Companies should use caution when using unpopular puzzle interviews

Oct 15, 2012

In today's tough job market, more job-seekers could be facing interview questions like this: Why are manholes round? Or how many barbershops are there in San Francisco?

-hunters need to be prepared for these "puzzle interview" questions, says SF State researcher Chris Wright, even though they may consider them to be unfair or irrelevant.

"I always give graduating students two primary suggestions. Expect the unexpected and be aware that you might get an off-the-wall question like this," said Wright, associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. "And realize that no one's really looking for a right answer, because so many of these questions are really more geared toward gauging your ."

Puzzle questions are especially popular in the tech and financial industries, where hiring managers see them as a good way to measure creativity, flexibility, and the ability to work in novel and sometimes uncomfortable situations.

But Wright and colleagues have discovered that people generally see the questions as unfair and unrelated to job skills and performance, compared to traditional interview questions about past and goals.

They videotaped mock interviews with both types of questions, and asked undergraduate students to watch the interviews and rate both the interview's content and the job seeker's performance. The puzzle interviews got mostly negative reactions from the undergraduates, even when they were told that the job applicant was interviewing for a position like or .

But in an intriguing twist, the students said the applicant performed better in the puzzle interview than in the traditional interview. Wright thinks that the puzzle interview "may have seemed so off-the-wall" to the students that they were impressed by the poise and "relatively decent answers" given by the applicant.

Real-life job applicants also tend to dislike these puzzle questions, the researchers note, which poses a problem for industries that rely on them in their recruitment and hiring. Qualified applicants who don't like or trust the interview style might avoid companies that use puzzle questions, they suggest. It's also possible that questions seen as unfair or not relevant to a job could be the subject of a hiring lawsuit.

"And then there's still the question hanging out there, which is do these puzzles actually measure anything?" Wright said. "I think there's a feeling that these types of questions measure broad constructs like intelligence, but that there might be a lot better tools out there to measure this."

Some employers moved to puzzle interviews because they felt that applicants were too well-prepared for the traditional questions, having found the "right" answers through career Web sites and other sources. But Wright said can now prep for the puzzles as well, using sites like My Tech Interviews and others.

Puzzles may be unpopular, but companies such as Google, Microsoft and others still include them in their interviews, and graduates need to know how to handle them, Wright said.

"What I find, when I see graduating seniors entering the workforce, is that they very rarely have knowledge of these types of ," he said.

Explore further: Researchers study why we buy so much for Christmas

More information: The study by Wright and colleagues was published online on Oct. 15 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

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User comments : 8

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Eric_B
not rated yet Oct 15, 2012
i don't get that one, "how many barber shops are there in san francisco?"
ValeriaT
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2012
It doesn't matter - just demonstrate some creative thinking. If you need a hint for it, it just means, you need a couching. You may still be brilliant worker, but not at the position, which requires improvising or independent self-reliant attitude.
dtxx
4 / 5 (4) Oct 15, 2012
i don't get that one, "how many barber shops are there in san francisco?"


They want to see how well you can solve a problem with limited information. There are looking for an estimate, not a memorized fact. I would attempt to answer this puzzle question by estimating the number of people in San Francisco or its area in sq. miles, thinking about how common barber shops are where I live, and then trying to synthesize the two into a numerical estimate.
alfie_null
not rated yet Oct 16, 2012
It strikes me that these sort of candidate interviewing techniques will always do a poor job of discerning good candidates so long as the interviewer himself is only doing what he is trained to do (as I suspect is often the case).

In other words, an interviewer who himself is unable to "think outside the box", to extemporaneously pursue lines of conversation, but rather prefers to dogmatically apply some sort of interview template that perhaps includes subjecting the candidate to sets of these puzzles. Ideally, your company has interviewers who are skilled at conversation, not pedantic examination proctors.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Oct 16, 2012
i don't get that one, "how many barber shops are there in san francisco?"
They want to see how well you can solve a problem with limited information. There are looking for an estimate, not a memorized fact. I would attempt to answer this puzzle question by estimating the number of people in San Francisco or its area in sq. miles, thinking about how common barber shops are where I live, and then trying to synthesize the two into a numerical estimate.

I would answer: JFGI or go look it up in the yellow pages.

In today's complex work environment it's much more important to know where to get the information you need quickly than to memorize facts.

Even in my current job (software development) it is much better to look for available/tested solutions than to start developing everything from scratch by yourself.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (19) Oct 16, 2012
i don't get that one, "how many barber shops are there in san francisco?"


They want to see how well you can solve a problem with limited information. There are looking for an estimate, not a memorized fact. I would attempt to answer this puzzle question by estimating the number of people in San Francisco or its area in sq. miles, thinking about how common barber shops are where I live, and then trying to synthesize the two into a numerical estimate.
And I would say that I do not know offhand but I would use google to look up statistics on licensed barbers from state or municipal professional organization websites. And I would win. Unless of course the job was at yahoo.

And just now I googled JFGI. what a useful appliance.
barakn
2 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2012
"Just google it" = FAIL
ScooterG
2 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2012
i don't get that one, "how many barber shops are there in san francisco?"


I would answer "as many as the market will bear, plus some".