by Tom Melander

Imagine this. The interview went well and the hiring manager assures you that you’re on the short list as you both walk to the door. Then, as you’re shaking hands good-bye, the hiring manager says, “Oh, one last thing. What’s the worst job you ever had?” This happened to a client of mine last month and his response got his name crossed off the short list.


How would you advise my client to be better prepared next time?  

I asked Julie Friedman, a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) at Employers Association why employers ask these types of questions during interviews. Here’s what she told me. Interviews have one purpose: to narrow down the job candidates until there is just one left standing. It’s a process of elimination. By the time you get to an interview, the employer has a pretty good idea that you can do the job, but so can ten other candidates. Stress questions (as they are sometimes called) tell an interviewer how well you’ll handle the day-to-day pressures of the job and what it might be like to work with you.


Stress questions have many variations: the worst boss, most annoying coworker, your biggest mistake, unreasonable deadline… any question that asks for negative information about you, your past employer, jobs or coworkers are designed to do one thing: kick you off the island.


But there is a flip side. These questions are also the perfect set-up for the prepared candidate to shine. Here’s how.


Listen carefully to the question. Rather than hearing it as an invitation to complain, find a way to relate the question to one of your STAR stories. Here’s an example. The interviewer says “tell me about a time you had an unreasonable deadline.” First reframe the request to set a positive (or at least neutral) tone. You could say “when I was first asked to do project x it didn’t seem reasonable but I knew it had to be done.” Then go on to explain the Situation, your Task, the Action you took, and the positive Result. Voila! You’re a STAR.


You don’t have any STAR stories? Here are a couple of good resources to get you started.


Watch for an upcoming article in ISPEAK for more tips on creating and telling your own STAR stories.


Looking for more advice on how to handle tough interview questions? Try here, here, and here.



Tom Melander is a Career & Workforce Development Consultant. He serves on the Career Counselor Content Advisory of ISEEK, and is the Workforce Development Editor of the Minnesota IT Commons website. Tom is a University of Minnesota graduate, and is in his third career after 8 years in sales and 12 years in performing arts (during the latter he developed his own ninja-like ability to find or create meaningful work). Tom’s mission is to advance, engage and integrate the best qualities and highest potentials of the people around him.

15 thoughts on “Stress Interview Questions: Can You Think on Your Feet?

  1. I really liked this blog post, it is definitely hard to think on your feet sometimes with hard questions such as these. I liked the dea of reframing negative questions into a positive light.


  2. These questions certainly throw you for a loop, and they’re hard to prepare for during interview prep. The recommendation to have a STAR story close at hand will help you not only answer the question, but will demonstrate preparedness, and an ability to think quickly.


  3. Yes! I love this! Thank you for this post and the resources. I enjoy preparing for these types of questions–choosing politically correct and flattering language to answer a tough or awkward question. Whenever I am preparing for an interview, I take time to write out a dozen of this type of question on notecards and have a friend or colleague quiz me on them. If (and when) I come across one that makes me stumble, I spend some time thinking over it and then will type up my ideal response and will memorize some of the key points!


  4. Stress questions are a great ways to draw out exactly how candidates interpret challenges. As opposed to saying that the worst job a person had was attributed to x, y, or z, saying how you learned it wasn’t the right fit for you and what you learned from the experience might be what keeps your name on the short list and ultimately the one who gets the job! Thanks for this post; I often struggle with stress answers in interviews and learning how to handle them better was helpful!


  5. I think stress questions are great ways to draw out a candidate’s personality and attitude. Interviewers want to know that candidates will be positive and will do what they need to do to get the job done. I think these questions are great opportunities to spin the question into a positive, as you suggested. Thanks for your insight!


  6. Dear Sean,
    You are absolutely right! When asked an impossible question give the best explanation you can think of. Questions like these help employers figure out if you have the soft skills they need to reason through the impossible problems they face every day. (Google “soft skills” to find out more)
     Two of the 20 soft-skills listed in the Information Technology Competency Model are: 1) Critical & Analytic Thinking, and, 2) Problem Solving & Decision Making.
    The man hole question will test your Critical & Analytical Thinking skills. If you think about it, there is a very logical explanation: a round lid, no matter how you turn it, cannot fall through the hole.
    The elephant question requires not only logic, but also tests Problem Solving & Decision Making abilities. If I were asked this in an interview, I’d ask some questions to clarify and reframe the problem into something I know can solve:
    “Let me get this straight, you want me to figure out how much a particular elephant weighs without using a scale?” – Yes
    “Do you have any other elephants lying around whose weight is known?” — Yes  
    “And, of course, I have unlimited budget and resources (wink)…”
    Now I’m on my way to proposing a solution to a seemingly impossible problem of how to weigh an elephant without a scale.
    Thanks for the question!


  7. Thanks for the article and the link to the STAR article. What about stress questions that are impossible to answer? For example google is known to ask questions such as "Explain why all manhole covers are round" or "how would you weigh an elepahnt without a scale". I would guess you should give the best explination ps you can think of, but is there a better way?


  8. Anthony, I don’t mean to be coy, but you’ve hit on the topic of my next post, so here’s something to keep in mind until I can get the thing done.

    The best way to prepare for any interview question is to know yourself. Ongoing self-assessment is the key to ongoing career success whether you’re currently employed or seeking a new opportunity.

    Just so you know, I have found what looks like a good source for these tougher questions. My colleagues at ISEEK and I need review the source before hand to make sure the information is reliable.

    Thank you all for your comments and questions.



  9. Scott, I may have addressed your question with my response to Karen, but I appreciate your perspective as a hiring manager and I like how you’ve set up the question.

    Stress questions are an opportunity, not a trap (as I’ve seen them called). By the time you are asked this type of question, the interviewer already knows you have the right work skills and knowledge to do the job. Stress questions try to gauge if you have the right temperament for the job.

    To balance being genuine with showing a positive attitude here’s what a job candidate should keep in mind:

    A genuine response might not land the job, but if an interviewer is really digging into one of your weak spots, this might not be the right job for you either. Being up front about it leaves the door open for future openings with the company, or at the very least, the possibility of developing your interviewer into a network contact. So be genuine and positive (they are not mutually exclusive) getting a rejection letter is much better than getting a termination letter in the first 30 days of a new job because of a poor job fit.


  10. Hi Karen,
    Thanks for your question. Being authentic and owning up to your role in a negative situation is a great way build rapport with your interviewer. And you are right, we’ve all had bad situations, and we’ve all made mistakes. What a good interviewer really wants to know is, do you focus on the situation, or the solution. Why? Because it’s a good indication of how well you will handle problems in your next job.

    On the other hand, if you let it all hang out, and bad mouth your former employer, or talk about the problems you caused at work that others had to fix, a well trained interviewer is going to wonder about your judgment and work abilities.

    At the end of an interview, you’re going to be scored on your responses. The candidates with the highest scores go on to the next round of interviews, while those lowest scores get rejection letters. The last one standing wins the job. That’s how it works. An interviewer who only wants to know the problem and not how you solved it, might be looking for a way to eliminate you from the applicant pool.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment. This was a tough question.

    Be real, be prepared, do your best.



  11. Hi Tom
    As an interviewer, I have asked questions that give candidates the opportunity to explain how they have handled stressful situations. It always bothers me if someone sidesteps the question or comes up with a bogus situation, because it is important to me that people I work with are honest and straight forward. I am curious to know how you would advise an interviewee to balance being genuine with showing a positive attitude.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This was a good post. I think a lot of people prepare for an interview without preparing for these types of questions. You gave a few examples above, but is there any kind of resource for these types of questions so that one can prepare for them ahead of time, or at least not be caught off guard?


  13. Hi Tom –
    I have heard that interviewers know that interviewees will try to put a “spin” on it to look all positive and productive, and that they will think less of you if you don’t give them a true report of a negative situation – I mean, everyone has had bad situations and if you don’t own up to it, doesn’t that look suspicious?


  14. Hi Meng, thanks for your question. I’m planning on addressing this in my next article but here’s a preview.

    First, don’t dodge it or take it as a joke, interviewers rarely joke.

    Second, understand that what the interviewer really wants to know is how you handle stress. Can you keep a positive attitude? Can you answer this question with positive response? How will you handle work place stress?

    Let’s use the question, who was your worst boss? as an example.

    Start with a statement to soften the question like, “I’ve been pretty lucky when it comes to bosses, maybe I just know how to get along with people. But there was one time when…” Next you relate a STAR story where you overcame a difficult situation with a boss.

    Remeber, it’s important to answer these tough questions without stepping into the trap they represent. You never want to complain about a past job, or say anything negative about a past employer, even if you are asked to by the interviewer.

    Please check back for the next post. I’m working on a Step By Step approach to creating STAR stories that should help you prepare for any interview question.

    Thanks again for your comments and questions.



  15. When it comes to a question like these, what would you answer an employer? Would you be upfront and tell the worst job you’ve had? Or the worst boss? Or would you just dodge the question and not answer? Do you just take it as a joke?

    I like this post, but I was hoping it would enlighten how to answer or if to answer at all to such a question.


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