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How to Answer Stupid Interview Questions Including the One About $

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… compensation should be a negotiating point, not a filter to a discussion.

Note: during our Performance-based Hiring interview training we cover what questions to ask and which ones to avoid. Since a great many managers and recruiters haven’t taken the course, you’ll likely be asked some inappropriate questions. Here are the classics and some advice on how to handle them.

Adler’s Favorite Stupid Interview Questions That No One Should Ask, But if They Do….

Premature questions about compensation. These take the form of “What are your salary expectations?” or “What is your current compensation?” During our training we tell recruiters not to get into this conversation until they have reviewed the candidate’s background in depth. We also tell candidates not to ask about compensation until they know something about real job needs. The point of this is that compensation should be a negotiating point, not a filter to a discussion. If the job has a lot of upside opportunity, compensation is always considered in balance. If a rookie recruiter asks the compensation question prematurely, candidates can respond with this, “If the compensation represents a significant career move, I’m going to be more flexible, so let’s first discuss your real job needs. Then if my background seems like a good fit, we can figure out if the compensation works. If not, we can still network. Other opportunities might develop in the future.” (There’s a whole chapter on how to handle and negotiate compensation in The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired.)

Questions related to your goals. Who cares “where you want to be in five years.” This type of question has no predictive value. However, a question like, “What’s the biggest goal you’ve made for yourself that you’ve already achieved?,” sets the stage for, “What’s your current major goal and what have you done so far to ensure you’ll achieve it?” Setting and achieving meaningful goals is important. So if an interviewer asks you about your goals start by describing a big goal you’ve already achieved. Then describe how the next job will hopefully be a platform for achieving your current goals.

Irrelevant brain-teasers and problem-solving questions. Right after getting my MBA I was interviewing for a financial analyst position at a major Fortune 50 company. During one interview I was asked how to market light bulbs. I thought the question was irrelevant and told the interviewer I didn’t have a clue, but I could quickly figure out the capital investment needed to build a new manufacturing plant that was producing light bulbs. I then described how this could be done and what information would be needed to complete the analysis. I got the job not only because I knew the right answer to the wrong question, but also because I had the guts to tell the interviewer his original question was unimportant. If you’re asked a brain-teaser or any question that seems irrelevant, ask the interviewer to describe how the information will be used on the job. Then answer the question describing how you’d solve the problem and then give an example of something you’ve done that’s comparable.

Questions unrelated to real job needs including anything related to what animal, tree or person you are most like. Part of asking these questions is trying to figure out how you think on your feet. Of course, unless the job has something to do with thinking on your feet answering meaningless questions, these types of questions are worthless in predicting your ability to do the work. When asked these types of questions, take matters in your own hands and ask, “How is that related to real job needs? This will give me some insight into what you’re trying to understand about my background. Once I understand these real job needs I can then give you relevant examples of work I’ve done that’s most related.” The point of this is to change the focus of the interview to your ability and motivation to handle the real job, in the actual culture, with the actual people you’ll be working with, and the same resources and restraints.

A lot of dumb and meaningless questions are asked in interviews. Don’t fall into the trap. There are few good answers. Instead, learn how to avoid answering them or turn them around to your advantage by finding out how they relate to the actual job. Then give examples of what you’ve done that are most comparable. Handling these awkward moments properly demonstrates your true personality, interpersonal skills and confidence. These are important predictors of success that the questions will never reveal. Surprisingly, not answering them will.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He’s also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn’s Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.