Line ’em up and shoot ’em. That’s the approach some companies take to interviewing job candidates.

Some employers like to put job candidates through “stress interviews.” They set up a panel of interviewers who lob rapid-fire questions—like tomatoes—at the candidate. They watch to see how the candidate deals with the stress. I think this is ridiculous, unfair, insulting and not very productive. I want to tell these people to cut it out. How should I say it so that I’ll come across as responsive and “a cut above” the meek applicant?

That’s the question a reader asked in this week’s Ask The Headhunter Newsletter. (Get the whole story. Sign up for your own free subscription.) My advice is in the newsletter, which is not archived. I’ll post it here after readers chime in.

Do you stand there and catch the tomatoes, or do you do something else? Tell us.


  1. Some jobs require the ability to handle that kind of rapid-fire environment. If that’s the case, perhaps the stress interview is a valid way of evaluating a candidate.

    I’m a software engineer, not an emergency response worker. My job is methodical and quiet. Much of my job activity is analysis, writing, testing, and technical dialogue with other team members. A stress interview like you describe doesn’t measure my ability to do that job.

    If I were interviewing for a job that does require that kind of fire-fighting focus, I’d do my best to respond to their questions.

    Otherwise if I were subjected to that type of interview, I would signal for a time-out, and ask for clarification about the job. There might simply have been a miscommunication about the position I’m interviewing for.

    Openness and honesty between me and the employer is better for my happiness as well as the success of the employer. So I’m willing to admit when I’m not a good match for the job environment. Any company I’d want to work for should respect that.

  2. The first thing you should do before any interview is decide that you will take at least 3 seconds before you answer anything! Then you will not feel the pressure to answer rapid fire. When you take control of the pace you show them you are a thinker, not a reactionary.
    Always maintain eye contact. And if they are interrupting each other to spew out questions, pick and choose which ones to answer. It’s a game, baby!

  3. It’s hard to do, but I’ve been there and done it. The stress interview is nothing more than a juvenile tactic designed to see whether the candidate will put up with an unending river of bull and degradation from unprofessional hacks.

    I’ve stopped the interview, asked whether this “is the working style I should be accustomed to here, because it’s extremely difficult to solve business problems and make money for the company if chaos is just accepted practice”.

    It’s either evolved into a proper discussion of a business problem or devolved into my exit from the conversation. Either way, no more time wasted.

  4. @Kinzua Kid: Nice work. Stress interviews are indeed childish. The “idea” is that stressing the candidate will reveal how the candidate reacts under stress. The problem is that human behavior isn’t so simple. It’s often situational, and a work situation is very different from an interview, where a different form of stress is already at play. Employers have been hiring people successfully for centuries. But HR and personnel consultants have been around for only a few decades, creating justifications for their own existence. Stress interviews are an example. It’s time for managers to learn how to interview people. In the meantime, your question (confrontation?) to the “panel” was dead on. My compliments. I’d love to know how they answered you.

  5. During the interview at my place of employment (internal help desk for IS), a test is given. Part of it has to do with technical knowledge, but also seeing how a candidate operates under stress.

    This is important because the help desk serves everyone on the flow chart, minimum wage to top executives. While not perfect, it has weeded out candidates who can not handle the unexpected.

  6. The approach is juvenile to say the least and says it’s probably a company I wouldn’t want to work for – and I’d tell them why.

    My reaction would be to say that from the sound of it, their shop is a mess. Aside from Emergency Services – cops, firemen, ER, etc. – a properly run shop does not allow situations to develop to the point of being too stressful. If it’s a business environment that is stressful, they need new upper management.

    I can put out fires with the best of them, but I hate it. I’ve therefore spent most of the last 45 years practicing fire prevention. I’d rather spend one hour a day preventing problems from developing, than getting an ulcer when %^&*(@&* hits the fan from lack of attention.

    BTW: After one interview, the techies I would have been working with invited me to lunch and did their best to get me drunk, presumably on the premise that ‘in vino, veritas’ and they could figure me out. It didn’t work (I have a cast iron stomach), but it’s not a bad approach to checking out an applicant’s personality…

  7. I once went through a stress interview for an engineering position at a large and well-respected ship yard. I have since rated that interview as the worst I have been through. Calling this type of interview childish is right on the mark. They continually pelted me with irrelevant questions, comments, and negative remarks. Whenever I asked questions specific to the job, I was basically told that it wasn’t something they could discuss with me or they gave answers that had nothing to do with the question. The interview ended with one of the hiring managers telling me that I was completely unqualified and that this wasn’t the job for me. I really wanted to ask why they were wasting my time with the interview if I am completely unqualified? I didn’t hide my past career or educational experience when I applied for the job.

    This was such a humiliating experience, and I was very tempted to write a nasty letter in response basically telling them where to shove their job opening. I didn’t write that letter, but I did stop thinking about that job. Funny enough, they called 1.5 months later to offer me the job that they claimed wasn’t for me. Why did it take them 1.5 months? I figure I’m not the first or second person to decline their offer.

    I confronted HR, who called with the offer, with this information and questions specific to the job. I had never been through an idiotic stress interview, so I supposed maybe the hiring manager had a bad day or there was some logical explanation for his abusive behavior during the interview. I couldn’t imagine how such a negative and humiliating interview ended up as a job offer, so I definitely had some questions that I needed answered before even entertaining the offer. I was still working for my current employer, so I wasn’t desperate to bite on just anything that came my way.

    I had not choice but to ask my questions to HR because the hiring manager had refused to give me his contact information during the interview. This was another point that I had never experienced during an interview. What kind of hiring manager does not allow you to follow up after the interview? HR and I agreed on a date by which I was to make my decision. I never did receive a single answer to my questions. Nobody called or wrote. I called to follow up, and I received nothing in response.
    The surprising thing for me is that I always thought I would have a hard time declining a job offer, but this one was a no brainer. It was clear these people were a barrel of idiots who create, not solve, problems in the workplace. My impression of this supposedly highly respected company has forever been changed. I might not have formed a negative impression of the overall company if so many people had not been involved in this negative experience. I can’t believe anyone other than jerks and the desperate would want to work for these people.

  8. I’d like to talk about the alternative – a very informal interview. 2 years ago, I was interviewed by the COO of a $500m company. The interview started with him asking me if I would like a coffee, and then proceeding to get it for me from the pantry.

    He then walked me through his career background in detail. In between, there are a few comments about how interesting he found my profile. And that I was highly recommended for the position by a VP there.

    The “interview” lasted for 45 minutes, during which I probably spoke for 2 minutes. It ended with his offer to me to walk around the office and see work for myself. I was so relieved I was not quizzed.

    I thought – this is as good as it gets – and joined, though in hindsight, a I felt uneasy that we did not spend much time on my exact role, but I ignored it quickly.

    In a week, I came to realize the interviewer was only interested in getting me on board because (a) he felt I’d be loyal to him personally (b) the workplace was like a Kuwaiti oil-well after the Iraqi forces left and (c) he was’nt able to pursuade anyone internally to move to the hot seat. Needless to say, this was a short-lived relationship of convenience.

    The moral of the story is that high-stress interviews definitely tell a story. Too low-stress an interview also says some things – so don’t automatically drop your guards for a “nice guy” interviewer, and DO assess independently and objectively if there’s a fit. Don’t leave it to the company to decide for you.

  9. Hi all,

    Talking about interviews, I found a website where you can find about the interview process in different companies:

    We can look for the most stupid interview process here.

    They also show the salaries in the different companies (based on anonymous individuals). If you want to see too many salaries, you’ll need to enter your own (anonymously)

    Anyways, Nick, if you think it’s a cool site that your readers are not aware of, you can write on the blog about it.


  10. @manoj: That’s a great story. But I don’t think the alternative to your “no interview at all” is a stress interview. This story is a lesson to anyone else who is happy not to be “quizzed” in an interview. It’s not about “getting through it” — an interview is about learning what you’re getting yourself into!

  11. @Nick: I covered in an earlier post:

    My opinion has not changed. I think it’s a pretty stupid site and a dopey concept.