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The Boston Globe

More employers using job interview as a test of applicants' mettle

By Thomas Watterson, Globe Correspondent, 9/12/04

Getting ready for a job interview usually means remembering things your mother might say: Wear nice clothes. Shine your shoes. Brush your teeth. Sit up straight. Smile. Be prepared to answer this question: What system do you use to keep track of multiple projects and how do you track progress so that you can meet deadlines?


For many job seekers, that last item may come as a surprise. But for more and more companies, it is part of an interviewing process that they believe is superior to asking free-form questions like ''Tell me about yourself?'' or ''Are you a self-starter?''

This process, known as behavioral-based interviewing, relies on a series of specific questions designed to give an employer a better idea of exactly how a candidate has successfully completed projects or dealt with difficult situations in previous jobs. For example, a potential hire might be asked: ''What steps would you follow to successfully handle an irate client?''

Some companies have used behavioral-based interviewing for several years, but many others have begun adopting it as they gradually resume hiring.

Even though the job market is improving, ''employers are looking for more breadth and depth in their applicants,'' says Nancy Mobley, president and chief executive of Insight Performance Improvement Inc., a human resources firm in Dedham.

''People are being much more careful about who they hire,'' agrees Paul Connolly, an industrial psychologist and president of Performance Programs Inc., a human resource testing firm in Old Saybrook, Conn.

In the late 1990s, Connolly recalls, companies needed to fill jobs quickly and may not have been as discriminating about who they hired. Now, they are taking more time to make sure the candidate and the job are a good match.

''Smart companies that do a good job of interviewing will absolutely do case-study questions,'' says Cheri Paulson, senior vice president at Keystone Associates, a career management company in Boston. ''People are looking for answers to prove a track record. Companies are saying, 'Prove it to me. Don't just say you did it, but prove it.'?''

Behavioral-based interviewing can also give companies some legal protection, says Margaret Moon, human resources manager at Teradyne Inc. in Boston. This type of interviewing can help employers avoid charges of discrimination or favoritism by making them spell out all the job requirements before they advertise for applicants, Moon says. The interview questions are then designed to select candidates who meet those requirements.

''Now there's a clear process before you ever get to the interview,'' she points out. ''You define exactly what you're looking for, totally independent of any candidates. It's very much based on the skills and behaviors necessary to succeed in the job.''

Job seekers who haven't experienced this type of interview before may want to think about how they might answer these questions, specialists say.

''The applicant really needs to think of themselves as a product,'' Mobley says. ''Do your own self-inventory before you get in there.''

''If applicants can think of themselves in terms of what skills and behaviors they bring, what kind of work environment they succeed in, they'll be better prepared to answer some of these interviewing questions,'' Mobley contends.

Many applicants ''feel very comfortable with'' this type of interview, says Dan Kilgore, director of recruiting at Getronics Inc. in Tewksbury. ''They're telling stories, they're talking about themselves.''

The only time a problem might come up, Kilgore says, is if the candidate has been ''fabricating'' part of his or her work history.

''That's when you'll see all sorts of awkward behavior,'' he says. ''They usually aren't surprised when they get turned down. They know what happened.''

Behavioral-based interviewing has been used for the past several years at EMC Corp. in Hopkinton.

''We haven't had anyone say that it was an unusual experience or that it was overly intrusive,'' says Erin Motameni, vice president for human resources. ''From the candidates' point of view, they like the opportunity to showcase some of the work that they've done.''

Some companies have their own versions of this screening process.

Tweeter Home Entertainment Group in Canton, for example, uses a combination of behavioral-based interviews and group sessions with candidates - particularly those seeking sales jobs - to get a better idea of how they might handle different situations, says Linda Christman, Tweeter's vice president for human resources.

''We do formal presentations to talk about the kind of things most candidates want to know about our company,'' she says. ''Then we have interactive exercises where we have candidates work together. It helps us identify communication skills, selling skills, team-player skills, and basic interpersonal skills.''

This process works both ways, Christman notes, because it gives the job seeker a better idea about the company and helps the company decide whether to hire the person.

''Not only do we as a company identify a higher match with individuals, but the candidates can identify for themselves whether they're right for the job,'' she says.

Try to tackle these questions

What does it take to get inside the head of the person behind the desk - and to win the job? Here are some behavioral-based interview questions that might be asked by a prospective manager or a company's human resources department.

  • Have you ever made a mistake that adversely affected someone else (direct reports, customers, other departments, etc.)? What did you do when you discovered the mistake? What did you tell the individuals affected by this error?
  • How do you determine what is critical and what is trivial?
  • What is your procedure for keeping track of things that require your attention?
  • We all have had times when we just could not complete a project on time. When has this happened to you?
  • What skills/knowledge did you use to build ''team spirit'' and motivate individuals/teams to achieve/exceed objectives?
  • Sooner or later we all have to deal with a customer who makes unreasonable demands. Think about a time when you had to handle unreasonable requests.

What did you do?

  • How frequently do you provide feedback to help an individual improve his or her performance?
  • Have you ever set up a course of action to accomplish a long-range goal or vision? What was it and how did you set it up?
  • How do you stay abreast of internal/external factors affecting your organization?

How did you apply this acquired information? Give examples.

  • Have you ever been asked to do something that you did not think was right? What did you do?
SOURCE: Insight Performance Improvement Inc.

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