Behavioral Interviewing Can Be Accurate, But Only When Done Right

On more than one occasion, people who should know better have criticized my articles on behavioral interviewing. The gist is they know more than anyone else and make a living promoting an “easier” technique that presumably achieves the same results. Nonsense!

These claims can be filed under the “wonder platinum gasoline additive,” the “magnetic mileage improver,” and the list of politicians who vote their conscience instead of their welfare. The sooner we all understand the basics of behavioral interviewing, the sooner these silly arguments can end.

Interviews Are Tests

Let’s begin by making a point: interviews are verbal tests. Accuracy depends on having a clear objective, using proper questions, and having standardized answer keys. They’re not just a smooth questioning technique. Whether the interview style is backward-looking (behavioral), forward-looking (situational), or casual, the intent in the same: determine whether the applicant has the skills to do the job. The more accurate the interview data, the better the hiring decision.

Perfect World

In a perfect behavioral interviewing world, an applicant would describe comprehensive examples of things that happened to him or her in exactly the same job, doing exactly the same thing, working under exactly the same circumstances, dealing with exactly the same kind of people, under exactly the same environmental conditions. This isn’t likely and is precisely the reason interviewers work from a job-related list of building-block competencies. It helps them translate past experiences to future job requirements. That translation is a critical bridge between past and future.

Behavioral-Style Interviewing Basics

Here are three interview questions:

  1. If you were going to be a tree in the forest, what color animal would you sound like? Yes, this is psychobabble. It has no place in the hiring arena. The question is unrelated to the job, and it probably has more to do with an interviewer’s ambition to become a psychologist without doing all that time-consuming school stuff.
  2. Give me an example of a time when you developed a strategic action plan. This is better. At least it has more structure and sounds more job-related. Unfortunately, it is still too global to deliver the accuracy we need to make a good hire.
  3. Tell me about a particular event when you had to confront a subordinate about a performance problem. What caused the event? What specifically did you do? What was the result? Then armed with this data, the interviewer probes for accuracy, translates several examples into one to two behavioral competencies, compares the past-event competencies to a list of future-requirement competencies, rates the quality of the competencies based on relevance and recency, and integrates this information by meeting with other independent interviewers.

Question 3, folks, in spite of what you hear to the contrary, is the only way behavioral interviewing can deliver the most accuracy.

Understanding the Future Job

Here’s a reality check. Who knows more about what it takes each day in your job: you or your manager? Most people would say jobholders know more about day-to-day competencies. Managers know more about overall performance. So, why would a professional only question managers and HR about job requirements?

This is why job analysis is so important. It involves gathering data from jobholders, direct managers, and managers who are able to anticipate future job changes. However, these folks don’t usually speak in competency-language. So the analyst must translate everyday job language into something that can be accurately measured. That is, the product of all three conversations must be a comprehensive list of behavioral competencies that can be accurately evaluated in a few minutes.

So what’s the bottom line? Complete job knowledge leads to more and better hiring and placement decisions only when goals are clear. Every time a step is skipped, accuracy drops. Since every shortcut leads to more error, the question becomes, “How much error are employers willing to tolerate?”

Understanding Applicants’ Past Jobs

It is often said, “Past performance predicts future performance.” Well, maybe. Behavioral predictability depends on many factors, such as recency, job-relatedness, reporting accuracy, interviewer and interviewee bias, applicant recall, and questioning skills.

Recency tells us whether applicant’s skills are current or rusty. Job-relatedness tells us whether the past example closely parallels future job requirements. Accurate reporting avoids false conclusions. Interviewer bias distorts information. And good questioning skills make information hard to fake.

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Nevertheless, interviews are still self-reports. Behavioral interviews still erroneously screen out applicants who cannot think of good examples, do not have job-related stories, or do not have experience. That’s why we need to add tests and simulations. They provide additional real-time skills data.

How do we minimize interpersonal bias between interviewer and interviewee? We use multiple interviewers who meet afterward to integrate their individual data.

Will the Real Professionals Please Stand Up?

The internal HR clients with whom I work are generally more concerned with quality than the professional recruiters I deal with. No one wants to do more work than necessary to recruit, hire, and promote good people, but HR people face hiring managers every day and are often on pins and needles trying to justify their continued employment.

On the other hand, professional recruiters have proudly told me, “We measure success by each candidate who survives the guarantee period.” Professionals who only do enough to get by? That doesn’t sound like any profession I know. Maybe it’s just me, but I think this kind of self-serving agenda is unethical.

What Can Eggheads Teach Us?

“You can’t believe Eggheads. They have never done my job.” I hear this all the time. It is ego-centered thinking that places the author squarely in the middle of his or her personal universe.

Everyone has something to offer. Eggheads may not have been recruiters, but is that any reason to discount their contributions as test experts? Eggheads have run thousands of controlled studies comparing Interview Method “A” to Test Method “B”. It’s true that they don’t recruit and find people. But they know a great deal more than most about how to identify and measure skills accurately and fairly. We can learn much by continually reading and adopting their research.

Going Forward

Time is overdue for both professional and internal recruiters to abandon homegrown ideas, to stop taking and receiving silly advice, and to abandon embarrassing and unprofessional beliefs.

Behavioral interviewing has a long history of effectiveness few of us are capable of improving upon. Sure, we can turn the clock backward, reinvent the wheel and potentially screw up everything by thinking our homegrown solutions are better than anyone else’s. But any recruiter who wants to be considered professional, should use professional tools.