How to Hire for Potential

Have you ever interviewed a candidate only to realize at the end that you still don’t know anything of real importance about how well the person will perform in the role?

If you’re like me, your interview style has evolved over time. At first, many of us start with highly tactical questions: Walk me through your career. What’s your motivation to make a change? What interests you in XYZ Company? What’s your desired compensation range? How many years of experience do you have doing [a basic qualification from the posting]?

This can yield helpful information, for sure, but it admittedly falls short in terms of real insights. 

We end up knowing which boxes the candidate checks as they pertain to the role, but we’re no further along in our journey of determining how well they performed while acquiring this experience. Perhaps more importantly, we don’t know what their potential is for even greater performance in the future.

To try and answer this question around potential, many of us have evolved and adopted behavioral interview questions, relying on the idea that past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior. And so alas, we now ask questions like: Walk me through a time you experienced and overcame conflict to achieve a desired result. Describe a positive relationship you’ve built with a key stakeholder and the steps you took to build that relationship. And so on.

But again, we’re left thinking, “Hmmm…the candidate told a good story…but how do I know what’s real and what’s made up? What are ways I can verify the validity of their approach and impact?” Because let’s be honest — many behavioral questions are so poorly worded, it’s impossible to find a real-life scenario that exactly fits every single detail in the question and still warrants sharing.

Moreover, one of the key flaws I’ve found in behavioral interviewing is that it relies on past experience, which means the candidate, by definition, needed to have been given the opportunity to be in a certain situation in the first place.

The diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioner in me can’t help but point out that, according to the Population Reference Bureau’s review of U.S. Census data from 1970 to 2000, white professionals are more likely to be employed than Black or Hispanic professionals, and whites are more likely to hold managerial or professional jobs. Therefore, it stands to reason that white people are more likely to have been given opportunities to be on stretch assignments, or on project teams, or in leadership roles that afforded them the experience needed to check the right boxes and tell the stories necessary to get the job.

The Solution? Enter: Scenario-Based Questions. 

Well, calling this a “solution” isn’t quite right. Standard and behavioral questions still have their place in interviews, and having actual experience is certainly helpful. But to level the playing field and hone in more intentionally on a candidate’s potential, why not use scenario-based questions more?

What I really care about is a candidate’s ability to navigate difficult situations and demonstrate the values and aptitudes of high potential talent. Wouldn’t it actually make more sense to define that situation in the interview itself instead of asking the candidate to recall a situation from their past that may or may not have even occurred?

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Here’s an example of questions you could ask pertaining to a run-of-the-mill talent acquisition director opportunity. Notice the difference in how the questions are structured and what type of information you can garner from each for a more holistic assessment of not only (1) what the candidate can do but (2) how they can do it and (3) why they can do it.

Standard: How many years of experience do you have leading talent acquisition teams? How large were the teams? How many hires did your teams have per year, and in which locations?

Behavioral: Describe a time when you demonstrated exceptional conflict-management skills in a TA leadership capacity. What was the conflict, and how did you resolve it?

Situational: Imagine you’re leading a 15-person TA team and everyone is at max capacity. You’re informed that 50 new requisitions are being entered into the ATS right now for your area. Walk me through your upcoming week, including before, during, and after the reqs are entered and ready for distribution.

You can even have preset guidelines for the situational interview. For example, you might specify that hiring contractors is not an option, nor is moving the reqs to another team or internal team members. You can play with different constraints to see how the candidate responds and where they put their time and attention. Because at the end of the day, that’s what leadership is truly about — navigating difficult situations, keeping stakeholders informed, creating and delivering against an effective strategy, and taking care of one’s team.

Want to learn more? Join me at ERE Digital, May 25-27, during an event aimed to help propel us back to proactive, back to bold, back to the future, back to the future of recruiting. I’ll be presenting “Straight Up Now Tell Me: Should You Hire for Experience or Potential?” during which I’ll straight up now tell you if you really wanna love your current interview process forever (oh, oh, oh). Register here to receive 10% off your ticket price.

Sarah Julius (she/they) is vice president, talent acquisition manager (technology) at U.S. Bank. She is a TA and DEI leader with 15+ years of experience in the technology, financial, and professional services sectors. A trusted advisor to senior leadership and adept at building inclusive, collaborative, high-performing teams, Sarah is an innovative thought leader and continuous-improvement specialist. She also has demonstrated experience leading cross-functional strategic initiatives, particularly at the intersection of tech and DEI.

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