Chris Russell

3 min read

behavioral interviews

Human Resources

What Is a Behavioral Interview?

Despite the widely cherished view that an interview is critical to hiring the best candidates, nearly every study of the question has found practically little predictive value to the usual interview methods.

A 2013 research paper bluntly declares, “Unstructured interviews are a ubiquitous tool for making screening decisions despite a vast literature suggesting that they have little validity.”

Wharton Business School Professor Peter Cappelli echoes that observation in the Harvard Business Review: “Just winging it and asking whatever comes to mind is next to useless.”

 Is there an alternative? The answer is the behavioral interview.

Defining Behavioral Interviews

What is a behavioral interview? It’s a disciplined approach to predicting future performance by evaluating a job candidate on how they handled specific situations in the past. 

Instead of a free-wheeling interview focusing largely on technical skills or answering hypotheticals, a behavioral interview aims to learn how a candidate used their skills, knowledge and talent by asking for specific examples of what they did to accomplish goals.

When structured, meaning every candidate is asked the same set of questions, studies prove behavioral interviews have a predictive value significantly higher than nearly every other method of evaluating performance.

What is a behavioral interview like in practice? Here’s an example drawn from a guide published by the Society for Human Resource Management:

Interview question: “Describe a situation in which you used persuasion to convince someone to see things your way.”

Follow up questions to ask:

  • “Tell me a little more about the situation”
  • “What exactly did you do? “
  • “What was your specific role in this?” 
  • “What was the result?”

 In this example, the interviewer is probing for how the candidate works in a team setting, how they handle conflict and how they communicate their ideas. How they behaved in the past is a strong predictor of how they will in the future.

According to Professor Katherine Hansen of Albright College’s Experiential Learning & Career Development Center, behavioral interviews accurately predict future job performance as much as 55% of the time compared to 10% for the typical situational or conversational interview.

To be successful, behavioral interviews require planning to determine the competencies to look for. SHRM’s guide tells us recruiters and hiring managers need to identify the “knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) most critical for success” for the specific job, as well as the behaviors that are important to the organization. This latter point goes to the question of cultural fit.

One of the most common approaches to developing the behavioral questions to determining competencies is STAR: Situation, Task, Action and Result. In the example above, the initial question asks about a situation. The second question in the follow-up list asks about the action the candidate took. The third question seeks to elicit details about the task, while the last asks about the result.

SHRM’s guide recommends creating a rating scale, and offers a sample template. There are multiple other templates online, many from assessment vendors and colleges. What they all have in common is an insistence that ratings be clearly defined and supplemented with notes and comments in real-time.

A rating system allows for easy comparison among multiple candidates and, if multiple interviews are involved, among each of the evaluators.

Structured behavioral interviews can reduce bias

Besides improving the predictive value of job performance, structured behavioral interviews can reduce bias because all candidates are asked the same questions and all questions are directly tied to the competencies required for the job. For that same reason, candidates will get a better feel for what the job entails.

Despite their superiority over unstructured situational and conversation interviews, the relevance of what is a behavioral interview to what it was in the past is becoming less clear. 

Job seekers can easily find lists of stock behavioral questions, many with suggested answers. Though SHRM’s guide explains how to tailor questions to the specific organization, job requirements and culture, too many organizations will simply choose their questions from these lists.

Savvy candidates will practice their answers, using the STAR system to give hiring managers the answers they want.

There’s also a suspicion that past performance may no longer be as compelling a predictor of future performance as it once was. Artificial intelligence, globalization of markets, the nature of competition as well as the effect of the Covid pandemic are changing the nature of work dramatically. 

With workers having to learn new skills and evolve competencies sometimes in months, how a candidate handled a situation last year may be less important than how they will handle something entirely new and unforeseen next year.

Rather than walk away from examining past behavior entirely, behavioral interviews may need to include questions about how a candidate would apply their experience to similar situations complicated by today’s changing workplace.

As professor and recruiting thought leader Dr. John Sullivan says, “Hiring managers should be less concerned about how someone acted in the past and more concerned about how they will modify their behavior and act differently in today’s completely changed environment at your company.”

*** John Zappe Contributed

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