A friend of mine, an HR with many years of experience, told me how he finds how the candidates behave under stress.

He starts from a trap, even before the interview has actually started: "Have you wiped your shoes? You see, we care about cleanness of the office, and there's a doormat at the door, soaked with a disinfecting solution." Needless to say that there is no doormat at all. He assures that about half of people respond that of course, they cleaned their shoes very thoroughly.

Another trick he told is asking the interviewee, before speaking about career, "surprise me". He says nobody actually responds the question. I asked him, what he expects to hear, and he said, just any career highlight. But when the interview steps off the common track, interviewees feel a big discomfort.

I understand that his goal is to filter out liars and those who can't resist stressful situation, but I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to answer this question, too. :)

What I would like to know:

  • Is it professional to lie, even for sake of quick revealing how the candidates behave under stress?
  • If yes, what are the limits?
  • If no, what's the better alternative?
  • 100
    I would not want to work for any company which felt necessary to @#%@# with me during the interview. If they lied to me, I would likely leave the interview immediately, as integrity is the #1 characteristic of importance in any employer and if their first impression is to lie to candidates why should I even remotely expect them to behave better in other settings?
    – enderland
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 12:58
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    And makes me wonder why staff turnover is significant. Hmm..
    – user1220
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 13:09
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    You are asking if it is professional but I think it would be better for you to ask yourself if the results would be a positive for your corporate culture. Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 13:12
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    I'd even be a little hesitant to work at a company that actually had a doormat at the door soaked with disinfecting fluid.
    – psr
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 17:01
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    I would walk out of the office in question and add the company to a personal blacklist of companies I not only speak poorly about but will NEVER work with in any capacity. This behavior is not professional and anyone who tells you otherwise, is either a fool, or unprofessional in their own right.
    – Donald
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 12:10

11 Answers 11


First, let's start with the point that in just about any interview framework, there are different roles - and from company to company, responsibilities vary. Usually HR takes the more general approach, vetting that the candidate will be a fit for overall culture, willing to accept the terms of the agreement, and able to meet the bare minimum or highly generalized requirements, while hiring managers and team members are looking for a fit for the team, subject matter expertise, and ability to tasks that are directly tied to the position that is vacant.

So some of this is "which role are you?". In a very general sense, I do expect that HR is vetting some overall candidate qualities - and I'm often impressed by their insights and accuracy. My favorite was an HR contact who could tell you who had what background at the hiring fair by people's shoes - business people had really snazzy polished stylish leather shoes, former military often wore their dress shoes, and geeks had bizarre, often scuffed, super comfy but not particuarly fashionable shoes. I was about to object to this gross generalization when I looked at my own scuffed Fluevogs. :)

Summary - especially from HR I expect a few unconventional but insightful techniques.

- Is it professional to lie, even for sake of quick revealing how the candidates behave under stress?

“I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

I can't say it better. If you are looking for people who value truthfulness, I don't think you will stand a chance at recruiting them by lying. If you find someone who doesn't care much that you lied to them, you have to wonder if they won't mind lying to you when the feel it's appropriate.

- If yes, what are the limits?

To what extent does your organization value trust and collaboration? I suppose if you have a situation where you want employees who can perform well when they are lied to, you may benefit, if you also don't need to care whether or not they are lying to you. This is so far outside my frame of reference, I can't tackle the cases - but never say never.

- If no, what's the better alternative?

Consider stress inducing situations that are relative to the job for which you are interviewing. Find a way to construct simulations that are acheivable in a reasonable time frame, valuable for watching the candidate's reaction, and capable of being modified in response to the need for things like disability accomodations so that you know your practices are fair. Be up front about the simulation and realize that stress factors are different for different people. I love public speaking, but hate heights - thank goodness I don't work as a telephone line repair person!!!

Here's some good examples of stress-inducing situations I've been asked to be part of in part of the interview process for IT/engineering jobs:

  • present on a technical topic in which you are a subject matter expert, be prepared for an informal, ad hoc discussion, but dress and present as if you are giving the presentation to customers.

  • solve this technical problem as quickly as possible - the interviewer will simulate vendor tech support and give you all the details you ask for when you're asking for debugging information.

  • take this coding test in a made up language, you'll be scored for speed and accuracy.

  • participate in a group interview where the whole team will ask you questions and listen to your results.

Preferably, consider more than one option - a guy who does poorly at a presentation may do great on a team interview - everyone is going to have strengths and weaknesses at the job - the trick is to decide if the strengths outweigh the weaknesses with respect to the position.

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    +1 for the Nietzsche reference. That and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" in one question thread = win.
    – itsbruce
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 16:29

First of all, take the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen DVD away from him. He's not John Malkovich, and unless your company is Google, Facebook, or Apple, IT people aren't going to be falling all over themselves to work there.

There are far better ways to gauge how candidates handle stress, especially in the IT industry.

As some of the comments have said, I'd walk out on that interview. What that HR person is doing isn't about "stress," I don't even think it's being "bad cop," it's being, simply put, a confrontational jackass and liar. Even if you feel that language is too strong, consider the fact that a large percentage of the people working in IT (especially development roles and whatnot) tend to be introverts, "Type B" people, and, in general, those that prefer to avoid confrontation, and may not even do all that well at all dealing with people like your HR manager, but are otherwise very good at their jobs. By doing the things your HR manager recommends, you immediately alienate these people, and to everyone else that doesn't think just like this HR manager, you send the message that this is a potentially hostile work environment.

Gauging how someone handles stress is relatively easy in the IT industry - bring them in for a gauntlet day after they've passed enough interviews that you're seriously considering offering them a job. This gauntlet day would vary, depending on the job, but, for example, if it were for a developer, you'd give them a "code day," where you have a rather simple project and you give them a working day to do it. At the end of the day, you see not only how they tackled the project, but what they did throughout the day (how they reacted to things, etc). If they're tech support, you can give them broken computers to fix to see how they handle that. Basically, let them do something resembling the job (but not any real tasks, or you start getting into ethics territory again).

Also, don't forget that the interview, itself, is stressful, and you can glean a lot of information about the person from the interview, without resorting to underhanded tactics. A lot of people are good at acting, of course, so it won't reveal the same things or as much as a code day will, but it can still tell you a lot.

Remember: An interview is just as much about convincing a candidate to work there as it is about the candidate convincing you that they should work there.

What I mean here is that interviews aren't one-sided. You, as a company, are looking to fill a position. You want someone who can do the job well. You interview people because their resumes looked good. If they're really as good as they seem, then you will have competition for them. That means, when you've decided on a candidate that you're considering hiring, you have to convince them that they want to work for you. And that goes beyond the job description, into company culture, and first impressions.

With that in mind, what message, then, does your HR manager's behavior send to the candidates?

  • why would real tasks be "getting into ethics territory again"? just curious
    – amphibient
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 14:33
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    @foampile - Because you'd be having non-employees doing the work of actual employees, without those non-employees getting compensated. IE - Interviewee's "code day" project is to write a tool that can merge the data of two specific database tables. These tables are actually something the company needs merged. They essentially just go free labor for it.
    – Shauna
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 14:43
  • Then pay them for a day. If you're that close to hiring them, and one day's salary gives you a definite "no", you've saved a huge amount of wasted time, effort on the part of managers and other devs to make them "work out", and whatever money you pay them before finding out they won't work out for you. And if it's a yes, you were going to pay them anyway. Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 1:58
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    @JoeMcMahon - While that's an option, I suspect that such behavior is nearly unheard of due to the HR/accounting/legal overhead. Not to mention, dealing with the NDAs and other paperwork just for an interview would be pretty likely to turn off the potential employee. Keep in mind, as I said, an interview is just as much about convincing them to come work for you as it is them convincing you to hire them.
    – Shauna
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 14:39

I don't think I've ever had a day on the job that was more stressful than a normal interview. What other artificial adverse conditions will it benefit to test under? Fatique, near drowning, sleep deprivation, intense pain? "But can you code if I rip one of your fingernails off?"

Not sure any of us could determine if this is just a sadistic interviewer getting his jollies or if they can support the effectiveness of inducing stress during an interview with data showing qualified candidates statistically perform better. And if it does work, does it make it right? Why bother checking transcripts when you can just put a gun to someone's head?

Imagine a top candidate who probably already has a job (if they're not a strong candidate why bring them in for an interview) being subjected to this foolishness; you have no shot at hiring them. Maybe a big name company can get away with this because there is so much demand for their positions. Unfortunately every startup or corporate manager who reads about these types of tactics confuses correlation with causation.

A better solution - past behavior is one of the best predictors of future behavior. Identify what is required for the job and look for examples that the candidate has been able to perform this way. If handling stress is so important, hire someone from the military, law enforcment or fire department.


Is it professional to lie, even for sake of quick revealing how the candidates behave under stress?

This is something everyone will have different opinions regarding. However, I suspect most people you interview will answer "no, it is not" with those who are desirable candidates even more likely to answer this way. People who do not care likely are more joking personalities or simply desperate for a job.

Ask yourself if these are the people you want to be interested in your company.

If no, what's the better alternative?

There are all manner of books written on the subject of interviewing but the goal of an interview is to see if the interviewee and company are a proper match, ie the company will benefit from the employee and the employee will benefit from the company. If you want candidates to take their job seriously, you should do so as well.

Figure out what is important to know about the candidate and talk about or ask that. If coding, do some coding. Some possible ways - without lying - in software/technical interviews:

  • Have candidate write pseudo code for a somewhat complicated problem and afterwards, ask them "are you happy with that code?" or "what would you change about the code you just wrote?"
  • Ask about their past projects and have them give details regarding things they would do differently
  • Have the candidate talk about their weaknesses
  • Ask the candidate to critique your product or provide recommendations for enhancements

But when the interview steps off the common track, interviewees feel a big discomfort

This is a side note to your original question, but is the goal of your interview to cause this discomfort? Remember interviews are two-way streets as candidates interview YOU just as much, and qualified ones even moreso. Do you want to make the most qualified candidates (who likely have all sorts of options) dislike your company simply by nature of making the interview unpleasant?

  • Have candidate write pseudo code for a somewhat complicated problem and afterwards, ask them "are you happy with that code?" or "what would you change about the code you just wrote?" Of course that assumes the OP is hiring programmers and not accountants, or lawyers, or architects... The OP doens't seem to imply any specific industry or job description for the candidate in their question. Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 14:43
  • @FrustratedWithFormsDesigner the question previously had details for his industry (software) but it seems this has been removed?
    – enderland
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 14:47
  • Ah, I see that now. I wonder why it was removed, maybe to get more general answers? Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 14:48
  • @FrustratedWithFormsDesigner See edit history. I'm not sure if it made the question better, but this is how it is now. Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 15:56

I understand that his goal is to filter out liars and those who can't resist stressful situation, but I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to answer this question, too. :)

Perhaps he should start by resigning from the company, as he is a liar....

Seriously, given the situation, saying you wiped your feet on a non-existent mat, is the equivalent to saying that his kid looks smart -- a social lie, meaning very little. Your co-worker's lie on the other hand is hypocritical AND done with malicious intent.

So, is it professional to lie? Not unless you're a spy. It can be excused under some circumstances, but you should try to avoid even polite, social lies, during an interview.


I sit on a lot of interview panels, usually with HR. To me, this type of questioning has more to do with the ego of the interviewer than testing the candidate.

I'd suggest that a good candidate will assume the company culture values deception, manipulation, and confrontation based on those questions.

We use a combination of questions to cover these areas:

"Can you describe a situation where you had a difficult time with a co-worker, manager or client that caused problems. How did you resolve it?"

"Can you give an example of where you had a tight deadline that was difficult to meet. How did you resolve the situation, and did you find it stressful?"

In both cases, active listening and good interview technique should draw out enough details to let you know about the candidates honesty and response to stress, without resorting to games.


This question only serves to confirm my long-standing belief that interviewing and attracting top technical talent is a task that's too important to be left to HR. Many HR people seem to be in "selection" mode when it comes to recruitment, whether or not that's appropriate to the position concerned. They frequently fail to appreciate that recruiting for professional and technical roles is far more of a two-way street. Candidates are evaluating interviewers and their organisations at least as much as they are evaluating the candidate.

How would you feel about a candidate that asked "if you'd washed your hands with anti-bacterial soap last time you went to the bathroom?" when you reached out to shake their hand? How would you feel about one that demanded you surprise or entertain them?, at any point in the proceedings let alone as your very first interaction with them? If you're answer is "I wouldn't be too impressed, and may even ask them to leave", then you have your answer as to whether you should behave in such an inappropriate, presumptuous, entitled and rude way yourself.

In short, this isn't professional behavior and is a sign of a command-and-control corporate culture, one where management may have little respect for employees. The alternative, as alluded to above, is to treat the interview like a two-way street and have a conversation with the candidate, focusing discussions on items that the candidate brings up from his/her resume.

  • Hi, welcome to the workplace. Unfortunately this doesn't really seem to answer the question but rather seems a bit more like commentary. Feel free to edit your answer appropriately and once again, welcome!
    – enderland
    Commented Jun 22, 2013 at 21:46
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    Hi user, I edited in the last paragraph to make your answer a bit more explicit. I based this on things you said in the first paragraphs. Please feel free to edit further if this isn't what you intended, just keep in mind the goal is to answer the question fully, which I believe the post now does. Hope this helps! :)
    – jmort253
    Commented Jun 23, 2013 at 19:08
  • I've rolled back self-vandalized answer. Please consider the following: (1) your answer should be merely a (mini-)article dedicated to a certain subject (specified in question); (2) your answer belongs to community as specified in StackExchange EULA; you can't simply vandalize it; (3) you may flag for deletion, and the decision will be up to the community moderators; (4) if you see answer downvoted, it often means that it does not look as a mini-article; consider improving it first before flagging for deletion; (...) Commented Jun 24, 2013 at 23:41
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    ...(5) jmort253 has attempted to help you avoid downvotes by adding a straightforward conclusion, not based on their own thinking, but according to how they understood what you attempted to say. If it is wrong (or you simply don't like it), roll back their changes and explain your action as a comment. (6) Consider attempts to help you as a signal that something is wrong with the answer and try to improve it. Commented Jun 24, 2013 at 23:42

I have done interviews for jobs where the ability to handle stress professionally was far greater than the average development job would need. Those techniques would not have been acceptable to test if they could handle stress. If you feel you must test for the ability to handle stress beyond the normal interview stress and the stress of answering technical questions, then just pause for a few seconds after the person gives an otherwise correct answer. This makes them feel that you expect more and can be extremely stressful. It also involves no lying and no wierd questions that make them wonder what planet you came from.


what are the limits?

One rather hard limit is whether your hiring practices may have negative repercussions among other potential candidates your company would want to interview.

You can't expect candidates to keep their mouth shut after interview; and if they have something negative to tell about it, the word can spread pretty fast.

If you find out potential candidates unexpectedly turning down interview invitations, think about what could go wrong in your interviewing process and practices. It would be even better if you could think about it beforehand and find out how to prevent this from happening in the first place.

At one of my past jobs, there was a team practicing... let's say inappropriately tough interviews. Word spread, and some time later other teams noticed their candidates turning down invitations for the fear of what could happen at interview. These other teams escalated the issue to HR and tough group was explicitly forced to stop their practices.


The "surprise me" part sounds interesting. I'm surprised no one ever answers that one. I certainly would. I would imagine most people have interesting projects that they wouldn't mind showing off. Although, regarding the other part, keep in mind that people won't want to do this if they're not in a comfortable situation. The part about the sanitizer or intentionally stressing out candidates is silly IMO.


First of all, you should summarize that whether the job really needs a person who can handle lot of stress.

If not, why to speak a lie to know about someone's those ability that you really don't need at all.

If yes, then a small lie will not do any harms, also it will help to reveal the stress managing ability of interviewee.

Small description to the interviewee about the lie will do the work and will help the interviewee understand why the lie was being told.

Also, before going to an interview, I am ready for off topic and different points, as these are common these days for an interview.

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    "Hello candidate, we lied to you! But don't worry, here's why!" is not going to make me feel any less lied to or more warm and fuzzy about the interviewing company
    – enderland
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 13:48
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    Lies will alays harm your credibility and destroy any level of respect that candidates had for you. At best candidates will stick around for 'other' reasons (money, lack of alternatives, etc) - but you don't necessarily want those people.
    – MrFox
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 15:22

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