The Ultimate Interview Question may Lead to the Ultimate Deposition Question: How is this Job-related?

September 28, 2007

Frank Roche of the KnowHR Blog posits his ultimate interview question: “Do you recline your airplane seat? Explain.”  While not listed as one of the top 15 interview questions, I found his inquiry rather interesting.  I followed the links to find that there are a number of interview chat forums that highlight the off-beat interview questions of companies like Google, Microsoft and eBay. These job applicants face question like how many golf balls can fit inside a school bus. Or how much you would charge for washing all the windows in Seattle. Or why, exactly, manhole covers are round and not, say, square.

I wondered if this was the product of a slow day in the recruiting department or if there was some method to this madness. According to a article Want a job at Google? Try these brainteasers first, there is a rationale:

Seemingly random questions like these have become commonplace in Silicon Valley and other tech outposts, where companies aren’t as interested in the correct answer to a tough question as they are in how a prospective employee might try to solve it. Since businesses today have to be able to react quickly to shifting market dynamics, they want more than engineers with high IQs and good college transcripts. They want people who can think on their feet.

Most behavioral based interviewing techniques are not quite as far out, but they still ring of subjectivity in assessing an applicant’s fitness for a particular job. How do these far out interview questions bode from a legal perspective?

Commentaries on Best Practices for Interviewing identify both job relatedness and uniformity as hallmarks of an appropriate process. These are also paramount in defending legal claims arising from a selection process. The key for employers is to demonstrate that the questions are accurate predictors of job performance and that all applicants had the same chance to succeed. Obviously, the more preposterous the question, the more a judge or jury might question a company’s hiring practices and infer discrimination.

Unsuccessful applicants often point to the subjectivity in an interview process as a basis of discriminatory treatment. Courts note that subjective considerations are not unlawful per se, but obviously subjective decision making provides an opportunity for unlawful discrimination.  See, e.g., Santana v. City and County of Denver. Furthermore, the OFCCP and EEOC abhor subjectivity as a basis for employment decisions because of its potential to have a disparate impact on a protected class. This has been noted in previous postings. Systemic Discrimination: EEOC’s Latest Tactic to Redress Discrimination and OFCCP Audits Focus on Systemic Discrimination.

So, if you are an interviewer who wants to find out whether an applicant reclines his or her airplane seat and why, be prepared to explain [in court] how the inquiry might be job-related and ask the same question to everyone you interview.