So, you’re an aspiring medical technology specialist, going for your big first job interview and you’re prepping for the sort of questions you expect to be asked.
Your PhD has just been published by a leading biomedical journal, so you figure it will be taken-as-read that you know your stuff.
But your real world experience is limited and you anticipate the questions will be general and professional in nature.
You think you might be asked to name the seven principles of healthcare ethics; how you stay up to date with the latest medical discoveries and technology; or what qualities you believe a medical technologist would need to possess, to be successful.
Instead, the first question – from the CEO, no less – can only be described as something of a curveball.
He asks you if you would you rather fight one elephant-sized pigeon, or 50 pigeon-sized elephants?
You feel the collective eyes of the interview panel burn into your forehead and, as you flounder for a response, he hits you with a supplementary.
You’re shrunk to the size of a penny and put inside a blender. The blades will start to move at any moment. What do you do?
You begin to wonder if it’s you? Are you missing something? Does your future career hang on how you answer such seemingly bizarre and irrelevant questions.
Is this all part of a smart, Silicon Valley-pioneered strategy that sorts the wheat from the chaff, the drones from the masters of the universe? Despite your years of study and academic brilliance, have you fallen at the first hurdle in the real world?
Or perhaps could it be that the CEO is asking these questions because he’s short, prematurely balding, still living with his parents in his early 40s, and subliminally seeking to humiliate you as part of a sub-Freudian powerplay that will later be deconstructed, as he cries in front of his psychiatrist?
We’re frequently told such questions are there to throw candidates out of their comfort zone and to elicit responses that demonstrate their adaptability, problem-solving skills, and creativity.
So, instead of being asked, why they want the job, what they can bring to the company and whether they consider themselves to be team players, they’re hit with the kind of questions David Brent would have printed on laminated prompt cards and Blu Tack-ed to his wall.
You know kind of thing. If you ran away and joined the circus, what would your performance be? Are you more of a hunter or a gatherer? How would you sell ice cream in Antarctica? What’s the worst thing about humanity? What would your first steps be in a zombie apocalypse?
Such questions always come with the caveat that there is no right or wrong answer. The problem with that is a candidate’s response can only ever be highly subjective and each member of an interview panel may have their own take on what it means.
Without any research base or grounding in reality, such questions allow interviewers to indulge their whims and prejudices, giving them license to practice the kind of bloviating homespun philosophising that would make Chris Eubank walk away, scratching his head.
Discussions about what pizza toppings best describe Alexander the Great or how many Soor Plooms it would take to fill the Albert Hall are best left to the pub car park at chucking out time, rather than as a way of selecting your next employee.
There is, of course, a happy medium – for example asking hypothetical questions that have some bearing on a candidate’s prospective role.
So, it might be legitimate to ask an engineer why manhole covers are round as a way of testing their problem-solving skills. Interviewers don’t expect candidates to have direct experience with manhole cover design but are interested in their ability to break down the problem logically and generate potential reasons.
A strong response might involve analysing the advantages of a circular shape and considering practical aspects, showcasing the candidate’s problem-solving abilities.
Some unconventional questions can also serve to assess a person’s creativity and the scope of their imagination.
For instance, asking someone responsible for solving complex organisational problems might be asked, if you were shipwrecked on a deserted island, but all your human needs—such as food and water—were taken care of, what other items would you want to have with you?
Being creative and thinking outside the box is especially valuable when dealing with questions like these.
They also give candidates an opportunity to inject humour or creativity into their responses to give potential employers a glimpse into their personality and the likelihood of them fitting well into a team.
No-one expects to be given an easy ride in an interview, but they should be able to expect a semblance of normality.