Behavioral Interviewing, The Good, The Bad and the Really Ugly – A Guide

Behavioral Interviews(BI). I hate them.  That said, I think they are demeaning, age discriminatory and lead to conclusions that have no basis in reality.  If you are a candidate and you end up with a session run by HR you will be having a BI.  You absolutely need to be prepared.  If you are not, you are wasting your time as well as theirs.  That being said…

The easiest place to start preparing/researching for a BI is the internet, but be prepared, it may seem like an easy search, but it isn’t. You will find that at least 80 – 90% of the questions, answers, philosophies, etc., are written by people trying to sell you something.

From an HR perspective, Behavioral interviewing is based on assumptions.  The first and leading is that past behavior is an indicator of future behavior.  It sounds good, easy to sell to management and gives some structure to the interview process.  What it isn’t is an absolute, even though it’s treated as such.  The interviewer should be looking for very definite answers or concepts.  Don’t show them, you fail.  Give them what they want and you pass.

I have 2 major issues involving training that, in my opinion, negate or at least minimize the BI value.  The first is the training the person doing the interview has received and how well they put that into practice.  It amazes me how little training people have had in using BI.  Even more surprising is how much weight is given to the interviewees answers scored by someone who doesn’t know what the answers mean.

The second issue, and probably my second biggest issue with BI is the training the candidates have received in taking these tests/interviews.   There is a generational group of people who have taken courses in taking these tests.  They took them in High School and repeatedly studied them in college.  If they went on further, they studied them again. This group loves this type of interview because they have been taught, by someone else, to ace this interview, and they do.  Here, the person taking the test is better trained and prepared than the person giving it.  There is an old saying that fits this process, it’s called “Loaded Deck”.  The interviewee (candidate) is giving the interviewer the prepared answers they learned in school

Those over 50 have a big disadvantage here.  These courses were not taken like the younger generation.  When asked the BI questionsm they are forced to give real, honest answers.  Interviewers are asking questions that they don’t understand nor how to ask them.

An interesting article by Lou Adler: Is Behavioral Event Interviewing Based on Bad Science?   by Lou Adler

Is a structured BEI all that predictive? Or is Past performance, not past behavior, the best predictor of future performance.

  1. Why is the criteria used to promote someone from within more predictive than hiring someone from the outside? It seems logical that the methodology companies used to promote those who are successful, which is based on their performance, should be applied to those hired from the outside. If so, this would mean emphasizing a track record of past performance doing comparable work in comparable situations combined with the person successfully taking on bigger roles with less experience.
  2. If no one is in the forest, can you hear a tree fall? This is a pretty weak analogy, but the point is if no one uses the BEI properly, how can you consider it useful? Most managers find it too clinical, candidates can practice ahead of time, and the best candidates are turned off by it. Plus lack of enforcement and uniformity weakens the pretty weak predictive value even further.
  3. Where is the scientific evidence that companies that use BEI outperform their peers? Wouldn’t this be the big Kahuna? Could it be that there is something else, other than accurate assessments, that drive quality of hire?
  4. BEI is counterproductive by eliminating the top half from consideration. The best people are looking for a career move involving job stretch, learning, and growth. By forcing everyone through the same funnel, some of the best people voluntarily opt out early, since they find the process demeaning, clinical, and one-directional.

Lou Adler in the same article quoted “Now all of this might be the ramblings of an old-line recruiter who has been in the field too long. On the other hand, maybe the scientists never had to close a top performer for a troubled company with limited funding, and then guarantee the person would actually deliver top-notch performance for at least a year. Maybe they should try to do this and then modify their science accordingly. If they do, I suspect they’ll come to the same conclusion that BEI doesn’t improve quality of hire, and in many cases actually causes it to decline.”

Another issue I take with BI is when dealing with candidates with highly specialized and scarce skill sets.  These people are not easily put into a cookie cutter anything. Their feelings are that they have a skill you desperately need, will make it available to you and you can use it or not.  I think that when an interview question begins with “tell me about a time” that you really don’t want to know what they are thinking.

The Flawed Interview Process published by “The Interview Edge” interestingly and I believe correctly gets into why the process is flawed yet demonstrating that there are other issues that cause the flaw. 

The article begins with “In an issue of the Harvard Business Review, the CEO of AlliedSignal describes the interview as “the most flawed process in American business.”  Every major American business school teaches students how to take an interview, yet not one teaches students how to conduct an interview.

The lack of initial training is compounded by the fact that interviewers are seldom given any feedback on their performance. Most interviews are conducted in private with no monitoring. That means mistakes not only often go unnoticed, but also tend to be repeated over and over.

The best article I have seen on how to ace a behavioral interview is “Complete List of Behavioral Interview Questions – Interviewing” by Alex Rudloff.  You may think that saying it’s a “Complete” list might be a bit of an exaggeration, when you read the article, you will see he is probably right.

He does not attempt to answer the questions.  What he does try and do is to classify them.  If you can identify a question and know why it’s being asked, you are miles ahead of those who didn’t do some research.  Of everything I have read on BI, this is the most complete guide to nailing the interview.  Some of the classifications are:

Adaptability, Ambition, Analytical Thinking, Building Relationships, Conflict Resolution, Customer Orientation, Decision Making, Evaluating Alternatives, Initiative, Inter personal Skills, Leadership, Listening, Motivation, Persuasion, Problem and problems Solving, Problem Resolution, Resolving Conflict, Setting Goals and Teamwork, Time Management, Toughness, Variety and finally, Values Diversity.

This is not the entire list but there is little to no chance that you would be asked one from each group.  Once you classify one or two, you should know where the interviewer is headed.

So, the first rule on taking behavioral interviews is be prepared. So is the second and third.