January 6, 2014

The Stress Interview: How employers abuse job applicants

Filed under: Fearless Job Hunting, Interviewing, Q&A, Readers' Forum

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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47 Comments on “The Stress Interview: How employers abuse job applicants”
By GNW
January 7, 2014 at 4:28 am

Nick’s answer to the stress interview is absolutely correct!! GET IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT!! I wish I had done this several months ago.

I was brought into a combo panel and whiteboard interview after 2-3 onsite and phone interviews. I was told by the recruiter the topic would be on X, given by person Z. I questioned the recruiter about this but he was firm about it. (X was not in the job description but in my background several years ago). I spent all my prep time studying for X as Z was an expert in this topic. When I went in for this interview/ambush the topic was actually on Y and Z was not in that day. They wanted me to use X to solve Y which did not make any sense. One of the interviewers was trying not to laugh the whole time. I could not believe that a company that claimed it is such a great place to work sets people up to fail. I had a passive-aggressive attack and debated in my mind if I could make them angrier by just standing there as opposed to ending the interview. I ended up stumbling through it as I did not feel like fighting the wrath of several people.

By Stephen Comfort-Mason
January 7, 2014 at 4:52 am

Many years ago I worked for a major mini-computer company. At the time I was a systems engineer. A position as District Manager opened, and I threw my hat into the ring. So did another systems engineer, a fellow who was my friend, as well as an excellent systems engineer.

We were later told we were the two finalists for the position, and that we would be put into competition with each other for the job. We subsequently had lunch together and discussed what was being done to us. The company was noted for “stress interviews” and other ways to jerk around job candidates. Since the both of us had all the stress we wanted during the Viet Nam war, we told the HR folks that neither of us wanted the job if we had to play their petty games to get it. We told them if we were so equally qualified, then simply flip a coin.

They didn’t like that much, but when it became apparent to top management what was going on, and that they company stood to lose two good employees, the process was shut down, not only for us, but the whole practice of stress interviews and related nonsense went out the window.

By David Hunt, PE
January 7, 2014 at 8:19 am

The “worst” interview I’ve had with that regard was when, in the course of an interview, I was describing a particular experience from a prior employer.

My interviewer said “Well, I know people at X, I’ll call to verify what you said – I want the real story.”

I collected my things to his astonishment, told him “You just called me a liar,” and walked out.

By Some guy
January 7, 2014 at 8:41 am

Years ago, I used to work as a contractor in state government. After a budgetary layoff (30 percent of staff and all contractors let go).

A month later I got an interview with a regional agency in the other side of the state to do similar work, but the interview was awful. After driving 2.5 hours in a blizzard to this interview, I was given a “good cop/bad cop” style 2 person treatment. Since I had worked with the state and reviewed tons of stuff (plans, grant applications, etc) from this agency, I was pretty knowledgeable, and one interviewer was lighting up with receptiveness. The other one wasn’t, and at one point asks “you’re from (insert capital city name), so what do you ‘really’ know about this region??”
I gave him an ‘are you kidding?’ Look and then proceeded to spout minute details that very few candidates would know without a ton of preparation.

A few weeks later, I called my old boss –who holds some purse strings with all the regions– and told him how they treated me. He simply said, “thank you for telling me this. It is very useful.”

I actually got called in for another interview soon after, but told the jerk’s secretary “No thank you. I’m not interested in the position.”

By CWD
January 7, 2014 at 9:26 am

A few years ago I had a real jerk for the interviewer and I keep wishing I could relive it so that I can walk out. I don’t know what country the interviewer was from (he had a strong accent) and treated me as if women are lower class. He then took a personal phone call on his cell, sat with his legs on his desk, talking in his native language for about 20 minutes like I wasn’t even there. He kept scratching his belly through the button hole on his shirt while ignoring me.

When he hung up and continued talking to me, he said he would get back to me with his decision. I said, “That’s okay, this isn’t for me.” I should have walked out much sooner.

By Saphronia Young
January 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

This is a very useful discussion. I have experienced a few such interviews, mostly just out of law school. I found it useful then to come fairly early for the interview, and just observe the interactions between the senior attorneys in the firm and the reception staff. I saw several instances where the staff were verbally abused, and I didn’t stay for the interview. Once I did, and sure enough, I received rude treatment as well. I terminated the interview. I heard from the woman who took the job that it was two years of torture.

By EAC
January 7, 2014 at 10:17 am

I recently was called by a recruiter for a service organization that claims high professional standards between co workers. The phone interview began fine and then I was not sure if the person was not prepared or bad at their job or being aggressive.

She asked about my current employer, and then read my next job title. I was silent. She waited and said can you tell me about that position. And i did. Then read the next title and again I was silent. She said nothing. I said would you like to know about this job? She said yes and this continued with strange comments about my experience as if she did not believe it.

At the end of the interview she said i would be a good fit for their organization and she would talk to the hiring manager that day and let me know by 5 pm either way. That was three weeks ago and i have not heard a word and no longer want to work there. I wish I had ended the interview.

By Bob The Programmer
January 7, 2014 at 11:23 am

Many contract agencies pull this on the initial screen, implying that something is the matter with your experience. I assume it’s to reduce candidate morale and soften them up for low rates.

Also, and this applies much more to contract than permanent placement, requiring a candidate to come into the office more than once is a warning. I’d almost say the more they jerk you around the less chance you have for a placement.

By MDH
January 7, 2014 at 11:35 am

Five years ago I found myself in a similar interview, although it was a room full of passive-aggressive stressors. I actually got the job and decided to take it because I liked the man who would have been my boss better than anyone else; he wasn’t a player.

It was a few days after I started that someone finally told me my new boss had left the company, along with the president and a couple of other folks in what I instantly recognized as some kind of palace coup. Had I known beforehand I would not have taken the job. I spent the next 3 years working with and for people who did not hire me, doing a job I was not really hired to do, never appreciated and unable to trust management, because the behavior I saw in that interview was their everyday work mode.

Stress interviews,whether overt or covert, are just another form of workplace bullying. If you run into it in an interview, you will deal with it every day of your work life.

By Susan
January 7, 2014 at 12:06 pm

I flew up to SF for an interview (thankfully at the company’s expense). When I arrived on time, the person I was supposed to interview with got “called away”. I awkwardly chatted with two employees who sat eating their lunch and had nothing to do with hiring me. Finally 35-40 minutes later, the individual I was supposed to meet with came into the room. I think his lunch ran long. He didn’t give me a real apology but proceeded to show me a sales presentation that he revised and asked my opinion. I had to catch a flight back to LA and only had a few minutes to spend with him….none of which focused on my qualifications or had anything to do with an interview. He thanked me for meeting, walked me to a cab and I flew back home. Never heard from him again nor did I follow-up as I had no desire to work with him or his company. An incredibly “rude” interview and a huge waste of time.

By Hank
January 7, 2014 at 12:48 pm

The main post is referencing a “stress interview,” not interviewers being rude, incompetent or jerks. Like it or not, the stress interview, “good cop, bad cop” or asking inappropriate questions during an interview are tried and true HR tactics straight out of the manuals which a well-prepared candidate should be ready to deal with.

Would it not be more appropriate during such a interview to simply smile and state something to the effect of “I appreciate your desire to evaluate my responses during a stress interview, yet I have no interest in continuing such a charade. Would you like me to demonstrate how I could perform the job duties profitably for the company? If not, perhaps it would serve us both better to end this process now.”

To me this is the same as if an interviewer were to ask of a female applicant “Are you planning on having any children?” and the interviewee exclaiming “You aren’t allowed to ask me that – that’s illegal!” and getting all worked up versus a calm “Why would you need to know that? Is it a necessary part of the job description? If so, could you elaborate on that?” Frequently this is a interview tactic to see how a Customer Service candidate might respond to stressful or rude clients.

Any comments on how to better end a stress interview situation to your benefit? I can’t categorically classify all companies who might use such methods as “jerks,” just maybe poorly informed/managed by an antiquated HR process, and if educated, may still remain viable companies to work for.

By Melissa
January 7, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Back in 2008, I got an interview for an Inside Sales position at a well known company in the Bay Area. I walked in an there was a circle of chairs with different folk, awaiting a job interview in the lobby area. Then one lady walked in, the one I was supposed to meet. ALL of us got up and followed her into the elevator. Talk about claustrophobia. We then went up maybe 1 floor or 2.

Got out and went into fishbowl room. Everyone could be seen in this glass room. I am very intuitive, I KNEW what was happening. We were being WATCHED. I got instantly disgusted. Was glad that they provided us water and drinks, as I suddenly got very thirsty.

I struck up conversation with the blonde lady next to me from SF. I am from SJ, so this place was right between our two cities. We talked about that, she was friendly. But suddenly, I saw it in her eyes…she realized we were BEING OBSERVED.

So she banged her fist on the table and then said “What’s going on here, everyone!?” She pretended or did…TAKE CHARGE of this semi-social, stress event. Everyone looked at her like she had two heads. I KNEW INSTANTLY, SHE HAD THE JOB. But I still waited for my name to be called.

I walked in there. The two people interviewing me looked stressed and tired, especially the lady. She asked me a few questions in her office, then took me over to another office where I noticed LOTS of booze, all surrounding me. So I commented on that when he walked in. STRIKE ONE. He.did.not.look.pleased.

We spoke and I commented on “how tired his colleague looked”. STRIKE TWO.

I suddenly felt a migraine headache coming on. This all had gotten to me and I felt sick. STRIKE THREE. He ended the interview and told me he was going to walk me out. He was kind enough to lead me to the elevator and ask me “Are you okay?”

My recruiter called me. She was not happy with me, told me “they wanted somebody more aggressive than me”. I asked “Did they go with the blonde from SF?” and she told me “Yes”.

2 years later, I brought a million dollar deal to the company I am with now. NOBODY says I am “not aggressive enough” here. My fault? I am a nice person who gets sick to my stomach whenever people are treated unfairly and badly, including me.

By Peter Miller
January 7, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Several years ago I discovered that a client company (who will remain nameless) was using this sort of foolish and degrading interview technique – not at all as they had represented their interviewing style to me.
I dropped them as a client immediately and I think any decent recruiter would do the same.
I wouldn’t trust a head-hunter who knowingly sent me to an interview like this. Why should any job seeker?

By dlms
January 7, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Wow! I guess I’ve been lucky, so far, to not have been exposed to the stress interview.

I agree with @MDH that this is a form of workplace bullying and who wants to work for a company that shows they will treat you badly right from the start?! People tell other people how they were treated at companies where they interview and that kind of word-of-mouth advertising can make it hard for companies to attract good candidates.

By Some guy
January 7, 2014 at 4:17 pm

@Hank maybe these ‘tried and true’ HR techniques of stressing out or being jerks (and thus introducing unneeded stress) to prospective employees should be thrown out/erased from HR handbooks.

Perhaps a professional discussion on the relevant work topics would suffice? Perhaps I’m being unreasonable by suggesting this. Who knows.

Although I understand that the workplace can be stressful, and I’ve dealt with my share of bullies, this has nothing to do with the work for which you are interviewing.

Perhaps I should just walk into the room and starting physically beating the crap out of my interviewers next time. That will show how assertive I am, and heck, if they get to test me, I would like to test my next employer’s resilience!

By Dave
January 7, 2014 at 4:20 pm

@Some guy

There are some old sayings, what goes around comes around, karma is a b*tch, and so on.

I luckily haven’t really had to deal with a stress interview yet.

By Some guy
January 7, 2014 at 4:39 pm

@Dave, I hear you.

Maybe karma will bite employers when people start working for more respectful companies, or perhaps themselves.

I do hope you sensed how facetious I was being with the butt kicking comment.

I don’t know about you guys, but I prefer to be treated with respect and just talk about the work/business topics.

As far as I am concerned, the psych tests, games, stress, and other bs tactics are for lab rats.
I’m a man, not a lab rat.

I’m perfectly capable and successful in my own right, so I won’t put up with crap from a crappy prospective employer.

By GNW
January 7, 2014 at 5:30 pm

In all fairness, one of the people who told me that I should get in the driver’s seat said I should prepare to lead the interview and teach them what they need to know, especially in this kind of situation. This person deals with customers constantly and gets rated on how well he maintains control of the situation.

By Bill
January 7, 2014 at 5:52 pm

@Hank- Your points are well stated. However, there are still far, far too many HR ‘professionals’ that treat applicants/candidates like cattle fodder, simply based on the fact that they (the company) have something the applicant wants (a position/job). And that entitles some to behave in a manner that is at times unprofessional, if not downright rude and inconsiderate. Couple that with the vast amount of HR managers that are INCAPABLE of conducting a professional interview. I have seen way too much of this! It should be a two-way street: the company should prepare for the interview as hard as the candidate prepares for the interview.

A job applicant should NEVER have to compromise their standards. That’s why I enjoy Nick’s perspective on how the way things oughta be in the career development world.

By marilyn
January 7, 2014 at 6:38 pm

Just run! Yahoos of this caliber are a dime a dozen and it only gets worse once you are “on the job”. It’s not worth your time and skills as legitimate employers (which seem difficult to find today) have a lot more to offer.

By marybeth
January 7, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Happy new year 2014, and may this year be better than 2013.

I’ve had a couple/few (fortunately I can count them on one hand) interviews like this. The first time I was young and didn’t know what to expect or why they were behaving this way, so I took it. The benefit to being older is that you understand that you DON’T have to tolerate that kind of behavior. Nick often compares the job search and interview process to dating. Would you go on a date and put up with someone, male or female, who treated you like that? It is disrespectful, rude, and arrogant. And if this behavior is exhibited during the interview/”date”, what happens should you get the job/get the proposal and decide to work there/get married? This is the time when people are usually on their best behavior, so if this is how you’re treated during your interview, that behavior will continue and get worse once you’re working there. Kudos to all of you who wrote that you got up, ended the interview, and left.

I encountered this twice more after the first time, but by then I had more than 15 years of work experience, and age and experience does wonders. The second time I politely ended the interview and left–the two people supposedly interviewing me were so rude, so disrespectful, that I decided that I didn’t want to work there, no matter how much I wanted the job. I later learned from a former classmate (who sucked it up and took the job) that the verbal and emotional abuse (name-calling, screaming, belittling, throwing things at her) colored her view of working in that profession for years, and required some therapy to deal with it later. The third time I experienced it the interviewers seemed to be “testing” me rather than just being inherently jerky or raging bullies. One later told me that this kind of behavior is common in the profession, and they wanted to see how I’d handle it. While I could understand why they did what they did, I did tell them that it would have been more effective to tell candidates “this is a tough profession, and you have to have a very thick skin if you’re going to make it. Here are some of the things we’ve encountered–how would you handle if someone said/did x to you?”

@Dave Hunt: you’re right–it isn’t worth it, and they’ve just demonstrated how little they value me not only as a human being but as someone who would have contributed to the success of their business/agency. Just because someone dishes it out doesn’t mean you have to take it. It is incredibly unprofessional behavior. Maybe if more candidates who are subjected to this kind of thing ended the interview and left (and spread the word about the behavior at these companies/agencies), it would stop. Not right way, but karma does have a way of coming back.

This whole bad behavior thing strikes me as so junior high and childish. This is schoolyard bully and mean girl behavior. I had to suck it up when I was kid because I couldn’t quit school and there was no such thing as school choice back then (and my parents weren’t wealthy enough to send me to private school). The schoolyard bullies and mean girls grow up to become workplace bullies and mean women. The difference between then and now is that as an adult, I don’t have to take it. I can quit (if I’m already working there and a new boss is bully/mean girl) or if the 8th grade behavior is demonstrated at the interview, I can end the interview and leave.

I was asked by a student not long ago what I would do if the interviewer kept checking his phone and texting during the interview. I told her that I would end the interview and leave, but first I would suggest that obviously this isn’t the most convenient time for him to interview me–if I really wanted/needed the job, I’d ask if it would be better to re-schedule. If the interviewer didn’t take the hint (get off your phone/quit texting), then I would end it and leave. It’s so rude.

By Citizen X
January 7, 2014 at 8:07 pm

Every interview is an opportunity to learn, even the bad ones. How much one should endure totally depends on the person. I have drawn out interviews even when I knew that I wasn’t going to get the job just because the interviewer was rude and I wanted to waste as much of his time as he did of mine.

I have endured long interviews because the interviewer was polite, and he was taking me on a voyage of self-discovery for absolutely no charge.

The only time that I nearly walked out on an interview was when the interviewer called me out on something that was factual, but not true. (I am never late to interviews, but to this one, I was.)

My communication wasn’t clear before the interview on a delicate situation, so I re-briefed him on the situation, and matched his sternness in volunteering to cancel the interview and withdraw my application.

We settled down, and had a very valuable interview. I didn’t get the job, but the guy wasn’t a jerk–he was just feisty.

All of these things taught me how important it is to do intel before the interview, and make it clear what you expect to discuss, with whom, and where.

In my particular case, I will only interview after I get the twenty-five-cent tour of the actual arena I’ll be performing in. Twenty minutes spent onsite will save both of us hours of dancing around each other in an office, trying to guess what each other wants.

And I definitely will walk (I’m too old and deformed to run) away from the interview the should anyone become rude or unprofessional.

By Pennalynn Lott
January 8, 2014 at 12:04 am

I once interviewed for a sales position with a large-ish international software company (whose name was two digits long, a letter and a number, and who is now a division of IBM). The sales manager was 20 minutes late to the interview, acted bored and distracted on the elevator ride to the conference room, then opened the interview with, “I’ve read your resume, and I’m sure you know who we are, so I’ll get straight to my first question: If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

I sat in stunned silence for a heartbeat, then closed my leather portfolio, stood up and said, “I’m sorry; it’s clear that I’m not a good fit for your company. Thank you for your time.” And walked out.

By Megs
January 8, 2014 at 12:04 am

Thanks for all of the help you give us, Nick. Today your advice agrees with I’ve finally decided after too many years of hostile interviews followed on-the-job abuse. Here are a couple of experiences, among many: On a contract job I was being verbally abused by a supervisor who was also a contractor. I used my best diplomacy (which is pretty darned good) to get her to stop and failed. When I escalated, I got laid off. She got hired full time. All rightie then!! The company hired her with complete awareness about her abusiveness. At the same, sought-after tech company, I terminated a job interview for a coveted position when an interviewer was extremely hostile (there is always one hostile/insulting/ verbally abusive interviewer per interview loop at that company). At that time, it took an extreme case to get me to walk out. Today I don’t put up with any sort of abuse because I’ve finally figured out that life is too short to be miserable at work. If you’re uncomfortable in an interview, realize that this is as good as it gets. If you don’t like the way you’re treated in the interview, you’re not going to like the job either. Just move on. I have, and things have worked out great.

By Nick Corcodilos
January 8, 2014 at 11:26 am

@GNW: Sick minds. Let’s bring in busy people and waste their time making fun of them. If they can handle it, we’ll hire them. That way we’ll have more of us in this company. Sick minds.

@Stephen Comfort-Mason: I just want to point something out to other readers. Standing your ground and doing what’s right often works. When it doesn’t, it’s time to walk out. Working in a company that behaves wrongly is not a smart thing. Kudos to you and your friend, Stephen. I hope top management fired the idiots in HR who wanted a Roman coliseum for their amusement. If you think about this, here’s what was probably going on. HR had no idea how to choose between you. So HR would leave it up to the two of you to gut one another in an interview. Last man standing wins. More sick minds.

To all who have walked out on stupid interviews: My compliments. You may not realize it, but you have helped raise the standard. In some cases, you reveal that the employer realized it.

@EAC: An interviewer devotes the entire meeting to having you recite your past jobs, and then decides to hire you, without any discussion about how you’d do the job she’s trying to fill. That’s like somebody who stands around watching others catch fish, and goes home to fry up what she didn’t catch. I think your interviewer is still standing at the stove, wondering where her fish are.

@Bob The Programmer: You’ve hit on two important tactics used by contract agencies. First, they try to belittle your skills so you’ll take less money to do a lesser job – and be grateful they gave it to you. Second, they try to get you take actions, like showing up again and again for unnecessary meetings, because that triggers a well-known psychological phenomenon – you will tell yourself you must want the job because you went to all that trouble for it. So you’ll take it for the wrong reasons, and probably for less money. It’s a common sales tactic.

By Don Harkness
January 8, 2014 at 11:51 am

Fortunately in many working years and related interviews I’ve not run into the engineered stress interview, or worked for companies where we did that. Not that they have been without stress given what both parties are engaged in. In one instance I worked for a company that was growing so intensely fast, the stress was on the side of the interviewers.
My personal experiences have been to the side of the scale of natural idiocy, ignorance, poor interviewing skills or simply lack of preparedness, which as Nick noted is no excuse as the applicant is left with much the same impression.
As Mary Beth noted, when you’re experienced you handle it better. And it’s even better if bottom line you don’t need the job to even put up with the BS. I like Nick’s advise, smile, take the high road, stand up, and say ladies and or gentlemen, you’re wasting our time, I think we’re done. and leave. If you don’t really need the job, you might have fun with it, smile and tell them you’re really on assignment from the Wall Street Journal researching jerk interviews and you rate them an F for company impression, but an A+ for their Acting. ask if you can quote them. And leave.
But sometimes poor preparedness can be an opportunity to take over. When you sense a warm body was throw your way who when questioned can provide useful information, interview them.
I had an interview by one guy (of several) who asked me what I was being interviewed before. It did take me back. I mean he really had NO clue as to why I was there or why he was talking with me. This involved a trip to San Francisco, a lot of my time. I could have been pissed, insulted etc, but rather I realized I was facing an honest man. He could have winged it, he could have read my resume, he could have been rude etc. But he was sincere & he was important & he was personable and polite. So I just took over and gave him the pitch my sponsor (another executive in the same company) had in mind, the context, and my personal pitch. It turned into a pretty good interview. I didn’t get the job, or rather take the offer because the compensation and venue didn’t reason test. But I didn’t walk away mad either & in retrospect, I really valued the honesty.

By Nick Corcodilos
January 8, 2014 at 11:52 am

@Hank: I appreciate your interest in sidestepping the stress interview in favor of something more productive and useful to the applicant. But it’s important to use the experience to judge the employer. We’re talking about people who believe playing wargames in interviews is the way to run a business. As MDH points out, this is what you’re going to face every day if you take the job.

Employers use interviews to judge applicants by watching their every little move. Interviews are often so intimidating that applicants forget to do exactly the same. The interview is your chance to see whether the employer is putting its best foot forward in a tightly constrained time-frame. If the employer can’t pull it off, then they’re not worth working for.

Imagine if you walked into an interview as an applicant and, just to test the employer’s reaction, you said, “Nice to meet all of you f-offs. Now tell me what doesn’t suck about this company, and get me a cold one while you’re at it.” It’s just a test.

That said, I do believe it’s important for an applicant to try and drive the interview in the best direction. Your point is well-taken, and I should have discussed this in the column. It’s what I teach, because I know precious few managers know how to interview effectively. So it’s important to help them. But if the horse won’t budge, it’s time to walk.

@Melissa: Hey, you clearly don’t get it. :) You left the interview feeling sick. They got sick after emptying those liquor bottles when the interviews ended. The new hire? She’s behind that window with them all today, getting sick watching this company’s charade, congratulating herself that she gets to be part of it. Getting sick to your stomach when you see a disgusting display is a good sign that all is well in your soul – you know the difference between healthy and sick.

@Peter Miller: Kudos to a headhunter who fires a client who behaves badly. I’ve done the same, and I enjoy telling new clients that I do it. My first was a well-known Silicon Valley company that interviewed an engineer, then told me, “Well, we’re looking for more of a man’s man, you know? Heh heh. This candidate is a little too feminine for us. You know what we mean?” I knew exactly what they meant. It was the last time I spoke to them. Another was a client I took to help out a consultant friend who told me they needed a new VP. After they refused to talk with every highly qualified female I presented to them (they talked to all the guys), I checked in with my buddy, who admitted the company didn’t like to hire female execs. I called the client and fired him. Come to think of it, I haven’t heard much from my buddy ever since. He’s a good guy, but even good guys get sucked into sick businesses.

@GNW: When an employer tells you to get in the driver’s seat and teach them what they need to know, that’s great. I love it. But when they contrive a goofy interview set-up to see what you’ll do, that’s just plain silly. It reveals an inability to deal with others in an up-front way.

@marilyn: “Just run! Yahoos of this caliber are a dime a dozen” YES!!!!

@Pennalynn Lott: Good for you. You could have answered, “Trees are known to take root and never move from one place. And I must be going.” :)

@Megs: Your story reveals something others have alluded to here: There’s not just one rude interviewer in a company. Where such behavior is tolerated or encouraged, there’s an entire community of jerks practicing it every day. Run, don’t walk, to the exit.

By Julia Forbes
January 8, 2014 at 11:56 am

I sat across the hall from the VP of Human Resources…he was interviewing for a position and when one of the candidates showed up, he greeted him and then continued to work on his computer, facing away from the candidate. This lasted maybe 5 minutes. The candidate handled it beautifully…he said, “Perhaps I should come back when you aren’t so busy.” and got up and left. The company was full of jerks just like this, it was too late for me, but I put in one year and left as soon as my time was up. I congratulated myself for doing a good job and being professional even though they were just playing head games and power trips.

By Karsten
January 9, 2014 at 8:44 am

Many jobs imply stress in one way or another: Military, police, sales, negotiations, teaching teenagers… So I find it OK if a company wants to test candidates’ ability to handle it – provided they 1) state up front that “we will test your ability at X, Y, Z by playing the roles of A, B, C” and 2) it is relevant to the job.

The problem arises when the stress test is unannounced, irrelevant and the candidate does not know which criteria he/she is being evaluated by.

By Nick Corcodilos
January 9, 2014 at 11:38 am

@Karsten: Your point is well-taken. Now let’s hear from anyone who has ever been notified in advance by an employer that “we are about to stress test you in a relevant way.”

I teach employers basically one thing on Ask The Headhunter: Don’t waste your time with silly, fabricated, indirect assessments of job applicants. Assess them directly. Put them in front of the job and watch how they perform. If the job is stressful, so be it – there’s your “stress test,” done above board and in a relevant way.

But HR departments spend loads of cash on indirect “assessment tools” designed to fool the applicant. How clever. How stupid.

Seriously — if an employer has ever notified you that you’ll be stress tested, I’d like to hear your story.

By Don
January 9, 2014 at 2:52 pm

@Karsten, Nick. Can’t resist this one. I definitely knew I’d be stress tested when I went to Marine Corps Boot Camp in Parris Island. And they kept their promise.
After that, don’t recall any in my experience.
Also somewhat along Karsten’s line of thinking, there is a well known software company that stress tests candidates, but like it or not it’s an real world reflection of their culture. They like their managers to be very technical so in interviews they’ll toss some code at them and tell them to find the flaw in it, or ask them to do some coding on a white board. that does tank a lot of people on the spot. And they are aggressive in their interviews, ie. not warm & fuzzy. That too reflects their culture which is antagonistic, aggressive and where people are pitted against each other. Now they don’t tell you this, but if an applicant does some research and networking their culture & interviewing style is there to learn. Which are pieces of intel an applicant should be trying to learn

By marybeth
January 9, 2014 at 8:04 pm

@Nick & Karsten: I don’t have a problem with being given a stress-test kind of interview provided that it is relevant, e.g., it accurately reflects the nature of the job and/or the culture of the company/agency. And that’s a good thing, because if you realize that you don’t like that kind of atmosphere and people, then you’re not a good candidate for the job. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do the job, just that it may not be the best fit for you and for the company/agency. But if the interviewers (be it HR drones or hiring managers or monkeys) give them because they don’t know what to ask, don’t know how to interview and/or haven’t been trained how to interview, or think that this kind of psych test will give them insights into candidates that other psych tests or whatever other crazy questions (what kind of animal/color/tree/airplane would you be) don’t, then it doesn’t make sense. And be honest–tell candidates that part of the interview will include role-playing so they can see how you’d react to and in a variety of situations that employees routinely face.

@Don, yup, I’d expect a stress-test from any branch of the military–doesn’t matter whether you’re an E or O, that’s part of being in the military. No one should have to tell any candidate that stress will be part of basic training. You might have to go to war, and war is not only stressful, it’s hell.

My objection is to being given stress-test interviews simply because the interviewers lack the imagination to do something else, and that is where it is a waste of my time and theirs.

By Vincent
January 12, 2014 at 6:55 pm

I remember a stress interview for an entry-level research analyst position. I had a post-mortem discussion, and indeed, life there would be just like that stress interview where I fell on my face. Looking back, I realize people would get on the bashing bandwagon whenever someone made a judgement call on the value of a particular security. I think (and speculate) people were looking for someone who can take the punishment (and maybe even dish some of their own). I do believe the abuse and vitriol would have come from within first (from so-called colleagues) and then from without (from the investment community) and still likely works that way.

By Dee
January 13, 2014 at 4:03 pm

Be careful–very careful–if a psychologist is part of the interview process for positions that would not for VERY good reasons require it, e.g. patient contact, national security and the like. I interviewed for a senior level Marketing/Communications position for a healthcare organization and was grilled in NY by an imported-from-Minneapolis, grossly overweight psychologist who asked me mainly out of bounds questions (about high school boyfriends and my father I think anyone would consider inappropriate) in a screamingly hot room, when he wasn’t belittling my work background–in addition to administering a battery of psychological tests (Calif. Personality Inventory, Myers-Briggs etc.)This went on for 3 hours. I was so shocked based on the previous staff interview (which went well) that I did not have the common sense to leave. Obviously, never again–and I strongly suspect that the HR guy was on the take, ruling out this organization forever for me.

By Melissa
January 13, 2014 at 5:55 pm

@Nick True, dat. I have been reading your column for 6 years now (just began reading it after that SICK interview) and I would WALK OUT. Never ever again will I subject myself to such disrespect.

By Gwen
January 14, 2014 at 6:41 pm

I had the “pleasure” of the stress interview, but for some amazingly unbeknownst anomaly, I got the job. However, looking back, I had psychologically resolved myself to an inner affirmation of “are they serious?-really?” when I saw three nervous looking men waiting in the boardroom. So I guess I had told myself who cares if I get it or not, and was unbelievably calm. The three managers in this boardroom grilled me on high stress situations, and I must have fired back like a charm; that I give credit to my aforementioned ‘not giving a damn and not phased’ seemingly cool head demeanor. However, they were not jerks, just were fastidious about someone who could handle big project monies and the stress from many potential project personalities. We actually laughed and had jokes at the end and one said, “I shouldn’t tell you but you are probably the one we’ll hire.”

Anyway, this kind of interview is to be taken control of-period- or walk the hell out. Nick hit the sweet spot on this one again of what to do. No human should have to endure this for an exchange of services and monies that helps the business profit from those services.

Appeasing the abuser/interviewer’s psychologically unbalanced way of interviewing just to get the job is not healthy. You need to assess your confidence level and have that conversation with yourself to begin with, because if you know they were a jerk in the interview from the beginning, what makes you think you’ll enjoy working with them over an extended period of time?

Great article Nick as always…

By Incredulous
January 19, 2014 at 9:04 pm

Hard to believe this inane practice still continues. Luckily, never been subjected to it, although I’ve had some prickly or aggressive interviewers.

What I can’t fathom is, why companies don’t care about the impression this makes? If I can’t tell whether the rudeness is real or simulated, I’m forced to assume the worst and hit the delete button.

By Nick Corcodilos
January 19, 2014 at 11:54 pm

@Incredulous: The rationalization (reason?) these companies offer is that the job might require you to deal with rude and abusive people, so the interview is a test. This conjures an image of your doctor telling you that you might get exposed to the brain fungus he suffers from, so he’s going to infect you with it to see how your body responds. Better to quit the doctor, eh? Yah, for sure.

By Sylvia Van Rye
January 21, 2014 at 6:05 pm

I had an awful multipanel interview with a major Fortune 500 firm that was embarrassingly inadept at conducting a behavior interview. It felt more like a hostile police interrogation or a whitecollar gang-bang by pseudo-intellectuals. Within 15 minutes, I knew I could never work with these jerks. If they deliberately put the screws to me to weed out the “undesirable” candidates, well it worked. But who would want to pass THEIR test?? Ugh.

By dana
February 19, 2014 at 3:24 am

I have gone through a stress interview recently. As a woman, I can tell you that it is way to harsh. Lucky me, that I am into Zen meditation and think that all people are good at their core.
I personally feel that you should be asked before if you have any heart disease, or some stress handling issues.
Women tend to have a very frail self-esteem, and an interview like that makes them cry all the way home, and maybe face a huge difficulty recovering. I seriously consider it a type of abuse and should be abolished. People that have not the professional background or the skills get hired, and everything depends on the egocentricity of the manager.
P.S: A manager that can play that well the role of being an asshole, is an asshole in real life too. At least, he has all the ingredients for it.

By Lucia
February 21, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Recently, I was sought out by a prospective employer. I was told that I had all the qualifications that they needed to fill a Creative Designer role. They needed to fill the role soon because someone gave notice.

I met with one of the managers who told me he saw my portfolio, my work was very good and that he had made some phone calls and learned that I had a good reputation. He seemed enthusiastic and I felt that we had really hit it off well.

He was not sure if they wanted to hire the new person directly or as a freelancer. Also, there would be other people involved in making the hiring decision and that they would be interviewing other people.

He wanted to know my salary requirements for a direct hire or freelancer. I told him that I would have to get back to him on that.

I sent a thank you note as soon as I got home and began researching salaries.

A week after I sent him the thank you note, he wrote me back, apologized for his late response and mentioned that he looked forward to getting my salary requirements.

I responded with a very professional email and attached a detailed document with my salary requirements. I explained that I was negotiable and looked forward to hearing back from him.

After not hearing anything back for about 10 days, I decided to contact him. I asked if he received my salary requirements, if he had any questions about them and that I was enthusiastic about the possibility of working for them.

He said that they were still conducting interviews and that I would be contacted in a few weeks.

I thought they needed to fill this position soon???

I’m trying to take this at face value and not read into it too much. However, I’ve been jerked around quite a bit by other prospective employers and I don’t want to go through it anymore.

I really need a job and do not want to appear desperate. I don’t want to sound paranoid either, but I wonder if this is the beginning of some kind of game. There’s not really any way to tell at this point.

My qualifications are a perfect fit for their requirements and I’m confident that I could be a valued employee.

I’m still looking for other jobs, but I always have this particular employer in the back of my mind.

As I mentioned before, I’m not the one who looked for them. They came to me.

Has anyone here been through something like this? This waiting game is stressful and I don’t want them to think that I can be jerked around. Any thoughts you could share would be much appreciated.

Thank you

By Hank
February 21, 2014 at 4:04 pm

@Lucia,

You ARE being jerked around. Face it, SOMETHING in the interview process put someone off and they will keep looking until they find someone else. The “we are still interviewing and will contact you in a few weeks” translates into “No, you won’t get the job, but we don’t want you to get hired by someone else just yet so we will keep stringing you along until we find the right candidate, then we still won’t notify you unless you call us.” Accept it and decide whether you still want to work for a company like this. As you stated, they told you they needed a position urgently, yet apparently it’s either not going to be you or they reevaluated their needs.

There is a small chance the hiring manager was told by HR or his manager to interview more candidates to flesh out the pool or to make the auditors happy, but I doubt it. Let it go.

By Lucia
February 21, 2014 at 4:19 pm

@Hank,

Thanks for your comments.

I’m not sure I understand the bit you mentioned about the auditors. This is a small company privately held company with 3 offices and about 200 employees. I’m not even sure that they have an official HR department.

By Bob The Programmer
March 2, 2014 at 10:50 am

Sometimes the reverse can happen too: delays on the hiring company’s part, followed by demands for a very rapid decision on the candidate’s part.

Once I had an interview delayed two weeks because a VP was out of town. Then when I finally went in, he was first on the list of interviewers, but he never showed up because he was “working from home” that day. I did get an offer but was given 24 hours to respond because they were in a hurry. I turned them down, it was a close decision anyway but the delay followed by demand for speed certainly didn’t help me.

By Nick Corcodilos
March 2, 2014 at 1:16 pm

@Bob: Thanks for posting your story. This is an example of behavior that companies often don’t realize affects whether a candidate accepts a job offer. I think your judgment was correct – this was a good reason to reject the offer. I would have contacted the head of IT/software development (whichever) afterwards, and politely but frankly explained why you turned them down. This is a huge problem that employers just fail to recognize — and it costs them a lot.

By Lay
July 23, 2014 at 6:50 pm

Previously I had encounter similar situation. I am a student and I went to find a part time job in holiday, and me and another girl was recruited.

This girl is friendly and we are somehow become friend, but the employer tell us that only one of us would be hired after a week of testing.

We said nothing, but the employer keep penalize our mistake and compare our performance. If I explain to her about the girl’s performance, the aunt keep suspecting this girl was my cousin. (Her theory is, if you two was not friend, why you want to help her? OMG…)

The employer, an aunt, was so rude and she keep scolding us as if we should know everything at the beginning.

3 days later the girl left the job as she had been late once and the aunt threaten her to deduct her paid.

After quitting this job, I do not contact this shop anymore. When this aunt contact me, I also refuse to work with her again.

She keep penalize me even I do not wrong, for instance she would suddenly teasing my appearance and praise herself to be a beauty. (This aunt is 60 and I am 18 that time, so you know it.) This kind of people I would not even consider to work with them anymore because it’s just abusive :(

By Maggie
August 30, 2014 at 7:46 am

I encountered a loosely-run, disorganized interview with a large corporation for their legal department. 2-3 people were “no-shows”, and the final two were an attorney and his assistant. The attorney NEVER spoke, kept his face covered with his hands, consistently kept reading his cell phone in his lap, 95% of the time NO eye contact, and kept plucking his eyebrow through the 20 minutes. The admin asked a few questions, but honestly, I could see they were clearly bored, (told they had a number of applicants) and the admin (who was very athletic) kept flexing her muscles of her arms by grabbing the table and flexing the entire time watching herself.

I sat back in my chair and just watched the behavior of both of them, one plucking, the other flexing, ZERO personality or input, and thought good GOD, is this the culture here? I felt I needed a shower when I left. My sister-in-law works there, which would probably nail the position for me.

No. I guess I will stick with the structured law firm environment. It was just completely unprofessional in every way and I left angry I had missed work time.

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