Are You Prepared for the Sophisticated Interviewing Techniques of Today?
by Tom Washington

In a dynamic society everything changes. In the world of employment, few things have changed more in the last 30 years than interviewing. Since the 1980s four unmistakable trends have emerged: interviews are longer, more structured, more behavior-based, and more likely to involve several interviewers.

By structured we mean the questions are predetermined, having been selected after a thorough analysis of the core competencies required for the position, and interviewers will typically be trained in how to assess each candidate. By behavior-based we mean the questions asked will require you to describe specific examples from your experience when asked, “Give us an example of a time when you were highly creative in solving a problem,” or “Describe a time when you dealt with a difficult customer.”

While the traditional interview, with its predictable questions, is still relied on heavily, each year tens of thousands of supervisors and managers in the United States are turning to more scientific and proven methods for selecting their employees. Because interviewing has changed so significantly, the way you prepare for interviews and handle yourself during the interview must change as well.

In the past, if you prepared responses to the 75 most commonly asked questions, you were essentially assured of doing well. Those questions included "Tell me about yourself," "Where do you expect to be in five years?" "What is your biggest strength?" "What is your greatest weakness?" "Why did you leave your last position?" and "Why should I hire you?"

These changes are due in large part to two developments. In the late 70s the effectiveness of selection interviews was brought into question by industrial psychologists. Their research showed that the predictive power of the traditional interview was barely better than randomly picking a resume out of a stack and hiring that person.

At the same time, organizations recognized more fully the high cost of hiring the wrong person. Bradford Smart, a Chicago-based management psychologist and author of The Smart Interviewer, states that the true cost to an organization which must terminate a manager is typically two to four times that person's annual salary. Also, as organizations began emphasizing team approaches to management and problem solving, selecting the person who would best fit in the organization's culture and style became critical.

Throughout the 80s industrial psychologists assessed interviewing methods and determined that only structured, behavior-based interviews, demonstrated the predictive ability needed to select the right candidate.

In a structured, behavior-based interview the questions are predetermined and are asked of each interviewee. Although the questions are predetermined, interviewers frequently ask spontaneous follow-up questions to gain more information. The questions are usually developed through job analysis in which the skills and personal characteristics needed to perform the job well are thoroughly reviewed. Questions are then developed which elicit the information needed to determine the candidate's suitability.

Past Behavior Predicts Future Behavior

As one of the key researchers of interviewing effectiveness, Dr. Frank Schmidt of the University of Iowa, puts it, "The best predictor of future performance is past performance." The behavior-based interviewer therefore asks questions which help determine how the individual has actually performed or behaved in the past.

In the early 1970s AT&T became the first major company to fully embrace behavior-based interviewing and their success with it profoundly influenced other organizations. Dr. Mary Tenopyr, the selection and testing director for AT&T at that time recalls, "Unstructured interviews typically result in an opinion being formed in the first five minutes, with the rest of the interview being used to justify the first impression." Trained, behavior-based interviewers, she points out, do not allow that to happen. "We get much better results from behavior or experience oriented questions," she states.

Because of today's greater importance placed on hiring the right person, interviews have also tended to be longer. Dr. Smart, for example, advocates a two-hour interview for most managers in which an hour is devoted to having the interviewee describe each past job in detail, including initial expectations, responsibilities, accomplishments, failures/mistakes, the most and least enjoyable aspects of the job, and the reasons for leaving.

Multiple, or "series" interviews are also more common. Managers and professionals are rarely interviewed by just their prospective boss. In the series interview you meet with several people, one right after the other. At the extreme, one major law firm has each of its 60 partners interview all finalists. Although such a practice is unusual, both the partners and candidates seem to value its thoroughness. Even initial interviews today often consist of meeting at least six people, four of whom will often be colleagues or managers from other departments.

Problems and Challenges

These trends create both problems and challenges for job seekers. The problem is that multiple, structured, behavior-based interviews can be grueling, and it is extremely difficult to predict what questions will be asked. The challenge is that if you understand the principles of such interviews, and know what to expect, you can stand out from among the competition.

While the trends mentioned are unmistakable, you must prepare yourself for both the traditional interview, as well as the behavior-based interview. Paul Green, former president of Behavioral Technology in Memphis, Tennessee, a behavior-based interviewing training firm, believes that 90% of all interviews are conducted by untrained interviewers who cling to traditional methods. The remaining 10%, however, are conducted by trained interviewers who work for some of the most progressive and best managed companies in the country.

How to Prepare Yourself For Long Interviews and Series Interviews

Find out in advance how long the interview is expected to last. Knowing has several advantages. If the interview will be a short, traditional interview, you must pack as much information as possible into each answer. There is no room for rambling or going off on tangents. You must know in advance what you want to sell about yourself. As Anthony Medley, author of Sweaty Palms: The Neglected Art Of Interviewing, points out,( ,  "You do not control the questions in an interview, but you should control the content." The content is your responsibility, and the content can be prepared in advance.

If the interview will last closer to two hours, you must remain focused throughout. Every time you open your mouth it should be with the intent to sell yourself and not merely to answer questions. If you lose your focus, your energy and enthusiasm level will drop immediately and the interviewer will detect it. The quality of your answers will drop as well.

You should also learn how many people you will meet with. In a series interview the candidate often forgets which experiences have already been described. While there is nothing wrong with sharing the same experience with more than one person, it is best to have available at least three experiences for each skill area you expect to discuss.

If you will have a long interview, or several interviews, going in with a high energy level is critical. A client once had 15 hours of interviews with one company in just two days. He was prepared, however, stayed focused, and got the job.

Preparing for such energy-draining interviews requires not only a good night's sleep, but breaks as well. Try to get a break between interviews rather than simply being escorted from one office to another. If possible, get out for a brief walk to refresh yourself and to review how you've done. The break should clear your mind and enable you to determine what you must do in the remaining interviews to close the deal.

Behavior-Based Interviews

The most difficult interview to prepare for is the behavior-based interview. Rather than traditional questions, you will be asked for specific examples of when you demonstrated a particular behavior or skill. Typical questions include, "Tell me about a time when you worked under tremendous stress," or "Describe an experience when you dealt with an angry customer." Paul Green states, "Most interviewees require four or five questions before they understand and feel comfortable providing specific examples." You are at a great advantage if you tell vivid, well told stories right from the beginning.

When responding to the question regarding working under stress, an interviewee might typically answer by saying, "Well, at Microsoft we have extremely tight deadlines, and if you can't handle the stress, you won't last long. I think the ability to work well under stress is one of my strongest assets." To such an answer a behavior-based interviewer will respond, "I appreciate the fact that it is one of your strengths, but give me a specific project you worked on at Microsoft and describe how you dealt with the stress and what the results were." The behavior-based interviewer is like a bulldog who won't give up until a specific example is provided.

The interviewer has already determined what skills, knowledge, and qualities the successful candidate must possess. The examples you provide will enable the interviewer to assess whether you adequately possess them. Every time you are asked to describe an experience, you must provide your very best example.

Behavior-based interviews are also tough because nearly half of all questions will be negative. Right after being asked to provide an example where you effectively planned and organized a project, you will be asked to describe a project which did not turn out well. Although it may seem unfair to ask so many seemingly negative questions, the interviewer is trying to see all sides of you. Remember too that everyone will have to deal with the same negative questions.

Another reason the behavior-based interview is so difficult to prepare for is that so many questions can be asked. Dr. Green provides his client companies with nearly 200 sample questions. Hundreds of questions can be asked, so it is impossible to prepare for specific questions. Instead, you prepare by recalling dozens of past experiences.

Begin by recalling past accomplishments. Accomplishments are experiences you enjoyed, got satisfaction from, did well, were complimented for, or thanked for. They can be work or nonwork related. As each accomplishment comes to mind, list a few key words on a sheet of paper so you'll know which experience you were referring to. Jot experiences down quickly because one memory will trigger another. List everything that comes to mind rather than filtering out experiences which seem insignificant. During a behavior-based interview use your top accomplishments whenever appropriate, but frequently they just won't fit. Instead, some of those seemingly insignificant or minor experiences you've had will fit perfectly into the interview.

Think of the interview as a balance scale, with a great answer being worth up to five pounds on your side of the scale. During the stress of an interview it will be difficult to recall your absolute best example every time, so recall experiences now when you are under no stress. Practice telling some of the key experiences which you hope to describe. Practice so you can tell them vividly and concisely. If you can create strong visual images in the minds of those interviewing you, you will totally convince them that you have the desired skill level. If you pick your best experience and tell it vividly, the full five pounds will be added to your side of the scale nearly every time.

If, however, you consistently recall only your lesser experiences, or don’t describe them well, you may find only two or three pounds being added to your side of the scale. It is easy to see that in such a situation you will rarely be offered the position.

Behavior-based interviewers know how difficult it is to recall good examples, so they will always give you adequate time to think.

By being prepared for the behavior-based interview you will provide excellent examples from the very first question and be miles ahead of the competition. Although you can't predict the questions which will be asked, you'll be ready to cite examples. Keep in mind that your stories are just as important in traditional interviews. Even in traditional interviews one or two questions will typically require providing an example. Even if an example is not requested, you can answer the question, such as “Do you work well in a team environment?” and then back it up with an example.

When you get the job offer, all of the extra time you spent preparing will have been worth it.

For more on behavior-based interviewing and how to prepare for them:

Master the Art of Story Telling

Behavior-Based Interviews

Calculating Results

Selling Yourself Through Accomplishments

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