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Behavioral Interviewing Strategies for Hiring Managers

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It's no secret that hiring the wrong candidate can be a costly mistake for any company, large or small. Estimates of the costs involved range from one-third of the hiree's salary to five times, including expenses associated with interviewing and training, also depending on how high up the person is, and how long he or she remained in the position.

Yet, hiring managers continue to select people who, despite all appearances, are not the right choice. According to a three-year-study conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Leadership IQ, nearly half of 20,000 new hires it tracked had failed within their first 18 months on the job. 

That wasn't because managers hadn't correctly ascertained their skill sets—instead in the great majority of cases what was missing was an attitudinal fit. After all, as Herb Kellher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines has noted, managers "can change skill levels through training. But [they] can't change attitude." Whether attitudinal mismatches include a lack of emotional intelligence or a lack of motivation, they are precisely the kinds of intangible assets that are key definers of corporate culture.

Since a a job candidate is likely to interview with not only several persons in the department, but even other managers and staff in several other departments, a good strategy is to try to find a fit for the group and not just the position, according to management consultant George Mentz. In fact, some companies are increasingly turning to their own employees and internal networks for referrals, realizing that the high performers in-house are likely to be able to locate more people just like them.

However you find your candidates, conducting an interview that breaks the mold is critical once you bring them in for an interview. Some companies, most famously, Google, have already learned this and have long mastered the art of the mind-bending brainteaser—How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane?—designed to give hiring authorities an idea of how nimble the candidate is, how adept they are at thinking outside of the box. But as one senior vice president of people operations at Google told The New York Times, such questions are a "complete waste of time. They don't predict anything."

What works, instead, he continued is "not giving someone a hypothetical, but starting with a question like 'Give me an example of a time when you . . . .'"

So-called behavioral interviewing like this attempts to predict future performance by looking into past behaviors rather than potential ones (What would you do if. . . .?). By providing real-life examples of their past on-the-job performance, candidates are forced to reveal insights into their personality, work ethic, and, yes, skills. What the hiring authority avoids is hearing canned (and not necessarily true) responses to the same old questions. In short, asking the right questions results in a better interview—and gifts a company with the right candidate.

Get Some Culture

Before a manager begins formulating the right questions, though, they must have a clear understanding of both their corporate culture and the kinds of answers that they want to hear from their questions. 

Mark Murphy, author of Hiring for Attitude and the founder of Leadership IQ, notes that while most jobs have tests that assess technical proficiency, quantifying less tangible skills—like the ability to stay motivated or to be innovative—is a lot more difficult. If an executive "has an authoritarian, hard-driving style and they're being hired into a social culture where happiness and camaraderie are paramount, that combination isn't going to work," Murphy told Forbes Magazine.  

In addition to Southwest and Google, companies from Apple to The Four Seasons hire for attitude—but, points out Murphy, they may be looking for different things. "Every company has to discover the attitudes that make their organization unique and special," he told Forbes. "Those attitudes will always be an organic reflection of their most successful people." Many experts define an organization's culture as the "way things actually get done"—a set of practices that drive key business decisions and behaviors. 

Tell Me a Story

To dig out these examples, experts recommend asking STAR questions. The acronym stands for situation, task, action, and result. 

Together, these successive elements add up to a concise anecdote—the content of which doesn't matter as much as the candidate's ability to adequately address each facet. According to Deepa Barve, senior recruitment leader at SSOE, an architecture and engineering firm in Portland, Oregon, hiring authorities may have to work hard to help  a candidate formulate his or her story. Too often, she notes, candidates lean on hypothetical situations, so if they can't think of an actual example, try broadening the parameters of the question or framing it in a different way. Looking at the resume, ask these types of questions: 

  • Why do you think the X project worked so well? 
  • What would you do next time to make it even more successful?  
  • How did the success of that campaign help you in further projects?

If these don't work, suggest that they turn instead to a personal example. Has the candidate listed a volunteer effort on his resume? Perhaps an experience with the organization might prove relevant. Did she change careers at one point? Ask her to discuss some of the pivotal considerations in that choice.

Once a good story has been elicited, don't let it sit there. Ask follow-up questions and seek clarification to better understand the context. By making it a conversation—not, cautions Barve, an interrogation—both sides can relax a bit. And that's important since the ultimate goal is for the interviewer to get a sense of how the candidate behaves outside of the interview setting.

Get The Conversation Rolling

Although the goal is a conversational tone, having a set list of questions on hand is optimal. Here is a baker's dozen sampling of behavioral interview questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you were able to persuade others to change their minds and see your point of view?
  • On the other hand, can you describe a time when you lost an argument and how you handled it?
  • Let's discuss the hardest trouble-shooting challenge you've ever had to address.
  • Can you remember a decision that in hind-sight you realized was wrong? What did you do about it?
  • Describe an instance where you were criticized by a colleague or superior. What happened? How did you get along subsequently?
  • Talk about the work situations that have most frustrated you. How have you overcome them?
  • Tell me about a goal you set for yourself—and whether you achieved it. How did you feel when you met it?
  • Describe a specific skill that you've been determined to learn, and how you went about doing so.
  • Tell me about a professional risk you took. Was it worth it?
  • Have you ever gone beyond the call of duty to please a client? Why did the situation arise? What did you do?
  • Was there a time when you were in the position of criticizing a subordinate or giving them unwelcome feedback? Talk about how this made you feel and how you dealt with the situation.
  • Think back to a time when you faced unusual stress in your job. How did you handle, and eventually, overcome these feelings?
  • Have you ever improved a process at work? What was it, what was lacking, and how did you change it?

As should be evident, different questions are posed to ascertain different attitudes and behaviors. Questions about goals and learning can help suss out the ability of a candidate to manage their time and keep motivated. Stories related to disagreements and critiques are perfect for getting a sense of how a candidate works with teams. Other questions might address issues related to decision-making, organizing, communications, client services, interpersonal skills, or adaptability. Determine which of these are most important to the position and the candidates ability to fit into your department and company.

Know What To Listen For

Thanks to their emphasis on anecdote and narrative, interpreting complex behavioral interview questions are not as easy as nodding politely to the ole "Where do you see yourself in five years?

Since each question is designed to assess a particular skill, it's critical, then, that the you have a good idea about the kind of answer you are looking for. When a candidate is asked, for example, to describe a situation where they failed, the details of the actual mistake won't matter as much as the way in which the story is relayed. 

According to Barve, the ideal response should include two components in addition to the details of what happened: the remedial action initiated to correct the errors and the steps taken to prevent them from re-occurring. You may have to prompt the candidate to address these two elements, but they, more than anything, are the most critical. Similarly, a candidate who simply replies, "I've never made a significant mistake" is revealing a great deal.

Because the questions demand more of the interviewer—as well as the candidate—it's important, too, that the same set of questions be asked of everyone. (Followups can be tailored, of course, since they will be more specific to the stories of each candidate.) And, since the emphasis with this type of interview is not to be predictable, interviewers should be careful about trying to lead the candidate or tipping their hand. Just as candidates have cleverly figured out what kinds of answers are expected of them when it comes to a standard interview, a wealth of material now exists to guide them through behavioral interviews. Don't make it any easier for them!

Plan Carefully

There are some challenges involved with this style of interview. Firstly, the nature of the answers received will be difficult to reference-check. That's why it's imperative that the interviewer strive for depth and consistency by asking for various examples, pressing for more details, and coming at the same question from several different angles. 

As a candidate moves up through the interview process, make sure that each manager is provided with the notes from the previous interview/s and alludes to those anecdotes in their own interview. Be careful that each interviewer doesn't exactly repeat the questions, but instead builds on them or looks for elucidation or more details.

According to Amanda Papini, recruiting director of Response Mine Interactive in Atlanta, hiring managers often don't have as much time as they'd like to prepare for an interview, so it can help if a human resources person such as herself does some of the homework for them by coordinating questions and the interview sequence. She also recommends that a scale be developed to help everyone assess candidates' performances during a behavioral interview. 

And, she adds, keep on reminding managers that tech skills can be taught, while soft skills cannot and require a larger time investment when things go awry. Still, technical skills remain important in many key positions, Papini concedes. To help, she recommends formulating a few behavioral questions that include technical aspects. A good example: Tell me about a time when you identified a discrepancy and how you were able to validate it and then take corrective action quickly? This type of question accomplishes several things at once. It identifies attention to detail, ability to work under tight deadlines, and comfort with a position's technical demands.

The Reward: Hiring the Right Person

This new approach may seem complicated and demanding but, say experts, the extra effort will reward hiring authorities with the confidence that they've made the right choice. And since that means not interviewing for the same position as frequently, both time and money will be reaped, as well.

Resources

Graphic Credit: Worker designed by Piotrek Chuchla from the Noun Project.

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