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The Strategy Behind Weird Interview Questions

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There's no shortage of unorthodox or off-beat interview questions to ask job candidates. But what's the point?

For some managers, quirky questions go beyond catching someone off guard. Non-traditional questions help managers such as Patrick Brandt, chief executive officer of Zimbra Inc. Frisco, Texas decide if a candidate will fit in with the team. "My style isn't to compromise on culture," he explains. "For us, it's really attitude over aptitude."

Brandt says he relies on open-ended questions that create a dialogue and move the candidate away from rehearsed answers. He says his strategy is more than just a way to humanize the hiring process. Brandt believes his unpredictable questions help uncover issues that others may have been missed or excused. Sometimes people get desperate to fill a position and overlook red flags, he notes, and he says he's prepared to pass on an otherwise-qualified candidate if he or she isn't a good fit for the sociable atmosphere at the software development company.

We talked to hiring managers about which non-traditional questions they use – and why – to help you land your next all-star hire.

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Question: Define "brimborion."
Why ask it: When you ask for a definition to an off-beat vocabulary word, you're not really asking for the real meaning (in this case, "something without value or use'). You're seeing how someone reacts to the unexpected, says Jeff Zwelling, chief executive officer and co-founder of Convertro, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based company that tracks the impact of advertising to help clients improve their return on investment. Zwelling, who sometimes uses less obscure words, like "subterfuge,' says employees at a start-up have to do a little bit of everything and know how to think on their feet, he says.
What you should know: You're not necessarily looking for hires with a big vocabularly, but for how they handle uncertainty and if this sparks their creativity. The only wrong answer is "I have no idea," says Zwelling.

Question: A hammer and a nail cost $1.10. The hammer costs $1 more than the nail. What is the price of the nail?
Why ask it: Zwelling says he likes to see if a candidate will give some thought to this math problem, instead of immediately blurting out the obvious answer of 10 cents. Zwelling says he would actually prefer candidates who admitted they were bad at math. The correct answer is that the nail costs 5 cents, he adds.
What you should know: Wacky questions, like doing math on the fly, can rattle people. Zwelling suggests putting candidates at ease before breaking out tricky questions.

Question: If you could have any superpower what would it be?
Why ask it: A disarming, non-job-related question helps uncover traits that might not otherwise come to light, says Anthony Smith, chief executive officer and founder of Insightly, a San Francisco-based provider of cloud-based customer relationship management software. How a candidate answers the question is more important than the content of the response, he says. Smith prefers those who respond enthusiastically and don't shrug the question off, because he says they will be a better cultural fit for his company.
What you should know: Smith says he's the last person to interview a job candidate and keeps his interviews light and conversational. It's awkward to transition from a job-related question to an off-beat query, he explains.

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