Beware the forced choice interview question

By Scot Herrick | Job Search

Nov 22

Forced choice interview questions put you into what my old debate days called a “dilemma”– no matter which way you answered, you lose. Pick one of two opposing choices and pick your poison. Let’s get some help on these forced choice interview questions.

What is a forced choice interview question?

Interview questions can be described in the following categories:

  • Open ended — Tell me about a time when…
  • Yes or no — Do you like working on teams?
  • Forced choice questions — Do you like creating plans for a project or receiving a set of tasks and executing them?

Most of us are aware of the open ended and yes/no type of questions. The forced choice questions, though, are less often used unless they are used in a much more structured interview.

Forced choice questions have advantages — to the person doing the interview

There are some really good advantages to forced choice questions:

  • Forced choice questions requires the candidate to contemplate the answers to the forced choice. It’s especially not as easy to pass off a question as yes or no.
  • They force you to create answers instead of providing practiced answers to interview questions (which I advocate, by the way; practice does make perfect).
  • If the interviewer uses the same forced choice questions across all of the prospective hires, you can usually see differences in how the candidates answer. That helps the interviewer determine who is a better fit in the group.

The difficulty for the person being interviewed, however, is that forced choice questions don’t lend themselves to understanding the environment you are interviewing for. It’s a two-way street: the interviewer learns about you, but you also learn about the company, the department, the culture. Both of you need to know if you’ll be a good fit for each other if you’re hired.

But the forced choice question — the dilemma — means you could answer either way and never know what the real answer is for the person doing the interview.

Take a look and see what I mean.

Examples of forced choice interview questions

“What is more important to you, the money or the job?” Great, if I say money, the hiring manager doesn’t think I’m motivated to do the work. If I answer with the job, the manager doesn’t think I’ll be upset with a smaller money offer for the job.

“Do you prefer to work alone or with others?” Swell, I can like to work by myself and be thought of as a poor team player with no collaborative abilities or work so well with others I can’t get anything done by myself.

“Do you prefer to be given tasks or a list of things to accomplish?” Well, if I say a list of tasks it shows I can’t self-manage; if I say list of things to accomplish, I most likely won’t get the right tasks done because I don’t know the culture.

Traps, traps and more traps.

How to answer the forced choice interview question

There are two ways of avoiding the dilemma to this type of forced choice question. One way is to say “yes” to both. Unlike debate, sometimes both sides of the forced choice are good values to have.

For example, the money or the job is easily answered by saying “both.” “The work that I do is important for my self-satisfaction that comes from accomplishment and the money is just as important as it supports my family.” Yes, hiring manager, I want the good work and I want the good pay. Get over it.

Or, in working alone or with others, the answer can also be both. “I like working alone when I need focus and productivity to complete my work. But I like working with people to brainstorm ideas, help get better solutions to problems and help others for what they need.” Let me work the way that makes me the most productive to accomplish the department’s goals. Hello.

A second way to answer the forced choice is to pick a third option that isn’t presented by the interview question. “Do you work better with a manager that gives you free reign to complete your work the way you want or do you like being micromanaged to get your work done?”

What a great choice, don’t you think? For that type of question, you ignore both options presented and offer up a third alternative that matches your work style to answer this question. “I like a manager that provides clear direction, is open to seeing early versions of the work so we can make sure I’m on track, and to help clear obstacles that might prevent me from getting done.”

And then, because it is such a crappy question, you follow your answer up with “And how do you manage your people?” Seriously, you need to know the answer to that one no matter what.

You need to follow-up with your own question to learn about the environment

As noted above, for a management style question, you need to follow-up with a question on how the person manages their people.

If you get a question on how to handle conflict, you need to ask the manager how he or she resolved the conflict in the group.

If you get a question on money or the work, follow-up with questions on pay relative to other firms they compete with and whether there are promotions from within (killer: how many people have been promoted in your group since you’ve been managing them?).

Interviewers who ask forced choice questions are trying to see where you fit into their needs — but not letting you figure out if you want to fit into theirs. It’s important to get that information from the interview or you’ll be walking in blind on your start day as to what the work environment is really like.

Forced choice interview questions try and put you at polar opposite positions so that a hiring manager can more easily categorize you from the question. But you don’t know which answer is the right answer for this particular hiring manager — and most people are not one option of the forced choice question or the other. Most people either have a balance between the choices or all about something completely different.

What other forced choice questions have you been asked in an interview?

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  • Sunil Kumar says:

    A very interesting article coz it makes one think of the similar questions we may have faced in our past life and how we could have avoided or enhanced our responses. Well, my take is that the strategy of any interview is to understand three key elements of a candidate, his skill, his attitude, his committment and his appetite for the job. While his skill can be easily measured by a set of related questions, it is very tough to unearth the attitude and approach. It is in such situation that these questions come handy. It is not important how smart or intelligent the question is, however the response needs to be convincing and reasonable. Some of the most dumbest questions require the most thoughtful answer or we stand dumb and freeze. In fact in real life we confront few of these questions and stand transfixed without answers. Given the curren scenario is it not natural for an interviewer to ask what is more important “work or money”. In conclusion, i appreciate the author who has thought of bringing the soft side of interview which is the hardest to crack as this will help everybody out there in such tough times.

    • Scot says:

      Sunil, given current circumstances, hiring managers are asking all sorts of question and companies are require very high level of competencies for basic jobs. I wouldn’t take any question out of the realm of possibilities. I also agree that there are the three things that companies need to know about you: can you do the job, would you love the job, and can you work with the manager and team. As a candidate, we have to look at each interview question to determine which of the three areas is behind the question.

      Thanks for the comment; I really appreciate the interaction.

  • Dan Erwin says:

    Another way of thinking about forced choice questions is that the interviewer doesn’t know much about effective inteview strategies. There are a number of really useful interview strategies that make those examples look rather inane. Maybe you don’t want to consider working at a firm like that.

    • Scot says:

      Yes, Dan, that’s the other way as the candidate — you also evaluate the professionalism of the interviewer. It is a two-way street– an employer needs to know if you are right for the job and you need to know if the manager and the company is right for you. Too many people miss the second part of the equation. Thanks for the comment!

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