Bad, Bad Cop: The Pros and Cons of Conducting a Stress Interview

There are several ways of conducting an interview.  Each has its own unique style and purpose.  One of the simplest ones would be the Telephone Screening Interview.  This is a make it or break it type of interview.   Usually, you have five minutes to let your enthusiasm sparkle, sell potential, and convince the interviewer to give you a personal interview.  Next would be a Panel Interview where, as the name suggests, multiple individuals are interviewed by a panel of people (usually executives) who have different agendas for being there.  Another interview type would be the Series Interviews, which consists of consecutive interviews with multiple people in the organization.  Here, in a span of a day, you will be interviewed by someone from human resources, your immediate supervisor to-be, (sometimes) someone who will be your colleague in the same department, and then one of the managers.  As if a job interview wasn’t nerve-wracking enough; there is one type of interview that makes people nauseous at the mere thought of it.  That is the dreaded Stress Interview.

Can You Spell S-T-R-E-S-S?

The Stress Interview – a tactic used by certain interviewers that can make many applicants visibly quiver in fear.  Usually, it starts with making you wait a long time before the interview proper begins.  Then, you are met with hostility and arrogance by the interviewer.  If you’re lucky, it’s more of disinterest than irk.  Maybe, on occasion, the interviewer would interrupt your answers, stare blankly at you (for a while), then ask demanding, rude, and/or controversial questions.  Perhaps even, (just like the stereotypical good cop – bad cop movies, except there’s no good cop in sight) if the interviewer (or interrogator) is having a ball, you will be met with technical questions like “You know that we are among the top VoIP service providers; explain to me how different our product is from the competition’s.” or condescending and sarcastic remarks such as “That’s all?  Are you completely sure about that?” I can already imagine Batman in his bad cop routine asking “Where is the trigger?!”

Why Do It?

Have you ever seen the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment?  It was a study conducted in 1972 by Walter Mischel, a psychologist in Stanford University.  A marshmallow was offered to 600 children, and each child was promised that if he or she can resist eating the marshmallow, he or she would receive another one as a reward.  It was a test of self-control; and it showed that waiting longer was correlated with more life success.  You can only imagine the anxiety those children experienced when the marshmallow was placed in front of them and they had to wait a while to eat it.

Of course, the experiment is much milder compared to the stress interview.  However, they follow the same principle.  The idea behind these “experiments” is to see how much control you have and how you will handle certain conditions.  Apart from that, the assumption is that if you succeed in this “test”, you are more likely to succeed in the work (even with possibility of stressful situations).  Much like the children who were desperately trying to contain themselves in the presence of the delicious marshmallow, you as an interviewee try so desperately to not lash out or physically harm the royal pain of an interviewer.  Thus, a stress interview is a perfect way for Human Resources to eliminate candidates who are overly sensitive, who cannot think critically in unexpected situations, and who have low stress tolerance.

The Downside

My partner and I have had an extensive discussion about this.  While I am all for stress interviews, he is completely against it.  “The interviewer is a reflection of the kind of people and culture the company has.  As an applicant, why would I want to work for a company in which the culture is treating employees with anything less than respect?” were his words that, quite honestly, got me thinking.  As much as stress interviewing is a valid way of assessing behavior (given that it is properly used); it creates an unnecessarily pressured, insulting, humiliating, frustrating, and demotivating environment for the applicant.  According to Dilip Satpute, a Human Resources Senior Manager from Shivalik Ventures Private Limited, both the company and the applicants are each other’s customers these days.  So, in effect, a hostile environment (created by the interviewer) may be cause for a potentially exemplar employee to turn away or reject the offer.  Furthermore, it may cause the applicant to have a negatively biased perception of the company – and we all know how people talk.  This could lead to possibly reducing the good reputation of the company.

Do or Don’t?

With all this talk of the pros and cons of conducting a stress interview, there is one aspect of it that has not yet been tackled – for what position is the interview?  Now, it probably will not be such a good idea to give a stress interview to someone who is applying for a clerical position.  I believe most, if not all, will agree that a clerical position does not require a highly stressful environment; whereas a field reporter or an undercover operative probably will require more examination with regards to behavior in stressful situations.  Jobs like these involve high tension situations as a normal part of the job.  Obviously, the first step to assessing whether or not they would crack under a high pressure environment would be to test them in a much tamer and non-life-threatening situation like a stress interview.

Now that we’ve established that there are good and bad points to being the terror interviewer let me ask you right now: in an interview, which would you prefer – the good cop or the bad cop?

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