February 20, 2008

HR’s new dildo: The behavioral interview

Filed under: For Managers, Interviewing

Ever hear of the behavioral interview? It’s been all the rage in human resources circles for some time. In fact, the HR community has now grabbed onto the behavioral interview as the right way to have a meaningful interaction with a job candidate. It’s the way to really learn about a job candidate’s actual skills. The idea is simple. Don’t ask candidates about their skills and capabilities, because they’ll tell you what you want to hear. Instead, ask them how they actually handled a particular task or situation in the past. That way you can assess their actual behavior and judge their abilities more accurately. Follow me so far?

The BI lends itself to lots of how-to articles and advice from career experts. You can find all sorts of clever questions to get people to tell you about their behavior. In fact, it has spawned a sub-industry in the career business. That’s why it’s so popular — it’s got legs in the consulting world. It’s easy to sell the method to HR. But, does it work? More important, is the BI what it purports to be — a good way to assess a job candidate’s actual abilities by evaluating their behavior?

I don’t think so. Consider the twist in the monniker. The word “behavioral” seems to lend a great air of credibility to this kind of interview. Why listen to a bunch of talk when you can assess a candidate’s actual behavior? The suggestion is that we’re looking at behavior rather than, as Carole Martin cautions in You Can Survive the Behavioral Interview, the stories that candidates might make up about their skills. Does that give you the logical heebie-jeebies? It should.

There is no behavior in the behavioral interview. It’s talk about the past. I think the BI is a fraud. It’s akin to washing your hands with gloves on. The BI insulates the interviewer from the candidate because it does not accomplish what the name suggests. There is no behavior in the behavioral interview — we never get to see the candidate do anything, least of all anything relating to the job at hand. The BI is HR’s newest dildo. It’s yet another substitute for meaningful interaction with a job candidate.

There is another fundamental problem with the BI. On about.com, career planner Dawn McKay explains that, “The basic premise of the behavioral interview is that past performance is a good predictor of future performance.” Fans of this assessment technique would do well to read an investment prospectus or two, where the cautionary refrain is always, “Past performance is no guarantee of future success.” One of the reasons a prospectus includes such a disclaimer is because numbers can be manipulated to imply something about the future.

Likewise, job candidates can manipulate anything they say in an interview. To demonstrate the great power of the BI, McKay goes on to explain, “When asked simple yes or no questions, a job candidate can easily tell an interviewer what he or she wants to hear… However, if the interviewer asks what you have done in the past to complete a project on a tight deadline, you would have to give a real-life example, detailing how you handled the situation.”

Say what? If I can make up an answer to an interview question, I can certainly make up a scenario and how I dealt with it effectively in the past. (There are books galore to help you. For instance — I love this title — 501+ Great Interview Questions For Employers And The Best Answers For Prospective Employees. Don’t wear the interviewer out.) There is nothing robust about a BI. It does not do what HR expects. The interviewer is still diddling the candidate about the past, rather than assessing what the candidate can do here and now.

Consider: A manager can ask a job candidate anything. So, why do managers and HR folks ask for resumes? Why do they ask about the past? Why do they play games with the Top Ten Stupid Interview Questions? (Where do you see yourself in five years? If you could be any animal, what would you be?) It’s simple: The conventional interview (and the BI is as stupidly conventional as HR gets) is designed to be a deductive assessment. HR gathers any data it can, then goes into the back room and uses expensive tools to deduce whether a candidate can do the job. HR is guessing. It’s what the profession gets paid for.

If a manager (let’s forget about HR altogether in this scenario) can ask a job candidate anything, why not ask the candidate to show how he or she would do this job now? Frankly, I don’t care about your past, even though it might help me understand you better. The first thing I need to know is, can you do this job? Show me. Behave. Do. Prove.

The BI is so pervasively accepted as a hiring tool that career experts actually believe talk is behavior. The result is junk interviews. McKay delivers the sales pitch: “Rather then merely telling the interviewer what you would do in a situation, as in a regular interview, in a behavioral interview you must describe, in detail, how you handled a situation in the past. What better way to strut your stuff?”

If you’re a manager and you want to see candidates strut their stuff, put away the rubber gloves and the dildo, and ask them to show you how they would do the job you want done.

 

7 Comments on “HR’s new dildo: The behavioral interview”
By Working Girl
February 20, 2008 at 2:25 pm

People get so much advice about job interviews it’s a wonder anyone ever has the nerve to go on one, much less actually get a job. Behavioral interviews (along with the recent-and-mostly-over trend of stupid interview questions) are just another way to apply “science” to what is in many ways a crapshoot.

(I figured if you could say dildo, I could say crapshoot.)

Interviewers need to become practiced at judging character. A keen nose for BS helps in many avenues of life, including hiring.

Interviewees need to learn how to project their authentic selves in the artificial and often just plain weird setting of a job interview.

Both are easier said than done. But I do think all of us could benefit from taking a lot of this “science” with a huge grain of salt. Relax, people.

I’m going to miss those stupid interview questions, though. They were just so entertaining…..

By Kimberly Schneiderman
February 20, 2008 at 3:43 pm

Nick,

As you suggest – and live – I advise my interview coaching clients to take charge in the interview and transform the question/answer session into a true, collaborative meeting.

Most are shy about attempting the ‘do the job’ strategy, but they also see the value in it. We talk about ways they can modify the idea until they become more practiced with it. Ideally, they join the company they want before they become to practiced!

Here’s to you in your continuing crusade to change the hiring procedures of companies. Can’t wait to read more!

By Charles
February 21, 2008 at 12:06 am

You tryin’ to get syndicated in adult magazines, Nick?

Thanks for the laugh and (as always) the keen perspective.

By Nick Corcodilos
February 21, 2008 at 11:41 am

Charles,

Nah, and I’ve got no financial interest in the prosthetics industry, either :-). I let that post sit overnight, then changed the title and the metaphor 3 times. Finally came back to it because, well, it’s a good metaphor and I figured my readers could handle it.

By Tom J
February 26, 2008 at 11:01 am

Greetings …

There is a place for “behavioral” type questions in an interview, but they should not dominate. I like to split the interview into roughly thirds: behavioral, the job, and the “soft stuff”.

I think BOTH parts of the “prior performance” dilemma are true. Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance, but it is better than nothing.

But the real value of “behavioral” questions are as a “truth detector.” It hard for most people to tell detailed, descriptive fabrications about specific things that are supposed to have happened in their past. The person who “led a successful xyz implementation” ought to be able to tell you with some detail about how they dealt with putting the infrastructure together or resolving cost overruns. On the other hand, many more people can make an answer about how they WOULD do something sound good, even if they don’t really have the nuggets to actually do it.

Make sense?

By Tom J
February 26, 2008 at 11:05 am

Disclosure .. I am *NOT* in HR; I manage IT for my organization.

Clarification .. by “soft stuff” I mean career objectives, personality, habits and outlook, etc.

By Larry J
September 16, 2009 at 12:48 am

Nick:
I believe there’s a place for an experienced HR person to assess a candidate’s motivations and work personality to give the hiring manager context on whether the person will fit in with the team. It’s not the same as a strict “behaviorial interview”. Based on their past history, a good HR ahould be able to answer, Will they play well with others or want their own show? Do they love detail or can they get their head up and see the big picture? Are they energized by routine and efficiency or bored by it? Do they seek advice or learn by trial and error (on your nickel)? If you’re looking for a nitpicky accountant or a general manager, the personality fit could be totally different.

I’ve personally had experience with those who can “do the job” for a day, but once they are hired, they are jerks to work with or find the job runs so counter to their personality that they’re never happy.

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