Behavioral Interviewing Popular, but Training in Use Urged

By Kathy Gurchiek Jan 28, 2008
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Use of behavioral interviewing is on the rise, according to a new survey, but employers are cautioned to identify and define crucial competencies and train interviewers in their use if they want positive results.

More than half (55.7 percent) of 2,556 senior HR professionals and training and development executives surveyed plan to continue using behavioral interviewing at the same frequency, and almost one-fourth (24.7 percent) plan to use it more often, according to a national survey the Novations Group conducted in December 2007.

Behavioral interviewing is a technique aimed at predicting a job candidate’s suitability for a position based on his or her past workplace behavior.

“The interviewer asks the candidate to describe, in detail, how he or she handled specific situations in the past,” Novations executive consultant Tim Vigue said in a press release.

“The answers enable the hiring manager to learn the candidates’ capacity to handle similar situations in the new position.”

The sharp rise in the hiring technique may be attributable in part to what Vigue says is “an increasingly diverse talent pool” that demands that organizations hire the best candidate “from the broadest possible pool.” That requires, he said, using “objective methods that won’t screen out qualified candidates due to bias.”

However, for behavioral interviewing to be effective, the employer must identify and define a short list of the competencies and behaviors considered crucial for the position, and have people who are trained in the technique administering the questions, Vigue noted.

What Is Behavioral Interviewing?

“Behavioral interviewing” is a term that is tossed around loosely, observed Mark Stewart, who has a Ph.D. in industrial psychology and sits on the Society for Human Resource Management’s Organizational Development Special Expertise Panel.

He was skeptical that the 55.7 percent who said they use behavioral interviewing all adhere to the same standards for conducting those interviews.

It’s a technique that goes beyond including some questions about how a job candidate handled various work situations at a former employer, he said. It requires the interviewer to have been trained in spotting the strong answers for the competencies in question and knowing how to score those answers, Stewart said.

“The key in behavioral interviewing is that it has to be structured, [with] set questions that are delivered to every candidate in the same wording, the same order and scored in the same way,” he said in a SHRM Online interview.

For example, the main interview question would be followed up with questions structured to elicit the candidate’s actions and thinking; the outcome of the action taken; what he or she learned from the experience; and how he or she applied the lessons learned at a later date.

The interviewer records any negative or positive themes evident from the candidate’s answers—such as a lack of timely response to customer issues, or handling difficult customers comfortably.

“Ideally, the head of HR works with operational executives to determine the competencies or knowledge, skills and abilities needed to [execute] corporate strategy,” Stewart said in a follow-up e-mail.

“After executives reach consensus, HR must create methods to measure these competencies, educate organizational members on the process and potential value, and work with these people to fully implement the process,” as well as maintain records on the interview program’s use and effectiveness, he wrote.

Stewart, a senior consultant for PCI Human Resource Consulting Inc., in Pittsburgh, advised employers interested in using behavioral interviews to:

  • Train the interviewers in its use.
  • Use a system that checks that the persons not only received the training but all displayed some degree of accuracy.
  • Follow up with the employees after they completed training.
  • Involve the hiring manager, who should be familiar with and trained in the process.
  • Demonstrate that the interview questions used three or four years ago remain representative of those positions.

Behavioral interviewing can be used in any industry but might be too expensive a process for low-level applicants, Stewart said.

The best way to use the technique, he said, is further along in the selection process, after screening the resume and conducting some type of online inventory. Interviewers can conduct phone interviews that incorporate behavioral interview questions and can conduct in-person behavioral interviews with the final candidates. It’s a way to keep the cost down and the quality of hires up, he said.

“Improving the interview quality is a never-ending process. Predicting performance potential is an art; it’s always sketchy,” he said. The interview answers, he added, “should be viewed as a piece of the data, not the complete picture.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

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