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lucy kellaway

When CEO Larry Page interviews people for jobs at Google, he gets so bored listening to their pat responses that he orders them to teach him something he doesn't know.

I learned this recently at the Hay Festival in Segovia when a panel of famous writers was asked the same thing. Great question, I thought, but then started to fret: if I found myself interviewed by Mr. Page, what on earth would I say?

After much rummaging I came up with two things I know and he probably doesn't. The first is the best way of killing Japanese knotweed: you cut the plant near the ground and inject the herbicide glyphosate into the hollow stem using a turkey baster. The second is the ideal mix of animal hair used in traditional upholstery – 80 per cent pig, 20 per cent cattle. I could discourse at length on either but would he be impressed? I have a nasty feeling he might not be.

The panel of writers didn't fare much better, though one did say that if a puppy is born not breathing, you should put it in a towel and sling it around as if drying a lettuce so that whatever was blocking its lungs would come flying out.

After everyone else had had their go, the last author – whose work is the strangest and most original of the lot – sighed and said he didn't know anything that other people didn't know, and that whatever he used to know, he'd forgotten.

Listening to this, I changed my mind. Mr. Page's question isn't great at all. It is as hopeless as all the other things people ask applicants.

For the past 2,000 years and more we have been interviewing people, but far from getting better at it, we're getting worse. The earliest example of the genre I can find is in the New Testament where Jesus, who at the time was recruiting for the position of disciple, kept the process short and snappy with a single question: "What do you seek?"

Modern interviewers make much heavier weather of it. In the past decade or so everyone has become hooked on asking things like "tell me about the time you showed courage." Or "tell me about a time you learned from failure." The poor candidate has then to spit out a rehearsed, almost certainly fabricated answer, while the bored interviewer nods sagely, a process that is most unpleasant for both sides and leaves no one any the wiser.

The latest craze for oddball questions is even worse. Why are manhole covers round? How many piano tuners are there in the entire world? Google is also largely to blame for this craze, but now half the big employers in the U.S. are following, figuring that if they ask things that the hapless candidate can't prepare for, that the answers will somehow be more telling.

The website has composed a list of daftest of all daft questions, with Goldman Sachs heading at the top of the 2010 list. It asks prospective bankers: if you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender how would you get out? Such clever questions can only prove one thing: whether the candidate is any good at clever answers.

By contrast, the question in the 2011 list asked at Trader Joe's – what do you think of garden gnomes? – doesn't prove anything at all, save the fact that the grocer has lost it altogether.

Jesus never felt the need to ask Matthew, John and the others about their taste in gnomes. Neither did he pose the question asked of candidates by a car parts manufacturer: "If you were a Microsoft Office program, which would it be?"

The reason that no one has found a good way to interview is that there isn't one. Study after study shows this charade to which we are all so addicted is not much better than picking people at random. The only reason we persist is that we are all way overconfident of our ability to judge others.

I rate my own skills in this very highly indeed. But I also remember how I pulled the wool over the eyes of a dozen experienced bankers at JPMorgan long ago, convincing them that what I sought was a career in banking, when it was obvious that I didn't. Such deceit is a doddle.

There are only two questions in the Glassdoor cupboard that are of any use at all. The first is: "What is 37 times 37?" This can't be gamed, it's not embarrassing or vulgar, and if you can answer it without too much counting on your fingers then you are smarter than I am.

More useful still is the question asked at Ernst & Young: "Does life fascinate you?" The answer to this tells the interviewer all they need to know. If the person says yes they should be freed at once from any danger of ever having to work there.

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