The behavioural approach to interviewing

By Byron Kalies, Management consultant

This is the first in a four-part series on the interview process and starting a new job

Once they know how personalities work, individuals and organisations find it easier to effect change

In this short series of articles, we will cover some of the techniques and skills required to conduct an interview, present yourself well as an interviewee, and handle the first day in a new post, once you've successfully overcome all the preliminary hurdles. It is best to start with a look at some of the techniques used in an interview and how to give a clear structure to the overall process.

A common approach used by many people is behavioural interviewing. This is based on the belief that past behaviour is the best predictor of what will happen in future. Therefore, to gauge if a person will perform well in a new job, it is recommended to look at how they have performed in current and previous posts. This certainly makes sense, especially when you look at some of the alternatives.

Among those is the stress interview, which is meant to sort the wheat from the chaff. The idea is to create maximum stress in the interview to see how people will cope in a stressful job. There is a certain basic logic involved, but you have to realise that people will still react as if they are in an interview.

For example, a friend of mine was once asked, when interviewing for a job with a bank, how he would deal with someone who had raped his sister. The intention was apparently to see how he would react under stress.

Not surprisingly, he replied with a hypothetical answer weighing the different aspects of the situation and attempting to show himself as a thoughtful and rational individual. His intention was to show balance and objectivity, since he believed that would win him more points than betraying impulsiveness or irrationality. You get the point. Hypothetical questions will get hypothetical answers. Put people under stress in an interview and they will react like people under stress in just that situation – not like someone in the outside world.

Clear explanation
Usually, it is preferable to focus on the job requirements and to ask questions related to the work the candidate is likely to be doing. The best approach is to explain clearly what is going to happen. Outline the areas you expect to discuss, indicate the time available, and don't plan surprises. If someone has applied for a position as a systems analyst, ask questions relevant to that. I still remember, though, how an interviewer once asked me how I would resolve a miners' strike. At the time I was applying for a job as a computer programmer!

Some interviewers are under the impression that by asking this type of unexpected question they can catch the candidate out or learn something extra. In most cases, they would be better advised to stick to the matter in hand. If you were interviewing someone to look after your children, would you ask them about their views on nuclear physics?

Similarly, there should be no trick questions. Attention should be concentrated on the skills and characteristics needed to do the job. The interviewer should be honest with candidates, show them respect and remember that the reason for being there is to learn about them, not vice versa.

The objective is to find the best match between one candidate and the skills required for the job. I know this is often easier said than done, but basically that is all you are trying to achieve. There is no benefit in making the process more convoluted or complicated than it needs to be, or in pretending the job on offer is more complex than it really is.

Help candidates
Obviously, to do this properly, you need to know exactly what skills are required for the job. These should be clearly defined as soon as a vacancy is available and be included in the job advertisement. If you are using application forms, these should be designed to help the process of specifying skills. Candidates should be given space and encouragement to supply examples of relevant experience which displays the skills you require. Don't fall into the trap of using a "standard" form which has little bearing on the advertised job. Obtaining the right information in the application process makes it easier for everyone in the long run.

When evaluating the completed forms, you can match the evidence, or past behaviour, against the established criteria for the current job. During the interview you can then focus on filling in any gaps or asking for additional examples. If things have been managed well, you will be in a position to choose between suitably qualified candidates.

This depends on approaching the task strategically from day one and gearing everything towards identifying the skills required for the job. It really can be as simple as that. Once you have a system in place, the real skill comes in conducting the interview, which will be dealt with in the next article.

Points to note

  • Past performance is usually the best guide when assessing ability
  • Interviews should concentrate on job requirements and relevant skills
  • Trick questions or hypothetical situations should be avoided
  • Application forms should be designed to obtain specific job-related information

    Byron Kalies ( is a writer and management consultant currently based in Liverpool, England. He writes for a number of magazines and newspapers across the world and has written a book 25 Management Techniques in 90 minutes.

  • Taken from Career Times 10 June 2005
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