Why we ask: “Skittles or M&Ms” during job interviews

True story. About a year ago, one of our Blueprint Creative team members was introduced to a young professional who worked as a salesman in the automotive industry. After the usual pleasantries were exchanged, the young salesman asked our team member where he worked and what he did as a career. Our Blueprinter responded that he worked at a branding agency called Blueprint Creative that helped its clients build stronger brands and stronger businesses.

The young professional repeated the name of the company slowly. “Blueprint Creative,” he said with a quizzical look on his face. Then he added: “Isn’t that the company that asks, ‘Skittles or M&Ms’ during job interviews?” He was right. Apparently, word had gotten around that at Blueprint Creative, we have a habit of asking weird, unexpected questions during our interviews. One of those questions is “Do you prefer Skittles or M&Ms?”

Why do we care whether potential team members prefer to eat skittles or M&Ms? We don’t, actually. So then, why do we ask? Two reasons. The first reason is that we want to evaluate potential team members’ ability to handle unexpected circumstances and their ability to participate in a conversation that they didn’t see coming.

There are tons of websites that can help job applicants prepare for interviews. Chances are that a well-prepared applicant has already practiced canned responses to questions like “what are your biggest strengths?”, “what are your biggest weaknesses?” and “what are your career goals?” But it is unlikely that an applicant would have practiced putting forward a mini-thesis to defend his/her confectionery preferences. Which is exactly why we ask that question during interviews. We want to observe candidates’ ability to think on their feet and articulate their thoughts clearly, even in cases where they are responding to unexpected, out-of-the-box questions. If an applicant can’t articulate why he/she prefers a specific type of candy, chances are that the individual won’t be able to articulate his/her thoughts in the range of conversations that could possibly arise while working in our industry.

The second reason we ask such an unusual question is that an applicant’s response gives us an insight into that individual’s personality. If the applicant is offended that we asked a silly question in such a serious meeting, that applicant probably won’t fit in with our company culture where, in between intense bouts of hard work, we tell corny jokes, play pranks on each other and watch vintage episodes of Sesame Street on YouTube (Oh, Mr. Snuffaluffagus, how we’ve missed you)!  But if an applicant takes our strange questions in stride, there’s a good chance that the individual has a sense of humour and will feel right at home with our other team members.

Over the past decade, we’ve also asked other weird questions. For instance, we’ve asked applicants which sitcom they preferred: “Friends” or “Seinfeld”. Then, once they’ve given their answer, we ask which character on their preferred comedy they identify with the most, and why they identify with this character. Again, it really doesn’t matter which 90s sitcom they prefer. We just want to know they can articulate their preference and string together a logical defense of their response.

Of course, we don’t only ask applicants about their sitcom and candy preferences. We ask a range of other serious, conventional questions designed to test their technical competence and cultural fit for our industry and our culture. But we’ve found that the weirder the question we ask, the more insights we uncover about the candidates’ personality, personal philosophies and work ethic.

Several companies have their own off-the-wall questions they pose to potential employees. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com (one of our favorite companies) is known to ask, “On a scale of 1 – 10, how lucky are you?”, a question designed to evaluate how optimistic or pessimistic candidates are, whether they are likely to take responsibility for their current circumstances, and whether they are likely to assign either blame or credit for important events in their lives. Zappos is also known to ask “On a scale of 1 – 10, how weird are you?” as a way to evaluate how likely a candidate is to fit into the Zappos culture. Zappos places high value on its unique company culture, and is known to hire and fire based on whether an individual adheres to their core values. That’s probably why many of the company’s interview questions are geared towards helping the interview team understand candidates’ likelihood of fitting into Zappos’ culture.

And tech giant Google is so renowned for asking tough questions, riddles and trick questions that the company’s interview questions have even inspired books with titles like “Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?

Many other companies have their own weird and wacky questions. Conduct a simple web search for the terms “strange interview questions” and you’ll see a range of unusual questions designed to evaluate candidates’ technical competency and cultural fit for the jobs which they are applying for.

If, in the past, you’ve had trouble evaluating a candidate’s technically competence or cultural fit, consider developing your own weird interview questions. You might be surprised at just how well you are able to evaluate individuals who are applying for a job in your company.