How to Use Behavior-Based Structured Interviewing

October 1, 1999
The success of any organization depends upon choosing the right people for your team. But how do you pick the best from the rest? How can you design a selection process for legal, effective hiring?

The great majority of Fortune 500 companies and government agencies are beginning to use a relatively new interviewing technique called Behavior-based Structured Interviewing (BSI). Their hiring success and legal advantages can be applied in large and small company environments.

What's Wrong with Old-Style Interviewing?
"Our interviewers like the seat-of-the-pants approach to hiring," one Northern California manufacturing VP told me. "It makes the interview more lively. You never know what you'll end up discussing with an applicant." She pointed out that experienced interviewers like to trust their intuitions-their "gut feelings"-to come up with the right questions and pick the right candidate.

This set of ideas is the general defense for old-fashioned interviewing. In addition to the arguments made by this developer, old-style interviewing has the weight of history of its side-it's "the way we've always done it"-and, in fact, it's the way most of us were interviewed for our present jobs.

But put yourself in the place of a job applicant for, let's say, a position as a site planner or environmental impact specialist. You are one among several candidates to be interviewed. Does it matter that the big boss in the office interviewed your competition, but you are to be interviewed by a lower-ranking manager? That the previous interviewee was taken out to lunch and you're "next up" at 2 p.m. in a cramped office meeting room?

In the old-style interview, questions come "out of the blue," according to the whim of the interviewer. They are not formulated in advance in close coordination with job requirements. At best, they are conjured up by the interviewer in an attempt to "get an overall impression of the applicant" or to "see how the applicant relates and communicates" or "to keep things flowing."

At worst, these questions are time wasters for both the company and the applicant-just "talk" that yields little valuable information about the candidate's suitability for the position. Freed from any interview plan, the typical old-style interviewer does up to 80 percent of the talking during the interview.

Traditional interviewing so often produces the "halo effect," in which an interviewer simply hires the person who seems to be wearing a halo similar to the interviewer's. You can easily imagine an interviewer who consistently blocks the hiring path for women, or middle-aged men, or overweight applicants, or non-athletic types, or whatever other bias the interviewer applies in the hiring process. There's also the danger of the cloning effect, in which an interviewer in effect hires candidates in his own image (or who he thinks will "fit in") and the company ends up with a bunch of people who think and act alike.

The Legal Basis for Structured Interviewing
To all such matters of chance, gut feeling, and potential bias, the law related to hiring says, "Stop!" Specifically, the Uniform Guidelines arising out of Title VII and EEOC legislation insist that the interview be designed on the basis of specific job requirements. Both the content and method of the interview must be developed to reveal accurately and fairly which candidates are best qualified to fulfill the job requirements determined by the company. If challenged in court, employers must be able to show that interview questions are directly related to these job requirements. In addition, employers must afford each candidate equal treatment in the screening process.

Where Structured Interview Questions Come From
In creating interview questions, executives and managers in site planning and development roles should look to those who know the job best: those who perform it successfully or supervise its performance in the company. These "hands-on" experts list "critical incidents" involved in the successful performance of the job. (A critical incident is a specific problem or challenge presented by the job together with a description of the behavior which solved the problem or met the challenge.)

Here, for example, is one critical incident from the analysis of an environmental specialist position.

Problem: Community groups have raised vague but vociferous charges about potential environmental damage from a project development plan. They have the ear of city and county planning officials. How can the candidate work effectively with such groups to achieve mutually acceptable goals?

Successful behavior: Candidate works patiently in a non-confrontational way to understand community concerns; remains highly visible as a company spokesperson; interacts well with city and county planners to further company goals; works to focus community concerns on specific issues that the company can address successfully and economically.

This incident, drawn from actual work life and the job description for an environmental specialist, is one piece in the process of constructing job-based questions for use in interviews. If an employer knows what behaviors it takes to succeed in a given job, the employer can then develop interview questions and tests to locate people qualified to perform those behaviors. For some secretarial or reception positions, of course, the job analysis may involve only a handful of critical incidents. For more complex positions, the number of critical incidents may rise to a dozen or more.

These critical incident descriptions, once gathered, form the basis for all assertions by the employer regarding "what it takes" to perform a particular job. By pinpointing the things that actually matter most, the employer has gone far to remove the element of guesswork from the hiring process.

Developing the Job Analysis and Description
A job analysis team-perhaps only two people or three people in a small office-is usually composed of a manager deeply familiar with the job and one or more people who are good at the job. The team meets to organize the many critical incident descriptions into a succinct description of job behaviors-the "job description." The panel also considers:

  • Information sources of particular importance for the job. Must the applicant, for example, be thoroughly familiar with a certain set of state or federal regulations? A particular database system?
  • Abilities in decision making or information processing critical to job performance. Must the applicant be able to perform some mathematical operations in his or her head? Hold several numbers in mind at once? Review numbers quickly for accuracy?
  • Physical requirements, including coordination, stress, and dexterity. Must the applicant be able to sustain periods of prolonged work stress during "crunch" times in the office or in public hearings? Sit at the computer or other office machines for hours at a time without physical problems?
  • Social skills required for the job. Will the job entail the tactful supervision of others? Meeting clients and community groups in high-stakes, stressful contexts? Relating to co-workers as a motivational manager?
  • Scheduling and travel requirements of the job. Must the applicant be ready to make scheduling changes and travel plans on short notice? Is the candidate available for overtime?

These types of items form the complete job description, only a summary of which will probably appear in journal, newspaper or Internet "help wanted" ads for the position.

Turning the Job Analysis into Interview Questions
With the completed job description before it, the team begins to formulate interview questions. These should be drawn from several different types of questions to provide variety and to measure an interviewee's ability to respond to different forms of questions, including the following:

Definitional questions. These are usually posed in a "What is a ..." or "What does ___________ refer to or mean?" format. They require applicants to demonstrate their knowledge of terms, concepts, and tools.

Causal questions. These are posed in the format of "What happens when ..." or "What is the result of ..." Causal questions ask applicant to specify the consequence of some initial act or procedure.

Hypothetical questions. These questions take the form of "What would you do if ..." or "What could happen if ..." Hypothetical questions test the candidate's ability to handle future situations based on past learning and experience.

Situational questions. Related in some ways to hypothetical questions, situational questions ask the applicant to put himself or herself into a realistic circumstance described in detail by the interviewer. These questions usually take the form of "Here's the situation ... What would you do?"

Simulational questions. In these questions, the circumstance or situation is not described verbally to the applicant. Instead, the applicant is physically presented with some aspects of the job situation. Typically, simulation questions take the form of "To achieve the purpose of ___________, you are now holding ___________. Show what you would do to achieve your purpose."

Relational questions. These ask the applicant to tell, perhaps by role-playing, how he or she would handle interpersonal situations.

Explanatory questions. These usually take the format of "Why would you ..." or "How would you explain ..."

Once questions and their answers have been selected according to the relative importance of job behaviors, the team must arrange them for uniform delivery to job applicants. Questions are often arranged to follow the course of a typical workday or the work cycle from the beginning to the end of production. Or, questions can be arranged in order of increasing or decreasing importance. In most cases, applicants will respond to questions more clearly and completely if the questions occur in a meaningful arrangement.

Training Good Interviewers
One employment manager recently wrote that "getting honest information from our applicants is not nearly as big a problem as getting our interviewers to ask the questions we want answered."

He refers to a widespread problem confirmed by recent studies at Duke University. Job interviewers are often reluctant to ask "hard" questions, particularly of applicants for whom they have an initial liking. Often in an effort to "help out" a congenial applicant, an interviewer may glide over such thorny areas as past firings, a successful of short job stays, or poor college performance. This quite human tendency on the part of the interviewer leaves an information gap for the company in its hiring process. The practice also discriminates against other applicants who, for whatever reason, aren't given special help from the interviewer.

To keep your interview process fair and objective, all questions developed for a structured interview are asked in order and verbatim for each applicant. In structured interviewing, the interviewer can repeat a question if necessary, but not coach the applicant, give hints regarding the intent of or possible answers for the question, or otherwise influence the applicant's response. Nor does the interviewer indicate by verbal or nonverbal signals the relative success or failure of the candidate's answer. Saying "that's a great answer" or "you certainly know your field" to one candidate and not to another obviously gives one candidate an advantage.