Behavioural interviews deserve accolades

But popular method must be done properly to garner results

Apparently, behavioural interviewing is the Holy Grail of the selection process. It’s hard to find an HR professional who conducts an interview without using this technique.

Even an informal survey of 16 senior HR managers finds every single one uses behavioural interview questions. And when there are problem responses from the candidates, they proudly explain they stay with the process, coaching the candidate, rephrasing the question and offering extra time for responses.

HR loves behavioural questions for the rich information they elicit and the structure they can add to an otherwise subjective process.

A behavioural interview is a type of interviewing that goes well beyond a style of questioning. Done properly, it begins with an analysis of the job to determine key competencies. For example, the competencies for a receptionist might include customer service, conflict resolution and the ability to handle multiple priorities.

Next, a set of clear interview questions is developed, designed to elicit examples from the candidate to demonstrate the presence (or absence) of those competencies. These questions usually begin with “Tell me about a time when…” or “Give me an example of…”

Ideally, behavioural interview questions are tested to ensure they are appropriately challenging and will draw out the desired example. A rating scale is designed for interviewers to assess responses during the interview.

Finally, an interview guide is prepared to provide a consistent format for questions, notes and ratings.

The premise of the behavioural interview is simple: Use the past to predict the future. Rather than asking a job candidate how he might handle a situation, ask him to talk about a time when he did handle a situation.

In the retelling, the candidate fully describes what happened, who was involved, what was said by whom and the outcome. Ideally, he relives the situation, experiencing the same feelings, displaying the same expressions and using the same words he did in the original instance.

This type of response provides a clear view of his past behaviour, attitude and results. And since adults tend to repeat their approach to situations, challenges and tasks, the candidate’s example serves as an accurate predictor of future performance.

Behavioural interviewing is also effective because of the consistency of the process — asking several candidates the same questions in the same order and in the same way. This allows for easy observation of the differences between candidates and highlights the best responses.

When executed properly, behavioural interviewing offers a very high degree of validity and helps to predict behaviour better than any other interview method discovered to date.

3 common objections

However, behavioural interviewing does have its opponents and there are three common and legitimate objections to behavioural interviews:

It is time-consuming: True, behavioural interviewing is a lengthy process that includes identifying competencies and developing the right questions to determine those competencies exist. The best practice is to create a selection team to execute this process. Winging an interview has no better chance of success than a coin toss and starting the hiring process over again after a bad hire is also time-consuming (and expensive), so why not make the effort and do it right the first time, using a proven method?

The questions may not elicit the expected, example-type responses: However, if the behavioural interview questions are carefully worded and time and encouragement are provided, most candidates provide an appropriate response. If they don’t, even after repeated probing, rethink their candidacy — especially if they are at a senior level where getting the question is part of the test.

It seems stiff and stilted and does not allow for an easy, informal discussion: It’s not an informal discussion, it’s an interview. But a measure of spontaneity, friendliness and flexibility can still be built in. What is lost in informality can be gained in reliability, validity and legal defensibility.

Ensuring a good interview

A poorly executed behavioural interview is no better than any other type of interview. Attention to the points below will help ensure the process is effective.

• Link the interview questions to four to six key competencies of the job.

• Make the questions challenging but not too difficult or lengthy.

• Ensure everyone involved in interviewing knows the responses and key points.

• Ask every candidate the same questions in the same order.

• Reserve a portion of the interview for a review of the candidate’s education, experience and job history.

• Probe so the example can be visualized: “What were you thinking? Why did you approach it that way? What was the result?”

• Look for “STAR” answers — descriptions of the situation, task, action and result.

• Ask overlapping questions that confirm more than one competency.

• Ask candidates if they’d like the question repeated.

• Rate each response as it is given.

It is very possible for selection team participants to mess up the best behavioural interview process, even with carefully crafted questions. A little coaching before the interview will ensure the highest degree of success.

Common mistakes to avoid include:

• Leading with tough questions.

• Asking questions in different ways for different candidates.

• Giving away the answers with an unscripted preamble (“We value…”).

• Playing psychologist — asking abstract, irrelevant questions.

• Favouring some candidates by prompting them (“Don’t you mean…?).

• Being too rigid or formal.

• Not knowing when to move on if a candidate can’t think of an example.

• Making the questions too complex or difficult.

• Not ending the interview on a positive note.

Behavioural interviewing is one of many available tools. As part of a thorough selection process, conduct a combination of other evaluation methods including formal background checks, reference checks, education verification and aptitude or personality testing.

Building company-wide support for behavioural interviewing and orchestrating the process with excellence will, quite simply, result in the hiring of better talent.

Hanna Dunn is the founder and principal owner of Dunn People Strategies in Mississauga, Ont. She can be reached at (905) 567-7655 or [email protected]. For more information, visit

Sample questions

Behavioural interview queries

Behavioural interviewing involves specific questions to draw out examples of situations candidates have encountered. Prior to the interview, the prospective employer should have identified the skills necessary for the position. The interview questions are then carefully designed to probe into the person’s experiences and uncover the skills she demonstrated. The interviewer’s goal is to determine if the skills are the best match for the position.

Common behavioural interview questions:

• “Tell me about a time when you had to present complex information.”

• “How do you determine priorities in scheduling your time?”

• “Convince me you can adapt to a wide variety of people and situations.”

• “Describe a situation when you showed initiative and took the lead.”

• “Give an example of a time you had to make a decision immediately.”

• “Describe a time when you had to deal with an irate customer.”

• “How did you go about supervising employees at your last job?”

• “Tell me about a time when you successfully resolved an interpersonal conflict.”

Source: Graham Management Group

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