Employers weed out job candidates with off-the-wall questions

You walk into a job interview prepared to be grilled about your skills and what you can bring to the position. Instead, the interviewer throws a curveball:

"If you were a box of cereal, what would you be?"

That's an actual question Wegmans posed to a job applicant, according to, a website on which candidates anonymously discuss their interviews.

But does finding out that applicants think of themselves as Rice Krispies, Cap'n Crunch or Count Chocula reveal whether they would make good employees? Of course not. Yet these sorts of interview questions crop up frequently — and some employment specialists defend them.

Employers are inundated with resumes, and off-the-wall questions can be a way to find candidates who stand out and can think on their feet, employment experts say. Some employers, experts say, actually believe a quirky question will uncover a candidate's personality, or at least liven up a boring interview — albeit at the applicant's expense.

"It is truly a buyer's market. The companies are so much in control right now," says Howard Leifman, a career coach and senior consultant with New York-based BPI Group, a human resources consultant.

"Candidates are becoming more desperate. They're worried about the job market," Leifman continues. "There are so few jobs available, you will put up with people's idiosyncrasies."

We asked readers via Twitter to tell us the most bizarre interview questions they have received. Among them:

"Ravens or Redskins?"

"What is your astrological sign?"

"We enjoy doing office potlucks. What would your contribution to the potluck be?"

"If you were a fruit, which one would you be?"

(A grape because they grow in clusters and I'm a team player. An apple: My skills are highly polished. A banana — people say I have a-peel.)

Glassdoor annually lists its top oddball questions. Last year's winners include:

"Does life fascinate you?" "Are you exhaling warm air?" "How do you feel about those jokers in Congress?"

Microsoft and Google are notorious for asking unusual questions. Microsoft has asked: "How many pingpong balls can fit into a warehouse?"

The software company is likely trying to gauge an applicant's "critical thinking" skills, says Debbie Shalom, owner of Amazing Resumes & Coaching Services in Baltimore County.

"Sometimes these questions can have a very good reason behind them," Shalom says. "Usually, there is a psychological reason behind them."

I asked Shalom — who sometimes goes on job interviews just to find out what her clients are up against — what kind of fruit she would be.

Long pause. "That's a stupid question," she acknowledges.

Joe Gonzales, regional manager for Robert Half International in Baltimore, says candidates rehearse so much before interviews now that an employer likes to throw a wild pitch just to see how they react.

"People like to change it up … and see how someone comes back from the question," he says. (Gonzales would be an orange: "It's universally respected and good for people.")

Comila Shahani-Denning, an associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., teaches future human resources professionals. She tells her students they will have only so much time with an applicant and advises them not to waste it with off-the-wall questions that have never been shown to predict job performance.

Many large employers use behavior-based interviewing, which is designed to probe past behavior as an indicator of future job performance, Shahani-Denning says.

For instance, an employer seeking to hire someone for a team might ask candidates about the last time they collaborated on a project.

"What challenges did they face? What is the role that you took? How did you overcome conflict in that team?" Shahani-Denning says.

But what kind of fruit are they?

"I'm not sure what that would predict at all," she says.

Shahani-Denning advises job seekers who are asked strange questions to try to steer the interview back to business. Ask the interviewer to explain how the question applies to the job so you can better respond to it, she says.

Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw University in Indiana, says many interviewers who ask weird questions tend to be inexperienced or untrained.

"They aren't quite sure what to ask or how to focus the interview," he says.

I asked Wegmans about the cereal query. Shayla Harding, human resource manager for Wegmans in Maryland, says that question isn't typical of the company.

"I don't know if that question is helpful," Harding says.

Instead, Wegmans asks questions that try to assess a candidate's skills in customer service, how they would work in a team or get along with people who are different from them, Harding says. For instance, she says, Wegmans might ask candidates to describe "incredible customer service" or about the pros and cons of working with someone unlike them.

Employers should realize that bizarre questions also say a lot about the company's culture — and they might turn off candidates.

According to a post on Glassdoor, one applicant turned down a job because the company seemed overly impressed with an answer to an off-base hamburger question. The applicant was no longer impressed with the company.

Of course, many job seekers don't have the luxury of rejecting a job offer. And until the employment market substantially improves, workers are likely going to have to describe what fruit, cereal or part of a hamburger they would be.

"My advice to my candidates is to try to be prepared as possible," says career coach Leifman. "If you get a crazy question, don't allow it to unnerve you. The question might be asked to see how you handle stressful situations."