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The Stress Interview: What You Need to Know

A gloomy, dark interrogation room

Have you ever been hit by crazy interview question that seems to come from left field?  What about an entire second or third interview that seems more aggressive than the others—filled with “gotcha” questions and endless criticism? The tactic is called a ‘stress interview,’ and it’s become an unfortunate trend for certain job roles.

Imagine yourself as this recent job candidate who endured a brutal 2-hour interview for a UK web company in which the CEO insulted not only her writing and professionalism but also her taste in music, her parents’ marriage, and the way she sat during the interview. She was offered the job but declined via a tweet that went viral.

What would you do? How would you handle yourself in a similar situation?

Before answering that, consider these most common stress interview tactics:

  • Brainteasers: Large tech companies like Google and Apple are infamous for their brainteaser questions. Many have moved on from questions that are particularly jarring but, if you’re a software engineer or similar tech professional, you can expect they’ll pop up from time to time. Brainteaser questions like “How would you redesign a baseball hat?” or “Why are manhole covers round?” are testing your logic and analytical thinking more than anything else. If you don’t have a definitive answer, consider these nine steps outlined by The Muse.
  • Gotcha questions: “You don’t have the experience we’re looking for, so why should we hire you?” Some questions are designed to make you feel confronted and cornered, just to see how you respond. The tactic is most common for those who will be working with customers or difficult stakeholders (customer service, sales, and administrative candidates will often get them). Keep your cool and understand that, if you feel like you’re being attacked, you’re likely being tested. A neutralizing answer like, “I’m sorry you feel that way. What else can I tell you about my experience in X, Y and Z might change your opinion,” usually does the trick.
  • The pressure-cooker environment: Some interviews seem generally hostile. Questions are asked rapidly, negative feedback is given throughout, or the interviewer may seem disengaged or rude. The employer may be testing you, or it could be an indication of the corporate environment. Likely, it’s both. It’s up to you to decide whether you’re willing to take a chance on the behavior being a permanent part of the culture. If you do get a job offer, but turn it down because of the interview process, consider doing a favor for future candidates by telling them exactly what turned you off.

While extremely rare, it is possible that a stress interview turns into a legitimate case of harassment or discrimination. If questions turn uncomfortably personal, don’t feel compelled to answer (replying “I’d prefer not to answer” or “that information seems too personal to be relevant to this discussion” should suffice).

Then, report the interviewer to your job recruiter or to the Texas Workforce Commission (if they are a Texas employer). While it’s usually in your best interest to rise to the occasion of any job interview you get, some cross the line—either overstepping your own boundaries or in a legal sense—and simply aren’t worth fighting for.