Interviewing acumen

Before Mike Johnson took a job as network administrator with the Urban Development Department for the city of Tulsa, Okla., he found himself in a job-hunting quandary. He was getting screened out of interview opportunities by hiring interns and headhunters who knew nothing beyond what acronyms to look for in a resume.

"If my resume did not have the exact buzzwords and certifications on it and did not fit the job description precisely, they would not have even told anyone about it," Johnson says.

Fortunately for Johnson, Tulsa Urban Development signed him on for an interview even though he lacked the primary skill - Windows NT expertise - required for the job. In detailing project experiences, Johnson convinced the hiring manager that he was the right guy for the job.

"I may not have had any Windows NT experience, but I've been in networking for 20 years and have been a [Certified Novell Engineer] since 1990. I was sure I could figure out Windows NT," he says. "So I told them about projects I had worked on and gave them specific examples."

Johnson's experience of being shut out from job opportunities for lack of specific skills is all too common in the IT profession, hiring experts say. Most technically oriented people over-rely on a job candidate's skills, education and training, says Lou Adler, president of The Adler Group, a training and consulting firm that specializes in recruitment strategies.

Adler tells the hiring managers he's working with to focus on what the person needs to do with the skills, not on skills themselves. "What's the project? What does the person need to be successful on the project?" he says.

Adler based this approach on a technique called the behavioral event interview (BEI). In a BEI, a hiring manager drills down on candidates' true competencies primarily by assessing how they would address hypothetical work challenges and, most importantly, by delving into the experiences job candidates identify as the most career-significant (see sidebar).

A BEI centers on knowing what core competencies - not skills - are essential to a job, explains Linda Pittenger, CEO of People3, a Gartner Inc. company specializing in IT human capital management. She defines a competency as a single or set of characteristics that differentiate and predict superior performance in any given job or role.

"If you have 10 programmers and Mary and Johnny are the best by far, we don't care about what the 10 do all day. What we really care about is what Mary and Johnny do that's different than the other eight," Pittenger says. "If they talk to customers more and understand competitors better, then that's what you're looking to hire for."

So if you learn during an interview that one of the toughest challenges a job candidate ever faced was dealing with a delayed application rollout, you would probe for information on how the person handled that situation. "If the last thing they did was talk to the customers, then they don't make it. That's the end of the interview," Pittenger says.

"Instead, most interviewers will ask job candidates how many years of networking they have," he says. "I'd rather have a customer-service person, if that's one of the competencies, and send that person to certification school. You can't teach people those competencies, you can teach them the skills."

Measuring results

Pittenger cites these hiring industry statistics as evidence of the effectiveness of a BEI model: In a typical, unstructured, one-on-one interview, a hiring manager has a 19 percent chance of making a good match for the job. That likelihood rises to 35 percent during unstructured team interviews. Using BEI, the chances of getting the hire right jumps to 72 percent.

Preparing for a behavioral event-based interview isn't necessarily difficult, but it certainly takes more upfront work than does the typical one-on-one method. For one, you'll need to determine job competencies by working with external or internal human resources specialists, buying off-the-shelf models or researching desirable competencies on your own - that is, discovering what competencies make Johnny and Mary superior performers, Pittenger says.

Aquent, a professional services firm in Boston, has used such a performance-based hiring methodology and behavioral event-based interviewing for internal positions. The results have been marked, says Lauren Schellenbach, corporate trainer for the firm.

Hiring managers now create customized performance profiles that detail specific and measurable objectives for the position, and then determine interview questions aimed at uncovering a candidate's ability to meet those job objectives. The goal is to uncover a candidate's big-picture accomplishments and ability to fit within the organization.

Aquent has reduced the number of ap-plicants to a more manageable, qualified pool and has cut the hiring time frame for the position by about 75 percent, from about four months to three weeks, Schellenbach says. What's more, new hires have exceeded expectations by 15 percent within their first three months on the job.

This points to another big benefit of using performance- or competency-based methodologies and behavioral-event interviewing - getting candidates invested in the job opportunity. "Candidates appreciate getting to the heart of the matter, and the interview can help get them excited about the job. You can say, 'We're really pushing the envelope on .Net and want the person in this position to take it to the next level. Tell me about the biggest project you've done'," Adler says.

Although the BEI concept has been around since the 1970s, it's just starting to catch on for IT hiring, Pittenger says. When she launched People3 in 1998, only 15 percent of companies used career-based competencies for IT. Over the years, she has seen that percentage increase to just less than 40 percent.

"We're making headway," Pittenger says. But still, she wishes for more. She sadly notes, "The most important thing leaders or managers can do is hire the right people, yet that's typically what they spend the least amount of time doing."

Components of a behavioural event interview

While some espouse a more streamlined approach, Linda Pittenger, CEO of People3, favours this BEI framework:

Knowledge and credentials: Find out what degrees and certifications job candidates hold, and what they can do.

  • How do you prepare an RFP?
  • Do you have Microsoft certification?

General experience: Discover responsibilities and temperament.

  • What does your typical day entail?
  • What do you do when a customer gets angry?

Opinion: Peel the onion back on their motives. Ask questions re-lated to your company’s culture.

  • What does your typical day entail?
  • What do you do when a customer gets angry? Hypothetical: Unveil how job candidates address a situation. Answers will tell whether a person will work independently, seek assistance or be customer-focused.
  • What would you do if your servers went down?
  • How would you escalate the issue?

Behavioral-event critical incidents: Provide the opportunity for job candidates to show challenges, actions and results. Ask five or six open-ended questions about the most important situations candidates have experienced in their current roles, and two or three questions on their failures and successes.

  • What was the situation and the event leading up to it?
  • What was your role?
  • How did you feel?
  • What did you want to do about the situation, and what did you do?
  • What was the final outcome?
  • What did you learn?

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