Are You Hiring Clowns?

It is a disturbing trend: Companies are asking stupider questions of candidates than ever before. You know why? Because they can.

Look, I get it. You heard about some tech company doing it. You read How Would You Move Mt. Fuji? and thought it was brilliant. You want to be innovative. Or hip. Or whatever. Hell if I know, I’ve never been any of these things.

Whenever someone wants to ask a stupid question in an interview, this is what I ask:

Are We Hiring Clowns?

If so, I have no problem having a clown jump through hoops and put on a circus act. I do have a problem with making people who aren’t clowns put on a circus act and jump through hoops though.

That whole thing about resumes and interviews being poor predictors of success in the workplace has to do with the fact that doing well in those situations rarely has anything to do with the job at hand. Let’s stop pretending that we are savants when it comes to interviewing and realize that successfully finding the right fit based on a standard resume and interview protocol is more of a happy stroke of luck than anything else.

So why are these tech companies spending thousands of dollars developing complex puzzle questions if they don’t get results? I would suggest three things:

  1. They think it works because they continue to see success. I would say that they are successful in spite of their erroneous selection methods. Many companies can be successful in this situation.
  2. They think they are more innovative than they actually are. Using the two commonly cited examples, Microsoft isn’t really an innovator of new products (just reinventing their current products like Madonna every couple of years). Google’s most successful innovations outside of search have come through acquisition (YouTube is arguably the most successful product by Google outside of search and they bought it).
  3. They’ve become part of a hazing culture. If everyone in an organization has had to go through the pain of that sort of selection process, they believe that everyone in the future should as well in order to become part of the culture there.

What are your thoughts on these interviewing tactics?


  1. In a phrase: epic failure.

    You’re right. This is asking questions for the sake of asking questions.

    To point 1: I think this ties in with Point 3, to which I will comment shortly…
    To point 2: Doesn’t everyone? Or rather, don’t these orgs’ Marketing folks make them believe they are?
    To point 3: Am I applying for a job, or a fraternity? The reason why this ties into point 1: people hire people like themselves. If it’s a hazing culture, you’re going to hire people who like the verbal ribbing. This perpetuates an illusion of success while also keeping the hazing as part of the status quo.

    Great thoughts, Lance. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Having been in light industrial the last few years, and another culture entrenched retail environment before that, I see the hazing more than anything else.

    “Well we did it, so should they if they are worth it”

    But as technology advances and we need workers with more skills than stamina and a strong back, those candidates are less likely to tolerate the behavior from the hiring process.

    In fact, during the hiring process at the big orange box, I quipped that I wondered if I was applying to Harvard or HD. And no, their process didn’t net the best in class, they netted the most patient, or most desperate.

    If you are a sought after employer, or the compensation is head and shoulders above the rest, great, continue the circus. But those companies had best find ways to maintain that status, because candidates won’t be willing to tolerate the treatment otherwise.

    I’d rather get good people the old fashioned way:
    good recruiting, and good luck.

  3. I agree for sure. I wonder if HR managers asked questions with common sense like-

    “Blank” is a requirement to work here, how will you be able to fit this requirement if we did hire you?

    Give me an example of a difficult situation you had at a previous employer and how you handled that. What was the result?

    Asking good logical questions will help you more than the circus stuff. I agree with TlColson “old fashioned is the best way”.

  4. Don’t forget, candidates can give silly answers too :-)

  5. I completely agree, the main reason being that a real solution cannot be given, because the problem is not real. Real problems create motivations for a solution, and those motivations are key in defining the correct solution. Resource constraints are also primary shapers of solutions. I don’t care how mundane a problem is: if you can’t tell me what motivation I have to solve it or what my resource constraints are, my solution will be to ignore it.

    The one thing I hear about this question is that it’s not really about problem solving; that “companies ask it just to learn about you based on how you respond.” Well, my natural response would be to refuse to engage the question. If they are really happy just to learn that, fine. But I doubt that – I think they want to evaluate a response and would be annoyed not to get one.

    I’ve read that Google used to ask these but no longer does – I think it’s falling out of favor, thankfully.

  6. Interesting suggestions for why these silly hiring practices perpetuate themselves, Lance!

    I’ve shared your thought with my readers in my Rainmaker ‘Fab Five’ blog picks of the week (found here: to help them remove any unnecessary hoops from their hiring process.

    Be well!

    – Chris

    BTW – love your new blog!

  7. I suppose oddball questions can lead to an interesting discussion and some bonding so I’m not completely against and wouldn’t necessarily object to such questions in an interview. But I also think we’re hiring clowns all the time because this process focuses on the wrong stuff. Like buying a house based on the curtains instead of the foundation.

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