When the US Navy started using nuclear submarines, it was important that the personnel be absolutely top-notch. In the early years, a man named Hyman Rickover made “strange” interviews the norm for his department. By asking odd questions, switching gears suddenly, and flipping out over the slightest thing, he picked the interviewees who were the most calm and collected, and in the process created a submarine class with no reported accidents.
Well known for making candidates endure such crazy trials as conducting interviews in total darkness, trying to balance on a chair with one of its legs shortened, and berating them for anything short of an “A” in technical courses, Hyman Rickover was the only interviewer the Navy had for Submarine Captains.
A typical interview lasted anywhere from two to 20 minutes. But even in that short time, many applicants said it felt like hours. Rickover would ask questions looking for an exact answer. For age, if the applicant said the year instead of how old he was, the interview was over. If he said “yes” to every question, the interview was over. If the applicant told Rickover he had kids, he was sent out of the interview for being a “nestbuilder.” There were times he even berated applicants, saying he had much smarter people than the current interviewee—just to see if they would flinch.
However, all Rickover was looking for was a person who could think independently, and even if he screamed candidates out, chances were they still got the job (provided they didn’t keep saying “yes”). During one interview, a nuclear officer was having lunch with him, but Rickover told him to leave about 10 seconds after the food arrived. Why? Because the guy reached for the saltshaker before tasting his food to verify it needed salt.
In addition to his unusual interviewing skills, the Senate once called him in to testify because they were concerned about the safety of naval nuclear power, to which he personally responded by drinking a glass of a reactor’s primary coolant on the floor of the US Senate.
His interviews let people know from day one to be on their toes, and with an almost spotless safety record, there is little wonder why.