Many employers face the dilemma of having hired someone who turns out to be
the wrong person for the job. Here we look at how to make the right choice and
help the new executive fit in once hired, Liz Simpson first examines
behavioural interviewing -a technique designed to match the right candidate
with the right job
Imagine a technique that uncovers all the information you need to select
ideal job candidates who, in real life situations, actually do what they said
they could when they were interviewed.
There is a technique that has been shown to reduce turnover by ensuring a
better ‘fit’ between job candidates and openings and, hence, has been embraced
by major organisations such as Starbucks, Thomas Cook and Abbott Laboratories.
This technique, known as behavioural interviewing, has been around for
several decades, and came out of research conducted by organisational
psychologists in the 1970s. They were looking to discover why traditional
hypothetical interview questions failed to help organisations make accurate
hiring decisions. After all, questions beginning with ‘what would you do ifÉ’
rarely give a candidate sufficient information to offer a realistic
Behaviour-based interviewing (BI) is different in that candidates are asked
to ‘outline a corporate goal that you have helped your current organisation to
attain’, or ‘recount an occasion when you were passed over for promotion and
how you felt about that’. In particular, candidates are guided to talk less
about their qualifications and experience and more about what they have done
that has made a measurable difference to the companies they have worked for. In
short, to focus on performance and eliminate, as far as possible, any
Empirical evidence for BI’s success at selecting the best candidate is
limited. Some say all that can be hoped for, given the ‘human factor’ inherent
in such a process, is 66 to 70 per cent success, against 50 per cent from
traditional interviews. Nevertheless, that improvement represents a considerable
saving given the cost of a bad hiring decision – which is why this hiring
strategy has really taken off.
"BI started coming to the fore in the US last year when there was a
huge candidate shortage. Companies used it particularly with recent graduates
or candidates without executive titles, to see if they had transferable skills
sets," says Barbara Bruno of H&R Search of Illinois.
"The rationale behind this approach is that past behaviour is the best
predictor of future behaviour. BI is a structured approach that helps eliminate
hiring mistakes made by relying on intuition, particularly for managers who do
not have a lot of interviewing experience," she says.
Indeed, interviewing style has been found to be the biggest impediment to
selecting the best candidates. In their book Behavior Description Interviewing,
Janz et al outlined the different ways time is spent between these two types of
interview. During traditional interviews, 48 per cent of the time was spent
voicing opinions and only 5 per cent giving behaviour-based descriptions. In
comparison, behaviour-based interviews were found to devote 40 per cent of the
time to discussing actual work experiences and 33 per cent on related
For this approach to be successful, the questions asked must be part of an
integrated process. After all, you can only select the appropriate areas for
discussion when you know what competencies you are looking for in a candidate.
David Cohen, author of The Talent Edge, offers a number of case studies
demonstrating best practice. One of which is music store HMV Canada, where the
behavioural approach was originally used for analysing store manager positions.
The then vice-president of HR, Marnie Falkiner, discovered that in the first
three months after transferring managers to other stores, sales typically went
down and staff turnover increased. Only in rare cases did the new manager boost
sales. By focusing on how these superlative performers behaved, and then
drawing up a competency-based profile, HMV dramatically changed its hiring
"We would get so hung up on the need for extensive music knowledge that
we would forget that some of these people [recruited for store manager
positions] had no interpersonal skills and were quite anti-social," says
Falkiner. "We started hiring people who had the skills to lead and
motivate people and we would train them on their music knowledge."
Cohen points out some common pitfalls in compiling competency profiles,
including the HR professional writing them based on their own observations or
after conducting separate interviews of key stakeholders. Cohen suggests
identifying ‘critical incidents’- what it takes to really excel and achieve
organisational goals – and their underlying behaviours, by putting together
focus groups that comprise the job incumbent, their supervisor or manager,
co-workers plus internal and even external customers where appropriate.
"You have got to buy into this whole process and not see it as just an
interviewing technique," emphasises Lou Adler, of California-based Power
Hiring, who prefers the term ‘performance-based interviewing’ because it is
less ‘touchy feely’ so therefore more generally acceptable to line managers and
senior executives than behavioural interviewing.
Adler has developed a step-by-step job profiling wizard that makes it easy
to draw up performance profiles:
• Make a list of the top five to eight things someone must do to be
successful in the job
• Turn these into ‘smart’ objectives
• Focus on the major objectives and the interim steps necessary to achieve them
– whether technical, team-based, problem-solving and so on
• Create a new job description changing each ‘having’ requirement to an
action-orientated ‘doing’ task.
Adler explains: "When companies tell me compiling performance profiles
takes a lot of time and effort, I ask – what is more important, your accounting
system, your marketing and manufacturing, or hiring top people? If it is the
latter then you need to formalise the hiring process so everyone is singing
from the same hymn sheet."
However, according to independent HR consultant Kirk Davis, who specialises
in employee interviewing and screening methods, BI is not without its pitfalls.
He points out that requests to ‘tell me about a time when you broke or did not
follow company policy’, can offend, anger or frighten applicants by their
assumptive and accusatory nature and warns to be wary of incorporating
integrity-related questions into this type of interview.
Another point Davis levels against BI is that all candidates have to do to
impress the interviewer is to make up a story. Indeed, many consultants, as
well as teaching corporate clients how to conduct performance-based interviews,
are teaching outplacement executives how to prepare for and answer these kinds of
questions. So, how easy is it to fake responses?
"It is not that job candidates can ‘beat the test’ by understanding how
this process works beforehand," says Sam Sarafa, general manager of
Management Recruiters of Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Just that they can make the
interview go a little better for themselves by being prepared to recount in
detail job situations and the results of specific actions. BI is amazingly
effective because everyone reveals our motivations and attitudes whenever we
recount our experiences," adds Sarafa.
One way of separating fact from fantasy in any kind of interview is to ask
follow-up questions. Likewise, in BI, interviewers need to continually coax
candidates away from generalities and abstract answers, asking for names of
people, their positions and other concrete details to back up the claims made.
The key is in asking probing questions that focus on behaviours and the results
that have emerged from them.
David Cohen agrees that getting candidates who are not familiar with BI to
open up is challenging. In response to the request to ‘tell me about the most
difficult person you have had to work with and how you handled that
relationship’, some candidates may deny they have had such an experience, steer
the conversation back to hypotheticals or keep their answers vague. If this
happens, the interviewer needs to use a sympathetic but persistent approach, or
clarify the behaviour they are looking for, to coax a better answer.
Just as important as getting to the core of whether a person has the skills
and attitude for the position is the importance of cultural fit with your
organisation and, here again, proponents say BI adds value. As Andy Kindler of
Chicago-based HR firm Oak Consulting points out, simply asking a candidate
about the last time they had to deal with an irate customer will identify their
definition of good customer service so you can see whether it aligns with your
While BI is being embraced worldwide by many companies eager to improve the
hiring and performance management processes, one has to question how well it
translates from the HR department to the line. Particularly since many line
managers, who may not have been trained in interviewing skills, frequently hire
on the basis of their initial ‘gut feeling’ about a person, and then use the
rest of the interview to confirm that first impression.
Lou Adler’s Power Hiring process requires clients to stick to a
performance-focused script for at least 31 minutes before making any judgments.
Reg Athwal is one UK executive who has tried this in his company and found it
worked for him.
"Once I was made aware of my personal prejudices, I spend the interview
time teasing out a candidate’s past performance in line with the competency
profile we had created. Out of five positions we recruited, I rejected four
individuals who, before I had learned about Power Hiring, I would have hired. I
liked them but, by peeling the layers and taking time to get to the core of
what they could do for my business, I realised they were not right," he
Reg Athwal, co-founder and CEO of Specialist Capital Group, has worked on
executive search and recruitment outsourcing for more than 90 European clients
and now partners with Adler to bring the Power Hiring workshops to the UK and
the Netherlands. Recruitment directors from Cap Gemini Ernst & Young,
Accenture Netherlands and BrassRing UK, among others, all say they are
impressed by this performance-focused method which can be explained to line
managers with few, if any, recruiting skills.
However, not everyone is convinced by the value of the highly-structured
appr-oach of behavioural interviewing – particularly when it involves the
deliberate suppression of natural instincts. Professor David Funder, of the
University of California at Riverside, has conducted extensive research into
the accuracy of first impressions and non-verbal clues. He says not only can
you judge a book by its cover, but often that is the right thing to do.
"I would be very wary of suggesting to people that they ignore the
wisdom of their intuition and first impressions because it is those instinctive
judgments that lead us to explore areas that are important to follow up
on," says Funder. "Evidence as to someone’s suitability occurs early
on in an intervention and while the conventional wisdom is to choose structured
interviews these days, the best way to see someone’s true personality is to
immerse them in experience where the situation varies."
However, allowing hiring managers free rein to select employees based on their
personal prejudices can be a costly strategy, explains Athwal.
"If your company is hiring 100 people this year with average salaries
of £30,000, and you add to that the cost of recruiting, advertising and
management interviewing time, the total bill could be £5m – a sizeable budget
to risk on the basis of emotional responses," he says.
"Far better, surely, to be clear about what it takes for someone to be
successful in a job, create a performance profile based on that knowledge and
then guide everyone involved to structure their questions around competencies
related to that profile. That ensures the interviewer gets all the information
they need to make a good hiring decision."
In a 2001 survey conducted by Devel-opment Dimensions International (DDI),
95 per cent of US recruiters said they use behavioural interviewing and 98 per
cent plan to use it about the same or more in the future.
And the University of Melbourne in Australia reports that in a recent survey
of graduate employers, 92 per cent of the respondents use this method.
However, its appeal in Europe is mixed, according to Joy Hazucha, a senior
vice-president at Personnel Decisions Inter-national (www.pdi-corp.com), who
worked in France and Belgium for seven years before returning to the US.
"The Anglo-Saxon recruitment model, typified by the UK, is more
structured and hence behavioural interviews, along with psychometric testing,
fit well with that culture. That is not the case in Latin cultures such as
France, Spain and Italy, however, where they are seen as too
The behavioural approach can attract top talent
In January 2001, HR consulting firm BT Novations surveyed 75 people hired by
Nova Factor, a Tennessee pharmaceutical company, to gauge whether the impact of
behavioural interviewing had positively impacted their decision to accept a job
offer. It found that:
• 93 per cent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that the
interview was objective and fair
• 96 per cent said the interview presented a professional image of the
• 74 per cent, who had received multiple offers, said the image of Nova Factor
they gained by the way they were interviewed was a contributing factor in their
decision to join the company and 47 per cent said it was the single most
Jeff Lesher, BT Novation’s vice-president of HR consulting says: "In
addition to improving the quality of hiring decisions through effective skills
assessment, these findings suggest that behavioural interviewing also helps organisations
differentiate themselves from the competition."
The Talent Edge: A behavioural approach to hiring, developing and keeping
top performers by David S Cohen, John Wiley & sons (2002)
Successful Selection Interviews by Neil Anderson and Vivian Shackleton, Oxford:
Blackwell Press (1993)
Behaviour Description Interviewing by Tom Janz et al, Allyn & Bacon
This article was first published in Personnel Today’s sister Global HR in
the May issue. To subscribe visit our website www.personneltoday.com or call 01444 445566