“Tell me about a time when you…”
“Give me an example of…”
“Describe a situation where…”
These are the beginnings of countless behavior-based interview questions, the standard approach most hiring managers take when interviewing candidates. The psychology behind behavior-based interviewing is that by asking candidates to cite particular examples of experiences from their past, employers may be able to identify future behaviors and determine if the candidate is the right fit for the role. Most HR professionals who adopt this approach go through some sort of training at some point to familiarize themselves with it. The problem is candidates don’t get any training on it, and they have no idea how to answer these questions. What’s more, if they can answer them, the answers provide almost no value to whether or not they’d be good fits for the role.
Let’s be clear: candidates don’t know what behavior-based interviewing is, so they’re entering the playing field at a disadvantage. I certainly didn’t know what it was, until I completed an HR certification course and found myself on the other side of the interview table. In doing so, I realized how badly I had responded to behavior-based questions in prior interviews, and how completely unprepared candidates were for these questions. Which has led me, over nearly ten years in various hiring managers roles, to hate them for that reason.
There is pushback in the human resources industry regarding behavior-based interviewing. Writers on Business Insider and Forbes have denounced the rigid, biased nature of these types of interviewing questions. They argue that behavior-based interviewing favors those with more experience, or simply those who are better talkers; they suggest behavior-based interviewing is too narrow in focus and offers no insights into how a candidate will behave based on how they have in the past. They decry the way most behavior-based interview questions focus on the negative, and they suggest that behavior-based interviewing is no assurance of a successful hire. What all of these conversations miss, however, is the simple fact that candidates don’t know how to answer these questions. By asking them, hiring managers position candidates to fail before the interview even begins.
In my experience, the biggest challenge with behavior-based interviewing is that its demand for specifics is in sharp contrast to the generalities candidates are prepared to discuss. Candidates come in prepared to give high-level overviews of their experience. They’re prepared to rattle off the software they’re worked with, the titles they’ve held in prior roles, and they’re ready to tell the hiring manager what they’re looking for in their next opportunity. No one is prepared to talk about a single instance where they missed a deadline or encountered an angry customer. If a response is mustered, it usually devolves into generalities regardless, such as “We had an angry customer once but I did what I always do: I listen and try to help.” No candidate enters an interview prepared to talk about the specific instances and outcomes behavior-based interview questions are centered around.
What’s more, these questions are tough to answer because they deal with workplace trivialities most of us don’t bother to remember and see no reason to reflect upon when embarking on interviews. The one project where another coworker proved difficult to work with didn’t shape my career path; did one instance shape yours? Who really remembers “the time you received instructions you did not understand”? Happens all the time in the workplace; we figure it out. Time and again, candidates are unprepared to dredge up these seemingly random yet decidedly specific moments from their work histories. They squirm and struggle and when pressed for details, more often than not they completely clam up. Their faces say, “What do you want from me?” It makes for uncomfortable, unproductive interviewing.
Unfortunately, many HR professionals still cling to behavior-based interviewing as the only option available to them, so it’s not likely to disappear from the hiring process any time soon. What we need to do in that case is prepare candidates to succeed in these types of interviews:
1. Make your behavior-based questions available in advance to candidates so they’ll be ready to talk about those specific situations in the interview room. Post them on your HR pages on your website or send them to candidates in advance via email.
2. Explain at the beginning of the interview why you’re asking these types of questions and what you hope to learn from them, so candidates can ensure their answers meet your needs.
3. If a candidate can’t give a specific example, don’t write them off as being unable to answer the question and move on to the next. Press them to provide more information or rephrase the question to give them a second chance.
There are better ways to identify the right candidate for your job than relying strictly on behavior-based interviewing, but it’s so entrenched in the hiring process that it will be around for years to come. With that in mind, hiring managers need to do some legwork to help candidates understand this type of interviewing and position them to succeed within its confines.