Interviews From Hell

Sunday, September 16, 2012
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As a journalist who has written for both a glossy national magazine and a small-town daily local newspaper, I'm no stranger to a difficult interview. In fact, I have found that difficult interviews can sometimes uncover the most compelling information.

With that in mind, I'm beginning to think Sausalito, Calif.-based was on to something when it recently compiled its "Top 25 Most Difficult Companies to Interview [at]" list, based on reviews from more than 80,000 job applicants on its site over the past year.

(The top three spots went to consulting firms: McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and Oliver Wyman. Others in the Top 25 include Amazon, Google, General Mills and Bain & Co.)

So what makes for a difficult interview?

Allyson Willoughby, Glassdoor's senior vice president of people, says that, while the job-interview process can vary from one company to the next, some common themes reported by users included time-consuming interviews and in-depth interview questions.

"And, in many cases," she says, "candidates have to respond to case-study or situational-scenario interview questions, and they are asked to complete a rigorous company-specific test, as well as a separate personality test."

Elaine Orler, chair of the San Francisco-based Talent Board, which produces the annual Candidate Experience Awards, says difficult job interviews can often be indicative of the level of complexity that the open position will require.

"The more complex the job opportunity," she says, "the more specific to those job needs the interview will be."

But what's the organizational value of asking "How many hotels are there in the United States?" as one job candidate reported in a interview review?

"Those kinds of questions, as silly as they sound, are actually looking to [see] how you respond and how you go about solving [a problem] for the question," Orler says. "But they can also seem very ambiguous and can really throw a candidate for a loop."

And Josh Tolan, CEO of Northbrook, Ill.-based SparkHire -- a site that couples video interviewing with traditional online job boards -- adds that companies using such questions might give more weight to candidates who can think quickly over candidates who may need time to come up with an inventive response.

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"Not every employee has the same thought process or thrives in do-or-die situations," he says. "By employing esoteric questions and expecting immediate answers, whether the interview is in person or through online video, companies can actually be screening out great candidates who don't thrive in this particular environment."

But, he adds, inclusion on this list "shows the company has invested time and effort into [its] hiring process. These are companies concerned with securing smart and inventive employees."

And, Willoughby says, up-front investment by employers also seems to be paying dividends for candidates who make it through the difficult interview process and become employees.

"What we discovered," she says, "is that employees at the majority of companies on this list are either satisfied or very satisfied in their jobs."

Michael J. O'Brien can be reached at

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