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Behavioural Job Interview Questions

A Critique

Bruce Barbour - This version - March 2019, from the original - March 2017.

I have recently (when this was first written in March 2017) been in the position where I have had to apply for jobs. It has been about 12 years since I was last in the position of doing a formal job interview. Over that time the approach to job interviews has apparently changed. No longer is the emphasis on questions that directly tests the skills and knowledge of the applicant but about how the applicant behaved in situations that they may have encountered in the past.  However I believe that this approach has a number of problems that mean that the best candidate is not always chosen. And yes this is a whinge because my experience to date with behavioural questions has not been good. Let’s face it – I am shocking at answering behavioural questions. But I believe that I am good at my actual job. But that doesn’t seem to count for much in this brave new world.

There is an argument I have read that interviewers do not have 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 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. I think this is risky in the extreme. Sure they could have been in the job but how well were they actually doing it, how well did they use their supposed skill and knowledge in the service of their employer? For some jobs, such as the type of jobs that I do, even though the job typically requires a tertiary qualification, the detailed skills and knowledge are not taught to any great extent in those tertiary courses. The skills and knowledge for these jobs are largely picked up while doing the job or other related jobs with other employers and through on the job training. So 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. 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 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 spend huge amounts 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.” My immediate thought about this is: how many difficult people are there in the organisation?  I have worked many years and in most cases people are co-operative and good to get on with. Over my career I have struck only a handful of people I would call difficult and some of them I did not have to deal with extensively. Probably on average one every 5 years. Is the employer going to base their decision on whether to employ me on my handling of a situation that only comes up once in five years (a miniscule percentage of my work time), while ignoring, or disproportionately downgrading whether I have the appropriate skills and knowledge to actually do the job – which is ninety nine percent plus of the job?  What if it was once a year an issue came up?  Still a miniscule percentage. And if it was any more you would have to ask what is wrong with the culture of the organisation that they have so many difficult people on their staff. And perhaps they should be doing something about that to address the real issue. Get those difficult staff members some corrective training or move them on if that fails, to make life for the rest of the staff so much better.

Another issue is that your ability to answer this question well may depend on the quality of the difficult person that you have encountered. If you have encountered someone that in the end listens to reason you may be able to spin a better tale than if you had to deal with someone that is intractably difficult. So luck would pay a part in how well you could answer the question. And as I said in the previous paragraph I had only encountered one difficult person in the past five years. What if I had encountered none, I would have been forced to scan my memory for an example from an earlier job, more than 5 years before. Who can remember specific instances from more than 5 years ago within the 10 seconds from when the question is asked to when you have to respond?  What if I had of answered that I hadn’t recently encountered a difficult person. I suspect that that would be a big red mark against my name, through no fault of my own.

An alternative is the candidate can always make something up. I am not saying that I would ever do this or would advise anyone else to do it – it is completely unethical, like lying on your resume. However there are a lot less scrupulous people out there than me. It would be easy for them to spin a story about an imagined situation. All they need 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. They would have it all over me. The unscrupulous will beat the scrupulous.  What a great basis for future employment. How often would their 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 paragraph, there is very little way of determining whether that answer is truthful. However there are also situation of receiving a question that was not anticipated and not prepared for. Now you might think that this is a fairer situation. But is it? I have had this situation. The ability to answer the question depends on how quickly I can scan my memory of all my work that I have 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 my response to it into reasonable form that indicates that I did not completely stuff up the handling of the situation. I think that this ability is quite a skill in itself. It is a skill in which that I do not consider myself particularly proficient. However there are others out there that 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? I think 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 I have to say that it does not trump technical knowledge and skill when it comes to actually doing many different job types.

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 you want to ask of the company. For skills you either have the knowledge, and are therefore, prima facie, suited for the job, or you 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 you do the better you will do. You may well say that is good, a person should prepare for an interview. But the trouble is it contains an element of luck. 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 what you want to base the selection of the candidate on? Take another example. If I kept doing interviews eventually I will have heard all of the relevant behavioural questions. While I might have stuffed them up in the earlier interviews I 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 I will be fully prepared and would do better – no floundering for answers. Am I any better as a potential employee than before the first or other earlier interviews? Clearly no. I 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.

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. I remember it being drummed in how diversity of personality type (extrovert / introvert) and race and culture was good for an organisation. However if people are all selected by behavioural questioning I fear that that 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.

How many good knowledgeable people are being rejected in favour of less knowledgeable people who happen to be able to give better responses to behavioural questions?

As much as I disagree with the approach there is nothing that a normal individual can do about it. We just have to do the best we can in a flawed system.

Some suggestions for candidates:

Firstly I don’t suggest that any of this critique 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 you are one of those quick thinking, smooth talking charmers, you need to do a lot of prep work before a job interview.  You 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 you are applying for or the job is one that the generic behavioural questions are applicable. So hopefully the interviewer will have put in some work to determine behavioural questions that are relevant to the advertised job. So the interviewee 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, so don't be too surprised. As a precaution prepare answers for some of the common generics - e.g. dealing with difficult people. After you have guessed/anticipated the questions you then have to come up with appropriate example of when you have dealt with the issue raised 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 you can master it.

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 you may have done a large amount of work developing the response you don’t want it to sound like that. It needs to sound spontaneous, like you just regurgitated it out of your memory, like those smooth talking charmers that you are competing against.

Also if you are currently in a job it may be worth starting to keep a record of how you have dealt with issues as they have come up, so you don’t have to rely on your memory of an incident that may have happened years before. Then if you did want to go for a new job you will have a store of behavioural stories that you can provide to a new potential employer, covering many aspects of work.

Some suggestions for employers:

Don’t discount the value skills and knowledge. Any behavioural questions 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. Also consider how frequently the issue that you are asking 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 once every five years then don’t ask the question. If it is four times 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. This could be in the form of a hypothetical, e.g. how would you handle this situation? Or what they see as the most important aspect of the job, etc. What proportion of the questions are behavioural and what are direct skills based would have to be determined on a job by job basis.

Remember that all questions - behavioural 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 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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Update - March 2019

After a long hiatus I recently did another job interview. And yes, the interviewers nearly exclusively used behavioural questions. While I had done some preparation I clearly did not foresee some of the questions asked. I was therefore left floundering - again. There were very few / no questions on the main skills that would be necessary for the job - most disappointing. So no success for me. I also note that very few of the questions asked actually related to the Key Selection Criteria for the job - what the candidate is meant to be primarily evaluated against. This could explain why I was unprepared for them, I did not consider the subject of the questions relevant to the Key Selection Criteria. Technically the questions should not have been asked and if asked should be irrelevant to the final candidate selection. Again disappointing. (This is an important point for employers - please make sure your interview questions at least have some relationship to the Key Selection Criteria. And carefully consider what the Key Selection Criteria are. They must relate to the most important skill requirements of the job.)

When I got home from the interview I listed all the questions they asked that I could remember into a Word document and have written (in dot point memory jogger form) what I think would have been acceptable answers. If I had provided these answers in the interview my chances of being successful would have improved immensely. I had the experience, I just couldn't remember the experience quick enough in a pressure interview situation. I have expanded 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 this recent job I will be much better prepared for any subsequent interviews.

Next time I have a job interview I will have to study these questions and answers prior to the interview so I can hopefully remember the answers if the anticipated questions come up - and hope that there are not too many unanticipated questions. If they do I will add them to the list after the interview, so be more prepared for the next interview. I will take the question and answer sheet with me to the interview and when they start to ask behavioural questions I will ask them whether I can refer to my notes. If yes so much the better, if, as I suspect, no I will just have to rely on my memory. I might try to argue that I should be able to refer to them as they are just notes similar to what any well prepared person would take to a meeting. And that their sole purpose is to provide the interviewers with the information they have requested. I suspect they will judge the interview to be more a (non open book) exam rather than a meeting. I will also offer them a copy of the notes - I will have to have two copies just in case. If I do forget something they will be able to see from the notes that I do have the experience they are asking about. But I suspect they won't accept this either.

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Once again this experience shows how lacking the extensive use of behavioural questions for job interviews is. The approach is really just a test of memory, and mental and verbal agility rather than real job skills. While it often requires the interviewee to recount some aspects from their experience, it primarily tells the interviewers how good the candidate is at anticipating, remembering and answering behavioural questions rather than the all important job skills.

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