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Use STAR interview questions to hire without sacrificing quality

Use STAR interview questions to hire without sacrificing quality


There are more than 7 million open jobs across the US, according to the Department of Labor. While the historically low unemployment rate gives workers plenty to celebrate, it also places significant restraints on business growth.

According to BerniePortal’s “2019 Recruitment Report,” which surveyed HR leaders at small and mid-sized businesses in the US, “filling all open positions and building a fully staffed workforce” is the top hiring goal for organizations today. Moreover, organizations don’t just want any talent — they want high-quality talent.

Placing top talent in open roles is particularly difficult in the tight talent market, and HR leaders know this: In the BerniePortal survey, respondents cited “finding quality candidates” as the top recruiting challenge they face today. Hiring managers need to fill empty seats to keep the business running smoothly, but they don’t want to lower their hiring standards to do so.

One approach to maintaining a strong quality of hire even in a difficult talent market is implementing a STAR interview method, which can act as an effective quality control measure to match the right people to the right jobs.

A behavioral interviewing method, STAR stands for “situation, task, action, and results.” In a nutshell, a STAR question:

  1. Is built around a specific, real-world situation
  2. Identifies a particular task the candidate had to accomplish
  3. Elicits information about the action the candidate took in response to the task
  4. Uncovers details about the results of the candidate’s action

For example, the STAR version of “How would you handle conflict in the workplace?” would be something like: “Could you tell me about a time you experienced workplace conflict? What actions did you take in response to the conflict, and what were the results of your actions?”

The Benefits of Behavioral Interviews

You likely already have a good idea of what you’re looking for in a candidate — a positive attitude, adaptability, good attention to detail, strong communication skills, etc. — but you can’t always discern those things from a resume. A more reliable way to assess these qualities is by examining a candidate’s past behavior, which is exactly what a behavioral interview allows for.

Whereas traditional interviews rely on questions like “Tell me about yourself” and “What interests you about this position?” behavioral interviews inquire into a candidate’s previous experiences at work. As such, the candidate’s answers to these questions offer more accurate illustrations of how the candidate thinks and how they are likely to respond to future challenges and responsibilities.

STAR questions can dig into general qualities and characteristics, such as “Tell me about a time when you made a mistake in the workplace. What steps did you take to mitigate the mistake, and what were the results?” or “Describe a goal you weren’t able to meet. What was the situation, how did you react, and what was the result?” While these questions can be useful, the most valuable STAR questions are related to the specific experiences you expect a candidate to face if hired by your organization.

Here’s how to build job-specific STAR interview questions and how to use them effectively:

Building Interview Questions and Rating Responses

For best results, any behavioral interviewing process needs to be standardized. To reduce bias, the same questions should be asked of all applicants, and applicants’ responses should be rated on the same scale.

To build a set of STAR questions for a role, start by identifying the core competencies you are looking for a candidate to have. Then, you can craft questions that ask the candidate to share experiences that specifically illustrate those competencies.

For example, let’s say you’re hiring for a client support role and need a good communicator with customer service experience and attention to detail. Traditional questions for such a role might be “Have you worked with clients in the past?” or “Tell me about your customer support experience.” In contrast, the behavioral approach would be more along the lines of “Tell me about a time a client was unhappy with your level of service. How did you respond and what was the outcome?”

Once you have a set of questions crafted, the next step is to clearly identify the competencies you’re looking for in candidates’ responses to each question. Then, you need to put a rating system in place to score candidates’ answers. Ratings can be simple — was the response great, acceptable, or unacceptable? — or more complex: To what degree did the candidate illustrate the core competencies? What kind of feedback did they give themselves about both their challenges and their successes?

You can use ratings to not only assess an individual candidate’s performance, but also to compare performances between candidates. This is why standardization is so crucial: Comparisons will only be valid if every candidate is asked the same questions and scored on the same scale.

Ultimately, behavioral interviewing gives you more context and nuance about each candidate, and a standardized system of STAR questions and ratings allows you to conduct more insightful interviews. The more specific you can get with candidates’ real-life experiences, the more accurately you can determine whether they have the necessary skills to help your organization move forward. 

Check out this column in Recruiter.

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