Episode 503 : Cat in the Freezer

On this episode of What The Hell Just Happened?! CeCe Wilson and Paul Edwards discuss wild questions that employers ask potential candidates during interviews. How does asking someone what they would do if they opened a freezer to see a penguin inside help see if they will be a good candidate? The world may never know… Let’s go over the better way to go about interview questions.


Voice Over: You’re about to listen to an episode of What the Hell Just Happened. Join Paul Edwards and his guests as they discuss interesting HR topics and solve some of our listeners’ submitted questions. 


Paul: And occasionally I’ll go off HR topic and talk about whatever I want to talk about. Think barbecue. Space exploration. Technology. Money. Managing. Business. Things that interest all of us.


Voice Over: We get a lot of emails with questions. Stay tuned for details on how you can submit yours to the show. And now let’s get started. 


Paul: I just start off the podcast. That’s what I do. 


CeCe: [laughing] 


Paul: We’ve been in the podcasting room, so I forget that I introduced CeCe for the last topic we did, which was fascinating, and you’re going to have to figure that out on your own.


CeCe: [laughing] Which one is it?


Paul: Which one is it? It’s fascinating. I’ll give you a hint. It’s about engagement. So this podcast, this conversation we’re going to have today is not about engagement. This is about quirky interview questions. So CeCe, you’ve got a lot of experience in this area. CeCe is HR for the HR people over at CEDR HR Solutions. On this episode of What the Hell Just Happened, we’re going to kind of talk about these stupid ass questions that get asked inside of interviews that are meant to show you something. I’ve seen a couple of articles come out on this. I remember the one that was around like ten years ago, which was if I gave you an elephant?


CeCe: Oh my gosh.


Paul: If I gave you an elephant, you couldn’t do – 


CeCe: What would you do with it?


Paul: You couldn’t give the elephant away and then what would you do with it? And my answer is, is I train the elephant to stomp you into the floor standing in front of me.


CeCe: [laughing]


Paul: I mean, I don’t know what the intent of that was, but most importantly, I don’t know what the interviewer would do with the answers. 


CeCe: Yeah, that one and the, “What would you do if you open the freezer and there’s a penguin in it?” Those are kind of the two –


Paul: I haven’t heard that one. I would scream in delight.


CeCe: Have you ever been asked one of these questions? I have. 


Paul: Well, this leads me to the question. This leads me to a story. I want to see if I can shorten the story a little bit. It’s about an animal in a freezer. It has nothing to do with what we’re about to talk about. So this was many years ago, CeCe. My family is together. I’m young, my sister is even younger and all the cousins and everybody are around and we’ve rented a house on the river in rural North Carolina and in a little town called Little Washington, North Carolina. Grandparents are coming to the house and everything. You know, there’s like the old days, we just get the families together.


CeCe: And I now know North Carolina is considered the south. 


Paul: Yeah, North Carolina’s considering the south. Better than South Carolina, by the way. I’m sorry, South Carolina. We’re just one step above, literally. Anyway, we’re having this big weekend and there’s an offer for ice cream or something? And back, back then you can make your own ice cream, but we didn’t do that. I’m not that old, but you could. We had an ice cream maker and so the adults went out for ice cream. I don’t remember exactly how this happened, but all the kids were left. There were varying ages, from like probably three years old to like 14 or 15, and the older kids are told to watch the little kids. Don’t land, jump in the canal, drown or whatever.


CeCe: Yeah. 


Paul: And somehow my sister puts a cat in a freezer. 


CeCe: Oh, gosh.


Paul: I don’t remember the context of why it happened, but in the end, it wasn’t like she’s crazy or anything. There was some reason why she thought she was supposed to put the cat in the freezer. 


CeCe: Okay. How old was she?


Paul: Oh. [sighs] Four?


CeCe:  Oh, okay.


Paul: I mean, she had to pull a chair over.


CeCe: Yeah. Wow. That’s dedication.


Paul: It is dedication. She puts the cat in the freezer, which is, you know, in hindsight, terrible. 


CeCe: Yeah.


Paul: Puts the cat in the freezer, but the parents aren’t gone that long and they come back with the ice cream and the only way that we knew the cat was in the freezer was that they opened the freezer to put the ice cream in it and there’s a cat, and the cat appears to have passed. 


CeCe: Oh.


Paul: Yeah, and they pull the cat out and my Grandma says, “I think I can bring the cat back.” So it’s North Carolina. There’s grass everywhere. Every home has a lawnmower and a gas tank next to it, because that’s the way you mow the lawns. So my grandmother actually sends down someone and they bring back a little cup of gasoline. She takes an eyedropper and she puts a little tiny…this cat’s just almost stiff laying on the table. She puts a little tiny drop of gas in the cat’s mouth and I swear to God, like 5 seconds later, that cat jumps up –


CeCe: Oh my gosh!


Paul: Takes off. I mean, just like a cat does. Runs, like, on the walls twice and then runs up the drapes, gets to the top, and then just drops. Ran out of gas.


CeCe: [laughing]


Paul: Oh, my God. I hope this makes the podcast. You’re supposed to say, “What happened to the cat.?” 


CeCe: Well, I was waiting for either like a very [laughing] sad moment – 


Paul: I get people with that all the time! I love that story.


CeCe: I didn’t see the joke part coming. 


Paul: Oh no you weren’t supposed to see the joke part coming.


CeCe: Not even a little. [laughing]


Paul: So, you know, she didn’t put enough gas in the cat, but yeah. Okay, everybody, my sister did not…My sister was like, “Jesus, now I’m going to get emails.” 




Paul: All right. So what we actually are here to talk about today are the quirky interview questions. So my question to you is, have you ever put a cat in a freezer?


CeCe: No. 


Paul: Okay. So a penguin in a freezer. I’ll give you an elephant. 


CeCe: Yeah. There’s so many problems with these questions, and there was actually just a new study released that made me think about doing this for the podcast that showed that high performers are really turned off by these questions. 


Paul: They’re annoyed. 


CeCe: Yeah, they don’t like it. It’s kind of almost like a display of dominance or power because the interview process is a two way street. You want somebody who wants to be there, and so you should be showcasing what you have to offer – 


Paul: As an employer and, “What would you do with a penguin?” I don’t see how that’s relevant. Think about this: if you’re doing your job as a manager, as a hiring person, there’s a high likelihood that if you’ve done a relatively decent job, you went through about 50 people and really you hope that the four or five people that you’re talking to are actually high performers. 


CeCe: Absolutely. 


Paul: So the last thing you want to do is bring a technique into a high performer conversation and make it feel like you’re just going to waste their time.


CeCe: Yeah, I also don’t understand it just from an efficiency perspective because I only have so much time, and anybody who does hiring, it is such a grueling process. 


Paul: Even when it goes well.


CeCe: Even when it goes well, it’s such a time burden. So when I’m interviewing somebody, all of those questions should have value. We really do look at our questions any time we fill a role and say, “Have we ever gotten anything out of this question that was like an ‘AHA! Moment?’’


Paul: Or do we miss a question that we needed to ask? Because this last applicant I mean, we have a great example. 


CeCe: We do that. We just revised one of our interview questionnaires based on why somebody who exited left.


Paul: Ten years ago, we hired someone who had a ton of experience inside of a law firm and we assumed that she had experience with various software programs. That it wouldn’t matter. We could just set her down because most people you could sit down in front of a computer and they would be able to learn the programs and the law firm she worked in didn’t use anything like that. She could open up Microsoft Word and so we didn’t ask the question, “What’s your proficiency here?” We certainly didn’t test for the proficiency because we assumed, and when we assume we make an ass out of you and me. So I felt horrible because she felt horrible. After being there for eight days, she had to come clean and say she was struggling. Well, we could see in the background, but I felt so bad because she left in tears because she had come back into the workforce and now we had made her feel as if she wasn’t worthy. That wasn’t what we were trying to do at all and that wasn’t true.


CeCe: Right.


Paul: She just wasn’t right for that particular job.


CeCe: Exactly. So in addition to being just a complete waste of your time because you’re not getting anything valuable out of it, those are absolutely not a predictor of future performance, the way behavioral interview questions are. 


Paul: Wait. I know if you worked at a zoo?


CeCe: Oh, sure! [laughing]


Paul: What would you do if you came into the break room and there was a penguin in the freezer? I think that would be a good question. I don’t think any of our listeners are zookeepers.  


CeCe: Probably not. 


Paul: Okay. I just wanted to make a point. 


CeCe: True. But usually these questions are not tied in any way to the actual job functions of the person’s going to be performing. The other real concern with them is that they lead to making decisions based on biases. So if somebody gives an answer that I think is hilarious,?


Paul: I might hire them! 


CeCe: I might hire them.


Paul: Because everybody else was like, “I don’t know what I would do with the elephant.”


CeCe: Right? 


Paul: Good point. 


CeCe: Yeah. Or maybe that leads to some other conversation that isn’t the traditional interview style questions? And now I’m maybe connecting with this person a little bit differently than I did somebody else because they gave this hilarious answer and now I leave there feeling like I really like them – 


Paul: Which is not a reason to hire someone. 


CeCe: It’s not why you hire somebody. Yeah.


Paul: If you have five people that are qualified and you pick the one you like, you’ve just screwed up. 


CeCe: Absolutely. 


Paul: You can say, “I like this person,” and you can eliminate someone by saying, “I don’t like that person.” It’s okay to use the factor, but it should not be your determining thing, especially when you’re kind of stuck. You’ve got to bring people back in and ask them the penguin question. No.


CeCe: [laughing]


Paul: Don’t ask them the penguin question. Ask them another, more behavioral interview style questions, which, by the way, this is a question that is designed for them to demonstrate their proficiency or their experience in an area and to tell you how they handled something. Tell me about a time when you, and no one in their right mind would say, “Tell me about a time when you were given an elephant and you couldn’t do anything.” Nobody in their right mind is going to ask that question. Behavioral interview questions, which are designed to get people talking and to discuss relevant to the job, relevant to your culture, relevant to their skills. Those are good questions. 


CeCe: Yeah. That’s where we want to be spending our time, is on those types of questions. The other tactic that I’ve seen actually more frequently than you would assume, because I think this is bizarre, is people who will give somebody like a puzzle or something to work on while they’re answering the questions. Paul, I imagine, I don’t know whether or not you think that you’re a great multitasker, but I imagine that you think that you do a good job at this podcast.I would agree with that. 


Paul: She has to say that.


CeCe: I think if I gave you a puzzle to do while we were recording this podcast, your contribution would significantly decrease.


Paul: Or if I was on my phone right now. 


CeCe: Yeah!


Paul: Or whatever, or I was responsible for recording this right now and I was trying to make sure our levels and we were doing everything right. 


CeCe: Yeah. So I’m not sure what the game plan behind the, “Giving somebody a puzzle to work on while you’re having the conversation,” is? Unless that is some sort of realistic preview of what they’re going to be doing on the job, the person who is going to be able to B.S. their way through that conversation while they’re doing the puzzle, is probably actually not the person that you want. You want the person who’s going to be able to be focused and wants to be engaged in the conversation with you and probably doesn’t want to be doing those two things at the same time.


Paul: You triggered something else for me. If you’re listening out there, CeCe’s talking about multitasking. Just understand that when you multitask according to the SCRUM principle, which is a very well understood principle, if you have five things to do and you multitask to five things at the same time? It takes you ten times longer to perform each one of the things. Now we can’t get out of multitasking.


CeCe: Right.


Paul: It’s just there. But just understand that when you say you’re good at multitasking, you’re not. I mean, you might be good at it, but what you’re being good at is making things take ten times longer than if you concentrate. So you’re always wanting to bring that back down. Now, I digress because we use multitasking as an example of something that someone might try. I bet there’s an application for, “Let’s have them do three things at once and see how they do in each one of these things.” Maybe a pilot, I don’t know. But then again, I know how pilots fly and although they’re multitasking as they’re going, things are done in an SOP and they’re set and once one thing’s set, you can leave that and not worry about any more and move to the next thing. There’s a takeoff, a landing and all the things that are in that. So even then, the multitask tasks are broken down into one thing at a time. 


CeCe: Yeah, I think that a lot of times when people talk about multitasking, what they really mean is sequencing.  So are you good at identifying things like this process or report or something that takes maybe 3 hours to run because especially if you work in finance that could be a realistic thing. So I’m going to set it at this time because I’m going to need it 3 hours later and then here’s all the things that I know I can get done in this amount of time and that’s a valuable skill, is being able to identify where your gaps in time are. 


Paul: We should charge. We should charge for what you just said. 


CeCe: [laughing]


Paul: We should. I’m serious. If you’re listening out there and you didn’t pick that up, say it again. Say it again. Even more succinctly. Sequencing. 


CeCe: Yeah, sequencing. We’re usually not looking for multitasking. We are looking for somebody who has the critical thinking ability to sequence their work efficiently.


Paul: And how would you frame a question for that? 


CeCe: Well, we do often ask, “Tell me about a time that you had multiple priorities and how you organize those?” 


Paul: That’s the sequencing.


CeCe: Because that’s what I want to hear. How did you organize them? What was your prioritization process? 


Paul: So you don’t even care about the house or the outcomes, you just want to hear them say, “Well, what I usually do is I take the thing that’s due this morning and I got to tackle that. I’ll look at the thing that’s due this afternoon. If people are waiting on me, I will look at all the tasks at hand and reach out and say, “I can’t get this to today, but I can get it to you by tomorrow.” And then I have my own system.” That’s what you’re looking for. 


CeCe: Exactly.


Paul: Okay. So we were talking about quirky interview questions when what we really meant to talk about is that you should ask good damn questions and don’t waste your time and the other person’s time. Right?


CeCe: Yeah. 


Paul: That’s what we’re talking about. 


CeCe: Absolutely. 


Paul: So if you search this CEDR website, CeCe, I think if they search the CEDR website, they’ll find behavioral interview guidance. They’ll find a bunch of questions that we’ve modeled for anybody who wants it. A bunch of questions we’ve modeled for people to be able to take and make their own. 


CeCe: Yeah. 


Paul: Okay. So this podcast, What The Hell Just Happened in HR?! is somebody asked some stupid question of a really qualified candidate and annoyed them so much that they left thinking, “I can’t work for a company that would ask me about penguins and elephants when I’m supposed to come in here and be a leader and do these other things.”


CeCe: Yeah. 


Paul: Yeah. Okay. All right, everybody. Like, with everything else, just be intentional. Educate yourself when it comes to doing this sort of thing. None of us are great at it every time. The more we do it, it’s like a hiring muscle. Develop good behavioral interview questions and be consistent in them and then you’ll get consistent feedback from your pool of candidates and it’ll make it more likely, not less likely, that you pick the right person for the job.


CeCe: Absolutely. 


Paul: Wow. That was very HR…Kenny, if you’re still awake out there, man, I’m sorry about this, but we really needed to talk about these stupid interview questions. 




Paul: CeCe, as always, I appreciate you. 


CeCe: Thanks Paul.


Paul: Frankie? We don’t say enough, man. Thanks for getting our recordings down and everything’s just sounding so much better and just just we just really appreciate Frankie and his production on systems.


CeCe: Absolutely!


Paul: All right, everybody, I hope you have a good day. Get out there and get that cat out of your freezer. 


Voice Over: Thanks for joining us for this week’s episode of What the Hell Just Happened. If you have an HR issue, question, or just want to add a comment about something Paul said, record it on your phone and send it to podcast@wthjusthappened.com. We might even ask if we can play it on the show. Don’t forget to Like and Subscribe and join us again next week.


Sep 11, 2023

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