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A Case for Reassessing the Job Interview
Questions We Ask

by Victoria A. Hoevemeyer

 
       
   

I’m not sure there are too many people who enjoy interviews – either being on the interviewer or interviewee side.  They tend, for the most part, to be very painful experiences.  About couple of years ago I reacquainted myself with the pain from an interviewee’s point of view.  Let me tell you about a couple of interviews I went on for management level positions.

In one interview, the interviewer’s first question was “What are your three most favorite movies and why?”  The sad part is that this was only the start of this type of questioning.  I was also asked:

  • “What was your best vacation and why?”
  • “What is the most recent book you’ve read and why did you read it?”
  • “What are your hobbies?”
  • “If you could do one thing in your life over again, what would it be and why?”

Fifteen minutes after we started, the interview questions were completed.  The next thing the interviewer (a Director-level person) said was, “That was really helpful.  It gave me significant insight into your personality, sociability, and leadership style.”  She then proceeded to tell me what she discovered about me in those three areas as a result of the questions she asked.  (For the record, about 60% of her “insights” were completely off-base, 30% sounded like a horoscope that would fit just about anyone, and 10% – maybe by skill, maybe by chance – pretty much fit me.)  Once she got through that, I thought that she would be moving on to some “meatier” questions.  Nope.  That was it.  Interview over.  (And, yes, I did get a call back for a second interview!)

If you think that’s a rare occurrence, then let me tell you about another interview.  The interviewer (an executive) came to the lobby to get me and, after we introduced ourselves, he promptly said, “We’ve got a long walk back to my office, and I’m really busy.  So, let’s just start the interview right now.  First of all, why should we hire you for this position?”  This was followed by “What do you like most about your current job?,” “How do you work under pressure?,” and three similar questions.  Once we got to his office, he asked the “greatest strengths” and “greatest weaknesses” questions.  At this point, he told me about the job, asked if I had questions, and had his assistant walk me back out.  Total elapsed time:  25 minutes.  Now, you may think that means that I didn’t do well in the interview.  Au contraire.  Once again, I was asked to come in for a second round of interviews.

My beef isn’t so much with the interviewers as the interview questions they asked.  So what’s wrong with these interview questions, you ask?  Questions such as those above are great for after-work socials and friendly get-togethers.  They can even be used as part of a team building intervention (when employed appropriately and properly).  However, they are not going to help you in the recruitment and selection process in any organization if your goal is to hire people who have the knowledge, skill, and abilities—or the competencies—to perform the essential functions of the position in a proficient or better manner.

There are basically three types of interview questions that are typically used in interviews:  traditional, situation, and brainteaser.  For the most part, these questions are ineffective.  Now, before the proponents of these types of questions stop reading, let me say that there are some advantages to each of these types of interview questions.

Traditional interview questions have three positive features.  First, people understand and are comfortable with them.  Second, they allow for a significant number of questions to be asked in a relatively short period of time.  Finally, some may reveal fit or non-fit with the position (e.g., “What would your ideal job look like?”), the position’s manager (“What are you looking for in a boss?”), or the organization’s culture (“What kind of organization would you like to work for?”). 

Situational interview questions (also called scenario-based, hypothetical, or ‘what-if’ questions) have some positive features, too.  First, in most situations it is relatively easy to match the candidate’s answer to the required answer for the position (e.g., “You’re faced with Problem X.  What steps would you go through to solve it?”)  Second, they tend to be relatively easy to evaluate and rate.  That is, either the candidate knows the “right” steps in the “right” order or he/she doesn’t.  Finally, they often work well with entry-level people who have limited experience but a wide knowledge base. 

There are even some positives to brainteaser questions.  First, they can give candidates the opportunity to demonstrate their analytical thinking skills, especially when they don’t have practical experience.  Second, an individual brainteaser questions might give the interviewer the opportunity to gauge a candidate’s reaction to the playfulness and innovation inherent in most brainteaser questions.  Finally, it can give the interviewer an opportunity to eavesdrop on the candidate’s thinking process.

With that said, it must be noted that, overall, none of these are very reliable selection tools.  Research has shown that traditional interviews are, at best, 20% predictive and, at worst, 1% predictive of a candidate’s performance.  That means the chances are high that you are going to be replacing that individual—either through voluntary or involuntary attrition—or are going to need to expend additional resources in discipline, coaching, and/or training within a relatively short period of time.  Situational interviewing shows a slightly better predictive capability, generally between 10% and 25%.  There are no statistics available to show any correlation between brainteaser questions and a candidate’s ability to competently perform in the position.

So what’s the alternative?  Well, let’s start with establishing a basic assumption as to why we interview candidates.  I propose that the reason is to determine a candidate’s ability to perform the essential functions of the position; that they possess the skills and knowledge required and they can demonstrate the position’s competencies at an acceptable level.  (Of course, organizational and position fit plays into that definition.)

If we go with that assumption, then the idea would be to ask questions that will help you determine each candidate’s skill, knowledge and competency levels.  To do this, it is recommended that you use competency-based behavioral interviewing.  Competency-based behavioral interviewing (CBBI) is a structured interview process that combines competencies with the premise that, with few exceptions:

The best predictor of future performance/behavior is past performance/behavior.
– and –
The more recent the performance/behavior, the more likely it is to be repeated.

The questions asked during a CBBI interview are based on real situations that relate to the competencies, skills, and knowledge required for the position.  Candidates, then, are evaluated based on actual—rather than possible or potential—behaviors/performance.  As a result, the information gathered from the candidate is significantly more predictive of what their behavior and performance is likely to be in the position for which they are interviewing than what one finds with other interviewing styles.  Research has shown that interviews that contain predominantly behavioral-based questions can predict job performance with 35% to 80% accuracy.  That could mean thousands—or even millions—of dollars per year that HR could save an organization!

So, if it’s that great, the question then becomes:  Why don’t more people use CBBI?  Many people fail to use it for the simple reason that they see it as being too difficult and time consuming to move from their current traditional, situational, and/or brainteaser interviewing questions (that they are comfortable with) to CBBI.  Truthfully, it does take some time—if you don’t have a basis to start from—to build a CBBI interviewing form.  That is one of the primary reasons I wrote High-Impact Interview Questions.  If you know the competencies you want to query candidates on (there are 78 competencies in the book), you can simply look up behavioral questions and use them as written or modify them to fit your specific situation.  

Even with this help, many people are still concerned about exactly how to go about converting to CBBI.  Rest easy—the good news is that you don’t necessarily need to start with a clean piece of paper to move to CBBI (it is, however, most effective when you do).  There is a shortcut:  take your traditional or situational interview questions and convert them to CBBI questions (making sure they are all legal queries). 

Some of these conversions are easy; others may take a little thought and time.  In Figure 1, I’ve taken some typical traditional interview questions and converted them to CBBI for you.  Because there are often multiple interpretations of what an interviewer is looking for in many traditional interview questions, I have provided a couple of different examples of CBBI conversions.  I have also converted a number of situational interview questions to CBBI for you (Figure 2). 

Figure 1:  Conversion From Traditional to CBBI Questions

 

Traditional

CBBI

 

If you could live your life over again, what would you change?

Tell me about a work-related decision you made or a situation you handled where, if you had it to do over again, you would do something different.

Tell me about a situation where, even though the results were not what you would have liked, you learned a lesson that made the mistake a valuable learning opportunity.

What are your strengths?

Describe a time when one of your strengths enabled you to be successful where you might not have been otherwise.

Give me an example of a time that you used one of your strengths to help another person or team succeed.

 

Can you work under pressure?  (What are you like under pressure?)

Tell me about a time you took action based on your own convictions rather than giving in to the contrary pressures of others’ opinions.

Give me a recent example of a situation you have faced where “the pressure was on.” 

 

How would you evaluate your ability to deal with conflict?

Tell me about a time you had a personality conflict with a boss or co-worker. 

There are going to be conflicts in the workplace.  Think about the most difficult conflict situation you’ve faced and tell me about it. 

 

How well do you adapt to new situations?

Tell me about a time when you had to adapt to an uncomfortable situation.

Tell me about a time you adapted your style in order to work effectively with those who were different from you.

 

How do you handle sudden unplanned work or crises?

Describe the worst on-the-job crisis you had to solve.

Tell me about a situation in which you had to adjust to changes over which you had no control.

By providing an example, convince me that you can adapt to sudden changes in work priorities.

 

Figure 2:  Conversion From Situational to CBBI Questions

 

Situational

CBBI

 

Your department has been very busy over the past three weeks.  It’s Thursday and one of your key employees, who has always been a good performer, was late by 10 minutes on Monday and by 15 minutes on Wednesday.  What action—if any—would you take?"

 

Tell me about a time one of your direct reports was not meeting expectations.

Give me an example of a time when you had to talk to a direct report about his/her performance and were able to turn that employee around.

What would you do if one of your peers told you, in confidence, that he believes that another one of your peers has been stealing from the company?

Tell me about a time you saw someone at work stretch or bend the rules beyond what you felt was acceptable.

Give me an example of a time when you were able to keep a confidence, even when you were tempted to break it or it would have been easier to break it.

 

An employee, who uses English as a second language, walks into your office.  The employee has strong accent and minimal command of verbal English.  The employee seems to be quite upset, but you can’t understand what is being said. What would you do?

 

Give me an example of a time when a person's cultural background affected your approach to a work situation.

Tell me about a time where you could not understand a customer or employee due to his/her strong accent.

You’re at the end of a hectic day.  Just as you’re ready to walk out the door, one of your customer service representatives says that a problem customer wants to talk to you.  During your conversation with the customer, the person becomes verbally abusive.  What would you do?

 

Tell me about a time when you encountered a customer who was complaining of poor service.

Give me an example of a situation you handled where even your enemies would have to say that you demonstrated outstanding customer service skills.

 

While I can’t guarantee that rewriting your traditional and situational questions into CBBI ones will work as well as a process which starts from defining competencies, chances are that you will be getting significantly better, more accurate, more complete and, well, more behaviorally-based (or performance-related) information from the candidates.  As a result, you will have more solid behavior/performance information upon which to make your hiring decision.

Let’s go back to my two interviews.  What might the interviewer have found out about me had the interviewer said, “Walk me through the actions that you have taken to further your own professional development over the last year.” instead of asking about the book I most recently read?  Could the interviewer have uncovered something different by saying, “Give me an example of a time that you used one of your strengths to help another person or team succeed.”  rather than asking about my three greatest strengths?

I know it’s not a simple process to convert all your interviews to competency based behavioral interviewing (but High-Impact Interview Questions does make it easier!).  And, I’m not saying that you absolutely, positively have to stop asking traditional, situational, and/or brainteasers in order to have a good interviewing and hiring process.  What I am saying is that if you must ask these types of questions then do these three things, too:

  1. Make traditional, situational, and/or brainteasers a small portion of the questions you ask rather than the basis of the interview.
  2. Ask the same questions of every candidate – for legal purpose as well as to ensure that you are “comparing apples to apples.”
  3. Make the basis of your interview one that is more effective, more predictive, and (if done properly) more legally defensible:  competency based behavioral interviewing.

 
       
   
 
       
   

The Author

Vicki Hoevemeyer

Victoria Hoevemeyer is the Organizational Development Director at Friendship Village of Schaumburg in Schaumburg, Illinois.  She has provided organizational development interventions and training/ development programs for service, healthcare, CCRCs, education, transportation, retail, and light and heavy manufacturing organizations in California, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, and Illinois.  She is the author of High-Impact Interview Questions and a co-author of First-Job Survival Guide, in addition to being published on a wide variety of human resources topics in a range of professional journals.

E-mail:  vhoevemeyer@friendshipvillage.org

 
       
   
 
       
   
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Copyright 2009 by Victoria Hoevemeyer. All rights reserved.

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