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Behavioural Job Interview Questions

A Critique

Bruce Barbour - Version 2 - December 2019, from the original - March 2017.

The approach to job interviews changed at sometime in the past and not for the better. No longer is the emphasis on questions that directly tests the skills and knowledge of the candidate but about how the candidate behaved in situations that they may have encountered in the past - the behavioural job interview question.  However this approach has a number of problems that mean that the best candidate is not always chosen.

The proponents of behavioural job interview questions argue that interviewers do not need to ask skills and knowledge questions because those issues have been sufficiently dealt with in the resume provided by the candidate. If the candidate says that they have formal qualifications and their list of previous employers appear to show they have experience then that is all that is required for proof of skill and knowledge. The approach is risky in the extreme. While the candidate could have been in a job that sounds the same as the job being interviewed for, how well were they actually doing the job, how well did they use their supposed skill and knowledge in the service of their employer? For some jobs even though the job might require a tertiary qualification, the detailed skills and knowledge may not be taught to any great extent in those tertiary courses. The skills and knowledge for some of these jobs are largely picked up while doing the job or other related jobs with other employers and through on the job training. There is potential for a great variation in the skills and knowledge of candidates for the job – even though they may have jobs with a similar sounding name on their resume and have similar qualifications. For a lot of job types, skills and knowledge can’t be assumed, they need to be tested in the candidate selection process. And employers must recognise that the consequences of employing some one that lacks the technical skills to carry out their job is disastrous for an organisation.

Another argument often put for the behavioural question approach is that past actions are the best way of predicting future actions. But this is premised on the thought that people don’t change and that people can’t learn. If this was actually the case why do organisations invest large amounts of money and time on training courses? People can and do learn – from training courses and from experience, including past mistakes. And even if past actions are the best way of predicting future actions, the behavioural question interviewing system is also premised on the interview process being the best way of determining what the candidates past actions were. Clearly it is not as the interviewer is relying on the candidate, not a dispassionate external observer, to accurately recount their past actions, when, as will be discussed, all candidates will try to paint their actions in the best possible light, it would be a strange and naive candidate who didn’t try to do this, and some may even to totally fabricate what their actions were.

Take an example of a generic behavioural question: “Tell us about a situation where you had to deal with a difficult person.” The validity of this question really depends on the type of job the person is doing. In a run of the mill office based job where the person is not dealing with the public hopefully the person would not have to deal with many difficult people. If asked this question the candidate may not have many pithy example of having to deal with difficult people. So they have two options. The first is telling the interviewers the truth - not much experience in dealing with difficult people. This would probably go down poorly with the interviewers. Interviewers tend to like a happy uplifting story of co-operation re-found.

The second option is, instead of telling the truth, the candidate might elect to make up something. This is definitely not recommended. It is dishonest like lying on a resume. However it would be easy for a candidate to spin a story about an imagined situation. All the candidate needs to do is anticipate the question, look up a website on dealing with difficult people (e.g https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/living-the-questions/201503/20-expert-tactics-dealing-difficult-people) and then weave a story. This is of course completely unethical but they would have it all over the person that told the truth. The unscrupulous would beat the scrupulous.  What a great basis for future employment. How often would the candidate's response be checked with a referee for truthfulness?  No candidate is going to tell you the name of the difficult person they dealt with – or they would be very foolish to - that would be a breach of privacy.

Now compare that to a question about knowledge and skill. Provided the question is sufficiently targeted and detailed the person cannot make up a story to hide their lack of knowledge.

For a lot of behavioural questions a person can anticipate the question and prepare an answer. Hopefully that answer is truthful but, as discussed in the previous paragraphs, there is very little way of determining whether the answer is truthful or not. However there is also the situation of receiving a question that was not anticipated and not prepared for. Now it might be thought that this is a fairer situation. But is it? The ability to answer the question depends on how quickly the candidate can scan their memory of all their work done in the last five years and dig out a suitable example and then rendering it into coherent words that explains the situation and puts the response into reasonable form that indicates that the situation was not completely stuffed up. This ability is quite a skill in itself. It is a skill in which some would be more proficient than others. Those that have mastered the skill would be able to do it with a lot more ease, in which case they would be more favoured for the job. Other candidates may have the “gift of the gab” meaning they are better able to string words together in a short period of time. Do either of these skills mean they are better able to actually do the job? Probably not. Their skill to be able to quickly recall instances from their past work life and the “gift of the gab” would be a useful skill in various work situations - and in some jobs central. However in most jobs it does not trump technical knowledge and skill.

Having to do so much preparation is another issue with behavioural questions. Previously for skills based interview the only aspect that an experienced and knowledgeable person had to prepare for the interview was their knowledge of the company that they were applying to and what questions they wanted to ask of the company. For skills the candidate either has the knowledge, and are therefore, prima facie, suited for the job, or they don’t. It can’t be faked so long as the questions asked are sufficiently detailed and targeted. But with behavioural questions the more preparation the better the candidate will do. It may be said that that is good, a person should prepare for an interview. But the trouble is it contains both an element of luck - did the candidate manage to guess what questions were going to be asked or not - and also how much has the candidate honed their skill in answering behavioural questions. If the candidate has anticipated the questions asked and prepared for those the candidate will do better than if they had failed to anticipate the question and were left floundering in the interview trying to scan their memory for a story that is suitable. Is luck a suitable basis for the selection of the candidate? If the candidate has been diligent in learning the skill of answering behavioural questions - perhaps studying the many Youtube clips and other web sites on the subject - they will do better. Is the learnt skill of answering behavioural questions a suitable basis for the selection of the candidate rather than the actual useful skill of doing the job?

Take another example. If the candidate kept doing interviews eventually the candidate will have heard all of the relevant behavioural questions. While the candidate might have stuffed them up in the earlier interviews the candidate will have undoubtedly thought about how the question should have been better answered after the interview. Eventually in one interview all of the questions will have been heard before so the candidate will be fully prepared and would do better – no floundering for answers. Is the candidate any better as a potential employee than before the first or other earlier interviews? Clearly no. They have just learnt the skill of answering behavioural questions, a skill that will not be called upon in the actual workplace. This is a fundamental flaw in the system.

How many academic exams include behavioural questions? It is hard to image that they would ever be asked. They wouldn't even be used in a situation like an exam for a post graduate qualification like a Master of Business Administration, where the students may have a considerable amount of real life experience, which they could be asked to recount. In that situation examiners would extensively use hypotheticals and also direct knowledge based questions. Academic examiners know a thing or to about assessing the knowledge of and ranking candidates.

With an interview system that is based entirely around behavioural type questions the organisation could end up getting all the same type of people into the organisation – those that have the type of brain that can answer behavioural questions. It is often argued that diversity of personality type (extrovert / introvert) and race and culture is good for an organisation. However if people are all selected by behavioural questioning the diversity of brain type would be somewhat diminished. And the pool of good candidates for the organisation to select from that can do the job well is also diminished, to the detriment of those candidates, of course, but also to the organisation. An organisation needs the slow and careful thinkers, who may not excel at behavioural questions, as well as the quick thinking smooth talking charmers, who would be better at it. Above all else an organisation needs skills and knowledge.

In summary the selection and appointment of people to job positions using job interviews based primarily on behavioural questions is fundamentally flawed. The approach is primarily a test of memory, and mental and verbal agility rather than real job skills. It tells the interviewers how good the candidate is at anticipating, remembering and answering behavioural questions rather than that they have and can use the all important job skills. It is a learned skill. a skill that will not be used in the workplace. As a result many good knowledgeable and skillful people are being rejected in favour of less skillful people who happen to be able to give better responses to behavioural questions.

As much as the job interview approach using predominantly behavioural questions is flawed there is nothing that an individual candidate can do about it. A candidate just has to do the best they can in a flawed system.

Some suggestions for candidates:

Firstly none of this critique should be brought up in an interview. One sure way to fail in a job interview is to criticize the interviewer and their methods. It tends to get them offside. They are just doing what they have been told to do. So suck it up and do the best you can. One day a human resources guru will come along, write a book about how the behavioural interview questions have lead to all types of problems in appointing the right person for various types of jobs and espousing the benefits of asking technical and skills based questions instead (undoubtedly with a twist). They will make a fortune and be hailed as the next HR saviour.

In the meantime, unless the candidate is one of those quick thinking, smooth talking charmers, they need to do a lot of prep work before a job interview.  They need to try to anticipate the type of behavioural questions that will be asked. There are many websites around that list multiple generic sample questions but often these won't be very useful, unless the interviewer is completely lacking in understanding about how to formulate behavioural questions that are specific to the job being interviewed for or the job is one that the generic behavioural questions are applicable. Hopefully the interviewer will have put in some work to determine behavioural questions that are relevant to the advertised job. The candidate has to do the same thing - try to think of behavioural questions that are specific to the actual job. A clue could be found in the Key Selection Criteria because, in theory, this is what the selection panel/interviewers have to assess all the candidates against. Asking a question that does not related to the Key Selection Criteria should not happen, but sometimes does. As a precaution prepare answers for some of the common generics - e.g. dealing with difficult people. After guessing or anticipating the questions then come up with appropriate example(s) of the issue and of how it was dealt with in the past. It can’t just be generality, it must be an actual example. Using the STAR (which stands for "Situation, Task, Action, Result") interview response technique may be helpful if it can be mastered.

Write down the questions and also the answers. Work on developing the answers. And then try to memorise them or preferably memorise the approach. Even though a large amount of work was done developing the response it should not sound like that. It needs to sound spontaneous.

It may be worth starting to keep a record of how issues are dealt with as they come up in current employment situations. Then when going for a new job in the future there will be a store of behavioural stories that can be provided to a new potential employer, covering many aspects of work.

Be prepared for some skills based question - who knows, the interviewers may be sufficiently aware to use these - but of course an experienced candidate should need only minimal preparation for this type of skilled based question.

After an interview, especially if it did not go well, list all the questions asked that can remembered into a Word document and then write what would be anticipated to be more acceptable answers. Expand the list of questions with a few more that weren't asked but could have been and might be asked by other potential employers. While it is too late for the past job interview this approach will allow better preparation for any subsequent interviews. Keep doing this for all interviews up until successful. Prior to the next job interview study and memorise these questions and answers - and hope that there are not too many unanticipated questions. If there are just add them to the list and keep going. Eventually all the likely questions will have been heard before and answers prepared and available.

Some suggestions for employers:

Don’t discount the value skills and knowledge. Don't fall into the trap of believing that because a candidate has a qualification in the field of the job, and previous jobs held indicate some experience in the field, that they necessarily know all that is necessary to perform the job.

Any behavioural questions, if used, as with skills based questions, should be relevant to the position. They should be skills based behavioural questions –  examples of how the candidate applied their skills. Generic questions unrelated to the actual work done have no place. Consider how frequently the issue being asked about is likely to have come up in the candidates’ last jobs and in the current advertised job. If it is likely to have been only once every five years then don’t ask the question. If it is four times or more per year it is probably reasonable to ask the question.

Ask direct skills based questions as is relevant to the position, as well as behavioural questions if necessary. This could be in the form of a hypothetical. A hypothetical will allow the interview panel to directly compare the candidates on an apples for apples basis. How would each candidate handle the exact same situation? Has the candidate addressed all the issues that the interview panel believes to be important in the hypothetical situation? Compare this to a behavioural question where the candidates will choose a range of different situations to tell the interview panel about how they acted (or claim to have acted), making direct comparison of candidates' knowledge more problematic. Another line of questioning could be about what the candidates see as the most important aspect of the offered job. Also don't discount asking questions that directly probes the candidates intermediate and high end knowledge that is important to the job. (Start with questions addressing low/intermediate knowledge and work up to higher end knowledge, allowing assessment of the depth of each candidate's knowledge.)

Employers should not revert to the old type of job interview questions that were used extensively before behavioural questions. E.g. What are your strengths and weaknesses? ("Sometimes I can be a workaholic and a perfectionist”).  How do you define success? ("Achieving team goals within budget and time constraints") and Why should we hire you? (”I am qualified, have the experience, I am a team player and enthusiastic"). All this type of questioning tells you is how well rehearsed the interviewee is. Complete rubbish questions. No wonder the employers were looking for an alternative approach to job interview questions.

Remember that all questions - behavioural, if relevant, and skills - should relate to one or more Key Selection Criteria if you want to be able to use the response to the question as part of the candidate evaluation.

Consider providing the behavioural questions, if any, to the candidate say half an hour before the interview. Provide them a quite room and pen and paper where they can think about their experience and how it fits in with the question. This will go some way to removing the element of luck and also even the playing field between the quick thinking smooth talking charmers and the slower more considered thinkers. and those that have done a lot of preparation / previous interviews and those that have not. Interviews are not about gotcha moments but exploring the candidate’s skills as fully as possible and selecting the best candidate.  You might also consider this approach for technical skills and knowledge based questions – though smart phones would have to be removed to prevent Googling. Perhaps even consider, in a half hour time slot just before the interview, a skills based mini exam or provide a short typical problem that they might encounter in the new position and see how they would tackle it, which would then be discussed in the interview. This would only be applicable to some jobs.

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