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This Is a Test

Just how effective are puzzle interviews when it comes to singling out the best candidates for a job?

Pop quiz: how would someone weigh a jet without using scales? If a person tosses a suitcase overboard, will the water level rise or fall? Why are manhole covers round instead of square?

Welcome to the puzzle interview, where job applicants are asked to solve logic questions on the spot. Microsoft is just one large employer known for putting promising applicants through a rigorous series of puzzle questions during an intense, multiround interview process.

Companies use puzzle questions to help discover the smartest and most creative job applicants; employees who can think under stress as well as outside the box. The interviewer is able to get a feel for how applicants think by watching them reason their way to a final answer. Other puzzlers are really stress tests, such as seeing if an applicant reacts in a desired way when asked to open a window that's been glued shut.

While there aren't statistics on the number of employers using puzzle techniques, "companies use them because they hear Microsoft is using them," says Jonathan Canger, vice president of R&D for Human Resource Management Center Inc., a Tampa, Florida, firm that helps companies develop HR processes.

Critics believe puzzle questions tell employers only that some applicants are better at solving puzzles, not whether they'll be a better fit for the job. "[Employers are] using it like, 'Well, they got 1600 on their SATs; they must be a fit,' when they may not be [a fit] at all," says Linda Finkle, founder of Potomac, Maryland, coaching and consulting firm Incedo Group LLC. Finkle has found that some companies using puzzle interview techniques have a hard time retaining talent. She says, "[Applicants can] feel the interview process isn't flexible enough to adjust for the difference in personalities and styles."

But Todd Eberhardt thinks puzzle questions are helping his company find and keep great employees. Eberhardt, 37, is founder and CEO of Comm-Works, a 9-year-old Minneapolis voice and data technology company that uses puzzle questions in later-round interviews. Eberhardt might tell IT candidates a story and ask them to repeat it back to him-a way to see if candidates have good recall, a necessary skill in IT. He'll also ask IT applicants to answer logic questions of the "how would you weigh an airplane without scales" variety. Sales candidates, meanwhile, might be asked to explain their thought processes behind a recent major purchase.

The biggest challenge is evaluating responses coming from a group of very smart, creative applicants interviewing for the same job. "You may get five different answers that are all equally viable," Eberhardt says. In these cases, how applicants explain the logic that gets them to a final answer can be more important than the answer itself, because the best employees "are already three to 10 steps ahead of everybody else," Eberhardt says. "You really get some insight into the person's [thought] pattern."

If you think puzzle interviews could help you nab good talent, be sure they're just one part of a multifaceted interview process, says BJ Gallagher, a Los Angeles HR training consultant and co-author of A Peacock in the Land of Penguins. When interviewing, she says, look for a mix of people skills and generic skills-good communication, problem-solving and organizational skills-that can apply to any job. "Look for someone who can grow, learn, stretch and is resourceful," she says. "[Employees] don't need to have all the answers. They just need to know how to find them."

The puzzle interview accounts for about 20 percent of the overall interview process at Comm-Works. "There's a place for them, but I would look at it as a part of the overall solution when you're evaluating talent," says Eberhardt, whose company projects sales of more than $30 million in 2004.

Critics also warn that companies risk selecting for a certain personality type with puzzle questions-not a good strategy for fostering truly innovative thinking. And the answers to many puzzle questions are posted on the Internet, increasing the chances interviews will be skewed because a few applicants studied beforehand.

Eberhardt, however, thinks applicants who prepare in advance are just great researchers. "Luck favors the studied," he says, adding that entrepreneurs skeptical of certain answers can always ask follow-up questions the applicant may not know.

On the legal front, employers need to be careful they don't use puzzle interviews to inadvertently screen out a protected class under Title VII, which protects workers on the basis of race, gender and age, says Stephen Fox, a partner at the Dallas law firm Fish and Richardson. Be prepared to help disabled applicants fulfill this part of the interview process, and be consistent in how you administer puzzle questions. Document everything, and be prepared to justify your hiring decision should the need arise.

Gallagher thinks the puzzle interview is a fad, but she sees potential in the use of "group puzzles," where the five best applicants are asked to work together on a hypothetical company crisis or challenging client proposal while the interview team watches. "It will tell you how people interact," she says. "Business is a team sport. It's all about people."

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the August 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: This Is a Test.

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