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Behavioral interviewing: Matching people with the potential to do great work

By Richard Hadden, CSP  

Hiring is one of the most important and far-reaching functions any manager performs. Deciding who does and does not get to play on the team has implications the tentacles of which extend throughout the organization, and for years to come.

Make the right hiring decision and your job as a manager gets immeasurably easier; get it wrong, and your headaches will compound daily.

One tool that helps managers get this all-important decision right more often is behavioral interviewing—a method of conducting job interviews that focuses on specific behaviors in order to discover and identify candidates’ qualities, characteristics, and skills.

Here’s the premise: The most accurate predictor of future performance, in many situations, is past performance in a similar situation.

Although behavioral interviewing has probably been in use, in one form or another, since the ancient Egyptians were quizzing potential pyramid builders, its use has become more widespread and popular since the 1970s—when the research of industrial psychologists gave it more credibility and structure.

The good news is you don’t have to be a psychologist to use it well, but you do need to do it right. A qualified human resources professional, either in your organization or from an outside service provider, can be a huge help.

Setting parameters

Besides linking past and potential situational performance, behavioral interviewing also recognizes that certain qualities or characteristics—let’s call them “dimensions”—are particularly valuable for certain jobs, environments, and organizational cultures.

Behavioral interviewing works best when the interviewer has established a limited set of dimensions that predict success with a particular job in the organization.

For example: Suppose you’re interviewing for a sales professional in the industrial chemicals field. Of course, you’ll have certain educational and perhaps experience requirements for successful candidates.

But beyond that, you’ve determined, after analyzing the job in your organizational culture (which is important because it may be different for the same job in a different organization), that those who have been successful in this role had the following dimensions in common:

• Good oral communication skills,

• Presence (they make a good appearance and a positive impression),

• Resilience (they are able to bounce back when people say “no”),

• Initiative, and a

• Strong ability to influence.

You would then ask questions that help you understand whether or not the candidate you’re interviewing is strong in these dimensions. You ask how they have, in the past, behaved in certain situations or what they might do given a certain hypothetical scenario.

To determine to what degree the candidate possesses good oral communication skills, for instance, you might ask for an example of what he or she did to effectively communicate with someone they didn’t especially like.

You might ask what steps he or she does to ensure a good first impression to look at the dimension of “presence,” and have him or her provide two examples of working under pressure to examine resilience.

Now suppose you’re a manager in a medium-sized, family-owned company. The culture in the company emphasizes individual sacrifice for group benefit. In other words, prima donnas are not suffered lightly and team orientation is paramount.

You’re interviewing for a multipurpose administrative position that also involves marketing support and some creative writing. In this case, you might be looking for people with these dimensions:

• Consideration,

• Team orientation,

• Tolerance for repetitive tasks,

• Creativity, and

• Self-organization.

Can you interview for qualities like “consideration?” Sure. Provide a scenario of your phone constantly ringing during the interview and you taking every call, and then ask, “What would you do?”

If team orientation is important, ask, “Tell me about a time you gave up something you really wanted for the good of your workgroup.” And rather than asking, “What is your tolerance for repetitive tasks?” instead ask, “If you were working on an assembly line, doing the same task all day, what would you do to stay alert and make the job more engaging and interesting?”

Telltale answers

Of course, it’s not just the questions that matter—it’s also the answers. As an interviewer, be mentally prepared for a general range of what kind of answers you’re seeking, but don’t be overly rigid in your expectations.

Behaviorally anchored questions tend not to have a right or wrong answer, but rather good answers, and, well, not-so-good ones. As an interviewer, you must develop skill in determining to what degree a particular answer predicts success for the candidate in that job.

Don’t use behavioral interviewing to the complete exclusion of other kinds of questions. Good interviews cover a wide range of topics. As the interviewer, you’re trying to get to know this person, at least just a little bit, in a very short period of time. You want to know not only can this person do the job, but also:

• Will they be happy, productive, and successful doing it here? and

• What will it be like to work with this person?

Hotelier Bill Marriott said, “It’s more important to hire people with the right qualities than with specific experience.” While experience is important, and some cases absolutely crucial, your hiring success would probably improve by following Marriott’s advice.

Behavioral interviewing is a great way to match people with the opportunity to do great things for your business.

Richard Hadden, CSP, is an author and professional speaker who helps organizations understand the business case for creating a great workplace. He’s co-author of the “Contented Cows” leadership book series, and the brand-new book, “Rebooting Leadership.” He can be reached through www.ContentedCows.com.

Behavioral questions

Behavioral interviewing helps you determine future performance of a candidate by asking questions about past performance in a similar situation. Some examples of behavioral interview questions include:

• “Give me an example of a time when you had to communicate effectively with a person you didn’t especially like. What did you do to communicate effectively with that person?”

• “What steps do you usually take to ensure people get a good first impression of you?”

• “Please provide two specific examples in which you have worked well under pressure?”

• “How would you cope with the repetitive rejection of selling a product where 90% of the time the buyer says, ‘no’? What would you do to stay motivated to continue?”

• “Tell me about a time when you inadvertently offended someone. How did you handle it once you became aware of it?”

• “If your cell phone rang in the middle of an important conversation, what would you do?”

• “What would motivate others to be on a team with you?”


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