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October 28, 2014

Stewart: What you should ask job candidates in an interview

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on June 16, 2017.

Jenn StewartInterviews and hiring decisions can weigh on both hiring managers—who are under pressure to create a strong team of employees that appreciates company values and culture—and candidates alike.

The Daily Briefing's Clare Rizer sat down with Jennifer Stewart, managing director of The Advisory Board Company's HR Advancement Center, to discuss how hiring managers can ask the right questions and how candidates can best highlight their relevant experiences and skills during an interview.

Question: You work with members to ensure they are implementing and using best practices during the hiring and onboarding processes. What is the most common difficulty you hear from managers in the process of hiring new team members?

Jennifer Stewart: We hear a lot from members who are struggling with high turnover of employees during their first years with an organization. And what we often see is that those employees were not a right fit for the position from the start.

What an employer should be looking for from the start of the interview process is a candidate's past behavior—because we know from research that this is the greatest indicator of a person's future performance.

In these situations where employers are struggling with turnover, it's quite likely that the right questions weren't asked in the initial interview. Or to put it another way, there wasn't enough information to make the determination that the candidate's past performance was not a match for his or her future duties.

Q: So everything from employee engagement to workplace performance starts with the interview process. What kinds of questions should employers be asking candidates to 'weed out' those individuals who are not a match?

Stewart: As many hiring professionals know, asking the right question from the start can be difficult because you have a limited amount of time.

But you want to make sure your questions are reflecting the handful of competencies and characteristics that are most needed in your division. Is it grace under fire? Is it performing well in stressful situations? Is it having good team-building skills? Is it project management?

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While it is helpful to know that you want someone who thinks creatively, it isn’t useful to ask someone point-blank if he or she is a creative thinker.

Rather, if I wanted to see if a person was a creative thinker, keeping in mind that past behavior predicts future performance, I might ask, "Could you tell me about a time when you faced a new challenge? How did you decide to solve it?" This is called behavioral-based interviewing (BBI).

We've closely studied BBI and figured out the right tools for hiring managers. Your readers can see more about our work into behavioral-based interviewing here.

If the person came up with a non-obvious way to address the challenge, I would know that this person has a knack for creative thinking. On the other hand, I might see a red flag if the candidate solved the challenge by following established protocols or processes.

Q: Can this type of interview style be used to fill all positions across the board?

Stewart: Yes! And that's the beauty of it. It's hard to know after 15 minutes with someone how they are going to perform in a work environment by asking hypothetical questions. So it comes down to finding the candidates who aren't just talking about what they would do "in theory"—but instead finding candidates who have already demonstrated the skills and competencies needed for the role they are applying to. 

BBI can help you identify those candidates who have real-life experience making hard decisions, thinking critically, and managing teams past. This applies all the way up to a CEO role.

Q: Would you advocate that all employers use BBI when making hiring decisions? Or are there limitations to its effectiveness?

Stewart: I think that at some stage in the interview process, at least one of those discussions with candidates should be behavioral because you want to look beyond the candidate’s printed resume and "on paper" qualifications. You need to see if the candidate is a good fit for their department and the organization. 

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But because of the time and input BBI takes, you likely will want to use the practice once you are already significantly invested in a candidate and he or she has been though the initial rounds.

Q: Is there a way that candidates can prepare for behavioral-based interviews?

Stewart: Yes. And they absolutely should.

Specifically, candidates should do their best in advance of the interview to think about the characteristics that the hiring manager is looking for. What are the three-to-four top traits that someone in this position would need? Organization? Good communication skills? Ability to juggle multiple projects under pressure?

The candidates should then think of past times when they demonstrated those traits. Even if the interviewer does not ask directly "Name a time when you demonstrated X," they should think about how to incorporate those anecdotes and experiences into the conversation.

Candidates will inherently be more compelling if, instead of saying they have a certain skill, they can recount a time they demonstrated that skill. If you have properly prepped yourself, even if you aren't asked directly, you're going to be such a stronger candidate.

Interested in learning more? Check out our Behavioral-Based Interviewing toolkit

It’s easy to understand the enthusiasm for behavioral-based interviewing and its power to predict future job performance. But implementation can be tricky—requiring extensive time, resources, and training efforts.

Use this toolkit to help you cut through the complexity and take the six steps needed to design, introduce, and sustain BBI at your institution.

We have a whole range of resources to take you from start to finish.

Download the toolkit

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