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What are the benefits of behavior-based interviews? How do you get to know a candidate more in an interview?

A behavior-based interview lets you identify a candidate’s behavioral tendencies. Understanding how a candidate has behaved in the past helps you predict how they may behave in the future at your company.

Let’s look at how to conduct this type of interview to get all the information you need.

Identifying Behavioral Tendencies Through an Interview

In Who, Geoff Smart and Randy Street refer to a behavior-based interview as a “sequential interview,” and walk you through the process as an interviewer.

To identify a candidate’s behavioral tendencies, the authors recommend discussing each job the candidate has held in the last 15 years in sequential order. Analyzing this long period of time lets you identify the candidate’s behaviors that remain the same over the years and are likely to continue if you hire them. Also, discussing the candidate’s history sequentially is easier for both of you: The candidate can share their experiences in a simple narrative order, rather than trying to remember things out of order, and you can see how their behavioral tendencies and career progressed, which helps you understand their likely future trajectory.

(Shortform note: The authors say to use this method for every candidate, but what if a candidate has little work experience? What can you do if you can’t analyze a long work history like Smart and Street suggest? Some hiring experts suggest adjusting your questions to fit the experience they do have and focusing on their interests. This information is less directly related than work history but can still help you determine a person’s suitability. For instance, you may ask a candidate to describe their past hobbies and activities. If they’ve taken computer science classes and participated in hackathons, that shows an interest in software development that could make them a valuable employee, even if they lack software engineering experience.)

Can You Identify Behavioral Tendencies In a Non-Sequential Interview?

Some business experts say you can use non-sequential behavioral interviewing to identify candidates’ behavioral tendencies, too. In this method, you ask the candidate to tell you about a particular experience and extrapolate their behavioral tendencies from how they behaved in that example. An added benefit of this method is that the example a candidate shares can help you understand how they think and what they find difficult. For example, you may ask the candidate to describe a time they had to get out of their comfort zone. If they give an example of pitching projects to investors, you can deduce that they may find communication difficult.

Other hiring experts prefer non-sequential interviews because discussing a candidate’s history sequentially is too easy. It’s easy to become a passive listener when hearing a story, they say, instead of assessing the candidate’s suitability for the role. This is arguably even more true when hearing a long story, like one that covers the past 15 years. They recommend focusing on relevant information by asking what skills and knowledge the candidate currently uses at work and then discussing how they developed those skills and knowledge.

There is a potential problem with these non-sequential methods, however: cherry-picking. Since the candidate only shares isolated examples of their performance, they could choose examples that make them look good while disguising their real behavioral tendencies. For example, if the candidate tells you about a time they successfully pitched a project, you may think they do so regularly when their success is actually an outlier.

We’ve consolidated the authors’ advice into two main behavioral tendencies you should look for in a strong candidate:

Tendency #1: Meets Employer Expectations

According to the authors, identifying whether the candidate has regularly met previous employers’ expectations can help you judge whether they’ll meet your own. To identify this tendency, first ask why the candidate was hired for each role. This helps you understand what their previous employers expected from them. Then, discuss their successes and struggles in each role to see to what extent they met those expectations.

For example, let’s say a candidate was hired to create a unique marketing strategy that reached audiences on several platforms. She successfully created a unique strategy but struggled to execute it on several platforms. Thus, she only partially met her past employer’s expectations. If the candidate had trouble fully meeting expectations in her other past jobs, as well, she’ll likely struggle to fully meet yours.

(Shortform note: Some business experts disagree with Smart and Street, saying a candidate’s past performance isn’t a good indicator of future success. Differences in company cultures and rapidly changing industries can cause a person who successfully met expectations in the past to fail in the future. Instead, experts recommend evaluating the candidate’s problem-solving skills, as these are helpful regardless of culture or industry changes. Before the interview, write down a flawed version of a process the candidate would use in the role—for instance, if you describe the process to get a marketing strategy approved, the paperwork may be overly complex. In the interview, ask the candidate to identify those flaws. Then, ask how they’d solve the issues.)

Tendency #2: Has Good Relationships With Superiors

The authors argue that ascertaining whether the candidate usually has good relationships with their superiors is important for two reasons:

First, it helps you understand how the candidate interacts with their superiors—and therefore how they’ll likely interact with you if you become their superior. You can ascertain this by having the candidate describe their past employers. You’re looking for a candidate who speaks mostly positively about these employers, as this suggests they had a good relationship.

(Shortform note: On the candidate side, what should you do if you’ve had a bad relationship with a past superior? Hiring experts emphasize the importance of being honest and fair: Tell the interviewer upfront about the conflict and avoid putting all the blame on your past superior. This shows that you’re mature, willing to admit and learn from your mistakes, and not afraid of hard conversations. After explaining the situation, emphasize what you learned from the experience—this may be particularly effective in a sequential interview, if you can point to positive relationships with later employers as proof that you learned from your mistakes.)

Second, it helps you see whether the candidate’s past employers considered them a valuable employee, which can help you determine if they’ll be valuable to you. You can ascertain this by asking why the candidate left their past roles. You want a candidate who left on good terms to advance their career. This suggests their employers didn’t want them to leave because they were a good employee. In contrast, a candidate who was fired or left on bad terms is likely less valuable.

(Shortform note: Some business experts define a valuable employee as reliable and willing to learn, as well as good at problem-solving, teamwork, conflict resolution, and communication. Other experts add a word of caution, saying that a candidate leaving a role voluntarily doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a valuable employee or left on good terms. Sometimes, companies will list a candidate as leaving voluntarily as part of a severance agreement, even if it isn’t really true. To determine the truth, contact the candidate’s previous employer and pay attention to their tone when they describe the candidate’s “voluntary exit”—if they respond half-heartedly instead of having a positive tone, the candidate likely left on bad terms and wasn’t considered valuable.)

Behavior-Based Interviews: Look for These 2 Tendencies

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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