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Workplace Guru Can Tell You How to Land a Job from What You Take in Your Coffee

07/31/2014 12:14 pm ET | Updated Sep 29, 2014

Do you think you knew all the basic human resources questions hiring companies like to ask? What are your strengths? Weaknesses? HR 101, I call them. Familiar?

Well, how about this question? "Have you ever taken a sugar packet or artificial sweetener from Starbucks for your home use?" I'm serious. Have you ever taken a sugar packet or one of its substitutes: Equal, Sweet-N-Low, Splenda or even Truvia? Candidates looking for jobs tell me this is the latest of a new era of questions HR professionals like to ask, along with, "what is your favorite type of birthday cake?" New times call for new questions, I guess.

I am the author of Bulletproof Your Job (HarperCollins) and a regular workplace expert on NBC/Universal's TV Show Steve Harvey. I have helped people ask for raises, find jobs, and taught them how to keep them. But interview questions are usually a cinch and vary according to the job, one's experience, and fields of expertise. But this particular question, I have to think about a little. How will I advise answering this quirky question?

We all know employers like Google stopped asking people what their SAT scores were. That made the news, even though I personally think Google made a mistake to stop asking. I suppose companies that put pool tables where conference rooms once were and offer endless sushi and goodies make news, because everyone wants one of those jobs. If it were me, I would rather have my boss put in a real swimming pool instead of a pool table! Hmmm... a real pool... the sort of thing I can see Donald Trump doing on the next Apprentice. Picture it: he and Ivanka take you to the 68th floor and show you the boardroom and the company swimming pool (and, no, Donald does not go in the pool -- he does not want to get his hair wet)! Anyway, if Google can get its press on by dropping the SAT question, I thought it was time it write about this new Starbucks sugar/coffee question that interviewers ask nowadays. Hey, maybe Kathy Lee and Hoda will talk about it, or even Morning Joe. They are sponsored by Starbucks. I wonder if their guests -- celebrities, athletes, politicians -- pocket Equal from their Green Room. Although, something tells me Mika Brzezinski drinks her coffee black, and she does not allow artificial sweeteners and NO sugar on the set at all.

So let me ask you: have you ever pocketed, stolen, taken -- whatever you want to call it -- sugar packets or a sugar substitute packets from a Starbucks or Coffee Bean for use at home? You know, those colorful packets at your local Starbucks or Coffee Bean... those incredibly inviting mounds of pink, blue, yellow, white, and green packets. You pay enough for the coffee, but does that mean you should be allowed to tote their sugar? Why is it a big deal anyway? Has Starbucks suddenly been counting their sugar packets? Some stingy new concerns with meeting their bottom line? McDonald's and Chick-Fil-A practically offer you a lifetime's worth of ketchup, right there for the taking (or asking). Chick-Fil-A even has a special Heinz-designed packet that screams, "steal me!" Even if you find Chick-Fil-A's ethical policies infuriating, you might still go in just to steal their ketchup. And, guess what, no one there would make a fuss!

But, all you sugar thieves out there, the real question is, what do your seemingly innocent five-finger discounts say about you to prospective employers? If you steal sugar, are you the same kind of person that steals office supplies? Is that why employers ask? What does that say about your integrity and qualifications as a product manager, or secretary, or sales rep, or nurse, or bank teller? (Boy, the birthday cake question is so much easier. Without a doubt, devil's food with white frosting, in case you want to know). I know. This still seems like a question from an old Seinfeld episode. But it's not. It's real and happening every day on interviews, and you better have a good response.

So, here is Viscusi's workplace advice: don't focus so much on whether or not you take the sugar, especially since I really don't think Starbucks minds. Fess up to it!

My theory is that the real trick lies in which product you like to take! It says something about who you are and what kind of employee you will be. Sweet 'n' Low, for example, used Regis Philbin as their spokesperson. In other words, it's your granny's sweetener. It screams "you are too old for this job!" The old pink packets tell prospective employers that you might not be up-to-date with technology and probably cannot navigate Facebook or other social media apps. To you, Twitter is the name of your bird, and you have NEVER BEEN to the Apple store! Whereas, Truvia... well, that is Gen Y's sugar substitute of choice, and it's the image you will project -- new, young, and health-conscious. You work out every day at the gym -- maybe you even do yoga -- and it is OKAY to steal the Truvia, because you must be a vegan and "foster" cats. See where I am going with this? Google hires your type.

Maybe you really don't steal. Maybe you take your coffee black without any sweetener at all. You're probably the type who pulled "all-nighters" in school -- type A, over achiever. Typically, your profile would make a great hire, as and you'd be willing to work long hours. And drink lots of coffee!

As for the rest of the sugar substitutes... Equal? Equal is just that -- Equal. You are vanilla, trustworthy, but not adventurous. You're not old but not young either! And that yellow Splenda. Well, it's a bit up in the air -- "the wild card." It's newer than Equal, light years ahead of Sweet 'N Low, but it's still not young and savvy like Truvia. So, Splenda... it's a coin toss. Heads! You're hired!

Stephen Viscusi is the author of Bulletproof Your Job (Harper Collins). He can be reached at stephen@viscusi.com. Please visit his website at http://www.viscusigroup.com