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Interview Question Psy-Ops

Chemjobber picks up here on an interesting letter to C&E News. What do you do, on a job interview, when your interviewer says something that’s obviously wrong?

In my case, however, there was not an explicit question being asked. Rather, while discussing some topic, the interviewer would say something that was clearly and obviously (and even blatantly) false. For example, the interviewer might say something that violated one of the laws of thermodynamics. In retrospect, it is clear that interviewers were not testing the knowledge of thermodynamics (or whatever the subject of the false statement was about). More likely they wanted to see how the interviewee handled suddenly being placed in a potentially awkward situation.

Has anyone out there had this happen to them? I never recall getting this technique tried on me – or who knows, maybe someone did, and I didn’t pick up on it and bombed out right there. (Just kidding about that one – a bad interview, like a bad date, is usually obvious to everyone concerned).
But I can imagine some interviewers doing this sort of thing, and some organizations being fine with it. It sounds more like something they’d pull at a Wall Street firm than at a science/technical outfit, but I guess you never know.

37 comments on “Interview Question Psy-Ops”

  1. Novak says:

    Well, that’s a dangerous interview tactic. What if my response is to smile politely and decide I don’t want to work for a doofus or a manipulative creep?

  2. anon says:

    agree with @1: too smart by half. I would decide they are idiots, smile politely and walk out the door knowing I don’t want to work there.
    although i feel the same way about all those: “list all the named reactions you know” interview styles too.

  3. Charlie Kilian says:

    Yeah, if a potential employer is willing to do that to me before I’m even hired, then regardless of how I handled it in the moment, I’m going to leave the interview being glad I don’t have to work with those manipulative jerks. If they’re willing to do that in an interview, it doesn’t say good things about the kind of environment are they interested in creating.

  4. Pete says:

    You mean like asserting that ligand effciciency metrics are thermodynamically valid or that pharmacological promiscuity is strongly correlated with lipophilicity?

  5. Sami Liedes says:

    Huh, that’s strange. I mean, the first three comments here. I haven’t seen this used on me (I think), but I also don’t think I’d feel in any way bad about that. Why should I?
    When I’m in a job interview I consider it an occurrence where the prospective employer gets to test me to see what I’m like, and I get to test the employer to see whether I would like to work there (and under what compensation).
    So this seems like fair game to me, and sure I would point out the flaw and not feel awkward about it. If that happened, I might even press it further and question the interviewer’s competence to see how they handle it, and I’d expect them to not be offended in return. Or perhaps I’d respond by talking about my experience on calibrating dilithium crystals to make it clear we’re in the bs-land.
    But then I’m a rather casual person in a rather casual industry. The only way I can imagine it feeling awkward is if I felt I already was in a very weak position and desperate for the job.

  6. luysii says:

    Ah yes, but suppose something even worse happened when you didn’t have the luxury of walking out the door (e.g. trying to get into Harvard Medical School).
    The late unlamented Dr. Funkenstein of Harvard Medical School was a psychiatry prof, tasked with interviewing prospective med students. After a while he’d tug at his collar, say it was warm in the room, and ask the hapless premed to open a window and let in some air. The window was bolted shut.
    This is more than apocryphal, as I went to college with his late son Harris (who drowned while swimming at age 50).

  7. Wavefunction says:

    As someone said these things seem to be extremely industry-dependent. Trick questions are very common in the finance and tech industry, virtually non-existent in pharma and biotech. I actually wouldn’t mind if someone occasionally throws a trick question my way (as long as the job doesn’t crucially depend on the answer…) – it could actually liven up things.

  8. db says:

    @6: if my last name were Funkenstein, it would take an act of Parliament to prevent me from pursuing a PhD.

  9. Cellbio says:

    I have found a technic like this to be useful in assessing licensing and funding opportunities. it is less about trick questions than working through the practiced ‘story lines’ of an interview/pitch and getting to core knowledge and beliefs. Seeing if someone is willing to say whatever is required to get the prize can indicate something about character and honesty, or in the case of product opportunities, whether they have a clue about key attributes that indicate whether a clinical candidate has merit (PK, metabolism, selectivity etc), or simply fits a story line and has some industry-like attribute such as it has been manufactured at a scale and therefore is ready to go. Often if one goes directly to questions about attributes, the presenter is slick enough to dance around the question, while if led there carefully, the real state of understanding is more accurately revealed.

  10. RM says:

    Sami Liedes@5 – I think it’s the difference between being up front about the “tests” being given, and slipping them in under the radar. It’s one thing to be given a hypothetical scenario and asked to respond to it, it’s completely another to be “set up” in a scenario, and then be (secretly) judged on your response.
    True, you probably get a more accurate assessment of a person when they don’t know they’re being observed/judged, but it does feel more manipulative. It’s also somewhat asymmetric – the prospective employer has a lot of latitude in setting such scenarios up, but the prospective employee has much less room – I can’t really imagine the roles reversed, where a prospective employee “tests” an employer by stating something blatantly false and then hopes to see how the company responds to it.

  11. Pete says:

    My dilemma would be trying to guess whether the interviewer knew whether or not he/she was talking bollocks. If he/she was aware that he/she was talking bollocks then it would be a trick question and one would need to quickly devise tactics to deal with the situation. If the interviewer was not aware that he/she was talking bollocks then he/she would simply be talking bollocks in which case it would not be a trick question although one would still need quickly devise tactics to deal with the situation. The problem is that optimal tactics for dealing with the first situation are likely to be orthogonal to the optimal tactics for dealing with the second situation.

  12. A Nonny Mouse says:

    Worst time for me was went I went to shake the person’s hand and it was missing; I really don’t know if this was done to see the effect, but people were definitely looking to see what happened.
    I think that I switched left to left, but can’t remember.

  13. fajensen says:

    I Have.
    The first time I got into a discussion about the wisdom of developing a 3-phase, 400 V, 50 kHz, Square Wave (!) power supply for the European Space Station – I believed and I still do and they had to replace their power supplies 😉 that this kind of system would not perform very well.
    Didn’t get that job.
    The second time, the person who would become my division head had some silly ideas about EMI and twisted-pair cables. Which we had to discuss in front of the hiring committee.
    This job I did get and stayed for 10 years.
    Also what we did was that one of the engineers, like me, would show the prospects around the site and inside the plant without wearing White, the assigned colour for Professionals. This simple deception would rarely fail* in drawing out the arseholes, the kind that suck up to authority and dislikes those who they think are beneath them – which is a problem because most of the time we would be working with & through “techies”, “the blue people”, so a good working relationship is very important.
    Where I am working now, I think I mentioned some aspects of the job that I wanted support for.
    A surprising number of people do fail right at the entrance: They go right ahead and are rude to the secretary meeting them … missing the fact that she being the “secretary of a department- or division- head, she is running the shop about 1/3 of the time (and organising conferences)!

  14. Chrispy says:

    Some of the most fun interviews are those where you realize about twenty minutes in that there is no way you’d work here, and the job you currently have is looking better all the time.
    I have interviewed people who were all smiles and nods and would I’m sure have agreed with whatever nonsense I said. Agreeability can be worth an awful lot if your boss’s ego needs shoring up, but these people just leave me depressed. Science should be full of spirited debate and open minds, not empty flattery.
    I have witnessed as rounds of layoffs carry away all the spirited people, though: clearly the agreeable people have a survival advantage!

  15. Cellbio says:

    @RM
    I guess I have used this technique of probing employers, not so much blatantly false premises, as the reality is more about probability of success than laws of thermodynamics. However, it is valuable to probe start-up founders views on what needs to be done to create value by drawing out there beliefs to the point where I can clearly see if they separate from reality (good practices) and float in the optimism of quick, inexpensive drug development that often characterizes start-ups who morph plans to fit into attractive budgets and timelines for returns.

  16. Tony says:

    “if my last name were Funkenstein, it would take an act of Parliament to prevent me from pursuing a PhD.”
    Or, perhaps, a music career.
    “They go right ahead and are rude to the secretary meeting them”
    Oh, yeah. I saw a few guys do this in grad school, too. Never mess with the secretary. Never. Never. Never. It’s not just reprehensible, it’s dumb.

  17. Pete says:

    @12 (Nonny Mouse) Weeping with mirth!

  18. Novak says:

    @5: When I’m in a job interview I consider it an occurrence where the prospective employer gets to test me to see what I’m like, and I get to test the employer to see whether I would like to work there.
    (Emphasis mine.)
    Well, that’s just the point. There’s a difference between a trick question (say, a question with an obvious but wrong answer and a subtle but correct one) and just trying to trick me by being disingenuous.
    Moreover, there really are only two conclusions I can draw from this tactic: Either I’m going to think they really are daft in some professionally relevant way, or I’m going to think that they’re testing me by being dishonest.
    But, unless someone comes clean about it during the interview, there’s really no way for me to tell what the case happens to be. It’s an interview tactic that makes it very difficult for me to make my precise evaluation of that employer… but honestly, narrowing it down to either stupid or dishonest is probably going to be precise enough.

  19. DCRogers says:

    When I give a talk, I prefer the audience to be interactive, to give feedback and spark discussion as I speak. (I let them know not to ‘save questions until the end’ when I start.)
    One particularly catatonic audience refused to play my game, so I starting making more argumentative claims; still they sat stone-faced. Finally I made a claim so outrageous that no-one could have possibly agreed, then waited.
    Nothing. After staring at them a while, I sighed, exasperated, and said: “There’s no way you could possibly have agreed with that.”
    At least that broke the ice. The rest of the talk proceeded with some measure of my preferred audience-discussion mode.

  20. BariTony says:

    I’ve had several interviews like this and my experience is that if they’re deliberately laying a trap there’s no correct answer. It’s either “the candidate wasn’t smart enough to see this problem” or “the candidate was too ‘difficult’ in the interview and will be hard to get along with on the job.”
    First assume positive intent. By that I mean that you should assume that the interviewer made a simple mistake or is genuinely ignorant. But this is an opportunity to demonstrate both your technical knowledge and your communication skills. I suggest following Dale Carnegie’s advice by saying something like “I could be wrong, but actually, I believe that…” If you lead with “that can’t possible be right-it violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics”, then regardless of whether or not you’re right or wrong and whether or not the interviewer realizes it, you’ve put them on the defensive and their first response will be to defend themselves by digging in their heels. Even if you’re right, you can’t win in that situation. Always remember that the interviewer has all the power. The other advantage of this approach is that if YOU happen to be wrong, they’re less likely to hold it against you (at least you were tactful and conceded you might be wrong).
    If the interviewer is playing games and setting traps like this, they probably aren’t worth working for unless you’ve been out of work for a long time and desperately need a job. If this is how they handle candidates, expect more of this behavior on the job.

  21. fajensen says:

    @20
    Being “difficult” is sort of a package deal with being a good engineer. Most technical people would probably agree that the entire purpose of hiring an expert is that he/she indeed does know his/her area of expertise *much* better than “The Boss” and he/she has the confidence to speak up when “The Boss” is wrong.
    A subservient engineer can be a danger to life, limbs, property, reliability as well as project- scope & schedule.

  22. TX raven says:

    I get that type of situation often at work…
    Especially for the ones like Pete @5 mentions.
    Someone says something and I wonder if they are kidding me. Which then I found they were not…
    Oh well…

  23. NJBiologist says:

    @6 Luysii: “The late unlamented Dr. Funkenstein of Harvard Medical School was a psychiatry prof, tasked with interviewing prospective med students. After a while he’d tug at his collar, say it was warm in the room, and ask the hapless premed to open a window and let in some air. The window was bolted shut.”
    I heard the same story about a Princeton undergrad interviewer, who took it a step further–once the candidate demonstrated that they couldn’t open the window, the interviewer would shrug, go to the window behind his desk, and open it with one finger.
    I don’t know if that’s true; I heard it from a [different, I think] Princeton undergrad interviewer.

  24. Triflate says:

    During the course of an interview a few years ago for a research associate position at a big university, I had an interviewer, out of the blue, ask me an inappropriate question about the personal life of my doctorate supervisor. It was a shame as the interview had been going well up to that point but my decision was made at that moment.
    I also had another interview at a big pharma on the east coast where one of the interviewers accused me of cleverly hiding my Canadian accent to “blend in”! Was tempted to respond that as every American does not sound like Yosemite Sam, not every Canadian sounds like Bob and Doug McKenzie. But since I desperately wanted the job, I held my tongue…

  25. 3anon says:

    This may have happened to me just earlier this week but there would be no way to know for sure…I was told that I had excellent experience in regulatory affairs. I [politely] corrected them and told them that was an entirely different field. After I hung up the phone I immediately thought the individual had no idea of how to put together a new company and that it would be best for my personal growth (what kind of people would I be working with?) and long term growth (I’d rather not have a failed company on my future resumes) to not go with them.
    It is also possible that this is just an elaborate excuse used by HR folks that have no idea what they are saying. That way when someone on the technical side comes back and asks them why they said xxxxx they can reply with it being an interviewing technique.

  26. Anonymous says:

    I had a similar experience at a Big Pharma company. The interviewer said something that was clearly wrong, specifically that all drug discovery should be based on identifying a clear target, so I told him that was bollocks, and that if they were a bit more open minded then perhaps the industry wouldn’t be in such an f&@ing mess. Obviously I didn’t get the job. And the industry is still in an f$&@ing mess.

  27. Hap says:

    It would depend how obvious it was – if it is sort of an aside or is secondary to the problem they pose, then it might sidetrack the discussion; the interviewer may also not be able to tell whether the person doesn’t know enough to call out their mistake or isn’t honest enough to do so or missed the point accidentally.
    If it’s obvious, then it’s hard to know what the desired response is – do they want people willing to confront their mistakes or not (and the “not” option seems all too possible)? Of course, you might not want to work for a company that did not want you to tell them what they didn’t want to hear, so it would probably be better to confront them respectfully and hope for the best. That’s easier said than for someone to actually do, especially if you’re still looking for a job.

  28. luysii says:

    #8, #16, #23 No, no,no. Harris was a really nice guy with a great personality. He, along with my roommate and my nephew, were the three most UNathletic Rhodes scholars imaginable. Harris became a neurologist interested in Alzheimer’s disease, and tragically died in a swimming accident at age 50 years and years ago.

  29. BariTony says:

    I went on one interview where I presented data from a project I led where we used modeling to help guide the design of a novel kinase inhibitor. During the group interviews, one med chemist announced that it was impossible for us to have achieved the results that we did and demanded that I apologize to him and his 2 colleagues who were in the room with him for “lying”. I stuck to my guns and told him he’d seen the data and it was correct. He spend his entire 1 hour time slot trying to argue with me and insisting that I apologize, and I kept deflecting, never challenging, and tried to move off the topic while his colleagues just sat there quietly. The interview had been going well before then, but the hiring manager told me after the interview that the med chemists felt that I would be “difficult” to work with…

  30. DN says:

    A lot of people here seem to have grabbed the wrong end of the stick. It is not about “laying a trap” for the interviewee.

    It is about testing whether the interviewee has a severe mental or emotional problem. For example, write Pn=VRT on the whiteboard and get lost trying to use an upside-down fraction.

    Successful interviewee: “Uh, do you mean PV=nRT?”

    Failure, executive function deficiency subtype: “Are you stupid? It’s PV=nRT!”

    Failure, narcissistic subtype: “You seem to have made a mistake, but that’s OK. Luckily I remember this from my undergraduate days at MIT, where I was renowned as the leader of the chemistry club.”

    Failure, psychotic subtype: “Did the letters just change themselves?”

    Failure, paranoid psychosis subtype: “You’re trying to trick me!!!!! This is a trap!”

    You might think personality defects would just be obvious, but a surprising number of people can cover them up until the slightest emotional task appears. You want to see a few emotional challenges on the interview. A strictly technical interview means you would be working for a company with no dickhead filters.

  31. fajensen says:

    @30
    Yep. We can easily “fix” a candidate that is not perfect but adequate; but we cannot fix crazy, liar or douche-bag.
    We had one which said *exactly* the correct and appropriate thing to everything – this was very unsettling, so we checked the references and the CV extra thoroughly.
    We found that not only had the guy copied names and numbers of people “visible” from the internet on company home pages, he also “misspelled” things on linked-in so a casual search for, for example, “Acme Ltd” would turn up a decent-enough company, whereas “Achmed Ltd” would be something different entirely but with the guys name on it as CEO. He didn’t even live in the country he put down as his address.
    I think we dodged a bullet there. There was a lot more wrong with that guy than him just fudging the CV and operating a business on the near side of illegal.

  32. Brains says:

    @6 Pledging one’s Funk to the United Funk of Funkadelica is a serious, long-term deal. It might be hard to find time for a doctorate in a field outside Funk Studies.

  33. DCRogers says:

    @31 “you can’t fix crazy”
    Yeah but with a big enough golden parachute you can sometimes get them to resign without a fuss… :-/

  34. milkshake says:

    Crazy-incompetent or intolerably lousy character is different from crazily-eccentric, so common amongst the Asperger types: Over 20+ years and 8 employers, I worked with all kinds of colleagues, some of which had bizarre habits (including two or three cases of rather gross personal hygiene!!) and they were OK as long as they were competent chemists and decent human beings – if you could avoid looking at them right before the lunch. The competent-eccentric types can be managed…

  35. Veteran says:

    In the interview for the job I took (and kept for decades) the future CEO on the panel wore a lab coat – a con trick, I later discovered, as he never lifted a spatula in anger.
    Decades later I saw this trick performed in an internal corporate video by an apparition in a white lab coat in front of a state of the art fume cupboard – but by then I was not born yesterday (and neither was anyone else in the audience).
    Then there is the supremely confident trick of a modern-day CEO of being a named inventor on most of a start-up company’s patents (some conceivably filed before the CEO even joined the start up). Comment to another CEO – beware investing $40M rising to $240M (whoops, bit late now!).
    Latter day interviews took the form of the Annual Performance Review – institutionalised bollocks that all too often boiled down to a matrix of tricks to highlight not what was achieved but how what should have been achieved had not been achieved. Despite this nonsense, stuff still got discovered. Happy days.

  36. Veteran's postscript says:

    And oh yes there’s the IT trick of replacing the noble dash with the goddamn IT gremlin!

  37. Anonymous says:

    I had a former boss who didn’t think on his feet well, and knew it. He learned to say “Can I get back to you on that?” if someone put him on the spot in a meeting, and he always gave the person the right answer shortly after the meeting when the pressure was off. He was a respected scientist and a valued employee, and the company is fortunate he didn’t get rejected at the interview stage for stumbling under questioning.
    Conversely, I work with a guy who is very well-spoken, with an impressive vocabulary of management buzzwords, but not very good at his job. All he needs to do is be just good enough to avoid termination, then dazzle his interviewers somewhere else in a couple of years for an undeserved promotion.

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