Laura Dudebout was interviewing for a marketing/public relations position in 2009 when after discussing her resume and salary requirements, the hiring manager asked, "if you were a little person trapped in a bowl of salad, how would you escape?"
Dudebout was taken aback, but gave the best response she could think of.
Still, she didn’t get the job. She recalls, “I guess my answer about stacking up the cucumbers and using them as a ladder didn't fly.”
The salad question wasn’t the only wacky one MainStreet discovered when we asked Americans to send us the hardest interview question they’d ever encountered. There were also these:
Why are manhole covers round?
If you were an animal, what type would you be?
What is your superhuman power?
If you won the lottery, would you still work?
These questions were so off the wall we had to wonder: Do they actually have a purpose, or have hiring managers lost their minds?
According to Alison Nawoj, corporate communications director of CareerBuilder.com, weird interview questions started appearing in the early 2000s when tech companies, spurred by the dot-com bubble, wanted to further test the creativity and problem solving skills of prospective software developers.
Rusty Rueff, career and workplace expert with Glassdoor.com, points out these questions were frequently used by large corporate companies to differentiate between multiple applicants with MBAs, who are traditionally taught (and therefore used to dealing with) case studies.
Over time the questions grew in popularity and moved into other industries, so now anyone can expect them to pop up in an interview.
Charles Purdy, a career expert with Monster.com, says that the questions typically fall into one of three categories, or situations. Here, MainStreet breaks down each one.
Questions on Problem Solving
Dudebout’s salad question fits the bill, but other variations on this type of question can be more daunting. Consider the one famously asked by IBM, “How do you weigh an elephant without a scale?” Or this one, asked by both Google and Microsoft, “How much would you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?”
Sometimes these questions have a correct answer. For example, the IBM question involves filling a swimming pool with water, adding and removing the elephant from the pool and then measuring how much water was removed when the elephant was submerged.
“Since a gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds, it’s simple multiplication,” Bruce A. Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing in New York City, explains.
But more often than not, an employer isn’t looking for a correct answer as much as seeing how an applicant might try to get to it. So despite what she may have thought, Dudebout’s answer to the wacky salad question actually wasn’t a bad one.
“You need to show [the interviewer] your thought process as you solve the problem,” Purdy says. “Don’t be afraid to think aloud.”
Rueff agrees: “Employers are trying to put you in a situation where your back is against the wall to see how you handle that moment of stress,” he says. “You need to stop, take a breath, re-ask the question and then slowly solve the problem as best as you can.”
Questions on How You’d Fit With the Team
These questions are more personality-based and appear to be open-ended. For instance, one example might be, “On a scale of one to five, how weird are you?”
Purdy points out the trick to answering these types of questions is to learn as much as you can about a company’s culture.
But “keep in mind you need to make sure they are a good fit for you, too,” he says.
Questions That Are Just Plain Weird
Both Purdy and Debra Wheatman, president of CareersDoneRight.com, say the aforementioned animal question (and its cousin, “What kind of ice cream flavor would you be?”) might be an indication that the hiring manager has taken things too far.
“I’m not sure that’s a relevant question,” Wheatman says. “[It] really doesn’t give any insight about a person. It’s not going to provide a company or an interviewer with information about how you are going to perform in a professional environment.”
However, regardless of whether a question is truly absurd, your best bet is to just go with it. “Simply answer based off of your experiences,” Wheatman advises.
Purdy also suggests giving interviewers a succinct, but open answer before redirecting the interviewer’s focus back to your skill set.
“Plan ahead,” Purdy says. “Have four or five talking points that you want to hit, and a few soundbites that you plan to incorporate into your interview and circle back to one of them if the interview gets derailed.”
Nawoj agrees, adding one caveat: “The only wrong answer is ‘I don’t know,’” she says. “It shows an inability to be creative and an unwillingness to deal with a complex problem.”