Are you hiring the best person for the job?

Is it time to upgrade your behavioural or competency questions to performance-based interviews?

For many organizations, interviews are the only or most important selection tool used to make hiring-selection decisions. However, companies that rely heavily on the interview for their selection decisions may not realize that some types of structured behavioural and competency interviews can be problematic and may result in not hiring the best person for the job. It’s important to understand the limitations of these types of interviews and how you can effortlessly overcome and “upgrade” them by using performance-based interviews.

Structured interviews: a dramatic improvement
Introduced years ago, structured and competency interviews with behaviourally anchored rating scales were a vast improvement over the infamous unstructured interview. They were designed to ask and rate each applicant using the same questions and set behavioural responses. This made structured behavioural and competency interviews more defensible than unstructured interviews and minimized or eliminated many types of biases (i.e.: the ‘contrast effect’ through which applicants are compared to the person who was interviewed prior to them; the “first impression effect” in which “gut instinct” decision is made in the first two minutes of the interview; etc.). The questions asked were often more relevant to the job and frequently this resulted in better employees.

Problems with structured and competency interviews
Although structured or competency interviews frequently resulted in better employees, they cannot always guarantee the best. At first glance, these interviews seem pretty thorough. Unfortunately, applicants can now obtain these types of questions and answers from a variety of sources. For example, an online Internet search for “behavioural interviews” will quickly produce many behavioural questions and ideal responses. Almost every bookstore is well stocked with a variety of books that provide questions and answers to behavioural and competency interviews. Many career-counselling centres teach applicants how to respond to behavioural or competency questions. Some newspaper articles feature a quick “how-to” instructional focus on these commonly asked job interview questions. Widespread use has led to widespread availability of these materials. This has led to a wave of well-prepared applicants who may in fact, not hold all of the true knowledge, skill and abilities required on the job but are good at recognizing competency questions and responding with memorized stock answers.

Questions are time-consuming to develop
The reason questions and answers have become so widespread may be due in part to a common complaint: the proper development of structured or competency interview questions can be time-consuming and can lead to an increased selection cycle time or hiring delays. Once a question is developed, it is often recycled for a wide variety of jobs with little or no modification. After all, behavioural and competency questions are usually targeted to the transferable skills and traits that make up 75 per cent of each job (i.e.: decision making, problem solving, time management, conflict resolution, team work, communication, initiative, etc.). Applicants can and do memorize the correct responses to these types of questions. This seriously impacts on the validity of the interview as well as the success of the new recruit when these individuals have just memorized the “right” answers.

The pitfalls of leading questions
Even when applicants haven’t memorized answers to structured interview questions, many managers (even those trained or with many years experience) unwittingly or subconsciously give applicants help during the interview by asking leading questions. This is especially true with questions for which suggested responses are available. In many behavioural and competency interviews, managers use the suggested responses as a checklist and ask applicants if they have experience with any of the missing points. Applicants almost always say, “Yes, I can do that,” “Yes, I’d love to do that,” and “Yes, I have lots of experience doing that including…” The end result is an elevated score for applicants that increase their chances of being hired. If they are, the manager is often disappointed and is left wondering why the new employees do not meet expectations. Because these managers know they made the selection decision to hire these individuals, they will reluctantly try to “make do” with them, saying nothing.

A similar problem occurs when managers deviate from the structured interview process. Maybe these managers have favourite questions they want to ask. Maybe they think they have a knack for finding a top performer using “gut feel.” Perhaps they don’t feel comfortable with or are unsure about using behavioural or competency interviews. Possibly they feel that the questions and answers are not giving them a clear picture of how well each applicant will perform on the job. Whatever the reason, individual managers at many organizations still use unstructured interviews even though their HR departments have officially adopted behavioural or competency interviews for the organization.

Previous work experience is not the best indicator
Another emerging problem with structured behavioural or competency interviews is that they often evaluate applicants based on previous work experience, as opposed to each applicant’s ability to apply his knowledge and experience to the performance required on the new job. Since applicants can self-select any situation or scenario, they wisely select answers that put them in the best possible light. This is akin to the days of unstructured interviews when applicants learned to answer the question, “What are your weaknesses?” with a list of perceived strengths in disguise (“Oh, I’m a workaholic, a stickler for detail, etc.”). The problem is that applicants have to make their choices without knowing exactly what the manager was looking for and this means a true top performer can be mistakenly screened out of the competition.

Diagnosing problems
Evidence of interview problems can be readily found in a number of places. First, review some questions from recent interviews in your department or organization. If questions don’t exist, you may find that some managers are using an unstructured approach. For behavioural and competency interviews, you may find the same questions (or types of questions) are being used over and over again for many different jobs with very few changes. Many departments or organizations adopt, profile, highlight or require six to eight “core competencies” each year. Sit in on a few of these structured interviews. You may find the hiring manager frequently asking leading questions (as much as 40 per cent of the time).

It is almost impossible to get top performers unless the right questions are asked. The most compelling evidence of these problems can be readily seen by reviewing the on-the-job performance of the people hired by these types of interviews. At one time, structured behavioural and competency interviews improved (compared to an unstructured approach) the chances of hiring an acceptable performer or at least indicated which applicants would be unacceptable performers. Now, you will find less than 20 per cent of the workforce or new hires to be top performers, and at least 25 per cent of the workforce or new hires to be comprised of unacceptable and below average performers. The remaining workers or new hires are probably only average performers. It may be time to upgrade your selection process if these numbers are representative of the staff at or hired by your organization.

Identifying true top performers
Unfortunately, structured behavioural and competency interviews only prove that an applicant can “talk the talk.” The person hired may not be the top performer but rather the most successful “impression manager,” and the most prepared. With structured behavioural and competency interviews, the more preparation applicants make, the more successful they will be. Performance-based interviews avoid many or all of the problems listed above and ensure you identify a top performer who meets or exceeds expectations. Best of all, they are a seamless addition to your process if you are already using any type of structured interview.

Performance-based interview questions are specific to your vacancy, company problems and company culture. This specificity is critical as it enables you to identify the top performer from your applicant pool every time. Just as importantly, it exposes the strengths, weaknesses and organizational, personal and cultural fit of your preferred applicants. It takes only minimal effort to evolve from structured behavioural or competency interviews to performance-based interviews. It just requires human resources professionals to incorporate performance-based techniques into their current selection practices. Organizations that do so, have found the change to be painless and the results dramatic — significant time and cost savings and improved hiring decisions that identify a top performer every time.

Similar yet superior
Performance-based interviews are similar, in that each interviewee receives the same set of questions and is scored using suggested responses. A five-point performance-based rating scale is also used to evaluate candidates, but this scale begins at zero. Furthermore, with the performance-based rating scale, the “correctness” and “completeness” of applicant responses are evaluated. Top performers are easy to identify because they always give answers that are both fully complete and correct and often give answers that exceed expectations. Performance-based interviews are superior because instead of evaluating applicants on examples of work they provide, applicants are asked to do “work” and/or verbally resolve problems that would be typical of the new job. In other words, applicants are actually performing critical components of the job. This ensures you identify who can do the work and solve your problems, instead of identifying who can only tell you what they did somewhere else. And when you compare responses from different applicants, you will quickly see which applicants are top performers. Best of all, performance-based interview questions can be quickly developed because they come directly from the job.

Performance-based interviews also enjoy a long shelf life because they can be modified easily without impacting their effectiveness. By changing one or more of the critical dimensions of the background information or questions asked, an entirely different response is required. This prevents applicants from memorizing suggested responses (a major problem with behavioural and competency interviews) and allows the questions to keep pace with positions as they evolve. This means the only way applicants can successfully answer all of the questions is if they can truly perform all aspects of the actual job. If they’re fully qualified, the interview will be a breeze. If they’re not, no amount of preparation or practice will get them in the door.

Performance-based selection
Performance-based interviews have consistently identified top performing applicants for a wide variety jobs including entry level, clerical, service, technical, medical, professional as well as senior and executive management. The use of performance-based interviews also speeds up the selection process, especially when used in conjunction with Micro Assessment (essentially, written performance-based pre-interviews that can dramatically improve the quality of applicants and reduce the number of applicants who will be interviewed resulting in additional cost savings). Final selection decisions usually can be reached within a week, saving companies thousands of dollars in staff time. The only pre-requisites for the HR professional for successful performance-based interviews are complete understanding of the essential qualifications of the job vacancy, and training to ensure the interview and rating scale are correctly administered.

Performance-based interviewing is probably the most powerful and cost-effective approach currently available. Its advantages include reducing turnover by approximately 20 per cent, reducing selection costs by up to 40 per cent, reducing the number of interviews by up to 75 per cent, and significantly improving the quality and productivity of new employees. So, if you are currently using behavioural or competency interviews, you may want to “upgrade” to performance-based interviews in order to hire the “best” employees.

Stephen Jackson, of HR Strategy is author of Performance-based Selection: a step-by-step guide to saving time, reducing costs and hiring top performers. For more information, call (416) 363-0480 or visit

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