Friday, September 21, 2007

Why don't the pumps work...?

I've conducted a lot of job interviews in my career. Conducted, as in, I was the suit across the table from the nervous candidate. And usually, 'cause I'm staff and the other interviewers are usually volunteer Directors, I literally write the job descriptions and the questions that we'll ask the candidates.

I confessed some time ago to Husband that I had a "dream question" that I'd love to ask candidates for hire.

At the end of a very proper, very legal, very professional interview, I'd love to say to a candidate, "Oh, yes - I have just one more question.

Why don't the pumps work?"

"What?" I would expect our hypothetical candidates to say. "Why don't the pumps work?" I'd ask again, pleasantly.

And the candidate, I said to Husband, the candidate who said, "The pumps don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles"...

...that candidate would automatically get the job.

(Parenthetically, I stumbled over a similar example yesterday. It occurred to me, after hanging up the phone, that in an ideal world, I really only wanted to have to deal professionally with people who "got" Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now". In fact, I wish I could say to business contacts, "Just curious - do you 'get' Both Sides Now?" and only have to deal with the ones that said, "Oh, hell yes. Totally get it.")

Oh, I know, Not only illegal, but impractical. But come on.

It can't just be me. You've got to have your own "dream questions". For potential hires, for partners/spouses, for your kids' boy/girlfriends, roommates, coworkers.

Come on, four to seven readers of this blog! What question (doesn't have to be music-related, oh my, no) do you wish you could put to someone who was going to have significant play in or around your work or personal life?

Post in the comments thread. I'm hella curious.



Blogger Brian Fies said...

I confess I would've failed your "pump handle" interview.

I would like to be able to ask "What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?" and receive the reply "African or European?"

I would not hire any job candidate who picked Picard over Kirk. Anyone naming Janeway, Sisko or Archer would be thrown bodily from the building.

I would hire anyone who recognized the names Milt Caniff, Will Eisner, Walt Kelly, Cliff Sterrett, or Winsor McCay.

I would also hire anyone who said, "Hey, don't I know you from racs?"

I'll mull and see if I come up with any more....

11:04 p.m.  
Blogger Xtreme English said...

"o the places you'll go...."

a most interesting post.

Your pump handle question sent me running to Google. Bob Dylan, huh?
And once I saw Joni Mitchell's lyrics, I got them. Two more albums to add to my list....

Very astute....I read somewhere that a prospective worker needs most of all--beyond competence and all that--to fit in emotionally with the rest of the office.

So: Which candidate would get the job in YOUR office?

Q. "Krispy Kremes or Dunkin Donuts?"

A. "Neither...I prefer homemade."

B. "Neither...I prefer rice cakes.

C. "Krispy Kremes, but Dunkin Donuts has better coffee than Starbucks."

D. "Have you tried fried Twinkies?"

You Canadians....

2:38 a.m.  
Blogger Mike said...

Leaving aside the fact that I like working in a place where we don't have a lot in common -- journalism being an area where that markedly improves the final product -- I have come up with a pretty good question for making cuts within my own tight age demographic: "Beach Boys or British Invasion?"

But it's only good in assessing people who were born roughly between 1948 and 1952 and so were shaping their tastes at the right interval. If you were a few years older and living in England, it would translate to "Mods or Rockers?" but even the Mods would be too gritty for the Beach Boys demographic. The Beach Boys people supported Bobby Kennedy while the British Invasion group was either in Vietnam or in Lincoln Park.

(Sorry -- Did I overthink this again?)

9:20 a.m.  
Blogger Brian Fies said...

Not entirely on topic, but I'm reminded of my favorite job interview ever. I was applying for an entry-level job as an environmental chemist, a field for which I was desperately unqualified. The department supervisor and I were having a nice chat about physics and what-not when she pulled a thick book off the shelf, opened it to a particular page, and said, "Tell me what you'd do if I asked you to perform this procedure." (It helps if you picture the supervisor as a loud, round, Southern, Molly Ivins type.)

My eyes swam across words that had no meaning to me. I hemmed and hawed, and finally admitted, "I don't know. I guess I'd have to come ask you." She slapped the book shut, may have whooped or hooted, and said, "Perfect! I'd rather hire someone who admitted he didn't know something and asked for help than someone who tried to bullshit his way through and screwed everything up!"

In retrospect, I suspect she would've been happier had I actually understood the content, but my reply was clearly the second best choice. She hired me, we got along great, and I began an 11-year career in chemistry.

(Which, again in retrospect, I'm not sure did me any favors...but that wasn't my boss's fault.)

3:46 p.m.  
Blogger Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Hiring was my biggest weakness as an administrator - I was awful at it. I'd pick the smart funny troublemaker every single time. So i'd need a question that could keep the smart ones but separate the troublemakers out ... and i think "What would Rhoda Penmark's fate really be?" would do it nicely!
( )

10:32 p.m.  
Blogger ronnie said...

Brian - You'll never go wrong with a Monty Python question. Never. As far as Picard vs. Kirk, I would agree that I would cast a very suspicious eye on anyone taking Picard's side in that particular faceoff. ("What are you? Some kind of ... esthete?")

XEnglish - Ah, yes, in the US the "Dunkin' Donuts or Krispy Kreme?" would be very good. However, the donut chain question is deeply complex in Canada. We don't have Krispy Kreme here, but we do have Tim Horton's, a chain founded by and named for a retired professional hockey player who died prematurely in a car crash (thus making him a martyr/saint/etc.), which also raises money for a chain of summer camps for disabled children in Canada. To say that Tim Horton's is part of Canadians' collective sense of identity is an understatement. Tim's is to Canada as Coca-Cola is to the USA. So the only correct answer to "Dunkin' Donuts or Tim's?" would be, "Get out of my office, you son of a bitch." ;)

Mike, your "Beach Boys or British Invasion" question reminded me of another of the classics: "Beatles or Stones"? Of course, anyone today who didn't answer "Both" would be a low-priority hire for me...

NickelShrink, I have not read that classic, but I have certainly heard of it and now you've piqued my interest. I wouldn't go so far as to say I suck at hiring (although I've hired some dogs in my day), but I will say that hiring and firing are two tasks to which I would favourably compare eating bees.

Thanks, everybody, good stuff!

11:19 a.m.  
Blogger Sherwood Harrington said...

(I actually tried posting this twice before ronniecat posted her summary comment, but Blogger ate both posts. Here's another attempt.)

A personal litmus question for me would have something to do with a person's attitude toward companion animals, of course. Bonus points to anyone who likes cats and dogs.

Professionally... wow. I gave this far too much thought over the past few days, but came up with one that might actually prove useful in the not-too-distant. A couple of us in the Astronomy Department are getting pretty long in the tooth, so hiring replacements is not too far off. Having thought about ronnie's challenge, here's the one I'd like to ask:

Why are there no green stars?

If you Google "no green stars," you'll get myriad hits with many different explanations, some plausible, some not so much so, but most delivered in a very authoritative tone. None give my best speculation, which has to do with evolution and the physiology/psychology of sight more than with physics, but that's a topic for a different venue.

It's certainly not a topic that's covered in astrophysics graduate courses, at least as far as I know.

What I'd be looking for in a candidate's response is the tone of that response. Echoing one of Brian's comments, I'd give full points to "I don't know," and higher points to well-thought-out speculation clearly presented as speculation. I'd ask at least one followup, though, of anyone who gives a single answer in an authoritative tone.

Because that's what I would do, and our department really shouldn't have more than one blowhard of that ilk.

(Diane says -- jokingly, I think -- that if I go before she does, my epitaph will be: "Sherwood Harrington -- Often Wrong, Never in Doubt".)

2:42 p.m.  
Blogger ronnie said...

Brief comment before I comment on Sherwood's question later: my post was a response to all who responded but was not meant to sum up the thread by any means! Any and all latecomers and others invited to contribute or recontribute!

Later -


7:54 p.m.  
Blogger Sherwood Harrington said...


I think maybe I'll insist on Diane's epitaph when the time comes.

8:57 p.m.  
Blogger Marcus said...

that would be a sweet question.

2:49 a.m.  

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