If You Were Given an Elephant (and Other Interview Questions)
Have you ever wondered where interview questions come from and why some of them are so strange?
I have a little secret to share with you. I can’t help myself—whenever I run across a post or article titled, “Questions every employer should know before they interview,” or anything remotely like that, I have to click.
Learn how to interview better and you will get better employees. Build your hiring muscle and, before long, you will end up with incredible people working for you. They are out there, and they are looking for incredible employers.
Hiring the right person is a process. And, of course, asking good interview questions is one of the most useful tools available to you when it comes to separating the applicant wheat from the chaff.
At CEDR, we recommend that employers lean primarily on behavioral interview questions to make sure they are getting the most actionable information possible from candidates during an interview.
But there can be value in asking some of the less conventional, out-of-left-field-type questions that challenge candidates to think on their feet, as well. As you might expect, the questions some companies use are weirder than others. This is a situation where context really matters.
One of the biggest complaints we get from our members is this:
The person I hired did great in the interview but, two weeks in, they are a completely different person than I thought they were when I offered them the job. Can you help me let this person go?
What I really want you to understand is that every question and answer exchanged during a job interview is an opportunity for you to learn something about the candidate that might help you ferret out the ones you like versus the one that should get the job.
So, whether it is an off-the-wall question about elephants, or a behavioral interview question that starts with “tell me about a time,” make sure you are paying attention to what I call, “the things written on the margins.” These are the things that tell you what they may not readily give up while being interviewed.
While the following question is ODD, here is what you could learn from it if the person asked was to fill a managerial role.
You’ve Been Given an Elephant…
Consider this question, which is part of a fascinating collection put together by Business Insider:
You’ve been given an elephant. You can’t give it away or sell it. What would you do with the elephant?
Bizarre? Sure. But, if you happen to be hiring for a zoo, or perhaps looking for a person who needs to be a nurturer as part of their job description, then this might be a good question.
Here’s my answer: I would not accept your elephant. After all, the question says I can’t give it away or sell it. By not accepting it in the first place, I don’t have to give it away or sell it. It was never mine.
This might give you a hint that, as a manager, I am not prone to being coerced into giving a “Yes” when the answer should be “No.”
But, if you as the interviewer insisted that I stop being so literal and answer the question, and I push back too hard and am NOT willing to play along, that might tell you that I was inflexible. In that case, I might not be what you want in a manager.
Remember that term we used earlier, behavioral interview questions? When working to write your interview questions, you want to make sure that they cannot be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No”.
If your candidate can answer your question in one word, then you’ll need to rephrase the question to elicit a response that includes them telling you about their experiences doing the things you need them to do for you. The best behavioral interview questions almost alway began with “Tell me about a time when you…”
For more on behavioral interview questions, check out our behavioral interview blog.
One parting piece of wisdom: The reason why the person you hired turned out to be a completely different type of employee than you expected is simple. Their job, during the interview, is to tell you what you want to hear and to get you to like them. Your job is to get them to demonstrate that they have difference-maker skills and are a cultural fit.
When the person you hired turns out to be not so great, it often means that you need to develop some new interview skills and techniques. If that is the case, download our Free Hiring Guide to find a flowchart you can use to put your interview questions to the test and learn about some different techniques for hiring.
Updated September 16, 2020; originally published February 15, 2016.