Do you know what a seventh minus an eighth is? And how would you feel if you had to quickly spit out the answer in a job interview?
If the thought dreads, bad luck. Polls indicate that within days Britain will be led by a Prime Minister who likes to put this kind of mental arithmetic test for civil servants in interviews.
My first thought upon seeing this was that it was one of the most interesting things I had read about the Weirdly Robotic Truss since the contest started last month. That might say a lot about this daughter of a math teacher, who has two maths herself A level.
Also, eliminating the countless upper ranks of the bureaucracy doesn’t strike me as the worst idea. And some jobs require a certain degree of arithmetic ability.
When I tried the seventh-minus-eighth test on colleagues at FT last week, the first to pass it in a flash was a former financial analyst in Lex’s office.
Most, like me, grimaced as they searched for the answer, mumbling words like “denominator” and “numerator” that obviously hadn’t left their lips in years. But they finally succeeded, which is useful in a place like the “Financial” Times.
The Truss test is also relatively straightforward, unlike the more cunning tactics deployed by Walt Bettinger, managing director of US broker Charles Schwab.
He once revealed that he invited potential recruits to lunch and, having arrived early himself, arranged for the restaurant manager to screw up the candidate’s order to see how they “cope with adversity”.
It’s only marginally better than an American tech company I once met that sometimes asked job applicants to play table tennis after their interview, to see how they handled “challenges.” At least Bettinger’s unfortunate table companions had breakfast.
The problem with both of these schemes is that they assume that job seekers are behaving honestly, which they don’t.
If you really want a job at Charles Schwab, you’ll almost certainly treat a server politely at breakfast with the boss, no matter how many times you get an Americano instead of a latte.
You will also happily play ping pong, even if you hate it.
Math ability is harder to fake, but the mental arithmetic tests share another, deeper flaw with the ping-pong and breakfast tests. All of them suggest that there is a special, safe way to hire good people.
In fact, choosing the most suitable employees is one of the hardest things to do right in any organization.
Remember this if you’re ever unlucky enough to get asked one of those weird interview questions like “how many golf balls would fit in a 747?” Or “how many haircuts are done in the United States each year?”
The dissemination of this type of puzzles is sometimes blamed on companies such as Google, which has sometimes used them in job interviews.
But those kinds of questions are basically “worthless,” according to former Google people operations manager Laszlo Bock. “We are doing everything we can to discourage this, because it really is a waste of everyone’s time,” he wrote in his 2015 book, Work rules.
The questions make interviewers smart, but they can be practiced and do little to predict actual job performance, Bock said. So Google turned to a range of metrics to better predict performance, such as practical and cognitive ability tests.
This underlines the disturbing thing about Truss. Would she really blackball someone just for inflating her sums?
I hope not, given what the political journalist, Simon Walters, wrote last week after reading about the seventh-minus-eighth test.
It reminded him of a meeting he had with Truss years ago when she lobbied for schools to teach times tables and other educational basics.
“How much is seven times eight?” he asked him. Alas, he reported, the answer she gave was “54”.