Behavioral Interviewing Can Be Accurate, But Only When Done Right

On more than one occasion, people who should know better have criticized my articles on behavioral interviewing. The gist is they know more than anyone else and make a living promoting an “easier” technique that presumably achieves the same results. Nonsense!

These claims can be filed under the “wonder platinum gasoline additive,” the “magnetic mileage improver,” and the list of politicians who vote their conscience instead of their welfare. The sooner we all understand the basics of behavioral interviewing, the sooner these silly arguments can end.

Interviews Are Tests

Let’s begin by making a point: interviews are verbal tests. Accuracy depends on having a clear objective, using proper questions, and having standardized answer keys. They’re not just a smooth questioning technique. Whether the interview style is backward-looking (behavioral), forward-looking (situational), or casual, the intent in the same: determine whether the applicant has the skills to do the job. The more accurate the interview data, the better the hiring decision.

Perfect World

In a perfect behavioral interviewing world, an applicant would describe comprehensive examples of things that happened to him or her in exactly the same job, doing exactly the same thing, working under exactly the same circumstances, dealing with exactly the same kind of people, under exactly the same environmental conditions. This isn’t likely and is precisely the reason interviewers work from a job-related list of building-block competencies. It helps them translate past experiences to future job requirements. That translation is a critical bridge between past and future.

Behavioral-Style Interviewing Basics

Here are three interview questions:

  1. If you were going to be a tree in the forest, what color animal would you sound like? Yes, this is psychobabble. It has no place in the hiring arena. The question is unrelated to the job, and it probably has more to do with an interviewer’s ambition to become a psychologist without doing all that time-consuming school stuff.
  2. Give me an example of a time when you developed a strategic action plan. This is better. At least it has more structure and sounds more job-related. Unfortunately, it is still too global to deliver the accuracy we need to make a good hire.
  3. Tell me about a particular event when you had to confront a subordinate about a performance problem. What caused the event? What specifically did you do? What was the result? Then armed with this data, the interviewer probes for accuracy, translates several examples into one to two behavioral competencies, compares the past-event competencies to a list of future-requirement competencies, rates the quality of the competencies based on relevance and recency, and integrates this information by meeting with other independent interviewers.

Question 3, folks, in spite of what you hear to the contrary, is the only way behavioral interviewing can deliver the most accuracy.

Understanding the Future Job

Here’s a reality check. Who knows more about what it takes each day in your job: you or your manager? Most people would say jobholders know more about day-to-day competencies. Managers know more about overall performance. So, why would a professional only question managers and HR about job requirements?

This is why job analysis is so important. It involves gathering data from jobholders, direct managers, and managers who are able to anticipate future job changes. However, these folks don’t usually speak in competency-language. So the analyst must translate everyday job language into something that can be accurately measured. That is, the product of all three conversations must be a comprehensive list of behavioral competencies that can be accurately evaluated in a few minutes.

So what’s the bottom line? Complete job knowledge leads to more and better hiring and placement decisions only when goals are clear. Every time a step is skipped, accuracy drops. Since every shortcut leads to more error, the question becomes, “How much error are employers willing to tolerate?”

Understanding Applicants’ Past Jobs

It is often said, “Past performance predicts future performance.” Well, maybe. Behavioral predictability depends on many factors, such as recency, job-relatedness, reporting accuracy, interviewer and interviewee bias, applicant recall, and questioning skills.

Recency tells us whether applicant’s skills are current or rusty. Job-relatedness tells us whether the past example closely parallels future job requirements. Accurate reporting avoids false conclusions. Interviewer bias distorts information. And good questioning skills make information hard to fake.

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Nevertheless, interviews are still self-reports. Behavioral interviews still erroneously screen out applicants who cannot think of good examples, do not have job-related stories, or do not have experience. That’s why we need to add tests and simulations. They provide additional real-time skills data.

How do we minimize interpersonal bias between interviewer and interviewee? We use multiple interviewers who meet afterward to integrate their individual data.

Will the Real Professionals Please Stand Up?

The internal HR clients with whom I work are generally more concerned with quality than the professional recruiters I deal with. No one wants to do more work than necessary to recruit, hire, and promote good people, but HR people face hiring managers every day and are often on pins and needles trying to justify their continued employment.

On the other hand, professional recruiters have proudly told me, “We measure success by each candidate who survives the guarantee period.” Professionals who only do enough to get by? That doesn’t sound like any profession I know. Maybe it’s just me, but I think this kind of self-serving agenda is unethical.

What Can Eggheads Teach Us?

“You can’t believe Eggheads. They have never done my job.” I hear this all the time. It is ego-centered thinking that places the author squarely in the middle of his or her personal universe.

Everyone has something to offer. Eggheads may not have been recruiters, but is that any reason to discount their contributions as test experts? Eggheads have run thousands of controlled studies comparing Interview Method “A” to Test Method “B”. It’s true that they don’t recruit and find people. But they know a great deal more than most about how to identify and measure skills accurately and fairly. We can learn much by continually reading and adopting their research.

Going Forward

Time is overdue for both professional and internal recruiters to abandon homegrown ideas, to stop taking and receiving silly advice, and to abandon embarrassing and unprofessional beliefs.

Behavioral interviewing has a long history of effectiveness few of us are capable of improving upon. Sure, we can turn the clock backward, reinvent the wheel and potentially screw up everything by thinking our homegrown solutions are better than anyone else’s. But any recruiter who wants to be considered professional, should use professional tools.


6 Comments on “Behavioral Interviewing Can Be Accurate, But Only When Done Right

  1. True – Finding an overall Recruiting ‘Professional Standard’ is a difficult task since it seems to depend on the thoroughness of the recruiter and the hiring managers. However, I wonder if you (or your sources) are confused on the function of recruiting both internal and 3rd party. When you stated in your article:
    ‘On the other hand, professional recruiters have proudly told me, ‘We measure success by each candidate who survives the guarantee period.’ Professionals who only do enough to get by? That doesn’t sound like any profession I know. Maybe it’s just me, but I think this kind of self-serving agenda is unethical.’
    It seems like this statement may be out of content from a different subject. The recruiting function does not include Hiring Retention. This is an HR, corporate environment, team management issue for the most part. The recruitment function is to source, locate, pre-qualify, schedule interviews, salary/package negotiation assistance, etc. – all of the tasks that lead up to the point of hire. Once the candidate is employed, it is up to the internal team and the employee to maintain the relationship. With this said, the recruiter is not off the hook completely. When representing the open position to potential candidates, the recruiter must have due diligence in representing the company and its environment accurately, as well as, understand the candidate’s qualifications and intentions in their job search to make a good referral to the hiring manager. Recruiters can also assist hiring mangers in their hiring choices with thorough representation, interviewing coaching, designing competitive compensation packages, hiring trend information, etc.

    I find your thoughts on Behavioral Interviewing interesting. Coming up with a true Recruiting Professional standard (if possible) would be an invaluable asset to growing organizations.

  2. Marjorie raises two good questions.

    One: What is the role of a recruiter?

    I’ll let each individual answer that for themselves. However, as a consulting ‘weenie’, when I ask about who is reponsible for low performing employees, I consistently hear three kinds of responses:

    1)Recruiters: ?We?re only sourcers who screen applicants by asking questions.?
    2)HR Staff: ?Low performers are products of a hostile working environment.?
    3) Line Managers: ?HR and recruiters keep sending us poor employees…they cannot learn, are unmotivated, make bad decisions, cannot get along with team members, and have poor work ethic.?

    Now..Which of these three sources do you think has the most political clout??

    Two: What are the true Professional Recruiting Standards?

    Published hiring and promotion standards have been around since 1978. You won’t like them, but you can find them here:

    and here:

  3. Great article, good retorts to all the criticism, which will undoubtedly get some lively responses.
    Remember, the opposite of love is apathy. Always nice to stir up the passions in too often apathetic folks. Keep up the good work. Most of us love you, although I have been guilty of joking Harvard is a great place for folks who can’t get a job.
    Oxford (Elementary School)grad., Jon

  4. Marjorie..
    excellent comments.. no need to repeat..

    One question — why is it that so many who don’t understand the Recruiting world has so much to say about it?

    Really, the Executive search individuals who only base the validity of their candidates by the length of their Replacement Guarantee.. well those are considered One Hit wonders..

    Really.. As a TPR — I would not want to mess with the Behavioral Interview.. maybe as a Staffing firm, or co employer.. but why would I want to deal with the Legal Problems that can come from this.. Stir up a hornets nest.. Nah, I think I will leave that to the client.. that is why I present the best that I can and let them determine ‘the accuracy’

    Karen M.

  5. First, good article on BI. I find it to be the most effective model and, as such, it is my interviewing style of choice.

    Regarding the comments on retention, Marjorie and Wendell both make interesting points, they frame the contrast between what a Recruiter position ‘really’ is, and what it becomes when the other parties (i.e. HR and hiring management) need someone to blame to cover their own incompetencies.

    To those HR and hiring managers who want to hold someone in an internal Recruiting role accountable for retention issues, I say ‘absolutely!’ – but first show the Recruiter a carrot instead of just the stick!

    If Recruiting is expected to share in the blame of retention issues, then Recruiting should share in the success of their efforts, too. In a corporate setting, why not specifically bonus the internal Recruiters based on their hires’ subsequent performance ratings and/or getting promoted?

    It would be great if someone would respond with an example of how Recruiting successfully impacted retention issues and how they were rewarded for their efforts.


  6. …and how often does a new hire do more than ‘get by’? The 2003 Recruiting Roundtable study of over 28,000 new hires suggests that only about 7% are given a top performance rating in their first appraisal. That figure is the result of approximately 50% who are successfully matched to the job specs, about 30% who are matched to the company culture, and only about 10% who successfully ‘navigate early challenges’ coming on board. The overlap of these approximate figures yields the 7% early successes. By focusing on candidate-job matches one ignores the limiting condition of onboarding success. So, work for Corning, Intuit or other companies who have realized the importance of the assimilation process, or add an onboard coaching component to your searches.

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