My colleagues and I have posted a number of blogs on the benefits of using behavioral interviews in recruiting and hiring. They include: the importance of interview training, the role of practice in mastering the art. Also, we’ve blogged about how behavioral interviews can help with hiring for diversity. Most recently, we posted a blog piece about the best questions to ask.

You can think of this post as behavioral interviews with a twist. My focus: In recruiting, how do you differentiate equally qualified candidates for a role – going underneath the resume to get at what matters the most.

The work of finding and assessing qualified candidates for key jobs is challenging in any hiring process. Sometimes you find good candidates, sometimes you don’t. And other times it’s hard to tell if your “good” candidates will be successful in the job. If you’re lucky, you may find yourself with two or more highly qualified candidates with relevant experience and strong track records.

So how do you determine which candidate will be the best one to hire?

In any hiring, there’s always the risk of “organ rejection” when new people don’t work out. Sometimes they just don’t fit with the organizational culture. Other times they are not able to produce the desired results without breaking a lot of the furniture in the process. With all of your recruiting, how can you know which candidates will produce the results you want in a way that strengthens the culture rather than breaking it?

Recruiting Tip: Ask Not What They Did, but How They Did It

With behavioral interviews, in order to determine who is the best fit for your organization as well as for the job, it’s important to go beyond what candidates have done in prior jobs. Focus instead on learning how they did it. For example, two candidates who grew sales and profits by 100% in their previous jobs is impressive. How they did it may be wildly different for each candidate.

A good behavioral interview can dig below the surface of what candidates have done to find out how they did it. Questions like these probe accomplishments to bring those details to the surface:

  • What were the key things that you did to accomplish that result?
  • Can you tell the story of how you did it, in detail?
  • What led you to do what you did?
  • If I were in the room, what would I have seen you doing? What would I have heard you say?
  • Did you encounter any obstacles or difficulties? How did you deal with them?

Ask About Challenges Like the Ones They Will Face

Key to getting to the right candidate: Defining what you want the successful hire to accomplish and how you want them to do it. The best way to do this in a behavioral interview is to identify and ask about the key challenges that the job involves. In other words, focus on what makes the job hard to do. Those challenges might include dealing with a difficult customer or managing a complex project. Maybe the challenge of  balancing the priorities of more than one boss is critically important. Or these challenges: Tackling a tough assignment under a tight deadline, developing an innovative solution to a technical problem, or making an important decision without clear direction or complete information.

Once the key challenges are identified, ask the candidates to describe situations where they had to deal with them. Using questions like those above, probe for the details of each story to learn how the candidate handled them. If you ask each candidate for examples of the same situations, and get the detail you need from each candidate’s stories, you will be able to surface important differences in how different candidates approached them. From there, it’s about deciding which candidate had the best, most thoughtful, and persuasive approach.

Tips for Differentiating the Best from the Rest

Resumes, transcripts, application letters, and references can tell you many things about a candidate you’re recruiting. They are useful as a first screen to determine who you may want to interview. But they don’t tell you which candidate has the skills needed to do the job the way you want the job to be done. This applies to anyone you would want to hire – from junior professionals to senior managers.

The best way to know if a candidate has the skills needed for the job in question is to put the person into the job and see how well he/she performs over an extended period. That’s not practical for most situations, of course. But you can simulate it by asking for accounts of actual past situations that are relevant to the challenges he/she will face once in the job.

In short, here’s how to use behavioral interviews to differentiate the best potential hires from among multiple equally-qualified candidates:

  1. Identify the key challenges that the candidate will need to handle in the target job.
  2. Ask questions to elicit accounts of past situations that relate to the key challenges of the job.
  3. Probe for details on how they handled those past situations: what they did, how they did it, what led them to do it, their interactions with others, the problems or obstacles they encountered, and the results they achieved.
  4. Compare the candidates’ responses to determine which candidate has done in the past what you would want them to do in the job in the way you would want them to do it.