No-Brainer: ‘Brainteaser’ Job Interview Questions Don’t Work

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Science confirms what job-seekers have long suspected: Those annoying “brain teaser” questions interviewers lob at candidates are as pointless as they seem.

“How many pickup trucks are there in Illinois?” If you have a hunch that weird questions like that really don’t help a company find the most-qualified workers, you’re right, a new study says. Employers that rely on them aren’t just wasting your time, however. They’re also actively discouraging otherwise qualified workers and breeding resentment that can have long-term ramifications on that company’s ability to hire and retain the best workers, researchers say.

“Methods that had a transparent relationship between test content and job duties, such as interviews, work samples, and reference checks were perceived more favorably,” San Francisco State University associate professor of psychology Chris Wright writes in a new research paper, “Why Are Manhole Covers Round? A Laboratory Study of Reactions to Puzzle Interviews.”

So-called “puzzle questions” have been around for quite a while. They became especially popular in the 1990s when big tech companies like Microsoft were looking for ways to see if job candidates could think on their feet and offer creative solutions to out-of-left-field problems.

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While these are good qualities for engineers and computer programmers to have, the “Microsoft questions” and later the “Google questions,” as they came to be known, became a sort of fad, says William Poundstone, author of How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft’s Cult of the Puzzle—How the World’s Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers and Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?: Trick Questions, Zen-like Riddles, Insanely Difficult Puzzles, and Other Devious Interviewing Techniques You … Know to Get a Job Anywhere in the New Economy.

“These questions are kind of like politicians attack ads,” he says. “There seems to be this ingrained feeling that they must work, but there’s very little solid evidence that tricky interview questions work.”

In fact, some big companies — including Microsoft and Google — don’t use puzzle questions the way they used to. Some bloggers assert that they don’t use such questions at all anymore, while others point to anonymous accounts of job interviews on sites like Glassdoor.com as evidence that the puzzle question lives on in Silicon Valley.

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There has been an evolution in oddball queries over the years, Poundstone says. Whereas early puzzle questions were hard but solvable brain-teasers, the prevalence of the Internet pushed companies to ask more open-ended questions that don’t have a single verifiable “right” answer but (in theory) provide the interviewer with insight into the candidate’s ability to solve unexpected challenges.

Unfortunately, Wright says, what these questions seem to do is annoy good job candidates, possibly discouraging them from pursuing the job further or recommending the company as a good workplace to others. “Why would an applicant react negatively to a puzzle interview? The primary reason may be the intentionally abstract content of the questions,” he says. In other words, people think the questions are unfair and don’t pertain to the job or their ability to perform it.

“Participants were presented with a selection technique that was unorthodox and did not meet their expectations for how an employment interview should be administered,” he says. The overwhelming response to this is one of resentment.

Nobody likes feeling as though they’re being set up to fail, and that “if they give one bad answer they could change their entire career trajectory,” says Heidi Golledge, CEO and co-founder CareerBliss.com. “Candidates should have the ability to shine without putting them through questions designed to scare.”

The kicker, Wright found in his research, is that people don’t seem to know what to make of answers to puzzle questions. Participants in experiments did a better job of assessing a person’s skill level after listening to responses to conventional questions than they did after hearing answers to puzzle questions. He theorized that because the questions are, by nature, difficult and ambiguous, people listening to the answers were impressed with something that sounded right, whether or not it actually was.

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Golledge concurs that these kinds of tricky brainteaser questions are detrimental to companies for the opposite reason, too; a quote-unquote wrong answer could unnecessarily knock a good candidate out of the running. “I have seen engineering candidates who actually shake while being interviewed because they are so nervous, but end up being one of our best employees,” she says. “So, you could lose someone amazing over a puzzle question.”

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