Past Behavior Interviews Without Skills Analysis is a Predictor for Disaster

I read an article recently by Henry Claypool, policy director for the Community Living Policy Center at Brandeis University in which he discussed the risks and challenges of using Artificial Intelligence and automation to screen candidates for employment. He talked about how using these can be a recipe for discrimination with respect to people with disabilities, and described how companies are using tools and techniques such as resume screeners, which review candidates’ CVs for desired keywords, e.g. leadership on a sports team; sentiment analysis tools, which purport to analyze candidates’ movements during video interviews; and game-based tests, in which a candidate’s performance during an online game is compared to the performance of existing employees at the company ( NBC News Think Job Hiring.)

The practices he discusses have been going on for at least 15 years now. I can remember being told as a new manager in the early 2000’s that “past performance is the best predictor of future behavior” by the HR representative teaching a group of us about how to interview prospective candidates with the new tool that was developed. No more questions geared toward “what are your skills in A, B and C” but instead, they were proscriptive in defined categories, asking things like “tell me about a time when you were in a difficult situation. What did you do and what was the outcome?” Or perhaps “tell me about a time when you were faced with an ethical dilemma at work. What did you do? Were there repercussions?” Furthermore, we were no longer allowed to ask questions off the cuff, but were to limit them to either the list of prepared questions from HR, or at most, we could deviate by saying “tell me more about that”. But coming up with our own? No way.

I’m not saying answers to those questions aren’t important; they may be, and depending on the role they might even be critical. However, I’ve also seen an increasing and disturbing trend happening as well. By not asking what skills workers possess, and how proficient they are in those skills, we see a whole crop of nice people hired with soft skills that are somewhere between good to excellent, who show up for work and try their best but then stumble with hard skills and we scratch our heads puzzlement as to why.

I’ve worked in a call center where staff needed to have those soft skills, certainly but they also needed to know how to work on computers and to do so efficiently, effectively, and to be able to troubleshoot issues that come up. They needed to know how to navigate the internet, use a SharePoint, and multitask efficiently. Managers for these people needed to be able to look at excel spreadsheets to evaluate the data on their employees, understand trends and metrics and know how to make decisions accordingly. They needed to be skilled enough in technology to help their staff troubleshoot when something isn’t working correctly and decide when it’s time to call the help desk. I would guess it’s the same everywhere: if the only questions asked during interviews are around things like “tell me about a time when you felt like you were treated unfairly. What did you do?” it’s little wonder that staff and managers both struggle in their respective roles. I really don’t know why anyone is surprised. We don’t ask if they know anything about technology, or know how to add formulas to a spreadsheet, but we get frustrated when they can’t do the work that is expected.

The statement that past performance IS a good predictor of future behavior assumes that none of us learn from the past, whether good experiences or mistakes. It also assumes that none of our behaviors change, and that simply isn’t true at all. I’m not the same person I was 5 or even 10 years ago. My experiences during that time have informed my thoughts and what my behavior will be now, asking me what I did THEN isn’t really relevant. Ask me what I CAN do, what skills I’ve learned or developed. Maybe I haven’t been a manager for a few years, but in that time, I may have found a mentor and met weekly with that person, taken classes and volunteered someplace in my community. Or, maybe I was really immature and impulsive a few years ago but something happened to me that forced me to take a hard look at myself and I grew up. Since that time, I’ve learned to take a different approach to things, perhaps becoming more measured and thoughtful in my decision making. All of those things will shape my thoughts and actions and I know that I would respond to a situation very differently now than I would have without them. If a hiring manager only looks at that past behavior as the predictor of future actions, what kind of picture will be painted?

Furthermore, once in a role, I’ve never once had a manager ask me “so how did you handle this before?” when we tried to work through something. They might say “what do you think you should do?” or “what are your recommendations for handling this?” but they never have revisited the past behaviors concept. So, does it even have any value in the ongoing day-to-day work place? In the moment you’re taking the things you’ve learned and applying them to that particular situation as you try to find an appropriate solution to a problem.

Mr. Claypool goes on to say in his article that “We need employers, technologists and disabled people to make sure the hiring and retention of employees don’t rely on flawed algorithms that inadvertently or intentionally result in disability discrimination. They can begin by designing hiring tools that only measure essential functions of particular jobs, taking into account the alternative ways that disabled people can carry out job-related tasks.” I would stipulate that starts with moving away from the current style of interviewing and reincorporate the skills component again, asking candidates “tell me about what you can do.” If HR experts think that behavioral based interviewing has to remain, then it needs to evolve, advancing into a second phase that incorporates questions like “and would you do the same thing now? If not, why not?” or “How would your response change today?” Only then can we hire the correctly qualified candidates into jobs.