The Rise of the Behavioral Interview

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In a 2013 interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, Google’s Senior VP of People Operations, surprised the HR world by admitting that the way the company had been interviewing candidates for over a decade was severely flawed. Google was famous (or notorious?) for asking candidates “brain teasers” including questions such as “How many ways are there to find a needle in a haystack?” and “How many gas stations are in Manhattan?” (there are 50, if you are curious). These questions didn’t have a right or wrong answer but were intended to give the interviewer insight into how a candidate approached a problem and thought through various solutions. Or, so Google thought.

It turned out that this type of questioning was (and still is) completely useless and in no way predicted the candidate’s ability to be successful in the job. Bock went so far as to describe the candidate data Google collected from tens of thousands of these “brain teaser” interviews as “a complete random mess.” This realization led Bock to research other interview approaches that were more likely to be predictive of job success. The result? Google settled on the behavioral interview as its chosen method of interviewing and continues to use that method today. 

So what exactly is a behavioral interview?

A behavioral interview uses a question technique that specifically looks for examples of past behavior to predict future job performance. The effectiveness of the behavioral interview above all other methods is backed by years of organizational psychology research conducted well before Google decided to switch up its approach. In fact, the government and other parts of the corporate sectors had been using this form of interviewing for decades. Google’s adoption of the method made it newsworthy and arguably fashionable.   

Around the same time that Google started using behavioral interviewing, law firms also took notice of the practice and started experimenting with the method. Even when firms followed the right protocols, crafted questions using the lessons gleaned from organizational psychology and applied the methodology, there were two unintended consequences of doing things by the book.

First, law firms missed the opportunity to make a personal connection with the candidate. The behavioral interview model didn’t seem to allow the space for interviewers to talk to the candidates in a more conversational, free-flowing manner creating instead a stilted and overformal atmosphere. Also lost was the opportunity to communicate the firm’s culture, its distinctiveness and why a candidate should select the firm over others. This left both interviewers and interviewees frustrated with the process.

The second unintended consequence was that law students and other well-coached candidates quickly began to adapt to the behavioral interview model and rehearsed their answers to the questions they anticipated. In particular, law schools began publishing lists of potential behavioral questions and taught students how to answer them. Students were coached to come armed with a few canned success stories of things they had done in the past that they could use to answer almost any behavioral question. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with candidates being prepared for these types of questions; indeed, you would expect a strong candidate to be prepared. That said, when interviewers failed to dig deeper, they lost out on more nuanced, information-rich responses with relevant and useful information about the candidates. The candidates’ rehearsed responses were so apparently compelling that interviewers tended to skip important follow-up questions like, “What ultimately happened as a result of your participation on the team?” or “What did you do when team members didn’t see eye to eye on something?”

This leads us to the predicament in which many firms now find themselves. We know that the science and research behind behavioral interviews is solid. It’s what led to what we’ll call Behavioral Interviewing 1.0. We also know that many candidates are turned off by these interviews and that many give rehearsed answers which may provide a little more useful information than a conventional conversational interview. Having experimented somewhat with behavioral interviewing, many law firm interviewers have lost faith with the concept and reverted to using their own conversational question styles to avoid what they perceive as the awkwardness and inauthenticity of behavioral interviewing.

Despite the challenges with Behavioral Interviewing 1.0, there are ways to adapt the overall recruiting process and the behavioral interviewing technique so as to ensure that the candidate has a positive experience and that the firm is able to assess their likely success on the job. Introducing Behavioral Interviewing 2.0.

At Volta, we offer effective strategies on how interviewers can build personal rapport with the candidate while still staying true to the science of the behavioral interviews. We also provide ways to ensure that your interviewers ask the critical follow-up questions to elicit concrete examples from a candidate’s past in a way that is more conversational in tone and more comfortable to the candidate. Finally, we show you how to use the interview as an opportunity to distinguish your firm from others and leave a positive lasting impression on the candidate.

If you would like to learn more about how you can use these techniques to implement or reinvigorate behavioral interviewing at your firm, please reach out to us.

Ramla Farzad
T 917.232.7504
ramla.farzad@voltapeople.com

Nicholas Jelfs-Jelf
T 212.660.3902
nicholas.jelf@voltapeople.com

I would like to thank my colleagues Nicholas Jelfs-Jelf and Cecilia Mullan for their contributions to this article.