“If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” It’s the type of inane question that many people would roll their eyes at if it were asked during an icebreaker exercise or on a first date. But for Sally Gibson, the question was posed someplace much, much worse: a job interview.
“I was completely thrown by it. I basically froze,” recalls Gibson, the founder and owner of Someone Sent You A Greeting. “I was silent for longer than I care to remember and ended up just saying the first tree that came into my head — elm. I didn't elaborate any further and just lapsed into more silence and I think the interviewer realized there wasn't much point following up as he moved on after that.” This happened about 20 years ago, and Gibson says that she still looks back at that moment and cringes.
At the time, she kicked herself for not being more prepared for an off-the-wall question like this, because they’d become very popular in the early-2000s. Job seekers were told to expect to be asked things like: “How much does the Empire State Building weigh?” “How many golf balls would fit into a 747?” “Why are manhole covers round?” or, a question immortalized in the 2013 film The Internship, “You’re shrunk down to the size of nickels and dropped into the bottom of a blender. What do you do?”
Privately, however, Gibson has always considered this type of question basically useless. “You don't learn anything really insightful about the person you're interviewing and they seem more like a 'gotcha!' moment or attempt to trip people up rather than be of any real value,” she says.
Amra Beganovich says she was asked brain teaser questions “about a dozen-plus times” between 2006 and 2008, while interviewing for consulting positions as an economist for companies like IMR and Worldbank. Once, she was asked how she could place three balls into two boxes so that there were an equal number in each box. Her answer was to cut open one side of each box and combine them so they overlapped, then place one ball in each box and one in the overlapping portion. This was deemed correct, but she, too, came away with a distaste for the questions. “[They don’t] test critical thinking or creativity. People who performed best on these were mentored by others on how to answer brain-teaser questions as they often repeated in various interviews. Basically, it puts those without a mentor at a disadvantage,” says Beganovich, who’s now the CEO of a digital marketing agency, Amra & Elma.
The questions plagued job seekers across industries. While interviewing to be a dental assistant in 2018, Michelle Keldgord was asked, “You have two coins that equal 30 cents, and one of them is not a nickel. What coins do you have?” She knows the answer is relatively obvious (a quarter and a nickel; the quarter is the coin that’s not a nickel), but she was nervous and had already gotten off to a bad start with the interviewer, so at the time she was “dumbfounded,” she says. “I was peeved [that] I was being asked to answer a riddle in a professional environment. I don’t think it showed my wit or understanding. I would have much rather answered questions related to the dental field to show how smart I was,” says Keldgord, who went on to co-found BakingHow.
Considering the fact that they’re nearly universally despised, you have to wonder why these questions exist in the first place. Their origin is actually a bit fuzzy. In the early-aughts, prevailing wisdom was that they were used during Google interviews. But in a 2010 post on her website, Gayle Laakmann McDowell, who had been a software engineer at Google and served on the company’s hiring committee, said that this wasn’t true. “Years ago, rumours used to circulate about Microsoft interviews,” she wrote. “They were the hot, new company that everyone wanted to work. With envy came the urban myths. These rumours have since been transferred to Google, and will surely be transferred to some new company in due time. Bloggers — always desperate for links and traffic — have capitalized on this, with scary articles about their ‘nightmare interview’ and ‘crazy questions’. Let's just stop this right now, shall we? [sic]” She went on to state that brain teasers are explicitly banned at Google (and Microsoft) during interviews.
This post didn’t appear to quiet the rumours much, if at all, though. In a 2013 interview with The New York Times, Laszlo Bock, who spent 10 years as senior vice president of people operations at Google before leaving the company in December 2016, brought up the questions again — although he didn’t explicitly address whether or not they’d ever been used at Google. He simply said that studies the company had conducted showed “that brain teasers are a complete waste of time… They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”
Eric Cole, the founder of InterviewIQ, agrees. “As a hiring manager for over 35 years, and now as a career coach and interview coach, I have heard and even asked some pretty bad questions,” admits Cole. “Unfortunately, most interviewers who ask those impossible ‘brain teaser’ questions are really more interested in flexing their ego and showing off.”
He says that brain teasers are ostensibly designed to gauge a candidate’s critical thinking: As long as the person can walk the interviewer through their logic, their answer should count as “good,” even if their actual answer to a question like “How many marbles would fit in the Louvre?” is wrong. But not every candidate has a thinking style that’s well-suited for brain teasers, Cole says. Some people are better able to think out loud than others, who may need inward reflection time before they can walk someone through their thought process. There are much better ways to gauge a candidates’ problem-solving style and critical-thinking skills than to ask them a random riddle, such as asking how people juggle competing priorities, how they best grow, the most useful lesson they’ve learned from a more senior colleague, or for an example of a time they made a mistake and how they handled it.
Brain teasers aren’t just annoying. Cole says interviewers who rely on brain teasers can sometimes want to make a candidate feel uncomfortable — and that information might give you useful insight into that company’s culture. I spoke to a friend of mine, Sarah Hudson*, a talent director in the advertising industry in New York City with 12 years’ experience interviewing job candidates, and she says that these questions can even hint at something iffy going on at the hiring company. “Particularly as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion, there's a lot of conversation going on right now about making sure that you're standardizing questions and that you're asking things that will get to a certain point to really understand the person,” Hudson says. If she were ever asked a brain teaser question in an interview, she’d assume the person isn’t trained in the latest interview techniques, and would see it as a red flag.
As for Gibson, she says if someone asked her a similar question today, she thinks she’d be less easily thrown off her game — although she’d certainly be annoyed. “Having been through many interviews now I still don't see what you gain from a question like that. I'd like to think I'd be brave enough to ask how relevant it is but I don't suppose that would do me many favours!” she says. “I definitely think they've had their time though and would be surprised to find interviewers still using them.”
Now if only we could get interviewers to do away with, “So, where do you see yourself in five years?”
*Hudson’s name was changed for privacy.