A ‘brutal’ interview with a CEO left a young job applicant in tears. It’s a technique meant to get candidates out of their comfort zone – but where do we draw the line?

Olivia Bland, a 22-year-old from Manchester looking for a job in communications, knows how a job interview is supposed to go. A handshake, a few questions about strengths and weaknesses, some CV inspecting and a pleasant send-off. “They’re usually casual,” Bland says, “and definitely not two hours long.”

But earlier this week, an interview she had with tech firm Web Applications UK left her in tears. In a viral tweet, she alleged that chief executive Craig Dean degraded and humiliated her about everything from her music taste to her parents’ marriage. Bland was offered the job but declined, likening Dean’s behaviour to that of an abusive ex.

“He went on from attacking my writing to attacking me, including the way I sat and how I held my arms,” she says.

Her tweet was shared tens of thousands of times, and prompted Dean to post an apology saying it had not been his intent to see anyone hurt. Web Applications UK has publicly denied Bland’s claims, but did not respond to BBC Capital for comment.

Stress test

The type of experience described by Bland is known as a ‘stress interview’ – a technique to test how applicants deal with pressure by taking them out of the comfort zone of expected questions and answers.

One example is a trend that was prevalent in the tech industry earlier this decade – where an interviewer would ask a candidate bizarre questions such as “why are manhole covers round?” or instruct them to design something on the spot. The goal isn’t to get an exact answer – instead it’s to see how a candidate reacts and to test their thought process.

“There are certainly different kinds of stress associated with many positions - achieving results, meeting deadlines, dealing with difficult clients, for example,” says Neal Hartman, senior lecturer in managerial communication at MIT. “The stress interview can create conditions to see how an applicant would handle those challenges.”

Stress interviews can also be used to simulate certain situations, such as testing customer service agents who need to be prepared to deal with abusive phone calls, says Kim Ruyle, president of Inventive Talent Consulting. In such situations, the candidate would need to be told in advance.

In any case, there’s a stark difference between asking a tough question and belittling a candidate, Ruyle says, adding that verbal abuse in any workplace setting is inappropriate and should never be part of the interview.

“Stress interviews are neither new, nor on their way to extinction,” says Maurice Schweitzer, professor of operations and information management at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite being more common in the US than in other parts of the world, he says the practice has more to do with a certain type of boss than any specific industry.

“It only takes three ingredients to see stress interviews emerge,” Schweitzer says. “Managers who work in a high-stress environment, managers who experience excess demand for jobs in their firm and managers who believe that they can learn how people deal with stress by stressing them out in an interview.”

More harm than good?

Experts are divided on the effectiveness of the traditional stress interview model. Some say there are benefits in simulating a stressful, while still realistic, work incident to identify a candidate’s problem-solving skills. But virtually all agree that using any level of derision and humiliation is unacceptable and outdated.

Corinne Bendersky, professor of management and organisations at UCLA, says there are “much more legitimate interview techniques”, such as asking people about situations that they’ve encountered and how they’ve reacted to stressors that are relevant to their job experience.

Toxic job interviews can be a double-edged sword. Candidates who go through extreme stress tests are given front-row seats to the ugliest side of the company they’re dealing with. They can relay these experiences to other potential applicants, or in Bland’s case create a viral social media post, causing a spiral of negative feedback that damages the company’s ability to attract talent.

A key component here, one that sets the stage for any hostile job interview, is power.

“Managers in these settings are in positions of very high power,” Schweitzer says. “When people have power, they become less likely to take other people’s perspectives, they get less negative feedback… and they may foster an aggrandised perception of how they are doing.” The result is a system of problems created by stress interviews that largely goes unchecked.

 “My confidence in applying for jobs was initially knocked by Mr Dean’s comments on my talents and my personality, but now I feel stronger than ever,” Bland says. “I know my worth and won’t take this kind of behaviour from a potential employer.”

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