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How Many Cows are in Canada?


by Kendra Clark, for SIOP

Studies Show Links Between Non-traditional Interview Questions and Interviewee Perceptions, Interviewer Personality

Imagine going to a job interview and being asked, “If you were shrunken to the size of a pencil and placed in a blender, how would you get out?”

While companies use such non-traditional questions for a variety of reasons, they may not be as useful as hoped.

A recent study conducted by SIOP member Nathan Wiita, RHR International, LLP, and his colleagues Elnora Kelly, R. Patrick Bradshaw, and Rustin Meyer, all of the Georgia Institute of Technology, examined how non-traditional interview questions can affect job applicant’s perceptions of organizations.

Wiita and his colleagues found that potential job applicants who were asked these types of questions perceived the interviewing organization to be more innovative and stylish than companies that did not ask similar questions. Respondents also predicted higher job satisfaction working for companies who use these questions but lower job performance and organizational attraction.

This research will be presented during a symposium at the 30th Annual SIOP Conference, which takes place April 23-25, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“Despite the popularity and the ‘cool factor’ associated with these questions, the research in this symposium calls their use into question,” Wiita explained.

In the study, Wiita surveyed more than 200 working adults. Each participant reviewed interview protocols comprising 1) non-traditional questions, 2) structured interview questions, 3) informal interview questions, and 4) a mix of all three. After going through each protocol, they were asked to draw conclusions about companies based on their interview practices.

Wiita said it’s important to consider how interview questions will affect what potential employees will think about your company, and who you are trying to attract.

“People make assumptions about companies based on myriad inputs, including how they interview,” he said. “Companies need to consider what the type of person they want to bring into their organization. If they are looking for a tech-savvy 22-year-old, then these types of candidates may very well think the non-traditional questions are ‘cool’ and innovative, and want to work for the company. Your typical seasoned executive who is not in tech, on the other hand, may question the relevance or validity of these types of questions.”

In addition to non-traditional interview questions eliciting assumptions about an organization, these types of questions may also provide clues to the personality of the interviewer. In a different study to be presented during the same symposium, SIOP members Scott Highhouse, Bowling Green State University, and Christopher Nye, Michigan State University, studied employers’ personalities to find a link between those that use the non-traditional interview questions.

“Google’s director of people operations once said in an interview that brainteaser questions were worthless, and that they only served to make the interviewer feel smart,” Highhouse explained. “This suggested to me, one, that interviewers often have discretion over whether or not to use such questions, and, two, that the choice to use them may reflect some underlying character flaws.”

In their study, the researchers surveyed 736 workers about whether they would ask non-traditional interview questions as well as measured their personality traits, specifically looking for narcissism and sadism. They found that those who use these types of questions tend to have a general lack of empathy.

“Our results showed that there is a general callousness factor that underlies both narcissism and sadism,” Highhouse said.  “We expected that the elective use of brainteasers would likely relate with narcissism—the desire to feel important—and sadism—the desire to cause distress to others. What we didn’t know was which would be the dominant motive—is it, as suggested by the Google VP, to make the interviewer feel smart?”

Highhouse explained how knowing the personality traits of interviewers who use non-traditional questions can help organizations and job-seekers.

“I think the fact that people with a general empathy deficit would be more likely to elect to use brainteasers should be troubling to the general public and businesses specifically,” he said. “We have no evidence that these types of questions do anything other than anger and distress applicants. Until we find differently, employers should use extreme caution in allowing interviewers to experiment with brainteasers and other stress-interview techniques.”

The findings of both studies are important because job interviews are so ubiquitous, Wiita said.

“So for the general public, job interviews essentially affect anyone who intends to work in their life and any organization using interviews to select new personnel,” he said. “So, you may very well find yourself being asked just this type of question at some point. These findings are important for organizations because they suggest that the type of interview questions asked may influence applicant perceptions of – and attraction to – potential employers. Thus, interviewing practices may impact the quantity and quality of talent available to an organization, and thus have important effects on talent management and succession planning.”

Questions and comments can be directed to Nathan Wiita on Twitter@NathanWiita.