Stress Interviews: Tactics to Handle the Pressure

Man being intimidating during job interview with woman
••• ONOKY - Eric Audras/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Some interviewers make an effort to put candidates at ease. Conversations begin with smile-filled greetings, and continue through a friendly, conversational question-and-answer period. In contrast, during stress interviews, no effort is made to put you at ease. Instead, interviewers create a stressful situation (thus the name) to get a sense of how you handle yourself in unpleasant conditions. 

Stress interviews come in many shapes and sizes, from mildly disconcerting to downright aggressive.

The interviewer isn't simply taking pleasure in making you squirm; rather, the purpose is to put you on the defensive in order to see how you perform under pressure. 

Why Employers Use Stress Interviews

The logic is that the way you respond under stress during the interview is indicative of the way you'll handle similar situations on the job. Creating an emotionally chaotic setting puts candidates under psychological stress to see if they will crack, remain calm, or even thrive under pressure.

Stress interviews can be controversial because they create a sensitive and emotionally charged relationship between the applicant and the hiring manager, and, thereby, the company. Sometimes, even the most successful applicants will turn down an offer on account of the nature of the interview alone. 

After all, interviews are a two-way street. The interviewer is getting an impression of you, but you're also sizing up the interviewer. And it's very possible that your feelings won't be positive after feeling stressed out. Some candidates, of course, thrive under pressure. 

Stress interviews are more common in certain industries. For instance, people in sales or airline employees may have to deal with difficult or frustrated people frequently. Interviewers may use stress interview tactics to locate people who can handle a potential barrage of rudeness. 

Best Approaches for Handling a Stress Interview

How does a stress interview play out? There are a few options. 

A candidate may be asked repeated difficult or seemingly inappropriate interview questions, be subjected to testing, face multiple interviewers simultaneously or in sequential interviews, be subjected to a long wait, or spoken to rudely.

Intimidating Questions: "Why were you fired from your last job?" "Was your previous job too much for you to handle?" These aggressive questions are intended to put you on the spot. They are potentially offensive and difficult to answer. 

Aggressive Behavior: An example scenario is one in which the applicant walks into the room, and the interviewer is sitting with his feet up on the desk while reading a newspaper that he holds up obscuring his face. "Get my attention," the interviewer demands. Other aggressive behaviors may include providing on-the-spot negative feedback to your responses to questions or saying rude, hurtful comments about your previous work or accomplishments. 

Unexpected Responses: The interviewer may ask the same question multiple times, pretending that he or she forgot or didn't comprehend your answer as you grow more frustrated at his or her lack of understanding. 

Brainteasers: "How many rats are there in New York City?” "How much of New York's garbage do they consume?" While you're not expected to know answers to these questions off the top of your head, you need to demonstrate your ability to explain how you'd research the answer.

Acing the Interview

The key to getting through this process is remaining calm and unemotional throughout the interview. Of course, for many of us, when we're provoked or disrespected, keeping a level head is easier said than done. 

Here are some tactics to employ:

  • Clarify the question. No need to hesitate or feel embarrassed when you ask follow-ups and confirm the question's intent. This is what's expected of you, and the point is it buys you some time to think and plan your answer before articulating it.
  • Request more details. If there's unknown or missing information, ask for elaboration before proceeding with your answer. Without having all the details, you won't be able to provide a meaningful response. This will show your follow-up abilities. 
  • Show your work. Focus on describing your problem-solving method rather than trying to devise a correct answer.
  • Tell a story that makes your point. Again, the "right" answer isn't necessarily the goal in this type of interview. Instead, try to inject your personality and unique thought process into the response instead of getting bogged down in trying to find the right answer.
  • Don't be intimidated or fearful - understand that this approach is part of the process and your interviewer may very well be a carefree kind of person.