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Puzzle Interview Questions Deemed Unfair by Applicants

Puzzle Interview Questions Deemed Unfair by ApplicantsCompanies should use caution when using unpopular puzzle interview questions, such as asking applicants why manholes are round or to estimate the number of barbershops in a given area.

These puzzle questions are especially popular in the technology and financial industries, where hiring managers see them as a good way to measure creativity, flexibility, critical thinking and the ability to work in novel and sometimes uncomfortable situations, according to San Francisco State University researcher Chris Wright, Ph.D.

On the flip side, applicants generally see the questions as unfair and unrelated to job skills and performance, compared to traditional interview questions about past work performance and goals, he noted.

“I always give graduating students two primary suggestions: Expect the unexpected and be aware that you might get an off-the-wall question like this,” said Wright, an associate professor of psychology.

“And realize that no one’s really looking for a right answer, because so many of these questions are really more geared toward gauging your thought process.”

Wright and his colleagues videotaped mock interviews with both types of questions, and asked undergraduate students to watch the interviews and rate both the interview’s content and the job seeker’s performance.

The puzzle interviews got mostly negative reactions from the undergraduates, even when they were told that the job applicant was interviewing for a position as a software engineer or financial analyst.

But in a twist, the students said the applicant performed better in the puzzle interview than in the traditional interview, Wright noted. He said he thinks that the puzzle interview “may have seemed so off-the-wall” to the students that they were impressed by the poise and “relatively decent answers” given by the applicant.

Real-life job applicants also tend to dislike these puzzle questions, the researchers note, which poses a problem for industries that rely on them in their recruitment and hiring.

Qualified applicants who don’t like or trust the interview style might avoid companies that use puzzle questions, they postulate.

It’s also possible that questions seen as unfair or not relevant to a job could be the subject of a hiring lawsuit, the researchers warn.

“And then there’s still the question hanging out there, which is do these puzzles actually measure anything?” Wright said. “I think there’s a feeling that these types of questions measure broad constructs like intelligence, but that there might be a lot better tools out there to measure this.”

Puzzles may be unpopular, but companies such as Google, Microsoft and others still include them in their interviews, and graduates need to know how to handle them, Wright said.

“What I find, when I see graduating seniors entering the workforce, is that they very rarely have knowledge of these types of questions,” he said.

The study was published online in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Source: San Francisco State University

Puzzle Interview Questions Deemed Unfair by Applicants

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Puzzle Interview Questions Deemed Unfair by Applicants. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 16 Oct 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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