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How To Survive A Hostile Interview

If an interviewer wants to learn about a candidate’s emotional intelligence, she could ask you a series of questions about past behavior, or she could spend a significant portion of the interview acting like a total jerk and let your actions speak for themselves. The latter is becoming more and more common.

These types of stress or hostile interview tactics are gaining popularity since they elicit a real-life demonstration of how you would behave, rather than a rehearsed interview answer.

It is important to know that this is something you might encounter and what it could look like, as it will prepare you to handle or diffuse a tricky situation in an interview in the same way you would on the job.


The test of your behavior typically starts upon meeting the interviewer. They will appear cold, distracted or generally annoyed. You may get the feeling that the interviewer is having a bad day.

When greeted with negativity, pay special attention to your own reactions. Be sure not to mirror her negative behavior, but rather model positive behavior.

Marina*, a client of mine who went through this type of interview, shared that when confronted with immediate negativity, she became very aware of her own demeanor. She consciously smiled, spoke in a pleasant tone and lowered her voice when the interviewer’s voice was raised, hoping the interviewer would mirror her positive behaviors. This is an effective tactic to calm those who are upset, but we rarely expect to need to use this skill during a job interview.

Lack of Information

You might be asked questions that are impossible to answer without more information.

For example, you may be asked to plan a complex event or prioritize a list of tasks. This is a test of confidence. Are you courageous enough to ask questions of an authority figure? The approach here is exactly the same as a traditional interview.

If you don’t understand the question, ask for clarification. It’s okay to check to be sure that you understand the variables at play. You are worthy of receiving the right information to perform your job (which in this case is to nail the interview) correctly.

Distraction / Interruption

The interviewer may appear distracted or try to distract you by loudly typing or taping her pen, interrupting you, or asking you to repeat yourself multiple times. (I know – this sounds like a total nightmare, right?)

Do your best to focus on the question at hand in these situations. In an interview, you may already be a little on edge and distractions or discourteous behavior could easily be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in terms of stress. Take a deep breath, tune in to what the interviewer is saying and politely repeat yourself as necessary.

Remember, it’s okay to ask the interviewer to repeat a question or to take a breath before answering.

Role Plays

Role plays are an opportunity to introduce some hostile tactics without keeping the confrontational behavior up throughout the entire meeting. In these cases, you might be asked how you’d handle a tricky situation with an employee, customer or vendor.

This scenario quickly escalates with the interviewer pushing back on or criticizing your responses to see if you will stand firm in your answer or bend under pressure. Remember that this is a role play, so treat it as such. Take yourself out of the interviewee role and put your best expert hat on.

Consider what you would do if an actual customer were speaking to you this way. Remember, you probably wouldn’t tell a client to bugger off no matter how bad things escalated.

Another hostile interview survivor, Emily*, was lucky enough to have received a heads up from another team member before she walked into this type of scenario. She recalls standing firm in both her convictions and demeanor while another candidate responded quite confrontationally and did not land the role.


Once you’ve made it to the end of the interview or scenario, you can expect the ‘gotcha’ moment when the interviewer shares their motivation for behaving in an unprofessional or hostile way.

It is typically a test of emotional intelligence and assertiveness for those in a leadership, sales or customer facing position. Remember to accept this revelation in a professional manner as well. You may even ask for feedback about things you did particularly well or could use improvement.

You’ll probably have a pretty good idea of how things went by your immediate reaction to hearing the news. Did you think ‘thank goodness, it was hard to manage that conversation’ or ‘oh dear, I should have handled that differently?’

There is a chance that you won’t be notified that this was a real-time test of your abilities. If that’s the case, it’s time to consider whether or not the position is right for you. An interview is the beginning of a relationship and there should be a fair amount of courting on both sides.

If bad behavior starts during the interview, it may get worse from there. The clients I work with who are unhappy in their jobs regularly recount red flags that they discounted during an interview and ended up being behavior that became progressively worse.

The key during these types of interviews is to keep it together and ensure your behavior is professional during the meeting. Get through it by showing the best version of you. Telling someone off in an interview will rarely prompt them to change their behavior or that of their organization and will only reflect poorly on your professionalism.

Even if the interviewer ends up being a hostile person instead of a lovely person playing the part of a hostile interviewer, remaining professional and pleasant will ensure that they only have positive things to say about you. In a world that is becoming smaller and smaller, this will greatly help you as you progress in your career.

*names have been changed to retain anonymity


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