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Interview stress tests involve purposely creating tension to see how the candidates respond. These may include:

  • focusing on the candidate's negatives
  • creating uncomfortable silences
  • challenging correct facts
  • confrontational arguments


The personal qualities that these environments test in candidates are obviously important for customer-facing roles. For example, they can tell you how well the person can keep their cool with unreasonable clients.

However, both my colleagues and I have experienced this style of interviewing for purely technical roles. At the time I have written it off as "company with terrible culture" or "managers not knowing what they're doing". Recently a colleague of mine had an interview like that, and I have been wondering as to the motivations behind these interviews.

Are there any valid reasons to perform this style of interviews for technical positions? If so, what are they, and in what cases are they worthwhile?


I am not asking whether we should be interested in candidate's ability to perform under stressful situations. I'm asking whether this style of interviews is really effective to gauge that, and whether it is worth the drawbacks.

Example of a drawback: let's say you go to two interviews of similar roles in similar companies. In one place you get an interview like that described. In the second you get a straight up guy/gal that tells you how they do things, what they expect, and has a 'constructive' back and forth about your qualifications. Why would talented people ever want to work for the former?

Second example of a drawback: Smart people know that you're doing this on purpose, but they may not know your motives. This is a false proxy for real situations. Handling a real difficult client/manager when working and handling a difficult recruiter when interviewing are two very different things.

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... you mean you are lucky enough to have worked your entire career without any stressful deadlines, difficult coworkers, annoying managers, or otherwise been in situations which cause significant amount of stress? –  enderland Jan 9 '13 at 20:21

3 Answers 3

First, let's back up on what is meant by "customer." To my mind, this is anyone using the products and services that my team provides to others. If I'm in the IT department that works on internal applications, I still have customers that are the users of the system. This could be the general public or fellow employees of the company. You never know who will have some customer facing situation. For example, there may be times where even though I'm in the IT department, I still have to talk to customers or other individuals with important relationships to the company and explain what is being done to fix an issue.

Let's take your list and consider when could these happen within a team within an IT department that isn't expected to often deal with individuals outside of the company:

focusing on the candidate's negatives

Would it be possible for other team members or management to focus on a team member's weaknesses? Get picked on for something not being done fast enough or high quality?

creating uncomfortable silences

I've seen this in lots of professional and personal interactions. This falls under surviving in the world where one has to have relationships with other people.

challenging correct facts

Some people may believe incorrect information. How do you convince them they are wrong? Do you just let them believe they are right anyway?

confrontational arguments

I've had tons of heated discussions where people can get rather agitated and so there is the question of how does one handle this? If an unreasonable deadline is given, how do you deal with that?

The point of the question is that if things aren't going well, what does a person do? Everyone will have moments where issues will arise and the key becomes how are these handled. Does the person know to pull themselves out of a room or a conversation rather than have a brawl? How mature is the person in being able to resolve differences of opinion? If you want an example, just consider the question of "What is the best operating system?" or "What is the best smartphone?" where there are lots of different personal answers that people have to figure out where is it worth trying to change someone's mind and where is it not worthwhile to try.

I'm also reminded of a line from the TV show, "House" where he states "People lie" quite a bit which can be true and thus it can be worth testing someone in an interview setting and see what happens. If the person starts cursing and swearing while in an interview, then this person may not be a good fit for the company as they would be a liability just wanting to explode. Similarly, if the person just clams up and goes into the fetal position, that may also not be the best response to give. Getting the person to react under stress can be part of the process. Some people will be rattled and those are the people to not hire, or do you think companies should just take chances when someone wants to flip out from someone asking for something unreasonable?

Have you looked at this from the company's perspective? If they hire the wrong person, how expensive is it to fire this person and hire a replacement? It can be quite costly in some cases.

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Why would you even think that people in technical roles don't have to be able to handle stress or deal with people regularly? I have never seen a senior position where you did not have to. I talk to clients and our client facing people all the time. I have seen lots of technical roles that are very stressful and I've done hiring and you don't want people who will blow up if the slightest thing happens. Most competent interviewers want to get a feel for how anyone in any position handles stress. (As to whether those questions are the best way to do it, that is another entirely different subject). The personal side of the interview and whether you think this person will be easy to work with based on your corporate culture and your other employees is as (maybe even more) critical than the technical skills which are easier to learn.

Developers aren't some unique brand of employee who don't have to be able to handle the same things as other employees.

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Interview candidates are already stressed - they're at an interview.

If you want to see how someone reacts under pressure, go for it - but be aware that you're probably not gaining much. Pressure in an unknown environment is very, very different to pressure in a comfortable environment.

My sister, for example, would completely flap if put under pressure at an interview: she keys herself up for specific things and would be completely thrown and upset if the interviewer came over all "bad cop" on her when she's just trying to prove herself worthy of the role.

Put her in a job, give her 6 month's experience and a chance to understand what she's working on and then put her under pressure, however, and you'll see a woman take charge of the situation like nothing you've ever seen before, blast past insurmountable challenges and cut straight to the heart of the problem, solve it, thank everyone who helped, and leave the office smiling.

Unless you're testing for a specific response to specific stimuli and know exactly what you're looking for, you're probably just wasting everyone's time, or falling into the trap of using the interview to show how smart you/your company are, rather than testing how skilled/capable/suitable the candidate is.

That said, I do think it's worthwhile probing on skills and proficiency, if you want to see how a candidate deals with professional differences. Bear in mind the fact that they're likely to defer to you to some extent (you're in a position of relative strength) and that they're probably less likely to admit to not knowing something in an interview...but it can be a good way to test depth of knowledge on a subject, as well as how that person would handle discussion. Perhaps more importantly, you can quickly gauge how cool-headed in discussion and how passionate about their work that person is (rather than the less useful "how does s/he react to stress")

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