From quirky to inappropriate: How to handle unusual questions in job interviews

Devex polled staffers for the weirdest questions they've been asked during a job interview. Here's what they said — and a Devex primer for how to handle curveballs. Photo by: qimono

Development professionals go to a job interview anticipating the usual questions: Can you tell me something about yourself? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Where do you see yourself in five years?

But what if the interviewer asks: What flavor of ice cream are you and why?

Creative questions have become commonplace during the hiring process, including for positions in the humanitarian and international development setting. The question above, in fact, was one of the questions development professionals shared when asked by Devex to recount the weirdest questions they encountered during a job interview.

Without context, however, candidates may find some of these questions odd or out of place.

Some development professionals had to contend with questions such as: What three movies would you recommend to an intelligent 4-year-old? And how did you respond emotionally to the outbreak of a war in your homeland when you were 9 years old? The latter was during an interview for a statistics job for a scientific project.

Recruiters, human resource personnel, and hiring managers often have their own reasons for asking questions out of the ordinary, according to Kate Warren, senior director for careers and recruitment at Devex. So what may seem weird or out of place for the interviewee means something else to the interviewer. The challenge for the applicant is figuring what that is.

Our resident expert breaks down some of these questions and the reasons why the person across that interview table might be asking them. Warren also shares a few pieces of advice for how you, sitting in the interview hot seat, can respond or handle questions that range from the quirky down to the inappropriate.

If you were a piece of furniture, which one would you be?

It may sound odd, but it’s one of the most popular questions recruiters ask in job interviews. Other versions pertain to superheroes or parts of a bicycle.

“There are some recruiters who have these creative questions because they want to ask you something you probably weren’t prepared for,” Warren said. “They want to catch you off guard a little bit, just to see how quickly you think on your feet and deal with a curveball question. For example, are you somebody who can roll with the punches and rebound pretty quickly? If that’s an important skill in the job, that could be one way to assess for that.”

There are no right or wrong answers to these types of questions, but how candidates respond and articulate their answer is what recruiters are after. If an applicant panics, that could give recruiters insight into how the interviewee would perform under pressure, or in an environment where the situation can be unpredictable. If it’s a senior position or communications job, how articulately the applicant responds gives the recruiter an idea about how the applicant might respond when fielding surprise questions by staff or the media.

Are you in a serious relationship?

Numerous development professionals told us they have encountered this question. Some of them have been asked if they’re single or married, or if they have kids.

Recruiters, HR personnel, and hiring managers should know better than to ask these questions, especially since in some countries, including the United States, asking about a candidate’s relationship status, age, religion, or even where they are born is downright illegal. Questions such as, “when did you graduate college?” could fall into this category, if the candidate felt it was done to determine his or her age. And that could easily get the whole organization in trouble if a candidate decides to pursue legal action.

“That’s what organizations are already afraid of — that hiring managers can open them up to a discrimination lawsuit,” Warren said, who emphasized the importance of training everyone involved in the hiring process. Often, hiring managers are just curious and unable to filter their curiosity, not realizing the risk they are placing on their organizations or the impression they may be leaving on candidates.

There are cases when the question wasn’t intended to discriminate and was asked only because the recruiter or hiring manager has to keep tabs on the budget, which sometimes may not include relocation costs.

“But the way to handle it is more of a salary and benefits negotiation. It’s not like, ‘you can’t get the job,’ but more like, ‘we have this job, but we don’t have a budget for family support.’ So it’s kind of up to the candidates if they want to take the job under these conditions or not.”

Warren admits, however, that there are organizations that may not want to deal with the hassle of negotiation, so they dive into the question at the start of the interview process.

Under these circumstances, it is still best for candidates to exercise calm and caution when answering these questions, instead of growing angry. The last thing jobseekers want to do is spoil future opportunities, Warren said.

“I think it’s best to try to be calm and professional, even if they are being completely inappropriate,” she said. “But I think it’s totally appropriate if there’s a question somebody is asking that makes you uncomfortable, to ask them, ‘why do you ask?’ — rather than being combative and saying, ‘that’s an illegal question.’”

This is also a good reminder in cross-cultural settings, where a candidate may be coming from a country where these questions are considered inappropriate and illegal, but applying for a job in a place where laws and social norms are different.

But if jobseekers ever find themselves in these situations, a good practice is to pause and think whether this is an organization they would want to work in, or if the interviewer is the kind of person they would want to work with.

“If someone asks you an inappropriate question, that’s also a good indication on whether this is the kind of place where you want to work or if it’s indicative of the culture in the organization, which is a danger to an employer because the person doing the interview is representing the entire organization. So if they give that bad impression, the candidate could think, ‘this is a super sexist place to work,’” Warren said. “Maybe it’s isolated to this one person, but that’s somebody you’re going to be working with.”

What turns you on?

There are the funny, quirky questions — and then there are the inappropriate ones. But there are also questions that fall under the category of “creativity gone wrong.”

“I think there are questions where the interviewer is trying to be quirky and oddball, but without thinking about how they can be interpreted, they make somebody uncomfortable — particularly a man asking a woman, ‘what turns you on?’” Warren said, referring to a question a development professional said she had to deal with during a job interview.

More often than not, the interviewer got the question from a Google search. But regardless, one way in which interviewees can address such questions is by always thinking how to link it back to the job. For this particular question, the applicant managed to use the question to highlight how ideas turn her on, which was important to the position she was applying for. The job entailed soliciting ideas the organization can fund or invest in.

What would you say to a person on death row minutes before execution?

Sometimes the question may have linkages to the kind of work that you’re applying for. In the case of this question, the candidate was interviewing with an organization “working in a humanitarian context.” The development worker did not disclose the name of the organization, but there are organizations that deal with prisoners, including a number of human rights organizations.

In such circumstances, Warren advises candidates not to shy away from asking the interviewer the context for the question.

“In this context, they want to understand how your personal experience motivates you to work in this line of work, and then you could focus on that rather than the thing that makes you uncomfortable,” she said.

Asking the follow-up question can also serve as a signal to the interviewer to contextualize their questions, or check themselves on whether what they’re asking something too personal. If recruiters, HR personnel, or hiring managers are asking something that’s quite personal, Warren said they should be able to explain the reason why and the importance of the question for the work advertised.

One development worker, for instance, was asked about her alcohol tolerance. The interviewer explained that the job would entail a great deal of engagement with local authorities for important negotiations, and that could include social drinking. This gave the applicant an idea of what she would be getting into with the job, and opened up a conversation with the interviewer on what possible options there are for candidates who may be qualified for the job, but who do not drink.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.