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Dec 1993

The behavior description interview. (The CPA Manager )

by McMillan, Jeffrey J.

    Abstract- Behavior description (BD) interviewing can be a useful tool for managers tasked to interview promising candidates for entry-level accountancy positions. This method helps interviewers identify the better performers from a group of applicants. BD interviews are characterized by two significant features. First, the interview is standardized through the use of similar questions for all interviewees. Second, a BD interview is focused on past behavior because it best predicts future behavior. Unlike other methods, BD interviewing does not allow the interviewee to direct the flow of the session, does not involve judging candidates based on their personalities and does not allow hypothetical and self-evaluative questions. The steps that should be taken when developing a BD interview are discussed.

Your concerns may be justified if you are using a typical interviewing strategy in which there is no standard set of questions or a strategy in which interview questions do not explicitly focus on the past behavior of the applicant. Yet, there is an alternative. Studies in human- resource management suggest that behavior description interviewing may help you identify better performers from the rest of the applicants

Principles of the Behavior Description Interview

The first principle of the Behavior Description (BD) interview is interviewers standardize or structure the interview. The most important aspect of standardization is asking applicants the same or highly similar questions. This allows all applicants to have a chance to provide information about certain job-related concerns and allows interviewers to compare similar types of information. The alternative of each interviewer asking their own questions will have your organization comparing apples and oranges when trying to make hiring decisions. Often this leads to lower quality hiring decisions. An organization may also seek to standardize the location of the interview, the individual who conducts the interview, etc. Any efforts to ensure similar treatment of applicants should be encouraged. An additional benefit of standardizing interview questions is that the interview is more defensible in court. In the past, organizations that had standardized questions won employment discrimination lawsuits more often than those without standardized questions.

The second principle of BD interviewing is to explicitly focus on past behavior. BD enthusiasts believe that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. They also believe more recent behavior is a better predictor of future behavior than older behavior and that longstanding trends are better predictors of behavior than isolated incidents.

The belief in the effectiveness of using past behavior to predict future behavior leads BD interviewers to ask certain questions. These questions use a superlative adjective (e.g. most, least, toughest, etc.) to focus the applicant on one particular incident of behavior. For example, accounting firms need staff members who are willing to address both internal and client problems. To gather relevant information about an applicant, a BD interviewer might ask the applicant to "tell me about the last time a new idea of yours helped an organization or group work better." The interviewer might also be ready with follow-up questions such as "how did you develop this idea," "how did you convince your supervisor or client to adopt it," and "how did it help the organization?" The follow-up questions may be answered as the applicant discusses a particular situation, but their presence alerts the interviewer that this information is important. In another instance, accounting professionals are often called upon to make presentations to groups such as audit committees or boards of directors. Accordingly, an interviewer might ask a job candidate to "tell me about the most difficult presentation you have ever had to make to a group of five or more people." Probes might include "what was the presentation about," "how did you prepare for it," and "was the presentation evaluated or graded?" In each case, the BD approach to interviewing should yield a large amount of high quality information to the interviewer and can help the somewhat anxious applicant have a particular incident to discuss.

The BD approach to interviewing can be strongly contrasted with more typical interviewing strategies. First, typical strategies suggest interviewers "let candidates take the interview where they want to," "go with the flow," or let the interviewee talk about any subject they desire so that you can best assess their personality. While this advice is encountered frequently, it is highly inaccurate. Studies contrasting BD interviewing to this approach show that the BD interview does a much better job of predicting job performance. In addition, studies that statistically combine the results of 10,000+ interviews from many smaller studies strongly suggest that various styles of interviews that standardize questions or other aspects of the interview work much better than the nonstandardized interview styles.

Second, BD interviewing seeks to avoid making judgments of applicants' personalities. Assessing personality characteristics in a 30-45 minute interview would be highly difficult for a psychologist. As a result, many professionals rely on well established tests to measure personality--they are cheaper to use and much more accurate. Additionally, many personality characteristics do not have a history of predicting job success. Currently, many human resource management professionals believe intelligence and dependability do differentiate higher performers from lower performers. Extroversion, considered by many to be a positive trait for auditing personnel, also differentiates higher versus lower performers in some situations. Other traits should be viewed with caution until they clearly are shown to relate to job performance.

Care should also be taken in trying to match the personality type of an applicant to the personality of the office. While it is extremely difficult to measure either of the above, it is also potentially hazardous. The solution to this problem is to avoid using most personality traits and ask applicants about past behavior that may be similar to behavior required on the job.

Finally, the BD interviewer tries to avoid hypothetical and self- evaluative questions. In most cases, there is little evidence to suggest that most hypothetical questions actually distinguish between better and poorer performing individuals. This may be due to the difficulty of injecting enough "reality" in the situation to make it a good predictor of job success. Self-evaluative questions such as "describe yourself" or "are you computer literate" also have no history of predicting job performance. In addition, they ask the applicant to do your job for you. You should decide how competent applicants are in a particular area since you are worried about their contribution to your organization. Applicants' answers are influenced to a large degree by their desire to land a job.

BD interviews differ from situational interviews. Recent literature has confused the two approaches. While the BD interview focuses on past applicant behavior, the situational interview asks applicants how they would behave in future situations (extensive research is used to create real situations). The situational interview can also require different types of rating scales to be used at the end of the interview.

While there are several differences between BD interviewing, situational interviewing, and typical interviews, there are also similarities. BD interviewers also believe it is important to break the ice with applicants, that they should ask for an applicant's preferred name, that they should take notes, and they should close the interview in a professional manner. These guidelines are important in any style of interview.

Steps to Constructing a BD Interview

Three steps should be used to develop a BD interview. They are illustrated in the following hypothetical example involving the hiring of entry-level accountants in a CPA firm.

Interviewers need to analyze the job and determine the key results areas. Key results areas are the major tasks or behaviors that an entry- level accountant must be able to accomplish. Key results areas may be defined by many different strategies including a discussion among recruiters, managers, and partners. Key results areas might include:

1. Communicate with other individuals--

a. In verbal and written forms with other accountants including supervisors and peers;

b. In verbal and written forms with clients;

2. Diagnoses organizational problems;

3. Recommend solutions to organizational problems; and

4. Use common computer software (e.g., spreadsheet programs, data retrieval software, on-line services, or tax-preparation packages).

The above behaviors or tasks should be examined to determine the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that will enable them to be accomplished. Thus, an entry-level accountant should have:

1. Written communication skills to interact through letters and reports to clients and other accountants;

2. Verbal communication skills to communicate with clients and other accountants (not necessarily including making presentations to large groups);

3. Ability to diagnose problems in complex situations;

4. Ability to solve problems individually and in groups;

5. Ability to attend to large amounts of detail;

6. Ability to manage multiple tasks;

7. Knowledge of common software programs;

The KSAs required lead to a selection plan that involves a series of BD questions. In this example it is assumed that there will be two interviews: a recruiting interview at the school and an invitation to the firm's office. To evaluate the candidate's KSAs the following questions and probes might be used.

1. Written communication skills:

a. Ask for a sample of writing from a professional or educational setting before the second interview.

2. Verbal communication skills:

a. Watch for verbal communication skills throughout each interview and rate them at the end of the first and second interviews.

3. Ability to diagnose problems in complex situations:

a. Tell me about the last time you recognized a problem in an organization in which you were involved.

* How did you recognize the problem?

* How did you study the problem?

* How did you determine a solution to the problem?

b. Tell me about a time in the last year in which you were gathering information from a person who was being uncooperative.

* What was the situation?

* Why were they being uncooperative?

* How did you feel?

* How did you get the information you needed?

* What was the result in this situation?

4. Ability to solve problems individually and in groups/teams:

a. What was the most successful solution that you and a group of other individuals developed to a particular problem?

* What was the problem?

* What was your role?

* What was the result of your solution?

b. What is the toughest problem that you as an individual have solved in an educational or work setting?

* What was the problem?

* What was the result of your solution?

5. Ability to attend to large amounts of detail:

a. Tell me about the last time when you had to gather large amounts of information to complete a project.

* What was the project?

* How did you organize the details?

* What was the end result?

* Did anyone assign you a grade for the project?

b. Which class of yours required the most attention to detail. Please tell me how you dealt with the demands of the class.

* How did it require attention to detail?

* What was your strategy to deal with the detail?

* What was the result?

6. Ability to manager multiple tasks:

a. Tell me about how you managed your school work and extra-circular activities during your busiest semester.

* What made the semester so busy?

* Did you have any priorities?

* Where there any strategies that helped you cope?

* How did the semester turn out (in terms of grades, activities, etc.)?

b. Tell me about the last time you had to "juggle" several different responsibilities when you held a job.

* What were the responsibilities?

* Did you have any priorities?

* Where there any strategies that helped you cope?

7. Knowledge of computer software programs:

a. Please tell us about the most involved computer project that you have been involved with in school or in an organization.

* What software was involved?

* What was your role?

* What was the result or grade?

4. Please tell us about the last time you learned a new piece of software.

* What did it help you accomplish?

* How did you learn it?

* Did you enjoy the experience?

c. Please tell us about any time that you used a spreadsheet program such as Lotus 1-2-3, Quattro Pro, or Excel.

* Was it individually or in a group?

* What did you need to accomplish?

* What was the result or grade?

Once the questions are developed, recruiters should organize the questions and probes into some logical order on an interview form. The form may provide reminders to greet the applicant warmly and any other reminders desired by the recruiters. It should definitely leave enough room for notes about the answer to each question. These notes can be extremely helpful when recruiters are trying to remember the remarks of each person recently interviewed.

We recommend that recruiters practice with the new interviewing form. Recruiters may pair off and take turns playing the interviewer and the applicant, or they may wish to enlist a student to go through an interview. The trial interviews could be recorded on a video camera. The feedback from the video playback is often a very valuable learning experience.

Lastly, an interviewer evaluation report should be designed to record ratings for each candidate. The process is relatively simple once the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) required by the job have been listed. We suggest that recruiters fist all the KSAs down one side of the paper as seen in Figure 1. This will allow a systematic consideration of each applicant against job requirements. Next, recruiters should choose a rating scale. We have chosen a five-point scale anchored by "very little" of the KSA on one end of the scale and "a great amount" on the other end of the scale. Scales should have from five to seven points and anchors meaningful to the recruiters. A place for notes or comments and a set of simple instructions is also recommended. Finally, there should be a place for an overall evaluation of the candidate.

There are several different methods which can be used to generate an overall evaluation score. A recruiter can make an overall evaluation of the candidate on the same scale used for each KSA. Unfortunately, past research has suggested that this method is not very reliable. Another option is presented in the figure on page 77. In this case the recruiters add their ratings to form a final evaluation. This approach is relatively simple and often yields final recommendations quite similar to more complex methods. Furthermore, individual KSA's can be weighted differently. In this case, each KSA evaluation score could be multiplied by its weight. All scores would be summed to obtain an overall score. For example, assume that the first four KSA's in the figure were assigned weights of .2 and the last three KSA's weights of .1. A candidate might be given a rating of 5 on the first two KSA's and ratings of 4 on the other KSA's. The candidate's overall evaluation score would equal 4.8 (5 x .2 + 5 x .2 + 4 x .2 + 4 x .2 + 4 x .1 + 4 x .1 + 4 x .1). Either of the last two approaches is recommended.

The authors would like to thank Paul Osting (Vice-Chairman, Human Resources, Ernst & Young, New York, NY), J. Breck Boynton (Director of Human Resources, Elliot, Davis, & Company, Greensville, SC) and Patricia G. Roth (Clemson University) for their comments and suggestions.

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