Passing the soup test – Alison Healy on strange interview challenges

Any good with a sweeping brush?

If the hapless job applicants added salt and pepper before tasting the soup, they were doomed. Photograph: Getty Images

‘Tis the season for dusting off your CV and contemplating pastures new. But what would you do if Thomas Edison was sitting opposite you at a job interview? Panic, probably, given that the inventor of the light bulb has been dead since 1931.

But when he was alive, it was claimed he had a very specific test for job applicants. He would invite them to have a bowl of soup with him. The test lay in the approach to seasoning the soup.

If the hapless applicants added salt and pepper before tasting the soup, they were doomed. It showed that they made decisions before analysing the data. If the applicants tasted the soup before adding seasoning, they were in with a chance. Is the story true? Who knows? When the fact-checking website Snopes investigated it, it found that the soup test was attributed to everyone from Henry Ford to JC Penney. But I like to think that Edison invented it, because he was the king of inventing things.

I know someone who conducts a secret test to whittle down the best person for the job in his factory. The work is manual, and, during their trial period, he casually asks them to grab a brush and sweep a floor. He maintains he immediately knows if a candidate will make a good employee by the way they approach this task. Some are befuddled by the brush, looking at it as though it is a quaint object from Ye Olde Museum, while others go around in circles stepping on the pile of dust as they attempt to sweep the floor.


US recruiter Brian Connors doesn’t use the brush test. His only requirement is that the candidates show up for the interview. One such candidate for a sales job was a no-show but later contacted him to explain his absence. He had been in a serious car crash, in Atlanta, Georgia, and his child was in hospital. Who wouldn’t have sympathy with him? Brian Connors certainly did, until he looked at the photographic evidence helpfully sent in by the candidate. The photograph of the crashed BMW car may have looked perfect when viewed on a phone but when viewed on a larger screen, it was clear it hadn’t been taken in Atlanta. It wasn’t even taken on the same continent. The old mopeds in the background and the bicycle carrying an enormous cargo suggested the photograph had been taken in India and indeed it had. The photograph of the south Delhi crash had appeared online two years earlier.

“I guess our only remaining question for this future superstar of business is, just how did you get from the streets of India to a hospital in Atlanta in just three hours?” the recruiter asked on LinkedIn afterwards.

Irish actor Chris O’Dowd has also admitted telling a few white lies in his attempts to win jobs. Before he was propelled to fame by The IT Crowd, and Bridesmaids, the Roscommon actor was acutely aware of the need to stand out at auditions. So, he concocted a little backstory to help the casting directors remember him. He would say he had been attacked by a dog on his way to the audition. The breed of dog would vary and sometimes he would throw in a new detail such as the dog holding a baby’s rattle, just to keep things fresh.

“I don’t know what I was hoping, other than, like, somebody would go, ‘Hey, do you know who would be good for that? The guy who was bitten by a dog’”, he told Louis Theroux on his BBC podcast.

The ploy worked until he inadvertently used the line on the same interviewers twice, and of course they remembered him because of his memorable entrance. He quietly shelved the technique after that.

The actor seems like the sort of person who would be ready for any curved ball thrown by Thomas Edison.

While we are not sure if his soup test is apocryphal, we do know he asked job candidates to sit a challenging intelligence test. It included questions such as: What is glass made from? How far is New York from Liverpool? And who discovered the Pacific Ocean?

Decades later, tech companies followed his lead with their own brand of wacky questions such as: How much money should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle? They said it showed how applicants responded under pressure.

Yes, it is impressive to make an accurate guess as to how many golf balls would fit in a school bus, but you would have to wonder: Would the applicant be any good with a sweeping brush?