Why practice makes perfect when it comes to interview questions

I discovered something last week.

There’s a better way to explain something that I’ve been teaching and sharing for a long time.

It all started when I led a fun and thought-provoking training for 20 volunteer managers from the Smithsonian and other DC-based museums.

The topic was one of my favorites – behavior-based interviewing. It’s an incredibly effective method for screening high-commitment, highly specialized kinds of volunteers such as docents, tour guides, and educators – the kind of volunteers that museums engage all the time.

If you follow this blog, you know that I love to geek out on behavior-based interviewing and have written about it before. That’s because I experienced the benefits of the behavior-based approach first-hand back in my CASA program: within two years of adopting this interview method, our new volunteer drop out rate decreased from 25% to 2%, and our retention rate increase from 29% to 48%. Those are the kind of outcomes that any volunteer manager yearns for because they mean our jobs are getting easier – plus, the stats are absolutely brag-worthy.

The basic premise for behavior-based interviewing is very simple. It’s the belief that past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior. If you want to know how someone will perform in a volunteer role, don’t ask for hypotheticals ― ask for examples of how they performed in similar roles in the past.

I’ve always taught that creating behavior-based questions was simple, too, and just a matter of starting your question in one of these two ways:

  • “Tell me about a time when…” or;
  • “Please give me an example of…”

But this workshop was different from past times that I’ve taught this method. This time around, the participants re-wrote their own interview questions during the workshop. And that task of having to apply what they were learning to actual volunteer situations made it clear that asking a good behavior-based question is really a three-part process.

If you want to elicit the most helpful responses from your volunteer candidates, you need to set the context for the question and follow it up with a request for specifics about the outcome.

A better behavior-based question looks like this:

Step One:  Frame the question so that the candidate understands why it’s important

Step Two:  Ask the “tell me about a time when…” or “give me an example of…” question

Step Three:  Specifically ask how the person handled the situation and what was the outcome

In other words, asking a behavior-based question is like making a sandwich.  Your “tell me about a time” is the filling, and the context and follow up are the bread.

At the workshop, the participants created behavior-based questions about some basic position-related competencies – things like standing on your feet for long periods of time or being organized.

But most of the questions were aimed at identifying volunteers who possessed strong interpersonal skills and would interact with the public in inclusive ways.  This is when behavior-based questions are most enlightening. They can help you pinpoint the individuals who will volunteer with tact, respect, and diplomacy.

For example, if you need volunteers who will not take offense easily, you might want to say:

“As a docent, you are a representative of our museum. But as you know, some of our material is emotionally charged. Someone on a tour may say something about an exhibit that personally offends you. Give me an example of a time when you were in a public setting and had to handle something that triggered your personally. What was the situation and how did you handle it?”

Or, you may have a situation where sensitivity to other cultures of others is essential.  Then, your question might look like.

“In this position, you will encounter visitors from cultures quite different from your own who relate in ways you do not fully understand. Tell me about a time when you had to address cultural differences. What was the situation and what did you do?”

Many of the museum volunteer managers needed volunteers who were natural story-tellers. It’s possible to identify this kind of ability with a behavior-based question, too. You might ask:

“It’s important for our docents to do more than share the basics facts around a painting. We want our guides to bring the history alive for their audience. Tell me about an painting, object, or artifact that has personal meaning for you and why.”

There’s one more thing that I learned from running this workshop.  Just learning about the model is not enough. Crafting a good behavior-based question takes practice. It takes a while to get the hang of this – and it’s good to get some expert feedback. I witnessed the rapid progress that my workshop participants made by writing their own questions right there in the classroom, where they could ask questions, get feedback, clarify, and revise on the spot.

When you are considering a training, look for the options that offer practice time and feedback. That’s one surefire way to make the most of your professional development investment.


Volunteer Managers: would you like to boost volunteer retention and reliability? 

My November 7 webinar walks you step-by-step through an interviewing technique that is proven to increase volunteer retention.

Check out ‘Behavior-Based Interviewing for Reliable, Loyal Volunteers’ at InterviewVolsEffectively.eventbrite.com