If you were asked to unload an airplane full of jelly beans, how would you do it?

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A young man I’ve mentored since he was in college called me. “Chris” is now five years into his career and had been interviewing at various Seattle companies in search of a more challenging job. He had received a strange question during an interview and hadn’t been sure how to respond.

“The question was really odd because it had nothing to do with the job requirements and I wasn’t expecting it,” he explained. “Now I’m worried that my answer might have cost me the job opportunity.”

The question was: If you were asked to unload an airplane full of jelly beans, how would you do it?

I couldn’t stop myself from laughing.

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“I’m serious. How would you have answered that question?” he asked.

My response was: “That depends.”

On what?” he asked.

“On all the variables affecting the situation,” I said, smiling into the phone.

“Like what?”

“Well, like timing and quantity – how quickly the jelly beans have to be unloaded and how many there are. The resources available for unloading them. If there are any budget restrictions, because different methods would cost different amounts. Whether the jelly beans are in containers or loose inside the airplane. The size of the airplane would also matter — is it a little Cesna or a huge 747?” I answered.

“Oh, good grief,” he sighed.

To get Chris to laugh, I purposely started rambling: “The location could also matter. Is it in a hot climate where the jelly beans will quickly melt? Is it on a runway at Sea-Tac airport or sitting in the middle of a war zone?…” I let my voice trail off.

“So you’re saying the recruiter wasn’t looking for a perfect answer. He just wanted to see how I’d think through the situation,” Chris replied.

Exactly! The good news is that Chris made it through the hiring process and was offered the job. What he encountered in his interview isn’t uncommon — some recruiters and hiring managers will purposely ask somewhat bizarre questions, just to see how a candidate will respond.

In most cases, there isn’t a perfect answer. They’re trying to learn about the candidate’s thought process, creativity and problem-solving skills. They want to gain a better understanding of how the person analyzes difficult situations. If this happens to you, take a deep breath, relax, and then share how you would think through the problem and the variables you’d need to consider (such as cost, timing, budget, location, resources, etc.).

Lisa Quast is the founder of Career Woman, Inc., and the author of the book Secrets of a Hiring Manager Turned Career Coach. Email her at lquast@careerwomaninc.com.