Wednesday, December 28, 2011


"The deep, dark secret of human resources is that traditional job interviews don't work very well."

I hate logic puzzles, "brain teasers," and trick questions. I consider them along the same lines as practical jokes; a cruel way to make someone else look bad. If you get them right, nobody is impressed, they just think you're showing off. You can be dumb as a pile of rocks but really good at these sort of quizzes, or smarter than Einstein and awful at them. They don't test anything but your ability to do quizzes.

I'm not very good at them. I'm not dumb, I just don't think along those lines, so they just frustrate me and annoy me. Which is why when I read this bit linked at Ace of Spades HQ, I just shook my head. Apparently, some HR folks are asking these kind of questions at interviews, according to William Poundstone at the Wall Street Journal:
Jim's first interviewer is late and sweaty: He's biked to work. He starts with some polite questions about Jim's work history. Jim eagerly explains his short career. The interviewer doesn't look at him. He's tapping away at his laptop, taking notes. "The next question I'm going to ask," he says, "is a little unusual."

You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?
My answer would be "well I guess I die," along with a feeling of contempt for the business that hired this jackass. I'm not sure I really want to work there any more.

What's going on? Well, this is what happens when a certain sector of the industry comes into high demand. Poundstone explains:See, there's such a glut of potential workers that employers can be really picky, and they want the best, the one that fits their company the best and won't be a problem. Its really hard to fire people these days with unions and lawsuits and regulations. So they want to not have to.

And along comes Joe HR, with his handy kit of amazing questions and tricks to weed out the problem applicants, or so he says. He sounds so clever and cutting edge, he'll leverage the potential applicants, managing cross-organizational dependencies and maximizing the synergy based on the company's broad assets. Why, this is brilliant, give him full control over hiring! thinks the pointy-haired boss, uninterested in hiring and hoping he looks smart to his bosses.

So you get this crap, which has nothing whatsoever to do with how well they'll do the job, how smart they are, or how well they fit into the company. Asking someone what superpower they'd like to have or if they ever built a model airplane that flew doesn't weed out the liars and the slackers. It just makes the HR department look smart and impresses their bosses.

Oh by the way, what Google is looking for is "jump out of the jar." Yeah. Well if you're going to posit shrink rays, I guess you've thrown logic and physics out of the window entirely to begin with so why not turn yourself into water so you can't be harmed by the blades. Why not teleport to Eva Longoria's changing room. Apparently they aren't even bothering to look for reason or intelligence, just something unexpected.

Now I never had any problem with interviews, but I never ran into this kind of stupidity either. I suspect I wouldn't get hired, because they'd get short, annoyed answers from me like "no," when asked to estimate the mass of a 747. I am here for a job, not to make you feel smart.

I can't help but think of this interview process:

Does this find good job applicants? No, but it makes the interviewer feel powerful and important, and that's what truly matters. Apparently.


Eric said...

The problem is that old style job interviews don't tell you very much about somebody either. You can't really trust anything they say about themselves and their resumes are usually full of half-truths as well, in the rare case that an employer actually follow up on those details.

"Trick quesitons" are annoying, but they do at least reveal something about a person's thought process. For instance, in the blender question, there is an obvious clue built into in the question itself [reference to 'density'] that speaks to the specific answer the employer is looking for.

Somebody who tells you in an interview that they are very good at solving problems with a minimum amount of hand-holding, but doesn't pick up on that clue, may be overestimating their ability. The frustrating part is that very few Human Resource people could ever answer such a question correctly, but that type of thinking is not necessarily what they are hired to do.

The problem comes when you start expecting people to answer those types of questions in relation to jobs that don't utilize the skill set that the answers reveal. If you pass over a physically strong warehouse worker because he couldn't answer the question about the blender, that's just stupid.

It's not a perfect system, but hiring people is not a perfect system. Simply identifying (much less attracting and retaining) good talent is an incredibly hard thing for employers to do, and the company's who do it well are almost always successful. Google certainly qualifies as such a company... it's hard to argue with the results of their hiring practices.

At any rate, as frustrating as these types of questions are, they beat the hell out of Miggs-Bryer personality tests. I used to work for a place that swore by those tests, and it had the highest turnover rate of any place I've ever worked!

KurtP said...

So,,, if I'm the size of a nickle with the corresponding mass-

I'd be about 3/4 of an inch high and be able to *maybe* jump 1/8 inch with my muscle density.
How could I jump out of a 12" blender?

Yeah, I'd fail too.

Christopher R Taylor said...

Ultimately, though, they weren't looking for how people figured things out, they were looking for one answer: Jump out. Because this guy offered several and the interviewer kept telling him they wouldn't work.

Eric said...

Right, because they wanted people to use the clue in the question to figure out the jumping solution. Another solution that ignored those clues wasn't what they were looking for, which is why they told the interviewer they wouldn't work.

The test isn't necessarily to come up with some inventive way to keep from getting chopped up, but to give the simplest solution in context to the information provided. The ability to use only the information provided to come up with a solution, as opposed to inventing things that were not given (pocket change and shoe strings, for instance), does say something about the way a person solves problems.