Here’s How You Need to Upgrade Your Behavioral Interviews

You would be hard pressed to find a candidate today who isn’t familiar with and prepared for a behavioral interview. A behavioral interview is based on the premise that past performance predicts future behavior. It’s designed to elicit information about how candidates handled a past challenge and the behaviors and decision-making process that went into it. A classic example of a behavioral question is: “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer.” If you’ve been hired in the last 20 years, you’ve probably been asked that.

A Google search for “behavioral interviewing” yields 6.4 million results. Candidates research and rehearse for the most common questions and may even be able to drill down to the specific questions your hiring managers ask via “reviews” from recent candidates on social sites.

Time for Behavioral Interviewing 2.0

You’re limited as to what you can learn about a candidate if they are merely reciting a rehearsed story. Past performance is still critical information to know. But past performance isn’t the be-all, end-all to the uncertain challenges of the future. The challenges we faced five years ago are not the challenges we face today and they won’t be the challenges of tomorrow. Success yesterday does not equate to success tomorrow. Given this, what we really need to learn from past performance is not actually what the candidate did, but why and the way that they did it. This information is useful, but it still doesn’t tell you how the person will address a new challenge. And today, more than ever, a candidate’s ability to innovate is critical to tomorrow’s success.

Add the Future to the Mix

One way to ascertain this is to add a layer of the future to your questions. Start looking for a candidate’s ability to innovate, their energy toward ambiguity and unfamiliar challenges, and nimbleness. You can present the candidate with a real problem your company faces (or an anticipated one), and ask the candidate how they would solve it. This does three things:

  1. It lets you see into the candidates’ ability to think forward and nimbly apply themselves to a new problem.
  2. It catches candidates off guard as they cannot anticipate or rehearse their response (assuming they do not know the problem ahead of time and that it doesn’t get leaked on social media).
  3. It gives the candidate clearer insight into the types of challenges they will have the opportunity to work on at your company.

It’s Not All About You

Today’s candidates choose their employers. They look for work that engages their passion, skills, and values. They do not tolerate being bored. By transparently presenting a real challenge, you show candidates that your company has exciting challenges to tackle, opportunities to leverage, growth and change to partake in. Companies that demonstrate this to candidates send the message that it could be a lot of fun to work there.

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Corroborate Answers With References

Ideally, behavioral questions challenge candidates to think on their feet with the intent that they will give a raw, honest depiction of how they performed in the past. But with rehearsed answers, more often than not, this doesn’t happen anymore. Today, you need to corroborate candidate stories with references. Otherwise, you cannot discern whether the candidate truly did what they claim they did or if they were just a bystander in the situation or if they read it on the internet.

Repurpose Questions for Culture and Fit

Another option is to repurpose behavioral questions to assess for values, culture, and attitude while the candidate thinks you are playing the game as usual. Assessing for cultural fit is essential, especially when onboarding a new hire costs companies between 40 and 100 percent of the first year of salary — a significant investment. As the candidate tells her story about how she handled a situation, listen for indicators of her attitude toward others, her energy toward the situation, and what values guided her in the decision-making process.

Behavioral interviewing is still relevant, but today’s hiring managers would do well to upgrade it to stay ahead of savvy candidates and, ultimately, design the questions to elicit information that provides solid value into why the person would be the best fit for the job.

Steve Squier joined Seven Step RPO in 2012 as a service delivery partner and was promoted to strategic director in 2013. He provides strategic account direction by focusing on partnership and collaboration while driving results through performance management. He possesses an expertise in RPO implementation, talent acquisition, change management, process improvement and data analytics. He brings a consultative approach to client management based on over 20 years in a variety of recruiting roles to include contingency, retained and executive search, recruiting consulting, and RPO Management.


12 Comments on “Here’s How You Need to Upgrade Your Behavioral Interviews

  1. Great article and so pertinent to the current workforce and the millenial generation. As a consultant who designs employee selection and assessment systems, I’d also add that the interviews should be intentionally measuring key skills and attributes that are difficult to measure via a test (e.g., ability to influence, decision making under pressure, creative problem solving). That is, the interview should be built from an established and validated competency model for the job or job family. Further, it is critical that there are guidelines for scoring the interview, particularly when multiple interviewers use the same interview protocol. Having a rating scale with descriptions representing each number will ensure comparable understanding of what a 3 looks like vs. a 5. This allows objective evaluation and comparison of candidates, allowing employers to fairly and defensibly hire the best candidates. This is particularly important when an interview is also tapped to determine culture fit, and most of them are!

  2. Thanks, Steve. Many valuable things here. I think the future-orientation of questions makes a great deal of sense.

    What is the purpose of surprising/outsmarting candidates? How often do most employees have have situations that require them to think on their feet requiring immediate feedback in novel situations?

    ISTM that “innovation” is a buzz-word for “anticipating the bosses’ needs without being told to do so.” In my experience, employers rarely if ever want people who like to challenge the way things are done.

    “Today’s candidates choose their employers.”
    Not in my experience. ISTM that except for “Fab 5” and some much in-demand skill-sets, the vast majority of job seekers (even very good ones) do not have the luxury of picking and choosing between competing job offers- they’ll be glad for a FT, decently- paid, decently-benefited job. Last I heard ( there were nearly 3 applicants for every open position.

    “Assessing for cultural fit is essential…”
    Another argument for maximizing tele-work- the less time you have to physically spend around someone,the less they need to “fit in”.

    “…especially when onboarding a new hire costs companies between 40 and 100 percent of the first year of salary — a significant investment.” Can you tell me where you got those figures, and what these costs consist of?



  3. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux said it best “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

    Intentions are not enough and therefore I have reservations about hypothetical situational interviews/questions.

    How often does what someone says correlate highly with what they will do? I think what someone says will typically correlate higher with what they have done. This assuming that most people like to talk about real accomplishments.

    I am concerned with the major assumption that intentions will lead to desired behavior in an interview setting.

    I am also concerned that the historically based behavioral interview can discriminate between those who have had an opportunity to demonstrate performance and those who have not.

  4. As a talent & consulting firm that launches challenger SaaS brands into APAC; we know more than anyone locally the importance of selection criteria that stretches way beyond just experience and skill.

    We have to find those niche candidates who aspire to challenger brands and can execute effectively in chaos !!(and love it)

    I think there’s one point for me which is most pertinent, which is the “How” would you solve problem X ?

    The “How” tells us if the candidate can think laterally around associate industry hurdles and creatively own outcomes or if their default position is to leverage resources.

    I think the obvious question is does the organisation have self awareness of “What does success look like in our people” for them to even think about how you screen in the right people in a (sustainable) way that will ultimately drive organisational effectiveness.

  5. @ Stuart,
    “I think the obvious question is does the organisation have self awareness of “What does success look like in our people” for them to even think about how you screen in the right people in a (sustainable) way that will ultimately drive organisational effectiveness.”

    Most don’t, or completely get it wrong. Companies that haven’t promoted people in years will go on and on about internal development. Companies where the boss/owners are nuts will bill themselves as ‘entrepreneurial’ when in reality the boss/owners are just fickle. An honest assessment of what it takes to succeed at a company would require an honest assessment of its management. That’s a rare happening.

  6. @ Gareth: “Saint Bernard of Clairvaux”- not bad. We’ll keep an eye on you….

    “Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.”

    -Saint Augustine of Hippo

    Re: our topic- what do you propose as viable alternatives to structured BI (past and/or future-oriented)?

    @ Stuart: As a plain, country recruiter raised in Portales, New Mexico, I can’t clearly follow all the business jargon. Could you explain what you’re saying in ordinary English?

    @ Richard. Very true.

  7. Good article Steve. I personally am not a fan of behavioral interviewing. As you stated, it can be rehearsed and even made up – personally, I had an interview years back when they popped off all these behavioral interview questions and I made up my answers all there on the spot. Mainly because I had never been in any of the situations they asked: confrontation with a coworker, negative situations, etc. Needless to say, I received an offer and was told that was the greatest interview they ever had?????

    For me past performance is indicative of future performance and if we ask questions as you suggested that are more problem solving related that provoke thought and creativity, cross that with the skill set and experience and corroborate with references – then this is valuable and true.

  8. Keith in response to your question I have more concerns with one method than the other:

    I am no industrial psychologist though I have a major in the subject. I am not the expert on interviewing either, but I have had my fair share of interviews to know what works for me.

    If any thought leading industrial psychologist or self perceiving interview expert reads this, please scrutinize because I do stand to be corrected.

    I understand that there was a difference between the behavioral interview and the situational interview. The main difference being evaluating desired behavior in past vs. Future situations. Or in other words past behaviour vs. Intentions/wishful problem solving.

    I have no real issues with the BI based on past performance. It works for me and I have done my best to understand how to best apply it.
    My reservation with the traditional BI method based on past performance is that it discriminates against the person who has never been in the situation in question. Such as a younger candidate with real potential up against a very experienced veteran with a proven track record.

    I prefer to stick with the basics and screen for past performance and thus I am a big fan of the tried and tested BI if and only if it is based on a thorough systematic job analysis.

    I find that BI’s help me drill down into past performance, so that I can make a decision based on the 2 of the most basic and important questions: Can this person do the job? AND What facts/information confirm that this same person will do a better job than the rest of the candidates under consideration?

    Hypothetical situational interviews do not help me accomplish this because I struggle to fully trust intentions or wishful problem solving. Also, anyone who has been through a business school will be able to think their way through a hypothetical dilemma or verbal challenge presented in an interview. I prefer to trust behaviour and listen to intentions.

    I have read some interesting research by Dr. Gary Latham from the Rotman school of business at University of Toronto. He has studied selection criteria and interviewing in depth and he has a lot of info on the validity of situational interviews.

    From my observations on the job and looking at the research, interview questions become meaningful when derived from a systematic job analysis based on real competency based management.

    A reliable collection of scenarios/situations can then stem from that process to ensure content validity.

    Face validity of the procedure is absolutely essential. We need to keep things simple and focus only on job-related questions. There are limits to fancy creative questions that appear like the real deal and sound great to the ear. I have tried my hand at creative experiments with mixed results.

    I am very wary of the recent flood of opinions out there suggesting new twists to interviewing. I think the behavioral interview as I know it offers more than enough flexibility for creative content if it is based on proper job analysis.

    Interviewers must be well versed and trained given that situational and behavioural interviews generate a wide array of responses.

    The studies I have read also indicate that it is essential that the interview is based on overt behavior as opposed to traits, perceptions and the like which are usually uncertain and unpredictable.

    This is where I am concerned and prefer to have real scientific data to back up the hypothetical situational interview as a valid tool for accurately measuring cultural fit and perceived intentions. If we base interviews on screening for cultural perceptions, attitudes, values and the like, we need to make sure there is a clear link to job performance and behavior but even then, this can be complicated to ensure validity.

    I think that a behavioural interview based on past situations and scenarios is more likely to be valid in predicting future performance than relying on hypothetical situations and questions addressing them.

    I like to think that in principle, if a candidate has successfully navigated a “similar/related” challenge/situation/dilemma from the past, that same candidate is likely to use similar behavior to accomplish a similar feat in the future.

  9. “I like to think that in principle, if a candidate has successfully navigated a “similar/related” challenge/situation/dilemma from the past, that same candidate is likely to use similar behavior to accomplish a similar feat in the future.”

    Don’t make this too simple, someone needs to make money on this process.

  10. Thanks again, gareth. If Effective Bi requires through training and optimum presentation to be effective- then it looks as if it isn’t going to work very well in most cases, as you’re unlikely to have both of those. For the overall intent: are we looking for some valid technique that can’t be prepared for or gamed? Wouldn’t someone who is willing to try and outsmart the interviewer be the type of motivated and intelligent person we theoretically want to hire?


  11. Great article Steve. There are many schools of thought as you can see by other comments. Similar to Amy’s point above, we would argue that organizations need to first define the key competencies and desired performance levels required for successful performance in the given position. Once defined, organizations can then determine what approach (behavioral interviewing, case-based interviewing, etc.) is best given the set of behaviors to assess, and a hybrid is not a bad approach. Some behaviors may be easier to measure through a case/real organizational problem (e.g., creativity), while others may be easier to measure based on past performance (e.g., decision making, teamwork).

  12. I feel the performance based approach Lou Adler pushes is the best. Keep your target on ferreting out real information that indicates performance level, the approach to get that information will be dictated on an as needed basis for each candidate.

    The real critical skill for an interviewer I find is to be able to control the conversation when necessary. I often start the interview by getting basics such a reporting structures, when they came in, when they left, reason, etc. I ask the candidates to keep their answers short during that portion of the interview, they almost always need to be controlled. You ask when they left company X – because of course their resume just lists a year, not the month… – and what follows if you let it is their life story. You have to be willing to interrupt and to politely ask them to answer the question you asked, not the one they apparently heard or rehearsed for.

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