Photograph of two hands, one holding a magnifying glass, the other a soldering iron (by Paul Downey)

Hiring based on hobbies: effective or exclusive?

“When I’m interviewing a candidate, I ask them what they do in their free time.” It’s not unusual for me to hear this from people who are in a position to influence hiring for software jobs. Often, though not always, these people are male. The implication is that the interviewer prefers candidates who have sufficiently interesting hobbies (according to the interviewer’s sense of what’s interesting), and won’t give preference to (or will weight negatively) those candidates who either don’t have hobbies, or who the interviewer judges to do boring hobbies.

As far as I can tell, hiring based on hobbies has two major possible implications for software jobs. One is that it’s easier for people who hack on open-source code in their free time to get a software job. I guess the idea there is that if you want to choose a good worker, you pick someone whose hobby is doing more work. Mary Gardiner previously addressed the issue of leisure-time open-source hacking as a job qualification, in “Is requiring Open Source experience sexist?” on this very blog.

The other possible implication is that “interesting” hobbies don’t necessary have to involve programming, but you do have to have a hobby and it does have to be interesting to your interviewer, which probably means it has to be something that wouldn’t be a surprising interest for a hetero white cis male software engineer. From hanging around many such people and observing what they find “cool”, I can surmise that ideally this would involve fooling around with robots or circuits or wires. It should involve building things and tinkering for the sake of tinkering. Cooking, crafting, and other hobbies that have a practical application — that involve skill and art, but aren’t practiced just to impress other hackers — probably aren’t going to count for a whole lot of status points.

You’ll be disadvantaged on both counts, of course, if your spare time gets spent taking care of your family or doing the household work that women in relationships with men are often disproportionally saddled with (see Arlie Hochschild Russell’s book The Second Shift for more on that.) Or if you can’t afford to do hobbies that require more materials than a pencil and paper. You also may be disadvantaged if you have a disability: for example, if you don’t have the physical coordination to mess around with wires. Closer to my experience, you may be disadvantaged if you’re someone who has mental illness. As someone who’s been living with clinical depression for 20 years, a lot of the time it’s all I can do to put in my eight hours in a day and then get home, feed the cats, and throw together something to eat. Energy and motivation are not evenly distributed across the population.

Because status hierarchies in geek circles are frequently about who has the assets (in both time or money) to do the coolest projects in their spare time, I often feel excluded when other people talk about what they do in their free time, and guilty because I don’t have enough executive function to do much after work besides recharge so I can do more work the next day. I love my work, but like lots of kinds of work, it’s a source of stress for me. I imagine the same is true for most or all people who do software: I doubt there’s anyone who never experiences stress as part of their job. What’s not universal is how people deal with stress, and how much time off a person needs to recharge from it. Whether or not someone gets pleasure from hacking in their free time is affected by their social placement: the amount of time doing non-work-like activities someone needs before they can return to demanding intellectual work is affected by their physical and mental health; how many worries they have about money, relationships, and other non-work-related stressors; how many microaggressions they face as part of an average working day; whether they were brought up with self-esteem and a sense that they have the ability to recover from failure, or had to learn those things on their own as an adult; and many other factors. Few of those factors have to do with an individual’s level of dedication to their work; many are implied by where someone finds themself placed within a variety of intersecting social structures.

Recently, someone online said to me that he hires based on hobbies because he wants to hire interesting people. I’ve seen other people imply that there’s something even morally suspect about somebody working an engineering job just for the money, and that someone who doesn’t do the same stuff in their free time is obviously just in it for the money. Of course, that’s classist. It’s easier to feel like you’re motivated by the sheer love of your work if you don’t really need the money.

But besides, if you decide someone isn’t worth hiring because they don’t have “interesting” hobbies, what you’re really saying is that people who didn’t come from an affluent background aren’t interesting. That people with child care or home responsibilities aren’t interesting. That disabled people aren’t interesting. That people who have depression or anxiety aren’t interesting. That people who might spend their free time on political activism that they don’t feel comfortable mentioning to a stranger with power over them aren’t interesting. That people who, for another reason, just don’t have access to hacker spaces and don’t fit into hobbyist subcultures aren’t interesting.

You might counter that a person’s hobbies are relevant to their level of commitment to or interest in their work, and thus it’s justifiable for an employer to ask about them. However, this sounds essentially similar to the idea that women are to be looked at with extra suspicion during hiring, involving the assumption that women are cis and have relationships with cis men, and that cis women who have relationships with cis men will take time off from work to have babies. Statistically, there might be some truth to this — by the way, I’m not sure what evidence there is behind the assertion that people who do software or engineering in their spare time make better software engineers than people who play music or sail boats or bake muffins. Even so, it’s illegal (at least in the US, and possibly elsewhere) to use gender and marital status as bases for discrimination. People with some types of disabilities or chronic illnesses might sporadically be less productive at work, but it’s still illegal to ask about health conditions. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we should legislate against asking about hobbies as part of the interview process. It’s impossible to ban every type of question that might be used in a discriminatory way. It’s up to individual hiring managers to be ethical and mindful about whether they’re asking a question to evaluate a candidate’s abilities directly, or to make sure the candidate is sufficiently similar on a personal level to the manager’s mental ideal of what a programmer is supposed to be. I happen to think evaluating people on their skills rather than whether they fit the profile for a particular social clique is a better way to identify good workers.

A less cerebral “hobby” that may also be compulsory, as Ryan Funduk wrote about, is drinking. As he points out, when work-related social events revolve around alcohol, this excludes people who can’t or don’t want to drink as well as many women, who might enjoy drinking but don’t feel comfortable being in groups of drunk men (especially not when pretending that alcohol erases responsibility for sexual assault is a staple of rape culture). I haven’t personally experienced this much, since I’ve spent more time in academia than industry, but it’s something to discuss in the comments.

Have you ever found that your hobbies were an asset when getting hired? Or have you felt the need not to mention a hobby because it seemed like more of a liability? Have you felt pressure to do extra unpaid work just to be a competitive candidate for software jobs? Or to take up recreational pursuits you didn’t really like just to increase your level of cultural fit in your workplace?

53 thoughts on “Hiring based on hobbies: effective or exclusive?

  1. jessamyn

    Great post, Tim. I’ve had both the experience of a boss who was excited about my hobbies, and a boss who didn’t really get my hobbies and felt they were distracting me since I wasn’t thinking about work all the time. The ability to be open about how I spent my non-work time made a huge difference in how much ‘myself’ I felt when I was at work.

  2. Kimberly Chapman

    I agree that having a sole interviewer putting too much weight on hobbies could skew for a matching demographic, but I think that’s a peril of having a sole interviewer in any space.

    When I applied for a tech reporting job in the late 90s, I was already amongst the top qualified candidates (although I didn’t know it at the time) because of my journalism degree.

    But I was told after I was hired that one of the editors in particular marked me as his favourite candidate because when he walked in the room and I saw his tie with interwoven Starfleet symbols, I instinctively grinned, nodded, and said, “Cool tie!” So recognizing Trek symbology may have put me over the edge if someone else had more experience. However, there were two other editors deciding as well, and neither of them cared about Star Trek.

    I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking about hobbies if it’s merely one factor in hiring, and used only in aggregate with other factors but with direct education and experience being the most important qualifications. Personality doesn’t matter for every job, but it matters for some. A company can’t, for example, hire someone who is sometimes an engineer and other times meeting with clients if that person is the sort that can’t communicate well, is perpetually snarly, or is otherwise not a personable sort.

    I am a terrible, terrible choice for sales because I feel fumbly and apologetic during any financial haggling process. If someone asked about my hobbies of knitting and cake decorating where I sometimes sell patterns/ebooks and discerned how much I prefer to give that stuff away for free because I find the sales aspect kind of icky, and then they decided, “She’s not good for sales,” they’d be right.

    As a non-drinker, I definitely would have a problem with being excluded from a job because of that, but I also don’t mind social time where other people are drinking. I go to mama blogger events all the time where alcohol flows…I just don’t partake, and nobody minds. I’d say as long as a company is careful to ensure that it’s pleasant, grown-up drinking and not getting hammered, and that any non-drinkers are never bullied about it, it’s fine. Bonus points for a company that has a designated driver program, because it’ll probably also have other sensible social policies such as a good sexual harassment policy. If a company has a “everybody gets smashed on Fridays” policy, I’d argue that it’s probably a pretty crappy place to work for many, many other reasons, with that being one symptom.

  3. regis

    There are also things that hobbies indicate about people as far as work habits. I worked for a guy who was partial to people who had done theater – community theater, school productions, whatever – because (among other things) it meant you could work in heavily deadline-dependent environments.

    Generally, when I ask about hobbies and other interests in interviews, it’s a way to find out more about how a candidate operates and what they value in their environment – do you seek stressful situations? avoid them? seek to collaborate with other folks? If it’s something like reading, what sorts of things do they like to read? These can tell me more about how a candidate works and interacts with other people.

  4. Jano

    I’ve had my non-drinking be a problem in the past. Besides the cost and health and taste and loss-of-control factors (which motivated me to stop drinking in the first place), I react badly to being pressured, and by the gods, do people ever try to pressure you into drinking alcohol if you decline a drink. I’ve literally gotten into a screaming match, at least once, with somebody who felt my refusal to drink alcohol was some kind of insult. Some people also leer at you if you systematically decline junk food, but it’s not as bad as alcohol.

    1. Kimberly Chapman

      I used to have more trouble, but then I just started telling people to pretend I’m Mormon/Muslim and that combination alone is enough to confuse them out of their attempts to bully me. :D

      1. Geoffrey

        Sadly, the co-worker of mine who keeps pestering me to drink also enjoys pestering religious people, so I don’t think I can get away with that one :-/

        1. Mackenzie

          Would “I know what alcoholism can do” work? Plenty of people avoid alcohol because they know someone who took it too far.

        2. S.P.Zeidler

          Grab brochures and stuff from Alcoholics Anonymous or something similar and pester them back “because you so very obviously need that”? ;) (not quite serious)

  5. Bruce Byfield

    I was a technical writing and marketing consultant for years. I worked with over 60 companies, as well as several job-search coaches, and I’ve also hired people a number of times. Based on this experience, I suggest that there are two useful reasons for asking a job-seeker about hobbies:

    First, talking about hobbies can be a way to warm up the interviewee, getting them to relax and move beyond their interview manners. In other words, interviewers listening to an interviewee talk about hobbies can get a better sense of who they are. They can also put interviewees more at ease.

    Second, hobbies can include professional organizations and volunteer work. Even if neither is directly relevant to the job, both can tell a lot about what is important to the interviewee. Some interviewers, too, reason that if an interviewee cares enough about their community to volunteer, they might bring the same dedication to their job.

    1. Deborah

      First, talking about hobbies can be a way to warm up the interviewee, getting them to relax

      If they have them. As Tim pointed out, women, people with disabilities, and people with less ecnomic privilege are less likely to have the time and resources for hobbies, at which point the question is not relaxing at all.

      “My hobby is saving up my spoons so /i can be functional at work, and crying on the phone to my insurance company,” is hardly interview material.

      1. Bruce Byfield

        I’m struggling with the definition of “hobby” being assumed here.
        I was assuming that “hobby” is shorthand for “interests” or “what you do with your own time.”

        Yes, the ability to pursue your interests and the amount of free time you have varies with your economic class. However, I doubt that means that many people — if any — have no interests whatsoever.

        1. Tim Chevalier

          It may surprise you, but many people have no free time after working, caring for others, and doing whatever self-care is necessary for survival; and many people may not feel comfortable about “interests” that they don’t have time to pursue, as that would make them sound lacking in dedication.

          I have relatively few responsibilities, and I don’t have much time for anything outside surviving. There are people who have more responsibilities and fewer resources to manage them with.

        2. Alan Bell

          I guess for me what I am asking is “tell me about something where you are the expert and you know more than me” I just want to see the candidate talking confidently about something that I don’t know too much about. I don’t care if it is a hobby or an interest or a book they read or anything really. The difficulty comes when the only subjects available are ones that can’t come up in an interview because I would then have to un-hear it. There are a bunch of questions here http://www.aaronwallis.co.uk/interview-questions-that-employers-are-not-allowed-to-ask.aspx that I am not going to ask, so it is best that candidates avoid spontaneously answering them. Outside of that, talking confidently about anything will do.

        3. Bruce Byfield

          Tim: I’ll respond to you the way I used to when I heard similar comments from people whose resumes I was re-writing:

          The key to your comment is “I don’t have much time.” You do have time to moderate for a discussion site, and that is something that creates an impression about you. In fact, it could be a point very much in your favor on a resume that you would volunteer.

        4. Tim Chevalier

          Bruce: I’m, uh, not talking about myself. Since I didn’t ask for advice, one might reasonably conclude that I’m not looking for any. That’s because I’ve never had trouble finding a job. I’m advocating for people who haven’t been so privileged.

  6. EROSE

    @regis -“These can tell me more about how a candidate works and interacts with other people.”

    The trouble is, they really don’t. It seems to me that one of Tim’s major points was that an interviewer has their own ideas about what a given hobby tells them about a person, so when you face questions about your hobbies, you’re actually being measured by someone else’s cultural judgments about your leisure time rather than your skills.
    I think Tim also pointed out that any cultural judgment, especially of a hobby, is very influenced by your level of privilege, and so runs a serious risk of being classist, racist, sexist, ableist, etc. Tim’s crafting example is a good one – I know a lot of cis men of all races who would immediately demean crafting as frivolous. I also know plenty of employers in my outdoors-heavy town who give undue weight to whether a person climbs or skis without considering that those hobbies require expensive equipment and a certain level of physical ability.
    Asking about hobbies can easily turn into just another way you trip over your employer’s privilege on the way up the career ladder.

  7. Mary

    I am reminded also of Lisa Pryor’s book The Pin-Striped Prison, which is an Australia-focused examination of the siphoning of high achieving high school students into career paths that end in legal firms, management consulting or finance. (Side-note: law degrees in Australia are direct entry from high school, and are not especially costly, so the dynamics of entering law are different from the USA.)

    At one point she notices that the exemplar young employees who are presented to potential recruits almost always mention one — and only one — hobby, typically an expensive one involving some physical daring: scuba diving, skiing, etc. She believes the point there is twofold: both a class signal about who they want to apply (she doesn’t even touch on abled status that I recall), and a sort of a (false or at least misleading) assertion about how much free time you will have if you follow this career path.

    The specifics of this are different of course (although expensive sports involving physical daring do play a part in some geek hierarchies too), but I suspect there’s some of the same mechanism of “well, if you have hobbies, we have an industry that doesn’t need to worry about work-life balance” mutual reassurance dynamic going on too.

  8. Melanie Archer

    And, as with the example of drinking, the assessment doesn’t stop even once one is hired. How many of the “fun” activities at work assume we all take an interest in foosball, Guitar Hero, ping pong, miniature golf, weightlifting? To be fair, I’m hearing of more places introducing yoga sessions and knitting circles–but you don’t see the tech lead usually taking part.

    I’ve become envious of my 9-5 corporate drone/govt. bureaucrat friends who are assumed to have lives outside work that nobody knows anything about.

  9. Alan Bell

    By strange coincidence I should right now not be reading stuff on the internet, but preparing interview questions for the candidates we are interviewing this week. “Tell me about your hobbies and outside interests” is on the list, and I think it will stay there. I don’t care if the hobby is knitting, or model rocketry, or snail racing, or surfing, that isn’t the point. The idea is to have them talk confidently about something that is in their comfort zone and should be easy for them to articulate. There are some questions you can ask which maybe are a bit awkward, along the lines of “tell me about {your weaknesses/a time you failed/a time you had to deal with conflict}” which are there to see how they react to questions that involve more thinking and push them slightly out of the comfort zone. These are apparently fairly standard questions, and yes I can completely see the potential issue of recruiters who don’t know what they are doing judging on the “perceived interestingness” of the hobby to the interviewer. To do that would be to fail as an interviewer to understand why you are asking the question. I don’t really claim to know what I am doing to any great extent, but I have been researching quite a lot about how to correctly do interviews (if I didn’t research this then the interview would just consist of showing the candidate at a screen of code and timing how long it takes to spot the missing semicolon). I don’t think there is any (legal) hobby that I would consider a liability in a candidate, if someone wants to talk confidently about their cats that would be fine. I guess if someone wanted to talk about raising children that would be OK, but it would mean that I would just change the subject quickly and move on because it is kind of an off-limits area that I can’t ask any questions about – doesn’t matter what gender the applicant is, I don’t want to get drawn into accidentally saying something wrong.

    1. Julia

      Given one of my interests is Chinese medicine. How should I confidently talk about it, if 1. it’s a science/traditional practice, the interviewer most likely doesn’t know anything about; it’s like explaining to somebody in a couple of simple sentences what nuclear physics is, when they never heard of atoms. 2. it would refer to me healing aliments in the family and health management, how comfortable is it talking about medical problems?

      Alan, the problem is, you say you don’t care, but then you list hobbies that you understand and approve, and interviewing practices justified from your own cultural prospective and self-centric (such as, thinking of “me saying something wrong” other then “it might be uncomfortable for a candidate”). Does “correctly doing interviews” include awareness that the candidate pool is diverse, or it’s always the same “default candidate” (which has hobbies and interests, but has no house chores and children, leave alone any traditional, family or religious practices – which I wouldn’t call “hobbies and interests”)? Even making some people uncomfortable (and then quickly switching the subject) while the “default” is in their comfort zone is treating them unequally.

      What about forgetting about the “default candidate” and asking EVERYBODY what duties and chores they do at home (would tell apart people who tend not to share any housework with their spouses/roommates and those who neglect order and cleanness). It’s very unlikely (unlike having hobbies) that somebody doesn’t use any laundry and dish washing, cleaning, finance management, and if they don’t, they are probably not your candidate.

      1. Alan Bell

        the “me saying something wrong” bit wasn’t about cultural perspective or the comfort level of the candidate, it is about legal compliance and industrial tribunals. The reason I don’t want a candidate to talk about childcare or their household arrangement is because I can’t ask questions about it, nothing to do with my domain knowledge or general comfort level with the subject outside of an interview.
        Chinese medicine would be fine to talk about. I would be asking a few questions about evidence based practices, clinical trials and perhaps even the impact on endangered species, but if you can confidently respond to them (you don’t need to successfully convince me, you just need to be sure of yourself) then it would be a perfectly good interest to discuss.
        None of the hobbies I listed were particularly things I participate in or approve of to any great degree, especially snail racing.

        1. EROSE

          I might suggest a better way to ask this question and is “what are some of your interests?” or something along those more general lines. Or maybe “what is something you would like to learn outside of work?” because it places everyone in the hypothetical realm – even someone who could never afford flying lessons can dream of getting a pilot’s license and discuss the desire intelligently.

          Certainly there is the opportunity for someone to bring their hobbies into it, but they don’t have to.
          You may in fact be as unconcerned as you say about what a hobby says about a person. Requiring an applicant to assume that is particularly unfair to people who do not have the luxury of always being judged based on what they are instead of what someone thinks they are – in other words, everyone except white guys.
          It probably serves your stated purpose better to leave that room for someone to avoid discomfort while still having the chance to give a cogent and impressive answer.

        2. Alan Bell

          @EROSE some of the feedback I had on draft questions from an HR consultant was that my questions were too hypothetical and too much “what would you do if . . .” and not enough “describe a situation in which you demonstrated . . . ” as I understand it the idea is to try and get the candidate to talk from their lived experience as much as possible, however if they are struggling with a question you don’t just sit and watch them squirm, you suggest an easier way to answer it. e.g.
          Can you tell me about a situation where you dealt

        3. Alan Bell

          @EROSE some of the feedback I had on draft questions from an HR consultant (not a privileged white bloke as it happens) was that my intended questions were too hypothetical and too much “what would you do if . . .” and not enough “describe a situation in which you demonstrated . . . ” as I understand it the idea is to try and get the candidate to talk from their lived experience as much as possible, however if they are struggling with a question you don’t just sit and watch them squirm, you suggest an easier way to answer it. e.g.
          start with “Can you tell me about a situation where you demonstrated leadership skills” and then if they can’t think of such an example then rephrase it as “Can you tell me what you would do in a situation where a team needs to solve a problem together” or something like that to give them opportunities to answer the question hypothetically or in a non-work context (if someone can talk about a skill they used outside of work that is completely acceptable).

        4. Julia

          It’s what I exactly mean about “not having a clue”… Chinese medicine is not evidence based, is not organized as having clinical trials etc. Moreover, if I respond like that, a very “confident” (about his/her knowledge) white interviewer would look at me like I practice some kind of witchery/charlatanry etc (been there). It’s also a good example of the white thought dominance (such as “white” believes and practices are claimed to be “standard” bringing enlightenment to other ethnic groups).

        5. LittleRed

          @Julia

          Sorry, this is off-topic, but as a Chinese-Canadian (who is feeling more than a little peeved right now), I can’t help but feel insulted. White thought dominance? You’re absolutely right, that’s a big problem. Some of the worst offenders are the people who claim that science is a white person thing that us “ethnic” people have no interest or ability in, that it’s somehow best if we steer clear of it, or that we “do things differently”. That kind of narrative is really helpful at keeping non-whites out of science, which means keeping them out of power.

          Oh, sorry, you think access to and representation in STEM is irrelevant to power? I guess you must be right – just look at your computer, built all out of metal! Running on pure white racism, that; us “ethnic” folk build supercomputers out of tiger brains and hemp fiber all the time. No need for science. Or, hey, ever had teeth pulled? Remember the anesthetics? The only thing that makes those work is racism, amiright? ‘Cause if I had to have my wisdom teeth pulled again, I know I’d be asking for the turtle shell powder injection. (Go on, accuse me of misrepresenting TCM. Miss the point. Be my guest.)

          You do realize that you are actually buying into the white supremacist system, right? That idea that science is somehow a white person thing that non-whites have no interest or ability in is a classic way of diminishing and marginalizing non-white people. Thanks for making life harder for all the non-white people trying to get critical drugs into disease zones in developing countries, trying to get jobs in STEM or medical fields, or trying to prevent the gross and harmful appropriation of their cultural past by upper-class white kids with a grudge against algebra. In the meantime people like my nurse mother will continue to have to tell potential employers that no, they do not secretly administer “ethnic” medicine to her patients instead of conventional drugs and no.

          Can’t you at least go after traditional European medicine? I hear leeches are actually useful. Oh, wait, that probably isn’t exotic enough for you, is it? What about the traditional medicine of any one of the other thousands of cultures in the world? Not fashionable enough? Ever heard the term “Orientalism” before? Yeah, not appreciated, whether you are one of the aforementioned white kids or some hip urban minority girl who thinks she can perpetuate racist crap unquestioned because she isn’t white (I’ve met both and have no patience for either). Nor is it fun to have white people justify their misappropriative, exoticist fashions (I won’t even get into the classist ideology behind consuming large endangered animals) by claiming that any criticism is racist. The whole idea of non-scientific ethnic peoples is a product of imperialistic racism and it carries all the negative effects of the same, feeding white-dominated narratives about us as being less rational and less fit for positions of power.

          Get a hold of yourself.

  10. Alan Bell

    “What do you expect to be doing in 5 years time?” is a pretty standard question. I would be interested in opinions on that one.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      I’ve encountered this question, and have never been exactly sure what it’s looking for. Maybe other people have insights there.

      Personally, I would have a hard time answering this question, and I feel like being on a smooth path from high school to career success, with nary a bit of doubt in between, is yet another privilege.

      1. Bruce Byfield

        The trouble with the question, “Where do you see yourself five years from now” is that people ask it for very different reasons. Some interviewers ask simply because it’s a stock question that they’ve heard.

        The problem comes with the other reasons for asking it. Some interviewers want to know that you’re ambitious, while others would prefer someone who will stay in the same position for a while. Clearly, you want to answer very differently depending on what motivates the question, and what you want.

        If you don’t have any information to allow you to make a guess, then perhaps the best course is to steer right down the middle. You might say something like, “Well, I don’t necessarily mind staying in the same position if I’m still doing meaningful and challenging work. But I realize that we haven’t talked about possible career paths in your company that start with this job.” Then, with any luck, you can get the information you need to add to your answer.

        1. Calliope

          I don’t usually ask this (I prefer the more generic “what are your career goals”), but I’ve sat in on interviews where it is asked, and I think the motivation is to make sure that the candidate’s expectations are in line with the position. I’ve seen both situations happen– where an employee expects to move up very quickly, the the opportunity isn’t available, and where the employee is expected to be a superstar and move to a new position soon, but it turns out they want to stay in their current position for a long time. This question can help avoid these situations. In this case, honesty is the best policy, and “I have no idea” is an okay answer.

    2. Julia

      My own answer to this question: “if I was asked this question 5 years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed the answer would be ‘looking for a job'”. The problem is if you expect a truthful answer, then either your company should guarantee this job to last for at least 5 years, or your candidates should have a crystal ball. And if you recognize it’s a game, then you don’t expect a truthful answer.

    3. Mackenzie

      I hate that question. Sorry, I can’t see the future. I’ll roll with what comes my way, and in 5 years, we’ll see.

      Alternatively, if they phrase it “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”: “Earth.”

      1. Alan

        It is certainly a question I wouldn’t like to be asked, but that doesn’t in itself mean I shouldn’t ask it. I think your answers are both great though. On balance, and having used it, I think I will now remove it from our list of questions.

  11. Julia

    Mod note: edited out ableist terms.

    Somebody with broader problem solving skills would provide more outside of the box solutions and creativity then somebody who knows nothing except software, and nothing except a particular set of technologies. It’s really not about hobbies in particular, and not about the type of hobbies in particular, but “hobbies” becomes [an ineffective] way to address it. It’s a lack of this hard sought creativity on the interview’s site and their [lack of imagination] (including the one coming out of the privilege). I saw software job ads with requirements like “interested in football” (turned out that the manager was a fan), was asked idiotic questions like what book I was reading at the time (how does it describe by overall reading habits?), and not hired because I wasn’t interested in sailing. One of my interests is Chinese medicine, I have an extremely tiny chance that a non-Asian interviewer would be familiar with this field, to be able to draw any conclusions (otherwise, they would just disregard it). Besides that, there is one very useful skill called “efficiently managing money and time” (often comes with balancing a household), useful for any team, but I can guess that male managers who don’t manage any more then 1 person household, don’t even know about its existence.

  12. Calliope

    I ask this question on interviews all the time, although most of the time, it doesn’t affect my hiring decision. Usually my motivations are one or more of the following:

    – I want to gauge the candidate’s English skills, using a subject they’re interested in and are comfortable talking about
    – I want to gauge the candidate’s ability to explain domain knowledge to me (e.g. I know nothing about knitting, but they do. Can they explain to me what makes a project difficult)
    – The candidate’s resume, and everything so far in the interview has been weak, and I want to make one last attempt to bring out something positive. Occasionally, a candidate will bring up something relevant they haven’t mentioned, like open-source involvement. This is something I’ll usually only do when filling a very junior position, and when picking between selecting this candidate and leaving the position unfilled
    – I’m concerned they have hobbies that will conflict with the contract they will have to sign when offered the job (my company doesn’t allow employees to contribute to open source, etc.)
    – I’ve had some responses to this question that are indications of extremely poor judgement. For example, I’ve had a person say they blog about their co-workers, and had a person say they run an ‘adult’ website

    I do think interviewers can take the answer to this question too seriously though. I would way rather have an employee with no hobbies that can do their job well than someone who had hobbies and doesn’t.

    1. Julia

      The assumption is “it’s the question they are interested in and comfortable to talk about”.

      Basically, I see this question as very analogous to “tell me about the car you’re driving”, as it refers to social status as much as asking about hobbies. Some folks with nice cars will talk enthusiastically about their car. Other people who can afford only old cars would mostly talk about repairs, not so enthusiastically. And some people wouldn’t own any car, because they can’t afford a car or parking, have a disability or such. Those would be made feel uncomfortable and put into a disadvantage.

  13. Deborah

    I’ve never asked this question in an interview, and don’t intend to start. If the applicant shares my hobbies, I’d be afraid of weighting that disproportionately; geek professions are full of granfalloons. If the applicant’s hobbies are something I don’t value personally — decoupaging American Idol winners, playing fantasy football — I’d be afraid of letting THAT influence me disproportionately. I once had a job applicant explain earnestly that his hobby was reclaiming the original meaning of the Swastika as a symbol of peace, and he showed me his materials, and I spent the rest of the interview in a mini-freakout of “SWASTIKA IN THE ROOM ALL HANDS ON DECK.” Of course that’s an edge case but you never know when your hobby will be the interviewer’s edge case. Any of use who claims to be too perfect a person to let such issues influence us consciously or unconsciously is practicing self deception.

    Not to mention I see no value in the question, aside from all the other faux-personal questions which are there to measure you interviewing skills. What’s your biggest flaw? Working too hard. Where do you see yourself in five years? Aspiring to a higher responsibility position in the organization which is no challenge to you, dear interviewer. What’s your hobby? don’t say writing fan fiction don’t say writing fan fiction Open Source Coding, of course, and volunteering at the soup kitchen.

  14. sysadmin1138

    I’ve been asked this enough in interviews that I have answers for it, but none of the interviews that landed me jobs asked me the question.

    Now to unpack that…

    One of the things I’ve always been taught about interviewing is that it is all about marketing yourself and interviewing the company in return. Any answer I provide needs to be polished to an attractive gleam without outright misdirection, all the while trying to read between the questions for the corporate culture that lurks behind. It’s really hard work.

    It’s the marketing aspect that makes the hobby question one of my least favorite. I need to know what kind of answer the interviewer is looking for, so I can phrase my own to better fit that mold. I haaaaate when it shows up on the email-screen before I’ve actually spoken to anyone, so I only admit to culturally appropriate hobbies. I have a problem being excessively wordy (hello, natural blogger) so feel self conscious spending the verbage spinning something like costuming to point out the hard math involved; the last thing I need is to push the reviewer into tl;dr territory.

    When it comes up in phone/video/in-person interviews it’s never the first question, so I at least have some foundation upon which to build a model for what the interviewer is looking for. Also? I’ve found that tl;dr doesn’t apply in person to nearly the same extent so I can explain how, say, hand-drafting a princess seam is engineering, especially if I can grab the conversational initiative and keep them engaged. Look! Diverse interest, and cross-disciplinary detail-orientedness! You want that!

    Which is to say, I’m so busy spinning all of my answers that the interviewer may not be getting what they’re looking for. But if it looks like a bunch of brogrammers, even mostly reformed ones, I’m not going to admit to my stitchery at any point; that is a closet I’ll remain in until I know them as people better than I get during the interview process.

    Are they effective? For me, only weakly. It depends a lot on my ability to read the interviewer’s mind to find out what they want to know and offer up the right kind of hobbies in the right way.

    Are they exclusive? For me, not really since I do have at least one hobby that passes muster for appropriate. Generally, though, they are somewhat exclusive due to simple stereotype threat.

    1. Julia

      “Hobbies” is a meaningless question, since candidates can try to make it up (such as, what kind of person is my interviewer? from his FB page he likes biking, I will tell him I like it too, even though I bike approximately 2.5 times per year).

      A broader observation. I’m taking an online course done by a university in the US, but the student teams are all around the world, very diverse. Assignments are peer evaluated. Interesting, that when there was an assignment to advertise a product, something like 12-15 out of 20 teams all around the world (those I reviewed) advertised it clearly for WHITE customers (either by culture/preference or skin color of people on the ads). Even when products were intended to be used outside of the developed nations, they were planned and advertised for white tourists. Only ONE product out of 20 was advertised for the rest of the world (and the rest of the ads were not clear about customers – like my own, were not readable etc). Talk about matching expectations…

  15. Rebecca Turner

    I have to admit to being biased toward people who have programming as a hobby. (Not however, to someone who has some other techy skill as a hobby.) On the other hand, this almost never happens. In fact, I’m only aware of one (maybe two) other person in the tech part of my company who programs for fun (out of a group of 30ish people). The rest either have other interests, or just don’t have the time to do it.

    I do think that we, as an industry, over focus on specific technical skills to our detriment. It’s much more important to me that you be able to learn and that you be able to accept and give criticism. There is of course, a minimum technical bar that you need to cross first, but I’ve found it uncommon for people to fail to meet that bar.

    The drinking thing I do find frustrating though. My last employer had a heavy drinking culture that I didn’t participate in, that probably alienated me from (some of) my coworkers there. They had a reputation for behavior that got them into trouble with the bars they went to… not something I wanted to be around. My current employer has moved to doing employee-bonding events during the work day at non-bar type places, which is a remarkable improvement. Everyone can attend, the environment is not uninviting to some of us, and so on.

  16. Moz Has No Hobbies

    Mod note: This comment was edited because the Geek Feminism blog doesn’t exclude anyone based on their religious beliefs or lack thereof, so just as racist, sexist and ableist comments aren’t okay, derogatory comments about people who have religious beliefs aren’t welcome either. Please keep that in mind when commenting in the future.

    Hobbies can be a reasonable question, but I can’t imagine it reassuring or relaxing anyone but the most boring candidates.

    Personally, a lot of what I do outside work could be characterised as “promoting social change”, which by definition makes most people uncomfortable. I used “building my own bicycles” at one job because it was the most ordinary-legal hobby-like thing I’d done recently (several years before). We had to do a presentation to the team on “something interesting about me” and it was very clearly hobby oriented – “my children” was a topic explicitly ruled out.

    My partner is in one of those professions where hobbies are a really big part of the interview process. You have to show, in the approved manner, that you have spare time and energy to do things well above and beyond what you’re paid to do. Especially entering and winning professional competitions. Putting an entry together can easily suck up a hundred hours of non work time work over a couple of months. I have to be supportive, but I think it’s just a way of making sure people are willing to work a lot of unpaid overtime to make the company look better. For a job with mediocre pay as postgrad qualified professions go.

  17. Moz Has No Hobbies

    Oh, one thing that annoys me: I ride my bicycle to work, and a number of people have insisted on referring to that as a hobby. Their preference for driving is often not a hobby so much as a hobby-horse. But then, best to get that out in the open during the interview, I suppose, so I can avoid working somewhere that every day is going to bring someone new attacking me for not driving. It gives me a lot of sympathy for people dealing with (eg) racism and sexism every day.

  18. Kat

    I’ve always felt like my own hobbies help me connect with people at conferences and work events. Also, I have to agree with some of the other commenters, hobbies are a good way to gain insight into a person. I’ve heard people tell me that they ask future employees about hobbies to determine if their personality would be a good match with the work environment and the other employees.

    However, a good point is brought up here. If all of the employees and the interviewer come from more privileged backgrounds, would there be an unfair bias towards someone else who shares the same hobbies? I can imagine as an interviewer it would be difficult to keep yourself from subconsciously giving the candidate who struck up a conversation about your shared passion for scuba diving a little extra weight in an interview.

    Also, on the alcohol thing, I’ve found it difficult, and I’m even okay with drinking. I’ve found myself at tables full of men, feeling a lot of pressure to keep up and not be called “the wimp” at the table. No, it’s not fun to be forced to verbally admit the obvious difference, “okay fine, you’re right, I’m a female and I am not as big as you and my body absorbs alcohol differently, so I can’t drink as much. You win.” I am surprised how much bullying can take place over not drinking, and I would imagine it could be isolating for people who don’t drink at all.

    1. sysadmin1138

      Your point:

      If all of the employees and the interviewer come from more privileged backgrounds, would there be an unfair bias towards someone else who shares the same hobbies?

      Rings true with me. On the separate issue of hiring for good cultural fit, what this tells prospective employees is, we like the cultural mix we have right now, and don’t want to change it. This is a problem when you get to the in-person interview stage and discover you’ll be the second woman on a team of 15. It circles around to stereotype threat again; getting the hobby question in this circumstance puts strong pressure to conform or opt out, and I’ve had a few friends get to this stage and choose to opt out of working for that particular company.

  19. Samvara

    Yes, it’s exclusive, what we do in our non-work time says a lot about our wealth, health, family life and personal politics.

    Asset: one of my hobbies helped get me the best job I’ve ever had and yes, I was volunteering in Open Source and it was incredibly valuable. I brought it up in the interview to showcase my experience. I’m lucky that I genuinely love OS and have time and energy for it.

    Liability: I also do volunteer in fannish spaces / safe spaces / feminist and queer spaces and I would not talk about them in front of a prospective employer or a coworker until I got to know them a lot better – possibly never. The above pursuits often trigger at best absurd responses and at worst situations that improve no-ones happiness.

    Pressure: I’m currently eying off a volunteer role which will be rewarding personally and tiring, but will also be very useful career-wise. I’m definitely factoring that in.

    On drinking as a forced hobby (especially … rape culture): I have experienced this, navigating through social situations with drunk people who have hire/fire control over your job and think sexual harassment is hilarious can be exhausting and unpleasant.

  20. John

    The only time I can remember being asked about hobbies in an interview (probably about 15 years ago now), the company clearly lost interest on finding that I had any hobbies at all. The feedback I got afterwards from the recruitment agent was that that company only wanted people who would spend all their non-sleeping time on working.

  21. kbsalazar

    I’ve always been asked the hobbies question and I’ve experienced an interesting distinction in how hobbies are perceived.

    I do various forms of historical needlework and knitting. I also research, write about, and teach those things. If I present my hobby as just doing the craft, the interviewers’ eyes glaze over. If instead I talk about doing exactly the same things, but describe it in the context of publication, I get lots of interest – the majority of which is NOT about the research and writing aspects, but about the needlework styles themselves. It’s as if the acts of investigation and documentation legitimize pursuits that are otherwise perceived as marginal.

    There’s probably a whole other discussion lurking here on whether or not it’s wise wise to disclose gender-skewed hobbies at all.

  22. S.P.Zeidler

    Most amusingly, the one job interview I had where hobbies were an issue, I was interviewing for a sysadmin position, and the interviewer/prospective boss basically said I could have the job if I gave up the hobby. The hobby in question being Open Source work. I found a different employer.

  23. Emilie

    Interesting and convincing points about why an interviewer should not ask about hobbies. But what about siting on the other side of the table? As a female software engineer, I worry about my lack of privilege due to gender, and thus am inclined to make up for it by pointing out my dominant culture conformant hobbies to try to make up for the gap. Is that not OK because now I am putting people with less privilege at a disadvantage? Or if I tried to be fair and stay away from hobbies, would I just be shooting myself in the foot since presumably plenty of other candidates are taking advantage of their standards conforming hobbies?

    1. ConFigures

      I think it’s ok for an interviewee to present themselves in the most positive light for that job, as long as they’re honest. You can always decide not to take the job, if you think their interview process was unfair. I wouldn’t decide the whole process was unfair based on one question about hobbies, but your mileage may vary. I see the concern over hobbies/privilege, but refusing to even mention something you’re enthusiastic about could be costly, when for all you know, you might be the best person for the job.

  24. chick ref

    I just yesterday was offered a job and im sure hobbies helped. I volunteer as a rugby referee and the interviewer thought that would make me a great fit for the office (translatin: not girly)

    I dont think my work with gender non conforming youth would have had the same effect…

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