People Feature: Would You Kill an Albatross to Ace a Job Interview?
Article published on November 3, 2014
By Clare Trapasso
If a supervisor were to sleep with your girlfriend, would you stay with the company?
One mid-level job candidate told a hiring manager that it would depend on how serious his relationship was with his girlfriend. He got the job at the investment bank where he had applied, says recruiter Jeanne Branthover, head of the global services practice at Boyden Global Executive Search.
Interviewers can throw all sorts of wacky, and sometimes inappropriate, questions at job-seekers during interviews to gain insight into their thought processes and gauge how they react to stressful situations. And the answer is often far less important than what it shows the interviewer about the thought process behind it, say industry recruiters.
Firms like Calamos Investments, Vanguard, UMB Fund Services and Sentinel Investments use a wide array of questions to tease out what skills, ideas and expertise candidates bring to a firm and whether they would be good cultural fits.
Gary Black, global co-chief investment officer of Calamos, likes to ask candidates at the Naperville, Ill.-based firm how many barbers work in Chicago.
The answer gives Black a peek into applicants’ minds as they run through the city’s population, estimate the number of men and figure out how often they get their hair cut.
“I want to see if people have an analytical way of thinking,” Black previously said. “You want to make sure someone can think fast on their feet.”
A few of recruiter Brian Gennaro’s mutual fund clients have asked candidates an assortment of out-of-the-box questions ranging from what kind of superhero they would be to which one item they would want with them if they were stranded on an island.
“It’s more about how you frame your answer,” says Gennaro, of Rockwood Search Associates. “They’re looking for the rationale behind why you said that.”
One portfolio manager once asked a candidate if he would kill an albatross if the applicant were stranded on a ship and had the means to do so.
The prospective product manager was unfamiliar with the reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” But he knew an Iron Maiden song based on the poem that helped him come up with the answer. He was offered the job, but went to work for another company.
Gennaro advises job hunters to maintain their poise after curveball questions.
“What they’re looking for is to gain a sense of how you’re wired, how your mind works and how nimble your mind is in being able to answer questions that are not traditional,” Gennaro says of interviewers.
It is illegal for employers to ask candidates about any disabilities, says Christin Choi, an employment attorney at Fisher & Phillips. But companies may ask applicants about their ability to perform the duties and work the hours required of a job, she says.
Hiring managers should also avoid asking about age, gender, race, national origin, pregnancy, religion and even sexual orientation. Asking those questions and then not hiring the applicant can lead to state or federal lawsuits.
“It’s illegal to consider those issues factors, so there’s no need to ask about them,” Choi says.
Laurie Herbert, a recruiter at Sentinel parent, National Life Group, asks candidates about living in a cold-weather climate. The company is headquartered in Montpelier, Vt.
“We want to know if they’re outdoorsy, if they ski, if they sail,” says Herbert. Applicants who have never experienced a New England winter may not know what they are getting into, she says. “If you’re not somebody who can tolerate a long, cold winter, then that could affect [your] mind-set and how [you] feel about getting up every morning and going to work.”
Herbert also asks many job seekers in which areas they need coaching or improvement.
“That’s a question that usually catches people off guard,” Herbert says. “They’re not thinking about how they’re going to be better. They’re just trying to sell themselves now.”
Shayna Beck, who manages about 20 retail marketing staffers at Vanguard, says she prefers to have candid conversations with potential hires.
She often asks what prospective employees think of her Malvern, Pa.-based team’s communications, and listens for individuals who articulate how they would improve the work and why.
“It shows me I can count on them to make a better product,” she says.
At UMB Fund Services, job seekers should be ready to talk about challenging goals they have met and goals they missed.
“We’re looking for how people recover,” says Sharon Rose, senior VP of human resources at the Milwaukee, Wis.-based firm. “What did you learn from it?”
Sometimes it’s the candidates that ask the quirky questions.
Rose, who used to work at a bank, once had a candidate for a position as a legal secretary ask whether there was a roof deck where the applicant could sunbathe during lunch. Rose did not extend a job offer.
For job hunters prepping for interviews, Alvin Spector, a partner at OverNorth Senior Executive Recruitment, in Chicago, recommends practicing in front of the mirror or a video camera and with friends before meeting with hiring managers.
Candidates should also be comfortable addressing sticky topics, such as professional and personal failure.
“You always take a lemon and turn it into lemonade,” Spector says. “You demonstrate to the interviewer what you learned from your failure and your failure turned into something very positive in the future.”