"Tell me about a time when you…"
I'll stop there.
We've all been on the other side of the table when a hiring manager or recruiter asked us a behavioral interview question.
And if you're a college-educated, white collar worker, chances are you had something impressive to share, going as far back as college when you may have had a leadership position in student body government or a competitive internship.
Behavioral interviewing has been the gold standard in hiring and recruiting for decades. But new conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion reveal that relying on the sole assumption that "past behavior predicts future performance" is a deeply flawed way to assess a candidate's potential.
If we want to create truly inclusive hiring practices, we need to go beyond a candidate's past experiences - which can reflect culture and circumstance, not ability and potential - to assess their capacity to do the job today.
Here are three ways hiring managers and recruiting firms can adjust their approach to behavioral interviewing to ensure it truly surfaces the best candidate - not the most privileged:
1. Break up with "the club" to expand your candidate pool
Used without critical thought, behavioral interview questions make it very easy to favor candidates who are members of "the club" - people with shared experiences, such as certain colleges, interests, or demographics.
Startups in particular are susceptible to this threat, one being fought by organizations like Hack.Diversity, which work to welcome a more inclusive workforce into the innovation economy.
It's one thing to start your company and get off the ground by working with those closest to you, or with whom you share a commonality. It's another thing to scale your organization using this approach.
"If you want to change your company demographics, you have to change your candidate pipeline," says Tameka Moss, Principal at TBM Consulting, LLC. "You have to reconsider the spaces and places in which networking and referrals come to your business and evaluate whether or not it's possible for candidates with non-traditional experiences, values, or backgrounds to have access to them."
Moss continues: "If you don't address this proactively, you'll settle into the cascading effects of white, male level-setting that have created many of the structures and processes behind hiring and recruiting today."
Breaking out of "the club" requires you to break out of the constraints of your behavioral interview questions. You must move beyond the quick and easy questions that reference shared experiences, digging deeper to uncover all of the ways a candidate could contribute to your organization today.
Traditional behavioral interview question: Can you give me an example of when you got a sales team to implement a new technology?
Unbiased behavioral interview question: Can you give me an example of when you got a person or group to approach a task in a different way?
2. Use real-life examples from the job
Traditional behavioral interview questions draw from the very specific context of the working world. They exclude those who do not share those specific experiences, such as implementing a large marketing strategy or recruiting a team of scientists to work on a particular problem.
Unbiased behavioral interview questions must move the focus from the specific work context and into more situational and life-related experience: How does a candidate solve problems in real life? How will they solve the problems that arise in this role?
"Simulating the work environment and the job in an interview reveals a clear understanding of a candidates' competencies and behavior with real life examples," says Tarlin Ray, SVP of Business Development and Product Management at Kaplan Test Prep. "In our experience of successfully expanding the hiring funnel to engineers from more diverse backgrounds, we break the interview into three parts: an informational interview, a short coding challenge, and a longer real-world challenge paired with the hiring manager."
"In this process, we come to see how the candidate thinks and collaborates," continues Ray. "This is a far more accurate technique than trying to assess experiences they may or may not have had in previous roles."
This approach is successful with non-technical roles, as well. Ray shares the example of hiring for a sales role in which they walked the candidate through an informational interview, a set of short assignments related to marketing and sales, and finally a rich discussion about the assignment.
"Instead of learning about a scenario that may or may not have been relevant to the candidate, we try to create environments where the candidate and the hiring manager have a common baseline and experience in which to have a discussion," explains Ray.
Traditional behavioral interview question: Can you share how you have solved a complex engineering problem in the past?
Unbiased behavioral interview question: How would you solve this problem if you encountered it in this role?
3. Focus on the future, not the past
All too often, the way we use behavioral interviewing today benefits candidates who already have a specific set of accomplishments. If you're not careful with the questions you ask, you tighten the candidate pool so much that only individuals with very specific kinds of achievements can get through and you will never achieve attracting a truly diverse team - which you will need to reach maximum levels of performance.
An unbiased approach to behavioral interviewing takes a more entrepreneurial approach to a candidate's experience. It's open to finding out how one could get the same outcome - deep experience in marketing or sales, for example - through a different path.
It also explains how someone could make a non-traditional decision, such as dropping out of Harvard or MIT, and still find success in applying creativity and innovation into starting or growing a company.
"Behavioral interview questions need to focus less on the past and more on the present, uncovering anyone who can do the job, not just those who have done it before," says Moss. "If you don't take these steps, you're leaving behind those who can do it in the future simply because they haven't done it yet."
"It also doesn't account for varying power structures within the workplace, such as when a person may not have felt safe enough at work to show leadership yet," Moss adds. "Instead, they showed an invisible kind of grit that makes them an excellent candidate for the job, but does not translate to a flashy bullet point on a resume."
Traditional behavioral interviewing asks, "What have you done as Head of Marketing?" Unbiased behavioral interviewing drives towards, "Can you be a Head of Marketing?" Focus on the second question will reveal insight into how a candidate approaches and solves complex problems.
Traditional behavioral interview question: Can you tell me what you have done over the past six months to keep yourself up to speed with technology advancements?
Unbiased behavioral interview question: Can you tell me about the resources and publications you like to read to stay on top of advancements in technology? What kind of resources would you like to learn from in this role if you had access?
Building More Inclusive Behavioral Interviews
Behavioral interviewing is a best practice in the hiring and recruiting field for good reason. Used correctly, it reveals powerful insight into how a candidate thinks, acts, and collaborates - insights that go far deeper than a well-written cover letter or well-rehearsed interview response.
But we should no longer tolerate the unintentional bias that misguided behavioral interviews can bring to the interview process against candidates who do not have a specific and narrow set of traditional experiences. It's in all of our best interests to thoughtfully and intelligently elevate our use of these questions to identify the candidate who will most excel at the job, and open that pool of potential to a more diverse set of candidates, including those with non-traditional backgrounds.
Read more: 9 Ways to Remove Gender Bias from Interviews
Contributed by Dave Melville, Founder and CEO of The Bowdoin Group, who has built his company into one of the largest executive search firms in Massachusetts. For 25 years, local venture capital and private equity firms, growth-stage startups, and large enterprises have relied on The Bowdoin Group to meet their executive search and hiring needs. Melville leads The Bowdoin Group's BioPharma practice, oversees general strategic initiatives, and is involved as a key resource for the firm's growing client base.
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