College graduates and people looking to get back into the workforce should brace themselves not only for a still-tough job market — U.S. adds 113,000 jobs in January — but also for their interviews: Some hiring managers have started asking job candidates to break out into song, play a game, or worse.
Facing a flood of applicants with similar skills and equally impressive academic backgrounds, companies are turning into professional matchmakers, coming up with creative ways to test for personality, character and — yes — sense of humor.
Like first dates, job interviews can be an exercise in stamina. Management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. was rated the toughest company for interviews, in a 2013 report by career site Glassdoor, with the average interview process taking 39 days. Global consultancy and software firm ThoughtWorks and management consultancy Bain & Co. were rated No. 2 and No. 3. What’s more, the average length of all interviews has doubled to a total of 23 hours over the past five years, Glassdoor found.
But trivia questions, problem-solving and brain-teasers — just some of the tasks cited in Glassdoor’s report — are the least of some interviewees’ worries, according to Piera Palazzolo, senior vice president for marketing at Dale Carnegie Training. The post-interview stories are becoming increasingly bizarre, she says. “People can be asked to sing a jingle,” she says. Her advice to job seekers in 2014: “Have one ready that’s relevant to your industry. It shows that you’ve done your homework and react well under pressure.”
Computer puzzles that pose ethical questions and video games are another growing area, says Dan Schawbel, author of “Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success” and founder of Millennial Branding, a management and consulting firm. “Gamification is one of the biggest trends in recruiting right now,” he says. In fact, research firm Gartner predicts that 70% of the world’s top 1,000 companies will require candidates to complete at least one electronic game in their applications this year.
Unlike most games, these aren’t testing motor skills or reflexes. “We apply the most recent research in neuroscience,” says Bob Schafer, founder and CEO of Prophecy Sciences, a neuroscience and talent management company. “We assess how well you will fit into a role and team,” he says. He uses six neuroscience-based games that test traits like cognitive function, attention control, decision-making and memory by tracking and understanding a person’s behaviors, pulse and electro-dermal activity (sweat glands).
“The Ultimatum Game,” for instance, pits the candidate against a “virtual negotiation partner.” It assesses their negotiation, behavior and interaction style. A person’s heart rate variability — the changes that occur from beat to beat — is tracked to see how it changes when he or she is making decisions under pressure. “Higher heart rate variability indicates a more relaxed state of mind,” he says.
Neuroscience aside, some employers have used less-scientific methods that have pushed some candidates into unsavory dilemmas. While applying for a job in the food industry, it’s not unusual for an employer to ask a candidate to taste and review a product, Palazzolo says, but she recently heard of a case where it went too far. “This candidate was asked to taste dog food,” she says. “That borders on impractical no matter how tasty it might be.” (The person declined to taste it and didn’t get the job, she says.)
Another trend: “Candidates are being asked to tell jokes,” Palazzolo says. “This can get you into trouble very fast if you tell an off-color joke.” The kind of one-liner people might tell depends on whether they’re applying for a job at a bank — keep it clean, she says — or a social media company where there’s probably more room to be bold. “It’s a good way for employers to throw people off balance.” A start-up wants someone who thinks outside the box and doesn’t turn into a shrinking violet under pressure, she adds.
Daniel Carry, a social science researcher, was asked to tell a gag in a recent job interview to be a personal assistant for a publisher at a major political magazine. Instead of going for a quick one-liner, he told the two interviewers a long joke about a man working in the New York sewers who never took a day off work in 22 years. “It was quite risque,” he says. “I didn’t know whether it would go down like a ton of bricks or not.” Carry says he was a finalist, but he didn’t get the job, “but they told me to continue with my comic skills.”
Of course, employers have always liked to throw curve balls, but questions are becoming weirder — particularly at new, high-tech companies. Some examples can be found on Glassdoor’s annual list of the oddest interview questions, reported by job candidates over the past year. No. 1, reportedly asked during an interview with online retailer Zappos: “If you could throw a parade of any caliber through the Zappos office, what type of parade would it be?” And there’s this one, shared by a job candidate at Apple: “If you were a pizza delivery man, how would you benefit from scissors?”
And when the interviewer rambles, don’t just smile and nod. Michael Bales, a New York-based computer technical trainer, went to an interview where the employer talked a bit about the company and told a couple of stories about his family life. He then handed Bales a questionnaire and left the room. One of the questions on the list: “What is the name of my son?” Bales didn’t remember, but he still got the job offer. (He didn’t take it.) And he was impressed. “He certainly got my attention,” he says.
But the answers to odd questions might not even matter. “There’s often no right or wrong answer,” Palazzolo says. “I hear more about employers asking candidates to think out loud so they hear how their mind works.” While applying for a sales and marketing job at Google, Carry says he was asked, “What’s the average weight of a Friesian cow?” His reply: “Is it milked or un-milked?”
Quentin Fottrell is a personal finance reporter for MarketWatch based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.