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How to Conduct a Successful Behavioral Interview

Executive Summary

Are the traditional hypothetical interview questions a thing of the past? What if you could find out exactly how an interviewee would respond to a situation, rather than merely asking them to guess?

  • It’s easy for job candidates to assume they have the skills needed for a position, but what if their assumptions don’t match reality?
  • Understanding the standards of success for a position and the behaviors required to meet them is the first step to a successful CBBI interview.
  • By asking targeted, competency-specific questions during a behavioral interview, you can predict how a candidate would behave in a real-life situation.

Before we define competency-based behavioral interviewing (CBBI), it’s important that we define a competency.

Simply put, a competency is a behavior (a skill and/or ability) or set of behaviors that describes the expected performance in a particular work context. The context could be for the organization, a functional job group (e.g., accounting, human resources, operations), a job category (e.g., senior managers, middle managers, professionals), or a specific job. When they are appropriately developed, competencies are the standards of success for the position and the behaviors that are needed to support the strategic plan, vision, mission, and goals of the organization.

Competencies are different from the other requirements one might find for a given position, such as technical skills, functional skills and knowledge, education, and experience. For example, it is one thing to recruit for a position and require five years of management experience. It is another thing to recruit for a position that requires five years of management experience leading a diverse group of people. In the second situation, you would be looking for a candidate with five years of management experience coupled with a demonstrated competency of ‘‘valuing diversity.’’

WHAT IS COMPETENCY-BASED BEHAVIORAL INTERVIEWING?

Competency-based behavioral interviewing is a structured interview process that combines competencies with the premise that, with few exceptions:

  • The best predictor of future performance/behavior is past performance/behavior.
  • And, the more recent the performance/behavior, the more likely it is to be repeated.

The questions asked during CBBI are based on real situations that relate to the competencies for the position. Candidates, then, are evaluated based on actual behaviors/performance rather than on possible or potential behaviors/performance. As a result, the information gathered from the candidate is significantly more predictive of what their behavior and performance are likely to be in the position for which they are interviewing than what one finds with other interviewing styles.

In CBBI, rather than asking candidates directly if they have a particular competency—to which you will almost always hear a resounding ‘‘yes!’’—the interviewer asks the candidate to provide an example of a time when he demonstrated the competency. The focus is on the candidates giving you an indication of their proficiency in a particular competency by relating a real-world experience.

Typical interviews will sound something like this:

Interviewer: ‘‘I think I mentioned earlier that this is a high-stress position. How do you manage stress?’’

Candidate: ‘‘My last two positions were high stress. I actually do some of my best work under stress. Through experience, I’ve learned how to make stress work for me rather than against me. I think two of the most effective stress management techniques are . . .’’

Based on the answer the candidate provided, what do you really know about this person’s ability to handle stress? Not much— other than the person knows a couple stress management techniques. Whether the person actually uses them or not is up for debate. What is stressful to this candidate? Your guess is as good as mine. It could be that having to work the rest of the day after getting a paper cut is high stress for this candidate.

Using CBBI techniques, the interviewer would, instead, say something like this:

Interviewer: ‘‘Tell me about a time you had to perform a task or project under a lot of stress.’’ Now you are going to find out how the candidate actually handled stress in a real-life situation and what she considers stressful.

When used in conjunction with probing/follow-up questions, this question is going to provide significantly more information for comparing candidates to the competency requirements of the position and the culture of the organization than the answer you would receive to the original question. Assuming, that is, that you ensure that the candidate relates a real-life story rather than respond as if you had asked a situational question.

HOW IS CBBI DIFFERENT FROM OTHER INTERVIEWING STYLES?

When done properly, CBBI is different from the three interview styles discussed in Chapter 1 [High-Impact Interview Questions] in at least seven ways.

  • CBBI is designed through a process—beginning with a job, function, and/or organizational analysis—to determine the competencies. Every question asked during a CBBI, then, can be traced back to the initial analysis. The purpose of every question and its contribution to the interview process—and the position—can be clearly and concisely explained. Because of this linked approach, interviewers do not ask irrelevant questions or any question that will not provide specific job-related, competency-based information.
  • Interview questions are planned and directly tied to the competencies for success in the position. A CBBI has specific questions that each interviewer will ask of each and every candidate for the position. This does not mean that there is no flexibility to delve into the candidate’s experiences in more detail or get further clarification on something the candidate has said or insinuated. It simply means that every candidate is asked the same initial questions. Follow-up or probing questions will most likely vary from candidate to candidate.
  • Interviewers are trained on the CBBI process. When interviewers receive the training and guidance they need to be good, thorough interviewers, their confidence goes up, their ability to listen well increases, and they are more likely to reach an objective decision.
  • Rating scales are provided to minimize the subjectivity of the interviewing process. When the levels of proficiency for a competency are clearly defined, there tends to be less debate (or argument) between interviewers in terms of the rating a candidate should receive on a given competency.
  • Interview questions focus on actual current and past behavior rather than ‘‘might do’’ behavior. In most interview situations, a candidate may say, ‘‘Were I faced with X situation, I would follow Y process.’’ Unfortunately, you don’t know whether the candidate, when called upon to use the process, will actually do what she says. With CBBI, the candidate is telling you exactly and specifically what she did—or didn’t—do.

For example, imagine you were hiring a customer service representative. …Using a CBBI process, you identified competencies for the position, one of which would (I would hope) be ‘‘customer focus.’’ One of the behavioral questions you would ask each candidate then might be, ‘‘Tell me about the most difficult customer with whom you have had to deal.’’ The candidate’s answer to this question will provide you with two valuable pieces of information that you would not get from the traditional or situational approach.

First, it will tell you what the candidate considers to be an extremely difficult customer. Imagine that your most difficult customers would typically make Attila the Hun look like a charmer. Now when you ask the candidate about his ‘‘most difficult customer,’’ he tells you a story about a customer who is about as difficult as you would expect the Queen of England ever to get (which is not very difficult). In this situation, then, there is probably not a good fit. …Second, the candidate’s answer will tell you how he has dealt with difficult customers in the past.

  • CBBI makes it easier to compare candidates because they are all measured against the same criteria. These criteria come from the analysis that is conducted at the very beginning of the process.
    • First, they are measured against criteria that can be found on the resume.
    • Those that pass that standard are then measured against the telephone screening interview criteria.
    • Finally, those that pass that standard are then measured during the interview against the same competencies by answering the same questions.
  • CBBI focuses exclusively on competencies that are job-related. It doesn’t presume to be able to intuit a person’s problem-solving ability (or any other ability) by their answer to a vague question. It does not assume that people who are technical and functionally qualified will necessarily be the best person for the position.

CBBI takes a multidimensional approach to hiring. First, it uses technical and functional knowledge, skills, and abilities to narrow the candidate field. Then it uses a focused telephone screening interview to identify the candidates who have the critical skills (non-resume technical and functional expertise, and, in many situations, baseline competencies). Finally, it uses an interviewing process that focuses on the competencies for success in the position to determine the best candidate for the position.

In short, CBBI allows you—the interviewer—the opportunity to gather factual, real-world evidence as to the candidate’s ability to appropriately and effectively utilize the competencies required for success in the position and in the organization.

As a result, you find out:

    • Whether or not the candidate possesses the required competencies
    • The candidate’s skill level on that competency
    • How the candidate is likely to demonstrate his/her skill level in that competency in the future

Excerpted with permission from High-Impact Interview Questions: 701 Behavior-Based Questions to Find the Right Person for Every Job by Victoria A. Hoevemeyer, copyright Victoria A. Hoevemeyer.

Bring It Home

I remember more than one interview where I was asked how I might handle a potential situation. Being an idealist at heart, I was quick to explain how I believed I would behave. Did I mean the heartfelt words that I conveyed? Absolutely. But would my optimistic words end up being reality, or was my trusting new boss going to have to find out the hard way that my confidence outweighed my competency?

How could conducting a behavioral interview over a traditional one benefit your interviewing process? Comment below with one CBBI question that you can’t wait to ask a potential candidate.“~ HarperCollins Leadership Essentials

Vicki Hoevemeyer

Vicki Hoevemeyer has extensive organizational development and management/leadership development experience, having worked as both an internal and external consultant. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work from Western Michigan University, and a Master's degree in Organizational Behavior and Development from Eastern Michigan University.

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