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Puzzling job interview questions designed to test interviewees on how they deal with challenges may be more trouble than they're worth, according to researchers.
A study by researchers at San Francisco State University found that the use of "puzzle interview" questions, such as why are manholes round or how many barbershops are in your city, not only leaves applicants with a bad impression of the employer, it also opens the interviewer up to potential legal trouble.
Chris Wright, a San Francisco State University associate professor of psychology, said qualified applicants who don't like the interview style might avoid companies that use puzzle questions and that questions seen as unfair, or not relevant, to a job could be the subject of a hiring lawsuit.
"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."
The study found that puzzle questions are especially popular in the tech and financial industries, where hiring managers see them as a good measurement of creativity, flexibility, critical thinking and the ability to work in novel and uncomfortable situations.
As part of the study, researchers videotaped mock interviews with both traditional and puzzle 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, even after the students were told that the job applicant was interviewing for a position as a software engineer or financial analyst.
The experiment revealed that, compared to traditional interview questions about past work performance and goals, people generally see the puzzle questions as unfair.
An intriguing twist of the experiment, however, was that the students felt the applicants performed better in the puzzle interviews than in the traditional one. Wright attributes those results to a belief that the puzzle questions might have seemed so crazy that the students evaluating the interviews were impressed by the poise and relatively decent answers given by the applicant.
Despite their unpopularity, those searching for jobs need be prepared for puzzle questions as long as companies like Google and Microsoft continue to use them.
"What I find, when I see graduating seniors entering the work force, is that they very rarely have knowledge of these types of questions," Wright said.
The associate professor said he gives his graduating students two primary pieces of advice.
"Expect the unexpected and be aware that you might get an off-the-wall question like this," Wright said. "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 thought process."
The study, which was co-authored by former San Francisco State graduate student Steven Oshiro, Chris Sablynski of the University of the Pacific and Todd Manson of Indiana University, Southeast, was published online in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.