On one hand, the more rigorous (read: offbeat, in this case) the interview process, the better the chance of landing a candidate who will stick around. Research by Glassdoor indicates that there’s actually a statistical link between a tough interview process and greater employee satisfaction in six countries, including the U.S. and Canada.
On the other: “The problem with crazy questions is that they’re just crazy questions,” McIntyre says. But by using strategic questions and tactics in your interviews, you can get a better sense of who the candidate really is.
Before you begin crafting questions, McIntyre says it’s important to know what you’re trying to find out. She points to an attorney she knows who was so focused on hiring a receptionist who would put his clients at ease that he forgot to ask about office and administrative skills. His new hire was “a disaster,” she says.
When you’re clear about what you’re trying to find out, you can use the right types of questions, she says. If you’re trying to see how creative someone is, or how fast they think on their feet, unexpected, zany questions might give you some insight. But if you’re trying to gauge the depth of a candidate’s experience, you might ask more personalized questions about the candidate’s experience; e.g., tell me about a time you had do something you disliked—and then ask probing questions to get more detail.
Instead of going for the more outrageous questions, try tinkering with a more traditional inquiry and personalizing it so that it relates to the job, says employee retention expert Jeff Kortes. If you’re looking for someone with leadership skills to take charge of a team, don’t say, “Tell me about your leadership style,” he says. That’s just going to get a pat answer. Instead, try something like, “Tell me about a boss you had who you admire and why.”
“That will tell me how they like to be led, or how they lead,” he says.
When McIntyre was the human resources director for a tech company, engineers would try to outsmart candidates by asking them increasingly difficult engineering questions. “Their goal became not to learn as much about the applicant as possible, but to see if they could trip them up with tricky engineering questions,” she says. That’s not the point of the interview, she says, and it could end up alienating good candidates.
At industrial design firm PENSA, cofounder and partner Kathy Larchian says it’s the stories that matter to her. She asks questions designed to get people sharing anecdotes and memories so that she can get a better sense of who they are, what matters to them, and how they interact with other people, she says. Some of the inquiries she uses include:
Tell me about a time a colleague gave you advice and what you did.
Tell me about times you “managed up”—managed your bosses and their bosses?
If I asked you to do something you didn’t agree with, how would you handle that?
“You can observe a great deal through their response. You can see their attitude in the way they tell the story. You can see the things that make them uncomfortable when you ask the question,” she says.
Dave Collins is an actor and coach whose company Oak and Reeds trains employees in improvisation—”improv”—techniques as a way of building soft skills and being better active listeners. Improv techniques can also help the interview process.
Brainstorm the questions you need to ask to get the information you need about the candidate beforehand. Have those ready, but also be prepared to go off-script if the opportunity arises. Collins uses a “question-asking funnel,” where the interview starts with very broad questions, then more specific, probing questions are used as various lines of discussion develop. The key is to keep the conversation fluid, listen intently, and to be ready to follow an interesting thread when it emerges, he says.
“What I like to teach in improv is called ‘color and advance,’” he says. Use an open-ended question to get the color that the person will share in the story, then use an “advance” question to drill down into the specific skills about which you need to know.
To gauge whether prospective employees are the right fit for the job, Keren Kang, CEO of digital marketing agency Native Commerce employs an unusual hiring strategy that involves food products. In group interviews, Kang divides the candidates into teams and gives them bags of dry spaghetti and marshmallows and instructs them to build a 12-inch tower, writing down their plan for doing so.
During the exercise, she asks one person in each group to rotate to a different team to complete the tower. It’s a fun exercise, and she says it tells her a great deal about how collaborative candidates are, as well as whether they can handle the stresses of the job. For example, one candidate was so flustered after being asked to change roles, he had trouble functioning. That was a sign that he wasn’t a good fit for the company, where change and shifting from project to project happen every day, Kang says.
If you’re going to use such exercises or tests, McIntyre cautions, it’s a good idea to run it by your legal counsel so you’re not inadvertently creating a biased interview setting or running afoul of federal, state, or local employment laws.