Tech & Work

Searching the soul of an IT job applicant

You've got twenty minutes to interview a job applicant. How do you quickly determine if this person lives up to his or her resume hype? Put behavioral-based interviewing techniques to work.

If you interview for a job at Dell computers, you probably won’t hear this question: “Are you a good team player?”

Certainly, Dell wants to hire people who can work well in teams. But the human resources philosophy at Dell means that managers are encouraged to ask interview questions that are more challenging. At Dell, you’re more likely to hear questions like these:
  • Tell me when you worked as part of a team.
  • What was your role in that team?
  • How did you contribute to the success of a team project?

A trend that takes off
These questions are examples of what’s known as behavioral-based interviewing. Many who practice this method believe it can be applied to the IT industry to help managers find the best potential new hire.

The theory is that past “on the job” behavior is the best indicator of future job performance. Ask questions that prompt action-oriented responses. Get applicants to tell a story about their past work experience to help you determine how well they will perform.

Dell Computer’s research on peak performance precedes any recruitment effort. Applicants must not only demonstrate technical competencies, but they must also show these traits:
  • Tolerance to change
  • Comprehension of new concepts
  • The ability to work effectively in teams

Using behavioral-based questions helps highlight whether potential hires possess these characteristics.

How it works in the interview
Let’s borrow an example from the world of sales. Here’s an example of a typical interview question, followed by its behavioral-based counterpart.

Typical interview question:
Manager: “What is your strongest asset as a salesperson?”

Job applicant: “I’m great at closing a deal! My customers love me!”

Using the typical question, you’ve learned that the job applicant has a healthy ego and imagination. The same question can be phrased in a behavioral-based context.

Behavioral-based question:
Manager: “Tell me about a large account you handled. What technique did you use to relate to your client, and how successful were your efforts?”

Job applicant: ”I was appointed lead pharmaceutical sales rep for six hospitals. I first made individual calls to the hospitals, introducing myself and personally taking their product orders. Then, I introduced online ordering to the group. I e-mailed them weekly updates on orders, new product releases, and special promotions. This established client rapport, and I increased product orders.”

In the IT world, this method of questioning may be especially effective when you're considering several candidates who are similar. In some circumstances, you might see resumes that look the same—potential hires may have the same list of certifications, languages, and skill sets. Or perhaps in the tight labor market, you want to hire someone who doesn’t have any certs at all. Behavioral-based questioning will help you determine if a less-qualified candidate has what it takes.

Here are more examples of effective behavioral-based questions that would be helpful to ask IT pros:
  • Tell me about a project you’ve completed under extreme deadline pressure.
  • Explain what you did in a situation where an employee demanded ways to circumvent security rules.
  • Tell me about a situation where you didn’t have explicit training to complete a task, but you were able to come up with a solution on your own.

A personality profile emerges
This interviewing method encourages applicants to talk about themselves in a way that goes beyond rehearsed answers. As a result, behavioral-based interviewing can also gauge the applicant’s fit within the organization’s culture.

At W.L. Gore & Associates, a technology firm in Newark, DE, employees must adapt quickly to various environments. Using behavioral-based interviewing helps managers determine which job applicants might adapt better than others.

“In my experience, when people are not successful, more times than not it’s because of their inability to work effectively within the culture as much as it is a lack of technical skill,” said Jackie Brinton, spokeswoman for W.L. Gore & Associates.

Corry Kessel is a freelance HR writer and independent HR consultant. She specializes in structural HR design for entrepreneurial businesses and small- to medium-size organizations in specialty markets.

What do you think is the best indication that an applicant will succeed? Do you rely on a few favorite questions? Do personality tests sway your decision? Post a comment below or share your thoughts in an e-mail.

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