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Behavioral interviewing: a way to get past ‘if only’

Human resources professionals may be excused for uttering the phrase “if only” at every step of the hiring process. If only the candidate pool were more promising. If only hiring managers were clearer about their needs. If only those hiring managers took their role in the interview process more seriously, giving it the time and attention it requires. If only an interview could enable an employer to accurately predict a potential employee’s performance. 

There may not be a sure-fire technique to resolve all the “if only” issues, but Mary Anne Kennedy, senior vice president of human resources and general manager for Yusen Logistics (Americas), is convinced behavioral interviewing can provide a clearer picture of a candidate’s potential than other interview methods.

Kennedy, who also is principal consultant at MAKHR Consulting, LLC, provided tips on effective behavioral interviewing during a recent webinar for Business and Legal Resources titled “Behavior Based Interviewing: Best Practices for Hiring the Right Person.” She says the “mantra” of behavioral interviewing is “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.” Finding out how a potential employee has handled past situations can give an employer vital information necessary to make a solid hiring decision.

Behavior versus judgment
A key to getting behavioral interviewing right, Kennedy says, is to make sure all involved understand the important difference between behavior and judgment. Behavior refers to factual evidence that is observable and verifiable. It’s what a candidate actually does or says and what he or she doesn’t do or say when given a clear opportunity. Behavior is not judgmental conclusions, feelings, opinions, inferences, traits, vague generalizations, or statements of future actions.

Completing a budget ahead of schedule is an example of a candidate’s behavior, Kennedy says. But a candidate who professes to maintain a positive, “can do” attitude is expressing a judgment. In another example, someone might be judged to be a team player, but someone who attended all team meetings exhibits an observable, verifiable behavior.

Kennedy says it’s important to ask all candidates being interviewed the same questions to ensure fairness. Having an interview guide with a list of behavior-based questions in front of the interviewer can be helpful. Interviewers don’t have to have a long list of questions, she says, but interviewers should be prepared to follow up with probing questions based on a candidate’s answers.

Kennedy strongly advises asking candidates about a time in the past year that has been extremely challenging. She advises letting the candidate know that the challenging experience doesn’t have to have a positive outcome. As the candidate tells the story, the interviewer should ask more questions to reveal how the candidate behaved during the challenge.

Follow-up questions
Kennedy relates a story of a hiring decision she was involved in at a healthcare company that illustrates the importance of following up basic queries with probing questions. Hiring from within was a key part of the company’s culture and an important reason many employees wanted to work there. The employee hired for the open position would be working at a company location with a gym, a daycare center, and a cafeteria.

One of the candidates vying for the position already worked for the company at a smaller location without all the amenities. When asked why the candidate wanted the position, the candidate replied, “for the opportunity.” The other candidate was a temp employee who had been filling in. She also said she wanted the job “for the opportunity.”

Then the interviewer followed up with a more probing question by asking each candidate for details about the “opportunity” they were looking for. The current employee said she wanted to work at the larger location with the gym, daycare, and cafeteria.

The temp answered the follow-up question by saying that she wanted to be a nurse. It was going to take her six years to get through school. The candidate said she was already doing the job, and it would give her more experience in her chosen field. The fact that she would be learning about health care and working in health care would benefit both her and the company.

Even though the philosophy of the company was to promote from within, the internal candidate didn’t get the job, Kennedy says. Both candidates had the same answer to the basic question, but the more probing question provided the important information helpful in making the hiring decision. “So it’s so important to take it to the next question,” she says.

Explain approach
Kennedy also says to explain the behavioral interviewing approach to each candidate. The candidates need to know that the focus of the interview will be on what they have done versus what they think they would do. She also advises against starting the interview by telling candidates about the job. That gives potential employees clues about what they should say instead of eliciting the most helpful answers.

The focus on determining how candidates have behaved in the past should carry over into the interviewer’s note-taking, Kennedy says. Notes should capture information relevant to the job and should be free of opinionated or evaluative terms, interpretations, and conclusions.

Also, interviewers need to remember that what they write down may be seen by others, particularly if a candidate accuses the employer of some form of unlawful discrimination. “From a legal standpoint when writing down notes, assume a judge or a jury will be reading it someday,” Kennedy says. “That kind of helps to focus on job-interview-related comments only.”

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