Ask the HR Pro: Should I Use Gimmick Questions in Job Interviews?

Want to know how other managers and HR Pros would deal with a sticky workplace issue?

Well, this is an ongoing feature where we take a workplace or HR-related question sent to us by a TLNT.com reader and ask members of our TLNT LinkedIn group to give us their insight and perspective on it.

What do you think? Do you agree with the responses here, or do you have a completely different viewpoint? Please let us know by leaving your response here, and send questions to me here at john@tlnt.com, or post them on the TLNT LinkedIn group. We’ll use the best responses in a future column.

DEAR HR PRO: Whether you follow the Barbara Walters line of questioning (“If you were a tree, what kind would you be?”) or you go more philosophical (“What’s the meaning of life?”), some people just seem to love to do these gimmick-driven interview questions. While the validity of standard interviewing techniques have been studied and discussed for decades, these kinds of test questions have not faced that sort of scrutiny. This makes me wonder — should I be using these sorts of questions in interviews?

Here are some of the responses we received from managers, executives, and HR professionals:

“These (questions) are much like Rorschach tests, which I believe are not valid, and hence interpreting the answer to these questions would be a bad idea. However, it could just be a conversational gambit to open the person up. So if you say ‘What kind of tree would you be?’ and then move on, ‘How does that relate to your accomplishments at work?’ then you might find you get a less scripted, more thoughtful answer than if you hadn’t started with the gambit.”

— David Creelman, researcher, writer, and analyst on human capital from Toronto, Canada.

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“I absolutely do not use these types of questions, and our managers are trained not to. The interview is an employment test, and we look to create interviews that are valid indicators of the applicant’s ability to do the job successfully. I like behavior-based interview questions that focus on key success factors for the job. These sorts of gimmicky questions leave you looking like a fool in front of your candidate, leave you no better informed about the applicant’s ability to do the work, or leave you open for a lawsuit when the candidate discloses protected class information in response to your “philosophical” question. If you don’t think interviews are a good screening tool, abandon them. Don’t, though, open yourself up for risk with bad questions.”

— Matthew Warner, MBA, SPHR, and experience HR professional in Portland, Oregon.

“A colleague of mine used to ask a similar question to the ‘tree’ one you mention. Instead, they asked the interviewee to explain ‘what kind of kitchen implement they would be.’ While the goal was probably to get the candidate to think ‘outside the box,’ it always seemed to be a rather unprofessional question to ask, was extremely subjective, and, in my mind, didn’t reflect well on the interviewer’s own level of intellect.”

– Mick Collins, principal consultant at SuccessFactors in the greater Detroit area.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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