Are you ready for a stress interview?

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Interviews can be nervewracking experiences, but at least most of them stay within the realms of civility. Unless you have the bad luck to attend a ‘stress interview’, of course.

Stress interviews became popular in the early 00s, when Silicon Valley tech companies wanted to gage how well job candidates could confront various tricky mental challenges and think on their feet.

They’d ask unexpected or aggressive questions to find out would-be employees’ thought processes, displaying intimidating or bizarre behaviour to see how they coped under pressure.

This kind of extreme interviewing re-hit the headlines recently when one job candidate tweeted her experience of a two-hour interview, which she described as ‘brutal’ and in which the CEO ‘tore both me and my writing to shreds (and called me an underachiever)’. She was later offered the job, which she declined - and her tweet went viral.

What you could be up against 

The aim of stress interviews is to evoke an emotional reaction from the candidate. Think bizarre, aggressive or sarcastic questions like:

  • ‘What percentage of the Earth's water is contained in a cow?’
  • ‘What would you change about the design of a baseball hat?’
  • ‘What do you think of garden gnomes?’
  • ‘How well do you think I’m interviewing you?
  • ‘How do you feel this interview is going?’
  • ‘Can you repeat your last answer? I’m not convinced by it’

Interviewers might also display hostile or arrogant behaviour like interrupting during answers, and sighing and disagreeing with anything you say. Or they might pick holes in your CV and be critical or incredulous about your work accomplishments.

Could you face a stress interview?

Unless you’re applying for a high-pressure role and a potential employer wants to find out how well you handle stressful situations - for example some areas of sales or roles involving difficult clients - it’d be unusual to face this line of questioning. And, as we reassure the candidates who go for roles with any of our clients at HR GO, we liaise closely with employers to find out the type of interview they’ll be running to avoid surprises on the day.

When it comes to winning at any interview, the golden rules of doing your preparation and having meaningful questions to ask definitely count (you can read more of our tried-and-tested advice here). But as more people are now talking about stress interviews, it’s worth arming yourself with some extra strategies in case the person you’re meeting can’t resist sneaking some of these questions in.

The key is to stay calm under pressure and not allow yourself to get wound up. Easier said than done? Here are some tactics that could help:

Do some sleuthing beforehand

Will you be meeting the person you’ll report to if you get the job, and can you find out who else will be at the interview? Doing a bit of research on LinkedIn or social media could give you a head start on what kind of encounter you can expect.

Having the chance to find out a little bit about them ahead of time is a good tactic to

feel like you have some control over your experience. 

Deliver answers to your future boss

If you’re being interviewed by multiple people - one of whom will be your immediate manager - hone in on giving your answers to that person only. And to avoid being interrupted, aim to keep your answers brief – a maximum of 30 seconds works well.

Pause for a few seconds

Leave a gap of at least a few seconds after you’ve been asked a question to take a deep breath and focus on structuring what you’re going to say calmly and slowly. What you’re really being tested on is how you handle the question, rather than the response you give. 

Assert yourself

There’s a difference between being aggressive and assertive. Of course, your interviewer might try to intimidate you into throwing you off course when you’re replying to a question. But if you’re confident about your answer aim to reinstate the facts and stand your ground. 

Stressful clues into company culture 

Tough questioning is a good way to find out if you have what it takes to do the job properly. But intimidating and belittling candidates is not OK - and many workplace experts think that some stress interviews could verge on verbal abuse. 

Being put through this kind of ordeal can give you a first-hand glimpse into the darker side of someone who could turn out to be your manager - and the company you’d be part of. If the interview is that toxic you have to ask yourself: would you want to work there anyway?

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