Employers' Toughest Interview Questions: Why They're Asked, How To Answer

There are few situations more stressful than being stumped by a question during a job interview. But with stiff competition in the labor market, employers -- especially large ones -- are asking all kinds of seemingly odd, irrelevant questions.

Which kinds of questions are being asked? How about:

  • "What is the profit potential of offering wireless Internet service on planes?" asked of a consultant candidate interviewed at Oliver Wyman Group; or
  • "How many hotels are there in the U.S.?" put to a product manager candidate at Google Inc.

Those are just two recent examples compiled from more than 80,000 responses by Glassdoor, which produces an annual list of 25 of the most difficult companies to interview with (see the infographic below).

The career site says that consulting firms, such as Oliver Wyman and McKinsey & Co., among others, typically have the most difficult job-interview process because of the nature of the work. Consulting firms and their employees are hired to help solve weighty problems that range from international economics to local school districts, says Glassdoor spokesman Scott Dobroski.

Though questions such as those above may seem irrelevant to a job seeker's skills, career-expert J.T. O'Donnell says companies have two reasons for asking them. First, the hiring manager wants to know if candidates possess the kind of knowledge expected for the position -- and that may not always be apparent in the initial vetting process.

More: Top 10 Soft Skills For Job Hunters

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, she says, such questions are "really behavioral questions in disguise."

In their more pedestrian form, behavioral questions take the guise of: "Tell me about how you worked effectively under pressure," or "How do you handle a challenge?" More creative ones include, "What kind of fruit (or car) would you be if you could be one."

But the types of behavioral questions larger employers are asking these days are what O'Donnell calls "the sneaky ones." In other words, "They know you're not going to know the answer, so they're trying to see what happens when you're stumped [and] under pressure," she says.

More: The Best And Worst States For Job Seekers

Further, she says, interviewers want to be able to gauge an applicant's thought process. Employers don't expect you to know the answer, but they are expecting you to figure out how to find the information.

O'Donnell says it's best to respond by being honest. "It's OK to say, 'I don't know the answer, but I can break down for you how I can get it."

That's what employers are looking for; workers who have the resourcefulness to know how to take the knowledge that they've gained and apply it to future situations.

So, she says, "Don't be afraid to tell them how you'd get it done."

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December 21 2012 at 8:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It would be nice just to get an interview. After sending out hundreds of resumes I have had two interviews. People over the age of 50 are being discriminated against.

August 05 2012 at 10:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't know... I love the challenge of it all just to prove that I'm knowledgeable.
The figure-aptitude questions just demonstrate how well you go about solving problems, or the scenarios of an existing problem and what you would do to fix it.
Very rarely do I have an interview that I don't score 100% in the Q and A session, and while I'm nervous on the inside, I never let them see me sweat.
Since you shake hands with your right hand, I keep a small tissue in my left hand. They don't like people who talk with their hands, so the tissue helps to keep my hands under the table.
And even if you don't know something, you can still emphasize that you're a quick learner and are highly adaptable.
Unfortunately, confidence still won't land you the job.
So how do you play slightly dumb (non-threatening) and Qualified all at the same time?

August 05 2012 at 10:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

i'd respond ....if and when you're serious about hiring someone call me MAYBE i'll come back . until then i'll keep looking for a company that is interested in my qualificaions

August 05 2012 at 9:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Heather Huhman

Nice, to-the-point post, David. Employers absolutely are asking "sneaky" behavioral questions more frequently these days, and, as J.T. noted, they're doing so in hopes of receiving honest, resourceful, and knowledgeable responses. But job seekers need to be careful when delivering these answers because it's easy to slip into a rambling response. To combat the urge to ramble, job seekers must remember to always take a deep breath and think of their responses before beginning to speak. Doing so will also eliminate job seekers' urge to "um" as well!

August 02 2012 at 7:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Heather Huhman's comment

But its so hard to know.
I've been on interviews where the person would ask a two-minute question (a long scenario example) that they want you to answer. The scenario has many different variables, that, while your mind is formulating an example, you have to also pick-up on the key point of what your focus "answer" should be.
That can lead to a rambling response because you're trying to impress upon the interviewer that you were paying attention and want to respond with something relevant. Some answers will make you appear too knowledgeable (as in over-qualified), while other answers can appear "not detailed enough" to impress the interviewer.
So its hard to tell and when to know how much is Too Much, vs Not Enough. Just because the interviewer talks alot doesn't mean you should match them. Either they like you right off the bat, or they don't.

August 05 2012 at 10:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In the hopes of receiving honest answers? Hardly. HR people are incompetent. You need to be interviewed by the person you are actually going to work for. HR people ask questions that mean nothing to actually doing the job/

August 05 2012 at 10:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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