Shelter Management

Taking the Mystery Out of Hiring

Seasoned managers and human resource professionals—if they're being honest—will acknowledge that hiring is one of the scariest tasks of a manager. Most of us have made as many poor hiring decisions as excellent ones.

I distinctly remember being asked in my interview for an Executive Director position over ten years ago if I could handle euthanasia. I wanted the job, so I of course answered to the affirmative. The truth is, I'm still wondering what it means to "handle" euthanasia—but luckily I had enough of the skills which that organization really needed in an Executive Director that things worked out OK. Luck, however, isn't the best way to make hiring decisions.

A process known as "behavioral interviewing" can take some of the guesswork out of your hiring, markedly increasing your success at good hiring decisions.

What is Behavioral Interviewing?

Behavioral interviewing is based on the premise that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Rather than asking hypothetical questions ("how would you handle??") to determine if a person is a good fit for your position, you will ask the candidate to describe a time when s/he has encountered a similar situation and how s/he handled it.

Note that traditional interview questions are posed in the present or future tense, while behavioral questions are all posed in the past tense.

Instead of the Guess Work Method . . .

Try a Behavioral Question . . .

"How would you handle??"

"Give me an example of a time when?"

"How would you feel if??"

"How did you feel when?, and what did you do about it?"

"Are you good at (customer service)?"

"Tell me a story about one of your most challenging customers and how you handled it?"

"What are your strengths?"

"Describe a job (or other responsibility) you've had that utilized your strengths and how."

"What do you like in a supervisor?"

"Thinking back to your best relationship with a supervisor—give me examples of things your supervisor did that really brought out your best." and/or "How about your least successful relationship with a supervisor — give me examples of things that you and s/he did that didn't work. What have you learned from this?"

Using the Behavioral Interview Method

To use this method, you need to know what qualities are necessary to perform a specific job well. You also need to think about what candidates could tell you about themselves that would enable you to feel confident that they possess the characteristics you are looking for.

As you've probably gathered by now, the interviewers need to be as well prepared as the candidates when you use this interview technique.

1. Examine the following aspects of the job and your organization:

  • the job description (and/or walk through a few hours of the actual job),
  • the culture (values, attitudes, motivation, atmosphere) of the organization, and
  • your current and future initiatives to get a sense of what skills, knowledge, qualities, attitudes, and motivation you're looking for in the perfect candidate. These are known as "competencies".

2. Identify behaviors that demonstrate those competencies.

Here are a few examples:


Some of the related behaviors


listening, repeating back, writing, articulating, speaking one to one, speaking in front of a group, verifying understanding between parties


brainstorming, artistic flair, thinking "out of the box", trying multiple and/or new approaches, writing

Planning & Organizing

using a calendar, filing, mapping, creating & completing check lists, creating time lines, meeting deadlines, communicating (see above)

3. Develop a set of questions.

Frame your questions in the past tense to get the candidates to tell you stories about real events and their behaviors which demonstrate those competencies. You can start with a list of sample questions (.doc) developed by a group of humane society professionals at AHA's "The Conference 1999."

4. Conduct the interviews.

(You will only be talking about 10% of the time; the candidate fills the bulk of the time describing her/his work/life experiences in behavioral terms.) Listen for the candidate to identify situations, actions taken, and results/outcomes. Keep notes of these, to help you review the results of all interviews and identify the candidate who most closely meets your competence requirements. (Ideally, two or three interviewers ask different but related questions in separate interviews, and then compare notes.)

Tips for Successful Behavioral Interviewing

  • Think about your culture (values, attitudes, motivation, atmosphere) ahead of time and consciously listen for "fit" with culture when meeting with candidates.
  • Focus on past behavior—it's not, "how would you??" but "how did you??"
  • This is not a test!!! When you schedule the interview, give the candidate information about how behavioral interviewing works—you want to hear about life experiences, not measure how well they perform when anxious and confused.
  • In one hour, it's a lot to get through three behavioral questions (and their follow up questions). The best practice is to have at least two different interviewers and two different interviews. This enables you to ask additional questions for clarification, and to compare notes on situations, actions, and outcomes the candidate consistently demonstrates.
  • Less experienced and/or younger candidates may have a harder time with this style of interviewing. Comparable situations do not necessarily have to be from work history—how a candidate has handled school, community responsibilities, and family situations all involve behavior, too.

Bert Troughton, MSW, is ASPCA Vice President of Pro Learning, Community Outreach.