CAREER COACH: THE JOB
CURVEBALL JOB QUESTIONS:
HOW NOT TO STRIKE OUT
Globe and Mail:
By KATIE ROOK: Saturday, September 3, 2005 Page B9
How would you describe the colour green to a blind person?
Think hard. For while that might not be the kind of question you'd expect to
be asked in a job interview, it is one that candidates have faced before,
career coach Sharon Graham warns.
It's an example of the dreaded curveball question -- a query candidates
could never imagine being asked, no matter how well prepared they come to an
And while curveball questions might seem to have nothing to do with the
position at hand, they are usually asked for good reason, career advisers
Curveball questions are generally designed to catch candidates off-guard and
see whether they can think on their feet and how well they'll do, says Ms.
Graham, president of Graham Management in Toronto and executive director of
the Career Professionals of Canada, an organization of coaches and job
"It may seem like the interviewer has lost it, but in reality he probably
thinks he will get a response that will be useful in his decision making,"
In her practice, Ms. Graham and her team of career coaches have encountered
some seemingly bizarre queries, such as: "How would you move Mount Fuji?"
"How would you find a needle in a haystack?"
The "if" question is another common curveball that asks candidates to
compare themselves to any number of objects. "If you were a flavour of ice
cream, what would you be? Why?"
Other curveball questions are meant to put candidates on edge. Examples are:
"Why has it taken you so long to find a job?" or "Why did you leave your
And then there are the old classics, obstacle-related questions, such as:
"You're in a balloon with three famous people, the balloon is losing
altitude, who are you going to throw out? Why shouldn't they throw you out?"
adds career coach Paul Copcutt.
Sometimes the question requires more than a verbal answer.
Mr. Copcutt remembers a candidate who floundered when asked to make an
impromptu presentation about himself.
The interviewer told the candidate -- who had eight years experience in
sales and a university degree -- that he hadn't had time to read his résumé.
When the candidate supplied an additional copy, the interviewer said he
didn't have his reading glasses and asked the interviewee to just stand up
and make a presentation to the room.
"The candidate just died, bombed, wasn't prepared for it and got completely
flustered. He couldn't handle the situation and came across as poor in
communication and presentation," recalls Mr. Copcutt, president of
Hamilton-based Square Peg Solution, a personal-branding company.
|In fact, there is no wrong answer to a curveball question
and you can actually use them to your advantage by responding in a way that
showcases your skills.
For example, Ms. Graham says, in answering the question about how to move
Mount Fuji, you might incorporate what you know about the company, showing
that you've done the research, and tailor your answer to highlight strengths
and previous experience that you might bring to the task.
As for comparisons between yourself and ice cream, the interviewer is likely
to see the candidate who answers "vanilla" as having an ordinary
personality, while "strawberry ripple" might indicate a more outgoing type,
Ms. Graham says.A good answer would be "Neapolitan," she adds, because it
would be a good mix of flavours. It would show that the candidate is
inclusive and a flexible leader who can work well with different kinds of
people in many different situations.
And when it comes to obstacle-type questions, "I think what interviewers are
more looking for is how do you justify yourself staying in the
boat."Sometimes, a curveball question encourages a candidate to respond with
his or her own unexpected manoeuvre. But coaches warn candidates to be
careful when doing so.
Mr. Copcutt recalls a particularly savvy candidate who was applying for a
Asked to sell a glass of water to the interviewer, he took out a match from
his pocket, lit it and dropped it in a garbage bin full of paper. As the
flames grew, the candidate waited and then asked the interviewer, "How much
for the water?"
Mr. Copcutt suspects this risky tactic worried the interviewer, as the
candidate didn't get the job.
When it comes to answering curveball questions, coaches advise candidates to
think through an answer, rather than react on impulse.
"You have to understand they know it's a tough question so if you want to
pause and think about it and come up with a good solution, then that's
fine," Ms. Graham says. Then, answer strongly and positively and support the
response with a sensible reason.
It is also essential that candidate give answers rich in examples of
accomplishments and avoid ending a statement with an "and" or a "so," she
"Create responses that include a brief description of a situation, issue, or
problem that you encountered. Outline the action that you took to resolve
the situation. Then tell the interviewer the result or outcome, and how it
positively affected the bottom line."
"Once you've given them the result, just stop. It's okay to have a little
bit of silence while the interviewer is looking for the next question. If
they need more, they will always ask for more."
And how do you respond to illegal types of questions, such as your age and
which religious holidays you celebrate?
Candidates should make their best attempt to answer any question, Ms. Graham
says, but when presented with an illegal question, you can decline to answer
with the most tact you can manage. Alternatively, the candidate might ask
the interviewer how the question is relevant to the job, she says.
Mr. Copcutt adds that if a question is particularly offensive the candidate
can terminate the interview. But it's always important to keep the end goal
-- getting the job-- in mind, Mr. Copcutt reminds.
Answer with confidence and self-assurance -- and always expect the