Everyone has a classic “bad interview” story. (And you staffing industry folks could probably write books full of ’em.) And while those are always good for a laugh (or cry), I tend to like one very specific kind of bad interview story: The Stupid Question Story. The internet is full of examples of bad interview questions. Like here and here and here and how about here and, hey, look over here. And there, too.
The examples are always laughable, but ultimately there’s a pattern to their ridiculousness. The interviewer is trying to test the interviewee in a non-transparent way. Like looking for their use of pronouns, adverbs, tense, active voice, and how often they say always/never. Or trying to gauge personal info like their health, relationships, tastes, and hobbies. “If you were on a desert island, which ____ would you bring?” “If you were a ______, what kind would you be?” In some cases they actually look to test your skills/knowledge. “Take this _______, and try to sell it to me.” “Here’s a globe, show me where ______ is located. And fast. Cuz I’m timing you.”
They rarely stray from this pattern and so they rarely make me laugh. The stories surrounding these questions, on the other hand, are priceless. The interviewer has shown they’re a poor communicator and has made a mockery of this process, adding to the discomfort of the interviewee who now must react and answer. And, let’s face it, that part of the story is the punchline to the joke.
A dear friend of mine, for instance, recently detailed to me a ridiculously involved interview process for a children’s books publisher that included a 45-minute written geography exam. She didn’t seem to think this was terribly odd, which made me laugh even harder, but she was pretty disappointed that she missed Paraguay and Angola. She didn’t get the job, and felt kinda bad about it, so I’m waiting for the appropriate amount of time to pass before endlessly teasing her every time she fails at something. (“It’s probably because you don’t know where Angola is. God you’re dumb.”)
My all-time worst interview was actually only a few months ago for a ridiculously specific niche publication that you couldn’t even find if you wanted to. (Seriously, it was like a quarterly magazine dedicated entirely to the plastic things on the ends of shoelaces. And each magazine had like six stories in it. So I’d be reading and editing 24 stories a year about plastic shoelace tips. Eight hours a day, five days a week, every year. That’s it.) After covering practical info like my experience and making me take a written test on my editing skills, the ridiculous train pulled into the station:
Shoelace Magazine Interviewer Man: What’s the last book you read?
Not knowing what this has to do with how well I’d perform the tasks of the job, I obliged this dumb question and answered with: “Well I typically have several books going at once. Something dense, something light, and a graphic novel. And I just got back from a little vacation where I finished Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Manny Farber’s Negative Space, the first Harry Potter, and David Thorne’s The Internet is a Playground.”
How it Backfired: Intending to gauge personal interests, intelligence, and whether or not I give a crap about shoelaces, he instead got a ridiculous cross-section of reading thrown at him. So he learned nothing.
Shoelace Magazine Interviewer Man: Why do you want to work here?
This came as a complete surprise. I thought sending in application materials would prove beyond a doubt that I do, indeed, want to work there. But I decided not to be rude. After all, he could be an alien who thought my gesture to shake his hand a few hours ago was actually a test to gauge his strength in case I want to one day challenge his place on the plastic shoelace tip magazine throne. And so now he’s testing me, to see how much I know about his plastic shoelace tip company and if I’m willing to be a brown-nose. He couldn’t possibly want me to answer simply with the truth. (That my species needs money to barter for goods like food and shelter in order to survive.)
How it Backfired: With this idiotic question causing a raging debate in my mind, I’m pretty sure what ensued was a long period of silence wherein I looked deep in thought and drooled slightly. The Shoelace Magazine Interviewer Man did not get the ego-stroking he desired by asking said idiotic question.
Shoelace Magazine Interviewer Man: How do we know you won’t leave when something better comes along?
Now I was sure this guy was an alien. He was presenting me with a paradoxical question wherein there is no correct answer. He was, in fact, intending to send my thought stupor to such levels as to cause internal hemorrhaging. Perhaps he was hoping to kill our species, one at a time, utilizing this tactic. So I cleverly dodged the question with the truth: “Well … I guess you don’t. But isn’t that how everyone operates, yourself included?”
How it Backfired: He intended to hear the interviewer submit to a life-long contract wherein he’d stay working for him no matter how miserable it is, but instead heard some Real Talk. So he felt threatened, and decided right then and there that the interviewee wouldn’t get the job.
If you’re ever asked the classic, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” please provide the answer I’ve always wanted to give but never got the chance because no one ever asked me.
“Well that’s a tough question, given that I’ve yet to develop the cognitive ability of foresight, but since you’re unreasonably forcing me to try, I’d have to guess that the mirror will still be the predominant self-viewing medium in five years. Yeah. It’ll at least take a decade to create a superior reflective device or affordable hologram technology. So I’ll probably still see myself in mirrors in five years.”