On ERE, I recently read an article by John Boring call “How to Create Behavioral Interview Questions That Don’t Give Away t....”  It got me thinking about how vague many of our behavior interview questions are and how the answers could go in so many different ways.  I also know how quick some recruiters and hiring managers are to reject a person for not giving the kind of answer they are looking for.  Perhaps we are creating that situation with vague behavioral interview questions.

For example, a classic behavioral interview questions is…

Please tell me about a time that you had a conflict at work.

The answer to such a question could be a conflict in which the candidate was in the wrong or the candidate was in the right…or there was no right answer at all.  The answer to such a question could be about a conflict with the candidate’s manager, team member, support member, customer, vendor, or other partner within or outside the company.  The answer to such a question could be a conflict in which nothing really was done (stalemate) or something significant could have happened (positive or negative).

I hope you see my point…the answers could go in many directions.  Depending on what you are trying to assess…the answer may miss entirely because the answer was going down an avenue that did not apply to what you sought.  Furthermore, how do you really compare such answers when the situations could be so diverse with so many different outcomes?

Is it fair to compare one person’s conflict with a customer in which he was able to delight the person with customer service and a quick solution…with another person’s conflict with a manager who had a disagreement with how the process was done and in the end was told to do as he was told?  Both are valid answers to such a vague question.  Both will show very different traits due to the circumstances and parameters of the situation.

John Boring, in the article mentioned, spoke about raising the bar on our behavioral interview questions.  The example he gave was…

Describe for me a conflict you had at work…with your manager.

You will get more useful information about how the candidates work with their managers and the information is also more comparable by asking about a conflict that you had at work with your manager…than just saying a conflict at work.  Now everyone will be answering the question in very similar avenues.

You could get even more specific – depending on the traits and skills you are attempting to assess.  You could ask…

Describe for me a conflict you had at work with you manager in which you were in the wrong (or you were in the right).

Whether wrong or right or if you ask both versions, you may get some very interesting information.  As the situations are now much more similar, the answers from various candidates should be more comparable.

Let’s go with another quick example.

Tell me about a time when you were faced with constant change.

The change could be constant reorganizations in the department, constant changes to processes and procedures in the company, constant changes to work load, constant changes to customer/client base, etc.  The changes could have been initiated by your immediate boss, by upper management, by customers/clients, etc.  Again, many different ways such a broad question could be answered.

John Boring suggested adding the following to raise the bar in this questions:

Tell me about a time when you were faced with constant change…much of which was initiated by management.

You want to get at past behavior that is comparable and resembling your own environment or situation.  So if it was due to department reorganizations…then a better question might be…

Tell me about a time you were faced with constant changes to the organization structure…much of which was initiated by management.

If the candidate has not been faced with such a situation before…then pull back on the specifics a bit and maybe get more generalized.

In this way we are limiting the potential directions the answers could come in.  These questions are still open ended and will get at past experience, but instead of being vague, but they are also more targeted to the traits and skills you are trying to assess.


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