The Stress Interview

by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©1996 Sophisticated: The Magazine. All rights reserved.

ack in the early fifties, I got undeservedly promoted out of technical work into a management position.  All at once, I found myself in charge of recruiting for the largest division of the largest private employer in California.  My department was responsible for hiring hundreds, filling openings in two dozen job classifications.   I was then less than two dozen years old, for crying out loud.  I inherited a staff of a dozen persons plus administrative duties for which I had neither aptitudes nor training.  Right away, I made for the public library. 

Business bookshelves then as now were crowded with advice-filled volumes.  I explained my predicament to a matronly librarian with silvery hair in a bun.  She took down a thick book entitled Personnel Management and stamped my card.  For weeks, I studied its pages in the evenings and applied its teachings in the daytime.  One chapter had an ominous title: "The Stress Interview" (SI in the trade).  I was fascinated.  Hey, I thought to myself, some day I am going to try the SI.  My first opportunity for doing so was not long in coming. 

It was in a Chicago hotel suite during a convention.  I had assigned the recruiting trip to myself.  My staff lined up a string of hour-long interviews.  One was a candidate for middle-management, which afforded me an occasion for applying the SI.  I studied his résumé and learned that he worked for the Atomic Energy Commission in charge of logistics for nuclear materials.  I learned something else, too.  The man was more than a dozen years my senior.  By then I had become confident in my status, not to say puffed up.  I prepared for the SI. 

ccording to Personnel Management, the SI has three parts.  First, you put the candidate at ease.  Offer him or her a cup of coffee, chat about common interests, comment admiringly about résumé items, ask easy questions.  Nod your approval at each of the candidate's answers and scribble copious notes.  End of Part One.  It is now time for -- tuh-dum! -- The Stress Question. 

In Part Two, you intentionally put the candidate under stress.  Here's how.  Ask a question that does not have a 'right' answer.  The examples in Personnel Management were generally hypothetical: "What would you do if your boss tells you do something that is against company policy?"   The interviewer's behavior is crucial.  Stop taking notes.  Show no reaction to answers.  Say nothing.  Smiling is forbidden.  Nota bene, it is essential that the interviewee actually show evidence of stress.  Apathy may signal that he or she is not qualified for a management position, wherein personal commitment necessarily rises above that of a mere employee. 

In Part Three, you suddenly relieve the stress by returning to easy questions and taking notes.  Smiling is mandatory.  The candidate is not supposed to stay under stress or to become argumentative but to recover quickly.  That, according to SI theory, confirms a crucial skill for management assignments, adaptability -- more reliably, one might suppose, than asking, "Are you adaptable?"

My first try at the SI went smoothly enough through Part One.  The interviewee was a stocky fellow with red hair and a hand-shake that would make lumps of coal into diamonds.  We exchanged pleasantries about family and friends and food.  I commented approvingly about the candidate's present assignment at the Atomic Energy Commission and his graduate work in business administration. 

Part Two might have been inititated by a conventional question out of Personnel Management, but no.  I wanted to be creative.  Indeed, in the years since, I have experimented with my own lines of inquiry.  For example, "Have you ever fired anybody?"  The question does not always produce stress, and I have decided that if a manager shrugs and says "Nope," the interview is over.  Here's a frequent favorite of mine: "Tell me about the person who has had the most influence in your life."  Ironically, this question does put candidates under stress, as evidenced by prolonged hesitation.  (Yipes, I can’t talk about my mother -- that would be maudlin; my father? no way -- all I can remember is the last time he yelled at me; college professor? maybe -- but that was in English Lit not Economics.)  Of course, there is no wrong answer, except, maybe, “Uh, I can’t think of anybody.” 

hat day in Chicago, I simply asked the candidate to justify a pet conclusion in his masters thesis.  He took the bait and reprised his arguments.  I sat stone-faced.  The fellow became increasingly animated, raising his voice.  I may have permitted my face to frown.  In no more than a minute his face was crimson.  He made fists and lifted both arms.  It was then that I saw the holster under his jacket.  Suddenly, all I could think of was Part Three of the SI -- relieve the candidate's stress.  I checked my prepared notes. 

"What is the best exhibit you've seen so far at the convention?" I rasped, while trying to smile. 

The candidate was not done making his point.  I sat stunned into silence.  Unknown to me at the time was a government policy requiring that nuclear materials must be accompanied by a side-arm during transport.  The AEC guy was properly equipped for that job.  His reaction under stress was more than I expected -- but not the most extreme I would see in the coming years.  One management candidate in the nineties grabbed his résumé out of my hands, tore it up, and threw it in my face. 

The fellow in Chicago continued at full-rant.  "Look," I blurted in desparation, "please let me explain what's going on here."  I began by acknowledging my post-adolescent promotion and ended by confessing to a clumsy application of a lesson from a library book.  "What I have been trying to do is called 'the stress interview'."  The man began to calm down.  At the end of the hour, he shook my hand more than firmly and thanked me for teaching him about the SI.  Although we wound up hiring someone else, I have little doubt that the fellow went on to become an effective interviewer. 

Get this: Ever since that day, I routinely provide an explanation of the SI at the end of management interviews.  It is amazing what you can learn about a person to whom you have just disclosed a secret. 


Five decades have flashed by since the incidents described here.  The term 'personnel' has long ago given way to 'HR'; nevertheless, a half-dozen books continue in print that share the title Personnel Management.  Their tables of contents are dominated by themes unknown a half-century ago: Equal Opportunity and the Law, Benefits Programs, Harrassment in the Workplace, Employee Safety and Health. 

Meanwhile, an Internet search using the phrase "stress interview" reveals a worldwide industry devoted to -- well, to gaming the SI.  Here's the exclamation point that belongs at the end of the previous sentence! 

Home Page
Table of Contents
Top of Article