8 Questions to Measure Your Behavioral Interviewing Competence

If you think Behavioral Event Interviews consist only of questions, think again. Highly structured interviews have a long history of accurately predicting success. In some studies they are rated on a par with intelligence tests. But, and I do mean “but,” BEI accuracy depends on whether your entire system works together. Let’s start by looking at how interview practices vary from the worst to the best.

The “Shrinker”

The shrinker-viewer thinks he/she can determine candidate skills by asking deeply insightful questions like, “What color do you smell like when you are acting like your least favorite plant?” Somehow, this brain-challenged wizard thinks this helps him/her evaluate candidate job skills. I’d like to put people like this on a desert island where they could interview each other with blunt objects until their dementia clears up.


Barney wants to make friends and thinks his/her job consists of getting to know the candidate. Barney asks, “What is your greatest strength? What is your greatest weakness? How would your friends describe you? If you went psycho and strangled me during this interview, would you still be my friend?”

Still no actual job-skill questions, just ones any candidate with half a noodle could answer. The best Barney can accomplish is screening out candidates who are too foolish to prepare. Barney regularly gets outsmarted by savvy candidates, because, with or without job skills, they generally pass with flying colors. Good job, Barney interviewer! You have just loaded another piece of lumber onto the P&L woodpile.

Behavioral Fake

These folks are growing in number. They either read a book or heard about behavioral interviewing from someone, somewhere. Unfortunately, they think well-phrased interview questions are all they need.

On the positive side, their questions do sound better: “What kind of budgeting have you done at you prior job? Tell me about a time when you planned a project. What do you do when things go wrong?”

On the negative side, once they learn the candidate has done something interesting, they don’t know how to probe for skills the candidate actually used to perform the task (you know — the ones necessary for the new job). Fakes think they need separate interview questions for each job because they don’t understand that questions are only tools to stimulate the discussion.

Real Deal

Real Deals know interviews are verbal tests: they have subject matter to test, questions to ask, and answers to score. They are also aware their ability to discover candidate skills affects people’s lives. So, to maximize professional accuracy, they always follow some rules …

BEI Rule #1: They separate the “whats” that vary from job to job, from the “hows” it should be done.

I understand this is confusing, but there are two parts of a job: 1) what you leave behind at the end of the day; and, 2) how you are supposed to accomplish it. Since past jobs are usually different from future ones, BE interviewers start by learning which “how-to” skills are critical to the job. The how-tos, not the results, are what the candidate brings to the table. They do this by examining job descriptions; reviewing training materials; discussing success and failure stories; conducting job-holder and manager interviews; and, so forth.

If, for example, they learn the new job requires preparing annual budgets for a department of 30 people, the BE interviewer digs into job materials to learn how management wants it done. For example, this might include analyzing future departmental requirements; weighing past experience against current and future trends; meeting with team members; coordinating and integrating individual objectives; and, preparing persuasive arguments to management.

Do you see the difference? Budgeting only happens when the candidate brings all the pieces together. Now the BE interviewer knows what to look for when mining candidate stories. Discovering hows reduces hiring and promotion mistakes.

BEI Rule #2: They know how to separate the music from the noise.

Humans communicate in shorthand, boast about gains, and hide failures. It takes practiced BEI techniques to get through candidate smokescreens. In every workshop, even the most experienced interviewers are flabbergasted at how difficult effective BEI can be. It usually takes at least three rounds for them to grasp what they have been missing for so many years, and many months of practice before it becomes natural. As one seasoned recruiter once told me after a BEI session, “Before today, I thought I knew everything about interviewing.”

In case you were wondering, Real Deals don’t use different questions for different jobs. They use the same ones to stimulate thought, but expect different answers … answers that directly relate to doing the job. For example, a good BE interviewer would expect a different answer from a mortgage processor about problem-solving than from a machine operator. Likewise, they would expect a different answer from a relatively inexperienced candidate than from a senior one. Same question, different answers. How do they know what to look for? That’s why Rule #1 is Rule #1.

BEI Rule #3: BE interviewers know neophytes cannot evaluate special expertise.

Anyone can ask questions, but not everyone can evaluate answers, especially when it comes to things like special professional knowledge. A staff screener, for example, can evaluate generic skills such as resolving conflict and teamwork; but, it takes an interviewer with considerable job expertise to evaluate complicated technical applications. In my field, for example, it would take another industrial/organizational scientist-practitioner to know if I was providing effective answers. The same goes for many other technically trained professions. If you don’t have an internal expert, rent one occasionally.

BEI Rule #4: They integrate their data with other BE interviewers.

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Interviews are stressful. Different personalities do not always click. And, it’s often hard for candidates to think of past examples right away. Three interviewers asking overlapping questions for the critical competencies are the BEI norm. Multiple interviewers reduce personality conflicts and bring more objectivity to the table. It also gives each interviewer the opportunity to cross-check data and gives everyone the opportunity to arrive at a consensus about whether the candidate has the right “how-to” for the job. In technical terms this is called “data integration.”

BEI Rule #5: BE interviewers use anchored rating scales to reduce error.

The interviewer should never evaluate the candidate without special help. Experts (usually the hiring manager) should work with the interviewers to establish behavioral anchors for each question. Anchors provide guidelines for evaluating good, bad, and iffy responses that become part of the interview guide. This helps clarify and score candidate data.

BEI Rule #6: Stop Complaining

People often resist BEI because it’s different, hard to learn, or hard work. But doesn’t the organization expect interviewers to screen candidates? Or, does the management team expect them to pass-through unqualified employees? How do you think an interviewer would behave if he/she had to pay for hiring mistakes out of their own checkbook?

Test Your BEI Competence

  1. Have you thoroughly studied job-related information to learn the core skills you seek, or rely mostly on data from a job description?
  2. Have you taken the time to talk to job holders about what it takes, or just hiring managers?
  3. Have you asked hiring managers to define good performance, bad performance, and future requirements, and included this information into your interview questions?
  4. Do you use two or three interviewers asking different questions of the same candidate, and meet afterward to integrate data?
  5. Are you still writing different interview questions for different job positions?
  6. Do you know how to accurately and consistently evaluate candidate answers?
  7. Do you know which questions require experts and which ones don’t?
  8. Looking at the job, do about half of new employees fail to meet expectations? Do hiring managers often question why you are sending unqualified candidates to them? Does turnover remain high? Is too much money being spent on training? Are managers still complaining about employee performance.
  9. Do you still use Barney questions because BEI is too much work?

In your heart, you know the right answers. Remember it’s not the candidate’s fault if he/she was put in the wrong job. It’s the people who put him/her there.

 Wrap Up

Many experienced interviewers refuse to either follow BEI principles or participate in BEI training because they insist they are already interview experts. Working with these folks is like talking to wallpaper; or, trying to explain antibiotics to witchdoctors.

Interviews are not opportunities to meet and greet. They are verbal tests. So, there are only two choices: become a Real Deal; or, make abundant mistakes that irritate hiring managers, affect people’s lives, and cut right into the bottom line.

Want to earn line manager respect? Learn BEI and practice it like a pro.

graphic from PBS



6 Comments on “8 Questions to Measure Your Behavioral Interviewing Competence

  1. Wendell: Excellent article! I just went through this process with a client as part of a project and the results were terrific.

    I think the overall challenge, as you covered briefly at the end of the article, is people being willing to do the work. Everyone seems to want a panacea in business and there is none. I can’t tell you how many people I come across who write job descriptions, yet never take the time to actually look at what is required to do the job. It never occurs to them that they must do this by looking at both performers and non performers in the particular job. Then they need to develop a scorecard with all the qualities they are looking for and the level of importance of each. This is where BEI begins to take shape.

  2. Carol, you’re absolutely right. We’ve noticed the same challenge: the most difficult part is putting in the time to figure out what competencies are really distinguishing top performers from the rest of the bunch. Typically, it requires a more in depth series of conversations with subject matter experts… unless you have a software application that aids in job analysis with research backing.

    Wendell, fantastic article. You really hit the nail on the head with this one.

  3. Please don’t underestimate the difficulty of conducting a behavioral interview…It’s more than questions…without a professional-quality job analysis (this takes a loooong time and considerable skill to learn) PLUS professional-level interview skills (same comment as before), this article is no better than any other list of quick-fix questions. Anyone who thinks he/she can do it without considerable time and training does not know what they don’t know.

  4. Thanks, Dr. Williams.
    1) ISTM that the underlying premise of BEI is that past behavior predicts future behavior. This would seem to be useful IFF the candidate is being interviewed for exactly the same job they are now/were recently doing (you allude to this in BEI #1), and the further away the new job is from the old one, the less valid BEI would be, except in some very general ways, e.g. “if someone were always late on previous jobs, there might be a reasonable belief that they would continue to be late at a new one.”

    2) It sounds as if BEI requires highly-skilled and correctly-practiced individuals to perform effective BEI. Interview team members won’t get this practice time in, and neither do most recruiters, even if we receive some initial BEI training, there’s unlikely to be regular followup, critiquing, etc. Maybe large companies could have staff profession BEI interviewers who all they do is see if candidates are BSing.

    A $64k question:
    Can a BEI Interviewer effectively do his/her job without having a deep understanding of the position being interviewed for? As a recruiter I don’t need to be an engineer to recruit one, but perhaps I DO need to be one if I professionally BEI one.

    Another one: What can BEI accomplish that a detailed professional/technical phone screen or an appropriate assessment test can’t? Perhaps the detailed professional/technical phone screen should be BEI?



  5. Dr. Williams great article. As a current job seeker I can certainly relate to the Behavioral Fake Interviewer. I see this a lot in the government sector. Interview panels are chosen based on who the candidates future coworkers will be. It is paninfully obvious that the people these panels lack the experience/training on how to porpoerly interview candidates. Most of the questions asked by these panels seem to be drawn from the same playbook and to score high you have to mention specific keywords associated with each question. At times this can cause great frustration.

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