Behavioral Interviewing for Employee Selection

by Bob Grace, Ph.D.

Recently, I had a conversation with a client who was struggling with hiring a number of new employees. He was gun shy about making a selection because several of his most recent hires didn’t work out. As we got to talking about how the previous decisions had been made, I learned they were made using fairly typical and traditional approach: candidates were sifted using their education and previous experience as it was listed on their résumés. Then, final decisions were made based on traditional interviews, focused on past experience, strengths & weaknesses, and interest in the job.  For many managers this is the only way they know to hire employees. Unfortunately, this approach leaves out a number of key steps and tools that can make selection decisions more accurate.

To improve the chances of a good hire, we discussed several improvements to the existing process. First, winnowing the candidates based on past experience and education is a necessary first step and screening decisions should be made on necessary background and experience. Once this pool is identified, the hiring manager has to focus on how the person will work and how they will fit within the organization.  For example, if you need a sales person, you should ask whether they need to be competitive or collaborative.  Before starting the interviews, the hiring manger needs to identify what the key characteristics of the ideal candidate are and how the ideal person will operate within the job. Describing what you are looking for is the most critical step in improving hiring decisions.

Once the ideal characteristics of a candidate are identified, a number of methods can be used to evaluate the candidates applying for the job. The first method involves what are called “behavioral interviews”. These interviews differ from traditional interviews, in that they ask the candidate to describe and be very specific about how they have actually responded to particular situations in their past instead of how they might respond to a hypothetical scenario. Traditional “hypothetical” questions yield textbook answers that sound more like what the candidate thinks the interviewer wants to hear. “Behavioral” questions give you answers of what the candidate has actually done.

Behavioral interview questions usually take the form of “Tell me about a time when…”, with any number of relevant real world challenges following the “when”.  For instance, “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an irate customer,” may be asked of candidates for a customer service role. The interviewer’s job is to listen for specific actions the candidate took in that situation, without tipping them off to what you think the answer should be. A unique skill the interviewer must employ is listening for what’s not in the answer as well.  It is possible a candidate may provide a very problem focused answer to the question about an irate customer, focusing on the needs of the customer, gathering information and providing a reasonable solution, without saying anything about empathy, concern or connection with the other person.  It is up to the interviewer to pay attention to what is said and what is left out to gain a full understanding of how the candidate is likely to behave in similar situations in the future.

In future articles, we will cover other means to you can use to assess candidate fit for a role.