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How to interview
April 30, 2007 6:04 AM   Subscribe

How to conduct a job interview. 5 steps to conducting good job interviews and finding the right candidates. Contains answers to the infamous why is a manhole cover round question. Also, 10 common mistakes managers should avoid when conducting same. On the flispide, here are some tips for interview preparation, the 25 most difficult questions an interviewee can prepare for and some things to avoid saying in interviews.
posted by psmealey (56 comments total) 110 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also, some tips on mastering the dreaded telephone interview.
posted by psmealey at 6:09 AM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]




That pseudo-Feynman link is pretty funny, but: There is an infinite number of such curves, and used as a manhole cover, none would fit through the hole.

All of these other infinite curves require the user to orient the (heavy) manhole cover whereas a circle does not.
posted by DU at 6:38 AM on April 30, 2007


I'm surprised the post about the manhole cover didn't mention the answer I always thought was right: a sewer is a system of pipes so of course the end cap or opening would be round to match, since it's just a pipe leading down to more pipes.
posted by mathowie at 6:52 AM on April 30, 2007


Its gets touched on in the first link, but I can't emphasize it enough: have an extensive script. The day will come when you are too busy, tired, hung-over or pissed off to do a proper interview, and you will be happy to have it.
posted by phooky at 7:00 AM on April 30, 2007


Last week, a guy came in and asked if we were hiring. I told him no, but that he was welcome to drop off a resume. He did, and then asked if I could put something in the trash for him--and handed me his empty beer can.

Oddly, none of the articles mention this as a big no-no.
posted by Benjamin Nushmutt at 7:09 AM on April 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


Personally, my favorite interview question is
If you were a rash, what kind of rash would you be?



I don't get asked to interview candidates any more.
posted by scrump at 7:12 AM on April 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


I think I'm guilty of everyone one of those "interviewer no-nos". How did I get such a high percentage of good hires? Small sample size, probably.
posted by DU at 7:19 AM on April 30, 2007


Damn, 4 days too late for this post! Last Thursday I had to give a tech interview to a guy who had been in the software industry longer then I'VE BEEN ALIVE. Luckly, it was a tech interview so I just threw some basic and advanced coding questions at him. Awkward. I managed to not let him know that my mom worked at one of his former employers.
posted by Mach5 at 7:22 AM on April 30, 2007


scrump: Road rash! It's way cooler than a disease and was also an awesome Sega game that I played for days.
posted by Mach5 at 7:25 AM on April 30, 2007


I've always been fond of an estimating question. Ask for a number they can't know, and see if they can make a reasoned guess by multiplying stuff they do know.
posted by smackfu at 7:25 AM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


"...I haven't been to the Manhole in a little while so I can't really comment on that. Wait, they have that room in the back with little round holes in the wall but I don't remember them having covers. Are you talking about those?"
posted by The Straightener at 7:27 AM on April 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


Let me preface my comment by saying that knowing how to interview well is, obviously, important...

Isn't this all just yet another extension of the "teaching to the test" problem we have in schools?
I mean, if everyone knows how to give the "correct" answers to these programmed questions, what value do the questions have any longer?
It just all seems to be an eternal escalation of a war between pseudo-scientific-psychological questioning and learning the right way to answer the questions...regardless of whether the answers actually represent yourself.

It all just seems to push both interviewer and interviewee further from the actual goal of hiring a good fit for the job and more toward hiring people who tested really well.

And a phone conversation is a piss-poor stage upon which to judge an individual's performance. Unless you're hiring for a call-center.

I've always been fond of an estimating question. Ask for a number they can't know, and see if they can make a reasoned guess by multiplying stuff they do know.
And what do you learn about that person as a result? That they've had a different set of experiences than yourself from which to draw their estimate?
I'm not snarking...just trying to understand what the value of such questions are. What industry would such a question apply to?
posted by Thorzdad at 7:31 AM on April 30, 2007


For interviewees, I think the one I'm mostly "guilty" of is the salary question, but I disagree that's a blanket "no-no" across the board. Most job boards have a prominent section in the description for the salary; if you're an employer and you leave it blank or just list something ambiguous like "competitive," then expect people to ask. We're calling you because we want to make money.

I'm not saying it should be the first question but it's definitely one of my questions in the last-leg "anything you'd like to ask us" portion of the interview. In a sense, I think it's an important thing for an interviewee to emphasize, as I wouldn't want to work at a company where they thought "well we can just offer him anything and he'll take it" anyway. Asking if there's a projected salary range suggests you as a potential employee have considered your specific worth to the company. I asked in my last interview, and I'm pretty sure it's why they offered me more than I expected when they offered me the job.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:34 AM on April 30, 2007


Also, per my friend who got a job there, nothing- NOTHING tops the interview process at Google. She had five interviews for a department assistant position, including one where she met with a design head whose first question to her was "how many red cars did you see on the way to the interview?"
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:35 AM on April 30, 2007


On a more serious note, I think the most critical aspect of men's grooming for interviews, that will really help you "ace it," is the old cucumber down the front of the pants.
posted by The Straightener at 7:38 AM on April 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


I can sort of relate, Thorzad.

A long time ago, I was interviewing for a contract position at Microsoft, when one of the dipshits in the hiring "loop" asked me the: you have a five gallon jug and a three gallon jug, derive four gallons of water question. I knew the answer (I think it had recently been featured in the third Die Hard movie), but refused to answer on general principle. I told him that such brain-teaser questions were pointless, and if he really wanted to determine how I could "think on my feet" or how he could "understand my thought process", then he should ask me a question with some bearing on the work I would be doing in real life, and also that it reflected poorly upon him for asking. I terminated the interview at the point. He seemed crestfallen, and I still remember it as a moment of quiet glory, however petty for all the bastards that asked ridiculous mental masturbation questions in interviews for serious positions.

As it happened, I got the job offer, but declined for a better offer elsewhere.
posted by psmealey at 7:39 AM on April 30, 2007 [6 favorites]


How many red cars? Not enough!

(seriously though... what is the right answer to that question?)
posted by arcticwoman at 7:41 AM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


There's nothing wrong with a rigorous and lengthy applicant screening process (I recently completed on myself the took damn near three months, and am currently basking in the glow of the between-jobs respite), but some of Google's methods strike me as obnoxiously self-congratulatory, not to mention superflous. Or, as some wanker at Amazon.com told me when I interviewed there wayyy back in the day: "you have to be wicked smart to work here, that's why we ask all our candidates what they got on their SATs".
posted by psmealey at 7:44 AM on April 30, 2007


XQUZYPHYR...the salary thing is definitely a touchy item...especially so for someone who has been out in the job force for many years. I've gotten tripped-up by job applications that request your salary history. I've been lucky over the years to have held some well-paying positions. However, those salaries can quickly make me look like a "no way we can afford him" to an employer. I often take a crack at jobs that offer a unique challenge or experience in an area I have a great interest in. These often pay less than my previous jobs, but I don't want that disconnect to poison me.

I often find I have to put "negotiable" under salary history or compensation requirements, in order to merely get my foot in the door. This, though, is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more employers turn to online-only job applications which rarely seem to allow entry of such qualifiers.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:48 AM on April 30, 2007


My impression of Google's interviewing process -- all from hearsay, mind you, but hearsay from various places that all seems to confirm the rest I've heard -- is that the balance shifted from "challenging techniques" to "smug satisfaction at the difficulty of their interviews".

(The comparison to civil service hiring process in this Reg article seems apt, too.)
posted by mendel at 7:59 AM on April 30, 2007


5. Because it won't fall into the hole - but, the same is true for an equilateral triangle

Nope.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:52 AM on April 30, 2007


From the Reg article...
"How would you re-position Google's offerings to counteract competitive threats from Microsoft?"

It's questions like that one that drive me bonkers. I'm supposed to immediately give an informed, intelligent answer to an issue that an entire department of marketing wonks spend their entire workdays wrestling with? But I have no access to any of the necessary metrics needed to even begin to formulate an answer that doesn't make me sound like a complete boob?

And, yet, I don't think launching into a discourse about how I would first want to evaluate those very same metrics in order to formulate a cogent, workable plan, would score me points with the interviewer.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:53 AM on April 30, 2007


Also, if you have a list of uniform job applicant questions, you are less likely to accidentally do anything discriminatory.
posted by ilsa at 8:57 AM on April 30, 2007


I don't think launching into a discourse about how I would first want to evaluate those very same metrics in order to formulate a cogent, workable plan, would score me points with the interviewer.

Why don't you think that would score you any points? That would be (and has been) exactly my tack in answering questions like that. Unless I had a PhD level of preparation in and understanding of the specific business, sales, product development, operations, competitive and external market influences that inform that discussion, it would be the height of arrogance to pretend I had the answer. I always think the key to nailing such questions is the process you following in answering them, not necessarily in the answer you give.

Or, maybe they are screening less for thought process in asking that question in favor of sheer chutzpah.
posted by psmealey at 9:05 AM on April 30, 2007


My boss fell asleep while interviewing me. And I mean while he was talking. Still took the job, though. I might not have if this were a medical position rather than graphic design.
posted by katillathehun at 9:22 AM on April 30, 2007


And what do you learn about that person as a result? That they've had a different set of experiences than yourself from which to draw their estimate?

It doesn't really matter what their answer is. They just have to be willing to make a go at it. A "reasoned" guess, not a "reasonable" guess.
posted by smackfu at 9:43 AM on April 30, 2007


Don't forget this one: Top Law Firm Interview Questions
posted by daHIFI at 10:05 AM on April 30, 2007


I've gotten tripped-up by job applications that request your salary history.

I refuse to answer that question. Politely. But its none of their damn business and it puts you, the interviewee at an unfair disadvantage. A couple of times, companies have contacted me for more information, including insisting I provide a salary history. Knowing I no longer had any interest in working there, I explained exactly why that line of questioning was off the table, and why they shouldn't ask, since they were depriving themselves of good candidates like myself that wouldn't divulge that information. If their bottom line is that important, I don't want to work there.

Of course, the person receiving it is probably one of those HR stooges that cares more about controlling their environment and getting the upperhand than getting the company the best candidates. Which is why any managers should not trust HR to weed out potential employees. I'm not saying all HR folks do this, but I've worked with plenty that have.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 10:06 AM on April 30, 2007


There's a tangential problem that arises after the interview. What if the candidate is good but you think you could do better? How many candidates do you interview before taking the next candidate who is better than any of the previous ones? This is sometimes called the Secretary Problem (wikipedia). The "optimal solution" is not actually that good — you have to interview 37% of the candidates before taking the next better one, and you have only a 37% chance of getting the best one after that. It turns out that if you only want to get a candidate in the top 90% of the pool, you can do much better last link is a PDF. Inverview 9 to 12 candidates, then take the next better one, and you'll be in the top 75 to 90% of the pool.

I've found this very useful for buying houses and dating, by the way :-).
posted by Araucaria at 10:08 AM on April 30, 2007 [5 favorites]


Smackfu: I agree - it's the process of getting to the answer that's important, the "showing your workings" part. My favourite of those sort of questions is "What's the most valuable load in bulk container shipping?"
posted by patricio at 10:14 AM on April 30, 2007


Here's a recommendation for hiring managers: give the interviewee your time and attention for the duration of the interview, unless some absolutely critical work-related emergency interrupts. Particularly, do not take three personal calls on your cellphone from the contractor currently working on your house, spending five or more minutes on each one.

I packed up my briefcase during the third call, walked out of that interview over his surprised, hand-over-the mouthpiece objections and out of the building, and when the HR representative called me (actually she'd called three times before I got home), I said a few pointed words about the standard of professionalism I both offered and expected in return and that the manager had made it a certainty that he was never going to be MY manager. I seriously hope he got some kind of official flack for it. My employment agent wasn't thrilled but confessed that she agreed that it was the right thing to do.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:45 AM on April 30, 2007


I've always hated those stupid interview questions, like "What kind of animal would you be" and that manhole question one.
Generally, I'd rather talk to people that can explain their needs and figure out whether or not I can fill them instead of people that ask silly "I read these on the intarweb" interview questions about swallows and how many red cars you saw on the way to the interview.

"is that the balance shifted from "challenging techniques" to "smug satisfaction at the difficulty of their interviews". "

I have interviewed at Google, and that is exactly how they came across. They came across as smug, arrogant dicks, actually. I wouldn't have taken the job if I was offered it. Remember, an interview is for both parties - to see if they like you, and to see if you like them.

I've been at my current job for several years now. The interview process was laid back, relaxed, and informal. No silly questions during the interview at all. I knew what they were looking for and they decided that I could fill the need. It's been great!
posted by drstein at 10:55 AM on April 30, 2007


This post is useless without links to Joel on Software. One more.
posted by straight at 11:10 AM on April 30, 2007


NLP would come in handy in these cases.
posted by mesmerx at 11:14 AM on April 30, 2007


i was just complaining about interviewing and hiring student employees in a library. mostly because i don't know how to do it. hopefully this round will be better, though a lot of it seems like common sense.
posted by kendrak at 11:44 AM on April 30, 2007


Best question I was ever asked, "What was the last book you've read?" The more I thought about it the better I thought it was. It showed someone with real intellectual interest over someone who tests well and does all the right things to get the interview. It shows whether the applicant is bullshitting (sorry even if you're not bullshitting don't use great Western novels like The Great Gatsby or other English lit books, it makes you look like an asshole showing off). It gives you a chance to see if the candidate read, understood and analyzed what they just read, even if you haven't the book yourself -- while assessing their ability to communicate effectively.

Those other questions disgust me and come across as smug. In fact I've found when companies start asking questions like that is usually around the time they go from interesting entrepreneurial firms to corporate behemoths full of overpaid overachievers.
posted by geoff. at 12:15 PM on April 30, 2007


(sorry even if you're not bullshitting don't use great Western novels like The Great Gatsby or other English lit books, it makes you look like an asshole showing off)

When I worked it a book store, there was a question on our application about what your favorite books were. I'd laugh at anyone that only included things from the canon because it seemed so fake, so "trying to hard to impress." The other problem with it was that the book questions were designed to see how you were a bookseller, and people aren't looking for booksellers who recommend they read "Ivanhoe."
posted by drezdn at 12:33 PM on April 30, 2007


Manholes have exploded. I think it's round just so it doesn't throwing-star into some nice architecture.
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:37 PM on April 30, 2007


You're my new hero, George_Spiggott. Don't take any guff from those swine...
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:42 PM on April 30, 2007


Round manholes covers are round so that they fly further when thrown by super heroes such as the Thing when fighting the Mole People or similar threats.

Do I get the job?
posted by moonbiter at 1:07 PM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


posted by arcticwoman seriously though... what is the right answer to that question?("how many red cars did you see on your way to the interview?")

"I wasn't counting red cars because my attention was focused on driving safely instead of tallying useless and irrelevant information which serves no purpose other than stroking the ego of some overpaid twit who has no idea why he or she is asking that question in the first place."
posted by fandango_matt at 1:19 PM on April 30, 2007


"Once, in the middle of a job interview, I opened a book and started reading. The interviewer asked, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'Let me ask you a question: if I'm driving my car at the speed of light, and I turn on the headlights, would anything happen?' 'I don't know,' he said. So got up and left and said, 'Forget it then, I don't want to work for you.'"

--Steven Wright
posted by fandango_matt at 1:31 PM on April 30, 2007


The other problem with it was that the book questions were designed to see how you were a bookseller, and people aren't looking for booksellers who recommend they read "Ivanhoe."

I resemble that remark and I was a kickass bookseller. Okay, I never recommended Ivanhoe*, but I got at least one teenager to read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Mainly because it was short, but still...

*Seriously though, Scott is frickin' awesome and if I had read him at the time I totally would have pushed Guy Mannering on someone if it made any sense.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:48 PM on April 30, 2007


Here's my tip: if you sign out 15 books on interviewing from the library, it's really easy to run up $50 in overdue fines while you're out doing the interviews.
posted by GuyZero at 2:03 PM on April 30, 2007


My favorite interviewing moment was when the cute hiring manager asked me to sing her a song. I got the job. (I like to think it was my lovely singing voice that cinched it)
posted by lekvar at 2:41 PM on April 30, 2007


Lentrohamsanin: It probably depends on the store, but in the store where these type of questions were on the application, the average customer was more likely to come in looking for recommendations on the best new books, or hidden gems from the past twenty years.

To broaden the original analogy, if I were hiring a record store employee and had them list their favorite albums and the listed something from the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the Kinks, I'd be convinced that they either weren't confidence enough in their opinions about more modern works, that they were being disingenuous, or that they just didn't follow modern music. Any of which, for me, would be enough reason not to hire them.
posted by drezdn at 2:53 PM on April 30, 2007


What, no one linked to yesterdays McSweeney's Job Interview Tips?
posted by gravelshoes at 3:21 PM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Geoff, Was that me who interviewed you? I ask ALL of my candidates what book they read for exactly those reasons. I usually get computer books, best sellers and the like, but sometimes we get into a nice deep discussion on whatever topic and I can see if this is an intelligent person or someone who is just faking...
posted by subaruwrx at 4:29 PM on April 30, 2007


Unfortunately, no. I didn't get the gig, a hot girl who liked Harry Potter did. I'm not sure I'd want to work for a place that hired on cup size, but I could just be bitter.
posted by geoff. at 5:17 PM on April 30, 2007


Best question I was ever asked, "What was the last book you've read?"

Give them Dirac's answer: Reading interferes with thinking.
posted by three blind mice at 8:59 PM on April 30, 2007


Decades ago, John Cleese did a series of videos for businesses on how not to do job interviews. He played various characters interviewing someone. There was the guy who loved the sound of his own voice and wouldn't let the interviewee get a word in edgewise. There was mr. gullible, who was really impressed by the resume and didn't bother digging into iit (though it turned out to be highly exaggerated). I don't remember the rest.

I hope someone tracks these down sometime and puts them on YouTube. They were hilarious.
posted by eye of newt at 9:07 PM on April 30, 2007


To return to the links in the OP ... meh. As is usual with these magazine-style "service" bits, they're full of contradictory suggestions. Stand up during the phone interview/Don't stand up during the phone interview. Ask penetrating questions so they'll know you've researched the company/Don't ask penetrating questions about the company because they'll come across as aggressive. It's just like in fashion magazines where in the May issue they say "Black mascara looks great on everyone!" and in the June issue they say "Definitely avoid black mascara unless you're dark complected and have black hair!"
posted by scratch at 6:40 AM on May 1, 2007


To return to the links in the OP ... meh.

At least a few people seem to disagree with you. I thought these were pretty engaging links, had some good content, and offered some pretty good, straightforwad, and non-cranky advice. Whether there are some contradictions in some of the specific tactical bits (which YMMV, always) that's pretty much irrelevant; they all hit on the essential themes: be prepared, be ready, be alert, be relaxed, but like all things in life, you can't have control over much, but the things you have control over (like cover letters, resumes and follow up), you should be sure you are as thoughful and error free as you can be.
posted by psmealey at 7:40 AM on May 1, 2007


At least a few people seem to disagree with you.

That's ok.

non-cranky advice

Oh, sure, take all the fun out of it.

they all hit on the essential themes: be prepared, be ready, be alert, be relaxed, but like all things in life, you can't have control over much, but the things you have control over (like cover letters, resumes and follow up), you should be sure you are as thoughful and error free as you can be.

Sure, but this is pretty basic stuff. The advice genre as a whole leaves me with a "meh" feeling. Nothing psersonal, psmealey.
posted by scratch at 9:23 AM on May 1, 2007


scratch : "nothing psersonal, psmealey."

I think that's the best Freudian slip I've seen here and maybe anywhere. Wow.
posted by Slothrop at 2:16 PM on May 1, 2007


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