(HITCN) recently ran a piece on left-field recruitment interview questions, including the one in the title, “What kitchen utensil would you be?”, and the potentially lethal “On a scale from 1 to 10, rate me as an interviewer”.  Would you seriously want to tell the Employment Tribunal that your disputed selection decision between man and woman, old and young, gay and straight, turned upon the answers to such tosh?   

Actually, maybe yes, you would.  Many years ago I interviewed a keen young candidate for the firm and asked a question long-treasured by one of my more evil partners here: “How many chickens are eaten in the UK each year?”.  Of course, no one knows the answer to that one off-hand, not even the partner in question, but the candidate could nonetheless have had a gallant run at it by assuming out loud a UK population of X of whom Y per cent were probably vegetarians, the remainder eating chicken Z times per week, etc.  That would show us that he would not panic immediately if faced with an unknown, had an analytical mind set and possessed some degree of numeracy.   

There is no right answer to most of these questions, but there are several wrong ones.  HITCN suggests that the worst answer that you can give when bowled one of these googlies is “I don’t know”, being rather a conversation-stopper.  In fact that is not right.  Our candidate on that occasion looked briefly affronted (“I came from the Magic Circle for this?”) and then asked me to “define chicken”.  In that single moment, more quickly and more effectively than through any number of answers on employment law and his hobbies and interests, he demonstrated categorically that he was not for us.  I do sometimes wonder at quiet times if he is still out there somewhere, laboriously researching the precise legal definition for “chicken”, and even now puzzling over his rejection.  

Exactly the same applies to those questions where the truthful answer is clear but potentially embarrassing, HITCN referring by way of example to “Have you ever stolen a pen from work?” and “If you had to get an injured passenger to hospital urgently, would you run a red light?”  Anyone denying possession of a company biro at home is either lying or has not yet found the stationery cupboard, but the red light question (asked by a law firm) invites the candidate into some potentially very dangerous waters – will I be truthful even if I thereby admit that I will break the law if I feel it necessary?  Not easy questions to answer smoothly but not an atypical challenge in one’s working life and so the way the candidate reacts can be very telling.  

So while the questions may sound odd, the answers can still tell you much about the candidate.  The key to using them successfully from the legal perspective (i.e. to demonstrate that you are applying an objective selection process rather than just being swinish because you can) is to ensure the retention of written records of what the answer told you about the relevant attributes of the candidate.  Supportable references to resilience, lateral thinking, analytical skills, pragmatism, sense of humour, even honesty, are all possible outcomes from such questions, provided that you can explain why – and without those written records, forget it.   

PS, the successful answer to the penguin question was apparently “Where’s the sunscreen?” – concise, apt, mildly humorous, ideal.  HITCN does not provide the winning formula for rating your interviewer, but it is probably safe to say that anything under a 5 will not get you far, however scintillating your reasoning.