A tour de force post taking us from Google interviews, to self-esteem, to dancing men *UPDATED*

I have been brooding about an article I read the other day, one that describes the brave new world of job interviews.  According to the Wall Street Journal, many companies, having recognized that traditional interview techniques aren’t necessarily a good way to determine whether someone is right for the job, have moved on to brain teasers, intermingled with questions that the really stupid jobs counselor at your high school might once have asked:

Jim’s first interviewer is late and sweaty: He’s biked to work. He starts with some polite questions about Jim’s work history. Jim eagerly explains his short career. The interviewer doesn’t look at him. He’s tapping away at his laptop, taking notes. “The next question I’m going to ask,” he says, “is a little unusual.”

You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?

The interviewer looks up from his laptop, grinning like a maniac with a new toy.

“I would take the change in my pocket and throw it into the blender motor to jam it,” Jim says.

The interviewer’s tapping resumes. “The inside of a blender is sealed,” he counters, with the air of someone who’s heard it all before. “If you could throw pocket change into the mechanism, then your smoothie would leak into it.”

“Right… um… I would take off my belt and shirt, then. I’d tear the shirt into strips to make a rope, with the belt, too, maybe. Then I’d tie my shoes to the end of the rope and use it like a lasso.”

Furious key clicks.

“I don’t mean a lasso,” Jim plows on. “What are those things Argentinian cowboys throw? It’s like a weight at the end of a rope.”

No answer. Jim now realizes that his idea is lame, but he feels compelled to complete it. “I’d throw the weights over the top of the blender jar. Then I’d climb out.”

“The ‘weights’ are just your shoes,” the interviewer says. “How would they support your body’s weight? You weigh more than your shoes do.”


How are companies coping with this new environment? In September 2009, the Labor Department reported that job seekers outnumbered job openings by 6 to 1. These unemployment numbers have spread riddles, loaded questions and multiple-interview marathons across the corporate food chain, into mature and less cutting-edge industries. Each year Glassdoor.com compiles a list of “oddball” interview questions (puzzles, riddles and the like) reported by members. In the most recent list, only about a quarter of such questions came from tech firms. The rest were from mainstream corporations, from Aflac to Volkswagen.

“If you could be any superhero, who would it be?”

“What color best represents your personality?”

“What animal are you?”

These questions, posted by job candidates on Glassdoor.com, aren’t from some wacky Silicon Valley start-up—they’re asked of applicants at AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and Bank of America, respectively.

Before I go any further, I have to interject here that I was at the cutting edge of this trend.  A long, long time ago, when I was a young lawyer at a big firm, a young man came for an interview.  But this wasn’t any young man.  His former fraternity brother was one of my colleagues and was part of my social group at the firm.  We thought it would be a great joke to give this young man (I’ll call him “Tom”), the job interview from Hell.  That’s what you do to former fraternity brothers, right?

After much persuasion, the firm allowed us to co-opt an empty conference room and convene a “special panel” to ask Tom some follow-up interview questions.  His former fraternity brother was literally hidden behind a potted palm.

When Tom walked in and saw a row of men and women, all strangers to him, but all young, he suspected a gag, but as there was no way for him to know for sure, and as this was a law firm in San Francisco (read:  potentially wacky), he had to play along.  We started firing off questions:

If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

Are you a linear or a circular thinker?

What kind of superhero are you?

What kind of animal are you?

And no, I’m not simply copying my questions from the list of questions asked at AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, and BofA (per the above Wall Street Journal article).  Back in the 1980s, we still understood that those questions were jokes.

Tom bravely fielded the questions, and we let him in on the joke at the end. What’s sad is that today’s young interviewees walk into and out of that room knowing that it’s no joke.

I haven’t been brooding about that article simply because it brought up an old (and fairly amusing) memory.  I was actually thinking about what would happen if I had to face an interview like that today.  I’ve been looking for permanent work in desultory fashion, which means I want to start working again, but I’m thankfully not desperate for work.  I’m also a very secure person.  (I’m neurotic too, and I can tell you that being simultaneously secure and neurotic is one cool party trick.)

So what would I do if a prospective employer asked me really stupid, irritating question?  My instinct is that I would have nothing to do with it:

“Sorry, but I don’t play games.  I meet all the written qualifications for this job.  I’m also very intelligent, utterly reliable, completely honest, and a very pleasant person with whom to work.  Asking me questions about blenders or trees or superheroes will not give you any greater insight into my ability to do well in this job.  Sometimes, you just need to gamble.  Hire me for a six week trial period, and let’s see how it goes.”

I’m not the only seasoned worker who feels this way.  One of my friends went on a series of job interviews last year.  She complained to me about the stupid faux-psychological questions fired at her.  “Bookworm,” she said to me, “I just don’t have the patience for that stuff.  I told them that I can do the job, my resume proves I can do the job, and they either like me or they don’t.”

One of the consolations of aging is that insecurity lessens.  Watching my two children navigate their middle school and high school experiences is a good reminder that youth and insecurity are a matched set.  Considering their age, my children aren’t grossly insecure (a nice combination of a good community and, I flatter myself, adequate parenting), but they’re still constantly worried about the usual things that plague young people:  “Are these clothes right?”  “Do I look stupid?”  “Will anyone notice this zit?”  “If I hang with so-and-so will it help or hurt my social standing?”  As to that last one, I’m pleased to report that my children are sufficiently decent people that they do not reject potential friends merely because the friends don’t rank high on the “popular meter.”

I was infinitely more insecure than my children.  Immigrant parents, urban schools, a child-free neighborhood (I was the only kid on my block), thick glasses, and a diminutive stature all left me seriously questioning my place in the grand scheme of things.  Time, though, has a great leveling effect.  Over the years, I’ve come to terms with who I am.  I know my virtues and my failings.  I embrace the former and am reconciled to the latter.  As Popeye so aptly said, “I yam what I yam.”

It took me a few decades to get to this level of self-knowledge and security.  There are some life experiences, though, that accelerate a person’s knowing, and coming to terms with, himself.  I’ve often commented to my sister that military guys dance.  That’s not as stupid an observation as it first seems.  I love getting out on a floor and dancing.  I’ve got no training, it’s questionable whether I have moves, but I don’t care.  Dancing feels wonderful.  Sadly, middle class guys, for the most part, don’t dance.  Back when they were 13, they figured out that dancing wasn’t cool and the decades have done nothing to shake their unswerving belief that dancing makes them look less than manly.

So why do military guys dance?  (Scroll down for the last three pictures at the link.)  I’ll offer you four theories about why military guys dance.  Theories one and two are mine, theories three and four come from a friend who is actually in the military, so he’s probably more correct than I am.

Theory Number One, harks back to my post thesis, which gives it pride of place here:  Military guys don’t need to worry about whether they “un-man” themselves when they hit the dance floor.  By their willingness to put themselves on the front  line, they’ve proven everything they need to prove. They zoomed up to the top of the secure self-image mountain, without having to spend decades in insecurity purgatory.  They can dance, and they don’t care if you laugh.

Theory Number Two is the boredom factor.  Has their ever been a time in the military when the operative rule hasn’t been “hurry up and wait”?  When there’s nothing else to do, when they’re are no computer games to play, no TV shows to watch, no malls to troll, you dance.

Theory Number Three is that, living as they do in women free environments, military guys know how to make the best of their time in women’s company.  This means they’re more willing than civilians to go where the women go — and that’s the dance floor.

And Theory Number Four is, simply, the joy of being alive.  Neither urbanites nor suburbanites live on the thin edge.  Our biggest adrenalin rush is often slipping past a Highway Patrol guy when we’re going — gasp! — five miles over the speed limit.  For the men on the front line, though, joie de vivre is a very real thing, and it probably does make you feel like dancing.



UPDATE:  I’d love to see how the dancing Marines would have handled this interview.