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Behavioral Interviewing Reinvented



Can a successful, but static business practice gradually lose its effectiveness? In the case of behavioral interviewing, a technique that predicts-on-the-job performance far more accurately than other interview methods, the answer is yes.

Behavioral interviewing is based on the premise that how a job candidate behaved in the past is the best predictor of how he or she will behave in the future. To elicit such information, a behavioral interviewer first identifies the skills, or competencies necessary for a particular position (for example: decision-making, persuasive and problem-solving skills) and then uses a series of probing questions to reveal whether candidates actually possess those qualities.

Rather than simply asking candidates what they did in their jobs, behavioral interviewers ask candidates how and why they did it. This approach is extremely effective at identifying unqualified applicants or those who exaggerate in interviews and on their resumes. The result is that more of the most competent and best-qualified candidates get hired.

Unfortunately, the behavioral interview has become a victim both of its own success and the fact that hiring practices have changed in the last thirty years since the technique was developed. Traditional behavioral interview questions are predictable and often overly-structured, and a virtual industry now exists solely to coach prospective candidates on how to prepare for them.

In fact, many candidates routinely invent examples of behavior before their interviews, or spin out prepared examples in real time in response to predictable questions. That means that behavioral interview questions are no longer as effective or useful as they once were.

But the behavioral interview can regain its effectiveness.

Here are just a few of the suggestions that we offer our clients on how to conduct a behavioral interview.

  • Use a process of discovery. Rather than resorting to predictable, structured questions, use questions especially geared to each candidate when you hear answers that need follow-up. Clarify what you hear until you feel satisfied that you're seeing the real person.


  • Take time to get the complete picture. It's important to know the combination of a candidate's strengths and limitations. The competencies you're looking for don't stand-alone, and need to be considered in relation to all of a candidate's qualities. For example, someone who has strong analytical skills can lose much of that advantage if they are not also decisive.


  • Don't just rely on questions that prompt for specific examples. This makes it more likely you'll inadvertently telegraph or reveal the response you're looking for and makes it easier for candidates to respond with prepared answers. Competencies that emerge naturally from the interview are more powerful and believable than requested or prompted examples of competencies.


  • Seek repeated evidence that shows a pattern of behavior. This is far stronger than a single example, and requires you to cover multiple jobs or time periods.


  • Drill down for specific details with every story you hear. Focus not just on the candidate's version, but ask how knowledgeable co-workers would describe the same event. When candidates claim results from what they did, ask for specific metrics and probe for further details.


  • Ask what the candidate learned from past experiences. This reveals the capacity to grow in a job and helps confirm the authenticity of claimed accomplishments.

Going beyond the original behavioral interviewing techniques isn't necessarily complicated or difficult. But it does require a different way of thinking about each interview and a recognition that business practices must keep pace with a changing marketplace. When conducting a behavioral interview, improving your techniques will allow you to stay ahead of sophisticated and well-coached candidates, not just today, but well into the future.