The Stress Interview: Dealing With It

Imagine for a moment that you are doing exceptionally well in your job interview until your interviewer asks you a question that is totally irrelevant to your discussion, such as “How would you improve the design of the hockey stick?”

Stress Job Interview

While you fumble for an answer, inwardly you are thinking, “What is wrong with this person? Why would I be asked such an absurd question as part of a serious interview?”

You have just been asked a deliberate “stress question” designed to give the interviewer an opportunity to observe the real you by looking for a reaction that might reveal something of your character—perhaps impatience with a silly interviewer—as well as a glimpse of your creative abilities in coping with the unexpected.

While it is no secret that most job applicants view employment interviews as stressful, many are not aware that there is an intentionally designed and somewhat unusual type of selection interview called a “stress interview.”

The stress approach can be in the form of questions or statements. Mild stress: “With your lack of relevant experience, what makes you think you can do this job?” Medium stress: “You seem much too timid to handle these responsibilities.” Or, major stress: “That is the worst answer we’ve heard from any of the candidates.”

The stress could be presented in a situation or disguised in the interviewer’s behaviour, such as an unsmiling greeting, protracted silence after hearing your answer to a particular question, or a confrontational or argumentative attitude.

Stress approaches may include, rapid-fire questioning, criticism of your interview or past work performance, silence in the beginning or following an answer to a question asked of the applicant, unclear instructions, or being confronted by the interviewer.

It is important for job seekers to keep in mind that it is one’s reaction—how one handles stressful, unexpected questions and/or the interviewer’s surprising behaviour—that is observed and assessed by the interviewer, not necessarily the answer.

Interviewees should not take the stress tactics personally. The candidate’s reaction should be evaluated relative to the genuine demands of the work, and “grace under fire” is the key to handling this unusual situation.

Actually, many hiring professionals agree that a full interview using a stress approach is seldom used or appropriate these days because heavy-handed stress tactics do not fit well with the relaxed and welcoming interview atmosphere that Canadian organizations attempt to create for candidates.

So, why worry about stress interview tactics?

In part, because employment search transcends geographic borders, and because almost every book on interview preparation in local bookstores includes a section on stress tactics in interviews. As well, type the words “stress interview” into your favourite search engine (try Google) and the articles and information abound.

David Sher is a Toronto employer who uses stress tactics “purposefully and responsibly” when selecting his staff. President and group publisher of the Student Media Group, Sher publishes business sense, and ingenuity magazines.

“Whether we use stress tactics or not depends totally on the expectations of the job,” he says. “If we are hiring creative staff, we don’t use it. However, if we are hiring for sales and marketing, we do ask stress questions and we create a bit of an unexpected atmosphere. We are not out to create tremendous stress as that is not productive. We just want to see how the person reacts and we expect honesty in answers.”

As an initial stress tactic, Sher continues, “we use a combination of waiting and silence. If we are interviewing for a sales and marketing position, we will have an applicant wait about 10 minutes and then bring the person into the interview room. We say hello, smile and then – silence.”

“Our goal is to see if the candidate will initiate the conversation. It can even be small talk – as long as they start the conversation. On the job, a salesperson has to demonstrate composure and control to strike up a friendly conversation with a client. The stress tactic tells us if the person can do that.”

“We use a stress tactic at the end of the interview, as well. We know that when we ask about ‘weaknesses,’ we’ll get a rehearsed answer. But add the stress follow-up question, ‘Tell me more about your weakness’ and we are likely to get an honest and unrehearsed answer.”

According to Candace Davies, founder and director of the Alberta-based Cando Career Coaching and Resume Writing Service, “stress interviews can be brutal.” A former general manager, Davies has interviewed more than 1,000 people for hiring purposes and now helps people prepare for interviews, including stress interviews.

Consider her tactics when in stress interview situations:

  • Most importantly, respond calmly, confidently and professionally.
  • Don’t rush into your answer. Collect your thoughts.
  • See this as an opportunity to rise to the challenge.
  • Ask for clarification if you need it.
  • Don’t let yourself be intimidated.

Experts seem to agree on at least one thing: Know the requirements of your job, anticipate the possibility of a stress tactic experience, be aware of your reactions, and learn some useful approaches to handle this unusual (but possible) curve ball.


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