Commentary: Stumping people with brainteasers is no way to hire the best
Finding the most suitable candidates takes a much more careful approach, says the Financial Times’ Pilita Clark.
LONDON: Do you know what a seventh minus an eighth is? And how would you feel if you had to quickly spit out the answer in a job interview?
If the thought appals, bad luck. The polls say that, in a matter of days, Britain will be led by a prime minister who likes to set this sort of mental arithmetic test for civil servants in interviews.
Liz Truss, the frontrunner in the Tory leadership race, is moreover “unwilling to appoint those who cannot promptly say, for example, what a seventh minus an eighth is”, The Times reported last weekend.
My first thought on seeing this was that it was one of the most interesting things I had read about the oddly robotic Truss since the contest started in July. It might explain a lot about this daughter of a maths professor, who herself has two maths A-Levels.
Also, weeding out the innumerate from the upper ranks of the bureaucracy does not strike me as the worst idea. And some jobs require a degree of arithmetic capacity.
When I tried the seventh-minus-eighth test on FT colleagues last week, the first to pass it in a flash was a former financial analyst on the Lex desk.
Most, like me, winced as they groped for the answer, muttering words like “denominator” and “numerator” that had evidently not passed their lips in years. But they got there in the end, which is helpful at a place like the “Financial” Times.
The Truss test is also relatively straightforward, unlike the craftier tactics deployed by the likes of Walt Bettinger, chief executive of US broker Charles Schwab.
He once revealed that he invited prospective hires to breakfast and, having arrived early himself, arranged for the restaurant manager to muck up the candidate’s order to see how they “deal with adversity”.
This is only marginally better than a US tech company I once came across that sometimes asked job applicants to play table tennis after their interview, to see how they managed “challenges”. At least Bettinger’s hapless dining companions got breakfast.
The trouble with both of these ploys is they assume that people going for a job behave honestly, which they do not.
If you really want a job at Charles Schwab, you will almost certainly treat a waiter politely at breakfast with the boss, no matter how many times you get an Americano instead of a latte. You will also cheerfully play ping pong, no matter how much you may hate it.
Maths ability is harder to fake, but mental arithmetic tests share another, deeper defect with the ping pong and breakfast trials. All suggest there is a special, fail-safe way to hire good people. In fact, picking the most suitable employees is one of the hardest things to get right in any organisation.
Remember this if you are ever unlucky enough to be asked one of those weird interview questions such as, “how many golf balls would fit inside a 747?” Or “how many haircuts are done in the US every year?”
The spread of this type of brainteaser is sometimes blamed on companies such as Google, which has at times used them in hiring interviews.
But these kinds of questions are basically “worthless”, according to Google’s former head of people operations, Laszlo Bock. “We do everything we can to discourage this, as it’s really just a waste of everyone’s time,” he wrote in his 2015 book, Work Rules.
The questions make interviewers feel clever, but they can be practised and don’t do much to predict actual job performance, Bock said. So Google had shifted to a range of measures shown to predict performance better, such as tests of practical and cognitive ability.
This underlines the worrying thing about Truss. Would she really blackball someone purely because they fluffed their sums?
I hope not, considering what the political journalist, Simon Walters, wrote last week after reading about the seventh-minus-eighth test.
It reminded him of a meeting he had with Truss years ago when she was pushing for schools to teach times tables and other educational basics. “What is seven times eight?” he asked her. Alas, he reported, the answer she gave was, “54”.