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Want to Really Get to Know Your Candidates? Interview for Emotional Intelligence

Two women shaking hands in an office.

​A website teaches candidates how to lie on their resume. A company is set up to provide fake job references. There is no shortage of mechanisms that job applicants can use to fool hiring managers. Employers have to be on their guard and interview and screen out applicants effectively to avoid being duped by crafty candidates.

Using behavior-based interview questions to identify a candidate's emotional intelligence (EQ) is one strategy. EQ is the ability to understand your own and others' emotions and respond appropriately based on that information, and it is a critical skill in the workforce.

"We are not going to get away without doing a very good interview," said Jennifer Shirkani, CEO and president at Penumbra Talent Management Solutions in Bedford, N.H., and nationally recognized expert on emotional intelligence. "Hiring after an hour[-long] interview is like proposing on a first date," she told attendees at the recent Society for Human Resource Management's 2018 Talent Conference & Exposition.

Do's and Don'ts

There are a few hiring practices employers often use that keep them from getting to know candidates, she said. Here are two that employers can stop doing right away:

Don't provide job candidates with a full list of desired skills and qualifications in job ads or initial interview conversations. "These are smart candidates. They will present themselves the way you tell them [when you share] what you are looking for," she said.

Don't spend less time on interviews for hourly roles than you would for a manager role. Hourly roles are important, and effective interviews can reduce unwanted turnover at all levels.

Here's a practice Shirkani recommends employers implement: Do incorporate behavior-based interview questions. The single best predictor of future behavior and performance is past behavior and performance. When asking behavioral interview questions, listen for responses that include specifics on the circumstance, the action and the result, and ask follow-up questions as necessary.  

Shirkani explained that emotional intelligence is a competency that measures an individual's ability to do the following three things:

  • Recognize. Candidates with high self-recognition will know what they are good at. They know their triggers, moods, personality type and communication style.
  • Read. The candidate has situational awareness, which is the ability to walk into a room and know the mood before anyone speaks. 
  • Respond. The candidate can respond appropriately to a situation.

EQ skills can be identified using behavioral interview questions for all positions at all levels in an organization. Shirkani provided the following examples of EQ skills and related interview questions:

Self-awareness. "Think of a time when you received feedback from someone else that surprised you," or "Tell me about a time when you were unfairly criticized, and provide details." These questions often catch candidates off guard and can eliminate canned responses. Answers can show an individual's ability to be coached and accept feedback.

Empathy. "Tell me about a time when you had to deliver the same bad news to more than one person. How did you do it?" Typically, a response that shows a customized message to recipients will indicate a higher EQ. Some jobs (e.g., nurses) need higher empathy, while in other positions (e.g., bill collectors) very high empathy may be a weakness.

Self-control. "Tell me about a situation when something was better left unsaid," or "Tell me about a time when you said something you immediately regretted." Answers provide insight on impulse control: Do they react quickly or have emotional reactions or anger issues? Can they think before speaking? If self-control is too high and an individual is too composed, that can potentially be a red flag. This may indicate the person is hard to read and comes across as guarded to co-workers and colleagues, resulting in lower trust.

Stress tolerance. "Describe your busiest week in the last six months." This question helps reveal how an individual may react to demanding deadlines or fast-paced work environments. Is the candidate's definition of busy similar to what is considered busy in your workplace?

Flexibility.  "Tell me about a stretch assignment in your last role that really challenged you. Did you volunteer, or was it delegated to you? How did you learn how to do this task? Was there training, or did you seek training on your own?" A candidate's answer can show how flexible he or she is to change and ability to grow with the company.

Optimism. "Think of a time when you had an unexpected setback at work. Tell me about the details."  Was the candidate's reaction to the setback positive or negative? Different jobs may need different levels of optimism. Salespeople with high optimism outsell those with low optimism; however, pessimists are often good lawyers.

Erin Patton, SHRM-SCP, is an HR resources editor for SHRM Online. 

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