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Are You Really a Behavior-Based Interviewer?

Perry Alter and Donna McGee

Over the years, we have become a bit sensitive about people telling us they conduct behavior-based interviews, and then telling us they learned the entire process by watching a video. We have visions of them conducting an interview by asking a behavioral question that they scribbled on a note-pad, failing to take any notes on the answer, and several days later comparing their memory of what the candidate said to their idea of “Motivated.” Or “Hard Working.”

Having worked for Novations for a long time, we have been surrounded by training in how to conduct behavior-based interviews correctly, and have developed a keen appreciation for a well-designed behavior-based interviewing process. Part of our appreciation is due to its common-sense appeal; each aspect is grounded in clear and intuitive logic.

We fear that many people who consider themselves to be behavior-based interviewers have limited training or know-how. Then based on the errant perception that they are interviewing effectively, they choose not to further develop their skills, and make less ideal hires as a result.

Are you wondering whether you are conducting behavior-based interviews as well as you could? Below are some high-level criteria that you can use to evaluate your effectiveness.

You are a Behavior-based Interviewer if You .....

Define Job Requirements:
If you sit by yourself and do this for a half hour, you have not done it well. If this does not involve the opinion of at least several people who know the job well, covering a variety of perspectives (manager, supervisor, incumbents), then there is bound to be at least some personal bias. And you will probably leave some things out if you do the analysis by yourself.
Consider both obvious (such as Customer Focus) and subtle (such as Flexibility) job requirements. Address technical skills (using relevant equipment, for example) and non-technical skills (Teamwork, for example). The more thorough and systematic your approach to identifying job requirements, the better. Involve your HR staff to make sure you do it thoroughly enough.
Then define these job requirements. What do they look like when someone does them? We suggest use of action verbs as key parts of these definitions. For example:

Attention to Detail: Review data/documents for accuracy and consistency; take action to prevent mistakes; follow procedures closely; keep records accurate and up-to-date. One way to test the value of this approach is to separately ask several people to define Teamwork (or perhaps one of the competencies you’ve identified). You will note that their answers vary drastically. The words Teamwork, Creativity, Integrity, Customer Focus, etc., all mean different things to different people. Therefore you must carefully define the job requirements in terms of the behaviors that are needed.

Create and Ask Questions That Closely Match Real Job Requirements: If you’ve identified exactly what you want someone to be able to do well on the job, ask questions about exactly that. The more vague the question, the greater the chances that the answer will be about something irrelevant. For example, if Customer Focus is a chosen criterion, and you have defined it to include, “Do whatever is reasonably possible to ensure customer satisfaction,” then:

A good question would be: Describe a time when you went out of your way to do whatever was reasonably possible to ensure that a customer was satisfied with your service.

A not-as-good question would be: Describe something you’ve done that illustrates high customer focus.

For another example, if Innovation is a chosen criterion, and you have defined it to include, “Adapt methods as needed to meet customer needs or otherwise solve problems,” then:

A good question would be: Think of a time when established methods didn’t solve a problem, and you adapted an existing one to do so. What exactly did you do?

A not-as-good question would be: Describe a time when you were innovative.

Ask the Same Questions of Every Candidate for a Position: If you’ve identified job requirements and you’ve identified questions most likely to obtain the information you need, ask them of all candidates for a position. These are the things you want to know about a candidate for that job. Does that mean you should type the questions up and read them to the candidate? Yes. This does indeed reduce the extent to which the interview is a spontaneous conversation where everyone feels the chemistry. An interview doesn’t have to be a spontaneous conversation, and it’s not really about chemistry. It’s a business meeting where two parties are considering whether they want to invest heavily in one another. It’s very important and can be treated as such. We have always found that candidates appreciate the organization and rigor of specific questions being planned and asked.

Obtain In-Depth Answers: This is possibly the most challenging aspect of the process, because it is hard to quantify exactly how much information is enough. Though there are different ways of guiding the collection of such information, here are some criteria for judging whether you have obtained enough.

a. Do you know the situation the candidate was in, what key actions he or she took, and the results?

b. Did you obtain at least several specifics, such as approximate dates, relevant quantities, people involved, etc.?

c. Can you visualize what the candidate did?

d. Can you visualize what the candidate did well enough to know whether and how well he/she took the actions your hiring criteria call for?

This is not just about volume. The candidate can go on for fifteen minutes, and claim to be a great team player, smart, hard working, personable, motivated, creative, innovative, great under pressure, etc., but if he or she hasn’t provided an adequately detailed example of having demonstrated the skill a certain question addressed, he or she hasn’t provided anything useful at all.

Obtaining in-depth answers also includes taking thorough, descriptive notes. You should be taking notes continuously during an interview. Capturing every word is far too disruptive, but capturing the critical things a candidate said, using exact words when able, is important. This seems far superior to writing down a couple of sentences that give you the gist of the example.

Specific details from candidates’ examples can be extremely valuable in terms of differentiating who will be better performers.

Compare the Information Provided to the Specific Hiring Criteria: If you’ve identified specific hiring criteria, and your criteria drove specific questions, then the information you obtained relates to these criteria (by design). You can and should evaluate the candidate on those specific criteria. Basically, you should have as many different ratings of the candidate as there are criteria. Then you can integrate and make an educated and sound hiring decision.

If you obtain that body of information, then simply wing it with a, “He/she seems smart” conclusion, you are not using the information at your fingertips optimally. Why make an overall perception decision when you can consider the candidate’s skill in each criterion separately?

Conclusions: How did you do? Do you do all those things? Do you do them all well? If the answer to either of these is “No”, you are not really a classic behavior-based interviewer. Rather you are someone who probably dabbles with the technique.

More importantly however, if you thought you were a behavior-based interviewer when you began reading this article and you have now concluded that you’re not, then your hiring decisions are probably not as good as you thought they were. The behavior-based interviewing process is a technique with great power, but it should be executed rigorously to achieve the greatest benefits.

If your approach is a little different from ours, is it a big problem? It probably depends on the specific difference. But it is a big problem when someone asks vague questions about vague criteria (“Describe a time when you were creative”), asks different candidates for a job different questions, accepts a few vague sentences as answers, and then makes relatively uninformed best guesses about whom to hire.


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