This is a guest post by Vicky Oliver.
Ask your friends and colleagues if they’ve ever had to field an off-the-wall question at a job interview, and chances are they’ll come up with one, or many. Why is it that so many interviewers throw out fabricated questions that seem to have no earthly relevance to the workplace? Do these alien questions even have relevance? Is it a trick? Or is the interviewer truly stumped and simply reverting to barroom-style banter.
One interview question made famous by Microsoft appears to fall into this category of random questions, but actually is applicable to a job candidate’s creative problem-solving abilities. Its hiring managers ask: “Why are manhole covers round?” And no, they aren’t asking this of engineering applicants.
Before panicking over what possible out-of-the-blue questions you may have to field as an interviewee — and how to tell if they’re intended to judge your intellect or your wit — first understand one important fact: Many of these questions have no right or wrong answer. To some extent, any answer will suffice as long as it’s interesting.
Also keep in mind that not every interviewer is gifted at asking questions. While the person may be a financial wizard or seasoned software developer, interviewing job candidates requires its own set of skills. Some interviewers are rarely on the question-lobbing side of an interview, and their discomfort shows by their beyond-the-galaxy line of inquiry.
If you’re prepping for an interview, keep these tips in mind in case you’re confronted with a cosmically incongruous question.
1. Consider context.
Some questions with a personal overtone could lead an unseasoned applicant into the realm of too much self-disclosure. If a prospective employer asked, for example, for three adjectives that describe you, remind yourself that this is within an employer/employee context. Don’t rattle off the adjectives your BFF would use to describe you.
2. Don’t take the “this or that” bait.
Look for the hidden agenda behind questions asking your type or preferences: “Are you a 24/7 type, or strictly a 9-to-5er?” Go for middle ground and paint yourself as more complex than any one type.
3. Use the pregnant pause.
When a question you’ve been asked seems to come from out of the stratosphere — like: What’s the strangest item in your purse? — give yourself a moment to digest it’s possible intent. The pause may also signal to your interviewer that the question bears little relation to the subject at hand, and maybe he or she will retract it. Blurting out the first thing that comes to mind may not serve you well. Try to connect your answer to your task at hand, which is selling yourself.
4. Show your fun side.
Some of those unusual interview questions — like what’s your favorite sports team, or most-watched movie or go-to pump-up song — usually don’t have a hidden agenda beyond possibly pigeon-holing candidate’s by their pop-culture preferences. Try to have a little fun with them and share an anecdote along with your answer.
5. Steer them back on track.
While a few questions of the get-to-know-you variety can be expected, if the employer begins to treat the job interview like a first date with questions verging on the too-personal, steer the interview back onto the right track. With pluck, perseverance and practice, you should be able to relate your answer to the job for which you’re applying.
About the guest post author:
Vicky Oliver is a leading career development expert and the multi-best-selling author of five books, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions (Skyhorse 2010) and301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Sourcebooks 2005), named in the top 10 list of “Best Books for HR Interview Prep.” She is a sought-after speaker and seminar presenter and a popular media target, having made over 700 appearances in broadcast, print, and online outlets. For more information, visit vickyoliver.com.