Advice from the trenches: Handling the “stress interview”

The stress interview can be designed to test leadership skills, check your confidence level, and to see whether you maintain composure under fire or if you go chimpanzee on people. It’s sometimes used with candidates for public relations, high-pressure sales and customer service jobs. Though part of the point of a stress interview is to see what makes you crack, you don’t need to let it go that far.

In the interest of the common good, I’m listing some some stressful interview situations where I went wrong, and what I could have done better. I hope my experiences will offer some decent advice if you run across the Spanish Inquisition in your next interview.

Here they are:

During one session for a public relations job, the interviewer challenged every little thing I said about myself. He came close to accusing me of lying about my experience while the other interviewer supported me, in a sort of good-cop, bad-cop interview. Evidently this is a common tactic, and it is used to test patience and reactions to verbal defiance of the sort a high-profile company representative might face before the media. It was my first stress test and I wrote the company off, figuring that the boss was just a sorehead, and not seeing the tactic for what it might be.

In another case, a telephone interviewer who seemed clearly unhappy with life before she dialed said, “I don’t know why they had me call you, anyway.” I agreed politely and, perhaps missing the cue again, terminated the interview. I should have been prepared to explain why I was a perfect fit and why the candidate search could stop with me. The key in this situation, by the way, is not to sound defensive, and to maintain a sense of self-assurance about your strengths.

Then there was the manager who leaned across her desk and accused me of trying to go behind her back and take her job. I reminded her gently that she had contacted me, and that I was interested in the position for which I had applied. Shortly after that she was let go, and I was hired in a subordinate position. Unfortunately, her attitude served as a warning light for the mood of the company and I missed that cue, spending a miserable year there before moving on. If your sixth sense kicks in, you should listen.

The extreme stress interview: A friend found himself face-to-face with a flaming wastebasket when his interviewer subtly dropped in a match and left the room for a minute. My friend’s quick reaction with a glass of water the boss had helpfully left on his desk was partly what landed him his new position.

The stress interview can also be aimed quite intimately. Years ago, one funny guy walked me out of his office with his elbow resting on my head because I was “just the right height.” It’s hard to tell an offensive individual to back off when you feel that he holds your future in his hands, and in that case I was too young and inexperienced to do anything but blush and stammer. A more established person would have handled it better. I should have gone the professional route and taken a large step away from him to reinforce a boundary. (Though he could have been testing that aspect of my character, I remain under the impression that he was simply an idiot.)

I suspect that this kind of interview lost favor when the economy improved and companies discovered how badly the stress interview can backfire and cost them good candidates. These days, however, I’m finding a slight trend towards this style again as we in the trenches have to prove ourselves more vigorously than ever.

If you are taken by surprise with a stress interview, try and remember the following:

First, that this will not be the only job interview you will land (though it feels like it, doesn’t it?).

Second, keep in mind that they called you in, even if they declare that they “don’t know why.” Remember that you have something to bring to the company to make it succeed. That is what you are expected to tell them – and do so with confidence and a cool head.

Next, try to get some perspective. Being a job seeker doesn’t mean you have to be servile or take dismissive comments. Put up your antennae: Is this a stress test to see how you handle yourself, or is this the corporate culture? Take a good look at the people who already work there, and maybe invite one or two for coffee to see how they feel about the place. If the interviewer won’t let you near the staff, that’s your red flag.

It’s rough enough out there without letting an interviewer get to you. If you can practice the stress test with a group of fellow job-seekers, or even trade stories of what they encountered, it will at least give you a feel for what to expect.

In most cases, you can prepare for this kind of interview and be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t go that way.

Good luck!

Advice from the trenches: Try to remember that this is only a test, that you do know what you are doing, and that an interview works both ways.


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  1. […] (See tips on handling the Stress Interview) […]

  2. […] favorite boss ever, and that’s partly why. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Advice from the trenches: Handling the “stress interview” Published […]

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