Interview style probes past to predict future Popular behavioural-based technique uses open-ended questions to identify desired qualities, CELÈNE ADAMS writes @

Interview style probes past to predict future

Popular behavioural-based technique uses open-ended questions
to identify desired qualities, CELÈNE ADAMS writes

CelèNe Adams Special to The Globe and Mail
Monday, April 29, 2002

It's the day of your big interview. You've recited your strengths and parlayed your weaknesses into major accomplishments.

But just as you're imagining a corner office with a view, the interviewer asks a question you hadn't counted on.

"Tell me about a time when you had to work with someone who wasn't pulling their weight. What did you do about it?"

You're stymied. What's the right answer? "We'll come back to that," the interviewer says. "Tell me about a time when you had to analyze information and make a recommendation. What was your reasoning?"

Suddenly, you realize that in this interview, your past portends your potential.

Welcome to the "behavioural-based job interview," in which the interviewer predicts your future behaviour based on the way you've reacted to situations in the past. The interviewer identifies desired skills, qualities and behaviours, then structures open-ended questions, with prefaces such as "Tell me about a time . . ." or "Describe a situation when . . ." to elicit detailed responses. Hiring decisions result directly from quantified assessments of how well your answers match the desired responses for the job in quesiton.

Developed in the 1970s by industrial psychologists, behavioural-based interviewing is an increasingly popular method of evaluating potential job candidates. Today, approximately 30 per cent of North American organizations use behavioural-based interviewing, according to several studies.

"Companies have streamlined their work forces. The remaining workers have more demands, less support and they also have to work in teams. As a result, companies are much more specific about who they hire because employees have to multi-task," says Anne Thornley-Brown, president of the Toronto-based Training Oasis, which offers two-day workshops in behavioural-based interviewing techniques for hiring personnel.

"More [people] are having the behavioural interviews than not," says Linda McDonald, an employment adviser with the Humber College Career Centre. The technique used to be reserved mostly for applicants in social services or business, but it's now used across many disciplines.

Whether you like the technique or not, it's best to be prepared for the behavioural-based interview that will likely come your way.

First, think about the skills required for the job, just as you would for a traditional interview. But instead of just listing achievements corresponding to those skills, think in terms of telling a story to illustrate them. Your story should include the situation or task you faced, your actions and the result.

Even if you don't think you handled the situation well, if you can show that you learned something, you may redeem yourself in the interviewer's eyes. "Part and parcel of what employers value these days is ongoing, life-long learning," says Aino Lokk, an employment counsellor with Ryerson Polytechnic University's Career Centre. In other words, you can be candid about past mistakes, as long as you show a compensatory alternative skill, or that the situation helped define what kind of working environment is not suitable for you.

You can also draw from non-work experiences to answer questions. If you're uncomfortable telling the interviewer that your response to a difficult person at work was less than diplomatic, for example, talk about similar, but more successful experiences in the context of internships, classes, community service, or even hosting a party.

In a traditional interview, you're typically asked hypothetical questions, such as "What would you do if . . ." or leading questions, such as "How well do you delegate?"

Behavioural-based interview questions are indirect. Instead of asking you whether you often take the initiative, for example, a behavioural-based interviewer will ask, "Describe a situation in which you recognized a potential problem as an opportunity. What did you do?" To find out how well you work in a team, the interviewer might say, "Describe a situation in which you found that your results were not up to your professor's or peers' expectations. What happened? What action did you take?"

As well, there will be probing follow-up questions, such as "How could you have dealt with the situation differently?" And, because behavioural-based interviews are often conducted by a panel, you'll usually have several pairs of eyes staring at you -- including those of your would-be future colleagues, your manager, union contact and human resources personnel. "Keep your eyes moving around the room instead of just focusing on the person who asked the question," Ms. McDonald says.

Personality matters

Behavioural-based interviewing may sound a bit intimidating -- after all, it's also used in police interrogations. But the objective is to find out, based on your previous experience, how you would do the job for which you're applying and how your personality fits in with the corporate culture. Behavioural-based interviews typically test for three types of knowledge:

Skills that are work-specific, such as computer programming, accounting, or welding.

Functional or transferable skills, such as organizing, managing, developing, communicating.

Adaptive or self-management skills -- often personal characteristics such as being dependable, team-oriented, self-directed or punctual.

Typical questions in a behavioural-based interview:

Tell me about a time when you had to analyze information and make a recommendation. What was your reasoning? What kind of thought process did you go through?

Give an example of a time when you had to be relatively quick in coming to a decision.

Give me an example that would demonstrate your ability to adapt to a changing environment such as a recent restructuring or job redundancy. How did you cope with these changes?

Describe the most creative work-related project you have completed.

Describe a time when you had to deal with an especially difficult customer or co-worker. What did you do? How did you feel?

Special to The Globe and Mail