Professionally Speaking

Interviewing and Incentive Compensation

This month our career advisors write about topics that have been on their minds lately.

In this column late last year we touched on the issue of interviewing. Since writing that column, I've taken an interviewing class and would like to share what I learned.

As you probably realize, the traditional job interview is a notoriously unreliable predictor of success in candidates. More often than not, this can often end up as a popularity contest rather than a tool to determine who has the best skills and experience to fill an open role. However, there's a way to change that. A technique known as "behavioral interviewing"or "structured behavioral interviewing" is now commonly used as the basis for interviewing. It was also featured in the recent business best-seller, First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman (Simon & Schuster), although it wasn't mentioned by name. This is not entirely new—I recall my wife teaching classes in it at her Big 5 firm in 1995—but it's now becoming much more widely used.

Behavioral interviewing is based on the assumption that past behavior is a good predictor of the future. Therefore, rather than ask somebody a hypothetical question about what they would do, ask the applicant, in detail, about a situation and what they actually did and what results were achieved.

The process starts with the interviewer first determining what critical competencies are important for the role. In many cases, these won't be technical—they'll describe the qualities that someone will need to be successful in the role. For example, the non-technical critical competencies for a role might be determined to be teamwork, customer focus and adaptability.

Once these competencies are defined, the interviewer reviews the incoming resumes in light of these requirements. As the interviewer, you then write down a few possible starter questions in preparation for the interview. (This also demonstrates to a candidate that you've actually read through their resume, which is very important for them to feel like they're being taken seriously.) During the interview, these questions can be asked and followed up with more probing questions to dig deeper into the situation, until the questioner can make an assessment of the how these critical behaviors were exhibited and what results were achieved. Sometimes a particular question may lead to a dead end, which is why the questioner needs to have a couple of questions prepared for each competency.

What does this mean for an interviewee? Well, it makes it a little harder to prepare for your interview. You can't really fake your history, so make sure you know exactly what is and isn't on your resume, as you'll be asked detailed questions from it. Again, resist the temptation to embellish—you'll be discovered if you verbally contradict what's written in your resume.

Asking the standard questions such as, "What are your strengths and weaknesses?"or "Where do you want to be in five years?"tell me very little as an interviewer. These really measure how well the candidate can recite a pat answer rather than anything else. Of course, you'll probably want to have an answer ready for these in case you're asked; but as interviewers are better trained, it's less likely that you'll be asked these questions.

As well as this behavioral interview, I now use a written test for candidates that tests technical knowledge. This has about 20 questions about general networking knowledge, plus another 20 detailed Windows NT/2000 questions. I also have a set of questions for Novell NetWare that I use if the candidate has skills in that area. These are mostly short-answer questions. Typically, I like an applicant to correctly answer about half the questions before I consider them ready for a role in my team.

My experience is that candidates don't mind a hard technical test as long as they feel it's relevant to the role offered. One way to build resentment with candidates is to ask in-depth questions about obscure technical areas without good reason; this comes across both as a way for the questioner to show off and also to humiliate the candidate.

About the Author

Greg Neilson is a manager at a large IT services firm in Australia and has been a frequent contributor to and


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