A Penguin Walks Through the Door…

A few years ago I came across a list of questions employers could ask potential employees to test their creativity and their ability to adjust quickly to unexpected circumstances. My favorite question was “A penguin walks through the door wearing a sombrero. What’s the first thing it says?” I actually used this during a few interviews, and I got to see a wonderful array of responses.

One man broke into laughter at the ridiculous nature of the question. That turned out to be a benefit to him, as he had been nervous up to that point in the interview. The question helped him relax, and he showed a friendly demeanor from that point on.

Another applicant responded immediately, “I don’t know. I don’t speak penguin”, and then waited for the next question. I learned that he wasn’t easily thrown off by unexpected developments and could think quickly when needed.

Someone else told me the penguin would say “I’ve got the chips. Who’s got the salsa and guacamole?” Another job applicant answered, “I think I’m lost. Which was is Tijuana?” In each case, I learned something about the applicant that I could never get by asking about their job history, or how they would handle a conflict with a co-worker.

To be honest, I felt foolish the first time I asked the question, thinking the person would decide I wasn’t the sort of boss they wanted to work for. No one reacted that way though. In almost every case, it brought out a side of them that was fun to see. It changed the interview from a stressful, challenging situation to an enjoyable discussion where the applicant could be as playful or thoughtful as they wanted.

I say “in almost every case” because there were one or two people who died when I asked the question. While there was no right answer, and therefore no wrong answer, there were bad answers. One applicant gave me an overwhelmed look and couldn’t think of anything to say, even when I came back to the question at the end of the interview – that was a bad answer. I found out very quickly that this individual was too easily confused by something they didn’t anticipate.

I still feel a bit strange asking this or similar questions during job interviews, but it has been a great reminder of the value of creative thinking, and how one person’s creativity can spark another person. I doubt anyone reading this article has ever wondered what a penguin wearing a sombrero would say, but I believe almost everyone who has read this far in this article has come up with their own answer. And I imagine that if we could gather all the answers, we would collectively be amused and impressed by the creativity and imagination that we had exhibited.

by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong

This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.