Behavioural Descriptive Interviews: A chainsaw where a scalpel is needed.

As an example of using a chain saw when a scalpel is needed, is there a better one in HR than Behavioural Descriptive Interviews? Most people in HR have no idea what the background is on these ubiquitous interviews, don't understand why they were developed, and, as a result, advocate their use in the wrong places. Before I start my rant, some disclosure, I am Certified in Behavioural Descriptive Interviews, right from the source, DDI themselves. But that doesn't mean I have joined the cult, it just means I have been trained in the use of the techniques involved.

So, when shouldn't you use these types of interviews? To understand the answer to that question you have to understand why and how they were developed. These interviews were designed to ensure that people with almost none of the attributes required by big companies (work experience, education or skills) could be considered for employment. They were designed to respond to decisions in U.S. Federal Courts in the 60's that required large employers in the big cities in the Northeastern U.S. to have employee populations that reflected the demographic make-up of the communities in which they operated. However, the traditional requirements mentioned above screened many, if not most, African Americans, Hispanics or women from being hired at that time. As a solution, DDI designed interview questions that focused on 'competencies', a concept the British came up with in World War II, that most people had demonstrated at some point in their lives. Things like Judgement, Conflict Resolution, and Problem Solving, etc. Behavioural Descriptive interviews were designed to enable people who could not pass the traditional benchmarks to tell recruiters, in a language that both would understand, why they should be hired by the company.

If you're still with me, and I wouldn't blame you if you aren't (only HR weenies like me are interested in this stuff) you will realize that a tool designed to help bridge the gap between big corporations and people, with few if any attributes typically present in experienced corporate employees, will present problems when used to interview those very same corporate employees. However, as anyone who works for many big companies will tell you, Behavioural Descriptive Interviews, have found their way deep into the heart of their company. Right into the heart of promotional interviews for people with ten, fifteen or even twenty years of work experience in their field, profession, industry and the company itself.

Think about that. You sit down to an interview for that coveted promotion you have been angling for these last four years in the same job, with the same boss (the boss who will be in the interview), and in the same company. And the first thing the interviewers do is pretend as if they don't know you, haven't worked with you, don't have years worth of performance appraisals, project results and 360 degree feedback (don't get me started on those!) results to work with! They ask you to give an example of " a project where the project lead has been in conflict with you and what you have done to resolve that conflict?". While you contemplate what form of career suicide you want to commit, the answer you come up with carefully avoids asking the question screaming in your mind, "Don't you know?"

Is it any wonder managers feel these interviews are restrictive and unhelpful in assessing the people who have been working for them for several years? Is it any wonder the people being interviewed feel demeaned and undervalued by the very manager for whom they have been toiling in project after project and team after team, all to great achievement? And there is HR, right in the middle, happily demonstrating their training and skill in using a chain saw when a scalpel is needed? The manager is frustrated, the employee is angry and HR is clueless. Sound familiar?

Examples such as Behavioural Descriptive Interviews abound in the field of HR. Good tools put to bad use by people who should know better but don't. Then we all gather around in our HR Conferences and wonder why management doesn't respect us, employees don't trust us, and how can we get the respect we deserve? Please!

There are solutions to these types of issues but they require HR people to start listening to both managers and employees when they attempt to describe for us the negative experience they have when they comply with the processes we hold so dearly to our hearts. We need to drop the defensiveness that so pervades our profession and develop solutions that move our organizations ahead. The solutions are often more simple than we believe. Sometimes as simple as to stop using the wrong tool for the task at hand. Thanks for sticking with this blog to the end.

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Comment by Brian Meeks on March 3, 2010 at 3:44pm
Just reading the 360 review made my skin crawl. I know of a person at a company I used to work for, who got one of the worst results possible on one of those reviews. The company, realizing that he wasn't getting along with the people he managed, promoted him, so he would have new people.
Comment by Kim Bechtel on March 3, 2010 at 4:46pm
It just makes you want to cry, doesn't it. A comprehensive study of the impact HR practices have on the bottom line, by an accountant, showed two had a negative impact on the bottom line, and one of those was the use of 360 degree feedback systems. But that's for another post.


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