Business

What kind of a dodo bird are you and why?

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s best interview question isn’t even asked of the candidate photo: delivering happiness book

True or false: If you put salt on your food before tasting it during an interview at Google, you won’t get hired. It at least used to be true, according to a couple different sources. If it is no longer practiced as a way of winnowing job applicants, it might only be because the story has gotten around and any new recruit has learned about this trick.

Having the secret out is a poor reason to stop using this technique, because there is a much better reason to stop using this technique: It’s stupid. The interviewer has no idea what the interviewee is bringing to the situation; perhaps they do put too much salt on their food? Whose business is that, other than their doctor’s? Perhaps they were so nervous because of the interview they salted before tasting even though they almost never do that. Perhaps they’ve heard from friends that this restaurant’s food is bland. Unless Google is hiring employees to work in its cafeteria, this is a poor way to winnow candidates who should be winnowed based on work history, talents, personal interactions, and things like references and past accomplishments.

Unfortunately, stories of silly, games-playing, random interview tactics are not difficult to find, especially in many of the online and tech firms. In May, Fast Company’s Rebecca Greenfield told of another company’s mind games. “When David Cancel interviews potential candidates for engineering jobs at HubSpot, he brings a cup of water into the interview with him. At the end of the meeting, the chief product officer leaves the cup on the table and waits to see what the interviewee does with the garbage. If the person picks up the trash, he is probably a good fit for the job. If he doesn’t, that signals he probably wouldn’t work well on the team.”

Cancel says the test is “pretty accurate,” because people who didn’t try to remove the cup “were always the people who weren’t a great cultural fit.” It’s a self-reinforcing view by the executive, who presumably doesn’t track the people he didn’t hire to find out if they work well elsewhere or if they ended up on Skid Row. In addition, there are all kinds of reasons a great team player might not pick up the cup: perhaps Cancel will come back for it; it’s not the person’s cup to do with as he or she wishes; it might be a test to see if the person throws it out and if so he or she won’t be hired — that’d be just as useless a test as the one that HubSpot uses.

There are many ways companies mistake their own hopeless flailing with creativity. Huffington Post provided a set of odd interview questions companies ask, including LivingSocial inquiring “What’s your favorite song? Perform it for us now.” Or Bandwidth.com asking, “What kitchen utensil would you be?” which is an odder take on the Apple question, “What kind of animal would you be and why?” Zappos asks “What superhero would you be and would you dress up at work given the chance?”

Now, in a real world, the answer to most of these questions, asked not at a cocktail party but at a meeting in which your career and rent payment are at stake, would be “You’re crazy,” “Are you 12 years old?” and “Seriously, you’re crazy.”

Such companies think they’re getting insight into the candidate’s character with silly game playing and oddball tactics, but all they’re really doing is showing that their hiring process is random and unreliable. If they knew how to get the employees they wanted, they wouldn’t ask them to estimate the color of music or calculate the number of golf balls in a bus. But at least for the tech titans (less so for the startups, most of which will be bust in a few years), they are so big and rich, they can afford to screw up their hiring with silly games and it doesn’t matter; when you have tens of thousands of employees, you can bury a lot of incompetence and mediocrity.

The one story I’ve heard recently about a smart if unusual tactic is described to The Wall Street Journal by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. He says the company will pick up the candidate at the airport in a Zappos shuttle, “give them a tour, and then they’ll spend the rest of the day interviewing. At the end of the day of interviews, the recruiter will circle back to the shuttle driver and ask how he or she was treated. It doesn’t matter how well the day of interviews went, if our shuttle driver wasn’t treated well, then we won’t hire that person.”

Why is that an good unusual tactic, instead of just relying on how well they can hawk online shoes and luggage? Because though it isn’t 100 percent effective (i.e., candidate might be fine with the shuttle driver only to be a beast to the flight attendant on the flight home), but for those who are rude to someone in a (presumably) lower station in the hierarchy than themselves, especially on the one day you’d expect them to be on their best behavior at a company, the prospects for them not displaying that rudeness once they’re hired are very low. For a company that prides itself on a happy corporate culture and on high-touch customer service, that’s an unusual tactic that can translate directly to the bottom line.

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