A lengthy proposition

Long, detailed interview focused on behaviours tops several short, poorly planned interviews

Sarah had just finished her seventh interview for the position of marketing manager at a mid-sized company. She had been interviewed by the unit director, two product managers, another marketing manager, two marketing co-ordinators and an administrator.

Each interview lasted about an hour and each asked the same questions: What was her past experience, education, goals and hobbies, along with her greatest strengths and weaknesses? After seven interviews, they didn’t know anything more about Sarah than they did after her first interview.

For HR professionals, and at least one generation of organizational psychologists, it has been a challenge to predict who will be successful in a job. A new hire is a risk — about one-half ultimately fail, according to the Human Resources Systems Group in Ottawa.

If an individual doesn’t work out, the price is significant. When you factor in the cost of preparing and running an ad, screening interviews, assessing key candidates, manager and team interviews, discussion time by the recruitment team, reference checks, salary for the new hire, benefit costs, training, time invested in onboarding an individual and, of course, the loss of productivity when an individual fails, an investment of significant proportion has been made — $40,000 on average for an individual earning around $60,000.

Yet most interviewers don’t know how to elicit the information that will help them effectively achieve a match that will bring job satisfaction, higher productivity and reduced turnover. Instead of one highly productive, longer interview, the alternative has become one of poorly conceived mass interviews.

If the objective is to ensure an individual will fit in, take him out for lunch to decide if the group can bond with the candidate. But if the goal is to find someone who will be a superior performer, put the individual through a behavioural event interview (BEI).

Behavioural event interviews

In the late 1960s, David McClelland, a psychology professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and one of the founders of Hay Group, was engaged by the U.S. State Department to study the hiring of foreign information service officers. At the time, the government was using a combination of interviews, a content-based exam, a standard intelligence test and grade point average to select candidates. But the state department’s research showed little correlation between this approach and how well someone performed as a diplomat in a foreign country.

“What do people actually do when they are being successful?” asked McLelland, who looked at two groups of foreign officers — superior performers and average, solid performers. By conducting detailed interviews (now called BEIs) with individuals from both groups, focusing on what they did in past job situations and then analyzing the transcripts, he was able to identify the competencies that differentiated the two groups.

The resulting competency model was validated with another group of officers to ensure the competencies really did predict success. Successful placement of individuals in foreign information service officer roles increased dramatically.

The interview format was designed to elicit evidence of what people actually do — the observable behaviours exhibited when someone is being successful or not being successful at accomplishing a goal. The interview also captured information on the underlying thoughts and feelings that lead to actions.

More than skills, knowledge and experience, behaviours — how someone does a job, not what he technically does on the job — are the key differentiators and best predictors of future success.

As the complexity of roles increases, so does the value-added output between average and superior performers, according to a 1990 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (by J.E. Hunter, F.L. Schmidt and M.K. Judiesch, “Individual differences in output: Variability as a function of differences in output”). The difference in output ranges from 32 to 120 per cent, based on the complexity of the jobs.

If superior performers can make such a significant impact on business results, an organization should clearly identify what superior performers do to achieve those results and look for those behaviours in interviewing candidates. The most successful means of identifying those behaviours is through a BEI.

BEIs are not quick to conduct — the average interview lasts between two-and-a-half to three hours. Nor are they simple to conduct. Training is required to properly conduct a BEI and then code the interview to determine the behaviours exhibited. But the resulting success of candidates selected is significant.

Kathy Brooks is senior director of leadership and talent at the Hay Group in Toronto, a human resources consultancy. She can be reached at (416) 815-6338 or [email protected].

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