Work

“If You Were a Tree, What Kind of Tree Would You Be?”

Against the tyranny of oppressively weird job interview questions.

A woman looks confused as a man sits back in his chair.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

Employers seem generally agreed that having well-qualified employees is a crucial part of whether their businesses thrive—so you might think it follows that they’d put real effort into how they hire. But inexplicably, many employers give minimal or no training at all to the staff who interview their job applicants and take a remarkably disorganized and chaotic approach to how they assess and select new hires.

Often, this lax approach results in interviews that feel more like social introductions than real inquiries into whether a candidate would excel in the job, as this person wrote to me:

I recently interviewed for a position that I think I’m under-qualified for. The position is to be a dean of department at a university which requires 7+ years experience in a similar post and a great deal of knowledge about financial markets. I graduated from the top Ivy League school in the country and have a Ph.D. in educational administration with varied and limited actual work experience in finance.

During my interview for the position, the vice president of the university couldn’t stop talking about the fact that I graduated from this top school. She didn’t ask me any questions about my qualifications at all. She was more interested in “selling” the position to me and asking me about my recent vacation in Turkey. The interview lasted two hours and we spent 1 hour and a half talking about Turkey.

Other times, interviewers clearly haven’t put any real thought into how to structure interviews and effectively screen candidates:

I just turned down a position because I felt like the interview was weird. The conversation was completely one-sided (the hiring manager describing the position)—and I actually had to ask the hiring manager at one point if she had any questions for me. It seemed that they had already decided that they wanted me for this position before they really got to know me, and while I’m glad they read through my resume and understood my background (because the opposite is far, far more annoying), there have to be questions you can ask me that will help you assess whether I am a good fit for the position. … By the time I left, it was apparent to me that I hadn’t really been vetted for the position at all … unnerving when you are being considered for a position where you’re going to have to work closely with a team.

Perhaps even more annoying to candidates are oddball interview questions that have nothing to do how they’d perform on the job. For example:

I was once asked at an interview, “If you could get rid of any U.S. state, which one would you pick?” This was like two years ago and I still think about it. … I think I said Wyoming because it would probably have the least amount of people who would be affected by the sudden disappearance of their land. I didn’t get that job, btw.

Sometimes these questions pop up because the interviewer believes the question will elicit some sort of special insight into candidates (it usually doesn’t):

My weirdest one was the interviewer who said, “If you could only tell one person your deepest, darkest secret, who would it be and what would be the secret?” I was annoyed enough at the time and knew the job wasn’t a good fit so I said, “Well, you wouldn’t be the person I chose, so my secret is staying with me.” The interviewer was flustered by my answer and I never understood the point of the question.

These examples might seem particularly outlandish, but the mail at my workplace advice column is full of accounts like this. In fact, I often hear repeated reports of these same questions from different people, suggesting that interviewers are just finding questions on lists of interview questions somewhere and putting them into rotation without thinking critically about what purpose they serve.

Given the importance of hiring the right people, it’s incredibly odd that so many companies run their hiring processes via a combination of social chit-chat, arbitrary questions, and interviewers’ highly specific individual preferences. It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to train better interviewers—to help them get clear on what’s really needed to excel in the roles they’re hiring for, develop questions that will test for those things, and find ways to simulate real job activities in order to see candidates in action. And yet, all too often, the guidance that interviewers receive from their companies is, essentially, “wing it.”

So what you can you do if you’re a candidate stuck with an inept interviewer? One option, if you’re asked a question that seems entirely out of left field or is outright inappropriate, is to say, “That’s a surprising question. Why do you ask?” Or, if an interviewer just lets the conversation meander and doesn’t actually explore your fit for the job, you can try saying something like, “Would it be OK to take a minute and lead you through my professional background?” or “What else can I tell you about me to help you figure out if this is the right fit?” You can even try interviewing them by asking something like, “Tell me more about the role and what’s most important to you in the person you’re hiring.”

But it’s also true that, as a candidate, the power dynamics of job interviews limit your ability to intervene when an interview has gone off the rails, short of deciding you’re not interested and ending the meeting early, which many candidates are loath to do.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with employers to treat interviewing more seriously, to train interviewers with more rigor, and to insist on thorough screening rather than unstructured, freewheeling chats. Interviewers who have been trained to interview and who are armed with questions designed to assess the must-have qualities for the role are far less likely to resort to asking what kind of tree a candidate would choose to be.