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In filling staff positions, just interviewing candidates isn't enough to maximize chances for success. The type of questions asked can have a lot to do with picking the best person for the job, two recruiting experts say.

Hand-in-hand with asking the right questions is understanding the nature of the job to be filled and the organization itself, considerations that should be key factors in guiding the interview.

"What you're seeking to identify are past actual real-world work experiences that are of a similar nature to what you're looking to hire them for," said Marc Blessing, vp-corporate development at Cleveland-based Management Recruiters International Inc.

"This is really critical in today's environment, where there's a real talent shortage," Mr. Blessing said. "If you see somebody that really fundamentally fits your job, you have to jump on them fast or somebody else is going to hire them out from under you."

According to Mr. Blessing, the best way to identify the right candidates is through a technique called "behavioral interviewing."

"Behavioral interviewing is a method that, through the inquiries you pose in an interview, you would seek to identify not only what a person did but how they did it and how well they did it," he said.

Essentially, the technique aims at improving the ability to predict employee performance by evaluating candidates' actions or behaviors in response to the specific circumstances or aspects of previous jobs.

It's not an approach that's widely used, however, according to Mr. Blessing. Typically, he said, the bulk of job interviews involve "opinion-based" questions, such as, "What's your greatest strength?"

"The difficulty with opinion-based interviewing is that you get opinion-based responses," he said. "Everybody has a good opinion of themselves, especially in a job interview situation."

According to Mr. Blessing, surveys have shown that the chances of hiring success with opinion-based interviewing are less than 50/50. "You might as well not bother with the interview and just flip a coin," he said.

"Whenever an interviewer tells you, 'My gut tells me,' they're telling you they haven't done a very good job of interviewing," Mr. Blessing said. But behavioral interviewing techniques enhance the chances for success by minimizing bias and maximizing facts, he said.

An example of a behavioral question would be, "Could you tell me of a particular instance at work when you uncovered a hidden agenda or bias of others?" or "Could you tell us about an experience in which you dealt with an angry customer?" Mr. Blessing said.

"It's very difficult for candidates to rehearse what they're going to say in a behavior-based interview," he said. "A lot of candidates. . .totally con their way through interviews. This approach reduces that."

On the other hand, however, Mr. Blessing said candidates able to provide real-world examples of their ability to meet a job's demands are more likely to get hired. "In fact, good candidates, if they know what they're doing, they can take an opinion-based question and turn it into a behavior-based response," Mr. Blessing said.

"A person's past pretty much dictates what a person's going to be like in the future and how that person conducts business," said Jim Roth, senior vp in charge of the insurance division of Vermilion Group/Management Recruiters of Des Moines in West Des Moines, Iowa.

"I do most of the behavioral-based questions before I even take the person into the companies," Mr. Roth said. "I ask most of the questions before I even take them in and figure out whether they're going to fit the bill or not."

By gathering more specific information about how the candidate has demonstrated the ability to meet the requirements of the job, behavior-based interviewing also facilitates making objective comparisons among candidates, Mr. Blessing said. "Another important factor about the behavioral interview is that it is far more legally defensible," he said, because it gathers more objective information for comparing candidates.

Mr. Roth said that using behavior-based questioning in recruiting employees for insurance companies "has allowed me to find the top 10% in the business."

"I pretty much work with regional vice president and above to the executive level," he said. "It has allowed me to ask certain types of questions to certain people that are very successful, and there are certain patterns that they all provide.

"Like the Million Dollar Roundtable, each one of those people has certain types of patterns that always come up," Mr. Roth said. "So when you develop your questioning around those patterns, you can come up with a real strong candidate."

But, in any case, in order to recognize the right patterns and develop the appropriate questions, it's necessary to understand the job.

"The process actually begins with what is known as a job analysis," Mr. Blessing said. That involves identifying the behaviors that have led to success in the job. "Once you understand those behaviors. . .then you construct behavior-based inquiries around them," he said.

For example, in an insurance context, if you're looking to hire someone in a position where they might be dealing with sophisticated corporate customers who closely examine every detail of their policies, questions should aim to identify someone who has not only the experience but the patience and the communications abilities to explain those details to the customers' satisfaction, Mr. Blessing suggested.

Understanding the company and its culture also is essential. "A lot of recruiters don't find out the reason why there is an opening," Mr. Roth said. And "they don't take time to understand the culture."

Gordon Silva, regional vp at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. in Charlotte, N.C., has worked with Mr. Roth on recruiting and has seen that process firsthand.

"One of the things that in specifically working with Jim has occurred is that he and I have gotten a pretty good feel of what the leadership style is here and where I want to take the organization," Mr. Silva said.

"No matter how good the candidate is, if there's not the right relationship between him and me, it might not be possible for me to provide the right environment for him to flourish in," he said. "The philosophy that I have in running the organization is that, yes, I run it, but I work for the employees. I try to create an environment in which people can flourish. Jim and I work well in supporting that philosophy."

Mr. Roth tested Mr. Silva as part of the process of identifying his management style, Mr. Silva said. The test took about five minutes, he recalled, examining how he classified himself in different areas. "Then a report comes back that's a pretty accurate description of who you are," Mr. Silva said. "And I gave the report to about five people without any explanation and said: 'Read that. Does that sound like me?' And they said, 'Absolutely.' "

While he thinks a job interview should be heavily weighted to behavior-based questions, Mr. Blessing said there is still a place in the process for other types of questions.

In a good interview, he said, 60% to 80% of the questions should be of a behavior-based nature. "You still want to ask opinion questions, because they're a good basis for probing," Mr. Silva said.

In addition, interviewers should still inquire about job experience, credentials and references and ask technical questions about a candidate's experience and training.

The notion of behavior-based interviewing is winning acceptance with company executives with hiring authority, the recruiters said, though it's taking time.

"It makes perfect sense, and a lot of people can conceptualize it, but putting it in practice is like learning to play golf," Mr. Blessing said.

"I think, across America, much has been done to improve the process and the quality of companies," Mr. Blessing said. "But I think the area that continues to bleed is the selection of employees."

"Most people who are involved in interviewing have never been given effective training at it, and most people do it the way they've been interviewed, which was ineffective," he said.

"Most hiring authorities still use opinion-based," Mr. Roth said. "And I'll be perfectly honest; most of my clients still use opinion-based questioning."

But, he said, when he explains to client companies the process he uses before bringing in a job candidate, "then they open their eyes a little bit. They want to know more.'