Use the S A R G E Technique to Improve Your Interviewing Skills

Do your job interview questions elicit useless opinions or specific performance-related behaviors? Learn how to use the S.A.R.G.E. technique to uncover the information you need to predict success on the job and make the best hiring decision every time.

Four Types of Interview Questions

The primary purpose of a job interview is to answer three questions: Can the candidate do the job? Will they do the job? Do they fit the job and the company? Yet, Vistage Speaker and hiring expert Charles Sheppard finds that most job interviews fall miserably short of this objective, mainly because the interviewer doesn’t ask the right kind of questions. When that happens, the odds of making a bad hiring decision significantly increase.

According to Charles, there are four basic kinds of questions during an employment interview:

  • Opinion-based questions ask what a candidate thinks about something. Examples include:
  • What are your strengths?
  • What are you looking for in your next job?
  • How would others describe you?”Opinion-based questions tell you nothing about a candidate’s ability to perform on the job,” says Charles. “All you discover is how well the applicant can form an opinion.”
  • Credential/technical-based questions provide information about the applicant’s certifications, education and technical background. Examples include:
  • How do you perform a system backup?
  • Are you a CPA?
  • Do you have XYZ certification?”These questions let you know about past achievements but don’t tell you how well the person did something. Plus, you can get most of this information off the person’s resume,” says Charles.
  • Experience-based questions have to do with the applicant’s past duties, responsibilities and activities. Examples include:
  • How long did you work in logistics?
  • Did you do any new product design?
  • Were you responsible for accounts receivable?”These questions allow you to find out about work experience,” notes Charles, “but they don’t tell you how well the job was performed. Again, you can learn most of this from the resume.”
  • Behavior-based questions uncover an applicant’s specific work-related experiences. They allow interviewers to do what they most need to: assess job performance. Examples include:
  • Tell me about a recent situation where you influenced a client to accept your recommendation when they were resisting.
  • Step me through how you created this year’s budget.
  • Tell me how you handled your most recent upset customer.”The best predictor of future job performance is a candidate’s behavior in similar work situations,” says Charles. “Yet, 90% of the time interviewers use the first three types of questions, which don’t provide any information that can be used to assess past job performance or predict future job performance. In order to get at the candidate’s behavior on the job, you must ask behavior-based questions. Of these four types of interview questions, only behavior-based questions uncover the information needed to make sound hiring decisions.”S.A.R.G.E. TechniqueAccording to Charles, the S.A.R.G.E. technique can turn any question into a behavior-based question. It involves five distinct components:Situation – What was the situation?

    Action – What action did the candidate take?

    Results – What were the results?

    Get a reference – Who can we reference regarding this situation?

    Evaluate the candidate”The process is simple,” explains Charles. “Ask behavioral questions that get the candidate to focus on the situation, the action he or she took and the results of that action. Then ask for a reference so you can document the behavior from a third party. Once you have several examples of the behaviors required to succeed on the job, you can properly evaluate the candidate according to the criteria you established before beginning the hiring process.

    When evaluating examples of behavior, Charles recommends using the following criteria:

  • Is it an example of effective behavior?
  • Is the example recent?
  • Did the candidate give detail?
  • Does the candidate exhibit the behavior much of the time?
  • Did the candidate give a reference?”Score one point for each yes answer, so that each behavioral example will range from one to five,” says Charles. “This provides a way to compare and contrast multiple candidates.”Opinion Versus BehaviorCandidates often respond with opinion, even when you ask a behavior-based question. When that occurs, thank them for their opinion, assume responsibility for not phrasing the question correctly and gently persist in getting an example of behavior. According to Charles, opinion-based responses usually contain words like “should,” “could,” “would” or “will.” In contrast, behavior-based responses are always in the past tense and reflect a specific past event.Candidates often feel challenged or threatened when you try to elicit behavior. To defuse their tension, Charles recommends taking a few moments at the beginning of the interview to build rapport with the candidate and help them relax. When both of you are ready to proceed, let the interview questions guide the process and get the information you need.

    Framing the questions can also help put the candidate at ease. As you begin the interview, tell the person, “Some of the questions I’m going to ask will require you to recall specific tasks, events or accomplishments. Sometimes it takes time to remember a particular event. Don’t feel bad if you have difficulty remembering. Just take your time and answer as best you can.'”

    “Above all, avoid putting undue pressure on the candidate,” cautions Charles. “The more stress they feel, the harder it can be to recall specific events or past performance. If they can’t think of an example of behavior, wait five to seven seconds, follow with a reassuring statement to let them know they are OK and then rephrase the question. If they still can’t come up with an example, make another reassuring statement and move on to the next question.”

    Beat the Coin Flip Approach

    Studies show that with typical interview questions, the predictive accuracy is less than 50%. In many cases, you’re better off flipping a coin between two likely candidates. Behavioral interviewing, because it focuses on past behavior – which is the best predictor of future behavior — increases your chances of hiring the right person to 80%.

    “The S.A.R.G.E. technique works so well because it keeps the interview focused on past behavior,” says Charles. “It doesn’t allow the candidate to sidetrack you with opinion or otherwise useless information. If you ask the right questions and the candidate can’t give you examples of the behavior, it may not be there. That means you either don’t hire the person or be prepared to train the behavior.

    “Of course, there’s more to an effective hiring system than just asking the right questions. You also need to build job profiles, put procedures in place for finding and recruiting talented people and so on. But nothing will improve your chances for success like asking specific, behavior-based questions that allow you to make hiring decisions based on past job performance.”

    Charles Sheppard is president and CEO of Management Communication Systems, a company on the forefront of behavioral assessment technologies. He developed the S.A.R.G.E. technique used by Vistage to assess and interview Chair candidates and has trained more than 4,000 recruiters for M.R.I., the nation’s largest recruiting company. He speaks to Vistage groups on the subject of “Creating a High Performance Culture.”

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