How to Setup Behavioral Interviews Based on Company Values
22 December, 2020
A couple of times in my career I had been in a situation where I felt that I had to make improvements to the hiring process. In both cases, there was a hiring process already in place but I felt that there were gaps that were preventing us from hiring the best talent and doing so through a consistent and equitable process. This particularly applied to the behavioral part of interviewing, which was less defined than the technical parts.
The requirements put before prospective candidates in startups are manifold -- to be independent, to be team players, to focus on customers, and so on. Many companies codify these as values and would like to find candidates that think alike. However, startups don’t always have time and resources to standardize the interview process.
I introduced a standardized behavioral interview process where previously there was only a loose direction to see if the candidate was a good fit. Before this change, the behavioral part would typically be summarized based on personal impressions and whether the interviewer wanted to work with the candidate. A few of the more experienced interviewers would look for specific behaviors, but others were left wandering on their own.
The previous approach left a lot of room for personal bias and made it hard to compare one candidate to another in an equitable way. I did not try to reinvent the wheel here and introduced the STARR method (Situation, Task, Action, Results, Reflection) that allows an interviewer to assess how a candidate acted in a specific, concrete situation based on a real-life example. But the STARR method itself is not enough. You need to know what you are looking for in the candidate’s responses and this is where company values come in.
For example, if a company values “Customer first” thinking, you could ask a candidate to tell you of a situation where a customer wanted one thing, but they thought the customer needed something else. You would ask them to tell you how they explained that there was another option more suitable to the customer’s real (vs. perceived) needs. Here, you would look for candidates that are proactively thinking about the customer and not just simply implementing requirements.
It was important that people who would be interviewing master the process first. Working with HR, we introduced training with mock interviews and shadowing to help interviewers progress gradually and be confident and competent before becoming “certified” interviewers.
I also created a behavioral interview cheat sheet to standardize questions and help everyone have a starting point. The cheat sheet consisted of a list of all core values and a set of questions for each value (we later introduced different questions per role). The sheet also had a list of behavioral attributes to look for under each value. For example, under “Customer first” I would be looking for a person who anticipates customer needs, seeks customer feedback, and truly cares about wow-ing the customer.
Another improvement that I introduced is an in-person debrief at the end of the interview process. Before this change, the interviewers would send their summarized personal impressions via email to HR, and HR would make the final call. While it worked for clearly good (or bad) candidates, there was a need for more discussion among the entire interview team for candidates that were not as clear cut. And we needed to do it without biasing each other.
To that end, each interviewer now has to prepare their personal debrief in writing prior to the group conversation. This lets individuals process their interview sessions on their own and without influence from others. During the debrief conversation everyone shares their opinions and together, we look at the big picture and the trends in strengths and concerns of the candidate. If a few interviewers think the candidate had a specific strong (or the opposite) behavior (e.g., “Customer first”), it’d be a great indicator that as a team we are likely correct (as opposed to just one interviewer noting something). While we didn’t disregard one-off observations, we mostly focus on behavioral trends.
Finally, I put together training materials and ran training for both Engineering and Product before we launched the new process. I am also happy to share that HR (at my present employer) recently took my process and training and, with some modifications, scaled it to the entire company.
- You have to know what you are looking for in a candidate -- this applies both to the interview’s technical and behavioral aspects. This not only differs from one company to another, or one team to another, but you can have different needs at different times. Make sure you know what you are looking for before you go into the interview.
- Keep everything well documented. The list of questions and training materials should be accessible in writing. It promotes consistency, equitability, and helps with training new interviewers.
- People doing interviews need to be trained and understand the goal and purpose behind their questions. For newer interviewers, shadowing is a great addition to theoretical training.
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