How to tell if your future boss is a narcissist

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Personal finance reporter

Even seasoned pros can get sweaty palms and a dry mouth during job interviews, and when an interviewer throws out an oddball question, some applicants panic.

But wait. Brain teaser questions like “Calculate the angle of two clock pointers when time is 11:50” may actually say more about the interviewer than the interviewee.

People who think curveball questions are useful and appropriate in job interviews tend to have more “dark traits,” including sadism and narcissism, and they tend to be callous and lack empathy, a study published this week in the journal Applied Psychology found.

“They tend to lack the perspective of the applicant and do not appreciate the potentially abusive nature of these questions,” said Scott Highhouse, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University and a co-author of the study.

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These questions can feel disorienting and even unfair to job applicants, and in today’s job market, there’s an added pressure. Answering these questions correctly can be the ticket to a new job and a hefty pay increase, something many American workers have been missing out on over the last several years as wages have remained flat.

That’s probably why career guide websites feature tips on how to answer these mind-bending questions.

But that pressure could be misplaced. There’s no evidence that the answers applicants actually give to these types of questions relate to performance on the job, Highhouse noted. And if a job seeker encounters one of these questions, that may be a sign to look elsewhere. “If the person who you’re working directly for is the one asking these questions, I would wonder if this is someone you want to work for,” Highhouse said.

Highhouse got interested in studying brain teaser interview questions after he read about Laszlo Bock, a former senior vice president for people operations at Google GOOG, -0.24%  , dismissing brain teasers as a “complete waste of time” in recruiting. “They don’t predict anything,” Bock said. “They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

In the study, Highhouse and co-researchers presented 736 people with lists of job interview questions. The lists included traditional ones — “Can you work under pressure and deal with deadlines?” and “Tell us why you want to work for us” — as well as brain teasers. Researchers asked the study participants to say how likely they were to ask the questions during an interview, and whether they thought they were appropriate to ask.

People who wanted to use the brain teaser questions were more likely to have revealed “dark traits” like sadism and narcissism during previous questioning by researchers. The researchers found the brain teasers posted on career websites, including Glassdoor. (Glassdoor’s terms of service state that it makes no guarantees about the accuracy of such information.)

They included:

• On a scale from one to ten, rate me as an interviewer. (Kraft Heinz Co. KHC, -0.87%  )

• What songs best describe your work ethic? (Dell DVMT, +1.34%  )

• Why are manhole covers round? (Microsoft MSFT, +0.41%  )

• How would you determine the weight of a commercial airplane without a scale? (McKinsey & Co.)

• What do you think about when you are alone in your car? (Gallup)

• If you could be any animal on a carousel, what would you pick and why? (Journeys/Genesco GCO, +3.18%  )

Still, there can be a method behind such bizarre questions. Hiring managers say quirky questions can gauge whether an applicant is a cultural fit for the organization, or reveal something about their sense of humor, attitude, or creativity.

Representatives for Kraft, Dell, McKinsey and Gallup didn’t respond immediately to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Journeys, a Nashville-based shoe retailer, said the company’s guide for hiring managers doesn’t include brain teasers and that they’re not part of the hiring process. “Journeys focuses on behavioral based interviewing to determine whether candidates have relevant job skills and experience,” said spokeswoman Claire S. McCall.

A spokeswoman for Microsoft would not comment specifically on brain teasers, but pointed to a blog post in which a Microsoft executive described the company’s interview process. “The intent is not to trip candidates up or find what’s wrong, but rather find what’s right and determine if we can succeed together,” wrote Executive Vice President of Human Resources Kathleen Hogan.

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