Graduate Work

By Andrea C. Poe Oct 1, 2003

HR Magazine, October 2003HR Agenda: Employement and Staffing

Behavioral interviewing can tell you if an applicant just out of college has traits needed for the job.

When Tamara Rashid became recruiting manager for Zones Inc., a national reseller of information technology products and services based in Renton, Wash., she thought the 600-employee firm’s turnover rate for hires recently out of college was unnecessarily high. About three of every five recent college graduates were leaving the company within a year or so of joining it.

Rashid maintained that the company could reduce the rate by doing a better job of identifying candidates who, if hired, would stick around. To accomplish that, she decided to adopt an interviewing approach designed to show if candidates have—or have not—demonstrated certain behavioral characteristics necessary for particular jobs.

“Before, the interview process was random,” Rashid explains. There was no established process for interviewing recent college graduates. Interviewers created their own questions, asking whatever they thought was important, she says, and thus there was no consistency among interviews.

“Now,” Rashid says, “we ask behavioral questions to learn whether or not applicants have the core competencies that work well in our environment.” Behavioral interviewing helps her cut to the chase and screen out unsuitable applicants, she says. In the two years since Zones started using behavioral interviewing, turnover among recent grads on the payroll has dropped to 45 percent.

Essentially, behavioral interviewing involves determining whether a job candidate’s approaches to particular circumstances—whether in full-time or part-time employment or in other experience-building pursuits such as public service or volunteer work—reflect the types of behavior that the employer has deemed necessary for the job being filled.

Although behavioral interviewing techniques are useful in evaluating job candidates who have employment experience, they should not be discounted for those—such as applicants with newly minted undergraduate degrees—who have little or no work experience on which to judge performance. Decisions on whether to hire recent college graduates must be made on factors such as their work ethic, temperament and general compatibility with the organization.

“The beauty of behavioral interviews is that it doesn’t matter how much experience, if any, an applicant has,” says Barbara Z. Flinn, national manager for campus recruiting at Progressive Corp., a 24,000-employee group of auto insurance companies based in the Cleveland suburb of Mayfield Village.

Progressive hires about 150 new graduates each year to work in its claims department. “What I am looking for,” says Flinn, “is an ability to deal with competing priorities, a certain resiliency, and a willingness to make mistakes”—which she says are inevitable at the start if a new employee is working hard to learn the job and get it done. “Those are the qualities that successful new hires must have to make it in this job.”

Laying the Groundwork

Flinn’s approach—to define the behavioral characteristics that the job requires and then to apply behavioral interviewing techniques to unveil those qualities in recent graduates—is recommended by various experts. “You can’t hit a target if you don’t know what you’re looking for,” says Mel Kleiman, founder of Humetrics Inc., a Houston-based consulting and recruiting firm.

There’s no silver bullet, experts note, no single set of attributes that will work for every company when considering recent college graduates. “Corporate cultures are different, positions are different, and new grads must be evaluated in relation to those things,” adds Bill Humbert, founder of the Humbert Group, a contract recruitment firm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

John Sullivan, a management professor at San Francisco State University and an HR consultant, recommends determining what has worked in the past. “Look at your successful new hires,” he says, “identify their key attributes and find out which candidates have those same attributes.”

That’s the method used by Dell Computer Corp., which hires about 100 recent college grads each year for positions in areas such as engineering, sales, marketing and finance. The company gathers information about its successful employees and uses it as a yardstick for measuring new recruits to see if they would make a good fit. “We rely on empirical data within the company to determine which competencies to look for,” says Paul Kurth, university relations manager for Dell at its headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, near Austin.

To determine the characteristics, Kurth explains, Dell collected data from 300 of its executives, who listed the qualities that they deemed effective. Those qualities were then compiled as a guide for interviewers. From time to time—as jobs are created or eliminated or as their descriptions change—the list of qualities is reviewed by executives to be sure it remains current.

Industrial psychologists at telecommunications giant AT&T Corp., headquartered in Bedminster, N.J., have developed a series of questions that get at core competencies the company deems most important to success as an AT&T employee. Those abilities include planning and organization, interpersonal effectiveness, decision-making and problem analysis.

At Clean Harbors Environmental Services, headquartered in Braintree, Mass., the priority is to find capable scientists who will stay with the company. “Because hazardous cleanup of the environment is so specialized, we have to groom talent to eventually lead this company,” says Michael Quinn, senior vice president.

Clean Harbors looks for applicants who demonstrate an interest in problem-solving, openness to new ideas and enthusiasm for learning. In particular, Quinn likes candidates who have served in the military or the Peace Corps because both “expose folks to a wide array of people and situations,” he says, and such experience “demonstrates to me that they have a willingness to work in a dynamic, not static, environment.”

Asking the Right Questions

By the time an applicant is invited for an interview, the candidate’s technical qualifications should not be an issue. “Only 13 percent of employees are terminated because they can’t do a job,” says Kleiman. “If you graduated from pharmacy school, I bet you can fill a prescription.”

The interview should focus on the so-called softer skills. Nick Burkholder, SPHR, president of, an HR consulting group in Willow Grove, Pa., recommends questions such as “Were you ever in a class when you didn’t understand the professor’s grading system? What did you do about it?” Burkholder says, “The answer tells you about the character of the person and what motivates them.”

Ask targeted questions, says Humbert. “If you’re hiring for a sales position, ask, ‘Did you ever try to sell anything in college?’ It could even be tickets to a party. Ask, ‘What did you hate about it? What was easiest about it?’ ”

Kleiman recommends questions that draw on applicants’ experiences—and not necessarily their job experience. “Ask them who their favorite teacher was, and why,” he says. “This will tell a lot about them. Do they need encouragement? Do they like to be challenged?” The more the applicant speaks, the more HR will learn.

Regarding a candidate’s prior experience, the “whys” are generally more important than the “whats,” says Barbara Mitchell, principal in The Millennium Group, a consulting firm based in Vienna, Va. “Find out why applicants made certain decisions and what impact those decisions had on them,” she says, adding: “Make it a conversation. Solicit information and listen hard.”

Quinn has found his own brand of interviewing to be effective in ferreting out the competencies of candidates for Clean Harbors. “I do some unconventional things,” he says, referring to his use of brainteasers. “I don’t care if they can figure out the problems. I want to watch the process. Do they talk it through with me? Take out pen and paper? Do they get frustrated? How do they react?”

Weighing Other Indicators

Internships, volunteer programs, part-time jobs and school projects can be clues to a candidate’s willingness to work and indicators of future success. Behavioral interviewing techniques work well with recent college graduates who have done such things because it focuses less on what the candidates did and more on their approaches to doing it.

“Some strong applicants gain skills through internships, some through work experience, some through class projects,” says Lynelle Topp, supervisor of professional recruitment for Hormel Foods Corp. in Austin, Minn. “We’re open to all experiences.”

Many companies favor internship experience. About 54 percent of the recent college graduates that Dell hires each year come from its internship program, and the percentage is on the rise. “We find these people ramp faster and deliver the goods,” Kurth explains.

An internship can be a good indicator of an applicant’s seriousness about work even if the internship was in a field unrelated to the job at hand. “A paid internship means a candidate understands the work environment,” says Sullivan.

Slightly more than half of all college hires have internship experience, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, so there’s a good chance that a go-getter has nailed an internship or two. The organization, based in Bethlehem, Pa., describes itself as a resource for campus career development practitioners and for HR professionals who recruit college graduates.

But bear in mind that “internships are not always valuable,” Humbert says. If they involve nothing more than “filing papers,” he says, “the experience is of minimal value.”

Moreover, just because an applicant hasn’t had an internship doesn’t mean he or she isn’t a strong candidate. “There are a finite number of quality internships, so there may be very good applicants who haven’t had one,” says Mike Theobald, director of career services at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

Other kinds of experience also can be important in determining the character of prospective employees. The military and Peace Corps backgrounds that Clean Harbors’ Quinn likes to find in candidates “can be even more valuable than internships,” he says, “since those experiences give you real-life lessons.”

Work-for-pay experience, whether at a car wash or a fast food restaurant, also can be useful in preparing new grads for the professional workforce. Says Kleiman: “You can build the entire interview around one question. ‘What was the first job you ever had?’ This might be mowing lawns, painting houses or delivering newspapers. Find out why they got the job, how old they were, and what they were saving for. Did they put themselves through school, save their money or blow it on beer?”

Some applicants, of course, may have had no employment experience while in high school or college. You may find that’s the circumstance with a recent graduate you’re interviewing, Kleiman says. “But don’t stop there. Find out why not. There are lots of families that put great emphasis on education, and for these people, school may have instilled the same values” that others acquired through jobs or other experiences during their school years.

Membership in school organizations also can be meaningful, but duties matter. Sullivan says, “Look for people who had functions like treasurer or membership chair, people who had to produce results.”

The Grading System

Many HR professionals put metrics in place to ensure that their interviewing techniques are delivering the desired outcomes.

Clean Harbors uses several measures to gauge the effectiveness of its selection process. First, the company looks at the number of recent college graduates who finish its two-year training program. Two years later, it reviews that group to see how many have advanced to the next level. Farther down the road, the company determines how many have become general managers.

At Hormel Foods it’s about retention. This is an especially important marker among an employee group—recent college grads—with notoriously high turnover. “We know our process is working because we have higher retention rates than the industry average,” Topp says.

Zones uses turnover rates as one part of the evaluation process. “We also look at fill rate and the timing of that rate,” says recruiting manager Rashid, referring to the success rate in filling jobs and the time it takes to bring new hires on board.

Last year, Progressive insurance company’s Flinn piloted a program that relied heavily on behavioral interviewing. It netted 150 hires. The company made offers to 72 percent of interviewees, and 86 percent of them accepted. “Our numbers show we made some good choices,” she says. “So this is what we’ll continue doing.”

Andrea C. Poe is a freelance writer based in Easton, Md., who specializes in human resource and management issues.

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