What is a Stress Interview and How Do They Work?

What is Stress Interview

Consider these questions:

  • “How many golf balls would fit inside of a Boeing 757?”
  • “How would you move Mount Fuji?”

Questions like these focus on understanding a candidate’s reactions to stress on the job.

“Stress questions” like the two above allow a candidate the chance to describe their experiences, but they’re not foolproof. Different people react differently to stressful situations. Moreover, very few of us know how we would respond in a genuinely stressful situation without having been there already. If the candidate hasn’t been in a truly stressful situation, the best they can do is guess, but a guess isn’t good enough.

After all, if an employee breaks down or lashes out under stress, they can be a massive liability for the company. You want employees who can handle stressful situations when the pressure is unavoidable while working to minimize the stress you put them under in other ways.

Enter the Stress Interview

Stress interviews are a relatively new concept that swept the hiring world by storm and passed just as quickly. They trended for a while, first as a tech startup test and later as viral stories of terrible interviews.

“But earlier this week, an interview she had with tech firm Web Applications UK left her in tears. In a viral tweet, she alleged that chief executive Craig Dean degraded and humiliated her about everything from her music taste to her parents’ marriage. Bland was offered the job but declined, likening Dean’s behavior to that of an abusive ex.” – The BBC, in 2019.

This example was taken too far, but stress interviews exist for a reason. Here’s how they work.

Company Job Interview

First, the interviewer begins the interview normally. Interviews are already moderately stressful in the first place. So tensions can be high.

Then, the interviewer starts laying on the challenges. They might be aggressive or confrontational questions. They might get overly personal. They might become insulting. They might be disruptive. Whatever the tactic, the interviewer is challenging the candidate with a stressful situation with high stakes. After all, their job is on the line.

The interviewer then uses the candidate’s reactions to judge how that candidate will react under stress in a different environment, such as in a high-stakes, near-deadline project, or a confrontation with a customer.

“There are certainly different kinds of stress associated with many positions – achieving results, meeting deadlines, dealing with difficult clients, for example,” says Neal Hartman, senior lecturer in managerial communication at MIT. “The stress interview can create conditions to see how an applicant would handle those challenges.” – The BBC.

If a stress interview can allow a hiring manager to accurately judge how a candidate will handle stress in the workplace, it seems like they should be a valuable tool in the arsenal of any HR representative.

Where Stress Interviews are Used

Stress interviews crop up more in some industries than in others and in some roles over others. After all, the amount of stress your IT team handles is very different from the amount of stress your customer service team has to handle.

Where Stress Interviews Used

Where are stress interviews most commonly used?

  • Speculative banking.
  • High-value client negotiating.
  • Air travel.
  • Law enforcement.
  • High-pressure sales.

Entire industries and businesses may never need to use stress interviews because the most stressful situation they ever encounter is a slow quarter or a looming deadline. Others deal with high-stress situations daily and thus need to know how their candidates handle stress in intimate detail.

How a Stress Interview is Conducted

Stress interviews tend to work the same way as regular interviews, except the questions have a darker edge. They may start as normal and descent into something harsh, or they might be more difficult from the outset. The candidate may or may not get informed that the interview will be a stress interview beforehand. It all varies from company to company. That said, questions tend to fall into specific categories.

 Bizarre and weird questions.

What percentage of the water in the world is present in your body? How much does the Burj Dubai weigh? What would happen if a hurricane hit Egypt?

These kinds of questions are bizarre, weird, and unrelated to the context of the job, the role, the company, or the interview. They exist solely to disrupt the candidate’s thought processes and make them think about something completely unexpected. Treated seriously, they’re meant to present something extremely important and entirely unexpected for the candidate.

Conducting Stress Interview

In a sense, it’s like an exam you didn’t study for, a test with a question that wasn’t covered in the material, or a sudden, last-minute requirement for a project well past the point where that requirement could feasibly be added.

The point is not to answer the question correctly. The point is to react appropriately. Candidates who seize up, fail to respond or shut down tend not to pass the test.

 Questions that doubt the candidate’s integrity.

“Let’s be honest here; I think you’re hiding something from me. Are you lying about your education? Your previous role? Were you fired, and you’re not telling me? I can verify this, you know, so you might as well come clean.”

Doubting Candidates Integrity

This kind of aggressive, oppressive question is meant to display suspicion towards the candidate and see how they react to having their integrity thrown into question. Some might handle it in stride; others might respond angrily, get overly defensive, or retreat from the accusation. Rarely, of course, they might come clean.

The goal here isn’t to catch a candidate in a lie; it’s to see how they handle getting accused of lying when they haven’t, which is an all-too-common scenario in some roles.

 Actions that show contempt for the candidate.

Responding to an answer with “Oh, is that it? Ah.” Followed by noting something down on a clipboard is an example of contempt in action. The idea is to convey the impression that the candidate is lacking or fell short, that they’re “failing” the interview, putting them on edge.

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Showing Candidate Contempt

This ramps up the natural stress inherent in an interview setting, especially if the answer was more than satisfactory in the first place. This one can be difficult for interviewers not to break the façade, but it’s potent when they can pull it off.

 Normal questions with hostile body language.

Asking questions, never asking for elaboration, being terse, rolling eyes, looking around the room, leaning back, playing with a pen. Anything that makes the interviewer seem like they’re completely disengaged with the process, as if they’ve already written off the candidate, comprises this part of a stress interview.

Asking Candidate Questions

Showing that the interviewer isn’t taking it seriously puts the candidate further on edge. This can even extend to an accomplice, perhaps a secretary who steps in to ask a question about making a photocopy or answering a phone for what is, obviously, a trivial matter.

 Rapid-fire questions with no time to answer completely.

The key to this one is cutting off the candidate before they can finish their answer. Many candidates build robust answers to common questions, so cutting them off can fluster them and make them feel like they cannot give the right impression.

Rapid Fire Interview Questions

After a series of rapid-fire questions, it can make the candidate feel like they’re failing, with all of the stress that entails.

 Questions from a too-large panel of interviewers.

Group interviews have their role, but a panel interview should rarely have more than three or four interviewers at once. It becomes a very stressful situation if you bring in more – six, eight, ten – and have them all scrutinize and criticize the candidate.

Panel of Interviewers

Couple this with different interviewers taking up different “roles” (like the dismissive one, the contemptuous one, the bizarre one), and you can cover all bases at once.

 Practical demonstrations of stressful situations.

This one is what many stress interviews do today for reasons that we’ll expound upon later. They gain consent from the candidate and then put them in a situation that closely mimics the kinds of stressful situations they’d face in their job. For example, a customer service lead might get tasked with answering a call – possibly even framed as an actual call – with an angry, abusive customer on the other end. Usually, it’s an employee acting in the role, intentionally being unreasonable to see how the candidate handles the situation.

Demonstrating Stressful Situation

These forms of stressful situations allow an interviewer to judge how a candidate reacts to being in that situation.

Why Stress Interviews Fall Flat

The problem with stress interviews is that, as often as not, they don’t work. There are many possible ways they can go wrong.

“After all, interviews are a two-way street. The interviewer is getting an impression of you, but you’re also sizing up the interviewer. And it’s possible that your feelings won’t be positive after feeling stressed out. Some candidates, of course, thrive under pressure.” – The Balance Careers

Your candidate is judging you just as much as you’re judging them. A stress interview – particularly one conducted without forewarning or consent, and especially one that derides the candidate personally – will turn off even the best candidates. Nobody wants to go to a job interview, only to be insulted, humiliated, or have their integrity questioned.

Stress interviews also suffer from a lack of recognition of the many kinds of stress present in a workplace. Interview stress and one-time stress are different from the ongoing stress and pressure of tight deadlines and a tense work environment. Reactions to one don’t always carry over to another.

Candidate Job Interview

Stress interviews that frame a situation as “real” when it isn’t, like a fake irate customer phone call, also don’t necessarily have the same implications. A candidate will know intuitively that the situation is simulated, and they aren’t going to react the same way they would when real consequences are on the line. And, of course, if they don’t have training in acting according to your employee handbook and conduct guide, they aren’t necessarily going to react appropriately even if they act properly.

And, of course, some stress interviews take it much too far. An interviewer needs to be professional in their techniques, so one that insults personal characteristics, asks prying questions, or is derisive in the wrong way can easily be accused of – and found guilty of – violating equal employment legislation, causing adverse impact, asking prohibited questions, or generally putting your company in hot water with employment laws. You don’t want to be in this situation.

Should Your Company Use Stress Interviews?

Some careers require a candidate who can hit the ground running in a stressful environment. Hiring someone who collapses under stress and quits, snaps back and lashes out at customers or clients, or otherwise reacts poorly to stress is a devastating decision. Stress interviews can serve a useful purpose in a limited and controlled framework.

On the other hand, it’s easy for a stress interview to go too far. In many cases, the role isn’t as stressful as it might seem, and a stress interview is an overkill. A stress interview also tells the candidate that they should expect stress with little or no support from the company, and that can turn away many highly qualified candidates who don’t want to face that reality day in and day out.

Stress Job Interview

The truth is, stress interviews are very commonly misused. If you can verify that a stress interview is an integral part of your hiring process and will have tangible, beneficial results, then, by all means, use them. On the other hand, if a stress interview ends up a way for an interviewer to be aggressive, let off steam, or generally wield power over a captive audience, all it does is showcase poor company culture and drive away good candidates.

Use with caution, or don’t use at all.

Have any questions or concerns regarding stress interviews or if you should use them in your company’s hiring process? If so, please feel free to leave a comment down below, and we’ll get a conversation started! Not every business will benefit from implementing stress interviews into their hiring process, and misusing them can put your company in some serious hot water. It’s best to play it safe and spend the time researching to figure out if your company will genuinely benefit from it.

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