Before discussing behavioral interview techniques, I first want to talk about an elephant.
There is an ancient teaching tale I want to share. It's 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. One touches the leg (“Oh, the elephant is a pillar!”). Another the tusk (“The elephant is a weapon!”). When the men discuss what they felt, they realize they disagree about what an elephant is. None 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. And they appear to have been written by “elephant inspectors” who focus on poorly executed behavioral interview techniques.
Or even worse, on what they mistakenly think are the right behavioral interview techniques. They have strong, negative—sometimes vitriolic—opinions. But they don’t appear to understand what behavioral interviewing really is.
One blogger referred to it as “a modest predictor” of on-the-job performance. He went on to describe his far superior interviewing system. This system was just behavioral interviewing with a different name.
Another blogger said behavioral interviewing is “the worst possible way to hire someone.” He instead advocated for looking for a great match between the candidate’s needs and the employer’s needs. As if that isn’t behavioral interviewing's objective.
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 poor information on behavioral interviewing and behavioral interviewing techniques.
Let's do so by examining four common myths.
1. The purpose of behavioral interviews is to decide which candidate is most worthy of the job.
Reality: Behavioral interviewing is rooted in the notion that past behavior predicts 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. Then you decide.
Similarly, trained behavioral interviewers shoot to understand what the candidate has demonstrated in the past. This enables them to make educated predictions. Determining who is most “worthy” of the job is not the objective. Rather, it's about who has best demonstrated the right skills, behaviors, and motivations. The ones that predict who will have the greatest success in the job and who will find the greatest personal satisfaction in the work. 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 through behavioral interview techniques, such as asking scripted questions.
Reality: Quick, who is the best interviewer in the media? That person who 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 they prepare. They come up with questions in advance to ignite a two-way conversation. Skilled, trained behavioral interviewers are no different.
An interviewer trained in behavioral interviewing, who applies the right behavioral interview techniques, uses great questions. Such as, “Tell me about a time you had competing priorities…” Or, “Walk me through how you solved a business problem…” Then they probe with follow-up questions to get the right details. This allows the interviewer to hear actual examples. These include examples of what the candidate did and how they did it. And they also get information on the circumstances related to the example.
The answers to these questions reveal more about a candidate than off-the-cuff questions. You know the type. Questions like, “We have a problem with innovation in our department. What would you do to help us?”
A candidate's response to that question will begins with “I would...” 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. Instead, they'll come 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. Yes, smart interviewers are prepared. But so are smart candidates if truly are interested in the position. They'll have done their homework. And they'll have familiarized 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, using the right behavioral interview techniques, will engage the candidate with follow-up questions. 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 being shared is real. Or, to take a conspicuous nosedive, when the candidate must scramble to embroider on a “canned answer.”
4. Behavioral interviewing is fear-based.
Reality: Fear is the mortal enemy of the behavioral interview. In a behavioral interview, the interviewer wants to know how the candidate handled situations in the past. What they did when facing a challenge. When they triumphed. And the events or situations they are 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 they learn how they may behave in future situations. Candidates, for their part, can talk about themselves. It's the subject they know best. Behavioral interviewing depends on the candidate being both comfortable and candid.
That's a far cry from being fear-based,
Interviewers who grill or intimidate candidates likely learned that behavior when they were candidates. Poor interviewers are products of poor interviews. It's why interviewers must be trained in the right behavioral interviewing skills. These include building rapport, evaluating responses objectively, and avoiding sensitive or potentially illegal questions.
Behavioral interviewing is not all about the quality of the questions. It's about the skill of the interviewer. When interviewers aren’t properly trained, they fail. And 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. They also provide the best candidate experience. To unleash the predictive power of behavioral interviewing, interviewers need to be trained. They need to be trained in the right behavioral interview skills. And they need to follow a structured system when conducting interviews, evaluating candidate data, and making a hiring decision.
Learn more about behavioral interviewing.
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.