Five limitations of behaviour-based questions

Behaviour-based interview questions are the preferred option of selection panels. They ask for a specific example about an applicant’s experience in a certain area (e.g. problem solving), and the panel then assesses that example against a pre-determined standard that reflects what evidence they are looking for.

The first limitation of behaviour-based questions is that if this standard does not exist, then there is no common understanding of how a person’s evidence is linked to the criteria and job requirements.

The second limitation is that if the panel does not probe for further information, that is, asks applicant-specific questions, then vital information is likely to be missed. Some panel members may argue that it is unfair to ask a question that is not put to all applicants. This is nonsense. It is unfair to treat all examples as being the same, and to assume that all applicants will give full details.

A third limitation is to take one example as reflecting the breadth of a person’s skill. For example, if you ask an applicant to give an example of when they had to write a document for a particular audience, would this one example be sufficient to assess the full scope of a person’s writing ability? There is a risk in generalising from one example as an indicator of behavioural competence across a range of circumstances.

A fourth limitation is to ignore the context of the example given. In addition to finding out how a person handled a particular situation, it would be useful to consider whether the approach taken was appropriate given the circumstances. If a person gives an example of customer service in a context of misinformation, frustration and anger, faulty products and out-of-date warranty, their choice of action may be perfectly valid in this context but could be decidedly unsuitable for a different context. If the behaviour sounds like it’s not what you are after, check whether, given the context, it would be acceptable, even if you wouldn’t want a person to adopt the approach as a general rule.

A fifth limitation occurs when panels focus on negative examples. A favourite area of questioning is ‘challenging’ interpersonal situations. This can be code for difficult, emotional people, conflict, and other unpleasant situations. While such situations may arise in the workplace and you want someone to be able to handle them, you do not want to imply that this is the main game of interpersonal experiences. Finding out how people foster a positive working environment would be equally, if not more, valuable, to know.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.