Don't be a bad cop – the interview strategy that damages your reputation and what to do instead


By Connor

20 Oct 2017

We're all aware of the classic bad cop interrogation style – desk slamming, single bright spot lights, physical intimidation. While I’ve never experienced these, I've witnessed some strange interviewer behaviour, all in the name of ‘stress testing’ candidates.


We're all aware of the classic bad cop interrogation style – desk slamming, single bright spot lights, physical intimidation. While I’ve never experienced these, I've witnessed some strange interviewer behaviour, all in the name of ‘stress testing’ candidates.

When I challenge such activities, I hear phrases like: "we want to see how the candidate behaves when out of their comfort zone" or "we need to see how they handle difficult stakeholders."

Yet recreating actual stress or comparable conditions in what is an artificial constructed selection process, is not easy. Many employers design their own and some of the results range from the bizarre to the ludicrous. Do you remember the media frenzy that surrounded the graduate who was asked to dance to a Daft Punk song during a selection process for Currys? 

Other bad cop interview approaches include aggressive questioning lines, being specifically vague, a controversial conversation opener and the odd 'Apple-esque' logic problem thrown in.

Most result in awkward silences, a couple of heated debates, defensiveness or reflective humour. Yet the interviewer rarely sets out their expectations as to what a good response should be.

Whilst we all have a bizarre interview story, we need to understand how damaging the candidate experience can be to our recruiting success and understand what we can do instead.

Almost all candidates regardless of sector, seniority or whether in high demand or not, report that such interview behaviour puts them off for working for the organisation entirely. So even those who pass such 'stress testing' attempts are therefore unlikely to want to work for the company. They are also more likely to share their negative experience online.

It's worth noting that for most personality types, an interview is outside their comfort zone anyway and usually puts them under stress as much, if not more so, than a normal day on the job.

We always need to consider the role we are recruiting for. How used to direct questioning would someone who works in this role on a day-to-day basis be? How accustomed to cross examination is a formulation chemist or primary school teacher in comparison to the sales account director who attends onsite presentations in front of paying customers?

Does this mean we shouldn't challenge candidates? Absolutely not. 

Some would argue that you could conduct the whole interview asking the candidate to answer just one competency scenario, and then subsequent drilling down questions such as:

  • What did you learn from that?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • If that hadn't of been successful what would your next action have been?
  • How did that impact your colleagues, your boss, your client, the company?
  • How would you ensure that never happens again?
  • How would you do that cheaper, faster, smarter in the future?
  • Who was your biggest critic and who was your biggest supporter during that time? Why?

Yet before you put the badge away, I think we can use the law-enforcement analogy to look at what we could be doing differently.

Get the candidate to relax as much as possible. Joe Navarro teaches that you need to 'base line' a candidate, in his book What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People. This refers to noticing how they behave when relaxed, to then spot when they are uncomfortable, under pressure or even lying, given away by the changes to that 'base line'.

Observe them through as many eyes as possible. Police use witnesses and character references to build up a clearer picture of an individual. References speak for themselves, but when was the last time you asked reception how the candidate behaved when they interacted with them?

Look for the evidence. Often interviewers make generalised statements about a candidate. During feedback sessions challenge assumptions by asking: "where is the evidence to support this?" or "what makes you think that?"

Ad lib when necessary. If you do have an objection or theory on a candidate, do not be afraid to ask the question directly. Even if it's not on the script. We can become so fixated on asking a consistent set of questions that we stop listening to the answers and our own intuition.

Going off piste to investigate your concerns or uncover a hidden truth is what makes a good interview. If you have a burning question at the back of your mind, that's usually the question that needs answering the most.

Don't assume they won't commit to great customer service and work flexibly when needed, ask: "when was the last time you went above and beyond your job description to delight one of your clients?"

Develop your use of repetition and silence. Rephrasing the same question and asking it again is an effective way to uncover inconsistency. Circling back if you are concerned about a response, will either confirm or clear up your doubt or any misunderstanding.

Allowing silent pauses lets you see what extra information someone will offer up, or if they're comfortable asking for directions and further clarification. As the interviewer, you're trying to assess how the candidate will behave and perform in the environment you want them to work in.

So please can we stop with the bad cop? 

But what if you work with people who deliberately try to stress you out or are obtuse, confusing and confrontational all within one hour of meeting them? May I suggest you look to work for an organisation who has a better way of working and puts you in front of a good cop when it comes to interview. 

If you want help designing recruitment assessments or advanced interview training for hiring managers then talk to us. 

Interviews are a crucial element of your candidate experience. That's why we've compiled Scientifically proven - the 50 best leadership interview questions a free guide that helps you to avoid making expensive mistakes with your leadership recruitment.

Get in touch

You can also call us on this number +44 (0)1491 414 010 or use one of the social channels below.