Interview or Interrogation?

A job application turns unexpectedly hostile, and the candidate naturally wonders why. Our experts offer several possible interpretations

Q: I recently applied for a professional consulting position with a large specialty-insurance firm. I had been recommended for the job, and when I was contacted by a company vice-president, I thought we had a pleasant conversation. Then my prospective supervisor called, and essentially insulted me and belittled everything I said. I did my best to remain calm, but I've never felt more humiliated in my entire career. Is this interrogation-style interview legal? How do I find out what happened? And what should I do next? -- W.M., Tallahassee, Fla.


If you were applying to be a customer-service worker for Bridgestone/Firestone during its tire recall -- and the company really needed to know how you react to hostility -- this "interrogation-style" interview might make sense, says Rebecca Hastings, a senior professional in human resources at the Society for Human Resource Management. In fact, she notes, there's such a thing as a "stress interview," where prospective employers try to provoke candidates to see if they keep their cool. It's possible that you just met one stress advocate head-on.

Hastings isn't a fan of the technique, however, because it starts things off on such a sour note. She also believes that employers can gauge your equanimity via more civil means -- such as asking you to describe the tensest incident of your career and how you got through it. But the bully style is perfectly legal, she says, unless you've been singled out for such abuse because of your race, age, gender, or other characteristics that have special legal protection.


  It's possible, of course, that your second interviewer's approach wasn't calculated. Maybe this guy is just a jerk. Or perhaps the vice-president forced the interview, even though the manager had his own list of candidates or even someone he already wanted to hire, says Allen Salikof, CEO of Management Recruiters International, the global-search and recruiting company. You might unwittingly have been caught between two executives' agendas.

If the pal who recommended you is inside the company, Salikof recommends you ask him or her to snoop for explanations. If not, call the vice-president. Without making accusations, tell him you were excited about the opportunity you and he spoke of, but the talk with the supervisor turned negative, and he seemed to have no interest in learning about your qualifications or what you could bring to the company. "Something happened to make this person act that way, and you'd want to know why," Salikof says.

If you're worried that this nasty guy has trashed you to the vice-president and maybe even to others in your industry, you should know that most states have antiblacklisting laws, Hastings says. But ask around cautiously within your network before you take anything public. Employers hate litigation threats, and blacklisting can be a hard accusation to prove. Salikof is even more emphatic about the risks. "I wouldn't talk about legalities, because that's the kiss of death," he says. "I'd just chalk it up as a learning experience."


  One lesson is already clear: As a job applicant you need to be prepared for anything -- hostile interviews, panels of interviewers, daylong interviews, anything a company can throw at you. Therefore, you might want to consult a career counselor or professional recruiter to hone your interviewing skills. One small error -- like rushing into vacation requests -- can torpedo an interview in seconds, Salikof notes.

Meanwhile, odds are you're out of the running for this job, our experts agree. And while you can never judge an entire company by one person, the fact that this guy would be your supervisor makes it pretty certain you wouldn't want the job, anyway. So, move on to other opportunities. And leave this stress behind.

A Reader Responds

We recently received a reader's comment on a previous column, in which a job candidate complains about being checked out by a potential subordinate (see BW Online, 4/10/01, "When the Hiring Process Violates 'Recruiting 101,'"). Here's the reader's experience:

I was once the subordinate who interviewed a management candidate. I agree that it's not appropriate for a future employee to check the references of a possible boss. However, I do believe it's entirely acceptable for a subordinate to do an interview.

In my case, the candidate received favorable reviews from the senior partner, while two managers were slightly on the positive side of neutral. I, however, was absolutely opposed to the man, and my veto was based on his answer to one question, some variation of, "What would your subordinates say about you?" If he had left it at his original response -- "They'd say I'm strict but fair" -- he might have gotten the job. But the derisiveness he displayed in his elaboration made it clear that he did not care one whit about his employees as human beings and believed they could not possibly contribute any valuable ideas. This did not fit our corporate culture. -- D.L., Chicago, Ill.

Have a question about your career or workplace issues? E-mail us at, or write to Ask Careers, BusinessWeek Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information. Only your initials and city will be printed. Due to the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

H.J. Cummins has covered workplace, personal-finance, and work and family issues for more than a decade at Newsday/New York Newsday and Minneapolis Star Tribune

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