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4 Behavioral Interviewing Myths Debunked

Katy Campbell

Katy Campbell

There is an ancient teaching tale about a group of men who, in darkness, touch an elephant to learn what it is. Each one touches a different part of the elephant, such as the leg (“Oh, the elephant is a pillar!”) or the tusk (“The elephant is a weapon!”). When the men compare notes on what they felt, they realize that they are in complete disagreement as to what an elephant is. None of the men were wrong, as they each experienced something different, but none had the complete picture, either.

The elephant tale is on my mind because I’ve recently read criticisms about behavioral interviewing that appear to have been written by “elephant inspectors” who focus on either poorly-executed behavioral interviews, or even worse, what they mistakenly think a behavioral interview is. They have strong, negative—sometimes vitriolic—opinions about behavioral interviewing, but don’t appear to understand what behavioral interviewing is.

Behavioral interviewingOne blogger referred to behavioral interviewing as “a modest predictor” of on-the-job performance (before describing his far superior interviewing system which, ironically, is behavioral interviewing with a different name). Another blogger flatly opined that behavioral interviewing is “the worst possible way to hire someone,” advocating instead to look for a great match between the candidate’s needs, and the employer’s needs—as if that isn’t the objective of behavioral interviewing. Beware the elephant inspector who has never seen the entire animal in the light of day.

So, let’s shine a light on the latest misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and misinformation circulating about behavioral interviewing.

1. The purpose of behavioral interviews is for the employer to decide which candidate is most worthy of the job.

Reality: Actually, behavioral interviewing is firmly rooted in the notion that past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior. It’s like your brother-in-law asking to borrow money again this month. What do you do? You assess whether he paid you back last time, and proceed accordingly.

Similarly, trained behavioral interviewers endeavor to understand what the candidate has demonstrated in the past, to make educated predictions about the future. Determining who is most “worthy” of the job is not the objective; rather, who has effectively demonstrated the skills, behaviors, and motivations that predict who will have the greatest success in the job and who will have the greatest personal satisfaction in the job. To paraphrase the blogger cited above, it’s about identifying a great match between the candidate’s needs and the employer’s needs.

2. You will never get to know a candidate by asking them scripted questions.

Reality: Quick, who is the best interviewer in the media? That person who really connects with his or her subject and delivers a revealing, in-depth interview? Whomever you chose, whether it’s Barbara Walters, Anderson Cooper, or Howard Stern, I assure you that he or she prepares questions in advance to ignite a revealing two-way conversation. Skilled, trained behavioral interviewers are no different.

An interviewer trained in behavioral interviewing uses a question such as “Tell me about a time you had competing priorities…” or “Walk me through how you solved a business problem…” and probes with follow-up questions to get all the significant details. This allows the interviewer to hear from the candidate actual examples of not only what the candidate did, but how he or she did it, the circumstances entailed, and if the candidate enjoyed it.

The answers to these questions reveal much more about a candidate than answers to off-the-cuff questions like, “We have a problem with innovation in our department. What would you do to help us?” A candidate will answer that question, of course, but the problem is that it will be an “I would...” answer, so the interviewer will have no way of knowing if the candidate has ever done what he or she is espousing. A smart interviewer will steer clear of “what if” scenarios, and come to the interview prepared with questions that prompt rich and revealing stories.

3. Nearly every job-seeker offers formulated, canned answers.

Reality: Job candidates may have examples prepared to share during the interview—and they should! It’s called preparation. Just as smart interviewers are prepared, smart candidates who are truly interested in a position will have done their homework to familiarize themselves with the job requirements, and prepared their best stories. It’s the interviewer’s job to dig into the answers for details.

A skilled interviewer will engage the candidate with follow-up questions such as, “Walk me through the steps you took,” or “What alternatives did you consider?” These follow-up questions provide the candidate with an opportunity to shine (when the stories the candidate is sharing are real) or take a conspicuous nose dive (when the candidate must scramble to embroider on a “canned answer.”)

4. Behavioral interviewing is inherently fear-based.

Reality: Perhaps the person who wrote this criticism had an unfortunate interview experience in which she felt interrogated. If that was the case, it wasn’t a behavioral interview she experienced any more than an elephant’s trunk is a garden hose.

Fear is the mortal enemy of the behavioral interview. In a behavioral interview, the interviewer is interested in how the candidate handled situations in the past—what he or she did in the face of challenge, when he or she triumphed, and the events or situations he or she is proud of.

No candidate will fully engage in these conversations if afraid or intimidated. By asking candidates about their past experiences, interviewers learn about them and how they may behave in future situations. Candidates, for their part, have the opportunity to talk about the subject they are most expert and comfortable in discussing—themselves. Far from being fear-based, behavioral interviewing depends on the candidate being comfortable—and candid.

Interviewers who grill candidates or create an atmosphere of intimidation most likely learned that behavior when they were grilled as candidates. Poor interviewers are products of poor interviews, which is why interviewers must be trained in the skills required for behavioral interviewing, such as building rapport, evaluating responses objectively, and avoiding sensitive or potentially illegal questions.

Research shows the quality of behavioral interviewing is not all about what questions are asked, but the skill of the interviewer. When interviewers aren’t properly trained in behavioral interviewing, they fail—and, unfortunately, so do the people they hire.

40 Years of research can’t be wrong

Don’t be fooled by the elephant inspectors. More than 40 years’ worth of research confirms behavioral interviews produce the best hires and provide the best candidate experience. To unleash the predictive power of behavioral interviewing, organizations need to ensure that interviewers are trained in behavioral interviewing and follow a structured system when conducting interviews, evaluating candidate data, and making a hiring decision.

Katy Campbell is happily based in her adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa., in DDI’s world headquarters. As the Global Product Manager for DDI’s Targeted Selection, she is passionate about helping organizations select, develop, and retain the very best talent. When she’s not working, chances are good Katy’s listening to 80’s and 90’s music and singing along…loudly. She has never met a karaoke machine she didn’t like.

Learn about Targeted Selection®, the most accurate behavioral interviewing system in the world.

Posted: 21 Jun, 2017,

Talk to an Expert: 4 Behavioral Interviewing Myths Debunked

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