Saturday, March 24, 2007

Competency-Based or Behavioural Interviewing

"Hmm, let's see. 7/10 for leadership, 8/10 for oral communication, 3/10 for navigation, 9/10 for defying the laws of physics in parting the Red Sea and an overall 8/10 for problem-solving."
The concept of breaking a job down to its component elements and measuring people's ability to do it under those headings originated, as so many other advances did, in the military. The British used competence assessment to measure the effectiveness of officers for promotion and succession planning purposes in World War 2. In the 1960s, the psychologist David McLelland argued for the introduction of a competence framework in occupational settings. More recently, its use as a procedure-driven method for identifying talent has become increasingly prevalent across the spectrum of organisation types for a number of reasons:
  • By focusing on your approach and process, it allows the interviewer to determine if you really did achieve all the successes you claim on your CV and, more importantly, how. Structured Interviewing is all about identifying transferable skills and attitudes (more so than knowledge) and the processes/methods you apply in order to fulfil your job.
  • Structured selection techniques have a better track record of identifying the soundest candidate rather than the candidate who merely sounds best. A bad hiring decision nowadays can be immensely expensive for an organisation – cost of the hire, training costs, severance pay, loss of productivity, impact on morale, cost of re-hiring, etc.
  • With an increasing level of litigation, organisations now need to be able to show irrefutably why they selected one candidate ahead of another. This is a total nuisance for the organisation, but if a candidate decides to take an action over what they felt was an unjustified disqualification from the hiring process, the hiring organisation needs to have all their ducks in a row. Competency-based interviewing material allows for speedy, accurate note-taking and also includes scoring for each of the key areas examined.
If you are genuinely good at what you do and comfortable talking about how you approach work-related situations and problems, competency-based interviews will present no difficulties for you. But very few people can do that off the cuff. Despite the fact that we talk about our working lives so much of the time, we very rarely have to elucidate our approach or justify and quantify the work that we do to knowledgeable outsiders. In preparing, you must focus in on the core skills required in your current position and for the new position. It’s not good enough to just be competent at something – you need to be ready to talk about what makes you competent.

Questioning will either be hypothetical ("How would you deal with situation X?") or based on historical examples from your current or previous experience ("when such-and-such a situation arose, how did you deal with it?") In either case, the interviewer is interested in (a) your process and (b) the values and mindset that you brought to the process. It goes without saying that they are also very interested in how it all worked out – you may have a really excellent, logical and inclusive approach to problem-solving and bring wonderful values to the workplace, but if you can’t solve the problem, you are no good to anyone …

What I find fascinating as an interviewer is that while information on the thinking behind behavioural interview questions is freely available, only a tiny percentage of candidates actually take the time and trouble to formulate relevant, structured answers.

First point - there is no point in reading books and learning off hackneyed answers. Any sing-song, parrotted approach to answering questions of this nature will rapidly become apparent and a judicious follow-up probe will expose this approach for what it is. [I had an example of this from just a few weeks ago - a candidate for a marketing role was not ringing true as the interview unfolded. When I asked him about meeting targets, he told me he had grown his product portfolio by 68% over three years. About 15 minutes later, I asked him what his start and finish numbers had been and, surprise, surprise ... he was stumped.]

Second - a beginning / middle / end structure to your answers is essential - Situation, Process, Outcome (SPOUT) - and delivering these answers well requires a great deal of meticulous preparation. An excellent way to prepare and practise for structured interview questioning is to brain-dump a handful of possible answers onto paper and reverse engineer your approach - start from the most positive outcomes, pick your examples accordingly and use those as the basis for your answers. When you have each answer roughed out in long form, distil it down to a 3x5-inch card. If you can’t make it fit, you probably need to do more trimming.

If you can't think of a relevant example from your past - either in your preparation or if you are hit with a question from left-field during an interview - then move quickly to a hypothetical approach. "Well, I've never actually had to decapitate anyone as a result of a conflictual situation at work. But if I did have to do it, I'd make sure I had identified the right person to behead, I'd make sure that I had a really sharp axe, I'd warm up my muscles, wear a big rubber apron with galoshes and..."

Past performance/mindset/behaviour is a strong predictor for the future under the same headings. If you are looking to take a step up in your job, you may not have immediately relevant working experience of a particular competency. A combination of extra-curricular examples, supported by some explanation of your understanding and hypothetical approach may be sufficient to reassure the interviewer under that heading. Remember - it's all about the process!

"If you think competence is expensive, try incompetence."
(From a training brochure)


Joe Harris said...

Good post very though provoking. When I was working at a big blue chip I became an absolute savant an this type of interview and did well as a result.

However, since I've been out in the "real world" of small business and making critical hires for myself I've lost faith in the approach.

I've seen too many candidates who are extremely well prepared and convincing but just don't cut the mustard on the job.

Maybe I'm not doing it right.

But I wonder whether you are aware of any rigorous studies of this approach that show a provable advantage.


Rowan Manahan said...

Very interesting comment Joe and thank you for it. Nasty situation, particularly when you add up the cost of running a selection process and then the cost of a so-so or bad hire.

A couple of things occur to me:
(1) Within a big corporate, there are generally muultiple hurdles in the selection process - so you'd have multiple people meeting the candidates, each with their own style and viewpoint. Are you still doing that?

(2) Withing a big corporate, job descriptions evolve over time and the HR people generally have a huge pool of CBI questions (and follow-up probes) to dip into. So the questions you are asking a Business Analyst in 2007 could be quite different to the questions you were asking BA's 18 months ago. Are you still doing that?

There has been a marked increase in web material and books that address CBI and how to approach it. (Guilty!) If your process hasn't evolved as well, then I'm afraid the kids have caught up with you ...

I actually noticed one graduate smiling when he was asked "Why are manhole covers round?" He did a good job of pretending to think and then gave us 4 really good reasons. When I hit him with a couple of case questions he hadn't heard before, he was suddenly a lot less brilliant.

They're nimble these kids, and they use the interwebs a lot. Short answer - you have to invest a lot of time, effort and possibly money, to stay ahead of them and you have to weigh that against the cost of a bad hire.

Rowan Manahan said...

The only data I have seen that quantified the benefits of this approach to selection have been on the websites of companies who sell these services (Increase Your Hiring Success to 82% With Our Programme!).

the CIPD in the UK have some useful thoughts and may point you toward some slightly more empirical data: