Using Behavioral Interviewing Techniques To Select the Right Employees

By Libby Anderson, M.S., SPHR Jul 22, 2008
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Employee turnover is a costly fact of life. Hiring a replacement worker can cost companies anywhere from $10,000 to half an employee’s annual salary—that’s per each lost employee, according to some experts.

Turnover expenses can be avoided or reduced significantly, however, by selecting the right applicant for the position in the first place. Of course, employee selection success doesn’t always come naturally. Well-intentioned employers can be duped by applicants who might know all the right things to say in an interview but who don’t have the skills to do the job. But learning a few behavioral interviewing techniques can help recruiters, HR professionals and hiring managers gain added insight into how an applicant will perform on the job.

Traditional approaches to interviewing—such as asking open-ended questions, relying on “gut instincts” and asking the basic who, what, why, when and where questions—typically don’t garner all the information needed to make a smart hiring decision. Responses to these questions are often vague, future-oriented and entirely subjective.

Behavioral-based questions, however, follow the psychological premise that past behavior predicts future performance. In other words, if an applicant has done something in the past, he or she is likely to do it again in the future.

Focus on Job Criteria, Performance

Behavioral-based interviews incorporate questions that deal with specifics about an applicant’s past work performance. Knowing how an applicant has behaved in the past can help determine if that person will exhibit the company’s preferred workplace behavior. As a bonus, behavioral interviewing reduces liability because it involves questions that are strictly related to workplace behavior.

Begin the behavioral-interviewing process by determining the performance criteria for the job that needs to be filled. An easy way to achieve this is to use a job description. If a job description isn’t available, make a list of the things that are essential to performing the job effectively. For example, a customer service representative position might involve the following job-related criteria:

  • Energy: Consistently maintains high productivity or activity level.
  • Oral Communication Skills: Effective nonverbal and verbal expression.
  • Tolerance for Stress: Stability of performance under pressure.
  • Adaptability: Maintains effectiveness in varying situations.
  • Positive Customer Service Orientation: Makes proactive effort to listen to and understand the customer, anticipates customer needs, and gives high priority to customer satisfaction.
  • Team Player Attitude: Works effectively and willingly with team members.

Every position has different criteria. Other criteria that can be used include initiative, judgment, professionalism, tenacity, written communication skills, sales ability, practical learning, safety awareness, quality orientation, attention to detail, decisiveness, problem solving and goal setting.

Once the criteria for effective job performance have been determined, design questions that will garner the information needed to decide if the person being interviewed will meet the criteria for the position. Remember, what you are looking for are answers that relate to specific work performance from previous experience because they serve as predictors of how the applicant will perform in your work environment. The following are sample questions for a few of the criteria for the customer service representative job noted previously:

  • Energy: Describe a time when you had to work at a fast pace for a long period of time. What kind of work did you do? What did you do to maintain the pace?
  • Oral Communication Skills: Describe a time when you had difficulty communicating with a customer and what you did to overcome that challenge. What was the outcome of that adjustment?
  • Tolerance for Stress: Describe a situation in which you were faced with a large amount of customer requests at one time. How did you handle the situation, and what was the result?

The key to designing behavioral-based interview questions is to look at the business’s environment and performance requirements and to ask questions that will reveal whether applicants have worked in similar environments and exhibited preferred behaviors in those situations.

Behavioral interviewing does have its challenges, though. For example, most applicants are not used to giving specific examples of their performance and, therefore, will need some coaching. Nevertheless, it’s worth it. Blanket statements such as “I’m a people person” don’t fit into this method of interviewing. Instead of accepting an applicant’s word when he or she refers to being a people person, ask for a specific example of when working with people was a motivating experience.

Behavioral interview questions certainly do not replace traditional interview questions that serve to clarify specifics about experience, education and background. Rather they enhance the quality of information received during the interview process by providing examples of a person’s work-related behavioral patterns. In the long run, effective use of behavioral interviewing techniques can help companies reduce turnover costs and improve their selection process.

Libby Anderson, M.S., SPHR, is a human resource consultant and trainer with EDA Human Resource Services, and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management's Organizational Development Special Expertise Panel. She can be reached at

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