Best Worst Job Interview

I know its not exactly jobs season, but I was inspired by this epic open thread about usual/ inappropriate/ trick questions that have come up in a job interview. A tour through the comments section reveals that a lot of people get asked about their marital status, kids, and religion. And a fair number of people claim to have been asked brain teasers or to solve puzzles, which, obviously, the Lifehacker readership is more business and tech focused than academic, but I would be blown away in some of those scenarios.

I’ve heard some crazy stories about weird interview committee behavior, too. Committee members falling asleep mid-interview, etc. Once, for a postdoc interview I was asked what my definition of critical thinking was and how I approached that in the class room. I replied that I thought it was the ability to draw connections between material in the course and events in the real world, and you do this linking up theoretical to the applied. To which my interviewer replied with an exasperated, quizzical, “Ohhh-kaaay.” That was the same interview where none of the interviewers were in the same room, it was done as a five way conference call.

I’ve flopped some interviews hard too. Like the one where they were looking for a specialist in a particular sub-field, but that wasn’t advertized in the job listing. But then, the alchemy of writing job ads could be left for a whole other post.

So the Lifehacker post got me thinking. What are the hardest, wackest, most left-field job interview questions you’ve had to answer? I’ll go first. In an interview for a admissions job I was asked, “What qualities would you use to describe your ideal supervisor?” Ouch!

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

16 thoughts on “Best Worst Job Interview

  1. My worst job interview was the “spouse, kids, religion” kind — seems one particular member of the hiring committee didn’t know when to stop talking or what was kosher to ask about. (The excuse from the faculty member: “I’m an anthropologist. I’m curious about these things!”) By the end of the interview, I didn’t want that job.

    What I’ve found fun is to turn these questions around on the hiring committee. My spouse has told me about interviewing and hiring people from the non-academic perspective, so I steal ideas sometimes. In one interview with an academic publisher, I asked, “Do ideas in this office usually come top-down, or is it more bottom-up in practice? Who gets to decide which ideas to implement and act on?” I stumped the interviewer, who admitted she’d never been asked that before. And in an academic interview, I asked the committee, “Tell me something interesting about yourselves. What do you do for fun? Do you all play together in a faculty band? Reenact historical naval battles on the weekends? Brew craft beer?” I got some interesting answers that gave me a bit of insight into who they were as people.

  2. In an interview for a admissions job I was asked, “What qualities would you use to describe your ideal supervisor?”

    I was asked the inverse of that one during a non-academic job interview last week: “Tell me about the worst supervisor you have ever worked for and what made them the worst.” I was asked this, of course, by the potential future supervisor.

    Was also asked during the same interview to “tell me about a time you showed integrity.” Non-rhetorical question: What is the real purpose of questions like these? To weed out applicants who are stupid enough to admit that they don’t have any integrity? Or to rate people on the creativity of their answers? Is there an integrity scale? If so, where does returning the wallet found on the sidewalk rate versus consistently separating the recycling for years?

  3. One of the most misleading things we learn in school is the notion that there is a right answer for every question. In the business world, the kind of curve-ball questions that Matt and Mateo have encountered are not intended to elicit particular information. Their purpose is to see how the candidate responds to an annoying, upsetting or just plain screwball question. Why, because unless your job is repetitive physical labor, you will be dealing with customers or clients and all sorts of unpredictable situations. If you can field the question gracefully, you are more likely to be an asset to the business. How you answer is more important than what you answer.

  4. How you answer is more important than what you answer.

    I understand that in principle, but I also have to wonder how much that elevates style above substance.

  5. It’s not a question of style, but of temperament or character. Is the question answered in a way that elicits confidence in the speaker. One thing my business career taught me is that, at the end of the day, every deal comes down to someone with something they want and someone else who says, “Trust me, I can do that for you.” The critical question on the buyer/employer’s side is “Can I trust this person to do what he or she says she can do?” Business is in both the best and worst of senses (not always both at the same time” a confidence game.

  6. One thing my business career taught me is that, at the end of the day, every deal comes down to someone with something they want and someone else who says, “Trust me, I can do that for you.”

    Mountain climbers say, “Getting up is optional; getting down is mandatory.” Isn’t the same true of slick interpersonal skills and strong core competencies?

  7. So there are different styles of interview depending on what sort of line of work one is going into. This is important to keep in mind, especially for folks who have been in academics all of their working lives.

    I am interested to hear from others’ personal experiences of tough or weird or trick interview questions. For example, on Twitter @kendobari writes “‘How does your experience in the Peace Corps relate to this position?’ This can be an awkward one, depending on how it’s asked.”

    I’d bet there are a lot of anthros in the same boat, who see the Peace Corps (or military service) as a double edged sword. I’ve been told its a good way to get your foot in the door in Africa.

  8. I haven’t applied for a position for years, happily, but I do remember being right out of graduate school and going through the AAA meat market. Luckily I had a multi-year post-doc offer as a fallback, so I was not overly anxious about the interviews at the Meetings. But there was one interview, with a department that should remain nameless, that was very hostile. After a series of strange questions that seemed to have little to do with the position, one fellow asked “What do you think science is?” I had had enough, so I said simply that he needed to ask good questions if he expected to get good answers. The expression on his face resembled a stunned fish, and in the few seconds when he was speechless, I said “Nothing better? I’m leaving…” and did.

    More seriously, though, considering the discussion so far, I do think it is worth pointing out that it’s often the case that by the time job candidates get on a short list, the substance of their work and potential has already been judged and found acceptable, and interviews are often intended to probe ‘softer’ issues. My late advisor used to say that they were looking for a fourth for bridge (we played bridge in those days…), and he clearly meant that they wanted to avoid difficult personalities, prima donas, people who were excessively introverted, etc. I remember one search we conducted about 20 years ago when the best candidate by productivity measures was not offered the position because he struck us as seriously arrogant, and we hired an excellent second choice who was confident without being overly so.

    It’s sheer hearsay, of course, but one of my colleagues at another university told me about a short-listed candidate a couple of years ago who informed the interviewers that she was so clearly superior to every one in their department that if she was hired she expected to have a reduced teaching load. That’s one of the more clueless comments from a job candidate that I’ve heard, but you asked about crazy interview questions, not crazy interviewees…

  9. Whenever I do a job interview the last thing that I ask is do you play video games and if so what kind of games and what games you play? I value people who play progression and team based games such as MMO’s because in my experience the desire to progress and succeed can be honed toward professional work. 🙂

  10. These are all fun and I’m getting some good ideas for weird questions to ask future job candidates! Barbara, I think I would be terribly impressed if a job candidate walked out on me during an interview because I’d been asking stupid, harassing questions.

    I think the standard job interview trick question is to ask someone “What is your biggest weakness?” The correct answer to that, of course, is to say that you are a workaholic.

    geilt, what would you think if your interviewee tells you that s/he doesn’t play video games because s/he thinks they’re a waste of time that could be better spent writing her next ethnography? Would you value such an answer or not?

    I know the question was about job interview questions, but I have a story about what happened to me during one campus visit, after the interviews, when the department took me out to dinner. I’d noticed some tension between the department chair and the hiring committee chair throughout the day; each of them bad-mouthed the other to me whenever they got me alone — never a good sign. Only the committee chair was at the dinner. She was drinking like a fish, and continuing to badmouth the (married) dept chair, until finally, by this point thoroughly sloshed, she said to me, “But, you know, John isn’t *always* an arrogant asshole. He recognises some of his flaws. Sometimes he can just step back and say, ‘So I fuck my students. I know I’m not perfect!'”

    I am pretty sure that my mouth dropped open. Not long after that, I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and another department member followed me there, where she spent five minutes reassuring me, in a completely unreassuring way, that the committee and department chairs didn’t really hate each other and that there was no factionalism in the department. I had no idea what to say. All I could think about was the married, white-bearded dept chair, fucking his students, and why his colleagues weren’t reporting him for such a gross abuse of power.

  11. Lisa: you write ” All I could think about was the married, white-bearded dept chair, fucking his students, and why his colleagues weren’t reporting him for such a gross abuse of power.”

    At least two reasons come to mind immediately.

    First, and most obviously, the search committee chair who reported this to you may not have been truthful. I have seen too many cases of such accusations that turn out to be completely false to accept uncritically the report of a drunken faculty member whose credibility should have been suspect as soon as she suggested such a thing to a job candidate. (Then again, I’m a lawyer as well as an anthropologist, and in both professions we learn to be a bit cautious about what the truth may be…)

    Second, and assuming for a moment that such a report was true, it might not be a violation of any policy at the university where you were being interviewed. About 20 years ago, as I recall, many universities re-examined their policies on faculty/student …. liaisons, and concluded that so long as there was no obvious coercion, there was nothing that universities could do to prevent two adults from engaging in whatever kind of relationship they wanted. The case you mentioned might be strictly a matter between the department chair and his spouse, however much it may appear to us to be exploitative and inappropriate.

    In any event, it sounds like a thoroughly awful interview, and a place you are fortunate to have been able to avoid.


  12. Barbara, there is at least a third possible answer: the department doesn’t want to formally publicize such information (as opposed to letting it slip out when faculty are drunk) because it–and university administration–don’t want to damage the department and university’s ‘brand’.

    There is also the issue of what constitutes both ‘coercion’ and ‘consent’ in the highly-unequal academic hierarchy, especially given gendered (which are also always raced) expectations for female/graduate student ‘compliance’. And all this, of course, relates to Kate Clancy et al.’s survey findings on sexual harassment in the sciences, anthropology included. On this note it is not lost on me that my undergraduate alma mater, Yale, has a no-sexual-relationships-between- faculty-and undergrads because of the de facto presence of coercion given the de facto power imbalance, but is now in the news for not adequately punishing students who engage in ‘nonconsensual sex’:

    More often than not, universities–and their faculty–care more about protecting prestige and reputation than protecting students. And if abuse of power is the issue, I don’t think it really should be written off as just a ‘personal’ matter (between spouses). We shouldn’t be turning a blind eye to abuse, or how the inequalities which structure the academy make abuse possible.

  13. DWP: Of course; your third possibility is another Type One response to Lisa’s question: why didn’t the chair’s colleagues report him? There are many Type One responses that will have occurred to everyone reading this, including fear of reprisals from the chair, etc.

    I was suggesting that there are also Type Two responses, the first of which is to question whether the original report is true at all, and the second of which is the possibility that the chair’s behavior, even if accurately described, was not a violation of his university’s policies.

    Yale’s policies reflect the (limited) freedom of a private school to ban forms of behavior that public colleges and universities cannot. I did not want to devote an overly long note to the complex issues of coercion and consent, or power, since this is about job interviews. But it might be worth adding (with apologies to everyone reading this for amusing stories about job interviews) that while some sexual liaisons are the product of coercion, and perhaps most sexual liaisons are the product of coercion, between any two people on earth, for as long as there have been people, we do not ban sexual liaisons for the simple reason that we believe that at least one of those sexual liaisons somewhere, somehow, will be the product of innocent desire on the part of both parties. That’s the possibility that leads public institutions to ban coercion — which is the real problem of the abuse of power — rather than sexual liaisons that just might be about as consensual as they can ever get, whether between a faculty member and an adult student, the captain of the football team and a cheerleader, or a senior and a sophomore, all of them relationships that contain an element of power and the potential for coercive abuse.

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