She got mugged in a stress interview

She got mugged in a stress interview

In the February 4, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter we consider the meaning of a stress interview.


stress interviewMy daughter just went through what’s called a “stress interview.” She said she held it together, but came home and burst into tears. She didn’t know this was a thing. She’s had three such interviews in a row that left her feeling worthless in some unknown way. WHY is this a thing? It’s just mean. Why would anyone want to work with such awful people?

Nick’s Reply

Please tell your daughter there’s nothing wrong with her. What she went through is the corporate equivalent of getting mugged. The victim feels that they somehow did something wrong to put themselves in that position.

Many employers’ hiring methods are rooted in HR consultants’ reports that advise using “best practices” – like stress interviews – in the name of “HR science.” But there is no science in intimidation, and abusing job applicants is not a good practice!

Is a stress interview a hiring method?

Let’s make an important distinction from the start. There is a difference between asking a job candidate to consent to participate in a work simulation that models the pressures of a job, and subjecting the candidate to an unexpected personal attack as part of an interview. Even in the former case, an employer is obligated to disclose the stressful nature of the job and give the applicant the option to decline any interview at all. For our purposes, the rest of this column refers to the latter scenario.

Job applicants like your daughter strive to be cooperative during the highly bureaucratic hiring process. I’m sure she trusts that, even if job interviews are fraught with anxiety, employers will conduct themselves with integrity. There is no business without trust, though we sometimes get hurt for trusting. Tell her to be careful around people who lack integrity, but not to stop trusting.

Many online resources purport to teach how to handle the pressure of a stress interview and how to prepare for it. But I don’t think a stress interview is ever justified. If it’s a “method” of testing applicants, then someone doesn’t know how to assess job applicants. I’m in agreement with this BBC article on the subject: The ‘stress interview’: a technique that goes too far? If an employer wants to give you a “front-row seat to the ugliest side of the company,” that’s your signal to run to the fire exit.

Stand and deliver

My advice to anyone who finds themselves in a stress interview is to calmly and politely stand up and deliver a message like this one:

“I’d never subject a fellow employee or a customer to such treatment for any reason, and I don’t tolerate it myself. Good luck finding someone who does.”

And walk out.

What kind of people do you want to work with?

Of course, that means no job. But there was no job there to begin with; just abuse and nasty people who have no clue that business is about trust, integrity, and respect. If the explanation is that the company wants to prepare you for working with abusive customers, for example, you should reconsider the job entirely. Would you consent to being tortured, so we could see how durable you are? Ask yourself, what kind of job do I want and what kind of people do I want to work with? (See Never work with jerks.)

Please tell your daughter to hold her head high and move on – to companies that have a standard of behavior as high as her own. To accept anything less is to debase and devalue herself.

In answer to your question, no one should want to work with awful people. Walk away from them. They are never worth the torture they inflict. Just because “it’s part of the interview process” doesn’t make it legitimate or acceptable.

I wish your daughter the best and I compliment you for not remaining silent about how she was treated. Good for you for letting out your ire. Sharing experiences like this is how we help others avoid them.

Now it’s time for your daughter to go find smart people worth working with.

How far should an interview go? What’s the wildest “test” you’ve encountered, and was it justified? Is there any way to conduct a legitimate stress interview? Is there a better way than I suggested to deal with one?

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The Stress Interview: How employers abuse job applicants

In the January 7, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader takes on employers who play games in job interviews:

You have an awesome newsletter and I am glad that I have subscribed to it. I wish more people (especially companies that hire) would read it. Have you ever heard of an interview process where there is more than one interviewer, and the second or third interviewer just sits there and acts bored or is rude the whole time (yawning, etc.)? How would you recommend dealing with it? What is this type of interview ? I have found no information on the web about it.

I have never personally had this happen to me but I have had friends tell me these things have happened to them. One interviewer will ask a question and, when the interviewee attempts to answer, the second or third interviewer will start talking to another interviewer or yawn in what seems like an obvious attempt to throw the interviewee off guard.

I was in the Army some time ago and I heard that this was frequently done during oral board interviews for promotion. The military I get, but not a company that is supposed to be professional.

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for your kind words about the newsletter — glad you enjoy it. Believe it or not, there are lots of HR folks who subscribe. They tell me they’re not the “personnel jockeys” I write about. I figure if they keep reading, maybe they’re not!

rude-interviewThe situation your friends are experiencing is a variation on the “stress interview,” where an employer will introduce something to stress out the job candidate. The classic move is for the interviewer to start yelling at the applicant, just to see what he’ll do. (Of course, your friends might just be visiting employers that have actual, rude employees or managers in those interviews!)

But it doesn’t matter to me whether we’re talking about rude interviewers, or about interviewers who intentionally abuse applicants to test them. My advice is the same: Stop the interview.

Calmly but firmly explain that you’re there to talk shop — to demonstrate how you’ll do the job profitably for the employer.

“But I don’t work for jerks, or tolerate bad behavior in any business environment, including this interview.”

Then I’d walk out calmly, without raising my voice or being rude in any way. Because you’re dealing with jerks.

If you really want to drive home the point to those interviewers,explain it to them this way:

“If you worked in sales and treated a prospective customer like this, would you be surprised if the prospect got up and walked out? Of course not. You wouldn’t be surprised, either, if your VP of Sales fired you. Now, what do you think I’m going to tell people in our professional community about my experience here?”

Honest — that’s what I’d do. People who behave like that are either naturally jerks, or they’re “manufactured” jerks who behave that way because someone told them it was a cool way to interview people, by abusing them. None of it is acceptable.

The minute you convince yourself that it’s acceptable, and try to appease your abuser, you become a sucker for an employer that (1) has no idea what it’s doing, or (2) has just revealed what life will be like if you take a job there. I’ve walked out of meetings like that, and I’ve felt great. I couldn’t care less what “opportunity” I might have missed, because dealing with people like that is no opportunity.

This isn’t the only way employers will abuse you.
Learn how to Overcome Human Resources Obstacles, and find out how to Play Hardball With Employers.

A company that tests you to see how you will deal with jerks is risking its reputation. I believe such “techniques” are invented by failed human resources managers who are clueless about how to judge people, so they start “HR consulting practices” and invent goofy tricks that they then “sell” to their clients. And it goes around like an infection.

If the Army uses this technique, I’m surprised. What kind of salary would you expect an employer to pay you to go to boot camp and be a full-time soldier for them?

Have you ever been abused in a job interview? What did you do? How would you advise this reader?

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