this Dr. Suez, day 1 psych, Kansas City Shuffle style of questioning only this week. A candidate manager who aced the first two interviews had a VC with the GM and unfortunately, an answer was deemed lacking the desired amount of ‘pazazz’ so they missed out. It’s always tough when you know a candidate can do the job incredibly well, they really want the job and the reason they lost out is that they didn’t make a pithy enough retort.

Now, there is a method to the madness. For example, the ‘fly or Invisible’ question is supposed to find out if you’re an introvert or extrovert. The reasoning is that one will gravitate to either being center stage or fading in the background. Forbes contributor, Joseph Folkman, crunched the numbers and analyzed data from 7,000 business professionals and found that 72% of participants said they would fly. Presumably, because the only logical use of invisibility is sneaking into the opposite sex’s changing rooms or heisting a bank vault; sex pests and thieves aren’t anywhere near as employable as Superman! I was told the abstract question pertaining to the candidate was designed to find out about their candidate sourcing strategy, it begged a not so abstract question from me; “could you not of just asked them about that??” Maybe it’s because my line of questioning is pretty conventional, my clients want to know particular things and they are usually quantitative in nature. The most abstract question I ask is “what did you want to be when you were little” mainly because I’m curious and outside of footy player or sweet shop owner, they are usually pretty unique. I’m only coming up on 7 years in this game so perhaps when I get a little longer in the tooth, I’ll feel the need to spice up interviews.

Do you remember last year with the CEO of XERO in Australia? He would intentionally take applicants via the kitchen for a drink not allowing them to leave before a cup of tea/coffee or glass of water was in their possession. After the interview the real test began, do they take their aforementioned cup/glass back to the kitchen from whence it came!? If they didn’t, they could kiss a job with the kiwi software giant’s goodbye. Innes (CEO) believed this typified attitude, no matter how small the task it’s imperative to the bigger picture; ” I was trying to find the lowest level task I could find that, regardless of what you did inside the organization, was still super important,” Admittedly only 5%-10% of applicants didn’t take their chalice back but that’s still someone who lost out on a job because they didn’t take a cup/glass back to the kitchen. I think it’s a tad self-indulgent if I’m totally honest, a powerplay of insisting a candidate takes a drink and a tactic I imagine that’s revered in certain circles.

I was having this conversation with our onsite developer who lifted the veil on how tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon interview their candidates. The questions may seem abstract however they’re actually brain teasers created to asses how a candidate gets to an answer. It’s about the journey, not the destination which would almost be philosophical until you’re confronted with the Rain Man level of logic required to get the right answer;


“How many people are currently online in Germany”

“How many windows are there in New York City”  

“Why are manhole covers round”


That last one isn’t about arithmetic, it’s the only shape that cannot fall through itself. The cover can never accidentally fall down the hole. I’ve very much Googled these btw, in case you thought that answer rolled out of me. That one is from Microsoft according to Glassdoor, for others click here.

Double D aka David Daniels our dashing developer exudes a unique type of intelligence that’s in stark contrast to the willy jokes and Wayne’s World ‘shwings!’ that typically do the rounds in our office. I understand a different level of questioning is required when interviewing a man of Double D’s standings. However, this level of cerebral sleuthing in our roles can come across a bit try-hard. I don’t think there is anything wrong in taking a candidate out of their comfort zone but I feel there is when you’re the only one in the room in control as you assure the candidate there is no right or wrong answer, when there most certainly is. If it’s not broken don’t fix it; let’s ask questions that we want the answer to and let’s judge someone in an interview on their ability to do the job and not how entertaining or how succinct their answer is.

I would be interested to hear about what off the wall questions you have been asked in an interview? To metaphorically put the tenner in my guitar case to get the ball rolling; I was asked when I lost my virginity in a job interview once, it was three years ago and it was this job 😊