When conducting a job interview, the conventional wisdom is to make the candidate as comfortable as possible so that their true self can emerge.
But an opposite approach is gaining ground. Some interviewers are intentionally trying to throw applicants off their game, to test for spontaneity, problem-solving and coolness under pressure.
The technique is known as a stress interview. Though they’ve been around for a long time, stress interviews have mushroomed in the tech industry as a way to take applicants out of the comfort zone of expected questions and answers.
“One example is a trend that was prevalent in the tech industry earlier this decade – where an interviewer would ask a candidate bizarre questions such as ‘why are manhole covers round?’ or instruct them to design something on the spot,” writes Peter Rubinstein for BBC Capital. “The goal isn’t to get an exact answer – instead it’s to see how a candidate reacts and to test their thought process.”
One Stress Interview Goes Viral
Human resource experts are divided on whether stress interviews are effective, and whether they do anything other than cause the applicant to, well, stress out.
One particular interview in the UK made headlines and, in the process, sparked a debate over the ethics of stress interviewing.
Olivia Bland, a 22-year-old from Manchester, was seeking a job in communications. She landed an interview with the CEO for the tech firm Web Applications UK. Expecting the usual drill, she went into the interview in good spirits. She left in tears.
Afterwards, she posted a tweet that went viral, in which she said the CEO “degraded and humiliated her about everything from her music taste to her parents’ marriage.” Likening his behavior to that of an abusive ex, she said he criticized her writing, the way she sat, and even how she held her arms. She was offered the job but declined.
From BBC Capital: “Her tweet was shared tens of thousands of times, and prompted [the CEO] to post an apology saying it had not been his intent to see anyone hurt. Web Applications UK has publicly denied Bland’s claims.”
Imbalance of Power
Some experts say it can be helpful in high-stress professions to see how an applicant reacts under fire.
“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 in the BBC Capital article. “The stress interview can create conditions to see how an applicant would handle those challenges.”
But asking off-beat or creative questions is one thing. Demeaning an applicant is something else altogether.
“Stress interviews are neither new, nor on their way to extinction,” says University of Pennsylvania professor Maurice Schweitzer in the BBC article.
Stress interviews are more common in the US than elsewhere in the world, Schweitzer says, and have more to do with the interviewer’s personality than the type of job being applied for.
The big problem: the imbalance of power in the interview setting. The interviewer holds the cards, which puts the interviewee in a position of relative vulnerability.
As for Bland, though, she seems to have emerged from her experience in good shape, according to the BBC: “My confidence in applying for jobs was initially knocked by [the] comments on my talents and my personality, but now I feel stronger than ever. I know my worth and won’t take this kind of behaviour from a potential employer.”