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Inside Straight: Thinking About Interviews

People have occasionally asked me for advice about interview techniques.

My suggestion has always been short and pointed: “Say something smart. Say something funny. Ask a good question. And get the heck out of there.”

What about on the other side of the table? I really don’t trust interviews. I don’t believe that it’s possible to tell during a half hour or an hour whether someone is truly competent or a great bluffer. I never thought I learned much from forcing people to talk about their résumés. So when I was interviewing candidates for jobs at a big law firm, I’d try to identify something that the applicant claimed to know — a practice area, a procedural issue, a case the person had defended — and engage the person on that subject. I figured that I was thus showing interest in something about the applicant while giving myself a chance to assess whether the applicant was sentient.

But now I work at a place that sells human resources consulting as part of its business. That requires folks to think a little harder about interviewing techniques. After all, if you’re offering professional advice about conducting interviews, you ought to interview your own job applicants effectively. I’ve recently been educated on this subject and, as a dutiful blogger, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned. What is behavioral interviewing, and why is it better than traditional interview techniques?

Think about the competency you want to assess. If you’re interested in judging the applicant’s flexibility, ask something like: “Give me an example of a time when a project you were involved with did not produce the outcome that you expected. What was your role? How did you handle the situation? Was it a successful approach?”

If you want to judge communications skills, you might ask: “Tell me about a time when you made a mistake that hurt a client or colleague. What was the situation? What approach did you take to telling the client or colleague about your error? What was the result?”

If you’re thinking about teamwork, you might ask: “Give me an example of something you’ve done to motivate a team and how you measured any improvement.”

What’s the benefit of conducting behavioral interviews?

First, it’ll put some spice in your life. Admit it: You’ve spent years doing traditional interviews. Break up your routine. Do something different. Live a little.

Second, spare the applicant the torture of explaining over and over again the thesis of some publication or why he left some earlier job. You’re not just putting variety into your life; you’re adding variety to the applicant’s life, too. You’re almost a hero.

Finally, empirical evidence suggests that behavioral interviews are better able to predict an applicant’s job performance than traditional interviews are. I don’t have a clue about the methodology here, but I’m looking at a piece of paper that reports that traditional interviews have a “mean predictive validity” of only .20 to .42, whereas behavioral interviews have a “mean predictive validity” of .50 to .58. (You have to love those social scientists. Lord knows how they generate those numbers or what the heck they mean, but I, for one, will not pass up a chance for a .30 to .16 improvement in the mean predictve validity of an interview I conduct. That would be like giving away free money, wouldn’t it?)

Yeah, maybe I’m slightly skeptical. But I’m going to give this a shot and see whether behavioral interviews seem more meaningful than traditional ones. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

On the other side of the interview table, consider yourself forewarned. If the human resources consultants are telling employers to conduct interviews this way, then applicants had better be prepared for this type of questioning. There’s no excuse now for being surprised.

Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at

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