Job candidate Olivia Bland’s tweeted account of a harsh interview has gone viral and picked up significant press coverage. What should hiring managers learn from her experience?

The use of shock tactics in job interviews fell under scrutiny on 29 January, when a tweet issued by marketer Olivia Bland about her experience in an allegedly harsh grilling the previous day went viral. [1]

In the tweet – which later expanded into a thread – Bland explained: “Yesterday morning I had a job interview for a position at a company called Web Applications UK. After a brutal two hour interview, in which the CEO Craig Dean tore both me and my writing to shreds (and called me an underachiever), I was offered the job. This was my response today.”

Bland then shared the text of an email she had sent to the firm’s HR wing. “I would like to thank you for the offer,” Bland states in the email, “but I have decided to decline. The interview process yesterday was very uncomfortable for me. I understand the impact that Craig was trying to have, but no one should come out of a job interview feeling so upset that they cry at the bus stop.”

Bland stresses that she is “very aware of what Craig was trying to do, and what he was trying to get out of me.” However, she argues: “There is something very off to me about a man who tries his best to intimidate and assert power over a young woman, and who continues to push even when he can see that he is making somebody uncomfortable to the point of tears.”

She notes: “I also think he’s very strategic in placing other people in the interview room, who have no part in the interview process, just to heighten the feeling of power he gets over someone else’s humiliation.”

Bland further explains: “I have just moved back home to Manchester from Brighton after escaping a year-and-a-half long abusive relationship. The two hours I spent in that room with Craig Dean yesterday felt like being sat in a room with my abusive ex – it was two hours of being told that I’m not good enough, and detailing exactly why.”

Anticipating that her message will fail to resonate with the firm, based upon what she saw of its culture, Bland writes: “All of the things that I mention in this email will be ignored, and things will carry on as usual at Web Applications UK.”

At the time of writing, Bland’s tweet has had over 132,000 likes and more than 39,000 retweets – with its impact generating coverage in The Telegraph [2], The Guardian [3] and The Daily Mail. [4]

In her assessment of the email, Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff writes: “Since [Bland] must have wanted the job originally, and [Dean] evidently wanted her to have it, it should not have been impossible to put two and two together without making something that sounds like a particularly squirm-inducing episode of The Office … So much for trendy management theories about ‘testing the resilience’ of prospective employees.”

However, Amanda Platell at the Mail offers a different view, writing: “[Bland has] been offered several jobs in light of her raw and honest social media response. Good for her. But for many it will have reinforced their view that the default position for privileged middle-class millennials is to paint themselves as victims who would rather turn to social media than wake up to a real world that’s often stressful and unfair.”

Does this incident represent an indictment of ‘ambush’-style interviewing? And if so, how may interviewers potentially deploy a less harmful element of surprise?

The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “As Hinsliff points out, Bland was eager to secure the job and Dean was eager to offer it. So, given those apparently simple conditions, the stress testing looks out of place. We have known for some time that interviewing isn’t always the best way of gauging whether or not someone is right for a particular job. Often, hiring managers will require candidates to supplement face-to-face interviews with paper- or web-based exercises – so what happens in the interview room is, in many cases, an insufficient process all by itself.”

Turning to resilience, Cooper points out: “Mental-toughness expert Doug Strycharczyk [5] has done a lot of work with us in this field. His take is that we ideally develop our resilience from a starting point of self-awareness. But if you are under the impression that someone has only a fixed level of resilience, and you’re trying to road-test them during an interview to judge whether or not they’ll fit into your organisational culture, then that shows you have a very low regard indeed for personal development.”

She notes: “The fact that Bland viewed her treatment as an abuse of power is something of which people in senior positions – particularly men – must be particularly mindful. Based upon the account that emerged from the Twitter thread, this was some form of display that Dean put on: a flourish to show not just Bland, but the other people in the room, what it was like to work in that organisation. Those who were in on it may well have been rather pleased with themselves. But in the end, they squandered a lot of goodwill.”

Cooper explains: “It is never desirable for either party to leave the interview room dissatisfied. When someone has been hired, that should be the point of maximum enthusiasm: ‘Wow – they’ve picked me to handle this brief!’ The organisation, meanwhile, has secured a vital, new resource of talent that it can instantly harness. That mutual surge of inspiration is something that each side can capitalise on and use as fuel for the earliest phase of their working relationship. But in any selection process that leaves either party, or both, less than enthused about what lies ahead, something has gone badly wrong.”

She recalls: “I’ve heard of situations where, say, someone has been asked to sing a B-flat… I’m talking about on-the-spot tasks that have nothing to do with the actual job. And there’s something quite playful about that: perhaps if someone thinks they can’t sing a B-flat, they could give it a go anyway, so they’ll be seen as trier and a sport. We can find a certain humour in those types of requests – and, indeed, in the range of potential responses.”

Cooper adds: “There’s more than enough scope in selection to put people into difficult or challenging situations. But none, I would suggest, as extreme as what Bland has described. And if it’s resilience you’re looking for, then you can certainly help people develop it.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on resilience

Source refs: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

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