Are stress interviews a valuable part of the recruitment process? Possibly. But when used inappropriately, their value can be called into question.
In early 2019 a business story went viral around the globe in social and traditional media. This wasn’t a typical story about an unexpected bankruptcy or a business executive behaving badly, and nor was it a tale of insider trading or bawdy boardroom antics. Rather, the uproar was about a job interview in the UK that went spectacularly wrong.
The job applicant was young communications professional Olivia Bland, the business was a bespoke travel software firm. The “brutal two hour interview”, as Bland reported via Twitter, “tore both me and my writing to shreds”, “called me an underachiever”, “felt like being sat in a room with my abusive ex” and left her in tears.
Then, as if the car-crash interview wasn’t too much, Bland was offered the job. She very publicly declined.
The coverage brought into question the use of ‘stress interviews’, also known as ‘quick-fire interviews’, which, for better or worse, had been gaining in popularity in certain industries. But this case, and several others, had appeared to prove at an anecdotal level that stress interviews can be very poor practice, particularly in the hands of an insensitive or incompetent practitioner.
Anecdotal evidence is one thing, but a full academic research study is another. When researchers at the National Taipei University of Technology published their research on the effectiveness of stress interviews, in AHRI’s Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, their findings reflected common sense.
“Stress interviews can help interviewers effectively measure and evaluate job applicants’ emotion regulation in highly stressful settings,” the team reported. “Results show that there was a positive relationship between interviewers’ use of stress interviews and the interviewers’ accuracy in assessing applicants’ emotion regulation abilities, but that there was a negative relationship between interviewers’ use of stress interviews and applicants’ perceptions of interviewer friendliness and organisational attraction.”
In other words, a stress interview does help in assessing a job applicant’s behaviour under very specific circumstances, but the use of such an interview style reflects badly on the interviewer and on the organisation itself.
Bullies and punks
Then there is the blunt analysis offered by Liz Ryan, founder and CEO of Human Workplace, who wrote in an article for Forbes: “Like most lame HR fads, [stress interviewing] has stuck around way too long. Stress interviewing entails putting a job candidate under stress by asking a lot of questions quickly, challenging the job-seeker to defend their positions and generally behaving as though the job-seeker has to prove their worth at every second of the interview… Stress interviewing is a brainless and ineffective technique used by bullies and punks.”
After such feedback, it would be correct to assume that stress interviewing is no longer used by any reputable organisation, right? Actually, that would be wrong. Before accepting her current role as principal recruiter at Deputy, Emer McCann applied for a role at a well-known organisation and had to endure a stress interview.
“My friend and I both interviewed,” McCann says. “I made it through to the final stage and pulled out because I realised it wasn’t for me. The interview process made me realise that I had to pretend to be somebody different.
“My friend secured the role and ended up leaving nine months later because she realised she was just trying to be somebody she wasn’t during the stress interview. The company spent all that time training her, and she left.”
“Stress interviewing is a brainless and ineffective technique used by bullies and punks.” – Liz Ryan
Taken to extremes
Katriina Tahka, CEO of A-HA (A Human Agency), says stress interviewing “seems a bit warped” and, when taken to extremes, could lead to workplace bullying and harassment claims. “While you definitely don’t want to just ask questions that are predictable, that doesn’t mean you need to push it to a point of stress.”
Questions that test cognitive agility needn’t be confrontational or thrown at the applicant in a way intended to cause stress. They can instead be conversational, says Tahka.
“You might ask questions around things like accountability, such as, ‘Tell me about a time you willingly owned up to a mistake you made, and how did owning up to it benefit you?’ You’re testing their ability to think on their feet. Can they be asked a question they don’t have a prepared response to, and answer it in a sensible and logical way?”
Perhaps there is logic behind the stress interview, says Tahka, in the selection for roles that offer moments of high stress, such as nursing or emergency services. But it still must be appreciated that the purpose of a job interview and its power imbalance – the degree of nervousness and stress that comes pre-packaged – already provides such a test. Getting to know the real person more likely involves helping them to relax.
Variables of success
McCann agrees there may be a time and place for some form of stress interviews. But success or failure will depend on many variables, such as interviewer competence, the applicants’ personality and the characteristics of the role.
It’s important to remember that research has proven that even if the stress interview is a success, the very fact that it was conducted in such a way will mean the applicant is less likely to want to work for the organisation.
“It comes back to the question of how much you really get to know a person in such a scenario, as opposed to simply learning that they’re good at interviewing,” says McCann.
“The upside of a stress interview for the business is that they see a small example of how a candidate handles pressure and stress. But the downside is that when you offer the candidate a role, some will decline because of the interview. And for those who are not offered a role, you’re creating a negative experience. That creates bad publicity and bad branding for your company.”
This originally appeared in the August 2019 edition of HRM magazine.
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