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Training Magazine: Invented Lives

Scene: Stu Brown, a project manager at GloboBancServices Inc., is questioning Jennifer Phillips, a recent MBA grad who has applied for a job on his team.

"Can you give me an example of a time when you took on a leadership role?" Stu asks.

"Sure," says Jennifer. "I was on a project team with four others, and we couldn't agree on the direction we wanted to take with a new-product introduction. Two of us thought it should be positioned as an entirely new product and the other three wanted to introduce it as a line extension. Because we couldn't agree, we ran the risk of missing our timetable.

"The team had no direction, so finally I stepped in and said, 'Let's do some consumer research on which approach holds the greater promise. We'll let the research settle the question while we lay the groundwork to pursue either course.' The others agreed, and my lead broke the logjam."

Stu, Jennifer and GloboBanc are hypothetical, but the situation is real enough. This is an example of "behavior-based interviewing," also known as behavioral interviewing, a technique that has been used in corporate America since the 1970s. It is rooted in the work of industrial psychologist Bill Owens, who postulated that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. To predict how an applicant is likely to handle the job you're trying to fill, you ask for examples of things the candidate has actually done that would demonstrate the key characteristics you're looking for.

Stu continues his questioning: "Jennifer, tell me about a situation where you had to deal with an irate customer."

"Well," she answers, "at the service center, one of our customers called in a huff about a penalty charge on her statement for a late payment on her mortgage. I calmed her down on the phone, listened to what she had to say, and realized the mistake might have been ours. I offered to check into it for her and promised to call her back.

"It was our fault, and I called her back 90 minutes later. She was flabbergasted! She said she had been doing business with our bank for 12 years and had never received such a prompt and courteous response before. I like to help our customers solve their problems. I think it's imperative that we be customer-oriented."

Jennifer sounds like a great candidate, doesn't she? Experienced. Articulate. Self-confident. These are exactly the kinds of answers Stu was hoping to hear.

But Jennifer isn't what she appears. The autobiographical stories she's telling Stu are imaginary. She made them up in preparation for what she knew would be questions likely to be asked in a behavior-based interview. And Stu doesn't have a clue that he's being jobbed.

Invented Lives

The mendacious job candidate is not a new species, of course. For many years, interviewers have contended with falsified resumes, bogus college degrees and transcripts, exaggerated claims about past achievements, and applicants who don't really want the job at all but are just testing the market or looking for leverage to extract a better deal from their current employer.

The new wrinkle in the picture is that job-seekers have gotten wise to behavior-based interviewing. Jennifer is far from unique. A growing number of today's applicants, especially those coming from top business and law schools, do far more than exaggerate their skills and accomplishments. They deliberately misrepresent themselves during the interview. The stories they tell about who they are and what they did in real-life situations are elaborate lies.

In business-school placement offices and outplacement firms, coaching people in how to excel at behavioral interviews is becoming almost as sophisticated and pervasive as test preparation for graduate school or CPA exams. It's not that candidates are encouraged to lie, exactly, but as one newly hired Wall Street player put it, "We all know what competencies firms are looking for, and we've been told to develop little stories to spin out in each interview to convince you that we are what you want."

In short, the people you're evaluating have been prepped. Candidates today know all about behavioral interviewing, and they come prepared with ready responses for questions like: "Give me an example of a time when you demonstrated leadership (or integrity or out-of-the-box thinking)." "Tell me about an ethical dilemma you faced on the job and what you did." "Give me an example of an unpopular idea you were able to sell to people at work."

The candidate who knows these questions are coming and doesn't have a suitable true story to tell in response to them can just make something up-or borrow a good story from someone else. One major consulting firm recently discovered that three of the six MBAs it called back for in-house interviews told the same story about leading a business-school fund-raising project to prove that they had "initiative." The firm called the school and learned that none of the three was even on the fund-raising committee.

Beating the Interview

Some business-school graduates view the whole recruitment process as a game-one they deserve to win because, after all, they spent a lot of time and money to acquire their MBAs. They prepare for interviews accordingly. But the dishonest candidate doesn't need the connections or the coaching available at a B-school or an outplacement counselor's office in order to "beat" a behavioral interview. There are plenty of ways for ordinary job-seekers to find out what characteristics are being sought by particular employers and what those employers will ask about in interviews.

For instance, WetFeet.com, a career-research firm catering mostly to college students but accessible to anyone with a modem, sells "insider guides" to major companies directly from its Web site for $25 each. The reports-on companies such as Hewlett-Packard, General Mills and Nike-provide a current summary of the firm and its culture, how the recruiting process works, tips for being interviewed (the guide on Andersen Consulting includes a section called "What is behavioral interviewing?"), and things to watch out for.

The Web-surfing job-seeker can get similar information from employers themselves. Many companies use their Web sites to describe the qualities they are looking for and what it takes to fit into their cultures. Unfortunately, some candidates use this information to fabricate stories for the interview.

Candidates also share interview tips via e-mail. They post the best case study questions of leading firms on the Internet as soon as they hear them. And some companies join the game by publishing information about the hiring processes of their competitors. Silicon Graphics, for instance, has been known to use its Web site to disseminate interview questions used by Microsoft and Intel.

All of this leaves employers in a bind. Past behavior really is the best predictor of future behavior, and behavioral interviewing is the best tool we have for figuring out how a potential employee would approach a situation. But if the real-life examples we hear are fictitious, the whole process collapses. A hiring decision made on the basis of fabricated stories might as well be based on astrology or tea leaves-except that the tea leaves give you a chance of hiring an honest person.

Drilling Down

What can the poor employer do?

First of all, simple awareness of the problem can alert the interviewer to look for obvious warning signs. For instance, a candidate who doesn't even pause before answering a question like "How did you handle an unfounded complaint about something you did?" has probably prepped for that question.

But any decent liar will know better than to make it look too easy. In order to confirm the authenticity of the candidateís stories and examples, interviewers must drill down for details and specifics within each story. When Stu talked to Jennifer, for instance, he should have asked, "Who was managing the new product team and why was there no direction?" Other questions would follow, all reflecting a tone of curiosity so as not to make the candidate feel defensive. (The point is not to turn the interview into an interrogation. This person may well be telling you the truth.)

This probing for details can mean asking the person to reveal not only what she did, but also what she was thinking and feeling at various points in her story. Itís hard for a disingenuous candidate to keep all three story lines consistent.

Another technique is based on the principle that candidates who claim significant accomplishments must have learned something from their experiences. While they may fabricate an achievement, they are less likely to have invented examples of what they learned in the process. When Jennifer tells Stu how she broke the logjam in the product team, he can ask: "What did the experience teach you? And how have you applied that learning since?"

Finally, the interviewer can ask some questions that require the candidate to demonstrate what she knows, in real time, instead of just describing things she did in the past. These are questions that must be answered on the spot and canít be satisfied with rehearsed answers.

For instance, Stu could follow up on Jenniferís "satisfying the angry customer" story by asking her how sheíd go about designing a car for a deaf person or a kitchen for a blind cook. He would be looking for an answer suggesting that Jenniferís first instinct is to seek empathy and understanding of the customerís problems and requirements. Would she blindfold herself and try to perform some chores in the kitchen? Would she plug her ears and drive a car?

Behavior-based interviewing has been an effective way to screen candidates since the 1970s. But the rules of the game have changed, and interview techniques will need to evolve if they are going to hold their own in a sometimes cynical marketplace.

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