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Determining Necessary Behaviors

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Of course you can't obtain a sample of work behavior unless you have first identified the behaviors essential for performing the tasks required by the position in question. To be successful in a particular job, every candidate must be able to perform certain skills or behaviors (essential behaviors). At the same time there are behaviors that are not essential but are highly preferred (preferred behaviors). For example, a court reporter must be able to take a deposition accurately using a stenograph and must be able to type and spell without errors. These would be three of the essential behaviors required of a reporter. Yet one law firm might prefer that reporters on the staff be personable, cheerful, friendly, and well-groomed, whereas these behaviors might be less important for the reporter who takes depositions for disputed unemployment claims.

Generally, the essential behaviors remain the same for the same position, no matter what the setting, whereas the preferred behaviors may vary dramatically from company to company. For example, one radio station will prefer that its sales manager know most of the blues and jazz artists, whereas another station will not. Yet in both settings the sales manager must be able to motivate the sales staff to sell.

Before being able to select an appropriate method of sampling essential and preferred behaviors, an interviewer must be able to identify them. Although this may sound obvious, when you haven't clearly delineated what is essential and what is preferred, you can easily put too much emphasis on preferred behaviors and overlook essentials during the interview and behavioral sampling. Or you may explore one area with one candidate and another with the next candidate, making it impossible to compare them.

It is all too common to assume that you do in fact know what skills are essential or preferred in a position. Many interviewers rely on company job descriptions. Yet these are frequently not only inadequate and outdated, but are sometimes actually inaccurate. Thus, before interviewing candidates, it is important to pinpoint what behaviors or skills you are seeking. Basically there are three ways to do this. One is to ask the position supervisor to provide a list of essential and preferred behaviors. (Keep in mind, however, that supervisors' descriptions of job behaviors reflect their whims, prejudices, and personal feelings. So while supervisors are valuable sources of information, they will undoubtedly be biased.)

Another source of information is the incumbent. But as with the supervisor, the incumbent is likely to overemphasize the importance of his or her own personal assets and work style. In fact, it is a good idea to reappraise the position after there has been a long-time incumbent. The position might no longer be necessary, or it might be preferable to divide it into two positions. But the third-and most reliable-source of information is observation: What does the individual actually do, and what is the relationship between what this person does and what others in the company do? Extensive observation is best, but any observation is better than none. Observation of the incumbent for five to ten-minute periods at various times in the day should be a minimum. Additional information is gained by observing persons who perform well and those who perform poorly in similar jobs.

List the essential and preferred behaviors you have identified. For each one, ask: Is this an action that can be observed by at least one person? Whenever you can’t answer in the affirmative, question whether or not it is really a behavior. Perhaps you have listed an attitude or value such as "conservative" or "nonsexist." Attitudes and values are extremely difficult to observe or to measure. Of two candidates, you can measure which one is the more competent typist, computer programmer, or writer-but how do you measure sexism? The same problem exists with generalized descriptions,    such as "relaxed", "confident", "aware", "hard-working", "reliable" or "committed." You can’t be sure that two observers will have the same notion of such descriptions. What one person calls confidence, another might see as arrogance; what one calls relaxed, another might see as lethargy or lack of interest.

The major reason most interviewers include such attitudes, values, or generalized descriptions ("abstractions") is that they tend to use them as the basis for predictions about the candidate's future performance. Yet when you attempt to define any of these abstractions, you find that you eventually come up with a list of observable behaviors. Reliable, for example, might be defined as "completing all tasks started," or "carrying out promised actions." Thus, it is important that you identify the component behaviors for each abstraction and add these to your list. This step is very important in cases where you are instructing someone else to conduct the interview. One reason the interviewer may be sending you candidates who you feel are inappropriate may have to do with abstractions. Suppose you state that you want someone who is cooperative-by which you mean he or she should make efforts to be tactful, friendly, and work with others for a common goal. But the interviewer may think cooperative means to do what others want. You can see the kind of problem this might create and how it contributes to selecting the wrong candidate.

When you have rewritten your list, you will be ready to devise methods for behavioral sampling. For each behavior on your list, write next to it what action you might ask of the candidates in order to observe them at that particular behavior. As you review possible sampling methods, you'll probably discover considerable overlap. Sup pose that for the position of editorial assistant, the essential behaviors identified were the ability to write clearly and concisely, to condense long reports, to understand technical language, to convert technical language to popular language, to use good grammar, to spell correctly, and to type well. All of these can be evaluated by asking each candidate to write a hundred-word review of an assigned technical report. By having identified the essential behaviors, you will have a guide for evaluation of the review. Of course, time, financial, and facility constraints make it impossible to sample all the behaviors required to perform adequately in the position, but this analysis procedure will help in a number of ways: You will have clarified what you are looking for and how best to evaluate candidates. You have a checklist to use during the interview so that you can explore each important issue with each candidate. This alone will help you compare candidates. Finally, you will know what specific information you need to get during the oral part of the interview-that is, you will be less likely to ask vague questions or to accept vague answers.

The Behavioral Balance Sheet

Thus far we have discussed methods of gathering information about the competence of individual candidates. But there remains the problem of comparing one candidate with another. How do you com pare the candidate who excels in one or two of the essential areas, yet is deficient in several preferred behaviors, with the candidate who is average in all the behaviors you are seeking? Suppose you are seeking an editorial assistant who will be primarily responsible for putting together a monthly pamphlet containing pictures and descriptions of single-family dwellings listed in your real estate firm. And suppose one candidate has an unusual ability to translate technical language into popular language, to letter and to draw, and to lay out material for printing, but has limited knowledge of real estate; whereas another candidate's writing and editing skills and knowledge of real estate are adequate, but that person has no experience with lettering, drawing, or layout. Which one should you choose? You can increase your objectivity with the behavioral balance sheet. Basically, the behavioral balance sheet is a conceptual tool that can assist in quantifying evaluation and comparison of the assets and liabilities of one candidate with those of another.

Subjectivity can never be eliminated, but it can be reduced. The procedures outlined can help make evaluation more objective and help interviewers become more aware and critical of their own assumptions. The more skilled you become with the information-gathering techniques, the more precise you will be in determining what you are seeking. The more you employ behavioral sampling methods, the more likely you will be to hire employees who perform well and remain with the company. You are always seeking the best "degree of fit" between candidate and position, and it will always be to some extent a guessing game. One source of high turnover is overselling the attractiveness of the job and company. Once on the job, the new employee may be disappointed and become dissatisfied because initial expectations have not been realized. At this point the employee probably will conclude that the job does not suit his or her needs and will either leave or remain on the staff as a dissatisfied worker. On the other hand, candidates who have participated in a behavioral sampling assessment process can get a realistic preview of the job. In this way the candidates are better able to determine whether or not the job will meet their needs.

Although the preparation and time required, to do the type of evaluation suggested herein may at first appear to be extensive, the expense incurred over time will be recouped tenfold. In-depth evaluation becomes essential when the position to be filled is a key one such as manager or department head. Yet, even for assembler or receptionist jobs, selection can be made more efficient by determining prior to the interview what you are seeking and how to evaluate candidates. You need only go through the preplanning procedures once, and you can utilize them over and over again.
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