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Foul Ball: How One Interview Question Can Lose You the Job

Find Out Why You Need to Examine Each Interview Question Carefully to Stand Out & Get the Job

There are many questions people prepare for during a job interview such as "What kind of projects are you working on in your current job?" "What measurable skills can you bring to this position?" and "What is your greatest weakness?"

So when you come across this next question, you might be inclined to brush it off:

"What is my favorite baseball team?"

Surprisingly, this question could end up being the most important one you answer. Let me explain.

For five years, I was the online marketing director at Wired.com in New York City. As my responsibilities expanded, I got the chance to bring on an intern to help me out. As an award-winning publication covering technology, business and culture, the chance to work at Wired was a dream job for any young professional looking to gain experience in social media, marketing, and tech culture. It went without saying that competition would be fierce.

I decided to have fun with the job posting, matching it to my personality by mixing in desired skills with a sense of humor. Because I wanted a rock star assistant and the job covered so many areas, I asked for the world. I wanted a tech geek. A marketing copywriter. A designer. And someone extremely detail-oriented. The massive, 800-word post contained phrases such as:

"You are an Excel geek, and may or may not have used it to plan a vacation, build a fantasy football cheat sheet, or compare potential prom dates. With color-coded shading. And reversed text. On multiple tabs. You're the type of person who picks out typos on dinner menus. For fun. Your technical knowledge intimidates the staff at Best Buy."

At the end of the post, I gave very specific directions. The reason why I ask this is in parentheses.

  • Write a cover letter and tell me why you want the job (I wanted to test their writing skills, and see how badly they wanted the job)
     
  • Attach your resume in PDF format (If they don’t know how to save to PDF then they aren’t techie enough, plus it prevents formatting issues in various versions of Word)
     
  • Send links to your blog, website, videos, or other materials that demonstrate your skills (Not a requirement, but shows how dialed in they are online)
     
  • E-mail to MarketingGuy@Wired.com (A unique email that wouldn’t clog my inbox; now defunct)
     
  • Put WIRED MARKETING INTERN in the subject line (Just seeing if they are paying attention)

Then, on a whim, I added the following:

"Bonus Question: What is my favorite baseball team?"

I added that last one to test their research skills, but mostly it was to keep the fun vibe of the process going. As the resumes came pouring in, it was shocking how well the bonus question turned out to be an important qualifier in the process. Here’s how it broke down:

People who did not answer the question (65%)

The majority of the resumes that came in did not answer the question at all. Either they didn’t see it, they didn’t take it seriously, or they purposely skipped it. And as a result, none of them got an interview.

I know what you’re thinking. “That was a bonus question! It has nothing to do with the job! You shouldn’t judge people on that!” But here’s the deal: I did not simply eliminate everyone that didn’t answer the question. To be clear, I looked at each and every email and resume that came in. However, in every single case, a person who did not answer the question also did not have good enough qualifications to be hired.

People who got the question wrong (30%)

What was interesting were all of the ways that people got it wrong.

  • Some people misread it and told me THEIR favorite baseball team (“I love the Orioles!"). This made me think I had written the posting poorly, and that I should be more clear. However, because the description was written in the first person, and because dozens of people get it right, I left it.
     
  • Some people were cocky and told me what my favorite team SHOULD be (“You should like the Tigers! They’re going to be great this year.”)
     
  • Some people guessed RANDOMLY (“Umm… I’m going to guess the Dodgers?”)
     
  • Some people simply noted that since the job was in New York, I MUST be a Yankees or Mets fan (“Hell yeah! GO YANKEES!”). As you’ll see in a moment, this worked against them in more ways than one.
     
  • One person did great research, but was wrong. He knew I was on the marketing side (correct). He assumed my name was in the magazine masthead (incorrect), noting there were three marketing people listed. Since two were women and one was a man, he assumed I was one of my colleagues, Alec. He tracked Alec’s hometown back to St. Louis, proclaiming, “Thus, you are a Cardinals fan!” He made the cut based on effort, but was eliminated later.

People who got the question right (5%)

As I grew depressed weeding through dozens of misguided, unqualified candidates, you can imagine how excited I was when I would receive a well-written, ambitious cover letter, a fantastic resume, and then an email that concluded: "to answer your bonus question, you are a diehard Red Sox Fan!"

Even better, a few emails BEGAN by addressing me as “Dear Boston Red Sox fan,” and proceeded to explain they were from New England and telling me a personal story about the team. Talk about getting off on the right foot.

Also perfectly acceptable were candidates who correctly identified me as a Red Sox fan, and then proceeded to explain they were a Yankees fan and immediately commence trash talking. Par for the course, and definitely encouraged.

So was this a fair question? How could the candidates have known?

To be clear, all candidates were fully judged by their qualifications and during an in-person interview. But here’s how they could have gained an extra point with the bonus question.

The posting was clearly written by a single individual, but no name was provided. However, the email address was very unique. Simply doing a Google search on the email address would have given the user my name. Alternatively, I couldn’t have been that hard to track down through some good old fashioned networking on LinkedIn or through connections to find out “who is the digital marketing guy hiring an intern for Wired?

Once they had my name, all they had to do was Google my name and “favorite baseball team” and the first entry that appeared was a blog post saying exactly that. In fact, there are at least four blog posts in the past four years where the Red Sox have come up.

Beyond that, if they found me on LinkedIn, they could see I was born and raised in Boston, living there for 28 years and going to college in New England as well. They don’t grow Kansas City Royal fans on the east coast.

Lastly, during the weeks we were hiring, I would change my Facebook profile photo to one where I am wearing a Red Sox hat. Even if I weren’t a friend, they would be able to see that hint.

As we reach the bottom of the 9th, what are the takeaways here?

For job seekers, know that every question that you are asked might have a deeper meaning. Follow directions closely, and think about why the interviewer asked what they did.&

For employers, if you are looking for a specific skill, ask questions designed to reveal that specific skill. In my case, the question surfaced amazing candidates that had ambition, attention to detail, research skills, social media savvy, and a great sense of humor.

As for me, while I got to mentor five amazing interns over the years, it’s still not easy being a Red Sox fan living in New York City.