In my career as a headhunter, I have conducted approx 2,500 job interviews myself and assisted to hundreds my clients led with my candidates. Since 2001, I have learned a lot from my clients on clever questioning that brings out the best of the candidates. But I have also heard many stupid interview questions.
What is the reason stupid interview questions are asked after all? And how should you answer them?
In my opinion, there are two reasons why interviewers ask stupid questions during the job interview:
- Because the interviewer really does not know it better or
- Because the interviewer is insecure
Maybe in the end, both come back to the insecurity thing anyway: maybe you are not the only one who is stressed. Or inexperienced regarding job interviews. I remember very well a situation at the beginning of my career when I had a search assignment and presented my candidates to the CFO saying “I suggest you interview my three candidates and then we discuss”. He answered “right, but how should I do that? What exactly should I say?”.
Stupid questions can be as obvious as “how many paper clips fit into this room?” or “if you were an animal, which one and why?” They can be more subtle such as “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”, “what is your biggest weakness?” or “how do your colleagues/ friends/ cashier at your local grocery store describe you?”. I mean, hey, who would really give true answer? In my entire career, I have never heard anyone saying “Oh right, there is one more thing you should know about me: I am a notorious liar, I hate my job and I love gossiping. On top of that, I am far below average compared to my peers. I would actually never hire myself.”
What is the purpose of these “stupid” questions?
Does the interviewer have the right answer how many paper clips fit into the conference room? Will you be disqualified if your answer is 10% away from the truth? Does s/he really expect to talk about your dark side, I mean, about the REALLY bad parts of your character?
Of course not. In most cases they just want to see how you react.
Before saying anything, ask yourself “what is the purpose of this question?”. In many cases, it is something different than what the interviewer said.
Let’s translate interview language to English. Here come some examples:
- The question “What is your biggest weakness?” means in reality “I know it already: You talk far too much. However, I wonder if you have a realistic perception yourself, so fire away!”
- “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” means “Of course no one knows. Take Corona: Would you have answered back in 2015 “Easy. Five years from now, the world we know will have ceased to exist and 4 billion people will be confined in their home”? If you had said that, nobody would have hired you but declared you are a weirdo. In times like these, we do not even know where we are in 6 months. Confined again? Maybe you will have won in the lottery or extra-terrestrials have taken over the world. In my opinion, this question means “Nobody knows. Let’s see if you are naive and over-ambitious or down-to-earth and realistic.”
- “Imagine you are standing in front of a house on fire. On the second floor is a pregnant woman, on the third one your mother in law and on the fourth one your boss. Who do you save first?” can mean either “I am enjoying this tremendously and really think you are good. Here comes the final test” or it means “I just lost my mind and will jump out of the window as soon as this interview is over.”
So what is the best reaction to this kind of answer?
I do not know exactly what the purpose of the question is. Here are some ideas:
- “Where do you want to be in 5 years?” the best answer may be “hopefully still here, having made an impact to the company and having grown myself”
- On the color/ animal: “I always wanted to be a hamster because 1, 2 and 3 (name the three most important characteristics that are critical for the job)”.
- On the paper clip/ burning house or any other stupid thing: laugh as much as you can! What a stupid interview question, really!?!
There is a saying that goes “There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers”. I do not agree: there are extremely silly questions, especially in job interviews. If you want to know how to answer them, first ask yourself “why this question?” and then reply.