Stress Interview (2024 Guide)
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A stress interview is a tactic used to put candidates under extreme pressure. They are designed to test your ability to think on your feet, respond appropriately in difficult situations and stay calm in a pressurised environment.
When using the stress interview technique, employers are looking to see how you would handle things like workplace conflict, abusive customers and work overload. They are intentionally provoking you to assess your psychological and physical responses to stressful situations.
Companies that adopt the stress interview technique are usually those that operate in fast-paced, pressurised industries such as investment banking, or top-level customer services such as air travel or front-line public sectors.
You may also be put through a stress interview if the role in question is one of high authority and responsibility.
Employers will use these interviews to make sure that candidates have the right attitude and the emotional capability to handle these taxing environments.
While competency-based interviews give you the opportunity to demonstrate your skills, knowledge and experience, stress interviews are designed to move you beyond the interview room and into the real world, where trying or confrontational situations may be a regular occurrence.
Stress interviews are usually carried out by experienced professionals, who adopt a number of strategies to gain a true reflection of your personality as a potential employee.
There are several types of stress interview; employers may use any or all of the following techniques:
Dismissive behaviour. The interviewer may act uninterested in you and what you have to say. They may use body language and signals to suggest they have better things to do, such as constant clock-watching or sorting papers on their desk. They may act distracted or bored – looking around the room and purposefully avoiding eye contact.
Intimidating or rude behaviour. The interviewer may act in an inappropriate or hostile manner. Techniques include subjecting you to a long wait, talking abruptly, or answering phone calls mid-interview. They may ask challenging questions in a demeaning tone, interrupt you or ask you to constantly repeat yourself. In extreme stress interviews, you may be put in front of several interviewers who intimidate you in turn to see if you will ‘break’.
Aggressive questioning. Typical stress interview questions are designed to prompt an emotional response and unnerve the candidate. You may be asked things like “Why were you fired from your previous role?”, “What do you think of my interview technique?” or “Why do you have extended periods of unemployment on your CV?”. These are not standard interview questions and are meant to be difficult to answer.
Random questioning. Seemingly random questions are often used to assess how candidates think on their feet. Questions such as “What type of biscuit would you be and why?”, “What would you do with a million pounds?” and “How would you change the design of a clock?” are meant to test your problem-solving skills as well as giving away a little of your personality at the same time.
Difficult hypotheticals. You may be presented with an awkward hypothetical situation and asked to explain how you would deal with it. This could be to assess how you would handle workplace conflict (“What would you do if you found a co-worker cheating on their expenses?”) or how you would deal with confrontational situations (“You and your colleagues have just been physically threatened by an extremely aggressive customer. How do you react?”).
Stress interview questions can be similar to those asked in behavioural or situational interviews. However, in this case, they are purposefully worded in such a way as to make you uncomfortable – and often delivered in a much more aggressive manner.
They are meant to put you on the spot, confuse or frustrate you.
They can be incredibly difficult to answer but remember, how you react is just as important, if not more so, than the answer you give.
“What makes you think you’re qualified for this job?”
The key point here is that the interviewer already knows your qualifications and work history. They would not be talking to you if they thought them inadequate.
What they’re looking for in your response is a confidence in your own abilities.
Think of key personality traits that show your suitability to the role and give examples of these traits in action.
“The key responsibility of this role is to provide exceptional customer service, no matter the circumstances.
"In my previous role, I was often faced with aggressive behaviour. It was a learning curve at first, but experience has taught me that this type of behaviour usually stems from frustration and is best solved through patience and understanding.”
Finish your response with an example of when and how you resolved a tense situation.
“You lost me halfway through. Could you start again and get to the point this time?”
This type of question is designed to shake your confidence and test your patience.
Don’t backtrack on your previous answer. The interviewer is looking for you to calmly repeat yourself, stand by your original response and provide clarification on anything that may be unclear.
Don’t be afraid to ask if they have any questions. This will show that you are open to their frustrations and willing to work through them.
“I’d be happy to talk you through my response again. Is there a particular point you’d like me elaborate on?”
“What would you change about the design of a post box?”
Random questions like these have no right answer. In asking them, the interviewer is assessing how you respond to being put on the spot.
They’re not looking for you to reinvent the wheel. They are looking for someone who can perform under pressure with sound reasoning.
The explanation behind your answer is more important than what, if anything, you would change, so be sure to share your thought process.
“We’re seeing the closure of a lot of local post offices so I’d look at bringing the post box into the digital age to replace some of the more basic services lost – such as recorded delivery and the ability to weigh larger envelopes and purchase the appropriate postage.”
“How would you deal with a co-worker who continually took credit for your ideas?”
Your answer here will demonstrate how you deal with workplace conflict and how much of a team player you are.
Try to show tact, diplomacy and a willingness to compromise.
“I’ve often found that people who take credit for the ideas of others feel that their own voice is not being heard, so I would encourage them to work collaboratively at first. I would establish a common goal for us to work towards and make sure that all ideas and opinions are taken on board and discussed openly.
"In doing so, I would hope to establish a working relationship built on mutual respect and solid teamwork.”
As they are designed to catch you off-guard, employers will rarely inform you in advance if they intend to conduct a stress interview. You will be better prepared to deal with them if you have done your homework.
Find out everything you can about the company, its products or services, and its main competitors. If there are any company policies available online, take the time to read through them. Understanding the business ethics will help you respond accordingly to any related questions.
Make sure you know the job description and person specification inside out. If you know the name of your interviewer, do a little research on their background as well.
If you think you may be subject to a stress interview, think of example questions relevant to the role and prepare your answers.
Ask a friend or family member to help you run through these and practise your responses out loud.
When presented with stress interview questions, take some time to form your response. Don’t feel that you will antagonise the interviewer by asking for clarification.
They are looking for how you would respond to stressful situations in real life, so making sure you understand exactly what is being asked of you is a good thing. This will also buy you more time to mentally prepare your answer.
Stress interview questions rarely have a right answer. The interviewer is not looking for a polished response, they are looking at how you deal with the pressure of the question.
Demonstrate your problem-solving skills by providing detail on how you would or have approached a situation, instead of searching for what you think they want to hear.
Never respond to aggressive behaviour in an aggressive manner. Your interviewer will try and provoke you; it’s important to recognise this and stay calm.
Be aware of your movements. We’re often influenced by the actions of those around us, so if your interviewer adopts intimidating or dismissive body language techniques, be sure not to mirror them. Keep yourself open at all times.
A stress interview is not an attack on you as an individual. It is a technique used to demonstrate how you respond under pressure.
If faced with harsh questioning or behaviour, remind yourself that it is a tactic and you should not take it to heart.
Your interviewer will try to wear you down. Show them that you are resilient and remain upbeat throughout.
No matter how hard the process has been, always try to end the interview with a positive closing remark.
“Thank you for your time. That was incredibly tough but I feel it was a highly valuable experience for me.”
Stress interviews are a controversial method. Those opposed to the technique say they add unnecessary pressure to what, for some, can already be a nerve-wracking experience.
Those in favour take the view that if a candidate can’t handle the interview, a stressful career is not the right path for them.
Whichever side you stand on, if you are subject to a stress interview, remember that it is serving a purpose and is not a true representation of your interviewer or the company as a whole.
As with any type of interview, the key to success is preparation and practice. Dealing with any stressful situation that may arise will be far easier if you are confident from the outset.