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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74 Comments on “The Stress Interview: How employers abuse job applicants”
By Nick Corcodilos
September 29, 2014 at 10:11 am

@Suzana: There is something very “not alright” about the interviewer’s behavior, especially when he called you back to criticize you. If he felt you were too focused on your personal loss during that first meeting, he should have just let the matter drop. Calling you to berate you afterwards reveals a problem with the guy’s style. I agree with you: It’s a signal that this is not a good place for you to go. I see no reason for you to continue any communication even if he does reply. My guess is he will reply; this guy seems to enjoy arguing for its own sake.

Use your best judgment, but my advice is to move on.

By David Hunt
September 29, 2014 at 10:52 am

I cannot imagine the pain that such a loss would inflict.

Were I interviewing, and the candidate diverted into something like this – the loss of a loved one – I’d suggest a short break after trying to sympathize. I cannot grasp someone berating a person being tearful or emotional at the loss of a child.

By Melissa
September 29, 2014 at 11:51 am

Where is the humanity with some of these hiring folks? What a cold heart.

By David Hunt
September 29, 2014 at 12:21 pm

@Melissa:

“You’re an asset. An expendable asset.”

It used to be that companies hired people; now they have human resource managers to manage their human capital and acquire talent.

http://40pluscareerguru.blogspot.com/2013/10/employers-choose-your-words-carefully.html

By Suzana
September 29, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Thanks to all of you for you kind words!

This was not my first interview, let me explain.

I was introduced to this Company in May. I was leaving the Country for 4 weeks for vacation. Upon my return, the following day I had a phone interview. The President was leaving the Country himself for 2 months but wanted to keep the lines open so we could meet when he got back. He contacted me when he was back in the Country and we met for the 1st time on September 11th; From beginning to end, during this interview, he came across in the manner described in a “Stress Interview”. But I held my own and we went for lunch, returned to the office and he showed me some samples of their product. The interview was ending and I left him with a portfolio of my accomplishments, letters, speeches, and community work. It was very thorough. I came home, wrote my Thank you letter re-iterating my interest and left it at that. When my daughter passed I was on bereavement leave and did not want to return to the position I was in. I dealt with the public everyday and I did not want to put myself in a situation where everyday I had to listen to someone giving me condolences. So I accepted a new opportunity. I spent just under 3 years with the new company and left when they requested I take a $70,000 cut in my Commission. You see I made well over 6 figures in my 1st, 2nd and 3rd year exceeding my cap in both my 2nd & 3rd year. I was hired by the largest company in the world with no experience in their products or services or in Industrial Sales. Needless to say I did not accept the change to my contract and was terminated. I hired a lawyer and it was settled without going to a civil suit. I understand his hesitation as he was also sued by a former employee for Discrimination. The risk worked both ways. I did not expect to hear from him but did so almost 2 weeks later. The day we spoke he went over the day we met and what we discussed and again tried to get a rise out of me but I threw it back at him. It was during this call that he made the comment about me talking about my daughter and I told him….you asked. Like the Recruiter said to me…..they are after you and that puts you in the driver’s seat….negotiate well. But I told the Recruiter, $$$$$ isn’t everything, Character speaks volumes to me. And when I went over that conversation in my mind, the fact that he brought up my daughter in the manner in which he made his comment, it upset me and I thought “Is this guy for real?” That’s what instigated the online search and when I figured out what he was doing, I thought good riddance. Like I said to Nick, it is his loss. I won’t change who I am for anyone.

By Suzana Pekrul
October 9, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Hi Nick,

You were right, I did hear back and here was the response:

Dear Suzana,

It was very disappointing to receive your recent communication and I feel that you have somehow misinterpreted some of my comments. I definitely did and still do have an interest in your talents, experience and drive. The interview process is never predictable and sometimes takes on a life of its own. It certainly wasn’t my intention to put you on the defensive during the process but it is of course important to understand a person’s career path and what has led them to make different decisions and changes.

By way of background, as an apology, not an excuse, I was dealing with a number of significant pressures in the background which probably didn’t have me at my best that day.

I have the greatest admiration and respect for the fact that you were able to deal with such profound and significant family issues while maintaining your commitment to work and your employers.

Please accept my very best wishes for both personal and corporate success. In the event that the passage of time has softened your position at all I would be interested in speaking with you again.

***I have to be honest in saying I was both surprised and touched by his comments. Time will tell.

By Nick Corcodilos
October 10, 2014 at 10:06 am

@Suzana: Thanks for posting your update. I think that at the core of his note is this rationalization:

“The interview process is never predictable and sometimes takes on a life of its own.”

He’s externalizing his behavior, making it not his own. He should have apologized and let it go at that. Look at how he closed his note. He left it up to you. He should have issued another invitation, then left it up to you. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this – you know the situation best.

Here is what troubles me. We all have bad days and do stupid things. But he waited 2 weeks after your initial meeting and then called you to chew you out. That takes planning and forethought. He intended to do it, or why would he have called two weeks later?

Make a mistake, fess up, apologize, don’t do it again. That’s an honest pattern. Calling someone two weeks later and chewing them out does not fit an honest pattern. I think something else is at work here.

I wish you the best, but don’t hope for too much. And be careful.

By Gysy
November 13, 2014 at 5:33 pm

Upon graduating with a degree in ex phys and internship in cardiac rehab, I interviewed w/ Pepsico in Cherry Hill NJ (1987).

The man interviewing me was late for the interview and proceeded to yawn and look out the window for the first 20 minutes of our “interview.”

After 20 minutes the idiot fell asleep complete with head bobbing jerks that woke him from his clear boredom. I stopped talking and he opened one eye.

He had just asked in between nodding off how I handled getting along with difficult clients. I replied that I am able to get along with most anyone especially when exercising compassion. He had fallen asleep again. Ndded himself awake and got a look of extreme digust stating, “That’s bullshit. I disagree.”

I wanted to say that in his case, I stand to be corrected.

As a new graduate and very serious and dedicated to beginning a new career, I tried to keep from crying at being so disrespected.

The man was a fossil back then, he is probably dead now and if that is the face representing Pepsico’s wellness program back in the day, it’s better if he did.

Another health insurance company (IORA) sent out a cattle call reply to applicants stating we are invited to come on out on a first come, first serve basis for an informal get to know you interview in a format much like “speed dating.”

A three hour drive for me on my day off for such an unprofessional invitation was out of the question.

The interesting thing to note is that these same holier than thou folks who think they are above unemployment will likely find themselves on the other side of the desk begging us for a job one day.

In this economy, people need not become smug and disrespectful to others with the notion they can enjoy immunity from buying food with green stamps.

By Nick Corcodilos
November 17, 2014 at 11:17 am

@Gyspy: You’d have risked nothing by walking out of the interview while the boob was asleep. I’d have walked straight to the guy’s boss’s office and asked, “Is there someone else I can interview with? Mr. X fell asleep twice and I left him sleeping in his office.” The truth is almost always best :-)

By Gretta
November 25, 2014 at 7:09 pm

I recently had an interview for a senior finance job. The interview confirmation said there would be an accounting test and an Excel test at the end of the interview. I emailed to check the salary level as this seemed strange for a senior role. The employer confirmed the salary and it was adequate. So I attended the interview which consisted of a lot of psychological profiling questions…at the end of the interview they said now an employee will let you take the test. The employee said the test would take 20mins, produced 2 sheets of paper with about 12 questions in-depth questions on each page; and said she would tap on the glass when the test was half way through. This startled me!

Should I have refused to attempt the test when I saw that there was no way it could be completed in the timescale?
Should I have stopped when the rap on the window came and it was clear from what I had done at that stage that I would not be able to complete this test?
Should I have tried the test and did the best to complete the first items I attempted as well as I could whilst ignoring the things I could not get to? (this is what I actually did)
What does my performance show:
BTW I continued to work even if I knew I would not complete in the deadline because I have worked in the very stressful world of Merchant Banking where you must come to an answer even if people are screaming that the deadline is passed …you still have to work on and decide if the trading position is correct or incorrect regardless of who is screaming!
Thank you for any insights you can give.

By David Hunt
November 25, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Liz Ryan had a post on LinkedIn to a very similar effect – that there is a tremendous amount of abuse and bad treatment of candidates by employers.

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141121140748-52594-job-seeker-how-much-abuse-will-you-take

By Nick Corcodilos
November 28, 2014 at 3:02 pm

@Gretta: It’s hard to tell why they gave you such a test. The two obvious possibilities:

1) They have no idea what they’re doing, and the “overload” was not intentional. This is not a good sign.

2) This was a hidden stress test, to see what you’d do. And I think that’s stupid. They could have just put you in a room and released a big snake.

I suggest reading Dr. Erica Klein’s comments here:
http://www.corcodilos.com/blog/7413/an-insiders-biggest-beefs-with-employment-testing

(She’s an employment testing expert.)

By Martin
December 1, 2014 at 11:26 am

I recently had a 5-member panel interview in which the lead person appeared to be sending text messages under the desk when it wasn’t her turn to ask questions. The interview, it must be admitted, wasn’t going so well – I was finding it difficult to overcome nerves and lost my train of thought a few times, and felt that I wasn’t exactly holding their attention, but having it seemingly confirmed in this way was pretty rude. What should I have done?

By Nick Corcodilos
December 1, 2014 at 9:37 pm

@Martin: Try some of these ideas:
http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/hastress.htm

The alternative, of course, is to politely decline and walk out.

By Melissa H.
December 2, 2014 at 12:26 am

Nick, If you walk out of an interview politely, can the recruiter “black-list’ you with other recruiters? Do you all talk to each other (like a head-hunter mafia?) I ask this, silly as it sounds as back in 2008, I REALLY FELT THIS WAY. I was desperate to get a job as I saw my money go down…I didn’t want to be unemployed that long. The recession had hit and I felt like I was at their mercy. I had one interview where the man demanded I “explain what VMware is…and don’t use the words ‘cloud’ or ‘virtual’..go!” I basically ended up putting my head down, on his desk in front of him, with my hands under it. He just laughed and said “go on! You’re doing better than the last person that was in here!” He also mocked somebody on his staff who got excited over a deal and made a lot of noise. I honestly wanted to WALK OUT of that place. But I felt that I would get… dah dah dummmm… black-listed. A big fat X on my record somewhere. The recruiter called me up a day later and said “He said that…he’ll pass.” I just said “Huh.” and she said “Yeah, not sure what to make of that.” If I could go back in time, I would have walked out of that interview AND the interview I talked about in Redwood City earlier this year as fear prevented me…because head-hunter mafia concern.

As stupid as this sounds…somebody else out there might have this same concern and not tell you like Martin.

I also want to know for the future whenever I have to interview again.

By Michael
January 21, 2015 at 12:47 am

So today I had an interview for an account executive job. I did well on the phone interview with a gentle executive assistant and they had me come in today. The “VP of Sales” who ended up being a partial owner of the company, was a bullet — she was definitely using the “stress test” method but I am a master empath, intuitive and understand body language deeply — I can’t shake the feeling that this woman was arrogant, hiding contempt, and impatient… She was type A extravert… I’m more type C introvert but I’m highly confident… I take a moment to process my feelings and thoughts and translate them into words (works great with in-person sales which is so much about understanding the client and building trust) but she was hammering me and raising her eyebrows whenever I’d take a second to respond… When it was my turn to answer questions (I tried to ask some relevant questions in the beginning to better frame the interview) she was dismissive and arrogant.

I know its hard to substantiate my evaluation but my issue is I don’t know what to do… I’ve been reading your articles on this subject and have resolved to withdraw my application… I DID consider walking out halfway through the interview but something stopped me… I actually like being challenged by aggressive personalities as I’m very Zen and very skilled in non-violent communication and de-escalation…so I hung on like a pitbull. I want to reject them before they reject me (which is motivated by ego, but so what, I’ve got big goals and won’t kiss ass for any job.. I don’t need a job as I freelance and do independent “nano-business” projects on my own…I’ve been looking for a sales vehicle again because I know the value of staying busy and getting paid for performance)…

I don’t know if the owner knows she is turning people off or just wants to qualify people that can deal with her aggressive personality.

I feel like going in there first thing tomorrow morning and giving her a taste of her medicine: Asking her directly if she understands her impact on prospective candidates and if she knows the value of reputation in an information-rich, hyperconnected world… I’m not sure I’d take the job but some teeny part of me doesn’t want to outright reject her by email or phone…. Would love some perspective, I’m sure I won’t get any feedback before I have to make a decision on my own.

She invited me to see the technology (they are a cloud based led sign and software company) after the interview and got a little nicer so I don’t know what to think… She also said she’d be in touch within the next day to let me know.

I’ll be sure to come back and update the community here. I do live in an Abundance Mentality so I’m not as threatened as some of the people here or desperate for employment. I expect to become more than a “solopreneur” in the next 5 years and just hoped for a vehicle that would get me there faster while still being able to do my writing and “mini-projects/businesses” on the side. 10x rule!

Thanks for your perpective, Nick. It is very appreciated.

By Melissa H.
January 21, 2015 at 1:47 am

My guess is he’ll say you should have gently told her off and then declined, walked off.

By Nick Corcodilos
January 21, 2015 at 10:08 am

@Michael: If that was an orchestrated stress test, then she lost me. I think doing that is bunk. Her problem is, she’s portraying the boss you will work for, and you must make a judgment about that. Is that who you want to work for and with? Because what you see is what you get.

If you want to confront her, then by all means do it now, not after you get hired. If she’s looking for the truth about you, then show her, but don’t act or play a game.

We live with our co-workers for probably more hours a day than with our friends and family. Make it real. If this is not who you want to work with, don’t rationalize it. Do what’s best for you.

PS – I was interviewed for my very first real job by someone very much like that — the owner of a firm—, except she wasn’t actually nasty, just very brusque. I figured that’s how bosses were. Later, she turned on the charm. After that, I had lunch with the manager, who won me over, and I took the job. Two years later, the manager left. A couple of months after that, I joined him. We started our own business. The owner couldn’t keep employees because she was a jerk. What you see is what you get, and it’s every person’s responsibility to project who they really want you to see — hopefully, their true selves. Go in with an open mind and heart, but don’t be a fool. Then it’s up to you to judge and decide.

By Michael
January 21, 2015 at 11:35 am

So awesome and grateful to get a quick response, Nick… My phone pinged a notification about your response to my email, then hilariously another ping and I get the email that says “we feel you are not a fit for our company…we’ll be moving on…blah blah…we’ll hold your application for future openings”

I laughed as I wanted to preemptively dismiss them (ego, I know), as anything I said after would seem reactive and petty, I thought.

I just emailed them anyways and said to withdraw my application as I would not consider working for their company. Then threw in 2 or 3 lines about why the owner/v.p. sales should consider the impact her unspoken attitude has on candidates perceptions of her company.

We live in a hyper-connected world and I do believe business is changing for the better. It’s definitely grassroots as a lot of the top-down changes seem like nothing more than a shallow “face-lift” for public image.

I appreciate your work and will frequent this blog a lot more often.

By Nick Corcodilos
January 21, 2015 at 12:04 pm

@Michael: You’re welcome. Glad it was timely.

Good for you. Maybe you should send her a link to this column ?

It’s insane how hard companies work at social media to promote their products and services, and their brand, to their customers. Then they do this to their other constituency — the people in their professional community that they’re trying to recruit — and think nothing of the impact on their reputation.

I think you’ll enjoy this article:
http://www.corcodilos.com/blog/587/how-to-say-it-hr-should-report-to-pr

I wrote a similar piece for Adobe System’s CMO.com, relating HR to marketing:
http://www.cmo.com/articles/2014/1/5/why_marketing_should.html

Just goes to show how disorganized companies really are, while they send conflicting messages and don’t think a thing about it!

I wish you the best on your next job. You need only one good manager at one good company — then all the crud sinks to the bottom around you while you rise to the top. Keep looking for that right one. It’s worth it.

By jojo
March 25, 2015 at 12:14 pm

I went to a interview at Best buy. The interviewer was professional at the front of the store. Once I was in the room totally different. Some guy was sitting there giving me the stink eye. I introduced myself and went to shake his. He turned his head. I thought OK wth. My interviewer was throwing questions at me as I was answering kept cutting me off. I never got a full sentence out. I was not asked anything about my skills, work history ect. I knew this was a waste of my time. I will not work with people that behave that way. Their loss not mine. I have a job but extra money is always welcome. Glad I failed that “interview” It was a insult! If I meet with anyone again, this game is played. I will thank them for their time, leave. Interview quota for corporate maybe? I don’t care but it was the strangest meeting I’ve ever experienced.

By Eric
October 12, 2015 at 5:03 pm

Yes, wow people I’ve had this happen to me a lot within the last 5 years I probably went through 10 to 12 jobs. Now thinking back on them all the jobs during the interview or during the job itself I had people acting very rude to me. Without a doubt this is a test. I don’t know the answer to the test. I will try some of the suggestions above. You might ask yourself why did you not act rude back, sometime back I went on depression medicine. The job was so stressful that my medicine was of no use to me, and my heart seem like it was going to jump out of my chest. I was emotionally mentally gone. Now I’m trying a new tactic on my next job I’m going to be rude back and see if that gets me the job, and people off my back. If you’ve already tried this tactic write back and let me know. Eric out

By Eric
October 12, 2015 at 5:06 pm

PS also thank you for letting me vent a little. Eric out

By Masha
November 25, 2015 at 7:33 am

I was probably stress interviewed just recently.
At the beginning my 1 interviewer was late by 40 min.
After we talked for a bit she said to me to sit outside of the office and fill in some papers. Then somebody completely other came to me with more papers and said that I had made mistakes in the previous blanks, she was standing over me and waited for me to correct the mistake. The last stage was that I had to talk to a third person that asked me unrelated questions to work.

The next dat they called me and said that I was passive-aggressive ( unfitted to work)…but I don’t know. I don’t seem to be like that, I genuinely asked my friends if I’m passive aggressive and that said to me no.
How should I respond when I came early and exited to the interview , while they came late and emotional distant. I was interviewed by 3 different people. In the last stage I felt that something in the process was wrong and the questions were really weird and unrelated.

Maybe I was responding rashly but I just wanted to be done with the whole thing because I felt manipulated and not respected.

Moreover, when I left the office, the first interviewer was suddenly back and she was not friendly to me and very dry.
Maybe I was passive-aggressive, but only at the end of the whole thing because the it felt like mind games from the beginning.

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