Every year, college football players flock to Indianapolis to showcase their athleticism before scouts and coaches at the NFL Combine in hopes of being selected in April’s draft. And every year, those college players are subject to a battery of interview questions that range from the innocuous and silly to the shocking and offensive.
This year’s combine hasn’t failed to disappoint in that regard, with reports coming out that players have been asked to explain Bitcoin, and whether they think God is an Auburn fan. (The player, who’s from Auburn rival Alabama, says God most “definitely” is not — Roll Tide!)
Those are just the tame examples, though. In the past, the questions have been known to border on the homophobic, such as when an Atlanta Falcons coached asked Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple if he was gay, and the quasi-racist — e.g., before he entered the league, a team psychologist asked now-Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (also an Auburn man) if he better identified as a dog or cat, to which Newton replied neither, he saw himself as a human being. The next question was if Newton had a problem with authority, prompting people to claim the back-and-forth was a classic case of racist dog-whistling.
It’s easy to ridicule the NFL for asking such stupid shit during the interview process — jocks pretending to be corporate, only to get it all wrong. But regular ol’ companies value these abstract hypotheticals, too, because they supposedly offer insight into “how a person thinks.” Google, for example, was famous for asking prospective employees “Why are manhole covers round?” in interviews, and seeing if candidates could deduce the answer on the fly. (The answer: Because that way they never fall through the manhole.)
The problem with these thought experiments — aside from their homophobic or racist undertones — is that they’re terrible predictors of success, both within the realm of professional football and in the “normal” working world. In fact, it’s the opposite — the vague, qualitative nature of most of these questions lends themselves to bias, which is counterproductive when evaluating job candidates.
The problem with these questions, Collins says, is that they’re totally unrelated to the responsibilities of the job the person is being interviewed for. In terms of football, whether one is a dog or cat doesn’t indicate how skilled he is at reading coverages and hitting hot routes. In the working world, answering riddles won’t tell you whether someone is competent at their assigned task. “Even Google stopped asking these questions years ago because they were bad predictors of success,” Collins explains.
What these questions are great at, however, is letting bias seep into the selection process. When a manager asks a vague question that has no demonstrably correct answer, they’re likely to get an equally vague response. And rather than judge that response on its own merits, the response will often only reinforce the manager’s preconceived notion of the candidate. If they had a favorable view of the candidate going into the question, they’ll view the candidate’s response accordingly (and vice versa).
Indeed, studies have shown that interview questions alone don’t help accurately judge a candidate’s intelligence — in fact, interview questions often cloud a person’s perception and give the interviewer the incorrect impression about a candidate.
That’s largely why interviews are bullshit in general. “Historically, an interview is the least reliable predictor of success,” says Jay Finkelman, organizational psychologist at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “And yet the interview is used more than any other candidate evaluation technique.”
Interviews can be helpful, however, if the candidate is asked about specific scenarios they’re likely to encounter on the job — such as how to respond to a colleague who routinely fails to meet deadlines, or to describe how they’d go about implementing a new creative strategy.
“I’d rather ask people on whether they could do a job or not,” says Matthew Burr, an HR consultant based in Southern Tier, New York. “If it’s an HR manager job, I’d like to know if the candidate knows about HR law and how to deal with employee conflict. Those questions are more meaningful to me than if you know why manhole covers are round, or how many tennis balls can fit in a car.”
Better yet, test a candidate’s skills directly. It’s now common for technologies companies to have prospective programmers write actual code as part of their evaluation, Collins says. And consulting firms now conduct team interviews, to see how well potential employees work with one another.
“Strange interview questions are common because interviewers are never confronted with the evidence that these questions are useless,” says Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania. “There might be some questions designed to test particular skills, like speaking under stress, that are helpful. But in general, if a question sounds stupid, it probably is.”