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By Jenn Bradford and Johnna Major, KMA Recruiting Consultants
Portrait of Jenn Bradford Portrait of Johnna Major

In Part 1 of this article, we shared advice for preparing for the interview, developing a blueprint for the interview process, and creating a positive experience for candidates.  Now, we’ll talk about the importance of customizing the interview, the value of behavior-based interview questions, and what not to ask in the interview.

It’s important to remember that designing the interview is intended to not only get you the information you need to make a good hire, but to ensure that the candidate is getting an accurate presentation of the role, the team and the organization so they can evaluate if it’s a good match for them as well.

Customizing the Interview

To objectively assess a candidate, you need to customize your interview format based on the position you are filling. The number of interviews, types of questions, and who is included in the interview process will depend on the level of the role.

For entry-level, blue-collar, or service roles you may have just one interview and make an offer on the spot, contingent on any necessary background checks, etc.  Filling these jobs continues to be difficult, so having a well-designed, but streamlined interview process so that you can decide quickly and not lose good candidates is important.  Your interview questions can focus on the basic skills, education, or certifications required to do the job, but also focus on work history, reliability, adaptability, team orientation, etc.

For mid-level roles, you will typically spend more time understanding a candidate’s career history and their career goals. This is an opportunity to understand their background and experience, but also what they are looking for in their next role and whether your position is a good match. A good question to get at this is: ”What criteria do you have to determine if a job and organization are going to be a good fit for you?”  Mid-level roles often require a combination of technical skills or subject matter expertise, and stepping into supervisory duties, so you want questions designed to get at both areas. For this level position, it is recommended to conduct an initial phone/video screening interview as well as an interview that provides the candidate with the opportunity to meet the hiring manager, and at least one to two others from the department or organization. This provides the hiring manager with additional perspectives on the candidate, but also gives the candidate the chance to meet people they’ll be working with and get a feel for their compatibility with the team.

For senior-level roles, it it is important to spend time understanding a candidate’s career progression and career goals, with questions that focus on leadership, employee management and development, strategy, financial competency as well as any unique technical or educational requirements for the position.  At this level, it’s best to engage with a candidate over two to three interviews, with multiple stakeholders, to assess their leadership skills for the role and your organization. Candidates at this level will expect and want multiple rounds of interviews to fully evaluate a role, the team, and the organization culture, but it is important to make these rounds as efficient as possible to respect the candidate’s — and your interview team’s — time and ensure that you can move through the process relatively quickly. You don’t want to risk losing a candidate to another offer, or to disinterest if a process drags on too long and is cumbersome.

Behavior-Based Interview Questions

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Past performance is a good indicator of future performance.” Behavior-based questions are designed to explore how a candidate dealt with various scenarios and situations to give you insights into how they would perform in your culture and environment. If they’ve been most successful in a rigid, highly structured environment, and your organization has a let’s build this plane while we fly it approach, they may struggle to be successful, and you may be frustrated with their focus on structure and process.

Behavior-based questions use the STAR method to draw out details that explore a candidate’s experience and approach.

S = Situation. What was the situation or problem that they were addressing?
T = Task. What was their individual responsibility or assignment to address the situation?
A = Action. What action did they take to meet the goal or address the problem?
R = Result. What was the result of the actions they took?

Typical behavior-based interview questions will start with “Tell me about a time…” or, “Describe a situation where…” so that you can explore specific scenarios and how the candidate dealt with them.

The most challenging aspect of behavior-based interviewing is that the interviewer needs to probe for more detail and be comfortable asking follow up questions to ensure that all elements of the STAR have been discussed. Too often an interviewer will accept a basic answer. However, the details of the situation, the actions they took and the results they got provide the data needed to evaluate how they would do in your environment.

To be successful, the interviewer needs to be an active listener to effectively ask follow-up questions, picking up on details and exploring further, especially if the candidate seems to be glossing over details. And they need to be patient. Give the candidate time to think about their answer and encourage them to take their time if they are struggling. If you’re asking good behavior-based interview questions, they may not have a rehearsed answer. Listen and be attuned to the candidate’s language and how they frame situations to spot red flags like negativity or using the term we a lot as it may indicate they defer to the team to do the work. It’s also important to remember that not all candidates are strong communicators, and the position they’re applying for may require stronger analytical or problem-solving skills over communication skills. If this is the case, the questions should focus on assessing how they used their problem-solving or analytical skills in situations and the candidate should be evaluated on that versus on how well they communicated it to you.

A Word of Caution

As you design your interview questions and process, it’s important to ensure that you are not asking questions that could get you in legal trouble and to mitigate the biases that may creep in.

Interview questions should focus on job-specific responsibilities, qualifications, etc. The general rule of thumb is that if it’s not related to the candidate’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job, then it should not be asked. Asking questions that could prompt a candidate to discuss age, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, family status or other protected class personal information could lead to a claim of discrimination if the candidate is not hired. If you need to find out if a candidate can work the scheduled hours for the position, state the hours requirements and ask if they can meet the requirement.  Don’t ask things like whether day care or church commitments would interfere with their ability to work the required hours.

Employers should also note that more and more states are banning questions about salary history as it can perpetuate wage gaps for women and minorities. Best practice is to post your starting salary or salary range and confirm that it’s acceptable to the candidate, or ask if they have a salary expectation for the role they are applying for. Additionally, many states no longer allow you to ask about criminal history prior to an offer being made. Make sure you know your state and local laws as you design your interview and application process.

Bias can impact our perceptions of and interactions with others, so having a thoughtfully designed interview and objective evaluation process based on the job responsibilities is key to mitigating those biases in your selection. Stereotyping, First Impression Bias, Halo/Horn Effect are just a few of the biases that an interviewer may bring to their and can hinder an objective evaluation of a candidate’s ability to perform the job.

In today’s highly competitive job market, once you’ve got good candidates in the pipeline, it’s critical to have a well-designed process, use thoughtfully prepared interview questions, and engage a team of interviewers who are trained to ask good behavior-based interview questions and avoid areas that could land the employer in legal trouble. Taking these steps can you help you interview like an expert and land a great candidate! As always, reach out to the recruiting experts at KMA for help.