Here’s How You Need to Upgrade Your Behavioral Interviews

May 1, 2014

You would be hard pressed to find a candidate today who isn’t familiar with and prepared for a behavioral interview. A behavioral interview is based on the premise that past performance predicts future behavior. It’s designed to elicit information about how candidates handled a past challenge and the behaviors and decision-making process that went into it. A classic example of a behavioral question is: “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer.” If you’ve been hired in the last 20 years, you’ve probably been asked that.

A Google search for “behavioral interviewing” yields 6.4 million results. Candidates research and rehearse for the most common questions and may even be able to drill down to the specific questions your hiring managers ask via “reviews” from recent candidates on social sites.

Time for Behavioral Interviewing 2.0

You’re limited as to what you can learn about a candidate if they are merely reciting a rehearsed story. Past performance is still critical information to know. But past performance isn’t the be-all, end-all to the uncertain challenges of the future. The challenges we faced five years ago are not the challenges we face today and they won’t be the challenges of tomorrow. Success yesterday does not equate to success tomorrow. Given this, what we really need to learn from past performance is not actually what the candidate did, but why and the way that they did it. This information is useful, but it still doesn’t tell you how the person will address a new challenge. And today, more than ever, a candidate’s ability to innovate is critical to tomorrow’s success.

Add the Future to the Mix

One way to ascertain this is to add a layer of the future to your questions. Start looking for a candidate’s ability to innovate, their energy toward ambiguity and unfamiliar challenges, and nimbleness. You can present the candidate with a real problem your company faces (or an anticipated one), and ask the candidate how they would solve it. This does three things:

  1. It lets you see into the candidates’ ability to think forward and nimbly apply themselves to a new problem.
  2. It catches candidates off guard as they cannot anticipate or rehearse their response (assuming they do not know the problem ahead of time and that it doesn’t get leaked on social media).
  3. It gives the candidate clearer insight into the types of challenges they will have the opportunity to work on at your company.

It’s Not All About You

Today’s candidates choose their employers. They look for work that engages their passion, skills, and values. They do not tolerate being bored. By transparently presenting a real challenge, you show candidates that your company has exciting challenges to tackle, opportunities to leverage, growth and change to partake in. Companies that demonstrate this to candidates send the message that it could be a lot of fun to work there.

Corroborate Answers With References

Ideally, behavioral questions challenge candidates to think on their feet with the intent that they will give a raw, honest depiction of how they performed in the past. But with rehearsed answers, more often than not, this doesn’t happen anymore. Today, you need to corroborate candidate stories with references. Otherwise, you cannot discern whether the candidate truly did what they claim they did or if they were just a bystander in the situation or if they read it on the internet.

Repurpose Questions for Culture and Fit

Another option is to repurpose behavioral questions to assess for values, culture, and attitude while the candidate thinks you are playing the game as usual. Assessing for cultural fit is essential, especially when onboarding a new hire costs companies between 40 and 100 percent of the first year of salary — a significant investment. As the candidate tells her story about how she handled a situation, listen for indicators of her attitude toward others, her energy toward the situation, and what values guided her in the decision-making process.

Behavioral interviewing is still relevant, but today’s hiring managers would do well to upgrade it to stay ahead of savvy candidates and, ultimately, design the questions to elicit information that provides solid value into why the person would be the best fit for the job.

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